Category Archives: Uncategorized

Running Toward the Guillotine

I was lying on the couch the other day, performing my patriotic duty. 

I thought, “Ten days since the Governor’s stay at home order went into effect. Only three weeks to go.  I can do this!”  Then I realized that only three days had actually passed. 

Today, it really has been a week and a day since Minnesota’s Governor issued renewed coronavirus restrictions. I had rushed to spend time outdoors with my granddaughters on a nice-weather day, the day new restrictions would be announced.  I listened to the Governor’s press conference as I drove home, and wept.

This was going to be hard.

Restaurants would be closed for a month. Would my son lose his job? My daughter in law is on paid maternity leave, a rarity in the US. But what if her employer went bankrupt? Gyms would close; I would be furloughed from the YMCA and not have access to indoor workouts during a cold month.

I don’t think people outside America appreciate how important Thanksgiving is to most Americans. It’s my favorite holiday because it’s so simple—just a gathering with family and eating traditional foods. Thanksgiving was one week away. Would I be able to join my family around the table?

The Governor was unequivocal. For the next month, including Thanksgiving, “in-person social gatherings with individuals outside your household are prohibited.” He didn’t say it was okay if you wear masks and observe social distancing.

No social gatherings with multiple households, period.  “Even outdoors,” he added.

So Thanksgiving was mashed potatoes and stuffing eaten on the couch and a family Zoom call. It was fine.

What is hard is feeling like I am one of only a few people I know who are following the rules. Am I just an uptight, rigid rule follower? A sheep?  I know I’m not imagining things when people give me funny looks when I wear a mask indoors in certain settings.

It isn’t surprising when it’s conservatives. I have some conservative cousins. One posted a photo of 24 people, including seniors, gathered around for Thanksgiving. No masks, no social distancing. They were in her brother’s shuttered restaurant. As a restaurateur, he—and probably all of them—know this is exactly the type of event the Governor warned us against.       

But they are the exception among my people. The rest are liberals who don’t believe coronavirus is a hoax or overblown and do believe masks work. Some of them are older and have underlying conditions. They share photos or tell me nonchalantly what they’ve done, so—do they not realize they are putting themselves and others at risk?

I worked for nine years for five different public health organizations. Is that why the restrictions seem so clear to me. Why are they so hard for most people to understand?

An example: A friend who is 72 with underlying health issues has a studio apartment in the basement of her tiny house. She is decluttering.  “I got the chance to haul boxes of stuff from the basement,” she said, “while my renter was at her sister’s for Thanksgiving.”

I paused, trying to understand. “So you spent hours in her space. She doesn’t use any of your space … right?”

“She only uses the laundry room.” The laundry room, upstairs between the kitchen and bathroom.

I could hear in her voice a dawning awareness that maybe this wasn’t such a good set up.  “But they all got tested before Thanksgiving,” she said.

Wow, they’re so smart! Smarter than Dr. Fauci or Michael Osterholm or the Governor, or all epidemiologists in the world.

The Governor didn’t say, “No Thanksgiving mixing of households—unless you all get tested.”


Or is it magical thinking?

I am reading Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities.  Written in 1859 but set during the French Revolution, there is this: “… a species of fervor or intoxication, known … to have led some persons to brave the guillotine unnecessarily, and to die by it, was … a wild infection of the wildly shaken public mind. In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease—a terrible passing inclination to die of it.” 

Elsee Anne

I have always taken the summer off from blogging, but somehow this summer blurred into fall, and now we’ve had our first snowstorm in Minnesota, with nine inches of the white stuff. 

Normally I would be consoling myself by planning a trip.  Not this year.  My pal Lynn invited me to join her and some other friends in Crete this past May, and that was cancelled thanks to Covid.  She’s rebooked it for next May but I can’t work up the enthusiasm to start thinking about it.  I did search airfares to Scotland for New Year’s—or Hogmanay as they call it.  Fares are about the same as ever but a pop-up informed me that the UK “may impose restrictions on travelers from the US.”  Yeah.  Forget it.    

