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Distant Land of Famine

I sit down at my favorite Ristorante Il Panino (FYI – you order panini only if you want 2 or more), which has undergone an impressive renovation since my last spaghetti alle cozze e vongole (spaghetti with clams and mussels), and say, “Hit me.”

When the waiter asked why he hadn’t seen me “in awhile” (note, not even in a long while), I explained I was living in Jordan (leaving out the countries in between). He waited to hear no more and brought me un quarto del vino rosso and asked me what he could get me – although he already knew what I would say – from the seafood menu.

(When I told him it was Ramadan, during which I thought I might have to write posts entitled “Cool Clear Water” and “Killing Me Softly” until friends in Rome rescued me with a house-sitting offer, he brought me an unnecessary basket of bread.)

Even the 20-minute drive from the Trieste airport is calming: surrounded by lush fields of green, along the marshes of the bird sanctuary, where le zanzare (the mosquitos) welcome me like I’ve never been away.

Much of what I’ve written about Italy is about this far NE region, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (F.V. Giulia to friends), where I’ve spent many happy summer days along the Adriatic Sea during, after, and long after Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

Proof positive: my 2-part series Prosecco Paradiso.

Prosecco notwithstanding, I would travel all this way just to see all 3 generations of the Tomaselli/dall’Oglio hotel family holding court on via Giuseppe Verdi.

Nonna doesn’t recognize me anymore; she’s getting up in her years now. But she hasn’t lost a bit of her charm, saying that even though she doesn’t remember my face, she knows I’m as beautiful as ever, to which I reply (truthfully in her case), “As are you.”

The family knows all about my humanitarian work over the years and would like me to consider, they said humorously, coming back for 2 months – basically the remainder of the tourist season – as they’re in need of some “humanitarian assistance” themselves. The European recession has hit them hard, although having been through the wars, literally, they’ve weathered the economic storm a bit better than their island peers.

Grado is far from its heyday in 2004, my first summer here. The good ol’ days when the Saturday night dinner rush began like clockwork, church bells + 15 minutes, and continued long into the night.

Ilene e Giorgio, nota bene: THE pre-dinner gelato place (for heathens) is BACK. Different owners, same great pesca e basilico!

Historically, the vast majority of the island’s clientele has been German and Austrian, exactly who’s been cutting back on beach holidays in recent years. But I see a new marketing strategy paying off: selling Friuli and its neighboring Slovenian province as one contiguous tourist destination, to – judging from languages heard on the street – French, British, Russian, even Arab travelers.

But the Tomasellis/dall’Oglios have been in the hotel business since the 1920s and despite its founder’s passing have, on balance, flourished through the generations, the 4th of which are are entertaining themselves in the children’s playroom: French-speaking preschoolers who call Bruxelles home.

This morning, Signore, after making sure I’d already had breakfast (proving that Italian fathers can be as bad as Italian mothers), suggests taking the early ferry to Isola di Barbana. (My café owner friends, subject of Our Lady dei Bambini, sadly were victims of the economic downturn.) He further suggests saying a “substantial” prayer to the Madonna before heading straight to the beach.

Which is exactly my plan. Except for the prayer part.

Dear Dana, Romance Novelist

Microsoft in the 1990s: more multi-talented people per square inch than should’ve been geometrically possible.

Which was why Microsoft, not Disneyland, was “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (Except for the Internet Explorer team during the Netscape smack-down, which was “Divorce Court.”)

During those years, I worked with a ballerina marketing lead, a city councilman graphic designer, a Special Forces parajumper database admin (who would neither confirm nor deny), and a brass ensemble of program managers.

Not one, but two pro surfer finance analysts.

Channel sales bagpipers, who practiced after work in the parking garage, giving us a sense of what it must’ve felt like being a lowly British soldier hearing that music coming at you from over the next hill and knowing you were done for.

Then there was Dana, DDEE.

Database Darling and Editor Extraordinaire.

If I was writing the potentially Great American Novel, I’d want Dana to be the poor soul poring over my sorry manuscript because she is, hands down, the best editor I’ve ever worked with.

Ever.

Nowadays she’s Dana, BSRN.

Best-Selling Romance Novelist.

Romance novels just aren’t my thing at all, but it’s a literary fantasy world that’s wildly popular. To the tune of $1.36 billion per year popular.

That’s why some of my first Microsoft friends hatched this grand plan to pay off our student loans by writing romance novels on the side, since girls’ poker night with nickel stakes was going to take forever.

(The guys played with stock, which made them no-fun competitive whiners, so they were banned.)

Problem was, writing compelling, marketable romance novels is part art, part science, part Joy of Sex. There are people in this world who are really, really good at it, and consequently are very, very rich.

Then there’s us.

We just couldn’t figure out how to go about it. (I think the fact that we used a database schematic to map out potential characters and plot lines tells you everything you need to know.) The harder we tried, the more embarrassing it got and the more we laughed until we cried, which apparently with romance novels you’re supposed to do only while you’re reading one.

Eventually, we realized it was hopeless and good thing we had some unromantic skills and day jobs to fall back on.

We also realized why none of us had hot dates for the company Christmas party and that we’d probably have to go together as a group, wearing name tags saying “Romance Writing Failures.”

With the word “Writing” crossed out.

However, I’d heard somewhere that the best way to come up with character names for your romance novel was to pair names of your childhood pets with names of streets where you grew up.

My computation resulted in 4 admittedly promising romance novel personas ‒ Julius Nye, Crispin Victoria, Skipper Melrose, and the one-and-only (thank goodness) Bo Fremont ‒ whose lives ended before they began because I’d learned the hard way to leave fiction writing to the experts.

Allora, cara Dana, whose 4-part romantic suspense series “Blood and Honor” is set in Italy, about which I contributed the tiniest bit of background for book 1, Revenge: it’ll be a pleasure buy the first romance novel of my entire life because you’re a star in anyone’s book and I’d read anything you wrote on the back of a deposit slip.

Like many smart tech-savvy new authors these days, Dana bypassed the world of traditional publishing. Her story is a perfect example of why those dinosaurs are scared to death of self-publishers and e-books, namely the fact that writers aren’t much tempted anymore with measly offers to give them 40% of the profits when they can DIY with equivalent quality ‒ and smarter distribution ‒ and keep 100%!

