When It All Comes Crashing Down

Hibernating gets old. Just ask any grumpy she-bear who’s been holed up in a cave all winter in a state of suspended animation…

Does this sound familiar?

Of course Bali doesn’t have cold weather…or bears. But it has more than its share of expats who are feeling the effects of confinement. For the past few days I’ve barely stuck my nose out of the house. I meant to, but it was easier not to.

This morning, for some inexplicable reason, I woke up at 5:30 supercharged. The sky was brightening but the sun wouldn’t rise for another half hour. I made my bed, certain this was a fluke and the jolt of energy was just that, a jolt, and would quickly pass.

It remained.

The voice I’ve come to recognize as my stern grandmother (if you’ve never had a Norwegian grandmother you’ll have no idea what I mean) pulled me up short. Skam på du! she said. I think that’s the only Norsk phrase I ever learned. Shame on you!

She washed my hair once. I was about 4. My scalp was raw from her vigorous suds-ing. When she dumped buckets of water over my head to rinse out the soap, I came up spluttering and choking. That’s my most vivid memory of her.

I threw on yesterday’s clothes, masked up, and bolted out the door.

At 6 a.m. the air was cool and sweet. A brisk pace took me to Ubud Palace. Across the street the traditional market was already bustling. I don’t blend into the crowd very well, so I didn’t stop and shoot a photo straight into the market area where bodies moved shoulder to shoulder in a dense sea of commerce. Had I done so, my actions may have been misinterpreted, or at the very least, unwelcome. I don’t want to be the Ugly American.

But a few paces farther along, I captured the motorbikes lined up in front.

I stuffed my phone back in my bag and continued past the glistening Arjuna statue that marks Jalan Raya’s east end. For probably the 2,578th time in my nine years in Bali, I stopped, backed up, fished my phone out again, got the perfect angle, and took the photo. I’m still awes-struck at the elegance, the intricate detail, and the sheer size of these artistic works depicting scenes from the epic Hindu texts, the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Still brimming with energy and smiling under my mask, I continued to Delta Dewata, one of two major grocery stores in Ubud.

I assumed it would be open. There was a patch of shade on the flight of steps leading up to…locked doors. I sat on the stairs and checked the time. 6:35 a.m. Their website said they were open every day, 8 – 10.

It wasn’t that I’d intended to shop. But I’d have browsed and found something I didn’t know I needed before resuming my jaunt.

I sat there, plotting my next move only semi-aware of the person working in the shrubs beside me. When a cracking sound caught my attention, I looked up – just in time.

WHACK! A huge penjor crashed onto the pavement, almost taking my nose with it.

I jumped. Probably squeaked a bit.

Then the ah-ha moment. Today is the day for removing these elegant, graceful tokens that are erected every six months during the celebration of Galungan-Kuningan. They invite the spirits of the ancestors back to their family homes to be remembered and honored. It suddenly made sense: That’s why the offerings I’d been seeing were more extravagant than usual.

Now I had a mission. I continued my meandering journey photographing the bountiful offerings and the women making their way to the temple.

Throughout the day, thousands of penjors will be removed. Their splendor has faded. The once-brilliant fabrics adorning them are now washed-out pastels. The spirits of the ancestors left weeks ago.

The penjor crashing down in front of me woke me up. It’s as though Grandma Rakel was scolding again. “Pay attention!” she said. “Don’t walk through your life asleep. Be present for the small things – they are your reality. They are right now.”

Wise and terrifying Norwegian Grandmother Rakel, thank you.

Desperate To Feel Normal – What’s Your Name?

Sweet Orange is a special place hidden deep in the rice fields. Its Vietnamese coffee, ayam sambal matah, and black rice pudding with coconut gelato is a meal fit for the goddess. I fall short of that label but I was hungry and desperate to feel normal.

“You want lunch?” I asked Ketut. He’s yet to turn down a meal.

“Ya.”

In the past I’d always walked the rice field trail to Sweet Orange.

This was the first time I’d ridden a motorbike there. It will also be the last. The narrow path between paddies was so broken and bumpy I thought for sure I’d end up head first in the muck with the ducks. The bike bucked and jerked. I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth so they wouldn’t shatter.

I should never doubt Ketut’s mastery of his machine. He got us there safely, all body parts intact.

We found a place to sit – it wasn’t difficult – a mother with twin toddlers were the only other diners. We ordered. Then, as if conjured, the twins appeared next to us. “What’s your name?” one asked.

“I’m Sherry. What’s your name?” By now their mother was standing behind them. They were blond, blue-eyed sweethearts and reminded me of my twin grandsons far away in Minnesota.

