Friday, June 29, 2007

June 29, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXI: iMadness

I live in downtown Manhattan, not the place where one expects to find people standing in line for anything. Everyone here is too cool for that. OK, so maybe very late at night some kids will line up behind a velvet rope straining to get into the latest hot after-hours club or minimally to stare at the beautiful things who are allowed to enter.

But I’ve been noticing lately a new kind of line. It’s different because on these lines people appear to be camped out on the street for days. Literally camped out in sleeping bags, in tents, or sprawled out in recliner chairs. They have huge Igloo ice chests with them and in some cases camp stoves.

These are not street people, living on the streets because they have no money and are thus homeless. In fact, most are young (in their 20s I estimate); demographically diverse (though on occasion almost all are Asian); and from the looks of their high-end camping equipment appear to have money.

One morning about six months ago, a cold morning at that, walking north on Lafayette Street I came upon such a line. It stretched around the corner. There must have been at least 50 people hopping up and down on the sidewalk to keep warm in spite of all their North Face gear. I had seen them there the previous morning and out of increasing curiosity asked a few what they were up to. They told me that the athletic shoe store at the front of the line was getting a supply of the latest from Nike and they wanted to be sure that they would be able to buy a pair. I said, “What the big deal about being first? If they run out you can always come back in a few days when they’re restocked.” Rolling their eyes at my naiveté one deigned to tell me that I wasn’t getting the point—this I already knew. “What is the point?” I persisted. “It’s a limited edition. When they run out tomorrow, that’s the end of it.”

“Tomorrow?” I thought to myself. That means that all tolled, before they get their hands on the sneakers (sorry, that's how I think of them), they will have been on that freezing line for at least three days. I only hoped it wouldn’t snow or sleet over night.

I subsequently learned that these sneakers are collectable. These kids will never open the boxes, take the shoes out, or even touch the paper in which they are presumably wrapped in order to keep them in “mint condition.” That will assure a higher price when they put them up for sale on eBay. I also learned that some are paid to sit or camp in line by others who are too arthritic to do so themselves.

So I was not entirely surprised earlier this week to see a line forming outside the Apple store on Prince Street in Soho—a full four days before the iPhone went on sale. (See linked NY Times story.) At least it won’t snow, though the temperature soared into the mid-90s and the humidity hovered above 70 percent. But I guess it will be worth it—to be the first on the block to have one of these $600 gadgets.

But, hey, it combines a Web browser with a media player; and you can even use it to make phone calls. You really can have it all. But you need to get a tent. And be sure to drink plenty of fluids. It’s hot out there.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

June 28, 2007--The Taste of Money

They used to say that travel is broadening. And they weren’t referring just to the size of one’s waistline. Primarily they meant that by encountering different cultures one’s geographic and intellectual horizons would broaden.

All true. But one thing less commented upon is how returning home can also be broadening.

If the traveler can resist being sucked too quickly back into the world of everyday habits and responsibilities, he or she might for a brief moment be able to look at the familiar with an also altered perspective. This time, a version of that happened to me.

My first new impressions involved noticing the continuing churn downtown of new businesses filling empty stores and vacant commercial spaces. For some time there has been comment about the malling of Lower Broadway. In Soho there are mega-sized Pottery Barns, Crate and Barrels and Banana Republics. But seemingly resisting this transformation has been a number of idiosyncratic small business and eating places. My favorite held out until about a year ago—Buffa’s on the corner of Lafayette and Prince. Located there since 1947 it was a quirky, family-run luncheonette that was open for just breakfast and lunch. It served good, cheap food.

While perched at the counter with my usual egg-salad on white toast, I tried to figure out the family arrangements of the staff. Always ensconced at a table off to the right were two 90 year-old women who appeared to be the widows of the owners. Presiding at the cash register was a sixty year-old man who I imagined to be one of their sons. He was famous for grumbling if you failed to pay with exact change. Somehow it felt that if he had to make change it was for him the same as having to give you some of his own money.

But Buffa’s is gone, soon to be replaced, it is rumored, by a café partly owned by an NBA basketball player. One can only imagine what it will be like and the all-night crowds it will attract.