On the home front, I continue to do contract work for several nongovernmental organizations.  Every morning I scan for potential funding opportunities.  Here are my Top 9 favorite funding opportunities:

  • Development of Solomon Islands National Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus Porosus) Management Plan and Harvest/Monitoring
  • Arkansas Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program
  • U.S. Mission to Turkmenistan: Developing Potential of the Women Entrepreneurs in Fashion Design
  • Addressing Sorcery Related Violence in Papua New Guinea
  • Magnetic Levitation Technology Deployment Program
  • Consultancy for Construction Supervision of Fecal Sludge in Ethiopia
  • Provision of Civil Works for Fixing a Tarpaulin
  • Department of Defense, Science of Atomic Vapors for New Technologies (SAVaNT)
  • Provision of Services for Collaborative Computational Deep Phenotyping of Irritability

I want to know what the US National Institute on Drug Abuse learns about that last one.  I think we could all use some insights into the origins of irritability.

I am also working a couple short shifts a week at the YMCA in the childcare center.  The staffing and shifts have already been cut back since re-opening because, who wants to go to a gym and potentially expose themselves and their children to Covid?  Actually, it’s so dead there that I don’t worry about catching Covid but I do worry about the YMCA going under and hundreds more people losing their jobs.

My “Friday Fundays” with my two step granddaughters has come to an end with the cold weather.  They began calling it Friday Funday without any prompting, so I must be fun!  I sure don’t feel fun most of the time. I’m so glad I got to spend the quality time with them outdoors, before Covid began to spike again.

Because …. The big news is that my son Vince and his wife Amanda had a baby girl a week ago!  Now I will subject my readers to even more cute kid pictures. Vince turned 42 two days later.  Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while, or who have read our book, will know how significant this is for him to go from prison to parenthood. 










It’s even more of a big deal for me than for most new grandparents.  I have two biological grandchildren I have never met and will likely never meet.  I have two step grandchildren—I hate that term—and now I have a bio grandchild who is in my life but …  Covid.






—Imagine, being totally oblivious to all the ills of the world.  No regrets, no bills, no chores.  No Covid, no global warming, no Trump.

Maybe because I have had so many losses in my life, my brain generates worst-case-scenarios.  They come unbidden when I least expect them, and now they involve Elsee.  They are deeply distressing, so I am working on multiple fronts to stave them off.  I am writing out my feelings and thoughts using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This 10-day Lovingkindness meditation challenge was very helpful. Jewish Family Service got Covid funding to provide three free mental health counseling sessions and I am taking advantage of that. You don’t have to be Jewish to tap into this resource, if you need a therapy “booster shot.”    

For some reason I think “I should be doing better” but why?  Logically, I know my brain is generating these scenarios in a misguided effort to cope with Covid and all the other distressing news of the day. 

I hope you are doing okay!

In the Hall of the Weeping Dragon

Your reward for hiking hundreds of steps at Toshogu Shrine is complex of about six gilded buildings.  Every guide says to look for the “famous sleeping cat and sparrows” carved above a doorway.  All you have to do is look for the crowd of tourists blocking a doorway and snapping photos and selfies.

They weren’t very thrilling.  There are varying accounts of what they represent, mostly to do with the fact that the cat isn’t eating the sparrows, which means peace has arrived.

Another highly-hyped feature of the shrine was the hall of the weeping dragon.  No photos were allowed.  Throngs of tourists were let into the shrine like blobs of toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube.  A guide talked in rapid-fire Japanese and gesticulated around the hall to each group, regardless of what language they spoke or could comprehend.  I tagged on to a group of Asian Americans, probably Filipino Americans.  One guy was wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and kept rolling his eyes at me and snickering at the circus.

The guide pointed up at an enormous dragon painted on the ceiling.  He did something I couldn’t see with some kind of musical instrument, then gestured for silence by putting a finger to his mouth.  He cupped his ear to indicate we should listen.  I didn’t hear anything but some people apparently did hear a crying noise.

Here, like in every shrine, there were little wooden plaques on which you could write a supplication to the gods.  Or take home as a souvenir.  These ones were really cool dragon drawings.  They were more expensive than any I’d seen so far—around $10 a piece compared with the usual $2-5.  I picked out two from the boxes packed with hundreds of them and threw my money in the offering box.

