Foxglove and “Oreos” on the Camino

“The Road has no beginning, and the Road has no end. The towns they run together and they run apart again. Right now is the only moment, and Time is the time to go and make yourself a pilgrim on the Road to Santiago. ¡Buen Camiño!”

David M. Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago

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starburst scallop shell marks “the way”

For more than 1000 years, the Camino de Santiago [the Way of St. James] has been a pilgrimage route from the foothills of the Pyrennes, in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the Iberian Peninsula. In ancient times it was undertaken for spiritual cleansing or “losing time in Hell”.

Why is this pilgrimage so historically significant? Here’s the story:

James was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and the 4th disciple recruited by Jesus. He was assigned to the Iberian Peninsula to spread “the word of God”. He made it as far as Galicia in northwestern Spain. Upon returning to the Holy Land he was tortured. Adding insult to injury, he was beheaded. Became a martyr. His body was secreted out of Jerusalem on a boat. Across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Iberian coast, back to the shores of Galicia. His tomb became enshrined in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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looking towards santiago de compostela

So began the third most important Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, after Rome and Jerusalem. During the Renaissance and years of religious reformation [16th century] the Camino’s importance waned. It fell even more out of favor during the Age of Enlightenment [18th century]. Yet pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela never stopped completely. Nowadays, the Camino is rocking in popularity. 262,459 certificates [Compostelas] were awarded  in 2015. Pilgrims traveled by foot, bicycle, or horseback. Some in wheelchairs.

In ancient times as well as today, travellers typically carry their provisions in a backpack, camp out, or sleep in hostels, retreating from normal life for days, weeks, or months. Usually their journey ends at the cathedral in Santiago.

There is also another “way” to experience the Camino. In May 2014, I was part of a group of  women who started where most people end–in the courtyard of the cathedral. We walked to the actual “ends of the earth” [Finisterre] on the Atlantic Ocean. We carried only a daypack with water and rain gear. Our worldly goods were transported to the next charming “casa rurales” [bed and breakfast] along the route. After hiking, we enjoyed a hot bath or shower, delicious Galician cuisine and wine, followed by restful sleep–in a bed.

The Camiño de Fisterra-Muxía is the road less travelled these days, particularly in the off-season. On the fourth day we arrived at the lighthouse on Cape Finisterre overlooking the ocean. On the fifth day we walked up the coastline to Muxía where we received the Compostellana [Certificate of Accomplishment]. Meaning–we walked at least 100 km. [It was 117.]

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route from santiago to muxía

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compostela record

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stamps acquired along the way

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lighthouse at the cape

Our group came together through the joint venture of two American women, Sally and Sienna, who met in Spain while Sally was producing a documentary entitled, “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”. [www.caminodocumentary.org] In 2013 they began organizing small group trips with their company “Stars on the Camino”. [www.starsonthecamino.com]

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sally on the trail

The topography of Galicia is extremely hilly. It is also very rainy which keeps the landscape lush and green. And, in May, there were fields upon fields of pink foxglove. So much future heart medication growing wild.

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Digitalis purpurea, common foxglove

“Oreos” were spoken of frequently. I found out they were tiny barns of granite or shale stone built on mushroom like pedestals. Functioning as storage granaries in rural areas, they are mounted off the ground to deter rodents. Later, when I learned the Galician word was actually “hórreos”, I understood what they had in common with the name of a cookie. Absolutely nothing. But “oreos” is what I remember.

Forewarned about the hilly terrain, I brought hiking sticks, which gave me a long rhythmic stride. So I was often by myself, up ahead, looking for trail markers [the yellow scallop shell or the painted yellow line] and discovering new terrain. After the first day, I realized that hiking alone was going to be my experience on the Camino.

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yellow marks the way across water too

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romanesque bridge and aqueduct

Everyone goes on a journey for some reason. It’s often initiated during a moment of transition, a need to “walk through” personal issues, let go of the old, let in the new, or to simply break up routines. It might bubble up as a search for healing or forgiveness or a time to give thanks or to mark a special occasion. Perhaps the motivation is to meet new people, hear their stories, see new places, rediscover something forgotten or discover something new. Journeys can be the means for seeking creative inspiration, exercise, harmony with nature, penance, meditation, or delving into the spiritual.

