A Walk Through a Bad Time in History and a Louis Vuitton Bag

We head into Berlin. Gypsies with squeegees are buzzing around. We used to have this in New York until Mayor Bloomberg put an end to it. They don’t dare come near the luxury Mercedes we’re riding in. We are staying in the Sofitel across from Gendarmenmarkt. The square is very charming but everything around it looks like office buildings—and grey cement ones at that. The itinerary has all sorts of plans but we are tired. We were supposed to get dinner at the trendy Markthalle Neun in gritty cool Kreuzberg. Where do people get the energy. I just want to keep us awake until something that would pass for an early bedtime. Lutter & Wegner is just on the corner and it looks doable. We sit outside and munch on weiner schnitzel, white asparagus with hollandaise, orange juice, and apple strudel. The strudel has nuts so it’s a visual dessert for me. Jessica declares she does not like this food and wants to go back to the hotel.

Gosh, we’re all over the place. Plaques on the ground like in Holland for murdered Jews, all over. Checkpoint Charlie mannequin photo op, Berlin wall by terror museum, grey skies, Holocaust memorial—stones are smooth on the sides, rough on the top and cracking all over. I’m told this is from ice; so much for German engineering. Brandenburg Gate, Linden trees, Reichtag—old on the outside, all modern on the inside and topped with a weird mirror vortex inside the domed roof. Hitler’s bunker. I am getting shocks off everything; our guide tells me Berlin is high altitude and dry. Dinner at Aigner on the other corner of the hotel. Jessica gets some sausage thing, I get schnitzel and Beelitz asparagus. There are no 7 Elevens or anything around. We end up in Rewe market, a place without popcorn.

We take the U-Bahn out to Potsdam; all of the charm of the NYC subway without any of the grit. Sanssouci Palace, summer home of Fredrick the Great—misogynist, potato pusher, buried next to his Wippets. A short walk to Cecilienhof Palace—strange to have a wooden building called a palace. Site of the Potsdam conference where you can see the very table where Truman, Churchill and Stalin sat deciding the fates of millions. Then a stroll around a quaint little lake to see Glienicke Bridge of Bridge of Spies fame. We have the option to visit the Museum Barberini on the way back. We’re still tired, but I would have done it. I struggle sometimes with the feeling that I must see everything possible even though even on a good day, you can only see so much before you just can’t—at all. Jessica says no, so I look at the guide with my hands up as if to say ‘what can I do?’. She’s hungry, so that too. Today we leave our block and cross the street to Augustiner, where they have Menu for Allergic Person. We have a pretzel, some dumplings that are ok, and Jessica gets a beer which is too strong for her so the waiter suggests a beer that is mixed with some sort of soda and she likes that.

We tour Hackescher Market on a Sunday when everything is closed. This is what you hire planners to plan for. Then on to the Berlin Wall Memorial to see a preserved stretch of ‘no man’s land’ and learn about all the ways folks tried to escape to the west—including balloon. A walk along the East Side Gallery where I fail as usual to take the interesting picture: people posing in front of the grafitti of Brezhnev and Honecker kissing. We wind up at the somewhat confusing Topography of Terror exhibit. I can’t really remember anything about it other than it covered the rise of Nazism and then through the end. We end up at Augustiner again because we’re too hungry to walk around. I get some sort of potato soup.

Note to self: do food tour at beginning. That way you’ll find some interesting places to go. But, no, this was our last full day in Berlin. Pfft. We went to the DDR Museum on the way, but it’s not worth mentioning, then we met up with Bite Berlin! We have pretzels with butter, Currywurst with fries, a Vietnamese sandwich while we learn about the Vietnamese community brought in by the communist East as contract workers, cinnamon rolls, cheesecake made with Quark cheese and a finale of East German Champagne. Everything was delicious and very luckily there apparently wasn’t any fenugreek in the curry. A lot of shops were still closed since it was some sort of holiday. I had wanted to look for cookware and Birkinstocks.

We fly to Krakow tonight, but first museums. We see the memorial where Nazis burned books (Mann’s Magic Mountain was banned and burned as un-German because it portrayed weakness) We see a lot of great stuff. We see the German history museum, the Gate of Miletus, the whimsical Ishtar Gate, but nothing compares to: Nefertiti. It is astonishing. No, she is real. It is so different from anything else for thousands of years in either direction. Could it possibly have been made in 1345 BC? How? I don’t want to see anything else. Not allowed to take her picture though. Our guide leaves us at a currywurst place in Gendarmenmarkt. I feel like I dismissed him, but I needed to call home before Arnold went to work because Nalani has been very, very sick. And then the best thing ever: we were looking for ice cream and the place that came up on maps was nowhere to be found when we happened up a sign with ice cream bars on it—actually Jessica walked right past it—it’s called Neuhaus, they have ice cream bars which they slowly dip and swirl through a vat of Belgian chocolate.

Things I would have done differently: the food tour at the beginning, stayed in a more lively area, maybe somewhere around Prenzlaur where we finished the food tour, looked up when holidays are, toured the kitchen at Potsdam, gotten some Turkish food.

Charming, charming, charming. The Copernicus is a lovely restored Renaissance abode with rock hard beds and a giant freezing bathroom and no shower curtain. The old town is charming. Almost no cars and ringed by a park that used to be the city defense wall. We see the castle, the basilica, we take some video of a fire-breathing dragon, we have pierogi at Hawelka, where I see this is mushroom season and mushrooms are extremely popular, and dessert at Stodi Wentzel; I haven’t seen such gorgeous desserts since Japan. And then we go into rest mode because tomorrow is a big day.

Auschwitz. We pass under the infamous gate: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. It’s more diminutive than I thought it would be. The whole first part of the camp feels small. Our guide, Ewelina, wastes no time: Poles are sensitive about the camp. I am told President Obama angered the Polish people when he referred to it as a “Polish death camp” when giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a survivor. The Poles, she says, cannot be blamed for this, they were invaded by the Germans and fought back; many of their own people died in the camps. It was originally created for Russian POW’s, then Polish political prisoners, then others and Jews. It was widely used for Jews because of the rail connections from all over Europe, and Birkenau, which we saw in the afternoon, was actually the largest death camp. I toured Dachau back in the 1980’s but there wasn’t much there. Anne and Margot Frank were here before going to Bergan-Belsen but their mom died here. The Jews were sold tickets to come here, part of the Nazi psychological plan, and brought their most important possessions. Some are on display here. At Birkenau, one of the train cars is set out. It’s really small. Many did not survive the trip—up to 10 days with no windows, food, or toilet. Once they got there they were told to leave their bags; they would be delivered later. Women with children under 14, elderly, and handicapped were sent right to the shower. Then long hair and gold teeth removed, with hair made into cloth. After that, most did not survive more than 3-6 months if they weren’t killed sooner by execution or medical experiment. Prisoners were overseen by German prisoners—Capos. Our last stop was a barrack for women. There were three levels of berths: the bottom one, you laid right on the brick, the top one, only the strong could manage. Many people had diarrhea and the dirt floors would turn to mud when it rained. The rails were worn smooth from the hands of people who were hoping, trying to survive.