Upon exiting I discovered there was a cashier just outside, and I stopped there to ask for a bag.  The cashier put the plaques into a bag, then said, “That will be twenty thousand yen.”

“I already paid for them,” I replied.

Confusion ensued as I tried to explain where I had paid for the plaques.  I probably should have known that I couldn’t just throw 20,000 yen in an offering box and say I was done.  But I didn’t know.  There had been no signs indicating where to pay.  The cashier obviously believed my story, but she had to check with her manager.

He was a tall, severe-looking man who looked down at me and shook his head slowly.  I assumed he was expressing his disapproval of a stupid foreigner’s inability to understand procedures.

“So I’m good?” I asked naively.

“No, I’m sorry,” the cashier said as she withdrew the bag in her hand from my reach.  “He say no.”

I was shocked.  I felt like I was being accused of being a thief.  No, not a thief—if I’d wanted to steal them it would have been easy to slip them inside my backpack.  But I had walked up to the cashier and requested a bag.

So I was being accused of being a liar, I guess, or an idiot.

“Well I guess I just made a nice donation to the temple!” That was all I could come up with as I walked off, steaming mad.

I hope karma gets that Buddhist jerk, and good!

I trod the stone steps back down to the entrance, mad as a hornet.  I really wanted those particular plaques, dammit.  Then I laughed at myself.  Buddhism is all about renunciation of worldly things, right?  It would be in the spirit of things to let this go.

I stopped at the torii again to try to find giraffes or whatever animal had been interpreted as such, but could not.  I did learn that the peony is the King of Flowers.

I was tired from physical and emotional exertion, so I walked along Nikko’s main street in search of Yuba ramen.  Yuba—the local specialty tofu.

I may have already posted this photo but the ramen was so delicious and comforting it’s worth posting again.

Then I sat outside and drank a craft beer, toasting the shrine sales manager in my head.


“I’m not really interested in a four-hour walking tour,” I said as we approached Cartagena after a five-hour drive.

“Me neither,” Lynn replied.  “Maybe we can ask for the guide to cut it down to two.”

We drove along the Caribbean beachfront, lined with tower-block-like hotels. Then we turned into a tunnel in what appeared to be an ancient wall, and we were inside old Cartagena. It immediately felt like we were in another country.  There were a lot more black folks, and as we would learn in a few hours, this was due to Cartagena’s founding as a slave port.  The streets were wide enough for one car, barely.  Residents and tourists thronged in the street and narrow sidewalks, there were carts selling bananas and sweets half in, half out of the street.  Horse-drawn carriages vied with motor vehicles.  There was music in the air—kids with boom boxes, live music wafting out of restaurants.  It had a vibe that reminded me of Havana or New Orleans.

Since our hotel had changed, our driver drove in circles for a while, then stopped and pointed to a street half a block away. “Your hotel is there, but my truck can’t drive there.”  We alighted, thanked and tipped him, then pulled our bags in the direction he’d pointed.

It was 2:30, and very hot and humid.  This screen shot is from the next morning—it was 26C (80F) at 7:35am.  So much for “getting out early, before it’s too hot.”

Our hotel was the Don Pedro de Heredia, and it was very nice.  A “restored colonial boutique hotel,” is how it was billed.  Our room was enormous, with two queen-sized beds.  “Why is there only that one tiny window?” I wondered aloud.  The window was high up in the wall and smaller than a microwave oven.

“Because of the heat?” Lynn posited.  Yes, that must have been it.  The room had an air conditioning unit—the kind that hangs on the wall and removes humidity—the first we’d seen in Colombia (although we hadn’t been looking).

As usual, I snooped around to find anything interesting or different about this place.  The toilet paper roll was positioned two inches above the floor. That would make for some interesting gymnastics.

A sign on the back of the door warned against sexual exploitation of minors in tourism.

There was also a No Smoking sign but when I opened the door to go for a wander there were two old geezers sitting in the hall in lounge chairs smoking.  So the Smoking Section was right outside our room. Fortunately none of the smoke seeped inside.

These Mayan faces were set in the wall every five feet.

It was the pool I was really after—as I gazed down at it from the fourth floor balcony I knew I would spend as much time in and near it as possible in our 48 hours here.