“Avianpuppychocolatepigbirdcatpillowyellowicecreamstars…”

You lost me at chocolate,” I said.

His mother laughed. “This is Alexander. But he likes to be called Avian, and when asked his name he lists all his favorite things.”

They were almost three years old, bright, precocious, and verbal. When their dad came to pick them up they shouted their goodbyes and ran to him.

I’ve missed that about Bali. When I first arrived I met someone new every day. There weren’t as many visitors back then, and the ones who came were friendlier. With the pandemic there are so few foreigners we’re all a bit starved for each other. Once again conversations spark spontaneously and new friendships are birthed.

Our Vietnamese coffee arrived.

I’d bragged about it to Ketut, “Like Nescafe but better,” I told him.

He took a sip. “More like Luwak,” he said.

“What? No way!” For the uninitiated, kopi Luwak is fondly known as ‘poop’ coffee since the beans are eaten by civets and pooped out undigested. They’re collected, cleaned, roasted, and become the outrageously over-priced Luwak coffee.

Ketut just chuckled.

I turned my attention to the flowers blooming beside us. They looked like impatiens, super-sized.

Bali’s tropical climate does that to plants. What was a potted poinsettia on the table at Christmas in Minnesota, in Bali becomes a tree.

By now I was starving and quickly lost interest in the flora.

Because patrons are as rare as feathers on fleas these days, there was only one person working. My stomach let out a growl loud enough to be embarrassing just as he set heaping plates in front of us.

Sweet Orange makes ayam sambal matah like no one else. You can too, and here’s how. Put the following in a bowl:

  • Roast chicken breast sliced fairly thin
  • Sliced shallots
  • Sliced clove garlic
  • Sliced lemongrass
  • Birdseye chilies julienned

Squeeze fresh lime juice. Add a pinch of salt, a little olive oil, and shrimp paste to taste. Lightly toss the above ingredients with the dressing. Serve on salad greens beside a mound of red rice.

So easy even I could do it. But I’d rather go to Sweet Orange because I can’t make their Jegeg. Oh bliss! It’s chilled creamy black rice pudding topped with coconut gelato.

I ordered one and enjoyed the heck out of the first bite. But after polishing off my heaping plate of chicken, one bite was just right. Ketut happily finished the rest.

Soft Balinese music, tinkling wind chimes, and breezes sighing over rice paddies creates a serenity that makes leaving hard. I was nervous about climbing on the motorbike for the return trip. “Maybe I should walk. I’m a little afraid.”

Ketut turned to me with that smile that makes everything sunshine and rainbows.

“It’s shorter going back,” he said.

“And how is that possible?”

“I’ll show you. Climb on.”

I reluctantly obliged. I thought maybe he knew a different way. He’s famous for his back-road detours. We retraced the exact same route we’d come, yet it did seem shorter.

“Ok, Ketut. It was the same road but it felt like half the time. What happened?”

“Going home,” he said. “It’s always like that.”

Three stages of confinement – Three paths to meaning

I awaken lying on a cliff. If I move my arm a milimeter it will dangle over the edge of the chasm. As I move out of dreaming, the sensation morphs into a vast mindspace of emptiness. Engulfed in a sense of futility, the title of a book I’ve never read flashes behind my eyes: Man’s Search for Meaning.

Alarms sound in my brain: Dangerous territory! Do Not Enter! I mentally regroup. What day is this? Saturday. What’s on the calendar? Nothing. Nothing today, or tomorrow, or for the foreseeable future.

I haven’t yet opened my eyes.

I remind myself I’m a writer. I have an unfinished novel to address. I’ve neglected my blog posts. I’m behind in e-mails.

I have so much free time it feels like nothing is urgent. I can waste as much of it as I want. Never before has that been the case for me. It probably isn’t the case now but that’s my perception of these days of separation from friends and family. This ongoing confinement.

I open my eyes.

Gray light filters through the curtains. Stormy skies encircle a gap in the clouds where glowing pink-gold promises a sunrise. I snap a photo on my phone which has become the sixth digit on my right hand – my only connection to what once was my life.

Normally at this point I would kick into action: make my bed, get dressed in yoga clothes, make coffee. I skip steps one and two and go directly to coffee.

Minutes later, sitting in my journaling chair that first cup of steaming caffeine beside me, curiosity surfaces and I Google Man’s Search for Meaning. I click on Book Summary. In a few sentences the hair on my arms stirs then pops into gooseflesh. It’s happened again. The very moment I need it, the Universe delivers a gift.