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My own journeys are usually discovery seeking ones. They widen my perspective, feed curiosity, and replenish me with adventure. Those quiet hours in the hills, forests, villages, foxglove fields and countryside of Galicia brought real contentment. I was part of the changes in weather–the down pouring rain, looming storm clouds and sometimes present sun. I was entwined in the topography–the out of breath up-hills, the knee jarring down-hills and the blessed stretches of flat terrain in between. I was lost in thought about the history and natural beauty of this part of the world. It was impossible not to feel connected to and wonder about others who had walked the same trail, taken the same pilgrimage, through millenniums.

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Day 3, last 5k of steep downhill, long negotiation of massive boulders ahead

Evening meals were social bonding time. We were treated to delicious regional cuisine including famous Galician wines. Arroz con calamares [rice with squid], zamburiñas [scallops in shells], and, once, a giant fried prehistoric style fish, which looked ominous but melted in the mouth.

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dining ambience

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happy pilgrims

A uniquely Galician tradition, the queimada ceremony, was performed just for us. Queimada is made from a special Spanish liqueur distilled from grapes, flavored with spices, herbs, sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. The ingredients are put together into a clay pot, set on fire and allowed to burn slowly. The whole concoction is stirred frequently by lifting a ladle of flaming liquid and pouring it back into the pot. When the flame burns blue, it is ready to serve in ceramic cups.

There is a recitation chanted as the queimada burns–to purify the drink and to share it with the souls of family and friends not present to enjoy it. Special powers are conferred on the queimada and to those drinking it. We didn’t experience anything supernatural, but there was a lot of infectious laughter and animated conversation after a long hiking day. Sound sleep soon followed.

Upon reaching the cliff at the end of the world on Cape Finisterre, we saw blackened remains of burned clothes and shoes on the rocks. It’s a tradition for those who venture all the way. None of us were moved to do the same. We picked up a stone to throw into the sea at journey’s end–giving it the name of something to let go of.

The odd thing was, I couldn’t bring myself to throw my stone away. I kept touching it in my pocket and wondering about the hesitation. My friend Margaret suggested that I wasn’t ready to let go. There was a reason I needed to save that energy for something else. She was perceptive. And right. Three weeks later, in June 2014, this blog was born. I discovered white markings on the stone that looked like a face. I still have it.

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everybody needs a rock

Typically, all pilgrimages have a fixed end point. But they begin wherever you start.

“The going is more memorable than the getting there.”

When you are ready,

Put on your boots

And go…

 

 

[Stars on the Camino offers a new route called the Camino Portugues. It begins in Portugal and ends at Santiago’s Cathedral. I am hiking there in May 2016.]

Some of the photos in this story are courtesy of Nina Cooper or Teresa Goodwin.

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galician coastline, iberian peninsula, spain

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margaret, laurel, nina, sally, carole

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nina, sally, carole, wendy, teresa, laurel

Bags of Laughter

When laughter helps without doing harm, when laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is laughter that causes health. When laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love…lifts sadness and severs anger…when they are made bigger, made better, more generous, more sensitive, that is sacred [laughter].

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES

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Sometimes I laugh so hard the tears run down my legs. Unknown author

It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down to your hips. Unknown author

Laughter is part of the universal human language. Everyone speaks laughter. Laughter exercises the diaphragm, the abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. It’s a workout! Laughter is yogic. Nothing works faster to bring the body and mind back in balance than a good laugh.

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Laughter is cathartic. The good feeling from a big laugh remains, lifting your mood for hours afterwards.

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I was recently weakened by a bout of tear inducing, out loud laughter.  It took over my  whole day. Bursts of laughter broke free for hours afterwards. It made me feel great.

The source was a story written by Alec, a friend with a gift for spinning a comedic phrase.  This time it was a personal to my experience of having lived in Germany as well as having made a rather specific request.

Alec knows there are things I miss from Germany, so he always offers to bring “a list” when he and his wife drive to Paris. This time I tacked on “one more thing” and felt that a detailed description was needed:

…Oh, there is one more thing you could bring. It’s very lightweight and packable, but you have to go to the Oberursel Altstadt to find it. On the main street is the One Euro Store. Not everything there is one euro, but it’s a cheap junk store you should know about anyway.

Inside, they have these little cloth shopping bags that come wrapped in a little cloth carrying case. The nameReisenthel is on the side label. They cost more than one euro, about 4.95 each. They are brilliant. I use them daily or give them away to family and friends, doing my “green best.