We were down in the lobby at 3:15, where our guide had been waiting.

“You’re late!” she said.

“But we just arrived …” I felt a bit like a naughty school girl.

We hadn’t eaten since 7am, so we negotiated that our guide, Nora, would return in two hours and cut the tour down to two hours.  She seemed happy with this arrangement.  “It’s a bit less hot at 6 than at 4, but only a bit,” she wagged her finger at us.  “Be sure to wear sun screen and bring water.”  She was younger than us, maybe 40, and tiny as a teenager but had a school marm air about her. “The city comes alive after dark,” she added.

We stepped out into the blinding sun and heat and crowds and held our hands up to shade our eyes as we scanned for the closest restaurant.  The city certainly didn’t seem dead.

“Let’s walk around the block,” I suggested, “so we don’t get lost.”  We found an Italian place and enjoyed a good meal.  Back at the hotel, Lynn napped while I jumped into the pool.  The day had seemed like three days; I could have gone to bed then but as instructed we were in the lobby at 6 sharp.

London Heels

Once I knew I was going in the right direction, settled back and enjoyed the lovely landscapes along the route.  The word “sweet” comes to mind when I gaze out over the English countryside.  That may sound patronizing but it’s not meant to be.

If you like rugby you will probably want to put Twickenham on your bucket list.  I made a mental note to avoid it on game days.

As we rolled into London there were some great views.  For once I have an excuse for my poor quality photos—taken from a moving train.

Waterloo would be my toilet stop every time I came into London.  This sign was still in place a month later, so “as quickly as possible” really meant, “someday, maybe.”

The sign made it clear that your 30p got you one visit to the toilet.  I wondered if someone had sued them, insisted they had bought a lifetime pass.

Then I was on the underground, which whisked me under the Thames toward Canary Wharf, where I would exit and try to find my meeting.  I was anxious about finding the building.  What if I took the wrong exit out of the tube station?  What if I got turned around?  They had sent me a map, which was even more out of focus than my photos and really just a jumble of unhelpfulness.

It showed a picture of the building, but how would I find it among all the other buildings?

The first time I came to England, 30 years ago next year, I had stayed somewhere in the vicinity of Canary Wharf.  Then, it was all gritty warehouses, Pakistani immigrants and elderly Holocaust survivors and native English speakers whose English I could not understand; street stalls selling tiny apples and pet goldfish suspended in plastic bags and possibly dodgy cassette tapes by Billie Ocean, Bananarama, and New Order.

Now it looks like this, according to a local news site:

I stepped out of the tube station and saw this:

Of course it didn’t have a giant black squiggle on it but you get the idea.  When will I ever learn to stop worrying and trust that I’ll be able to find things, especially when I have a map and a photo of the building?

I had dressed and accessorized carefully, making the best of what I had.  I had bought a really cute top in Cornwall that was suitable for a country holiday and I thought I could make it work paired with dress pants, my good jewellery, and an up do.  I felt professional when I left the house.  When I entered the building I immediately felt like a schlumpy schlimazel, which is just what it sounds like.

I waited in the gleaming lobby furnished with sleek Danish modern furniture.  I was sure the water glass the attendant handed me cost more than my entire outfit.  The reading selection on the table included The Financial Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal, and International Business Times.  All the headlines were about rich people making deals that would make them richer.

I noticed my heels were a bit worn.  Note to self: Buy new shoes before next work meeting.

One of the people I was meeting with arrived.  She was 30 years younger and 30 pounds thinner than me, blonde, and dressed in stilettos and a killer designer outfit. Mercifully, it was all over in 30 minutes.

I have been to meetings with foundations and corporations.  I’ve been to Ford and Open Societies Foundations in New York.  At Chiron Corporation in Silicon Valley.  And so on.  I normally carry myself well in these meetings and I had come carefully prepared.

But then I spilled my water and as we were wiping it up, my nose started running like a garden hose and I had to ask them for a tissue and blow my nose in front of them. These people were lawyers and I don’t know if they were on the clock but they were clearly impatient and possibly appalled by me.  I managed to maintain my dignity, make my points and ask my questions, but I was relieved when the revolving door swung closed behind me.