I wanted to do a food tour today but our travel planner insisted her guide could weave it into our day. It didn’t quite work out. We’ve done food tours all over now and they’ve been a unique way of understanding the places we go and our guide wasn’t really prepared for that. We took in the statue of Pope John Paul II—a major celebrity here—before our first stop: a tour of Jagiellonian University—Copernicus went here—but the museum guide was difficult to understand and we were too many people moving through too small a space and then onto Oskar Schindler’s factory, which has become more of a strange exhibit about the German occupation and Polish resistance. Just his office and a few rusted pots and pans. Then we ran through the tiny Jewish area. We could have visited the synagogue there but it wasn’t clear to me if tourists were welcome, so we decided not to do it. In my travels, I have sometimes found myself in personal or community spaces were I felt I shouldn’t be, so I try to be thoughtful. We drive by a piece of the ghetto wall made from Jewish tombstones. I ask to go back and take a photo. Imagine being walled in by tombstones of your family and neighbors. And then the food tour begins. We are in an old restaurant for pierogies. It may be a traditional place, I don’t know, the food doesn’t look like what I have been seeing from polish chefs on Instagram—they look like boiled lumps with haphazard garnishes. We try meat, spinach, potato and cottage cheese, but the absolute worst is the hot strawberry ones with what tastes like heavy cream poured over them. She then took us to a traditional bread place for Obwarzanek, but this was a day they couldn’t make it for some reason. We then pressed on to Stary Market, which looked about to close, for rose Paczki, which even she admitted would be stale from being out all day, and they were; then we tried some strong pressed mountain goat cheeses. I feel bad, our guide is really trying. We pass some of the preserved parts of the old city wall—St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbican. She then takes us for Kremowka at Wentzel— were we had already been going—in the main square. The she explains that she still has ‘food tour’ money left and suggests we a horse and carriage ride around the main square. Many of the carriages and drivers are decked out in feathers and gold lame. We go around in a big circle, clip, clop.

Our introduction to Paris is being stuck in traffic. As per our agreement for the apartment from Paris Perfect, we must give 75 euros to a very impatient dude who has been waiting for-ev-er, to go over the apartment. He manages it in less than 10 minutes. This is supposed to be a bespoke kind of outfit. The apartment is charming and calming and quiet. It is a very Parisian apartment and we have a view of the top of the Eiffel Tower. But we’re hungry. We end up at Gusto a few blocks away; I had scoped them out from Tripadvisor. With their marinara pizza and tiramisu, they become ‘our’ restaurant for the week. All the other places we peek into look heavy and complicated.

I try not to cram too much into a day; I don’t want to be running from dawn to dusk. Today we have Taste of Marais tour with Paris by Mouth. We learn about croissants, butter vs. margarine, we eat croissants, they are shatter-crisp outside and butter-pillow inside. Nothing at home will satisfy me now. We have a shot-full-of-holes long, cold rise baguette. It is by itself. Jacques Genin Chocolate: basil, java cardamon, pates de fruits with strong fruit flavors. Then we’re off to a back room to sample cheeses and meats and wine from different regions. And then we head back to do laundry, because I have to finish laundry by 7pm so as not to disturb. And then to Gusto. I’m surprised how much I like Paris. The people watching is awesome. Everyone really is chic, but in a casual, relaxed way.

Gothic Paris with Context. We sit on a bench overlooking the Seine overlooking Notre Dame. We glide over history: the Romans founded it as Lutetia, after they left a Gallic tribe called Parisi moved back in. Modern Paris with its wide boulevards is the work of Haussman under Napoleon III to keep insurgents from barricading. We go inside Notre Dame. It is very dark. Then up a spiral staircase to Sainte Chapelle commissioned by Louis IX to hold his collection of relics, including a doubtful crown of thorns—which is back over at Notre Dame for display on certain days. And then stained glass set on stun. We walk back, eat at Gusto, and sleep.

Versailles. I don’t know. I guess I would have felt weird missing it. I wouldn’t go back though. I hired Veronica with Tours by Locals. We met near a train station, but the ticket machine was broken and, according to her, you cannot board without a ticket, also the next station is a bit of a walk and we have timed entry tickets and would possibly not make it, also 25 minute walk from train station at Versailles. Would you mind we take a taxi? I tell her I’ll call Uber. It was like another 75 euros. Hmm. Poor planning on her part. Once you’re in these problems, you have to just spend the money.

It’s not overly crowded. She points out the wood floors and bronze frames painted gold. Some kings did not have the money for marble floors and real gold frames. All the orange trees and palms are out from the orangerie. Plants are planted in pots, so they can be taken in in winter or moved. The place is endless: gardens tucked here and there, fountains, a lake, and on this day, May 30th, almost unbearably hot and not much shade. We make our way to the Hameau, Marie Antionette’s little farm village. I think we should have started here. Then the Petit Trianon, where Marie could have privacy. I only know anything about this because I watched Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antionette. Lunch—I don’t remember what — at the Trianon. I recognize one garden from A Little Chaos, a weird Kate Winslet movie. Then a tour of the government part of the palace. I’m fried at this point and we take a hot, crowded train back. Thirsty too. Gusto and die.

Cheese mites. Paris by Mouth Latin Quarter food tour. We stop in cheese store. I could spend all day here; the cheeses are so unusual looking. Desserts displayed like jewelry—none of which I can have, but they make something for me and my allergies, and a charcuterie for potted things. We settle around a table in a wine store. I’m hoping real French wine doesn’t turn my face red. No such luck. Thank goodness Jessica can drink wine.

I’m so glad I hired a guide for D’Orsay, or any museum from now on; otherwise it’s just a lot of art floating by. We have Lorraine from Context, an effortlessly chic French person. She wants us to appreciate all the radical things here. We look at two different versions of The Spring, one by Ingres and one by Courbet. Nudity was ok as long as it was mythological figures and their bodies were idealized. Courbet’s version depicted a real naked person posed like a real person. Clesinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake looks like a real woman (including cellulite on her butt) maybe taking pleasure in being bitten by a snake. The next radical idea: peasants. Millet’s The Gleaners, she says, is a noble painting of peasants aimed at annoying the bourgeois. The next work I come to love just because of Lorraine’s description of it: “This painting is about a sound.” A man and a woman in a field with their heads bowed, the church bells from the steeple on the horizon, she says, are ringing.This is Millet’s L’Angelus.

Next we encounter Carpeaux Dance. Made for an opera house, it was once doused in black ink because although it portrays mythological figures, the showing of teeth and eyes made it all too real. Art rarely causes such a ruckus nowadays. But it gets worse. Manet’s Olympia casts a prostitute as Venus casting her languorous gaze directly at you. Cabanel’s classical The Birth of Venus was on the other hand well received. Manet did it again with The Picnic, a modern rendition of Titian’s The Pastoral Concert. It was rejected for exhibition and now here it is.