I only like solid benign colors. Black, blue, green, brown. No patterns or foofy florals.  6-10 bags if you find them…

I received the following email from him the day before they were to arrive:

On A Mission for Wendy

I loitered outside the dollar store in the winter cold, waiting until the store emptied before I approached the owner.

Uncertain of his level of English, I said with some hesitation, “Guten Tag. I am shopping for a woman-friend who lived here six years ago. She asked me to pick up some packable lightweight shopping bags she used to buy in your store.”

He remained silent so I continued, “They’re made by Reisenthel. She gives them away to be environmentally friendly. Do you still carry them?”

He stared at me and I wasn’t sure if he was mentally translating what I said from English to German or was wondering if I was crazy enough to think a dollar store carried the same merchandise over such a long period of time.

He gestured to a box that had packable shopping bags in a floral pattern. Apologetically I said, “Um, she doesn’t really want a floral pattern.”

Again, the stare as he said, “She wants to be environmentally friendly but doesn’t like flowers?”

He had a point, but I stood my ground. “I think she wants to be fashionably friendly to the environment.”

This time his stare lasted even longer. He scratched his head. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking about whether he had other bags in the store or if he was beginning to understand why a person like Donald Trump could be elected if Americans were all like me.

He opened a cabinet and handed me a slightly larger shopping bag-inside-a-bag, this time in basic black. The tag indicated it was manufactured by “Schneider”.

Now it was my turn to hesitate. Finally I got up the nerve to say, “Um, this is a Schneider bag, but my friend really wants a Reisenthel bag.”

I felt completely stupid. I said “Reisenthel” like it was some kind of designer brand from Bloomingdales or Saks, but the shelves lined with cheap bric-a-brac reminded me I was far from Fifth Avenue.

By the look on his face, I feared he was going to hit me with one of the dozens of snow globes within easy reach. Instead he just blinked. It was one of those blinks where the eyelids remain closed long enough that I could have slipped out of the store. Maybe he was offering me an out, but I stayed. I was on a mission for Wendy.

Finally, he opened his eyes and said, in an accent grown heavier with each exchange, “And what, may I ask, is so special about a Reisenthel bag?”

Luckily for me I came prepared with an email from my friend. I pulled it out of my pocket and quickly read aloud what she wrote. “Um, well, she says here that, ‘They are brilliant.’

He squinted at me, considering my words. Then he repeated very slowly, as if offering me a chance to take one of the small green pills prescribed by my psychiatrist, “These bags. They are brilliant?”

Rather than hold his stare, I looked back at my friend’s email and blurted out the first words that caught my eyes. “She says here they should be benign”. Then, realizing how incredibly stupid that sounded, I tried to make a joke with a forced chuckle, “But I assume all of your bags are benign, right?”

For the first time he looked at me with something other than pity or spite and said with clear relief, “So you want nine bags?”

I looked down at my shoes. It took only a moment to realize my joke had been misunderstood. I looked up and then again at my friend’s email with the very explicit directions of what she wanted.

Drawing upon an inner strength, built from more than 20 years of living overseas, battle-tested by language and cultural barriers from Asia to Europe. I looked him straight in the eye, and said…

“No. I’ll take ten…Danke.”

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It doesn’t happen nearly often enough–this kind of mirthful laughter that tickles to my core, and ripples throughout the day. I laughed until I cried. Then I laughed all over again–thanks to my friend.

 

 

…and a great family laugh too…

 

Antics by Alec also featured here: https://atasteofmind.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/taiwan-green-marble-pesto/

 

Living Both Sides of the French Coin


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At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nonsense, when you simply can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences come and go, wherever you live in the world. When this happens, it’s good to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again.

I had just returned to Paris from two months in the U.S. First order of business was to exchange my old French SIM card for one to fit a new smart phone purchased over the holidays. It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk to our neighborhood telecom store where we have been customers for six years.

Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air was minor compared to the long queue of people waiting for service. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in by staring at mute TV monitors rolling repetitious ads. A sign on the wall reminded everyone to behave courteously, at all times. Potential customers entered, assessed the non-moving line, and spun back out. A few lined up behind me. Ninety minutes later, it was finally my turn.

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I explained that I simply needed a replacement SIM card to fit my new cell phone. Account numbers were given. Alors, mais non! The account was not in my name. No transaction was possible without the account holder’s identity card. The “account holder”, my husband, was at work outside the city with his passport and carte sejour [residence card] in a briefcase.