As I’ve said, I’ve never read Man’s Search for Meaning. In fact, when I first saw that title it was during a period in my life when I had very little patience with men in general and no time at all for men in any kind of self-indulgent, solution-seeking mid-life crisis in particular. I’d just been replaced by a much younger version of myself when my then husband sought meaning for his life. Ouch.

I’ve learned to take notice of things that appear between dreaming and waking. That book wasn’t at all what I needed when I noticed the title at forty-something. But it turns out it’s precisely what I need now. Did I know that? No. So what brought so clearly to mind that specific book that I hadn’t thought of in thirty years? There’s something profound at work and although I’m not religious, I’ve lived in Bali long enough to know there’s a lot more to the unseen than meets the eye.

Imagine my surprise, and the pang of guilt that stung as I read the first few paragraphs summarizing the book. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, observed the effects of confinement on the human psyche then went on to found Logotherapy: healing through meaning, and write his book.

Frankl describes three stages of the human response to confinement:

  • Shock
  • Apathy
  • Depersonalization

I’m somewhere between apathy and depersonalization: a lack of interest and a sense that things around me aren’t real. His book charts a course through the craziness of what we are experiencing globally right now. It couldn’t be more pertinent. He suggests three paths to discovering meaning:

  • Through achievements and accomplishments, doing deeds, or creating works of value
  • Through experiencing positive things like love or the beauty of nature
  • Through suffering which can be a major human accomplishment if we can find meaning in it

This is a bare sniff of the banquet Frankl lays out. There was enough meat in that summary to fire up my natural optimism. I set two goals for today. First, I’ll post this experience to my blog. Then I’ll brave the empty streets of Ubud hoping to find a copy of the book.

. . . . .

As I journal these thoughts, the protests raging throughout the world in response to George Floyd’s brutal murder come to mind. People – immense numbers of people – have burst out of confinement to ‘suffer for the cause’ and ‘do deeds’ grabbing hold of meaning with both hands.

The battle against racism has been fought for decades but never won. Perhaps now, when men and women worldwide grapple to make sense of the craziness, conditions are perfect. We’ve been stripped of the things that ordered our lives. We’ve been told we can’t go back to the way it was. Many of us don’t want to. We’ve been shown no map for the road ahead. So what exists, which has never existed before to this magnitude, is a colossal, blindingly brilliant opportunity to reshape reality, society, governance, and create a system that values and sustains life, plant, animal, and human, no matter what color it is.

What are you doing to create meaning in these strange times?

Has the Universe offered up any sychronicinistic gifts while you’ve been confined?

Isolation Fosters Strange Cravings

‘Tis the season: birds mating, butterflies mating, rabbits, rats…

I don’t have a craving to mate. Pickings are slim in lockdown so that’s probably a good thing. Mating season has pretty much come and gone for me anyway. I made good use of it while it ran though – no regrets.

Mating aside, unusual habits have begun to surface in solitude. Every afternoon around two o-clock I want a cup of tea. Not just tea, a cookie, a biscuit, crackers, something bread-ish to go with the steaming cup. I don’t even really like tea – so what’s that about?

Today was no exception. At one-thirty I started imagining the afternoon repast and felt anxious. Nothing I had on hand ticked the right box. I remembered the cinnamon-sweet aroma of snickerdoodle cookies baking and my stomach rumbled. I thought about the cake-like pumpkin muffins at Bali Buda Market and salivated.

Photos at Buda Mart - 3 tips

Make something! demanded the inner voice.

Don’t be silly. I don’t have an oven. I don’t have ingredients. I don’t…

The blinking Google search window stared at me. I had flour. No baking power. No yeast. I had baking soda…two unopened containers of that. I typed in: baking soda cookies. Snickerdoodles came up but the recipe called for cream of tartar as well as soda. No cream of tartar. I tried again: baking soda biscuits. It defaulted to baking powder biscuits.

When I Googled no yeast skillet bread I hit pay dirt. Five Ingredient Olive Oil Bread. Well, okay. It called for baking powder, not baking soda, but the recipe promised only 15 minutes from mix to skillet to table and I was already ravenous.

I set to it and pretty soon had blobs of dough in the pan. After four minutes I flipped. Toasty golden. Nice! They weren’t rising but without baking powder I hardly expected them to. I just didn’t want doughy middles.

Four minutes on the other side and…

Would you look at that! Little biscuit patties…bready…warm…ooooo!

I set out butter and Australian Carmelized Fig Jam a friend had brought for me from a recent trip to AU. Goji Acai tea came from my favorite Italian destination, the Centro Market in Praiano. Then I plopped a patty of warm Olive Bread on the plate and felt really really happy.