I love the dappled light effects in Renoir’s Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette. The rich are in top hats and the lower classes in straw ones. We see this contrast again in Dancing in the Town and Dancing in the Countryside. With a straw hat on the ground, the countryside looks like much more fun. She shows us a Monet where you can see some of the canvas around the edges. Painters like Monet would often leave exposed canvas around the edges to add a kind of spontaneity and then owners would cover it up with big gold frames. The museum chose to leave the gold frames on as part of their history and painted the walls a dark teal so the paintings would pop. Lorraine encourages us to look closely at the Monets. Impressionism looks abstract up close. The dancers in his paintings were most often lower class and wealthy men would come and sponsor them. Ok. I also finally learn why a lot of Gauguin’s paintings look confusing: he was painting different perspectives at once. You need to move around the painting to take it all in.

We enter the Louvre through the pyramid thing. It’s hot under there. We walk through Napoleon’s apartments. I think Lorraine says the chandelier in the reception area is the largest ever. It is big. We see the Arago marker for the Paris meridian. And then a sculpture of a lion biting a guy in the butt, but the conversation is about how sculptors needed to build in supports for marble sculptures and how metal casting, a shown in a sculpture of a naked guy and a large serpent, allowed more freedom. The stele of Hamarabi is here. Wow. Lorraine points to the legs of some mythical Assyrian gatekeeper creatures and shows us the multiple legs were meant to convey motion. A lot of Roman and Greek gods and goddesses and religious paintings and then, of course, the Mona Lisa. She talks about the painting effect sfumato, how he worked on the painting for years. It was also once stolen. But here, tucked behind glass, cordoned off, and with a mass of people crowded around it, it seems diminutive. She tells us that is you can walk across it, her eyes will look as if they follow you. That would be cool to see; maybe they could put a conveyor belt in front of it. Before we go, I ask her to show me the Titian painting that The Picnic was based on.

The last day. I left it open and Jessica found out there was racing at Longchamp. It was such a beautiful day. The whole place had been redone in woods with a grass lawn; none of the griminess of tracks back home. You could see the tip of Eiffel Tower. Last dinner at Gusto. I like Paris.

We have a little bit of time before our train to Bayeux. We head over to see the classic viewpoint of the tower and then find out Gusto won’t open in time for lunch, so we have sandwiches on a bench. The train station makes me nervous, I hope we get on the right train. The train is super crowded and we end up sitting on the floor. The tickets were supposed to be for assigned seats, but I never did find the seats and there was no one to ask, no one collected the tickets. We get off at the right place and have to hike our bags up a steep overpass because the elevator isn’t working. Luckily we’re not handicapped. Then we get to the hotel and we’re given a smoking hot room in the annex attic with no air conditioner and sealed windows. Yes, of course we can change to a room with AC and windows that open, there will be an extra charge, of course. Dinner at the hotel was pretty good, salmon and vegetables, and the weather was nice. The next three days would be chilly and drizzly, just like it was back in 1944. And we would eat outside on the patio because we didn’t make reservations. Some diners were offered blankets for their legs. Not us.

Thing are much further apart than they look. It takes almost an hour over country roads to get to Utah beach. We’ll be moving through a lot of history in two days. The beach is broad and flat; at low tide, the ocean is far, far out. Horses in harnesses trot past. We head to the Utah Beach Museum to see the planes and boats used in the operation. On our way to St. Marie Eglise, our guide shows us a fence made from the portable runways laid down after the invasion. Everyone was poor and everything was damaged, anything that could be recycled was. We walk around the town and see the church with dummy parachutist stuck on the steeple. She says this did not happen and then talks about the airborne operation that began in the early hours of June 6th. There was a tremendous amount of luck involved: smoke from the bombing before the invasion, the weather clearing. She shows us a metal fence with dents from shrapnel. “Not much to see,” she explains that it was a terrible time and no one would have thought anyone would be a tourist for such things and everyone wanted to clean things up and forget. The town is very crowded and the few lunch places are overwhelmed. Eva manages to get us service and the food is enough to keep us going. I had some sort of steak that was a bitch to cut through. I don’t know about French food.

The Germans had fake airfields with wooden bombs and the allies had dummy parachutists and someone later made a wedding dress from a parachute. We see this at the Airborne Museum. The on to the German cemetery La Cambe. It is very solemn and dark. Many of the soldiers were very young. Eva tells us the more experienced soldiers were at the Russian front. Another stroke of luck in the defeat of Rommel’s Atlantic Wall.

There are a lot of people around in 1940’s clothing and uniforms and jeeps and stuff. Tomorrow is the 74th anniversary. We visit Omaha Beach, which had the most casualties. Another foggy, misty day. We move on to Point du Hoc. You can’t really see the giant dents in the ground from the allied bombing the way it it shows up in aerial views but you can appreciate the difficulty of scaling the cliff up to the German gun battery. Eva says is was a little easier to climb because one of the bombs caused part of the cliff to crumble. More luck.

The weather lets up a bit when we visit the American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach. It’s much more moving in person I think because of how big it is. There are bronze rosettes on the wall of the missing for service members whose remains were later found. The weather was turning again when we visited the Longues sur Mer gun battery. I would say this is something you could miss. Our last stop was the artificial harbor Arromanches. You could see some of the last pieces of it and we probably would have gone down one the beach it it weren’t for the rain and wind. There is a museum there with a 360° movie about the war which Jessica loved so much we ran around and saw it a second time. And that was an intense two days. If you go, it’s a lot of distance to cover; some tours do it in one day but that would be crazy. Two is good. I thought we were really lucky to get a guide so close to the anniversary, many were booked up, but she says that overall, there are less tourists as the veterans and people who lived through the war have passed away.

We have a little time the next day to see the Bayeux tapestry before our train back to Paris. Where was this thing ever unfurled? It is astronomically long.

We are staying in a cute little hotel. It is, I think, in the 6th arrondissement. It’s much livelier that where we were before. We find an Italian place for dinner. The next day, we head for Notre Dame again. This time we will climb the bell tower for views of Paris and the gargoyles. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower, but I think this is a better view; it is a beautiful day and you can forever, plus the gargoyles and the enormous bell are cool. We press on to the Natural History Museum. I think we missed some rooms, we never saw the dinosaurs or evolution exhibits; all the signage was in French and it was very dark. They did have a piece of the Chelyabinsk meteor. We bought a separate, and expensive, ticket for a dinosaur exhibit, which I thought would be where all the dinosaur stuff would be, but it was really just a large animatronic T-Rex. Jessica was hoping to get a t-shirt, but they only had kid sizes. But then again, I don’t see any adults wearing t-shirts here in Paris. After dinner, we walk by Louis Vuitton on Saint Germain and out of the corner of my eye, I see the bucket bag. I’m thinking. We get back to the hotel and I decide it’s now or never. It really is the very thing I have been looking for and for a brief five minutes walking back to the hotel, I am a person with a big Louis Vuitton shopping bag.