I pleaded [courteously], in poorly phrased French, about how long and patiently I had waited, what an easy transaction it was. Surely the man could see our long-standing account on the computer. He agreed that it would only take 30 seconds to give me a new card. However, I must have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. And no further negotiation.

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Outside in cooler air, fuming over the silliness of French “rules”, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED”, until 3:00PM. Now annoyed and hungry, I decided to wait it out in an upscale brasserie around the corner. Although well known by everyone living in the area, I had never been inside. Unknowingly, upon entering the door, my reset button began to tick.

A man in a red tie and black suit greeted and then ushered me to a small table facing the door. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and round-bowled bistro stemware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.

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The menu covered a range of fresh seafood platters–oysters, lobster, shrimp, and crab–served on ice with lemon halves, brown bread and butter, or starters of salads and terrines, main courses of viandes or poissons [meat or fish], desserts of profiteroles au chocolat chaud, crème caramel, glaces and sorbets. Très French indeed.

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I chose two starters as a meal. OEufs durs mayonnaise is one of my favorites. Hard-boiled eggs with fresh, homemade mayo, garnished with greens. Followed by a salad of frisée, croutons, and bacon. A silver basket of sliced artisanal baguette was placed on the table almost immediately, along with a tall pepper grinder, a carafe of water and a glass of wine.

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It’s wonderfully easy in France to dine alone, any time of day or night. It’s also very comfortable. As a single diner you are rather ghost-like, invisible to others dining and talking with companions. I sipped red wine, relaxed into the back of the cushioned leather chair, and contentedly looked around. A layer of frustration began to melt away.

At the entrance, there was a long brass bar framed in wood. While the bartender busily prepared coffee or drinks, his eyes took in everything else going on in the room. Interior lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades The floor was terrazzo, in beiges, browns and blacks, with flower accents in tiny mosaic tiles. There was a tall black urn with long stemmed red roses on a windowsill next to the bar. Thick curtains on brass rods and rings trimmed the lower third of windows along the sidewalk. Natural light streamed in above, allowing views of passers-by. Walls of burnished wood were decorated with framed, cartoonish café scenes.

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uderfoot ambience

Servers wore traditional long black aprons over white shirts and black ties. They moved in fluid choreography; carrying food from the kitchen, unobtrusively refilling carafes of water, breadbaskets, or wine glasses at tables with standing silver buckets and cloth draped bottles.

A woman swirled in wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man next to me was obviously a regular. His meal appeared without ordering, including an espresso at the end. He donned a fedora, slipped a newspaper under his arm, and departed with a handshake to the man at the door.

My food was served in two leisurely courses. I never felt hurried. Another layer of annoyance fell away.

By 2:45PM, the atmosphere changed. Diners drifted away and the bartender’s pace visibly slowed as he cleaned, polished and put away wine glasses. Servers casually cleared and reset tables, chatting back and forth to each other. A table of four lingered over a bottle of unfinished wine and what appeared to be an intense discussion.

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typical finale

I had long since finished eating, but remained sitting there rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the tallied score had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, I had readjusted my attitude by simply doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch in a traditional café, blending in with culture and ambience that I both appreciate and love. La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça.

Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie––I won.

OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]

  • 2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups olive oil
  • dash of H2O
  • drop of red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 hard-boiled eggs per person
  • Mâche [lamb’s lettuce] or greens for salad/garnish, cayenne pepper, optional

Preparation:

Whisk egg yolks together with salt and mustard until creamy and light in color. SLOWLY begin to add olive oil–a few drops at a time to start, whisking vigorously all the time as you go. It should become thicker as the oil is mixed in, but not liquidy. Add all the oil until it is finished. If it seems too stiff, add a dash of H2O and continue whisking. Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and salt to taste.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Cut hard-boiled eggs in half. Top with fresh mayo. Garnish with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and greens as desired.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe

A year ago I wrote a story about my favourite Colorado hometown cafe. It was called “A Mountain Gem for 70 Years”. The owner, Rocky St. John, passed away right before Christmas. In tribute to her, I have revised my words with a few new photos. Over breakfast this morning, I spoke with her sons, Ben and Joe, who, along with their father, are keeping the cafe open in her memory. She trained them well.

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Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it’s easy to simply bypass this tiny town. But if you turn right onto the business spur, it’s probably because you know about Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe.