They were edible. The centers were cooked. Butter and fig jam melting into the warm bread made my mouth sing.

I ate two of them and tucked the other two away for tomorrow’s attack of tea cravings.

Meanwhile…would somebody volunteer to make them with baking powder, please? It only takes fifteen minutes and I want to know what I’m missing…

Here’s the recipe.

5 INGREDIENT OLIVE OIL BREAD

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
  • 1/3 cup warm water

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine the flour, baking powder, and sea salt.
  2. Stir in the olive oil and water until mixed.
  3. Warm a large cast iron skillet or non-stick skillet over medium heat until heated.
  4. Sprinkle with olive oil and swirl around the pan to lightly coat.
  5. Shape the dough into 4 small patties.
  6. Drop into the heated skillet and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes on each side.
  7. Serve immediately.

Notice it said cook for 5 minutes on each side. Mine were done in 4 minutes each but I’m not able to regulate the heat with any accuracy so – another little adjustment.

If someone actually does this, please send a description of the texture and flavor and photos of your results. I’ll enjoy them vicariously, and if it’s worth it, the hunt will be on to find baking powder.

Strange cravings indeed…

Day 1 of the ‘New Normal’

Around eleven a.m. yesterday I heard the familiar laugh. Ketut came up the path lugging twice his weight in potatoes and squash. I slipped on my flipflops and hurried to help.

I’d photographed the grocery list the day before and WhatsApped it to him.


In five minutes I’d had his response.

“Ok.”

There’s a trait I’ve found that generally holds true. A man of action is a man of few words. Ketut’s no exception.

I knew he was familiar with most everything on the list, but the mei nasi vermicelli (which I spelled wrong) might have been a mystery so I added a photo.

A little later he sent this picture and told me he and his youngest, Komang, were stealing broccoli for me from his in-law’s garden.

As it turned out, it was both broccoli and cauliflower, perfectly formed bouquets.

After several trips back and forth to empty the minivan, I saw what my list looked like in real life. Food overflowed the bags on the table and the floor around it. We took inventory. There was one bunch of mystery leaves mixed in with the spinach.

“What’s this, Ketut? Not bayam.”

“Daun ketela. Like Padang food. Bayam in market finished.”

So the traditional market had sold out of spinach and Ketut had improvised. Good man.

I love Padang food, the cuisine of West Sumatra. I’d never cooked cassava leaves, but if that was the unique flavor in Sumatran veggie dishes, I was excited.

After Ketut demonstrated how to light the water heater and change the gas bottle…

after he asked for the umpteeth time if I was sure I wanted him to stay away for a month…

after he suggested he could come in the back way and work on making a new garden behind the house and I wouldn’t even know he was there…

I assured him again that a) he was due a good long paid vacation for all his years of faithful help, and b) if he even stopped for gas somewhere he might take the virus home to his village.

“Okay. But if any problem, you call me.”

I promised I would.

After separating the bounty with my downstairs neighbor, I Googled cassava leaf recipes. The easiest one had onion, tomato, and peanuts. I had those ingredients. Instructions said to chop everything, brown the onion, stir in tomatoes and leaves and cook for 30 minutes adding water when needed. Peanuts last.

While watching the water level on the simmering pot, I steamed broccoli, boiled eggs, and prepared dragon fruit for the freezer. It was four o’clock when all was completed and I realized I hadn’t had lunch. The experimental dish was tasty but daun ketela will probably never appear on my future grocery lists.

This morning I woke to Day One of the ‘New Normal.’ I’d been anticipating this, longing for the opportunity to fall into a routine, gain some modicum of control over my life. As I stared at the morning face in the mirror, I was transported back to my first full day in Italy. A storm raged, churning the ocean to white froth. Wind battered the shutters and rain pinged against the windows. I remembered thinking…thirty-two more days…

Of course the rain stopped and I had a fabulous time.

I found myself wishing I knew if this would be thirty-two days, or sixty, or a year. I suddenly missed my family, my grandchildren. I let sadness come, sobbing through yoga, tears dampening my meditation pillow. I hadn’t allowed grief. I’d been distracted by doing what needed to be done. And then, when there was nothing more to do, I’d spun out of the present and lost myself in an unknowable future.

Catherynne Valente said, Do not ruin today by mourning tomorrow.”

Like a cloud passing over the sun, sadness dissipated. The cathartic energy of sorrow left me feeling cleansed and strong once more. I moved back into the now with renewed resolve to stay there.