Side note. I reported everything on my customs form—I had been collecting all the receipts in an envelope just for this purpose—so I knew I was over the limit and would have to pay I don’t what it’s very confusing. But out of all the passengers on all the international flights arriving, I was the only one. They had to go find this customs person. Anyways. Everything went smoothly, although he was a little flummoxed that someone would pay that much for a purse. I only had to pay something like twelve or thirteen dollars for the peace of mind that honesty brings.

Happy Memorial Day!

Something to top cupcakes or whatever depending on what you make them with. I used gum paste to make them edible, but you could use salt clay or something else and they could be strewn on a festive table. Divide however much you want in three portions and color. Between two pieces of wax paper, roll out each color into roughly a rectangle a little thicker than you want. Depending on the size of your star cutout, cut strips of each color, mine are about 1/4 ” wide. Place red, white, and blue strips next to one another on wax paper. Top with another piece of wax paper and roll gently to bring the strips together. Cut into stars. Allow to harden uncovered on wax paper for a few hours to overnight (it’s not too humid yet where I live).

Copyright © 2017 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Israel & Jordan are Dangerous

We go from Dulles to Newark to transfer. With a rare layover (we usually fly WOW, they like to make you run between connections in Reykjavik for a little cardio) we find ourselves at Forno Magico for some decent pizza. Be careful with the plastic knives they give you past security; you’re more likely to cut yourself than the food.

Our travel planner insisted on VIP arrival. The situation will be impossible, she says. They made me feel like I had put them through so much making them downgrade the penthouse, the private chef, the private spa, I just let it go. I just wanted great guides. And so we walked off the plane and were whisked into one of those Suburbans with dark tinted windows, whisked through immigration via the handicapped lane (double bad karma), and then, we waited. We watched as the bags started on the conveyor belt, we watched the other folks from our plane trickle in and collect their bags, we waited while our escort raced around nervously inquiring about our bags. And then, after every single person from our plane had gotten all their bags and left, our bags popped up. The very last bags. Beware: anything with the words VIP is cursed. You will pay.

We were put up in the Hilton with views of Tel Aviv and a menacing storm on the Mediterranean. Our guide confirms, yes, there is a storm coming. January is the beginning of the rainy season and this is January 1st. After a spirited introduction to the history of Israel at Independence Hall, we risk drowning to cross the street for Levinsky Pasta Bar. It is worth it. I have the best pasta I have ever had, some simple thing with olive oil and parsley.

Prepare for the visual assault of Bauhaus in bad shape. The White City needs, well, the Chip and Joanna Gaines of Israel to inspire a fixer-upper craze. Some of the buildings have been rehabbed in exchange for adding an additional floor or two. But it would be so cool if it were all fixed up, like a Disneyland for Bauhaus buffs. Even so, the form itself is, unfortunately, prone to cracks.

We wander around some of the quirkier parts of Tel Aviv in the Yemenite Quarter and get some Yemeni bread. If you’re trying to avoid carbs, you really need to stay away. Moist, flavorful, and full of bubble holes made by happy yeast. I think it’s called lahoh.

I’m taken down the most beautiful sandwich: sabich. I talked about allergies, I hate to overload everyone but I am highly allergic to fenugreek which it turned out was in this pickled mango paste called amba. Shit. I turn red, I feel sick, my daughter looks at me with alarm eyes and says, “Do you need the epi-pen?”

Be prepared for a serious case of produce envy. We walk through a market that looks like it is managed by Disney.

And then Brutalism. Tel Aviv City Hall in Rabin Square. Only someone with a serious sense of humor would design a government building to be this forbidding. And watch out for the Mediterranean. It’s not the calm, placid ‘sea’ we think of. Today it was something right out of the Odyssey. In the evening, my social media accounts are bombarded with ads to meet Russian women and girls. Have I been hacked?

Don’t settle in for a long drive. You’ll get from Tel Aviv all the way to Caesarea in, like, an hour. It’s only then that I realize the whole country is smaller than New Jersey. Our guide says they have so much history to dig out because, not having bulldozers, folks just built on top of things.After we run through Baha’i and the Crusader fort Akko, where I observe my daughter and guide enjoy the falafel, we head to a late lunch with Pinina, a Druze woman in her empty nest. I learn I cannot become a Druze because when they die, they are reincarnated immediately, so it is just who is already a Druze that can be in this cycle. The food is so good I forget to take a picture until I’m almost done and truthfully, I feel it is rude to be snapping away in someone’s home. Maybe I’m wrong and she would take it as a compliment. But I wish I had photos now. We have lemonade with geranium leaves and rose water. I like this. We have wild endive with fried onions, meat kebabs with a tahini sauce, a cherry tomato tabouleh, a bread with hints of anise and turmeric. It never ceases to amaze me how many different foods there are. I get a copy of all the recipes and I later buy the Galilean Kitchen cookbook but it just doesn’t taste the same.

This being the fourth day of the rainy season, we are expecting a furious storm. Our guide rearranges everything and begins talking in tongues. Mount of Beatitudes— Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth….We visit Tsfat and crash some kid’s Bar Mitzvah, we get a beautiful scarf, the rain is starting, we go for a freezing cold jeep tour of the Golan Heights, we see some danger signs and a few shriveled pomegranates still on the vine. Then, because we need danger to feel alive, the fortified UN Camp Ziouani near the Syrian border and then an abandoned Syrian administrative building, where under threat of rain and high winds, we can peer into Syria. After this we tuck into the much more dangerous De Karina chocolate store.

The next morning will be seared into our minds. We meet with Lt. Col. Sarit Zehavi. Over the next hour she gives us a geo-political view of Israel and all its neighbors. It’s a complicated and dangerous neighborhood. We visit Kibbutz Degania, the oldest kibbutz in Israel, in pouring rain. Their very interesting museum is in poor condition and the roof is leaking. Money. Without regard to luggage weight, I buy the two heaviest things in their shop: olive oil and honey. As I write this a year and a half later, I have only just run out of both. Rain has ruined a few stops, so our guide takes us to Beit Alpha to show us what happens when you hire the least expensive contractor to do your mosaics. Although the zany looking people and animals have a kind of energy more polished mosaics lack. We miss Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall due to pouring rain. I start to worry about the Jordan part of the trip which would be completely ruined by rain. I like to get out ahead with my worries and anxiety, no sense in procrastinating.