Also, did you know that if you write a book series you have to sign over the rights to your series story line and characters to the publisher in advance?

According to Dana, let’s say after book #2 of your series goes to print, your publisher decides to dump you. You can’t just take books #3 and #4 to another publisher. The series just dies, unless you go to court to win the rights back…to your own series, which you created!

By the time your case has made its way through the legal system, the only thing you might accomplish after all those attorney fees is to pass those rights onto your novelist grandchildren.

Who, bad luck, might turn out to be commentator types like me and for everyone’s sake should stick with what we know.

Anyway, Dana proves that you don’t need an old-school publisher, who still hasn’t gotten over the Borders Books bankruptcy, to sell your paperbacks and e-books on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, let alone on Smashwords, Kobo, and Sony!

Dear Ms. Delamar, I’m a long-time fan. (20 years long.) Can I get an autographed copy on iTunes?

You can follow Dana on Facebook, @DanaDelamar on Twitter and at danadelamar.com.

Jill’s Sugar Therapy

Chapter 2 of this blog’s sweetest love story:

One of the first pieces I ever wrote, one of the top 5 most widely read (and re-published) posts last year, was An Alzheimer’s Love Story. The true story of a friend of mine, a woman of great wealth and privilege, who found herself as the sole caregiver ‒ for a decade ‒ of her husband Bernie, who had severe Alzheimer’s disease.

How she coped, mostly without support. How she came out the other side grieving and exhausted. How, despite everything, she began to feel whole again, even blessed.

Since some time has passed since Jill’s husband died, many readers have emailed me over the past year to find out what happened to her. Especially those who are facing similar care-giving experiences for loved ones living with Alzheimer’s, but also cancer, multiple sclerosis, dementia, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and emphysema.

I’m just getting started.

I had no idea there were so many caregiving and hospice scenarios out there, nor any real sense of how much elder care ‒ especially at-home care ‒ can cost, both in dollars and cents and in mental and physical energy. Some people who wrote to me are looking at likely far more than a decade of care, some for more than one parent or loved one, and are already raiding their 401Ks and college funds.

And it’s early days yet.

(I wrote another piece about the elder health care crisis in China, which the one-child policy and diminishing public health options make even more acute. This, under communism!)

It’s always been Jill’s purpose to help other families facing situations like hers: no idea where to turn, no idea how they’ll manage. Since Bernie’s death, even while she was still struggling to find her own footing, Jill volunteered diligently for Alzheimer’s support groups.

She still does.

So, here’s an update I think you’ll find equally inspiring. Anyone who’s panicked about having to start completely over in their retirement years, this story is for you.

After losing almost all her life savings to Bernie Madoff and the recession, and twice surviving cancer, Jill started a bakery.

Prior to this, she and I had some long conversations in email about what work direction she should take. Given Jill’s artistic and social gifts, and literally a world of contacts, she had many options.

And, at the same time, few options.

Re-enter the corporate world after 3 decades away? Unlikely. Start a business? Capital, capital, capital.

But you also need intangible qualities not every entrepreneur has, but she does, in plenty: mental strength, determination to succeed, and a passion for the work, even the not-so-fun parts.

Providing the work didn’t compromise her health regimen and she could do it ‒ partially, initially ‒ at home, with low operating expenses and no employees. (Careful: a bakery can be a low-margin, brutal-hours business. Let’s run some numbers.)

We’d met in an art class in Italy and bonded over food in France, so beautiful culinary concepts were high on our list of options to discuss…ideally over something.

People who read this blog regularly know that I’m a pesto and Parmigiano girl. Sweets don’t do a thing for me, especially chocolate. Investing in a bakery would be a purely mercenary endeavor. But for Jill, desserts are bliss.

Sweets are therapy.

Jill started in her own kitchen…dogs snoozing, music blaring…baking breads her mother used to make at home in working-class New York. Chasing away stress and worry and getting her head in gear for the next step.

Then she branched out into pastries and found them easier to make than she remembered, even after not seeing the inside of an oven for a good many years.

She baked and baked and baked. And gave away and gave away and gave away the proceeds to people she knew: for gifts, for barter, for no reason at all.

Which made her very popular, although if you met her you’d agree: she doesn’t need baked goods to be that.

Then one day, she was making some berry coconut cupcakes. A friend stopped by to say hello, and tried one.

Any chance you can make me 3 dozen of these? Today?

Thus, the bakery was born.

Jill now makes truffles, Mandelbrodt (think almond “biscotti,” which in Italian means “baked twice”), apple torte, decadent cheesecakes, even organic granola… More than 20 delightful treats, not counting made-to-order items for parties.

True to her French couture background, it’s a specialty bakery, with prices to match.

She sent me photos of a presentation she did recently for a potential client, a week’s worth of marathon baking for 150 people. Result: she landed a contract with a year-round farmers market.

Can you say expansion?

I got an email from her last week about French macarons. How do you get them that consistently perfect shape if you’re doing them by hand and not with a machine?

Practice.

Sorry, Jill: there’s no trick to perfect macarons. Spread parchment paper on a bunch of baking sheets and pipe 50 macarons to a sheet. Every day for awhile. You’ll get there, I promise.

That’s something Jill understands perfectly, being a fashion designer by profession: precision and consistency is what makes great artistry marketable.

I have no doubt she’s toiling away at those macarons right now. Sheets and sheets of 50 to a sheet until she gets them exactly right. Make some with lavender, I told her.

They’re traditional in France for Mother’s Day.

His Bad Luck With Brackets

In between thought-provoking-I-hope posts on political change in North Africa and the Middle East and tsunami recovery in the land of my birth, just checking in to see how your brackets are doing.

At least half the readers of this blog don’t have brackets and have no idea what I’m talking about.

See, in the USA, it’s called March Madness: 64 of the best university basketball teams competing for the annual NCAA championship trophy.

You predict which teams will win against which other teams and advance to the next round to play against which other winners.

These predictions are called brackets.

A few weeks ago, Americans didn’t much care about President Obama’s trip to Brazil. What they really wanted to know: what were his 2011 NCAA brackets?