In addition to the demise of Buffa’s, returning from travel this time I noticed a proliferation of new banks and drug stores—both somehow reflecting the changing demographics of the area. The Duane Reades for the aging left-behind residents (their fixed incomes are not enough to enable them to gravitate south) and the banks for all the 20- and 30-somethings who have been gobbling up the new apartments and lofts that are filling every available parking lot. Actually, in many cases their parents are doing the gobbling-up, buying places for their children to live while they finish college, get started on Wall Street, or try to make it in the theater.

Reflecting this homogenization as well are the changes in demographics at my up-to-now favorite place to have morning coffee—Balthazar. Each week there are fewer and fewer artists there (how many any longer can afford the living costs) and other neighborhood locals. Their tables are being taken over by the very same people who are moving into all the new $3 to $8 million lofts on Mercer and Bond Streets. And more and more are accompanied by young children. Though I am very fond of children, this is more evidence of the suburbanization of downtown.

With my evanescing fresh perspective, yesterday morning, while smiling at one of the cute two-year olds in Balth, I noticed that she was holding and fondling something that appeared to be a small piece of fabric. This was in itself not so unusual since so many children clutch security blankets when they are out and about.

But a closer look revealed it was not that at all. Rather it was a dollar bill that she was holding and using to gently stroke her face.

Stunned and thus roused from my usual reticence, I stammered to the mother, “Is that money she’s holding?”

Nonplussed she relied, “I always give her a dollar to hold. She’s very careful with it. She never tears it.”

I did though notice that she was sucking on one corner. But it still looked good enough to shop with.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

June 27, 2007--Bar the Gates

Coming through Customs yesterday at Newark Airport, the line for returning US citizens was almost nonexistent—we went through in literally two minutes. On the other hand, the line for “foreign nationals” stretched endlessly.

My first thought, “Ah, the cheap dollar. Lots of good shopping opportunities.” This was followed quickly by the further thought, “In ways other than taking in some tourist Euros and Pounds, how fortunate for us that so many “foreigners” want to come to the US because many on that long line looked as if they were coming here seeking opportunity and would be willing to work hard and smart to make the most of it. Just like my grandparents; just like your family members, no matter how long ago they passed through Ellis Island.

And then almost immediately after getting to our apartment, I made the mistake to switch on the TV, and I was again dragged back into all the hypocrisy and demagoguery surrounding the debate about the immigration bill perhaps working its way through the Senate. Feeling that I could wait to reimmerse myself in that, I wanted to try to hang on to my residual feelings of tranquilo, I turned the set off and, after unpacking and cleaning up, turned to a stack of waiting NY Times.

Another mistake. There was an article from a few days ago (linked below) that reported about how Bill Gates and the immigrant cofounder of Google, Sergey Brin, were attempting to influence one aspect of the Senate bill—to increase the number of university-graduates who could secure Green Cards. Particularly for scientists, engineers, and health care workers. In an unusual alliance between two corporate giants and fierce competitors, they are working in a coordinated way to express the concern that the current and proposed quota on the numbers of these H-1B seekers is inadequate to meet the US demand and, of perhaps greater issue, that the current draft of the bill would phase out the provision that allows companies such as Google and Microsoft to sponsor specific individuals they want to hire. That would be replaced over time by a point-system administered by the US government. Considering that we can’t seem to issue passports to our own citizens, one can only imagine how well the point-system would work.

This is yet another example of the anti-immigrant fever infecting the country. Forget for a moment how we all got here (including, by the way, so-called native-Americans who actually were our first immigrants, arriving via the land-bridge that connected what we now refer to as Siberia and Alaska); forget also how much Microsoft and Google, to cite just two examples, have in trickle-down mode contributed trillions to the US and global economies (much of it the work of “foreigners”); forget that the reason we have to import so many low- and high-skill workers is either because no “real” Americans want to pick lettuce or wash dishes or because our failing schools are not any longer turning out enough trained professionals to meet the demands of employers; but do not forget the consequences of this know-nothing, jingoistic America-first policy that ignores history—Out of frustration and bottom-line concerns Microsoft and Google are more and more outsourcing their most advanced work. If they can’t hire enough Chinese and Indian computer scientists for the US, they are moving to set up centers of innovation in India and China.