Beautiful but chilly; our first day in Jerusalem. We are standing on the Mount of Olives, behind the oldest Jewish cemetery, near where Jesus passed on his way into Jerusalem to hosannas and palm fronds. There are a churches here for the sole purpose of waiting for the return of the messiah, so he won’t have to search for an AirBnB. The Russian Orthodox church is the shiniest. It is here that I realize my younger daughter has forgotten everything in the Bible. I haven’t forgotten because I went to Catholic school and had to recite stories from the Bible under threat of a yardstick Sister Catherine kept slapping against her palm. Brace yourself, history starts fast and furious here: we visit Oskar Schindler’s grave and place a stone on it, olive trees, Garden of Gethsemane, Mt. Zion, King David’s tomb, site of last supper on top, Dormition Abbey where Mary lived, enter Jerusalem through Zion Gate, walk along Via Dolorosa, climb a roof where the four quarters meet to see everyone’s satellite dishes, Church of the Holy Sepulcher where we watch people, a lot of people, kiss a stone that Jesus was laid on, Al Asqua mosque, more Via Delorosa, and the Western Wall where we go to the women’s section. Be careful, the roads in the old city a very, very slippery when wet, more so if you have slip-resistant Vibram soles. Whew. I hope there isn’t a quiz tomorrow. Pizza and pavlova at P2.

Yesterday, our guide took us to a shop that sells very expensive textiles. The owner, Bilal Abu Khalaf, showed us some material he still had from Syria. He let me take pictures, and I thought I would be satisfied with that. But over the course of the day, my mind kept coming back to the one depicting Saladin’s wars and battles: horses, warriors, puddles of blood. After researching it and finding that it is a traditional Syrian pattern, I pay four-hundred dollars for a small remnant. It was just so striking to look at. And then whosh! another marathon through history: Western Wall tunnels tour—just a much below ground as above—we walk around the city wall, olive trees everywhere, ruins everywhere, burial caves over there, tomb of pharaoh’s daughter, City of David excavation, see ancient toilet, learn that David may have invaded the city by having someone sneak in through the water supply which was outside the wall—Gihon spring—Davidson Center, more tunnels, and then Israel Museum. They have a model of how Jerusalem looked in ancient times and also the dead sea scrolls. I never realized this—until our guide told us—that when you are reading a scroll and roll it back together, it opens to where you left off. Steak at Chakra.

Don’t worry, there isn’t a terrorist scare. Yad Vashem is crowded with young Israeli Defense Force soldiers. In peacetime, they spend a lot of their required service on field trips learning about their country. That is an excellent idea. Come to think of it, we don’t see much security through the whole trip but our guide assures us it’s there. The most moving thing I see is a little piece of wax paper with rouge on it; women would put it on their cheeks to try and look healthy so they wouldn’t be sent to the gas chamber. Can you imagine being in that position. Our guide tells us that Israelis didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust; they thought everyone was making up crazy things. He says it wasn’t until Mossad captured Eichmann and put him on trial and everyone was glued to their radios listening to the witnesses that everyone realized to horror of what happened. But one must still eat and so we are off to Mehane Yehuda market for a Kurdish lunch. Yum. Pickles, rice with vermicelli, pita, beef with potatoes, meatball in tomato, Matfuniah soup with squash, celery, swiss chard. I then buy a tub of tahini which leaks all over everything and $100 worth of really good cheese, but what am I going to do with it! I spend the next week keeping it cool only to have security at the Jordan Airport take it out, touch it with their airport hands and sniff it. They were trying to be funny, I think. Last night in Jerusalem we had back to Chakra for steak and fluffy tiramisu.


This morning I take pictures of the sunrise over the old city. Watch out for wildlife. I am reviewing my photos when a bird flies into the room. I sit very still and after a few minutes, it flies back out. Today we are headed to Ein Gedi and Masada before crossing over to Jordan. On our way, we stop at a gas station for a camel ride. Because there’s camels at gas stations.

Oh, I made a mistake. Salt daggers! In an effort not to take too much, I ditched the water shoes and bathing suits. Because we weren’t going to have a lot of time there. And I was afraid I would accidentally get some of the water in my eyes. If I had at least brought the water shoes. Much of it is really shallow but the salt is painful sharp to walk on. The water smells strange and feels slick. We could have rented gear but the resort was really dirty. Onward to Jordan by taxi. The planning company hired an expediter to get us through, I don’t know, the Israel side of the border? Then we had a bit of a walk past some large dice and a gift shop into Jordan. There, under the gaze of the royal family, our Visa was processed and our new guide fetched us. It gets dark so early in the winter. We arrive at the Kempinski Aquaba. At the buffet I hear a lot of what sounds like Russian. And women who look Russian.

In the morning, I see the Red Sea. It is windy and cold and the water looks rough. I say this because one of our options was to spend the day here snorkeling the reefs, but some of the reviews on Tripadvisor mentioned rough waters in the winter. Looks like it was a good call. Anyways, the last time I snorkeled in Hawaii, the water was pretty calm and warm, but I still got seasick. After the breakfast buffet, we head off to Wadi Rum. I had read about hiking up Jebel Umm Adaami where you look out into Saudi Arabia and the company planning the trip said “sure” and put it on the itinerary. When I share this with our guide, I know immediately we have a problem. He says it’s a four hour drive and then two hours up and two down; we wouldn’t have enough daylight. He suggests a shorter hike and some sites like seeing petroglyphs. This seems to always happen and I wonder who is not giving me the real story: did the guide just want to do something easier or the travel planner really doesn’t know. It is such and amazing place, I quickly forget about the mountain. We hike through a ravine. The dry season is coming to an end and it looks like they’ve had some rain since the sprouts of black tulips are starting to emerge. Our guide shows us a seed pod from a dried plant; he calls it harmal, I think, he says Bedouins use it for joint pain. I find a bullet casing. We emerge from the the ravine to the utter vastness of Mars; in the distance a little white dot—that is our driver. He comes around and sets up fire for black tea with sage, as I’m sure he has done a million times for tourists who always go on about how good the tea is (because we have never had tea with sage) and how surprisingly refreshing it is in the desert heat (because we don’t have deserts to drink tea in). I take pictures as Jessica and the guide scramble up Um Fruth rock bridge, then into Khazali canyon, a narrow rock passage, to see petroglyphs which look a lot like the ones we saw in the southwest here. We walked up rocks for a really astonishing view and then down a sand dune. It was only here and Khazali canyon that there were any other people and even then it was only a few. We passed a few camels before taking in the Anfishiyyeh petroglyphs. There are some camels there and Jessica asks how they keep them from running away and they say most don’t but but sometimes the tie their front legs with cloth so they can’t walk very fast. We end the day with a late lunch in a tent camp next to a railway. I love the rice.