Down South

Two days ago.  I loaded my car with boxes and was pulling out of the parking lot of my condo to take them to the new apartment, where I would sign the lease, get the keys, and start moving.  Again.  The third move in 2.5 years.  I was feeling pretty pissy and had a bad case of the What Ifs: What if I couldn’t get the Internet set up in my new place?  I had to give a presentation about my Ethiopia trip on Tuesday.  What if my dining room table wouldn’t fit through the front door?  What if my new landlord turned out to be crazy, like the one two landlords before her?  What if, what if, what if.

The PT I was seeing for my vertigo had suggested I start meditating because stress can make vertigo worse.  Ha!  Who has time for that?  Maybe I would try to get back to meditation after the move.  At least my Restless Legs was under control, after being put on yet another Parkinson’s drug.  Now if I could just figure out how to get back to sleep when I woke up at 4am … blah, blah, blah.  Why wouldn’t my mind ever Shut Up?

My phone rang and I steered and shifted with one hand while winding down a steep hill and answering it with the other.  “Hi Mom,” I said irritably.  The number had come up as “Nina,” our family nickname for her.   She had a gift for calling at the worst times.

But it was her husband, Jim, and he sounded dreadful.  “Your mother is having another one of her episodes,” he said.  “I called Tom to take us to the hospital.”  Tom is one of his sons.

“Jim!” I said in alarm, “You should call 911!  What if it’s a stroke?”

“But Tom is nearby so he’ll be here faster than an ambulance could.”

It was no use asking how he was so sure about that, or reminding him that paramedics are trained and equipped to deal with emergencies.  Tom is a nurse.  Bless him, he works in a hospice, but I don’t know that that’s the proper training to respond to emergencies.

My mother went to the ER three times last year due to stroke-like symptoms caused by low blood sodium.  But both of her parents died of strokes, she has high blood pressure, and she’s been under loads of stress lately because in two weeks they will move out of the house they’ve lived in for 30 years into senior housing.

“Give her a baby aspirin, just in case,” I urged Jim.  In the back of my mind I remembered something about aspirin and stroke.  I have now learned that, like most things, it’s more complicated.  Here’s an article from the National Institutes of Health that provides some guidance.  The baby aspirin probably didn’t harm my mom, but it probably didn’t do any good.

It was a stroke.  We waited almost 24 hours to find out for sure.  When the neurologist finally gave us the news it came as a blow.  I think we had convinced ourselves it was the other thing—the low sodium—and that if they just gave her an IV she would be back to normal in no time.

“She may or may not regain some functioning,” he said.  “I’m not trying to be harsh.  I am just telling you the facts.”

Did you know carrots grow on trees?

I hovered near the hospital room door while a speech therapist did an assessment.

Su-san?” she said slowly, “Do carrots grow on trees?”

“Yes,” replied my mother confidently.

Ohkay …” said the therapist.

Down south,” insisted my mom.  “They’re coming from down south and we need to meet them.”

None of us knew what this urgently repeated phrase “down south” was about.   She had said “Obama” repeatedly in the night.  When I joked, “We know you love Obama,” she snapped, “No I don’t!”  So she’s still a conservative.

Sorry if you thought “down south” referred to my lovely UK road trip.  Here’s my mom with my sister and I in front of the house in which we all grew up.

Things with Strings

When Ingrid and I hopped of the Hop On Hop Off bus back in Salzburg, we had a few hours to kill before our marionette performance.  We stumbled upon a very good Indian restaurant.  I ordered my go-to favorite that I boringly get every time I go to an Indian restaurant, palak paneer.  But you know what?  I really like palak paneer, and I don’t go to Indian restaurants that often, so sue me.

We walked around the big garden called the Mirabell.  A statue depicting the rape of Persephone attracted my eye because I had seen another one like it in Rome last fall.  Then I did a 180 degree turn and it appeared that all the statues depicted a rape scene.  It wasn’t my imagination: “In the heart of the garden, you will see a large fountain, with four statue groups around it: rape of Helena, Aeneas and Anchises, and finally Hercules and Antaeus. These statues were made by Ottavio Mosto in 1690.”  That was pretty unclear, but the point is, someone thought it was a great idea to design a garden full of statues about rape.  Yuck.

