I came for the powdered sugar and the butter.

Last night, my husband and I dined in the kitchen of the wonderful French restaurant and bakery, Artisan Bistro. http://artisanbistroaustin.com/  We weren’t alone. There were ten of us who signed up for a cooking class on a night when the restaurant is normally closed. Seating was set up around the wrap around bar facing an open kitchen. The area was intimate, cozy and romantic, with low lighting and beautifully arranged place settings. Most importantly, we all had a bird’s eye view of the chef at work.
The Executive Chef, Cesidio d’Andrea, is also the receptionist, chef, owner, sommelier, waiter, and busboy. I’ll get back to the reason for why Chef Cesidio is wearing so many hats in his restaurant, but for now, just know that he can multi-task as efficiently as any soccer mom caring for a family of five.
As our group arrived, D’Andrea was quietly taking care of final preparations, cutting slices of bread, bringing out bottles of chilled water with slices of lemon or fennel, checking off people’s names from the reservation list, all while we took seats at the bar and obediently waited to find out what was happening next. I was beginning to think this was going to be a mime performance, but, finally, he broke the silence by asking if any of us wanted to order wine. Expressions of relief appeared on everyone’s faces.  (No one likes a mime.) Continue reading

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

It seemed like a good idea, taking the Copper Canyon Train to Chihuahua.  The brochure said it had a glass-topped roof. I imagined myself watching the splendid gorges while sipping rice water in clay mugs.

The train was overbooked and I felt lucky to find a seat. An elderly woman, with hips that spilled over onto my seat, ate raw radishes and grilled onions. ChicharronesShe offered me crispy Chicharrónes with fried hair that glistened in the sunlight. I declined. She looked offended, heaved a sigh and her hips multiplied by a factor of ten. She had been holding back.

I tried to imagine being somewhere else, but it wouldn’t work. I got up and looked for the glass roof. My body moved between the swaying cars like a drunken crab. I asked about the glass roof. No one had seen it.

I started regretting giving up my seat. Where was this stupid glass roof.

Then I saw a man greedily sprawled out on four seats, one arm tucked under his head like a pillow. I approached the man and demanded he sit up like everyone else. Looking around at no one in particular, I yelled, “He’s taking up four seats”.

A woman leaned forward and placed her hand on my shoulder with the grip of a rock climber. Her eyes were so far apart that it was hard to stay put on just one. Maybe nature had made room for three, but somewhere in the womb, the Cyclops eye had been forgotten. I heard her say, “Leave him be. The poor soul fell over dead half way across the canyon.”

At that moment, not being able to look this woman directly in the eye was a blessing. All I could think was I had just yelled at a dead man. Someone needed to give me a hat with “jerk” written across the front.

I never found the glass roof that day and I don’t recall much about the train ride after my encounter with the dead guy. I do remember that I never found a seat again but, at that point, I didn’t think I deserved one.

Note to Reader:  Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) is located in the southwestern corner of the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.  It is larger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona and deeper in some areas.  The canyons were formed by six rivers which drain into the western side of the Sierra Tarahumara (a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental.)

Why I hate traveling with a purse (Part I)

I was running along the road leading to the airport’s parking structure, and the cold air was making my lungs ache. Snow was steadily falling, and I didn’t want to think what my hair looked like. Earlier, when I arrived at my gate, I realized my purse was in my parked car in the airport’s massive parking structure. The airline clerk told me I had only ten minutes before boarding.

I had brashly decided I could make the quick dash in time. So here I was pushing my middle-aged, out of shape body along a slippery roadway, my keys in my hand, ready to unlock my car, grab my purse and make one more dash back to my departure gate. A friend was waiting there where we had a flight to Chicago.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the white van coming from behind. Too late, ice cold slush and mud slapped one side of me as the driver carelessly drove too close to the curb. I cursed insanely but kept running. A pain in my right knee was quickly starting to creep up my left buttock. I was almost there, but to my horror, when I looked down at my keys, I realized they had slipped off the holder. I thought about crying but opted to retrace my steps. Half way back I found the keys where they had silently fallen in the snow.   No time to spare now.  The pain in my buttock was becoming debilitating. Some of the sludge had crept down my sweater and was melting into my bra.  The snow in my hair had long ago melted.  Lovely.