Same as last year, the President filled out his brackets on national television. At least he’s honest and doesn’t fill them out in pencil and erase his bad luck as he goes along, like some people we know.

The President is a good ‒ and surprisingly informed, for everything else he has on his plate ‒ basketball player, so his brackets count for something, even among people who will never vote for him.

However, since George is my friend rather than my President, I respect his brackets judgment, despite the fact that he’s famous now, too.

George wrote one of this year’s best-selling economics books, The Economist’s Oath, which everybody who watched their retirements evaporate in the recent financial meltdown needs to read ASAP…and weep. (Listen to George’s interview on National Public Radio.)

Although I’m usually too lazy to make my own brackets, that doesn’t stop me from having opinions on other people’s brackets. And I had a few questions about George’s, some of which ‒ in my uninformed opinion ‒ sort of defied logic.

Pittsburg, for example.

I admit I’m a sucker for a small liberal arts school from the Midwest that graduates its student athletes, but Butler is anything but a Cinderella. They’ve been in the NCAA tournament 10 times!

Thus, I was a little surprised when George called it so blithely for Pittsburg, even if it was the #1 seed. Siding with history and heart, I went with Butler.

And Butler won. Barely. Which is what makes March Madness great and makes even people with naturally low blood pressure prone to sudden stroke.

With a 1-point spread and 2 seconds to go, Butler had the win in hand. Then we watched, horrified, as they made an inexplicably stupid mistake, tying the score.

Then their opponent made an even stupider one. Butler had a chance to redeem itself, and did…winning by 1, and not even in overtime.

If it makes George feel any better, President Obama had Pittsburg in his brackets, too.

George puts UConn in his brackets every year in a show of family unity…and because Connecticut is a proven basketball force.

UConn women will undoubtedly be in the Final Four, but if the UConn men make it that far, I’ll be shocked, I recklessly went on record as saying.

Sweet Sixteen is where the brackets start getting interesting. This is where the teams that nobody gave any thought to before now upset, without warning, the top seeds and move on to the potentially big time.

Once the axe has fallen on half of the Sweet Sixteen and they’ve sullenly headed home, trying to figure out what went wrong with a sure thing, it’s on to the Elite Eight.

Then the Final Four.

Then the NCAA Championship on April 4th in Houston.

George and Barack agree that it’s Kansas vs. Ohio State in the final. The President picked Kansas to win last year and Kansas ‒ regrettably for both parties ‒ didn’t come through for him.

He’s giving them a second chance in 2011. Pretty forgiving, I’d say.

It’s what happens up until then that’s a lot up for debate.

People who know how little I know about sports are wondering what qualifies me to write this post. Absolutely nothing, which should be a cautionary tale to anyone who believes what they read in the blogosphere.

Sometime during college, I was playing baseball with friends. I was up to bat and accidentally got a hit. Then I accidentally made it to 2nd base.

Later in the game, I was up to bat again. Somebody said, “I thought you batted left.” (I’m right-handed.)

What do you mean by that? You handed me a bat and I bat. You’re so picky.

How was I supposed to know that you’re supposed to bat the same way every time? Seems like a petty rule, if you can bat equally badly either way and don’t know the difference.

Then I found out it’s actually a good thing to be able to bat left or right, because the baseball goes to different players in the field that way. It’s called a switch hitter and some people who are kind of ambidextrous can do this.

Accidentally, my one and only (losing) baseball team contribution.

Back to college hoops, another of George’s brackets that I couldn’t quite see happening: Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. His logic was that they’re playing all 5 seniors. Sounded sensible at the time. He also had Kentucky and Tennessee winning. They’re both legendary basketball programs that crank out top players on a regular basis.

Tennessee lost and promptly fired their coach.

Earlier on, carrying in a tray of appetizers, I inquire how George’s brackets are doing…just as Michigan State goes down in flames against UCLA.

Testing both extremes of prophetic in the same playoffs, George saw past the hype and put BYU in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since before he was even in college, but then put too much faith in the supposedly dominant Big East.

Proof that really smart, really logical people can sometimes really mess up their brackets with emotional choices, George favors Ivy League schools. When Princeton lost by 2, he was crushed, although really, George: Princeton over Kentucky? Seriously?

You saw that coming a mile away.

Besides the aforementioned Pittsburg and Notre Dame, George’s pick Syracuse didn’t make it to the Sweet Sixteen, either. Ouch.

We both like Stanford in the women’s Final Four, although they deserve to be there without endorsements from either of us. I’d like to like Georgetown across the board, but they continue to disappoint…me and everybody else.

The truth about my alma mater: Washington isn’t nearly as good a men’s team as when I was an undergrad and collapses well under pressure, sending North Carolina to the Sweet Sixteen. Again. The UW women’s team, talented in past years, is south of nowhere in 2011.

Last year, I picked UC Berkeley over Duke. My reasoning had nothing to do with national rankings, nor with being from California.

Duke plays better basketball, but Cal has better tattoos.

Snow Had Fallen, Snow On Snow

In early November, Munich’s heat wave peaked at 19C/66F. I enjoyed it, suspiciously.

Two days later, I relaxed. Life was back to the way it should be in Germany on the downhill slide toward Christmas: it snowed.

The snow didn’t stick, but it forecast the storms to come, one upon another with hardly a pause. By the end of the month, airports across the UK and Western Europe were snowed in and record low temperatures were being reported in the East.

I got caught up in that weather on my way back from festive Thanksgiving in rainy Rome, which for once was happy not to be the epicenter of European excitement.

Over yet another cappuccino in the airport café after yet another rebooking, part of me was wondering what kind of bad karma might put me in Zurich for a free evening?

…and it snowed and snowed and snowed some more, as Christmas markets opened up all around Europe anyway, saving intrepid shoppers and merrymakers from themselves with glühwein and chocolat chaud.

The last winter I remember like this in Europe, my friends and I were in Austria, getting saved from ourselves with peach schnapps.

…and staying in a charmingly spare guesthouse with a perfectly shaped, cake icing-like snowcap on the roof, where in warmer weather Little Red Riding Hood undoubtedly visited her grandmother. The place had clearly been around for many generations and the owners, a wrinkled lot, stooping deeply but smiling broadly, had personally welcomed every one of them.

