Friday, December 17, 2010

What Christmas Means To Me

This is my take on it.

Christmas, which is not a universal holiday, means something different to many people, and there are celebrations, seasonal figures like Father Christmas, St. Nick and Santa Claus and traditions that have evolved over centuries. The word literally means Christ's Mass and on December 25th, Christians commemorate what is believed to be the day that Jesus was born, 9 months after Annunication, or Incarnation (immaculate conception.) It also marks the start of the Winter Solstice.  There are decorations, songs, symbols like elves, evergreen trees, lights, ornaments, colors like red, silver, green, white, gold, special foods, carrots and oats for reindeer, NORAD's Santa Tracker, and the exchange of gifts and cards. Snow seems more magical on Christmas Eve or Day. The holiday spans a season that lasts 6-8 weeks and is a time for families and friends to reconnect, for work to wrap up, and for relaxing and reflecting. It can be a marvelous celebration-- a baby's first, an engagement, a wedding or a sad time when a loved one passes away, or if there's a fire or an accident.

It's become a massive retail event. It's an important push for the economy, but it can take attention away from the true meaning.
I try to avoid the hype and I get pretty tired of all the ads and come ons.

Last Chance, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas Spectacular, Today Only, Shop Now, Free Shipping Ends at Midnight, Last Minute Gifts and 25% off for Procrastinators.  The day after Christmas we're clobbered again, and somebody's gonna get trampled running to the Doorbusters, Drastic Reductions, and Final Clearance. Wait a few days; there's always a New Year's sale.

I bought a few little gifties, framed some of my photographs and made berry jam and apple butter this year, and will be baking the usual pies for my family.

Testing by the Quality Control Dept. (me)

From my heart.

The Christmas holiday for me is about practicing my faith my way, and visiting with friends and family. I remember who's birthday it is, I reflect upon my year, my accomplishments and my generosity, whether it was for a cause or of spirit. A good balance. Level and plumb.

Thanks for reading my posts this year! Safe travels and Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I've been typing since I was in high school. I learned on a manual typewriter, with a black-inked cloth ribbon and 1 or 2 characters per "hammer" that flew up and against the paper. This was before the more modern moving "typeball". I liked the sound that the keys made when they hit the platen and that zing noise from the carriage return lever.

We wrote our notes in spiral notebooks or legal pads, our school papers longhand on white 3-holed looseleaf and our essays in those little blue exam books. Typing class was given in the 2nd semester of Senior year...and I might have been looking out the window a bit. Lazy habits developed and although I use all the fingers on my left hand, I only use my thumb and forefinger on my right hand. Crazy fast though, for a total of 7 fingers, newsroom style. Not sure how I got past the discerning eye of the nuns in charge, or whether I can ever train the 3 other right fingers at this late stage...but I've managed to make it this far.

I brought a portable Brother typewriter to college, in a light blue carrying case. It kind of looked like this one, which I saw last week in an antique shop in NYC.

I also brought reams of onion skin and carbon paper. I was all that! After college, the office support staff did "the typing" in various jobs and I was never hired or tested for that skill (or lack) specifically. I've muddled through, from manual and electric typewriters to word processors to computers...with letters and proposals coming out just fine. I'm thankful for the backspace, cut and paste functions. Never did learn to format in Word with all those funky symbols, strike thrus and backwards P's to mark paragraphs. I bow to administrative assistants!! I am not worthy.

Scroll forward 30 years...

I didn't want to lug my netbook to France a few weeks ago, in favor of carrying extra camera I logged on to the hotel PC to answer more fully the e-mails that I got on my Blackberry.

Have you ever used a European keyboard? It's not QWERTY and it threw me for a loop. I was backspacing and correcting even the simplest reply! How are you supposed to type pumpkin or the word minimum with just the right hand?




Gotta hit the shift key to type numbers out over there, and hit the Alt key for @, a symbol that's used more than you'd think!

We're all using the same alphabet, so why are the keyboards set up differently? Not that is should be universally American, but...

I'm just sayin'. Annoying!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Spirit of Friendship at Christmas

I'm expecting some boxes to be delivered this week--prezzies for the house--a rug for my home office and some drapery panels for the kitchen. I returned home from errands and saw a box up on the porch, but it was too small for the stuff I've ordered.

It was from Stuttgart, Germany. I was surprised--it was very unexpected. The envelope said, "Open presents first." Presents, plural--wow!!

Here's the backstory. The two cooking classes that I've taken in Italy and France could not be described as "just a class." The chef, Faye Hess is a friend and former neighbor from New York, and she is unconventional and very laid back. Her classes fill quickly, by word of mouth. No brochures, no marketing. The accomodations are off the beaten path, unique and are the 'real deal.'