On a lighter note, there were also statues of my favorite animal:

Then we were off to the marionette theatre, where we spent some time in the lobby looking at the exhibits and reading the history of the place.  My favorite past performance was hands down The Little Prince.  I don’t know what the one with the geese was, and there were many more involving princes and princesses, fairies and witches, and animals both real and imaginary.

When our concierge booked the tickets for us, she said they were great seats.  We were in the second section in back, which made me question her judgement.  How would we be able to follow what was going on?  The marionettes were only about three feet tall.

As soon as the curtain rose and the show began, we realized it was ideal to be a little further back.  The marionettes’ mouths don’t actually move, so being just far enough back to not be distracted by that helps to suspend reality.

It was a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, and I have to say it was magical.  The sets, the costumes, the music—it was all spectacular.  Subtitles were projected on the walls on either side in German, English, Spanish, French, and Chinese.  But you could have enjoyed it just as much without them, since the plot was a typical opera involving unrequited love, a quest, and comical misunderstandings.  All operas either end with everyone dying or everyone living happily ever after, and thankfully this was the latter.

As we walked back to the hotel, we spied this on the wall of another hotel:

Rooms, camera?  No thanks, I like my hotel rooms without cameras.

We came across a building we could see from our hotel room window and which I had wondered about.

“What is it?” I asked Ingrid.  “At first I had thought it was an Indian waffle house.”

“Waffen means force, like luftwaffen” Ingrid replied.  Luftwaffen, the World War II German airforce.  “But I don’t know what Sodia means.”

“Ah, the third name, to the right in red, is a store with a location near my house,” I observed.  “I don’t know how to pronounce it, and they wanted $250 for a pair of hiking pants so I’ll never step foot in one again so it doesn’t matter.”

“Let’s go find out what it is,” Ingrid said in a hushed voice.

We rounded the corner of the building and realized it was a gun store.

“Do you want to go inside?” Ingrid asked.


In real time, I am running off to meet my friend Heidi at Wimbledon.  I was going to work all day so I said no at first, then thought, “What am I thinking!?  When will I ever get a chance to go to Wimbledon again?”

I can always work tomorrow.

Whirlwind Tour

Five countries in 17 days.  I’ll never get around to writing about it all, but I’ll try to capture some highlights.  Today: Copenhagen.

People: The blondest people I’ve ever seen, and I’m from Minnesota.  People with pointy, turned-up noses whose language sounds like, “Hoon-dah, hoon dah, hoon dah.”  There were also huge groups of Chinese tourists everywhere.

Weather: Cold, grey, rainy.

Quiet: Two reasons: electric vehicles and bicycles.  Throngs of people in suits commuting to work, sitting ram-rod erect as they whiz along with no helmets.

Expensive: A salmon and cream cheese bagel in a nondescript coffee shop cost 55 krone, or about $11.  Two delicious herring appetizers and a small bottle of water at the Design Museum cost $30.

Design: Beautiful wood was used for everything from the airport floor to the bagel counter.  The Air B&B I stayed in was full of Danish Modern furniture and even the most prosaic item was designed, from canisters to ladles to the appliances and bathroom fixtures.

I arrived late at night and splurged to take a taxi from the airport.  That cost about $45, compared with the $4 train ride I would return on, but it also took only 15 minutes, compared with about an hour and 15 minutes on the train, which had multiple delays including all passengers being told to get off and switch to another train.

The accommodation was great for the price, if all you need is a single bed and a good location.  The three-story townhouse was owned by a woman named Mette who was a divorced lawyer with two kids who were at their father’s.  I only saw Mette’s face as I peered down the steps from the second floor late at night, which was when she got home from work. This was fine with me; I was wanting-to-be-alone mode.

The house, as I’ve already written, was a collection of beautifully- and/or sensibly-designed things.  I felt like I was living in an Ikea store.  One surprise was that there was no recycling.  None!  I think it was just Mette’s neighborhood, which had very narrow streets and thus would be difficult to get a recycling truck through.  It felt really weird throwing paper and glass bottles in the trash.