Do you notice when you’re spinning into the future? Perhaps you could tell yourself, “This is my body now. There is nothing to fear in this moment.”

Self-isolating in Bali

I live a charmed life. But I have to admit that last week in Italy was challenging. I wondered if my flight would be cancelled, or if I’d be denied entry into Indonesia – the country was closing its borders – or if I’d get too close to someone en-route who was already infected and…

None of the above happened. I arrived home to the humid, chewable air, the familiar scents, sounds, and sights, and went immediately into self-quarantine. It was easy to stay home, I was jet-lagged after all. I ate, slept, and read the news…and read the news…and read the news…

Fourteen days later when I ventured into the streets of Ubud it was hard to believe the world was in the grips of a raging pandemic. Tourists clustered in cafes. Locals sat in groups chatting. Drivers touted taxi services and practitioners offered massages to all who passed. Didn’t they know? Was nobody taking the threat of this rapidly spreading disease seriously?

I went home and didn’t emerge again.

Then the wild Ogoh-Ogoh parade that ushers in the Balinese new year was cancelled and the traditional Day of Silence that follows was increased to two days. March 25th and 26th people were not allowed out of their homes. Police and regional security guards patrolled the streets to ensure there were no trespassers.

Following those days of absolute lockdown, the governor of Bali instructed residents to remain at home as much as possible, study at home, work from home, and only go out for groceries or emergencies. Authorities explained social distancing, an utterly foreign idea in this communal culture, and urged compliance.

Immigration posted a notice there would be no more visas issued in Indonesia. Anyone wishing to travel here must procure documents from the Indonesian Consulate in their own country with an attached certificate of good health. In the space of three days, the complexion of the island did an about-face.

Today the entire world shares a common crisis. If ever there was a chance to unify, this is it. At the community level, people are pulling together to help, often at immense personal risk. I’ve had many messages from friends, Do you need anything? Are you managing okay?

As days go by with no end in sight I find ways to busy myself. Then I came across a quote by the Dalai Lama that made me think:

The way through sadness and grief that comes from great loss is to use it as motivation and to generate a deeper sense of purpose.

The deaths of so many are a great loss. The restriction of freedom to move about is a great loss. The disappearance of jobs, of savings, of the fragile security that tomorrow will be a mirror of today, are great losses to name a few. How do I use sadness and grief as motivation? What can I do while confined in my home to generate a deeper sense of purpose?

In Italy I managed to write a post almost every day while exploring the length and breadth (and height!) of Praiano. When I stopped there were people who told me they missed reading about my adventures over their morning coffee. That was even before we were confined to our houses. Perhaps my deeper purpose is to continue entertaining my readers, to offer a moment’s distraction to laugh, or to ponder a different perspective.

I’ve found it difficult to write. It seems there’s so much content pouring forth – something for everyone – what could I possibly add? The answer that came was so obvious I hadn’t seen it. You do what you’ve always done. Tell the stories, your experience of these unprecedented times, your self-discovery. That alone is unique. It doesn’t matter if nobody cares. You do it for you.

So I’ll do just that, with huge gratitude for the internet that still connects us.

Question to ponder:

Is it possible for you to use this time of sadness and grief as motivation to discover a deeper purpose for your life?

I’m in Italy — So is COVID-19 — Am I afraid?

Shall we ignore the elephant in the room?

I think not.

The coronavirus in Italy had a 25% surge in the past 24 hours. The Local it (Italy’s news in English) reports there are now 520 confirmed cases and the infestation has spread to the south with the area of Puglia reporting one and Sicily with three.

According to Sergio Matalucci out of Milan, eleven towns have been quarantined. Schools, universities, cinemas, clubs, and museums are closed. Events have been cancelled. Supermarket shelves stand empty as people panic-buy groceries, unsure of what’s ahead.

He goes on to write that grocery owners say they don’t lack stock in their warehouses. They just need to get it to the stores more quickly – a timing issue, not a supply issue. That’s good news.

It was slim pickings in my fridge. I climbed to Tutto per Tutti market this morning and found that even here in sleepy Praiano, in an area in the south of Italy as yet unaffected, shelves had empty spaces that hadn’t been there on prior visits.

Nicola, my host, told me people who had booked his rental properties for March have cancelled. He’s concerned for himself and his town. The economy of Praiano hinges extensively on tourism. Economic consequences are being experienced worldwide. Some types of businesses will profit. Many more will not.

So what’s actually happening? How much of the reporting can be trusted?