Chateau des Sablons: Bourgueil, Loire Valley. Nice digs!

I've travelled to both classes as a single, and have been warmly welcomed. Most of the students are groups of friends, some parents and adult 'children' and some couples. I've come away from both classes with new friendships that will last. Ya just know when they will.

In France, there were 12 of us, and I palled around all week with Katherine and Veronika, wives of U.S. military guys who retired in their mid-40's and who are working civilian jobs, stationed in Stuttgart. Katherine is a French teacher (bonus points!), and Veronika volunteers for various groups on base. They have daughters in high school and college, and drove 8 hours south for a girl's week.

Veronika and Katherine

The three of us were very like- minded, and we hung out in their suite and in mine--sharing magazines, wine, yummies from the charcuterie, boulangerie and patisserie, and great conversation. We buzzed around in Katherine's red Mini Cooper---shopping, lunching, touring, laughing and stopping to take photos, a lot. Like the one of the 20 foot tall topiary, in the middle of a traffic circle, a nod to the Loire Valley wine country. No tour van is going to go around 3x, in traffic, while giggling women take photos out the windows of a moving car!

So that I wouldn't have to drag stuff I'd bought in Brittany and the Loire towns to Paris, Veronika generously offered to ship my purchases from Germany to the U.S. Flat rate from the base is about 1/3 what you'd pay off post. All arrived safely! Veronika tucked two Ritter bars in with the last box--how'd she know that's a sinful fave of mine?

Last summer, another great gal, Kate, did the same from the naval base in Naples for Chef Faye and for move local olive oil, tablecloths and pottery home from Tuscany.

Getting back to Katherine and the prezzies that utterly flummoxed me today. Faye arranged for a dinner mid-week hosted by her friends at their 15th century home, Le Manoir de Champfreau. As if the Chateau des Sablons was not fabulous enough.

See what lies beyond the gate for yourself at 

Photo courtesy of owner's website

Owners Steven Guderian and Bruce Riedner run it as a B&B, as well as call the chateau home. I'll blog about the dinner separately. Their attention to detail, and the decor was out of this world. And dinner was outrageously good. I mentioned the gorgeous lacquered wood tray that held our champagne glasses, and Katherine said that she collects those trays, which are from Florence. I liked it so much, I snapped a pic.

In our travels that week, we popped into many little shops, as well as brocantes (flea markets.) I loved the deep red and natural grain sacks and table linens. I was disappointed when a linen vendor didn't have a queen-sized quilted duvet...which would have looked great in my master bedroom. Oh well, I took some pix for posterity.

What, you ask, did Katherine send?

A lovely Provencal quilted toile pillow sham in deep reds, a tea towel, some German chocolates, an antique lacquer tray and a bird-shaped Christmas ornament. *Gasp*  It's all so perfect, and perfectly unexpected!!

The tray matches my living room colors, exactly--red, green, sage, goldish yellow...I never mentioned other colors and Katherine has never seen my home.

I placed the bird ornament up near the top of my little tiny Christmas tree. A baby, stamped in brass, is my 'tree topper.' It's an antique milagro, or "promise" that a parent likely prayed to, for the health of a child. Either my mother found it in Athens in the 70's, or I found it there when I visited the same little shop in 1983. I merged our collections.

Katherine's card read, "I found this tray at a flea market in Stuttgart this morning. I have one similar to it on my dresser--I use it to put jewelry on before putting it away in a jewelry box. The guys in France used a bigger one for serving champagne. You could probably have 2 glasses sit on it. Did you photograph it? I didn't. Originally the trays are from Florence, Italy. The chocolate is divine! Enjoy. And the bird reminds me of you. Free to fly where you want--NC, NY, France, Italy, then come home. Wishing you a beautiful Christmas in your new home."

Katherine's presents are a true gift, especially at Christmastime. She, Veronika and I shared stories about "where we are" in our 40's, what we've done, what we haven't done, where we've been and not been, and what we hope to accomplish. That Katherine really heard me, and picked up on subleties...then acted upon them, shocks me and makes me feel happy. This Christmas, amidst all the racing and running, I'm reflecting upon the kind of a friend I am to others. If we reap what we sow, then aside from a few speedbumps along the way, I'm doing alright.

I have a wonderful circle of friends, and it just got bigger, by two. And the world just got smaller. I have some ideas about what to pack into a box that's Stuttgart-bound.

Life is good. Level and plumb.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Note to Self...

...Don't let nearly 30 years go by before returning to France.