Petra. We stayed in the Movenpick right outside the entrance. For a bucket list sight, there is surprisingly little development around. We learn a lot about Nabataen technology for water handling. There are rain gutters carved into the walls of the canyon and aqueducts along the canyon walls leading to cisterns underground to collect downpours during the rainy season. The Nabataen’s were traders of things like bitumen from the Dead Sea used by Egyptians for mummies and Frankincense from Yemen. Eventually the site was taken over by the Romans—peacefully, or so I’m told. And finally the Treasury. It’s not very big. Lots of little dogs running around. Cool. They cannot excavate it because when they tried, a piece fell down and sand poured in. Black tulips sprouting up, they will bloom in April. We are now walking down a Roman avenue with columns. I am told: the reason for broken pottery pieces everywhere is from a terrible earthquake in AD 363 everything was destroyed except the the sandstone structures and one Roman building that was buffered by Juniper wood. Juniper was used because pests don’t bother it. Would these pottery shards still be laying around like this? There are a lot of tombs. Some have stair icons. Nabataens worshipped ten gods, so five steps on each side for the stairway to heaven. I guess their spirit goes up one side and then the other or splits in two. We then climb up to the Monastary on our own. Not one regular step the whole way. Loaded donkeys coming and going; one gets a whipping. Some dude is showing off his parkour skills on the crown. I see him in some other tourists photos online so he must be a regular feature. Buffet at the hotel. I’m really just wanting a chicken nugget at this point.

The call of prayer wakes Jessica up. I don’t hear it at all. I would just even settle for a saltine. Everything is jammed with spices and nuts. We are supposed to visit the Crusader castle? fortress? Kerak. It reminds me that I thought about adding a visit to Syria back in 2007 when we went to Egypt. I was glad at the time because two weeks in Egypt had us strung out on history. But we will go to Shobek today. Our guide says both look about the same, but Kerak is in a town and Friday was the Muslim holy day, so it would be super crowded. He says the area around Shobek looks more like it did in crusader times. When we get there, there is nothing around for miles. I think there would have been at least a pub around the castle, I mean they needed stuff. There were supposedly two more between here and Petra as the Crusaders were trying to build a buffer around Jerusalem—which was the whole point of the crusades. Shobek was originally a French castle called Montreal. Shobek is its Muslim name. We see stone cannonballs—because metal was too expensive.

No rest for the weary when a travel planner works their magic. LOTS of trash along the roadway. Phosphate mining in the mountains. Lunch at Haret Jdounda (community grandfather). Baba ganoush and puffy pitas and lemonade with mint. Byzantine church in Madaba with mosaic map of the Middle East. Wow. If it is clear, we will see all the way to Jerusalem from Mt. Nebo. But of course not today! I hope it was clear when Moses was up there to show his people the promised land. There are some beautiful mosaics. Our guide tells Jessica the story of the snake on the staff that Moses showed his people after they worshiped a false god and were bitten by poisonous snakes. The snake goes on to become famous as the medical symbol.

The Rotana looks like the ship in Arrival. It sticks out like a sore thumb in the ancient cityscape of Amman. Jesus, everyone here smokes. I’ll have to buy some Altria stock. We have an excellent pizza and mint lemonades at Gusto, the hotel restaurant.

Just two more days. Ajloun Castle is a Muslim fort built to defend against the crusaders. I struggle to take it in, to make it memorable, distinctive. After thirteen days, these fortresses look mostly the same.But this one will be memorable because our guide picked this spot to tell us about the Palestinian view of the conflict with Israel. I didn’t ask if he was Palestinian. Islam, he says, is a peaceful religion. ISIS and Al Qaeda do not represent the religion—they hate everything. The Muslim religion, he says, repeats other religions and Muslims, Jews, and Christians have lived side by side in this area for a thousand and more years. Only when politics and religion are put together are there problems. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religion share much history and stories. He talks about the Palestinian people who were pushed off their land to create Israel. He says just because Jews lived in the area a thousand years ago, it does not give them the right to come here and take it from people who have lived here for generations. I mention America’s guilt over the Holocaust as a reason for helping Jews to have a safe homeland and his reply is “then maybe give them a piece of Germany.”

We head to Lebanese House for lunch. Lemonade with mint! Jessica tries a pickled almond. There are pickled lemons on the table—they are grey. Pudding! Milk, sugar, cornstarch, rose water, mastic gum.

I will not struggle to remember our next site: Jerash. Called Philadelphia (city of brotherly love) by the Greeks, it is huge. Walking through the streets and public spaces, it still feels like a city. Founded by Alexander the Great, it was later taken over by the Romans and our guide says we know this because the theater faces north so the sun is never behind the stage. “They think of every little thing,” he says. The Greeks performed on the center floor, the Romans added stages for better acoustics. The seats are also numbered.

I spend $300, cash only accepted by the planner, dollars for us to be able to stay in room until 11pm so we could have dinner, shower and rest before our 2:15am flight. I know rooms at that hotel don’t cost anywhere near that but I manage to avoid aggravating myself by looking at prices online.

Our last day was spent in Amman. We visit the Citadel overlooking the city. It has been occupied since Neolithic times, but what’s visible now is mostly from Roman times. On site is the Jordan Archaeological Museum. This is a small museum with poor signage that doesn’t allow our guide to show us around. The collection spans thousands of years. We head into town to see the Roman theater and the Folklore Museum, which is about local cultures. Again, no guides allowed. I need context or it’s just a lot of interesting looking stuff.

Before we wander around town, our guide wants to share some thoughts about Islam and women’s rights. He says that having multiple wives stemmed from a time when wars caused a shortage of men. Women can divorce and must willingly sign a marriage contract . The man, he says, is responsible for taking care of his family and their happiness. Women are exempt from from having to pray in the mosque for many reasons. I don’t know. It would be good to hear a woman’s perspective.

We walk around the markets in town. I see a small hotel that looks nice and new. I would have rather stayed in town. We stop in a store and for $20, we get an enormous stash of black tea, dried sage, olive oil, and soap. We try knafeh—a hot goat cheese dessert with a crispy sugar top. Interesting. Our guide then takes us for tea at some strange place to look out over the street scene while he smokes a water pipe.

Our usual driver picks us up for the airport. He has teeth like a lion and he’s overly friendly. I don’t know. The airport is new and beautiful but then security starts going through all my stuff. They take out my sublingual allergy drops and open them, they open the cheese I got in Israel and breath on it making some joke. Good lord they are stressing me out. Then one of our checked bags doesn’t arrive back with us. Tracking says it never left Jordan. Why am I not surprised? All my good stuff is in that one. Online, it says if you don’t get it back within 24 hours, it’s probably gone, but two days later, it does arrive by messenger.

New York Fix

We rode the quiet car up to New York. No sooner than we got there, Arnold called and said he was bleeding from the ear. The doctor tried to remove some ear wax; my first thought was he punctured his ear drum, my second was we were going to have to head home. Always something. I tell myself everything will be fine and head to Zaro’s for challah bread, my first fix. There was also a box of mini black and white cookies. Then pushing through the crowds to catch the blue line downtown to Canal Street. I miss tokens.

It was supposed to be raining, but does it have to rain, rain? Am I going in the right direction? I am. Down Mulberry to Hotel Mulberry. Small, clean, relaxing, great view of the new, single tower? I can’t wait to get to Rubirosa so I can show Jessica some real pizza. We have to sit at the bar but in a cramped place like this it really doesn’t matter. We order a Caesar salad and a large vodka pizza. It is larger than I remember and Jessica barks at me that she hopes I’m not going to stuff her the whole time we’re in NY. This is the same person that ate an entire pound of pasta in one sitting last week. And is always asking me: “Are you going to eat the rest of that?”