After some vigorous trekking and cross-country skiing, a winter picnic, and deep breaths of mountain air, which we needed a lot more than we realized, we headed back and en route drove past a luxury hotel.

Backing up… First, a dark Mercedes luxury coupe with darkly-tinted windows ‒ which are pretty much illegal, in Germany at least, so these were out-of-towners pretty much screaming, “We’re filthy rich and from somewhere we don’t have silly rules like that!” ‒ blew by us at a high rate of speed.

On a whim, we decided to follow it.

…and found ourselves pulling into this palatial hotel drive, breezily giving the keys to our modest dark Mercedes wagon to the valet, just as if we owned the place and our penthouse suite was awaiting us, vielen dank.

The hotel was all we anticipated, the lobby lushly decorated for Christmas, as only hotel lobbies with red velvet curtains the rest of the year can really pull off.

To avoid blowing our cover, we kept our rave reviews mostly to ourselves and, with eyes open wide, smiled, which you can get away with in Europe more so at Christmastime, but any other time of year marks you as an over-eager American tourist who’s had too much to drink.

But we couldn’t hide our excitement about the…PIANO. In the middle of the salon was a Bösendorfer concert grand, blinding us with its black shiny-ness, sitting in the shadow of an enormous Christmas tree decorated subtlety in white.

Christkindle, please say you brought that gift all the way from the North Pole for one of us!

Behind the piano was a wall of 10-meter windows and behind them was an utterly magical snowy forest I thought only Hans Christian Andersen knew about, minus the trolls.

What kind of place was this anyway?

We inquired and were further convinced by the answer: this very forest had been the inspiration, so the story went, for Franz Gruber’s carol Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), which the St. Nikolaus Kirche choir first sang on Christmas Eve 1818 in nearby Oberndorf.

Snow on snow had fallen in that forest the winter before and the stillness that remains only after snows like that resulted in the #1 Christmas carol in the world, of all time (according to Gallup polls).

In the non-magical hospitality business, we never would’ve gotten away with impersonating hotel guests except that black European après-ski attire all looks about the same and cars with foreign plates and ski racks all look about the same, too.

It’s all about confidence. If you act like you belong there, you do…until somebody asks you for your room number, at which time you make one up, along with a logical-sounding surname. German would be good and how convenient that I have one of those already!

So that’s how some foreign interlopers speaking something between passable and no German, but between us a few other European languages proficiently, ended up sipping hot drinks in the salon of a hotel we couldn’t remotely afford, listening to our concert pianist friend play classical Christmas melodies on a piano we could remotely afford, either ‒ with kind permission of the chef d’hôtel, who was quite pleased at the large beverage-buying audience that gathered as the night went on.

Looking out the windows as snow continued to fall steadily, steadily all evening on that silent night.

But snow falling on snow can transform, in a moment, from magic to tragic.

Ever seen the show The Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, about the hazards of commercial crab fishing in Alaska? Ever think about what kind of cowboys ‒ or nut cases ‒ would fly the helicopters mere inches above the angry Bering Sea (or it sure looks that way), on which some of those TV cameras are mounted?

Those guys are from Egli Air Haul in King Salmon, Alaska, my Christmas destination.

Sam Egli is a legend in these parts. He’s been flying fearlessly for over half a century. Nobody knows the terrain in this part of Alaska better than him.

So, if you’ve crashed your white plane in a snowstorm, say, you’d want Sam out there looking for you.

One year, one afternoon right before Christmas, a government plane conducting a routine survey was reported missing. Since it was a secret, we assumed everybody in town already knew about it.

We also knew that no-one in town would be waiting for the FAA to do ‒ or not ‒ something about it.

There was this instantaneous shift from reverie to rescue that can only happen in a small town. Anyone who owned anything that flew ‒ and those scheduled to depart on commercial flights for the holidays that day cancelled their tickets, knowing full well they might not be able to rebook before Christmas ‒ met in the school parking lot in the dark. They spread out aerial maps and by flashlight divided up the areas to search.

By then, night had fallen, more snow had fallen, and ominously there was no news.

The next morning, the moment it was light, they were all in the air, looking for their friends, colleagues, relatives…because in a small town in bush Alaska it’s really all the same anyway.

The first day of the search, nothing. Then night, with temperatures again below freezing.

Everyone knew that even if the guys on the plane had survived the crash, they wouldn’t survive much longer in that weather. And the more it snowed, the harder they would be to find, in millions of square acres of tundra, air swirling white.

The second day of the search began much the same, with worry and frustration. Until, on a hunch, Sam decided to fly over a certain area he knew, which had been flown over more than once already.

There he found the plane, and in it he found someone alive.

The pilot had died on impact, but his passenger had survived. Badly injured, unable to rescue himself and getting weaker by the minute, but lucid.

Then the community had to accept that, while the search had been successful for one family, a member of another would never be coming home for Christmas.

The day the crash site was found, the pilot’s family’s Christmas cards – their kids’ school pictures pasted on the front – arrived in mailboxes all over town.

The same kids who’d performed earlier that week in the school holiday program, singing with their classmates “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” to a standing-room-only audience, while outside snow fell on biggest snowfall of the winter.

On the last truly happy night of their lives.

“Snow had fallen, snow on snow…” is from a poem by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), set to music after her death as the lovely Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s track #6 on my favorite Christmas album of all time, Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (The Cambridge Singers and The City of London Sinfonia).

Il Giorno del Ringraziamento Con La Polizia

I could’ve done without the before-and-after photos of the turkey, newly dead for my benefit.

It was one of those predictable misunderstandings between the Italians and their American daughter-in-law. When she told them that American Thanksgiving dinner required a “fresh” turkey, I knew exactly what she meant: “not frozen.”

But in Europe, where your choices are fresh, fresh, or nothing, “fresh” means “fresher than you can get at your local butcher.”

In the Italian tradition of taking things a bit too far in general, this logically translated to “you need to kill the turkey yourself on the spot.” And that they did, photographing every detail with relish for the absentee chef who was on her way from London, where people, while they know theoretically where protein comes from, prefer not to dwell on those last gruesome moments.