2010 was an anomaly. Post-corporate layoff, I decided to sell my home in NY and move South.
I found a wonderful place and I'm all settled in, ahead of the 'schedule' that I'd envisioned. Before the holiday hoo ha and hubbub, and before fully embarking on the jobhunt, I took a trip to France. I bookended a previously planned cooking class, and so my vacation became the perfect 19 day getaway. Brittany, the Loire Valley, then Paris. Indulgent--yes, but I am so much more aware of TIME now, and that it can't be bought back.

27 years ago, I flung my 21 year old self to Iceland and Turkey, with 16 countries in between, for as long as $4000 would last me. A bit over 5 months. I had a backpack, money belt with cash and traveler's checks, passport, Eurailpass, my camera and lots of film, a fat orange copy of Let's Go Europe, and some onion skin airmail stationery for letters home. I told my family when I thought I'd be in a certain city, and lo and behold there'd be MAIL waiting for me at the American Express office!  I called home from the Post Office in Istanbul, on the 4th Thursday in November and said, "I'm in Turkey for Thanksgiving, get it?!" That night I had a shish kebab and yogurt soup, for about $1.

This go round, I had credit cards and global-enabled my Blackberry for phone, text and e-mail service. I covered Rick Steves' France 2010 in leftover wallpaper. Just because. I chose a backpack over a huge suitcase, did laundry 2x and jettisoned some clothes as I went, to make room for souveniers. Excellent new friends (U.S. military wives) offered to ship a flat rate box from the base when they returned to Stuttgart after our week-long cooking class. What a godsend! I happily peeled off some Andrew Jacksons.

I saw France again, but through older eyes, and saw some things I've never seen before. Snail poop on the beach in St. Malo, the 2nd highest tide in Europe (crashing 10 feet from my hotel room window), misteltoe growing in trees, etc...

It was the perfect mix of seaside, valleys and vineyards, and the City of Light.

Tempus fugit. Time flies. Since 1983, I've returned to the UK and Italy, and have spent time in Mexico, Bermuda and Aruba...but most of my travel has been domestic, and for business. I completed one of those "Where I've been" surveys and it turns out I've only seen 21% of the world. I gotta get crackin' and not let the day to day keep me from interesting travel in the future! Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Seychelles, the Garden Route in South Africa, storm watching or sea kayaking in the Pacific Northwest, golf in Western Canada...

After 19 days in France, I was happy to return to North Carolina. The airport, with it's ficus trees and big rocking chairs, is easy to navigate. The Fall leaves were still blazing orange, the roads are lined with pine trees, not strip malls and litter. I didn't miss New York, and when the cab pulled up in front of my new house, I knew I was HOME!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Merry Christmas!

"I'm freezing! It's 20 degrees colder than normal."

"I'm kinda glad she gave us these hats."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Mystery of Mistletoe

Does everyone but me already know where mistletoe comes from?

I was in France for 19 days from the end of October and I crisscrossed my way by train from Paris to Brittany, then to the Loire Valley and back to Paris. I was meeting up with friends for the last two legs, but I didn't feel comfy renting a car alone in a country where I know about 20 words. About 15 of those words are food-related. If I got pulled over, I'd probably blurt out, "Bon Appetit, Grande Fromage, I mean Gendarme!" So, I hopped the I did in 1983, with my backpack, camera, journal and some maps.

On the two trains from Paris to St. Malo, Brittany, I had 3 hours to think about how I could have let 27 years go by without returning to France, and how different this trip would feel. Aside from the Franc morphing into the Euro and the fact that I had credit cards and a global-enabled cell phone with e-mail access...there was Woody Allen in the seat back pocket, on the cover of TGV Magazine. I guess we're never really far from home, are we?

The countryside was whizzing by, and it was just gorgeous. Undulating sunlit fields glowing green with grapeseed. Small towns, neat limestone houses and endless pastures with cream-colored cows. Then, I kept seeing funny looking trees! They looked so cartoonish. That's why I love to travel...I keep seeing things I've never seen before in my "whole life" which is hopefully on this side of the halfway mark.

I was thinking, "what is in those trees?!" There are no koala bears in France. In New York City, garbage bags get tangled in tree branches, a cat might scramble up and flocks of birds hang out...but these trees looked like something Tim Burton would draw.

Turns out, it's mistletoe! A local man told me that it's a parasite, mostly found in fruit orchards, but can be found on thorny trees as well. It can kill branches and compromise a tree's health, but mostly, the tree is an unwitting host. Mistletoe is cultivated in Northern France (Bingo--that's where I was seeing it!) and sold at Christmastime. The sticky seeds attach to a bird's feathers and legs, and is also found in the guano (poop.) The seeds graft themselves onto branches, and the mistletoe starts to grow. Farmers also place the seeds, for multiple balls to grow. It can take 5 years for a ball to mature...and the product would not support a sole income. It's mainly a side business for orchard owners.