This will be our shopping afternoon. The whole SOHO, NOLITA area is a garden of social media plants. We hit Mejuri, Everlane, Cuyana, Beautycounter, GOOP, before swinging back to Mejuri where Jessica gets two pretty gold rings she can stare at all week. It’s nice to see something different from the mall. I get some samples of Barbara Strum’s $300 face cream. I scrutinize the ingredients for secrets. Our final stop is McNally Jackson bookstore where they’re all weird about their bathroom and don’t have anything from my list. It’s a very left-leaning shop, not that I was looking for an Ann Coulter book or anything. Time for soup dumplings at Joe’s Ginger. Plus I order Chinese broccoli in garlic sauce. I’m all healthy now and can go back to the room and get into those black & white. And the challah. Tomorrow will be sunny and cold.

Wednesday. Uptown to Shake Shack for brunch and on to the Museum of Natural History. I had the kids here before when they were younger and Jessica was a dinosaur fanatic. Still is. The dioramas are cool but the layout is tiring and the hominid exhibit confusing. But one good thing: while staring at a giant meteor in the Hall of Meteors, Michael, one of the museums ‘explainers’ comes up and tells us to touch it because it will be the oldest thing we will ever put our hands on. I put my hands on it very gently. Then he slaps a magnet on it. It’s iron. It’s name is Ahnighito and it was found in Greenland. It’s old because iron is the last element a star makes before it dies, so it was made by some other star, somewhere around here, and then became part of the core of an early planet in our solar system that didn’t make it (also good article recently on how planets may had rearranged themselves based on observations of other solar systems which show big gas giants closer to their suns) anyhow, then was probably in an asteroid in the asteroid belt until something knocked it here. It’s always more interesting when someone tells you about something. After three hours we were flagging. Never overdo it with museums.

We head downtown on the blue line to Spring Street. We want to get to Rubirosa before it fills up. You have to be either very early or very late. There’s Neuhaus! Home of the best ice cream bar in Berlin and the best dark chocolate with mint bars. While we’re loading up on chocolates, I start getting alerts about a snow squall on my phone. Ok. Two more on our way to dinner and then I see the dark swirling clouds coming from uptown. After we get into Rubirosa winds and about an inch of snow. We’re safe and warm. I get a glass of wine for Jessica and get her to try their Cacio de Pepe and it’s very pepe also with thin pasta. Need to get her to try Pasta al Carbonara. Another dish I’m not likely to make at home. We stop in Beautycounter and she tries some really lovely looking lip gloss and she has been wanting lip gloss…but she needs to marinate on it. Can we go to that rice pudding place? Rice to Riches. The small looks so small, I order the next size up. No get the small says Jessica. Before she jumps on me I admit to my mistake and humble myself before her supreme wisdom. Too much of a good thing is a stomach ache. Trump is impeached. Eh.

Thursday. Oh, it’s flying by now. We hit Canal Street Market for brunch. We both get boba at Boba Guys and Jessica gets ramen at Ippudo and I get Joe’s Rice Noodle. The ramen looks good but damn allergies. The rice noodle thing, shrimp and chive , is gelatinous level 12. Not my texture. The boba really is honey boba. Yum. We them head over to Matchaful (something Jessica picked out) for a respite from the hectic city streets. She gets an iced matcha with macadamia milk and a reusable bamboo straw and I get the traditional. Damn allergies. On our way to the 9/11 tour, we stop at Casper in the Oculus so I can look at a very expensive dog bed. Oh, and there’s barricades up around the Oculus and signs warning of danger from falling ice—it’s stunning but the building could kill someone. The 9/11 tour is, uh, sad. We learn that the order of the names of the victims along the perimeter of the buildings are mostly placed together because of requests for meaningful adjacency, people who knew each other or worked together. The guide tells us one was a young intern working for folks who had known her since she was a kid. There was a lot to take in at the museum and we missed the black box from the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I would go back to spend time walking through that part again, but a tour was good for Jessica who was just a baby when it happened.

We stop a Beautycounter to get the lip gloss. I want her to get it so she can enjoy it while we’re in NY. We have to have some fun. We stop by Rubirosa, but there’s a big wait so I say let’s go to Joe’s Ginger. I add some scallion pancakes to the order so she can try them. We can’t be out too late; the Democratic debate is coming on: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Yang, Steyer, Buttigieg, Klobuchar. No subtitles though. Damn hearing impairment. It looks like Klobuchar got more words in.

Friday. Uptown on the 6 to walk in the footsteps of Nikki Haley at the U.N.. Less than a week before Christmas, the place is deserted. The bookstore doesn’t have Nikki Haley’s new book. It doesn’t have Madeleine Albright’s either. Lot of crap here. One meeting hall we can’t go in; they’re sorting something out about Syria. The other meeting halls are straight outta 1947; lots of pea green and pumpkin orange. The real star of the show is the bizarre artwork. I’m so stunned, I don’t even take pictures. One is some sort of mosaic with a man in an Atlas position in a white thong. I shit you not. I can’t even find it online, so I’ll have to go back and make sure I didn’t hallucinate. The plan after this was to get lunch at Japanese tonkatsu place Matasunoya—it was, ok, not gonna be dreaming about it—then head up Fifth Avenue to see Trump Tower and Tiffany. Jessica tried on a Tiffany T ring. It was nice, but I like what she got at Mejuri better. And it was super expensive. We headed over to the new Nordstrom. It was a department store. We did get a cereal milk ice cream sample and some cookies at the famous Milk Bar satellite. The cookies weren’t very good. Very doughy. What do I know. I take her down 6th so she can experience real midtown crowds and also the tree at Rockefeller Center. She says it’s smaller than she thought it would be. Can we go back to Matchaful? Absolutely! We head back downtown, have matcha, and then she wants the ramen soup at Canal Street Market. “I thought it gave you a stomach ache?” “Yeah, but it was good.” I get pizza from the pizza guy and I thought he was going to make me a pizza in the little flaming pizza oven, but instead he takes the display pizza, that I’m pretty sure has been there all day, and warms it up. Ugh. Jessica is happy with her ramen and lots of quality people watching.

Saturday. We decide to eat after the Tenement Museum so we stop at Boba Guys but they only have boba after 11. Okay. So we stop in Starbucks. Jessica gets a green tea Frappacino and I get a tall dry cappucino. Now I remember why I don’t get Starbucks anymore: it’s awful, it tastes burnt. I use Illy at home.