So what is there to do in Copenhagen?  Two things rise to the top—the gardens and the palace.  Maybe because the weather is so crappy, they work to make their gardens in Copenhagen impressive—and they are.  It really would have been spectacular with some sun, but never mind.  There are the botanical gardens, which have enormous greenhouse complexes, and across the street are more gardens surrounding the Rosenborg palace.

Since Copenhagen is so expensive and I was just at the beginning of my journey, when I am always more cautious about spending, I bought a sandwich and some grapes at Aldi and had picnics in the gardens two days.  Interestingly, Aldi is a horrible, dirty, dumpy store in Europe.  This was my impression in Copenhagen, and it was confirmed by my friend in the Netherlands, who said something like, “Eew … you shopped at an Aldi?!”  Still, it was cheap.

I toured the Rosenborg along with 3,000 Chinese tourists.  I’ve been to a lot of palaces.  Usually they are vast, spreading, and sprawling.  I thought the Rosenborg was modest as palaces go, and it was built more on a vertical plan.  That is, the rooms were small but there were four stories, as opposed to most palaces which have two.  Another thing that was different was the lack of religious imagery.

I knew nothing about the Danish monarchy.  Did you know one of the queens had an affair which resulted in an illegitimate daughter?  Any English king probably would have beheaded her, but in enlightened Denmark I guess it wasn’t an issue.

The Nyhavn area is overhyped.  It epitomizes the term “touristy.”  The fortress, called the Kastellet, was a “meh.”  I never got to Tivoli Gardens.  It would have required a bus ride, and I just wasn’t up to figuring out the public transport system.  If I go again, I would start with a Hop On Hop Off bus tour to get my bearings.

Next up: Utrecht.

Happy to Be Here

I’ve written about the rats, dust, diesel fumes, noise, and mosquitoes here in Ethiopia.

Now for the good things.  It is so great to be here.  With others I’ve been trying to raise funds for our Ethiopia program for about three years, and I am finally seeing first-hand what happens here.  It’s easy to get a bit cynical when you’re sitting at HQ.  This has swept my cynicism away.

It took a lot to get here.  I took an overnight flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, the capital.  An hour later I flew north to Axum, and from there it was a one-hour drive to Shire, where CVT has an office.  I flew to Lalibela for some weekend R&R and I’ll write about that later.  On Monday morning, back in Shire, everyone piled into one of the ubiquitous white NGO trucks plastered with our logo and donor recognition—in our case, the US flag with the note, “Gift of the United States Government PRM” (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).

Our destination was Mai Tsebri, home of my dearly departed rat (I hope).  In Mai Tsebri, CVT has a walled compound. The trucks back in through the gate into a courtyard with a dirt floor planted with mango trees and a water cistern as big as a Humvee.  Two floors of rooms ring it—a kitchen, canteen, training room, staff quarters, HR, logistics, and the oh-so important generator shed.

Each morning the staff pile into the trucks for the drive to the refugee camps, which is about a half hour.  It’s spectacular countryside, along twisting roads through the mountains.  I had heard that the ride makes people sick, so I was relieved it didn’t happen to me.

So after eight flights in 13 days and five long, dusty drives, I was in one of the camps where we work.

And it’s great.  I am so happy to meet the staff whose names I’ve entered into online forms.

There’s a lot to write about, but for now I’ll describe the camp and the mornings’ activity.

There’s a small Ethiopian settlement called Adi Harush.  The ground is red, rocky, uneven, and dusty.  The houses are built of square cement bricks and are maybe 15 by 12 feet.  Each has a tin roof, a door, and windows on two sides.  The houses are in pretty rough shape.

Then you cross some invisible line and you’re in a refugee camp.  The houses are the same but they’re brand new, neat and tidy.  The people are the same ethnic group, but they’re Eritrean, not Ethiopian, and they speak Tigrinya instead of Amharic.

There are communal latrines (below) and water spigots, schools, an amphitheater where boys were playing basketball, a women’s center (below) where the ladies can get their hair done, watch TV, and discuss Gender Based Violence.

There’s no barbed wire fence or armed guard to keep anyone in, and that’s a problem, as you’ll learn.