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On a hillside halfway through town is a small green building with purple trim. Colorful buttons are mixed into the cement between the slate stone steps climbing to the front porch. The main room has knotty pine walls and an antique potbelly stove, radiating warmth. Shelves are lined with an eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. Local artwork is for sale on the wall. Behind this quaint façade is a long history of food, friendly service, and loyal customer relationships.

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It began in 1946 with a local character named Lil Lavicka. Known as the “Pie Lady”, Lil was famous for her homemade baked goods. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a two-room cafe across from her tiny home. Lil’s Pie House flourished for twenty summer seasons.

Then, after several changes of ownership, Meadow Mountain Cafe was born. Breakfast and lunch became the daily fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order. Coffee was hot–with a touch of cinnamon. Consistently good food, friendly service, and reasonable pricing enhanced its’ reputation beyond the boundaries of the small community. Locals and tourists lined up for a table inside or on the covered porch, complete with hummingbirds, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil Lavicka’s seasonal pie house evolved into a legendary year-round cafe with returning customers, who became friends.

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Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t long before her cooking finesse and creativity nudged her into the kitchen full time. Rocky worked the grill for several female owners until finally, in 2007, she took over solo ownership. Already an established part of the ongoing success of Meadow Mountain, it was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky introduced two new house specialties–the veggie burger and the green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Cinnamon spiked coffee is still standard, of course. She chose the outside paint colors and easy-on-the-eye peach walls for the kitchen. The button-inlaid steps were designed and built for safer access in all weather conditions. An herb garden was planted out in back. Inside, the eclectic collection of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers [always part of her style] continued to grow. Her kitchen blasting music-of-choice ran along the lines of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

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We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food. You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back near the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen to say hello. At a corner table, friends sit and play cards after their meal. A man at the counter leans his chin into one hand and dozes, holding a coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread, thickly sliced for toast or sandwiches, is baked twice daily in summer to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of customers stepping through the door to the din of country or rock-n-roll music pouring out of the kitchen. Conversation and laughter is spiced with the clatter of plates and silverware as tables empty and fill.

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beaded tapestry made by a friend of Rocky’s

What sustains this kind of success in a town of just over 500 people? Rocky, along with the women before her, crafted a timeless formula. It begins with an old-fashioned hard work ethic. It’s maintained by keeping quality high, service friendly, and community relationships strong. Rocky was passionate about what she did and consistently did it very well. And then, just maybe, that hint of cinnamon in the coffee didn’t hurt either.

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Rocky St. John, 1960-2015

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new step up to the cafe

 

Looking Back To the Present

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christmas carousel, strasbourg, france

Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.

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Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.

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Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.

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IMG_4551The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!

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The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully bedecked in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.

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100 feet of mountain evergreen

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Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].

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chestnuts roasting

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gingerbread smiling

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baubles posing

While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They are not all alike!

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hot wine comes in red, white, or nonalcoholic juice, pretzels on the side

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gutenberg square

Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.

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the best vin chaud in strasbourg is here 

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la petite france by day

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fairytale lights at night, times one

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fairy tale lights at night, times two

 

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street of baccarat crystal chandeliers

 

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a closer look inside

This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.

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IMG_1491We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.

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Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle [and young lives] in a proud democratic republic.

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memorial dans la Place Kléber

We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.

 

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the french flag unfurled

 

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the tri color decorates

Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.

The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris, and France.

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After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”

I am struck by this [often] difficult truth after disaster strikes. But of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…

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The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to  build a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.

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Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.

[All photos courtesy of MEU, my in-house photographer extraordinaire.]

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Simply Sally

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“A little glass of wine is a great buffer.”–––Sally Boyle

My recurring problem, throughout adult life, has been figuring out what to cook for dinner. This seems rather silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I can decide within seconds what will feed my hunger. My husband invariably asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.

Coming up with a plan for cooking at home has always put me in a quandary. Over the years I have relied upon friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. The ones I count on know exactly what they are making at the very moment when I am asking them! I’ve come to believe this kind of decision-making is inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking continues to be a troublesome hurdle.

During our years overseas I have had many mentoring friends who taught me how to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that, over time, no longer required a recipe. Mujuddarah [Lebanese lentils and rice], Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine to name a few.

By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when, thankfully, I met my friend Sally.

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Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.

She is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. Sally always has a plan.