It’s as simple as that. And as consequential.

Monday, June 25, 2007

June 25, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: On Being American

We closed on the purchase of our flat on Mallorca on August 8, 2001. Exactly 34 days before September 11, 2001.

Like many others, after recovering from the initial trauma (the first plane to strike the World Trade Center flew very fast just above our terrace in Manhattan—we were at the time standing out on it checking the weather), after the mourning and anger began to recede, again like many others, we wondered if we would ever again feel comfortable flying in an airplane. In our specific case, this meant would we ever be able to be comfortable with the nine hours of flying required to get to our glimmering new place perched on a cliff high above the Mediterranean. It was supposed to be a sanctuary of tranquilo not a place that we would have to endure anxiety and fear to reach.

On September 12th we received an email from the manager of our Spanish bank, Senior S____. We barely knew him; he knew us even less. We needed a Spanish account into which to transfer dollars and then convert them to pesetas before withdrawing the millions of them required to buy the flat. We had met him casually just one time—on the morning of August 8th when we went to Bancaja in Peguera to pick up a few checks and a literal suitcase of cash.

But his email was written to us as if we had been lifelong friends. In it he expressed sadness about what had happened in New York; and since he knew we lived downtown, shared his concerns about our personal circumstances, hoping that we were as well as could be expected in such horrific circumstances. He also wrote to tell us that there were plans to hold a memorial and prayer service on the beach in Palma, the island’s capital; and a few days later he wrote again to report about the turnout—at least 10,000 he said—and the outpouring of sympathy, emotion, and solidarity with the American people. This in spite of the fact that very, very few Americans come to Mallorca, all the more reason why his wishes and reports made us feel a part of a world community.

After two months we were secure enough about flying, and still feeling his and other Mallorquins’ long distance embrace, that we made plans to go there and stay for the first time in our flat.

There were some difficult moments—for example, we had underestimated the effect that having a place so close by the sea would have on the terrace plants, the exterior walls, and especially on the fabrics within an apartment shuttered for months and thus unaired, that we needed very quickly to find a painter, replace some foundation plants, and get everything out into the abundant sun to dry out. All this while severely jet-lagged and in spite of having very, very little Spanish. Barely un poquito. And did I mention that the telephone in the flat didn’t work nor did our American cell phone—what did I know about Sim cards?

But just above us, anchored higher up on the cliff side, were blessedly the Thomases. As it turned out a wonderful German couple from Hamburg who had been coming to Mallorca for decades and whose new villa had just been totally burglarized—every stitch of their furniture, all electronics, their art work, plants, and even the electric stove-top had been surgically removed. So in retrospect, considering what they had hours before discovered, Karin’s melodious “Hellooo” of welcome was remarkable. They still had a key to their old flat in Apartvillas, our complex of mini-villas, and had let themselves into it as a place to stay while haggling with the police, insurance people, and figuring out what next to do.

They had heard through the very-reliable local grapevine that an American couple had bought a flat in the area; and from our grumbling and moaning on the terrace about our own frustrations, they assumed correctly that we were that couple. So their Hellooo of welcome was in part derived from that knowledge and, we soon learned, from their sense that we could benefit from some immediate assistance and nurturing. During the next few days they supplied an abundance of both, brushing aside our offers to try to be helpful to them, which we felt was remarkable considering that their circumstances were in truth much more upsetting and dire than ours.

And we also later learned, though they until this day are among the most generous and optimistic people we have ever encountered, that they had been extra-concerned about us because they knew that we were Americans and, because of that, extra-compassionate about what they presumed we had recently experienced. As a post-World War II baby and as a Jewish person who had lost many relatives in The Camps, I am reluctant to ashamedly admit now that this was not what I expected from Germans of their generation.

(And I must quickly add that among the many other things we learned about the Thomases as the years proceeded was how much their families too had suffered under Nazism and how they despised Hitler and all that he and his henchmen perpetrated.)