We’ve been bombarded for several years now by cries of ‘fake news’ from the very top of the power pyramid in the United States. Media giants have the ability to sway the thoughts and actions of the entire world population by choosing what to allow on their channels or what to suppress. I highly doubt, highly highly doubt if they even know if their sources are valid.

As I read article after article, these are the thoughts uppermost in my mind. Frankly, I don’t think we have any idea what’s really happening. We have limitless quantities of information at our fingertips. We can click ourselves down rabbit-holes and wind up light-years from where we began. But we have absolutely no way of knowing truth from lies.

Yet I’m addicted to that stream of information. Some part of me still trusts, or desperately wants to.

So I’ll keep reading the news. I’ll take precautions. According to the WHO more than 80 percent of patients infected with the virus have a mild reaction to the disease and recover. I’m here in Praiano until March 6th. Nobody can predict what will happen in the coming eight days but if planes are still flying, and I’m still healthy, I’ll leave Italy from Naples on that day and head back home to Bali.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful that the sun still rises. The sea is still blue. And this town of ancient stairways and kindness is mine to explore.

La Scaletta – A Personal Tour of My Praiano Hideaway

I made coffee.

Watched the sunrise…

…and took a lovely, leisurely day at home.

Speaking of which – would you like to see the inside of my Praiano life – where I get to be when I ‘stay home’?

One of the dear people who reads my articles commented early on how it was fun to see inside the house. In the Domestic Goddess post there were snippets of appliances and a drying rack set up in my bedroom. I can do better than that.

Welcome to La Scaletta – come along…

First of all, a disclaimer. The decor does not reflect my aesthetic. Felicia, whom I love, who gave me the cooking class and put me in a food coma, owns this home. It has her flavor everywhere which makes it even more special to me.

No need to take you up the 112 steps to the front door – we’ve been there done that. Nicola hauled my suitcase all the way up and unlocked the door when I first arrived, February 3, 2020. It seems like yesterday.

I feel like my house is high above the water, and it is. But it’s only about 1/10 of the way up the mountain. There are dozens and dozens of houses higher than this. The lovely home just above me has an orchard of lemon trees. I’m a bit enamored of the cliff-dwelling life!

I’ll begin the tour with the journaling corner I’ve set up in the master bedroom. I sit with the blanket over my legs, sipping coffee and jumping up every other minute to open the French doors and shoot the sunrise. I may be here for an hour, maybe two every morning depending upon what comes up as I write. Everything I need is here, the pens, the tablet, the woven hotpad for the coffee cup, earbuds in case a daughter calls…and the view.

Here’s the rest of the master bedroom.The handstitched quilt with tiny pink rosebuds? Purple roses on the sheets repeated in the pillow cases? It’s like a hug from grandma. I pull the covers up to my chin and sleep like a princess.

There’s a tiny second bedroom with twin beds, a chest of drawers, and a closet. It’s excess space. I leave the door closed.

The bathroom is efficient laid out with a toilet, bidet, sink, and shower. I don’t understand the bidet. Someone please explain that useless piece of porcelain. I’ve purposely left it out of the photos. It’s beside the commode.

Master bedroom, spare bedroom, and bath are off this gracefully arched hallway. All the doors are solid wood.

The open plan living room, kitchen, and dining area utilize the space economically and the French doors that open onto the terrace and the sea make the room feel limitless.

The lace doily? Tchotchke on the shelves? Pink damask draperies? Ladderback chairs? Ummm…no. But here in Praiano, in this house? Yes.

I’m curious. Does IKEA sell complete sets of art, plus matching sofa slipcover, plus pillows that perfectly, I mean PERFECTLY pick up every color in the art? I noticed the cookware is from IKEA – that made me slightly suspicious. It’s just too, too, too…coordinated! I do love the red sofa though.

Glassware, glass shelving, tiny figurines like the ones my mother collected that I had to dust individually every Saturday…uh-huh. Not me.

But oh! The terrace! The coup de coeur. It stretches across the entire front of the house and it couldn’t have a more splendid view. I watch ships and sailboats. I can monitor the traffic on the Via Roma. (There is none.) I can see Sandulli’s tower and Angela’s shop. And did I mention the sunrise?

One end of the terrace has two loungers like this. A majolica dining table with lemons and oranges – what could be more Italian – and wrought iron chairs anchors the other end.

I give myself credit for getting up and out of this cozy place to explore. I could be very very comfortable with my books, my writing papers, the sun on the terrace, the view…

And the wine. Here’s the one I picked up yesterday. A crisp pinot grigio that I’ll be pairing with caprese salad and farmer’s bread in about two seconds.