I reminded the daughter-in-law of another unfortunate poultry incident, in Africa, where we’d spent a summer pre-Italy doing public health projects. In one village, the women announced they’d be serving us chicken for lunch.

This chicken. Right in front of you.

They slit its throat and laughed as I lost my breath and turned white. Not my finest moment in the field.

Beyond embarrassing, actually, when in a prior developing world experience I’d stitched up a few gaping wounds with an upholstery needle and thread − sterilized with an unnamed alcoholic beverage provided clandestinely by an unnamed person, since this was a Muslim country − without a thought, only to be taken out a few years later by a dead chicken, of all things.

Like many things in Italy, Thanksgiving arrived late, kind of like this post.

We’d planned the dinner for Saturday night. However, when our hosts learned that Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated on Thursday, it seemed only natural to start eating on Thursday and continue through Saturday.

…which working backwards meant the Thanksgiving drama needed to begin well before Thursday, and that, i miei amici, meant compiling the guest list.

Being suckers for lost causes, we decided to limit the guest list to 20, plus or minus 4 percentage points. Immediate family and close friends only. No aunts, uncles, cousins − “i parenti,” who aren’t parents (“i genitori”), but rather relatives, extended family − of which in Italy there is simply no end.

How lucky, then, that we’re not on speaking terms with the families who live within shouting distance of the house!

We’d miraculously capped attendance at 23 guests, within the realistic margin of error, until midway through the salad course…

…which in Italy is called “i contorni” and comes at the end of the meal, but for which we provided a completely fictional explanation from American history placing it at the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner, mostly to buy me time for the complex hot food deployment, but also as a food-stretching measure…

…when the uninvited contingent began to arrive, under the guise of dropping off gifts for the new baby (read on). Naturally, they’d heard about the Thanksgiving “party” and assumed their invitations had been “lost in the mail.” They, of course, were welcomed to stay, as they knew they would be…so, please pass everything.

Then there’s the charming Italian…power grid. The family home is on a secluded country road outside of a secluded village outside of Rome, in which the lights dim every 5 minutes and you have a full-on power outage a dozen times a day. Save the mashed potatoes, the Thanksgiving menu is primarily an oven-roasted menu and Italy is electric oven country.

Since if the oven is on, the lights cannot also be on, you the chef have 2 choices: you can either see the food you’re cooking or you can actually cook it. Finally, the perfect excuse for burnt pecans!

Cooking a 400-year-old menu for a couple dozen people is usually not this big a deal.

Our theatrical production had a most reluctant headliner. The 11-kilo (24.2-pound) turkey, who came within millimeters of not fitting into “il piccolo forno” (the tiny oven), tried his slippery best to slip away, but we dealt with him just like a desperate criminal being arrested by the police: somebody hold his wings, somebody hold his legs, somebody put an elbow on his chest and read him his rights.

The attendees, both family and friends, are mostly policemen and every branch of law enforcement was generously represented. The state police, who are the civilian authorities. The carabinieri, a branch of the military along with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, whose motto “Nei Secoli Fedele” (faithful through the centuries) tells us really all we need to know.

Then there was a guy in the Palidoro, a mobile unit out of the UN police headquarters in Rome, one of 9 located across Europe. These officers are called up on missions to protect EU interests around the world. He told some fascinating stories (in warp-speed Italian) about their recent mission in the West Bank to monitor the political situation there, reinforcing the discouraging conclusions about prospects for Middle East peace that I’d just been reading about in the Corriere della Sera − the Italian equivalent of the New York Times − on my flight over.

Since the house was swarming with cops and I couldn’t tell who was who, I just saluted everyone and answered every question “Si, Signore, certo,” and then offered them all extra dessert, which they all gladly accepted, joking that they were used to people trying to bribe them, but not usually with baked apples stuffed with brown sugar, walnuts, currants, and fresh vanilla.

One of the carabinieri is an exceptional cook, according to his adoring wife, who freely admits she initially fell in love with him for precisely this reason. With his expert interrogation skills, he got me to confess one of my secret recipes, after first correctly guessing several of the key ingredients.

Sorry, Officer, you caught me. I did grate nutmeg into that. I just forgot. My day started before 6:00 and here it’s 23:30 (11:30pm) and the dinner is still going strong.

Please, just this once, let me off with a warning.

By this point in the evening, “il rustico,” the little cottage out back, had dinner guests hanging from the rafters. Singing, toasting, conversing, eating, drinking, kissing the baby, holding the baby, taking photos with and of the baby…

…and it was more than a little disturbing to realize that the baby’s daily take of gifts was equivalent in value to what we paid for the ingredients of Thanksgiving dinner.

The new baby’s imminent baptism has everyone in a tizzy. She’s the first grandchild and her father is one of these archetypal Italian playboys about whom his resigned family felt that settling down with an American woman was better than nothing.

Actually, just the opposite is true. The grandparents are crazy in love with their daughter-in-law, although they do hope this baptism nudges her in the direction of conversion to Catholicism.

(I could tell them right now that women will wear red robes at the Vatican before that ever happens, but hope springs eternal.)

Preceding the caffé, grappa, and 3 dessert courses, which included caffé liqueur served in edible dark chocolate cups, were the savory elements I adore. Turkey stuffing with mushrooms, apples, roasted red peppers, spiced (by me) sausage, and fresh rosemary. Potato purée, as the Italians call it, with roasted garlic and fresh parsley.

“Fresh” this time means “out of the garden.” Where our salad greens came from, too. Hand-delivered through the kitchen window. In late November!

Fresh salad greens on the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving table in Massachusetts? Sorry, we’re fresh out.

Thankfulness Surplus, Happiness Dividends

Somebody call the CDC: it’s Thanksgiving again, highly contagious and hopelessly addicting!

It’s one of the few addictions we approve, encourage, and in fact require of every American citizen. Kids don’t get past the 3rd grade without knowing the history of this formidable holiday and common menu items thereof. (Try finding somebody who hasn’t ever made a craft paper cornucopia.)