Three CVT staff found a spot of shade against a house and a group of people began to assemble.  One staffer set down two stools about eight inches high, gestured for me to sit down, and sat next to me.  The other two employees began to present information on trauma and torture to about 30 men, women, and children while my stool mate interpreted for me.  We call this a sensitization—to help people understand that if they’re depressed, anxious or not sleeping, that’s normal given what they’ve been through, and CVT can help.

Almost everyone in the camp is separated from his or her family.  Some were forced into never-ending military service, kept in underground prisons, or trafficked.  There are lots of children on their own, and there are waves of suicide among them.

I had the interpreter seriously repeating everything into my ear, while two tiny boys stood directly in front of me making funny faces.  One had no pants on.  Did I laugh at them and risk looking insensitive to the crowd, or remain serious and miss the joy of flirting with small children?  I think I did all of the above.

Shops Lost in Time

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Should I say, “in” or “on” Malta?  It’s an island, so it feels like I was on it, not in it.  But it’s also a country.  I would never say, “I was on Germany.” Curious.

I rarely sleep past 6am, but on my last day in Malta I slept until nearly 9:00.  While the previous day I had been awakened by a message from my cousin alerting me that the election wasn’t looking good for Hillary Clinton, this morning the first thing I saw, at the foot of my bed, was this:


Why would anyone think this was a good place to hang the complimentary bathrobe?

Spooked, I jumped out of bed.  I had to get moving anyway, since I had only a few hours before I had to catch my flight to Madrid.

People ask what my favorite thing is about traveling.  That’s easy—not being at work.  Now, I like my job, but it does require me to show up every morning, go to meetings, meet deadlines, and achieve goals.  Everything is measured, tracked, and scheduled. I must be organized, coordinate with others, prioritize, and strategize.

Aside from catching flights and trains, little of that applies to traveling.  I can float like a moth from one thing to another, when I like, depending on what catches my fancy.

Today, I wanted to revisit the little shops and the Maltese balconies I’d caught glimpses of on my first day.  So I wandered around Valetta for a couple hours and took photos.


There seemed to be a lot of drapery makers.  My grandmother was a drapery cutter, believe it or not.  She was one of the grunts in an interior design shop which made custom drapes for rich people.  Thirty years ago, when I was living in public housing, she gave me a set of exquisite pale green silk drapes that her rich clients had rejected.

Some of the shops were open.  Some appeared not to have opened since 1929, although life on Malta didn’t really started until after 10am.

When was the last time you saw a “notions” shop?

notions-shop-2 notions-shop

I know I will regret not buying a couple of those trim pieces the next time I want to make a dashiki.

There were these two forerunners of Target and Walmart:

family-store-close-up universal-store

Can you imagine taking your kids to the Family Store?  The looks of horror and disappointment on their faces?  I would give anything to visit these places in their heyday.  I wondered when that would have been.

I felt nostalgic for a time when craftspeople like my grandmother worked in neighborhood shops making high-quality goods.  I saved until I could buy them with cash.  I had a couple really good pieces in my closet that I wore over and over.  Now, I have 50 cheap tops; the buttons fall off almost before I get them home.

The top balconies below are Maltese.  What makes them Maltese?  I guess the fact that they have a roof and are enclosed.


And yes, that is blue sky—at last, my weather luck had turned.

I threw my still-wet socks and underwear in my suitcase, and my friend the desk guy effortlessly carried it up the 200 steps for me.  “People write angry reviews of the hotel because of the steps,” he said mildly.  “But we have them on our website.”

I just looked, and I don’t see any photos or mention of the steps on the SU29 website.  However, if you’re going to Malta—or just about anywhere in Europe—you shouldn’t be surprised that there are lots of steps.

I was at the pickup spot for my prepaid airport shuttle 10 minutes early.  It never arrived, and I had to pay €25 to take a cab to the airport.  I sent Malta Transfer an email when I got home but they never responded.  So scratch them off your list if you go to Malta, but that was the only thing I could complain about besides the weather, which wasn’t Malta’s fault.

Here were some of the world news headlines in the airport:

trump trump-7 trump-4 trump-3