I hope you enjoyed the tour. I’ll tell you about farmer’s bread another day!

Cooking in Italy – I Love You Felicia!

It was a three-hour meal. A three-hour, gourmet, how many courses I don’t know, Italian, homemade meal. Thank you Felicia. I love you Felicia.

I was told to come at twelve o’clock. I’d been to the house a week ago for a brief introduction but Nicola sent a picture of the doorway to ensure I would find it again.

I was certain it was somewhere on the same stairway that I travel almost every day. Ten minutes should be plenty of time to get there. I labored to the top passing many doors but not THAT door. I must have missed it…how? Impossible! Back down. Still no door. Back up to the top. Breathing hard. No internet. Cannot call for help. Panic. Maybe it wasn’t this stairway.

It wasn’t.

At 11:58 I found the right stairway. At 11:59 I found the door.

Nicola greeted me and I followed him to the kitchen where Felicia was already hard at work. Moist air, heavy with the scents of Italy, wrapped around me like a mother’s hug. Then Felicia gave me the real thing with the two-cheeks kiss that is customary here and cooking class began.

First it was totano – a variety of squid caught in the rocky depths close to the coast. Nicola explained the totano found near the shore are red, but those caught farther out to sea where the bottom is sandy are white and the flavor isn’t as good. These, he said, were red ones.

Fresh from the frying pan into the mouth. Hot and…oh, my! The flesh was delicate, so tender and sweet. “How many totano does it take to make all this?” I asked. Nicola translated my question. Felicia opened the fridge and pulled out a monster.

“Grande!” I said, backing up a few steps. They laughed.

Nicola had to run an errand. Suddenly Felicia and I were on our own to navigate the language as best we could. I connected to her internet and brought up Google Translate. I’d come prepared with a list of questions, first in English so I’d know what I was asking, then in Italian so I could practice the language.

It was great. She got every question immediately, even though I stumbled and bumbled and massacred the words. Her answers were long, emphatic, emotional – even Google couldn’t follow. Nonetheless, we managed, and had good laughs in the process.

When the last tentacled leg of squid had been fried, I was moved out of the kitchen to a table on the terrace set for four and told to sit. The plate of crispy totano was set in front of me followed by a bowl of buffalo mozzarella, then salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, bread, and wine.

Mangiare, my hostess said. I started to ask if others were coming but she interrupted. Mangiare! Mangiare! and disappeared into the kitchen. Like it or not, I was to eat regardless of three empty chairs awaiting other guests.

I nibbled on a leg of squid. Love that stuff. Helped myself to one of the smaller balls of mozzarella and a strip of prosciutto savoring the contrast of the salty meat with creamy cheese. Every so often Felicia made an appearance to re-issue her command, Mangiare, mangiare!

When I couldn’t mangiare another bite, I ventured back into the kitchen.

Tomato sauce bubbled on the stove. I asked her what ingredients she’d used. Pomodoro, olio, acciuga, origano, basilico, acqua. She ticked them off on her fingers. I’ve been grocery shopping often enough now to know all of the words except acciuga. She spelled as I typed and up popped anchovies. Is that the mystery ingredient that makes Italian tomato sauce a culinary triumph?

I pointed to another pot. Melanzana, she said but this time didn’t let me Google it. She went to the refrigerator and pulled out an eggplant then motioned me to the windowsill. Mozzarella, parmigiano, and pecorino cheeses waited in majolica bowls.

Basilico, she said, laughed, and flung open the window.

Basil doesn’t get any fresher than that.

It was time for pasta. As she poured it into the kettle I asked what kind it was. Scialatielli, she said. I’d never heard of it. She showed me the label.

I decided to throw in a few more questions while the pasta cooked. “Where did you meet Rafaele,” I asked. She looked confused. I tried again. “Where did you meet your husband?” I understood the word for school in her answer and the sparkle in her eyes told me the rest.

“Did he chase you?” Oh, the laughter.

“All the way from the school to the sea,” she said, motioning the trajectory down the mountainside with a sweep of her arms.

“What did Rafaele do for work?” Again she looked confused. “Rafaele, your husband,” I said.

If I thought she’d laughed before, this time tears squirted from her eyes. I double-checked the the word for husband. It appeared correct. When she was finally able to speak, she said, “Rafaele is my brother. Gaetano is my husband.”

I was shocked to my toenails. I thought the old man sitting with his walker was her father. Come to find out, she’s seventy-nine and he’s eighty but he broke both hips this year and is housebound. She takes care of him.

“I’m sorry, Felicia. That’s hard.” She agreed.