Her picnics in our Parisian neighborhood park were particularly memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on the lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, tiny thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty bites of brownies. Flutes of champagne or a perfect glass of wine served as accompaniment. Even flowers in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many a splendid summer evening, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.

our park, paris 75016

One day as I was floundering around for an idea, I asked Sally what was for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder. That is if you don’t swallow it.

“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.” Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.”

We agreed to meet the following week in my sunny kitchen for an afternoon of cooking camaraderie.

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world’s best kitchen

That same evening, in celebration of the retirement of our apartment building’s caretakers, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard. All other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.

Back in the kitchen, there happened to be a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it. Then got busy. It couldn’t have been easier. Especially with the “wine buffer”.

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Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.

It became simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.

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fold crust over for half-moon galette

For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For veggie style, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.

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ready to bake

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the lovely result

Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king! Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.

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one crust, open faced

Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then quickly moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.

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my dinner party galette

Surprised to receive such notice in a foodie crowd, I laughingly shrugged, “Oh, it was so simple…”

Simple, that is, if you have a friend like Sally…

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sally and rick, courtesy of rick engelmann

“Tasting the Stars”

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“There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne.” –Jared M. Brown

“I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad.”–Lily Bollinger

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”–Mark Twain

In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.

Then, in the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards, formerly a financial mainstay for monasteries.

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Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing champagne”. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, “Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars!” But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.

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All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered to be a flaw of nature. And fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.

What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.

His real genius–the most important thing he did–was to blend and marry different grapes. The harmony he created, between balance and taste, was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region. A completely NEW concept. Myths arose because he was so extraordinary, but the truth was he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an intelligent innovator and adaptor with keen gifts of observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs wrapped in oil soaked hemp. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.

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pinot grapes

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chardonnay grapes

Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. While partying, Kings and courtiers drank the local wine, deciding the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.

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chagall stained glass windows, reims cathedral

However, production remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of carbonic gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few were maimed, or killed.

Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.

Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks, and significantly, the process of “remuage” [disgorging sediment] further propelled Champagne’s future.

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spring unfolds april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. Widow Clicquot [Veuve Clicquot] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table, then inserted the bottles upside down by, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually towards the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked and ready to ship–a clearly sparkling outcome. Their secret soon leaked. An industry took off.

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champagne countryside, fall 2015

During WWI, two extremely bloody battles were fought along the River Marne. Trenches cut knifelike paths through the vineyards. Villages in Champagne were bombed, burned and pillaged along the front line, but hardy Champenois women, old men, and children managed to tend vines not demolished.

In WWII, most of the wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demands for shipments to send home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in a simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”

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undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

 Post-war, the vineyards were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrical orderly rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and microclimate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagnes are now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.

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blanc de blancs

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blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later rather than earlier in my life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years in Asia we drank Champagne once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. It was nice, but we didn’t buy it to drink at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to outright delight.

Soon after moving to Paris, we saw that Champagne was basically the only beverage offered as an aperitif on any occasion, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, coexisting capitals of the Champagne region, to sample and learn more. Gradually, we found the tastes and the amount of effervescence we most enjoy.

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current lineup of favourites

Some people consume Champagne only for special party occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. Now we happily live outside of that box. When home in France, Champagne is the white-wine-of-choice any day of the week, month or year.

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Buying good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions have led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Deliciously drinkable bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 per bottle.

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color change fall 2015

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Pairing Champagne with food sometimes surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are obvious clichés. Perhaps counter-intuitively, pizza is a perfect match to the sparkles of Champagne. Homemade pizza night begins by uncorking something to sip in the kitchen while we cook. Glasses refilled table side when we eat.

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classic pairing

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surprising pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other geographies–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California Champagne are runners-up. They aren’t bad, even acceptable tasting to many people. But it’s simply not the same. If you are fortunate enough to buy or be served a bottle of Champagne, raise your first glass to thank Dom Pérignon. Then sit back, relax, and simply enjoy “tasting the stars”.

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“In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening.”––Willie Gluckstern.

I second that notion.

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne.”––Bette Davis.

I’m not sure when that time is, but I’m probably there.

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne.”––John Keynes.

I’m not planning to have that regret.

For an award-winning documentary entitled “A Year in Champagne”, click on this website for a preview or download on ITunes: http://www.ayearinchampagne.com

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fall in champagne, 2015