Since the last Thursday of November 1621, Americans have ‒ in one of our very few national consistencies ‒ been wrecking havoc on the roadways the Wednesday prior, horse-drawn carriages and Nissan Pathfinders propelled in unison toward sage stuffing and cranberry sauce.

The truly dedicated have frozen turkeys in their carry-on backpacks ‒ my chef brother-in-law taking no chances on the local availability of proper poultry ‒ amazing even the United Airlines staff, who though they’d seen everything twice.

Once you’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, you just can’t give it up. We had some Polish guests a few years ago who now host an annual accurate-to-the-finest-detail re-creation of Thanksgiving in Warsaw, complete with all-authentic Herting family recipes.

I’ve hosted Thanksgiving dinner in the snow, in the tropics, for a few, for a crowd. Besides fresh roasted turkey (special ordered from the butcher 6 weeks in advance, having first looked up that never-before-used word in the dictionary), turkey soup, and turkey quiche, I’ve served everything from Bœuf Bourguignon to fried plantains to yellow curry with potatoes and fresh squid.

Christmas is Christmas and you get all kinds of encouragement to go big in Catholic countries and some former English colonies. Even in Japan, home to those just fundamentally wrong skinny Santa Clauses.

Then there’s that cardinal rule that you and your entourage don’t show up until the day after Thanksgiving, Père Noël.

But, to be fair, only we know this rule. Thanksgiving is uniquely American, religiously neutral, and gift-free…except for gifts of love, friendship, and FOOD!

(At my house, if you don’t get enough to eat, it’s your own fault…and if you’re not still eating at 21:30, following an intermission for music and chess, it’s my fault.)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the only time as an American expatriate I’ve ever truly felt lonely for home and family.

Destination: Hong Kong.

Through a mutual colleague, I’d met Tracy, a Taiwanese-American who was feeling more out of place than I was because everybody took one look at her and expected her to speak Cantonese, which she didn’t. Then they’d try Mandarin. Strike out.

Didn’t your parents teach you anything? said perfect strangers, disapprovingly.

Tracy was married to a Brit who was friends with this nice South African family ‒ mom, dad, 2 school-aged kids, and a new baby ‒ who had this palatial $15,000 USD a month apartment overlooking Repulse Bay.

As is typical with executive expatriate relocations, they had not only luxurious housing, but also private schools for children, a car and driver, numerous servants, Western-style health care, and business class plane tickets for at least annual home visits.

But, as the Beatles taught us, money can’t buy you love. Can’t buy you support. Can’t buy you genuine, count-on-me friendship.

Their first year in Hong Kong had been occupied with a difficult pregnancy, a high-risk birth, and a premature baby with multiple health problems. Add to that, the wife’s widowed mother, who’d moved with them to help care for the children, started exhibiting signs of dementia.

The husband’s employer had suddenly acquired a new company, which put him in Southeast Asia 20 days a month. He wasn’t trying to get out of helping at home and was totally frustrated, but couldn’t see an immediate way out of the situation.

He’d also become worried about some language and attitudes his older kids were picking up at school among their entitled, not very well supervised peers. That sophisticated, bratty, disdainful stuff that attentive parents put an end to, in our collective experience, in 5 second or less.

The most understanding people in their lives were their 2 Filipina housekeepers. “Misyvie (their way of pronouncing Mrs. Sylvie), she always sad,” they’d say to us privately in the kitchen, where we always were but shouldn’t have been, being unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the whole servant concept.

Tracy, her husband (who’d discovered early on that Thanksgiving was one of the many unexpected perks of marrying an American), and I had already had on our radar a wing-it Thanksgiving weekend dinner for ourselves, our mutual friends, a handful of other known quantities of varying nationalities, plus whoever else happened to be in town and invite-able.

On the spur of the moment, we went in an entirely new direction.

We decided that what this South African family needed was a Thanksgiving. They needed a Thanksgiving in the worst way. And we were going to give it to them.

Schedule: we should’ve started this a month ago, but we didn’t know we were doing it back then and have just a very few days to pull it off.

Product team: for an endeavor of this complexity on such an aggressive schedule, we needed to staff up. Fast. That was dead simple. Hello? We love startups. Absolutely, we’re in. But remind us again what Thanksgiving is?

The Filipinas, who hadn’t ever heard of Thanksgiving either, were thrilled to help and immediately began to polish the silver and iron the table linens.

Mission statement: increase Mrs. Sylvie and family’s happiness margin

Target audience: host family, our friends, their friends, expat Thanksgiving orphans, random others TBD

Specifications: traditional recipes, ingredients acquisition (a high-value specialty we were prepared to pay top HKD to attract), order of service, logistics, culinary QA (the most competitive job description, not surprisingly)

Marketing plan: office gossip, blatant reply-all emails, promise of early-and-often sampling on-site

Launch date: 4th Saturday evening of November, buying us 2 precious days to get our act together

Thus, the Repulse Bay Turkey Day ‒ don’t blame me, the marketing guys came up with that ‒ version 1.0 kickoff.

As with all startups, we pulled some all-nighters, had a few shopping fiascos, had to change one of our recipes at the last minute, and added some surprise guests.

But with feature cuts and willing volunteers, come Saturday night an unexpectedly beautiful dinner was served…to an unimaginable assortment of smiling guests, who came to realize that Americans really might be onto something for a change, dedicating one day a year to thankfulness and mushroom gravy.

According to early earnings results, released over pumpkin pie à la mode: by far, far exceeding thankfulness goals, our impromptu dinner had yielded life-changing happiness dividends…for Mrs. Sylvie, for everyone.

Happy Thanksgiving. (This year, I’ll be roasting turkey in Rome…over an open fire, apparently. Details to follow.)

Strength for the Day

I’ve written about some sobering social issues is this blog. Child abuse. Alzheimer’s and alcoholism. Hunger, homelessness, and mental illness.

And I’m going to keep writing about issues like these, because somebody needs to and only by flying contrary to the prevailing winds of “that’s too depressing” will we ever arrive at lasting solutions.

But in Yours and Yours and Yours, I looked at the flip side and wrote about some precious gifts that, with love, we can give to each other: gifts of time, understanding, respect, patience…

…and one more gift I didn’t include because I wanted to devote this post to it: the gift of comfort.