I was in the structure now and in sight of my car. Despite frozen fingers, I unlocked my car, reached in and grabbed my purse from behind the driver’s seat. I was literally screaming in my head the sole word, RUN, but my feet might as well have been bricks, and the pain in my buttock had become unbearable.  Then, I realized I was shamelessly massaging my buttock like a baker kneads his dough. I thought to myself, the IT band screwed up again. Argh. Running had now become out of the question, but if I didn’t I was never going to make it back in time. Then I discovered if I ran pigeon-toed, it didn’t hurt quite as much. I should emphasize, this was an exaggerated pigeon-toed run.  (On a scale of one to ten when it comes to walking pigeon-toed, I would say I was a #9) which also meant that my arms tended to fly around like, well, like a deranged person. I was now scaring people as I approached them. Some even gathered their children closer to them, their expressions revealing both fear and revulsion.  Others just stopped and stared.  Perhaps, somewhere on YouTube, is a video of a horribly pigeon-toed, crazed and mud-drenched woman with wet hair running through an airport with arms swinging in every direction.  In it you can hear a steady stream of profanity.

The sign read Gate 35. “Finally”, I breathed under my breath. My friend was pacing in front of the gate. The look on her face when she first saw me could have said it all, but she felt compelled to say, “You’ve aged ten years.”  Cancelled flights PixBut, I didn’t care about that. I was looking at the message board above me which read, “Flight delayed.”

Parque de Juarez, San Miguel de Allende, Gto., Mexico


San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When I decided to go to school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I made a list of all the things I thought I needed to bring with me. After two weeks here, I have learned that I should have left behind my alarm clock. Sleeping past 7 a.m. is only for the infirmed, and definitely for the hard of hearing. At that time of morning, the town’s marching band winds its way through the cobblestone streets. Some mornings, I lean out my bedroom window and watch them as they approach from the far end of my street. They look like little toy soldiers in oversized uniforms. I think every band member has been given a different exercise to practice. They couldn’t possibly be on the same note, much less the same melody. Their chaotic symphony makes me remember the time my ex-sister-in-law talked me into going to church with her. She failed to mention that it was a charismatic congregation. It was during a hymn that I first realized people seemed to be singing different lyrics. The place sounded more like a packed control room for United Nations interpreters than a church. Even remembering the scene now, I recall some degree of monotony in their voices. However, the music coming from this ragtag-marching army of musicians can be described as inextricably painful and, oddly enough, charming.

The entire town has been delegated a national monument by Mexico as well as being a UNESCO Heritage Site, which insures the preservation of the Spanish Colonial architecture that abounds here. My mother, Carmen was born in this country, but I am not a native. To my Mexican family, I am the Gringa. I have come here to study Spanish and art for six weeks. Afterwards, my husband will join me in Ixtapa, on the Pacific Coast for a vacation, but that is still several weeks away.

Each morning, I walk to school by way of the Parque de Juarez. An abundance of towering trees and vegetation make this place cool and shady. The heart of the park is a tall fountain, its waters emerald with tarnished centavos and spent wishes.  I can’t see it, but the constant, steady motion of life is thick in the air. I become like a child again. I breathe in the scent of wet clay and remember how, as children, we happily acquired grass stains and soiled-stained knees.

San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende

This lovely oasis would be a jungle if it weren’t for the battalion of gardeners who lovingly prune away with their crude scissors. These colorfully dressed workers seem very exotic to me, singing their songs in the morning as they haul off the corpses left from the rubber plants that grow like trees, the fallen orange mimosa blossoms and the decomposed boungavilla flowers. These men with their small, uncovered hands work quietly as if in a chapel. At intervals, they stop, and with their hands on their hips, lovingly inspect their sanctuary from every different angle. With a whisk broom, they might cart away a few forgotten leaves or create a pattern in the dirt. Nothing they carry in their pouches comes from Sears and I’ll bet they have never heard of Miracle Grow. I think of my power edger, my weed whacker, and my blower, Martha Stewart, and all my garden catalogs. I think of all the noise I create when I garden and then I think of how quiet it is here in this haven. There is something so unabashedly simple about it all that the memory of wet clay when I was a kid comes to mind again…and then I realize that as a child I played closer to the soil and that is why I keep thinking about how it smells. Continue reading

Don’t Call Me Darlin’ Unless You Mean It.

Just back from New Orleans. Note to self: Make sure it isn’t spring break when you go any place, and especially if it is a town like New Orleans, where tourists, who have vocations like a pharmacist in rural Iowa or a seamstress in Spokane, turn into loud, obnoxious party animals the moment they land.

Aside from that, the city has definitely bounced back. Locals could probably point out failings that a tourist misses, although some things never change in Louisiana: The roads are still as silky smooth as any highway in war-torn Syria.   One thing that really resonated with me though is that architecture is being preserved at a level I’ve never seen before.   From the looks of it, this town must have superb craftsmen/women. St. Charles Street has always been a shining star in the town, but dive into the side streets and you will see houses being brought back to their former glory.

MenuThe food scene is bursting at the seams.  (Literally.  I had to let my belt out.)   There’s real talent out there and picking a place to dine is difficult if you are only there a few days.  I made reservations weeks ahead of time for lunch at Commander’s Palace. Our friends, Bruce & Kincey from Annapolis, had met us for this trip and I wanted them to experience Old South atmosphere, the best gumbo, and 25 cent martinis, Monday-Friday (lunch only). I prefer mine low down and dirty (which means a lot of olive juice with glistening slivers of ice). There’s a three-drink-per-person limit, which would be a disappointment for the  pharmacist from Iowa, but suited me just fine.  And, unless you have been living in a Louisiana pothole for the last couple of decades, Commander’s Palace has won enough awards that it could rest on its laurels for twenty years, but it isn’t that kind of place.   http://www.commanderspalace.com/awards

We went to Mother’s on Poydras Street, a local and tourist favorite, but honestly, my memories of it were much more favorable last visit. You are paying for nostalgia, like the servers who I bet started working there when the “big storm” then was Hurricane Betsy (1965), and not Katrina. You can’t go into that place without someone calling you baby, honey or darlin’.  Our server bounced from one table to another, always peppering her  conversations with darlin’ this and darlin’ that.  I suspect tourists eat that up (the more darlin’s – the better the server’s gratuity.)   There is a charm in it all, but I can’t help questioning the sincerity, like the boyfriend who starts calling you “my precious”, then you notice he calls his dog, the neighbor’s parakeet and his pet cactus “my precious”.  Is the food good?  Yes, but I wouldn’t say it was remarkable (or even memorable), although I will say going there is going back to the New Orleans I remember as a kid.  Go for just that, but in all likelihood, expect to stand in line. (more…)

Company is coming. How does one prepare? (I say: Hide the good liquor.)

How to Make House Guests Feel Special

 Once in Madrid, we stayed in a hotel where the bars of soap where the size of razor blades and the sheets were so threadbare that I put my foot through one. The street we were on wasn’t named “Skid Row”, but it should have been.  Immediately outside our window was a blinking, neon sign that blinked Hotel – Hotel – Hotel. It did this dance  all night long, lighting up our room like a 1970’s disco.  To make matters worse, at around 1 am every evening, the driver of a garbage truck parked directly under our window while he went to a nearby bar. In his absence, the truck’s grinder chewed on its cargo like a dragon eating metal parts and killing cats in heat. In hindsight, we should have just gotten out of bed and joined the derelict driver.

Yet, this wasn’t the worst place we have stayed in our travels. We have stayed with friends who were so ill-prepared for guests that we almost thought of Hotel Monaco in Madrid lovingly. Continue reading