Photo courtesy of Veronika Johnston. Mistletoe at Tubingen Market, Germany.

Are you fascinated? When you buy a Kissing Ball or a sprig of mistletoe at the farmer's market or garden center, think of me. Oops, I meant, if the label says "Made in France" it might have come from one of these very trees. Isn't that cool?

Let the holidays begin!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

From House to Home

My first houseguest was my cousin Chris, who came to visit mid August. She was here a week after the movers came, and the house was still pretty stacked with boxes. A new sleeper sofa had just arrived, and I cleaned and stocked the guest bathroom--I wanted her to be as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances. Chris helped me pack in NY, so I didn't want us to have a full-on 'work weekend.' Aside from hanging some big, heavy pieces, buying some rugs and putting together some furniture...we explored the city a bit and celebrated my birthday.

Scroll forward 7 weeks. After Charlotte, Cousin Chris logged trips to Spain, Mexico and points in the Northeast. Being Type A must run in the family.

Over those 7 weeks, I was pretty tied to the house, but I did dip down to Savannah for a fast weekend. I'm happy to report I'm 99% done with wrangling the house--plumbing, electric, paint, wallpaper, carpet, media all plugged in, pix hung, furniture all in place. The office is pretty organized and so is the garage. I have just a handful of boxes left, and to put stuff away in the master closet. I've been working steadily and this house really feels like my home!

My sister Leslie came to visit from NY with our friend Dianne this past weekend. I was ready for houseguests, excited to share my home and to have them see where I live! They totally "get" why I'm here--they loved it! Front porches, pretty roads, meeting my nice neighbors, Greenway walks, shopping, lunch, dinner, brunch. They arrived on the 11:30pm flight Friday night, so we had to pack a lot into 1.5 days.

We were home from the airport at 12:30am, and we'd all been up since early Friday morning. Before everyone crashed into sleep...we had a yummy snack. Dianne brought me an unusual hostess gift, that thankfully did not interest the TSA at LaGuardia Airport. A homemade carrot bread baked into a coffee can! I did not go all paparazzi at that late hour, so these pix are from the next morning...after we'd already eaten half.

The bread puffed up over the top of the can.

The rings are built-in slicing guides!

Moist and dee-lish. Thanks, Dianne! This was the perfect start to a wonderful weekend.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Office Closet Storage

I turned a bedroom into my home office and the closet is a great size. 7ft wide, 2 ft deep and 9 ft high. There was one covered-wire shelf running the length...and that left way too much room for stacking boxes badly. I'd never find anything. I don't want to root through teetering boxes or take a year to get my office organized.

I measured, then it was off to Home Depot for some storage ideas. I got 4 Closet Maid stackable units with 7 shelves each for the left side, and also saw some neat cubes by Martha Stewart for the middle. I mixed the colors because neither manufacturer had the other style in the same color. Caramel and espresso go together in the food world, so why not my closet? I also picked up peg board for the right side of the closet. It comes precut 48" x 24". White on one side, brown on the other, so you can decide which color you want to face out. Remember to buy plastic spacers and need the spacers so the pegboard is NOT flush to the wall. You need airspace behind the pegboard to put the hangers in! Hangers and hooks come in many styles--great for holding a few hand tools, craft brushes, spools of ribbon, rolls of tape, etc...

You can attach pegboard to the inside of the door as well, for extra, extra storage. You may need to cut to fit.

Tools you'll need:

Tape measure
Phillips Head screw driver
Drill (only use it for the wall bracket, the rest of the screws are tightened by hand!)

They don't list it, but a hammer is helpful to tap in the screw covers and the "cams" that connect the sides to the shelves!

And don't forget our friend, the level! We strive for the bubble to be centered. Ahh!

Martha thinks of everything. There are coordinating fabric drawers for the cubes---in solids, stripes and polka dots. They're sharp looking and keep the shelves from getting messy.

As far as time...the box says, "Assembles in minutes." Well, that's true, but remember that hours are made up of minutes! Between measuring, laying out the pieces, assembling, screwing in the wall brackets...each unit took about 30 minutes. That's 3 hours total for the pieces that I chose. Things move faster once you get the first one done, or if you are smarter than I am.

The bag of assorted expletives is sold separately.

This is 2 units, stacked. I modified the design in the top unit a tad, by leaving the bottom row open for baskets, rather than having 18 cubby holes.

$300.00. 3 hours, give or take. A place for every thing and every thing in it's place.