Just then Nicola returned from his trip to Positano and joined us. Out came the pasta, biscotti, and wine. The empty chairs were filled and we had our translator back.

I’d been a wee bit skittish about the anchovies – I’m not a fan. But they did their job. The pasta was magnificent.

When I was certain I couldn’t eat another morsel, out came Felicia with an enormous bowl of fresh fruit, chiacchiere, and a pineapple upside-down cake.

The slab of cake she cut for me could have served four people. But did I eat it? You better believe I did, then drank the little cup of Neapolitano mocha espresso which guaranteed I would stay awake to finish this post even in a food coma!

Image result for napolitano mocha espresso]

What an amazing day. What special people. What spectacular food. “Now you can go home to Bali and make this dinner for all your friends,” Nicola said as I bid them farewell.

You know what, friends? Don’t hold your breath!

How-to Guide for Loving Food

After the blast of insight – the revelation about food that has now been playing with my head for over twenty-four hours – I felt compelled to spend the day at home. Life-changing information can be overwhelming and the question, Where do I start? begged an answer.

The morning held a promise of warmth and I envisioned sunbathing on the terrace – fully clothed of course, it’s not THAT warm – while allowing random thoughts to morph into an action plan, a ‘how to’ guide for loving food.

I took The School of Essential Ingredients, with me to a lounge chair and immersed myself in its pages. The sky was a cloudless blue bowl and the sun soaked gently into my bones.

I skimmed chapters, looking for clues. How do I do this? How do I go from food averse to food lover?

The first hint came on page 45:

If you think about it, she went on, every time we prepare food we interrupt a life cycle. We pull up a carrot or kill a crab – or maybe just stop the mold that’s growing on a wedge of cheese. We make meals with those ingredients and in doing so we give life to something else. It’s a basic equation, and if we pretend it doesn’t exist, we’re likely to miss the other important lesson, which is to give respect… So we start there.

So we start there.

When I imagined the life cycles I’d interrupted by eating pizza last night – and tiramisu – and wine…I felt a little ill. Then there was the banana this morning. Those were alive once. Vital, vegetable beings. A pig had been sacrificed to make the pepperoni sausage I’d enjoyed earlier in the day. The life-force within those ingredients had been transferred to me.

Acknowledging the obvious, which hadn’t been obvious until now, had an affect. I doubted I would ever eat anything again without the thought-flash that lives were lost to provide this meal and respect should be shown because of that fact. But show respect how?

Some people pray before eating. That was the routine growing up. GodblessthisfoodinJesusnameamen. Did it make me respect the gift of food? No. In Balinese Hinduism, there are ceremonies honoring plants, and rituals performed before taking animal life. It’s a beautiful way of showing respect in that culture.

Neither of those would work for me.

I kept reading. On page 115 I found another profound thought:

…every meal you eat, you eat time — the weeks it takes to ripen a tomato, the years to grow a fig tree. And every meal you cook is time out of your day…

Cooking had seemed a monumental waste of time. I resented having to peel potatoes and wait for them to boil. They were knobby, awkward to handle, and covered with gritty soil. They left a residue of sandy earth in the sink so it wasn’t just about peeling a potato, it included the necessity of cleaning the sink.

Fruit was my friend. Slice and eat. Done. Only minutes of prep…seconds…then I could get on to more pressing things. I suddenly felt a weight of guilt for dismissing the months it took for the potato to become mature and the mere minutes it cost me to prepare it. A few paragraphs later I was confronted by that very thought:

Antonia made celebrations of things he had always dismissed as moments to be rushed through on the way to something more important. Being around her he found even everyday experiences were deeper, nuanced satisfaction and awareness slipped in between the layers of life like love notes hidden in the pages of a textbook.

Like love notes hidden in the pages of a textbook. Yes! That’s the feeling I have to capture. That’s how I want to relate to food – with a thrilling rush of excitement – like finding an unexpected love note from the only one who matters.

I schedule time for yoga, meditation, and writing. From now on I will set aside time for food. The white chocolate covered fig I’m planning to eat in a few minutes took over two months to ripen. The tree it grew on was five years old before it could produce fruit. I owe that fig my time. Even if no prep is required, I need to stop, acknowledge the energy transfer that is about to happen, and experience every bite with gratitude and respect for the sacrifice of a life.

I confess I had no idea where this article was going when I started writing it. I’d found the excerpts today while skimming through the book, but they felt random and disconnected. Somehow in processing my questions in this post, I’ve gotten closer to finding answers that work for me.

Now onward to the respectful, exciting enjoyment of eating my fig!

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: