Monday, September 15, 2014

Nicaragua--The Next Hot Spot for Travelers?

          All the travel magazines seem to be celebrating Nicaragua this year as the new, must-see destination for travelers, pointing out that it's safe, stunningly beautiful and an incredible bargain.  Condé Nast Traveler just labelled it "a paradise poised for discovery".
           Nicaragua is also the setting for daughter Eleni Gage's next novel,  tentatively titled "The Ladies of Managua", which will be published in 2015 by St. Martin's Press.  It's about three generations of Nicaraguan women who reunite at a funeral and are forced to confront their complicated relationships to each other and to their country with its tumultuous history and vibrant present.  As someone said about the book, "Think 'Gone with the Wind' but in Nicaragua."
         To give a glimpse into the beautiful country that is the background for "The Ladies of Managua", I'm reprinting a post I wrote in 2013, describing the daily routine of daughter Eleni, granddaughter Amalia and their family during the six months they lived in the charming colonial city of Granada. If you're considering adding the country to your bucket list, you might also enjoy "Birthing Turtles in Nicaragua" and "Turtle (and Bird and Monkey) Watching in Nicaragua", which I posted in 2011.
Since October, granddaughter Amalía and her Mommy and Papi have been living in the quaint, quiet, colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, with occasional trips back to swinging South Beach, Miami.
 Granada, with its horse-drawn carriages, almost weekly religious festivals and handicraft markets is very different from the wacky modern vibe of South Beach, but Amalía’s day is still just as busy in Nicaragua as in Florida.
                                Photo taken during the Poetry Festival by Eleni Gage de Baltodano
 Amalía wakes up demanding to eat huevos and gallo pinto—the national dish of Nicaragua, 
made of beans and rice.  ( “Gallo Pinto” literally means “spotted rooster”.)
 Then everyone goes out to have fruit and yogurt and coffee by the swimming pool. 
 But Amalía can’t tarry; she has to go find the tortugas, 
which are always hiding somewhere in the garden.  
 She likes to feed them leaves but sometimes they run away (very slowly). 
 Then she has to check on Tonia, the parrot, who comes out of her cage in the morning 
to eat sunflower seeds and wake everyone up with her shrieks. 
 After breakfast, Amalía and her Mommy may walk to the center of town 
to have juice and sweets with friends.
 And do a little shopping.
 Everyone knows Amalía and says “Buenos dias.” 

 Or Mommy and Amalía might take a taxi to the market at Masaya, to buy handicrafts.
                                 A mural at Masaya Craft Market, 14 kilometers from Granada
 hammocks, handmade masks and textiles.
Then it's time for a nap.
  After lunch Amalía likes to play in the pool with Papou, when he’s visiting,

Or with her two grandmas:   Yiayia Joanie and Abuela Carmen.

Or she might go out with her babysitter Maria José—
maybe to the lakeside where she can see parrots and monkeys,
large water birds
 and one of Nicaragua’s famous volcanoes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Invisible (Old) Woman

  A couple of days ago, my husband and I were staying in an antique-filled small hotel in Chania, Crete, which had, in the parlor, a wall of books in many languages discarded by previous guests.  (This is one of the delights of staying in small hotels.)

I picked up a paperback by Doris Lessing called “The Summer Before the Dark”, published in 1973, and I finished it as we arrived in Athens on Sunday night.

Briefly, it’s the story of a 48-year-old British housewife and mother, Catherine (or Kate) Brown, married to a doctor, who takes a summer off from domestic life, because her husband is at a medical conference in Boston and her three teen-aged children are traveling with friends in different countries.  She lets their house for the summer and begins working at a job as a translator at conferences around the world.  (Luckily, she’s fluent in four languages.)

When her well-paying work is over, Kate takes an American lover who is much younger—in his early 20’s.  They travel in Spain, he becomes very ill from some never-specified disease, then she becomes ill and returns to London alone, staying anonymously in a hotel. 

By the time she’s well enough to get out of bed, Kate has lost 15 pounds, her clothes hang on her, her dyed red hair is coming out gray at the roots and her face has aged dramatically.  As she weakly walks around London, even passing her own house, where her best friend doesn’t recognize her, Kate realizes that, by suddenly aging from an attractive, stylish, curvy redhead into a skeletal old hag in baggy clothes, she has become invisible.

Several times she plays this game: she walks past a group of men who ignore her or goes into a restaurant where the waiters scorn her, then she goes back to the hotel, puts on a stylish dress and ties her hair back, adds lipstick and returns to the same places, where she is coddled and admired.

I admit that it’s plausible for a 48-year-old woman to transform herself at will from an invisible hag into a noticed and admired woman, but when you’re sixty, or seventy (as I am) you’re permanently in the “invisible” category, unless you’re, say, Joan Collins or Jane Fonda.

I’ve been noticing this “invisible woman” phenomenon with both amusement and consternation over the years.  Haven’t you had the experience of walking into a coffee shop or a department store or a cocktail party where everyone looks right through you and you start searching for a mirror to make sure you’re actually visible?

Yesterday we checked into the Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens, one of the grand old luxury hotels of the world.  We arrived a bit out of breath because there was a taxi strike and we came via subway, dragging our suitcases up stairwells when there was no escalator.

My husband walked in first and I was greeted on all sides: “Welcome back Mrs. Gage!”  My suitcases disappeared. Cold water was provided.

A couple of hours later, I came down to the lobby to ask a question at the concierge desk.  There were three concierges and no other guests waiting.  The white-haired concierge was on the phone confirming someone’s dinner reservations.  The middle one was explaining to the youngest one about the book where must be recorded all cars and busses and pick-up times. I learned a lot about the hotel business, standing there 18 inches in front of them, until finally one of them noticed me and said “Oh hi!  How can I help you?”

A more fraught episode occurred Saturday in Crete at the magnificent wedding reception of a very prominent Cretan family.  Nick and I passed through security and into the estate, up some stairs where we were greeted by waiters with glasses of champagne and a world-class view of the sea below.  Lit by the full moon was a football-field- sized clearing by the seaside, filled with flower-laden tables and lighted by candles and lanterns. I stopped to admire the view, then turned toward the swimming pool area where the family was greeting guests, but my husband had vanished into thin air.

For half an hour I walked around the pool area, even wandering into the nearby yard where I thought Nick might have gone to escape the crush.  As I circled, I kept looking for a familiar face, but the only ones I recognized were from TV and the newspapers. The predominant languages were French and Greek, which I know (far better Greek than French), but I couldn’t imagine plunging into one of the groups surrounding a prime minister and blurting out in any language: “Hi, I’m the wife of Nicholas Gage”.

At the far end of the swimming pool, on a white banquette, was a young woman in a long brown dress completely absorbed in her cell phone.  I decided to take the other banquette and watch the parade of Parisian fashions pass by. Unfortunately, I had left my phone at the hotel.

Eventually my husband re-appeared.  He had gone with friends to find the lists for our table seating. After we clambered down to the sea and found our table, I had no trouble talking to the Greek jewelry designer on my right and the elegant Frenchman across the table, but that first half hour of invisibility wasn’t fun.

But sometimes I delight in being invisible.  Yesterday, I repeated a summer ritual. I walked from Constitution Square down Hermou to a tourist shop just below the Cathedral on  Mitropouleas Street to  deliver another batch of my Greek Cat books for them to sell.  Then I went to a small restaurant called “Ithaki” where every summer I get a really good gyro and some chilled white wine. I sit at the same table every time and watch the owner charm the passing tourists into sitting down to eat.  I’m fascinated by the man’s ability to know each person’s language. He’s way more skilled than the usual restaurant shills who try to lure you in with the two or three sentences they know.

Yesterday he charmed two pretty girls from South Africa into sitting at the table at my left, treating them to a piece of his “famous spinach pie” as an appetizer.  Then he gathered a rollicking table of Italians and told them which beer to order.  Directly in front of me were two American boys who had befriended two girls whose accents suggested that they came from someplace once in the USSR. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to see America,” I heard one of them say.

Wrapped in my cloak of invisibility I could hear the South African girls complaining about their parents: “If my mother ever found out!”  I could watch the American boys rather awkwardly courting the much more sophisticated Slavic girls.  I reflected that every young person should be required to take a year off before the age of 30, to tour the world with a backpack and sit in a taverna like this one, listening to the owner speak a medley of languages and learning about the world.

When he brought me the (very modest) bill, I tried to tell the owner that I come back every year because I enjoy watching him speak so many languages so well, but he just shrugged and rushed off to greet some Japanese tourists.  I think he didn’t hear me.

(Note: this was originally posted three summers ago, but since then has evoked some intriguing and thought-provoking comments, one of which came in yesterday (Sept. 1, 2014) from "Carolyn".  Here it is:

Gosh, Good memories of reading Doris Lessing. Thanks for the article. I'm over 60 now, and my gut response is : True, older women garner less attention and attentiveness. Although I agree that my temperament and energy has more to do with this response than whether I look stylish or young. For perspective here, I'd also say - If you want a treatise on feeling invisible - try imagining being an African American female or male of any age, on vacation, even though much has changed over the years. My personal response when I'm getting the invisible treatment is : Q-TIP ( Quit Taking It Personally) and be sure to engage my OWN interest in others as I encounter them. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Only in New York--A Photo Essay

On a recent visit to Manhattan I wandered around like the tourist that I am, clutching my camera to record sights and sites that native New Yorkers don't even notice as they hurry about their daily chores.  Nothing startles New Yorkers, whether it's break dancers on the subway, dog-sized rats in Central Park or naked cowboys and cowgirls in Times Square, but I, accustomed to life in a quiet New England village, kept on snapping photos and muttering, "Only in New York!"
Where else can you enjoy the sunset and dinner on your roof, 27 stories above the pavement...

....or eat on a barge in the Hudson River that never leaves the dock. (It's called The Frying Pan, at 26th Street and the Hudson.)
....or you can just have organic hamburgers delivered from the nearest Bareburger.
Granddaughter Amalia samples all the free fun in Manhattan's parks and playgrounds.  Here she is driving a train at the Little Engine Playground at Riverside Drive and West 67th Street. (And afterwards we always walk over to "Pier i"  for outdoor dining on the water.)
 She's tried fishing at the Harlem Meer in Central Park on the East Side at 109th Street. (It's all catch and release and you can rent the fishing poles and get instructions and free bait.)
And in the summer heat, nearly every playground in Manhattan has sprinklers and various kinds of water play.
On my recent visit, Amalia and I went to Art Farm at East 91st Street between York and First where  children learn about nature, animals and how to care for the planet.   Where else would you meet a giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroach?
Some of the children were willing to touch the creature, but most of the adults retreated to watch from a distance.
Amalia was more eager to pet the rabbits, hens and a new little guinea pig.
Wandering around by myself, I  noticed near Times Square one of the soon-to-be illegal Elmos who harass tourists and ask for money.
I marveled at the ever-present dog walkers.  How do they keep all those dogs from fighting with each other?  Or breaking away from the pack?
And I noticed this truck delivering Cannabis Energy Drink to the local Korean Deli.  I wonder what they put in that drink?

Art is everywhere in Manhattan, and most people never even notice it.
I spied faces in the architecture
Fire escape shadows on uninhabited buildings...
Split-Rocker is a giant flower-covered sculpture by Jeff Koons which dominates Rockefeller Plaza and coincides with the blockbuster Koons show at the Whitney Museum.
Even this graffiti-covered truck, which we encountered as we drove toward the Triboro Bridge on our way home, qualifies as art in my of the many odd treasures you can find only in New York, the greatest city in the world.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Found Art In the Garden

(Please click on the photos to make them bigger.)
(I just got a notice that a company named Konspect is offering some of my photos (below)  as wallpaper for free.  I guess that's a compliment, although I belong to the old school of people who believe that photographers should be paid for their photos and writers should be paid for their writing.  But I'm no one to talk, since I spend every day photographing and writing for free!  Seeing the notice about this blog post inspired me to re-post it today, two years after it originally ran.)

Monday is Found Art Day, so yesterday I took my camera out to the garden, which has pretty much been doing its own thing this year--perennials crowded together with weeds,  plus a few new annuals, some bean plants, a couple of tomatoes.  For an ignored garden it's looking pretty good.

Many of the flowers  were planted more than forty years ago by previous owners--spectacular irises (all done now) and some lilacs that I know go back a hundred years.    The lilies of the valley and day lilies have spread all over the place and the yellow forsythia--first harbinger of spring-- has jumped from the upper garden in the front yard down to the back garden by the pool, making for a solid wall of yellow.

I decided to channel Georgia O'Keefe and look very closely at the flowers that are currently in bloom.
First here's a passionate pink petunia, next the first of the sunflowers, hosting an industrious bee.  Nasturiums are among my favorites--the tender flowers are edible and even the leaves are so elegant in design.  That last pale pink flower is on some crazy hollyhocks that come up by themselves every year.
The blue hydrangeas are a gorgeous color this year--I have a thing for blue flowers. Next is a sweet pea that returns and spreads, but has no scent.  The  ferns in the shade are so great for adding  importance to any bouquet.  And the black-eyed Susans--let them into your garden and they'll soon take over.  They look so cheerful in a rustic crock or ironstone pitcher,
First is a thistle, then a blossom from the hibiscus bush called "Rose of Sharon".  It always makes me think of the character with that name in "Grapes of Wrath."  Can you see the ant that's come to visit?  Next is a climbing vine that grows up the iron staircase bannister called, I think, black-eyed Susan vine.  Finally is a blu-ish flower that starts as a balloon shape then pops open into a star.
First is a white Cosmos, then a jazzy flower whose name I've forgotten, then a clematis that's quite different from our other clematis vines, and finally a red flower that always blossoms around the 4th of July and reminds me of fireworks. 
Even the giant weed on the left strikes me as art, because it grew out of the cracks in the 300-year-old stone wall and it's now about six feet high.  I'd never pull it out after it was clever enough to find a footing.  You can see that the blackberries--completely wild and unkill-able--are nearly ready to pick.  We pick masses of them every year to make into jam, which we give away as gifts all winter.  The tomatoes, on the other hand, are far from ready.  Every year I hope to grow one that tastes as good as Greek tomatoes, but it never happens.
I have a weakness for Victorian cast iron garden furniture.  This rustic twig-style bench was made around 1860 by the firm of Janes Beebe in New York.
At the near end of the pool is this victorian cast iron set of chairs, love seat and table--with a grapevine design.
My wooden angel of the garden gets more weathered every year.
If you look carefully around the rock garden and fish pond you find quite a few angels, fairies and small magical people and animals, most of them watching the golden fish and  bug-eyed frogs in the pond.  There's even a roaring iron lion in one corner and of course a witch's ball.  I think they also count as found art.
Finally there's this big frog--looking just like the real frogs that croak at us when we're invading what they consider their pond.  When we turn on the waterfall, the water comes from under him and runs down the rocks He's the mascot of our garden.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gardening on the Fourteenth Floor

When daughter Eleni, her husband Emilio and their toddler Amalia moved from one apartment in their building to another, bigger one, as soon as I realized that it had a balcony, I vowed to plant things so that from the living room it would look like there was a garden outside.  Another reason for adding planters was to close off the openings under the fence around the balcony, to prevent Amalia from slipping under or pushing things off  (not that she would ever be allowed on the balcony without an adult!  The glass door to the balcony is kept double-locked.)

(This is how it looked before they moved in.)

This balcony is on the fourteenth floor, facing south and east, and the winds out there are fierce.  Now, I am in no way an expert gardener, and I had no idea how much sun different sections of the balcony would get.
Early June

In early June I assembled and drove in from Massachusetts some inexpensive planters, bags of dirt,  geraniums, pansies, Dusty Miller, New Guinea Impatiens, and some plants with multi-colored leaves that I know like being in the  shade.  I also brought two large round planters that had a Greek acacia leaf design and two small evergreen trees that look like cypresses but aren't. (Can't remember their name, but I know they grow fast.)  The whole thing was very reasonable--because I bought it all in Massachusetts,  not New York City.

At the beginning

I quickly learned a lot about balcony gardening! All the pansies I planted around the two trees promptly died.  So did some of the impatiens which were getting too much sun. ( Later I planted a dwarf sunflower in the sunniest spot.)  The Dusty Miller survived--it always does--and the geraniums did okay.

Late July, looking northeast

Late July, looking south

But the flowers that amazed me with their exuberance were the transplanted Morning Glory plants, grown from seed, that rapidly charged up the dental floss strings that I had tied to the top railings of the balcony, and then hurried across the top, growing so fast you could almost see them go.  I never thought that tender Morning Glories would withstand the harsh winds and lack of consistent sun on that balcony, but they are now draped inside and out, searching for the sunniest spots.

Even from the street below they make the balcony stand out from the rest.

I'm pleased with the results so far, but about half the plants didn't survive and I'd  appreciate advice from expert gardeners out there as to what, besides morning glories, would flourish up there on the 14th floor.  I know that everything will freeze come winter, but I'm hoping we can keep the trees alive--taking them inside if necessary.

We're certainly not the only ones in the neighborhood who are gardening high in the clouds.  Some incredible gardens with outdoor furniture and statues and large trees are visible from Eleni's apartment.  The leggy beauty above always puzzles people who are looking down from the kitchen window.  She lives on the roof of a nearby brownstones far below.  After much sleuthing, we found out that she is a work of art and the brownstone is an art gallery.  The building is called the  Waterfall Mansion because it has the largest indoor waterfall in New York--23 feet!.  And it all could be yours for only $31 million.

Here's a party they had on the roof while I was visiting New York in July (and snooping on the neighbors.)  Their garden on the roof is a little more lavish than Eleni's balcony garden, but I can use it as inspiration for what we'll be planting next year.