Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

“No!”

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:

spooky-robe

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.

bakerydrapersdagata

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.

balconies

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

 

Tarxien Temples

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

As one does, I hopped off the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus in Tarxian, just outside of Malta’s capital city of Valetta.  I knew that the whole reason I was here—my desire to see the 3000 B.C. underground burial site called the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni—was closed for renovation. How do you “renovate” a 5000-year-old burial site?  But the driver had said there were other ruins off to the right somewhere, so I decided to have a look.

Here’s something about Malta.  While Italy offers a full palette of colors—ochre, Pompeian red, peacock blue, cerulean, warm beiges, every iteration of green—Malta is monochrome.  Everything is built out of limestone, and limestone doesn’t have a lot of variation to it.  Also, the buildings on Malta are all built to about the same height—two or three stories.  A coworker who had been to Malta told me before I left, “It all looks the same.”  So before I left the bus stop, which had no sign, I took a mental snap shot of the area.  There was something called GymStars which I figured I could remember and which would be unusual enough that people might know it if I had to ask for directions.

Two other women had also hopped off the bus with me, or I should say, I hopped and they stepped down.  They were much too sensible to hop, with their sturdy shoes and serious rain coats and hats.  They were from England, so they were much better prepared for rain than I was.

They were in Malta for the annual convention of Soroptimist.  Had I heard of it?  Umm … it sounded vaguely familiar but a lot of things do to me.  If it was a missionary thing I didn’t want to know.  Was it like the Women’s Institutes—where women in rural England compete on pie baking and floral arrangements? I asked.

No, and here I quote from their website: “Soroptimist is an international volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world.”  The italics are theirs; why they emphasize international I don’t know.  Maybe so you don’t confuse it with that local Soroptimist group that keeps knocking on your door and trying to give you pamphlets.

I kicked myself for not knowing there was an international women’s conference in town during my visit.  How great would that have been to attend?  I wondered what kind of freebies they handed out.

We chatted a bit about my job working for a refugee organization and about their convention, but within a few minutes we were lost.

“The bus driver waved in this direction,” one of my companions said, “so we at least know we’re on the right track.”  We asked for directions, walked a few blocks, asked again, and so on for about 20 minutes until we stumbled upon the temples.

There was a tiny office and gift shop where I paid my €4 or whatever it was, then we stepped outside to see the site, which was covered by sailcloth to protect visitors against sun and rain.

The Tarxien temples are megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 B.C.  “Megalithic” means “relating to or denoting prehistoric monuments made of or containing megaliths,” or “massive or monolithic.”  You get the idea.

megalithic

This was a floor section, about a foot and a half thick.

floor

It is believed that these stone balls were used to roll the mega sized slabs into place. No doubt with slave labor.

balls

The holes in these slabs were thought to be used to lash doors to the walls.

door-holes

There wasn’t much left of the decoration except for this lovely half a fat person.

fat-lady

I glanced around to find my two Soroptimist friends.  They were still at the first signpost and were consulting a book, so they were clearly taking a deep dive and would be there for hours. It was 11:00 a.m.  I had 32 more bus stops to go and had to leave the next day, so off I went in search of the bus stop.