Once there was a man, who comforted.

Once I loved his son, who didn’t love me back, so explaining how this man and I knew each other was at times awkward, even vaguely painful. But sometimes a connection transcends how and when we meet someone to begin with, to the point that, by the time history becomes ancient, it more than stands on its own.

That summer, when he was already failing, I visited him with some other people. He complimented me on my dress. Somebody else in the group joked, “Guess you’re really not that sick!” We all laughed.

That was one of the last good laughs I remember, as summer turned into fall.

He had cancer and was in terrible pain. During those last weeks, I used to visit him on Saturdays. Although he was heavily medicated and not really conscious most of the time, he recognized my voice. I’d talk to him, sing to him, sit with him on those rainy afternoons. He’d squeeze my hand.

And then tears, his and mine.

Not “you’re going to a better place.” Not “everybody’s awfully mad you’re leaving them behind.” Just comfort that begets courage that begets strength, which he’d found for himself years before in this “feel sorry for me” world and at the end of the day had always had enough to spare to comfort others, who had it better and probably just weren’t trying hard enough.

Myself included.

He was a suck-it-up guy from the suck-it-up generation, who’d seen the horrors of war only to return home to the sudden losses of loved ones. No time to dwell. Get on with it. Doing is becoming.

Thus, if comfort was “banked” in some numeric way, he’d have been more than deserving.

He was also a faithfully religious man, so I read to him sometimes, too…and talked to him about things I knew would be meaningful to him. Meaningful in the sense of remembering things and people from the past, both near and far, although I hadn’t known him for most of those days.

Sometimes religious show-offs like to talk about the “long home” and look how dramatic I can be the whole way “there,” which makes everyone around them want to urge them on a little. I believe − and he believed, too − that that’s something you settle for yourself, in the quiet and long beforehand. It has absolutely nothing to do with other people.

This much I know: comfort is, while you’re holding on, whether it’s during a dry patch or in the end game, having something – someone – to hold on to. And that’s a gift.

Hold it close. Pass it on.

When I got the call – one morning, very early − about the funeral arrangements, I’d been expecting it…because I’d felt somehow that gift of comfort had been passed on to me already.

Already knew I wouldn’t be making that drive. Already knew he was gone.

Investigator Strait

It’s the worst-kept secret in the former British colonies that the academic “gap year” has absolutely nothing to do with higher education. Its real purpose is to FALL IN LOVE.

Especially if you’re from a small island and related to 80% of its residents, it’s imperative that you find a partner elsewhere. This is expensive and takes time. Thus, the “gap year,” which is billed as the year between college and university − or between undergraduate and graduate studies, depending on your schooling “programme” − during which serious students do good works in developing countries: teaching, digging wells, caring for orphans.

Supposedly.

My friends Garth and Simon thus traveled around the world for a year and both met their future wives along the way. (They might’ve done some good works along the way, too, but I doubt it.) Both families live back on the island of their birth and are now parents of young kids who, when the time comes, will do exactly the same thing.

Having once upon a time made one of these romantic short lists and been good-natured about being passed over, I scored an amazing invitation for a weeklong stay on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, and days of guided tours around this island, which packs in more scenery per square mile than almost anywhere else in Australia.

(Please write something bad about us on your blog. That we shoot ‘possums in cold blood, for example. Otherwise, everyone will want to move here and we can’t have that.)

People who read this blog know how blatantly I choose destinations for travel and expatriate living based on maximum culinary potential…or if upon arrival they seem to be culinarily deficient, fix that problem immediately with my fail-safe farmers market radar.

It’s impossible not to eat great on Kangaroo Island. Ligurian bee honey. Specialty wines, Sauvignon Blanc in particular. GM-free (nothing genetically modified) grains, so oatmeal for breakfast makes extra good sense. Sheep yoghurt and cheese to die for. Rock lobster, oysters, crayfish, even abalone.

I could go on and on like I usually do, but that’s a lot to think about right there. Plenty of time to ponder recipes during the wild garlic gathering field trip!

Then there’s the best lamb and beef you will ever eat. EVER. Sorry, Humane Society, but those happy creatures’ big brown eyes don’t do anything for me. When I see cows walking by, I immediately think Bœuf Bourguignon and braised short ribs with Cabernet sauce. Let’s talk about lamb (minus Mary). How ‘bout Kleftiko, Greek lamb marinated in lemon and garlic, or Dhaba curry from the Punjab region of India?

See, I just can’t help myself.

(Background from a new friend who grew up in Greece… Kleftiko in Greek means “stolen,” so in the old days you stole a lamb and before anybody realized it was gone, you dug a hole for a wood fire, threw some garlic and lemons in there with the lamb, covered it up, and got out of town fast. The lamb cooked very slowly and discretely until the next night when you could sneak back and retrieve it.)

People who read this blog also know I don’t drive anymore and why. Read on to understand why maybe I should’ve stopped driving sooner. I tried to tell these guys that I was mentally incapable of driving on the left. I couldn’t even walk to the right…see my problem?…passenger side of the car, after a week of trying. Please don’t make me prove this to you on the open road.

OK, let’s try it in our pasture. Here are the keys to our 1-ton flatbed pickup truck. Just follow the fence line. At the same time, give us a hand herding the sheep. The dogs will take the right flank and you take the left.

I did them one better: I “trimmed” their left hedge the whole way home, absolutely free.

“Maybe you’d better stick to cooking after all,” they said.

And to telling us stories from America history. Strangely, the adults and kids alike were mesmerized by stories perhaps learned in school in passing, but rarely discussed in context Down Under: the Alamo, Dred Scott and later Jim Crow, the Boston Tea Party, the expedition of Lewis & Clark, Valley Forge, Prohibition…even Father Junipero Serra and the Catholic missions he founded along El Camino Real (“The King’s Highway”) in California.

“What’s tonight’s story?” they’d ask every night after dinner, as we sat around the old farmhouse stove, mostly for decoration but still used to heat water for tea. So, first I’d tell a story or two, and then in return they’d tell me a story or two from Australian history.

It was an Australian-American history exchange. We were our very own solution to no cable.