We were doing the same tour I took my older daughter on a few years earlier: Hard Times. You walk by all these tenement buildings on the lower east side and duck in all the chic little shops and I’m sure it’s expensive to live here now, but it used to be teaming with poor, newly arrived immigrants. And it changed ‘nationalities’ over the years. In the mid to late 1800’s it was Germans and the signs and the language spoken around would have been German. Our guide took the story of a German immigrant family during economically bad times and by the 1930’s it was filled with Italian immigrants during the great depression. They fixed up the two apartments to look as they would during those times. I thought it was really cool. Later it becomes a Hispanic enclave.

Russ & Daughters has a giant wait so I take her for a real slice at Joe’s on 14th. Actually three slices each. It is so good. Nothing near home is even, even. Then I take her to the Strand bookstore. I had never been, but everyone raves about it. I don’t like. It’s big, crowded, and smelly. And non-relaxing. They don’t have anything I’m looking for either. The guy there suggests the Bonnie Slotnick. I had heard about her shop. But they don’t have anything from my list either. I march her tired butt all the way down to Boba Guys. We wait in the line. Then over to Beautycounter because I want to get her the sample foundation that looked great on her, but she wants nothing. Can we go to McNally and look around before going to dinner?” I ask.” I get a terse “fine.” I want to go to Russ and Daughters. It was so good the last time, I want to do a follow-up. It’s a bit of a walk and she ambles along behind me. Maybe she needs food. It’s also warmed up, so our -40 coats are making us hot. They’re not crowded at all. It’s quiet. We’ll have a nice quiet last dinner. She doesn’t talk to me at all, just scowls at me. Matzo ball soup, yum. Potato latkas, okay. Pumpernickel bagel, paper salmon, onions, cream cheese, capers, yum. Vanilla cream soda, okay. Pickled herring sampler, OMG. Halva ice cream, interesting. I get two bialys to take back. I ask about getting herring and he advises I line up at their shop an hour before it opens tomorrow morning. I think about that. I could get more challah too. They ship but it probably has insane shipping fees. That’s why they won’t tell you until you order. The grump plods along ten steps behind me. I wanted to have a perfect ending.

No Saturday already no. Pack the bags. Leave bags at hotel. I decide I am going to get makeup at Beautycounter. It was just the best foundation on Jessica. $225 later I have basics. We head over to Rubirosa. Already crowded, so we’re at the bar. Jessica wants some pasta with mushrooms. So I get rice balls and we share a salad. Then something weird happens, Jessica has a dizzy spell. I feed her ice cubes and press them to her neck just hoping she doesn’t pass out on the floor. She lives. We still have a few hours. Back to Mejuri to look at a necklace she liked, stop in crowded Allbirds, past line for Dominic Ansel, Eileen Fisher is quiet. I spend a lot of money on really nice stuff. Christ, I hope I wear it out. Past the line at Glossier. We’re starting to run out of time so I decide to leave Jessica to rest up at Matchaful while I go back to the hotel and get our suitcase and two backpacks. I run. Through dense crowds. I’m dripping sweat in my Eddie Bauer Stadium Coat, I’ve broken two nails and broke one off when it got caught on my scarf that I was trying to get off me. Jessica finds it in her heart to tell me a I smell really bad. Three times. Shut up you ingrate. Matcha. Blue line uptown. Only raisin challah and some sesame braid thing. Even Acela has priority boarding for special people. How I am never in this group. Luckily we get a nice seat together in the quiet car again and Jessica can dig into the Nikki Haley book she got at the station.

Mrs. Ajemian

Mrs Ajemian lived in a giant old house across the street from the apartment building where my mom and I lived in our decayed beach town. Through my nine-year-old eyes, she looked not just old, but ancient, like something out of a history book; this was possibly because she dressed like a character out of a Dickens novel. I went over there quite a bit until we moved because I didn’t have any friends— I had what my mother called fair-weather friends. My mother would say “why don’t you go over and help Mrs. Ajemian.”

She’d open her big wooden door and I could never tell if she was happy to see me or annoyed that I was there again. She wore slippers with big socks that sunk down around her ankles. Her legs had lots of brown spots on them. She had on a dress with small flowers all over it; I don’t remember her wearing anything else. On top of that was a sweater and on top of that was an apron with ruffled sleeves and a pocket that didn’t match. She had her glasses around her neck, but when they were on her nose, they sat there crookedly because she had what looked like bits of tissue wrapped around the nose pads. Everything in her house was worn-out and threadbare: paint worn off every corner, a bare path through every carpet.

Some days she would be sewing. Most of this was really mending now, but she told me she used to sew all her clothes. I can’t even imagine this. She had this kind of round muslin ball thing that she would use to mend socks. If she would have used the same thread color, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the sock had ever had a hole in it, but she had a whole shoe box full of odd threads and when she found one long enough, whatever color it was, that was the one. When something was finally too worn out, the buttons where put into a jar and everything else into a basket— these were ‘spare parts.’ If it was too worn out to be a spare, the last stop was a cleaning rag. Once, we cleaned windows with newspaper and vinegar. I tried this one time when I was all grown up, but all I got were two extremely black hands. Newspapers must have been different then.

The most amazing thing was how she could turn one chicken into a week’s worth of food. First, she would roast it in a pan with carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, and some other stuff that I didn’t recognize. Turnips, maybe? She would cover it with foil that she had washed and saved. She never threw out foil until it completely fell apart. Dinner would be the roast chicken with the vegetables. Then she would take almost all meat off. This would become chicken salad. She made a chicken salad sandwich for me once, but I didn’t like it at all— the bread was slathered with butter and the salad had raisins in it which I thought was super weird. I told her I was full, so she packed up what I hadn’t eaten in one of the bread bags with twisty ties she saved. She probably never had to buy a plastic bag. The rest of the chicken carcass went back into a big pot with some more stuff and boiled away until it became soup. She even rolled out her own soup noodles and cut them haphazardly; these would be rustic artisanal noodles now.

The only beautiful thing she had was a lace tablecloth. It had a few stains on it and some tears, but I remember it because she said her mother had made it and I couldn’t believe that someone could make something so intricate. She came from Armenia, and, as my mother pointed out, she and her husband arrived in America at the worst possible time: the dawn of the Great Depression. All she would say was “hard times, hard times.” I asked her about Armenia all the time. I probably don’t remember everything she told me, but I do remember three things: she didn’t have indoor plumbing, so they had to fetch water and use an outhouse, they didn’t have electricity, and their ‘car’ was a donkey and a cart. I didn’t realize until I grew up how ingenious (and of course eco-friendly) a life of scarcity had made her.

Everyone I have ever told this story to says they wish they could be like her but she was shaped by experiences I hope I’ll never have.

Copyright © 2017 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Mono No Aware: Tomato Jungle

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Just a few short weeks ago, the garden was tripping over itself. I used to pluck and trim my tomato plants like Bonsai, but after a few years of awesome tomatoes, I had a run of bad luck: hard tomatoes, yellow leaf disease, spoiled blackbirds who ate but one bite of each. After giving up for a season, I decided to let the plants grow as they pleased and they made themselves a jungle. Now, after the most enormous haul of tomatoes ever, they have given in to exhaustion.

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