Then I’d play the piano and we’d exchange songs, too. I already knew Waltzing Mathilda, but Click Go the Shears?

Home On the…What? Oh, in the Outback, you mean. The skies are not cloudy all day. Too right. But anybody who’s never heard a discouraging word has never lived out there. Definitely nobody playing. It’s hot, hard (men’s) work!

That last bit we won’t get into in this particular post.

The fastest way to Kangaroo Island is the quick 20-minute hop on Kendell Airlines (or whatever it’s called these days) to Kingscote.

Or you could always go by boat.

Investigator Strait separates Kangaroo Island from the York Peninsula on the mainland. Matthew Flinders, who decided after reading Robinson Crusoe that a life at sea was for him, once captained a ship called HMS Investigator and during 1801-1803 circumnavigated the continent he called Australia, rather than New Holland…since he’d seen the entire thing now and, believe me, it couldn’t be more different from Old Holland and really needs its own name.

So, the explorer and cartographer Captain Flinders survived shipwreck, serving with Vice Admiral William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, and other seafaring mishaps, only to be recalled to England and thrown in prison on a paperwork technicality.

It probably hadn’t helped his cause that he’d married his wife Ann in 1801 and tried to smuggle her onto his ship. (The Admiralty found out and punished him by sending Ann back to England. The couple didn’t see each other for 9 more years.)

One of his many namesakes, Flinders Chase National Park, was created in 1919 as a sanctuary for endangered species. On the boardwalk from Cape du Couedic, around a sheer cliff, we watch the playfully lazy New Zealand fur seals. We continue to Admirals Arch, a natural rock arch formed by thousands of years of the infamous “Roaring 40s” trade winds and erosion from a turbulent-in-any-weather sea.

You’re not supposed to feed the animals in the park, but baby ‘roos − anything but rare on the island, but who manage to sneak in anyway − are expert pickpockets…and, oops, there goes your Turkish Delight. (It’s a favorite Aussie chocolate bar filled with rosewater jelly, the worst invention since Vegemite.)

At the very tip of Flinders Chase National Park is Cape Borda, which looks onto Investigator Strait. We walk along the trails to the lighthouse, past the cottages of subtle vacationers, who don’t much want Kangaroo Island to be discovered, either.

The lighthouse guides ships heading towards Port Adelaide, which in generations past sometimes found themselves on the wrong side of the trade winds and sank within sight of home.

Same as every day for 150 years: the fog signal canon at 12:30.

Try to Remember the Kind of September

September used to mean Labor Day, back to school, 100-something shopping days ‘til Christmas.

Then came 9/11, which changed September for us permanently. “Time to remember when life was so tender that no-one wept except the willow…”

Unfortunately, plenty of terrible, tragic things in history happened in September long before 2001.

Hitler invaded Poland (1939). Rome fell (476).

The Great Fire of London (1666) and the worst of the London Blitz (1941). The September Massacres of the French Revolution (1792). The Battle of Antietam (1862), the bloodiest day in American history.

Black September (1970).

Jerusalem was sacked (70). Wenceslas − Duke in life and Saint in death − was murdered (935). The “Great Leap Forward” famine in China began (1958), in which 30 million people starved to death.

Anne Frank was sent to Auschwitz (1944).

Past Septembers have brought us many good − even wonderful − things, too.

Victory Over Japan (V-J) Day (1945), which ended World War II. Viking II landing on Mars (1976). The first edition of the New York Times (1851).

The discovery of penicillin (1928). The founding of the Peace Corps (1961). The first Model T rolling off the assembly line (1908).

Ferdinand Magellan left Spain on his voyage around the world (1519). Michelangelo unveiled David in Florence (1504). Johann Guttenberg published the Bible (1452).

The Beatles recorded their first single, Love Me Do (1962).

A few September events changed the course of American history.

The Mayflower set sail (1620). The Continental Congress declared the United Colonies to be the United States (1776). The Treaty of Paris (1783), bringing an end to the Revolutionary War between the USA and Britain.

The Constitution was signed (1787) and the Bill of Rights passed (1791). President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1862). Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court’s first woman justice, was appointed (1981).

Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner (1814).

All of these events happened in Septembers past and all of them influenced, in one way or another, who we became as citizens of the USA and of the world.

Sometimes a happy occasion can overlay a sad occasion. Not erase it from memory, certainly, but bring something new to the day: new people, new significance, new direction.

A new life, just beginning.

One September, I went to the wedding of two friends and colleagues, who’d been responsible for a major trend in our division of single people volunteering to share offices. It was a beautiful occasion, on a chartered boat in the bay at sunset. A nautical theme in blue and white, complete with buoy cushions and rope table runners. A 1950s swing band on a parquet dance floor, where sharp guys in sharp tuxedos danced with all takers.

(Those of us who weren’t even thought of in the 50s need to either try this at home beforehand or look around for somebody our dad’s age, my own dad excepted. There’s a good reason why he’s the musician.)

A few of us knew the history behind that setting and that day.

Years before, the bride’s 7-year-old brother had drowned in a tragic accident on that same day in September. She and her husband-to-be were considering several different dates and venues, until they realized maybe this was a way to honor him and bring comfort the family still needed.

Even thought it had happen many years before and 1000s of miles away, the bride always dreaded that day as it came around on the calendar every year. She’d been well into adulthood before she’d gone swimming or boating again.

The couple discussed their plans with the family and said that anyone who felt uncomfortable with the wedding date − including children who hadn’t even been born back then, and spouses who’d joined the family afterwards − could feel completely free to vote no on the idea and they’d stop everything.

Nobody did.

All the usual wedding checkpoints were passed. The processional, the vows, the toast. The speeches, both hilarious and heartfelt. A medley of traditions to represent the interfaith marriage. A terrifyingly tall cake, defiant of gravity, decorated with near-blue, “salmon,” and white flowers.

However, it was one of the few weddings I’ve ever attended that the bride didn’t toss her bouquet to some hapless bridesmaid. Instead, she stood on the ship’s bow, and − as we all watched − tossed it into the bay.

The title of this post is from the song Time to Remember (lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt) from the musical The Fantasticks, which debuted on Broadway in 1960.