But things about being American changed.

During that first visit and the one a few months later, any time someone was able to make the distinction between British and American English--understandable most couldn’t—we felt waves of empathy and solidarity. We had done nothing personally to deserve that but understood. Something terrible did happen to America, most in the world knew that; and if we were to be the recipients of that shared rage and grief, it felt good and, truthfully, comforting to be able to do so.

Later, though, after America, we, preemptively invaded Iraq, against the best advice of most sympathetic Europeans, we came to share as well some of that collective responsibility. There were few incidents, but enough to make us feel unfairly treated—didn’t they realize that we too opposed the war, hated our government for causing it, and that we, likely more than they, would suffer the long-term consequences?

But after one incident that should have been trivial—a dispute over a parking space which in this small place to some is never in fact trivial—when the other driver who turned out to be British spat at us, though we were clearly in the right, “Just like an American! Thinking you can throw your weight around in the world.” This from one of our Iraq allies! I was raging but quickly, with Rona’s ministerings calmed down and realized if up to that point I had been happy to accept the world’s collective embraces for something that I had not directly suffered, I would now have to endure these epithets, equally for something for which I was only collectively responsible. But responsible nonetheless.

There were a few other incidents of personal anti-Americanism; but as with so many things, over time, these diminished in number and intensity as people began to take the war for granted—that it would be endless, that there was nothing much any of us could do to stop it. And so we and they slumped back into political passivity and once again thought primarily about the sybaritic pleasures supplied to us daily by the Sea, the sun, the air, the food, the wine, and good companionship--including with us Americanos.

In fact, we soon began to become local exotics.

Here there are mainly “native” Mallorquins (which I suppose means at the minimum that your great grandparents were born here), expatriates (mainly British and German), second or third or fourth homeowners (again mainly Germans and Brits), tourists (still English and . . .), and regular, intermittent residents (us, in this case, joining the British and Deutsch frequent visitors).

To us they are the exotics, especially the Mallorquins with their own unintelligible language, foods, music, and customs. But we are finding that we serve the same purpose for them. Partly because the island is small and not much either changes or, for that matter, happens, anything that seems new and different is in hot demand. If only as something to speculate and gossip about.

We got a clear sense of this latter reality when leaving a familiar restaurant the other night with a “doggy bag” of uneaten fish and vegetables. The waitress who brought it to us, new this visit, said, in simple enough Spanish that even I could understand (I’ll translate), “You’ll have this for lunch tomorrow up in La Mola?”

Nothing so unusual about that, except the reference to La Mola, the craggy rock on which our flat is perched. How did she know that—where we lived? We may have some years ago casually mentioned this to the owner of the restaurant with whom we had become acquainted, but this very new waitress, from Ecuador no less, knew this about us! And it is not a tiny restaurant with just six tables—it is a sprawling place that has 40 or 50 tables spread out along the harbor front—and so they have literally hundreds of customers a day.

It made us wonder what got talked about during the break between lunch and dinner. There is nothing that special about us to talk about that they could possibly know since our Spanish is still so limited. What could we possibly have told them about us? Except, ah, except that we are Americans and make the long twelve-hour journey to get here when if all we were interested in was sun and sand Florida would be so much closer.

Friday, June 22, 2007

June 22, 2007--Fanaticism LXXX: The Road to Heaven

As we are about to fully enter the summer driving season, forget for the moment how you are going to find enough money to pay for gas, think instead about what you might do with the kids in the back seat who again this year will be whining, “Are we there yet?”

To those of you who are dreading the thought of this, there is good news: the Vatican has again come to your rescue. Cardinal Renato Marino, who heads their Office for Migrant and Itinerant People (these include refugees, truck drivers, and prostitutes—those presumably who “walk the streets”), has just issued a new set of Ten Commandments for drivers.

In addition to the obvious restatement of one of the vintage Commandments, as if it needs reiteration, the old Number One—“You [not “Thou”?] shall not kill”—and the listing of the other new nine, there is an accompanying document that encourages drivers and their passengers to pray together. Unlike the danger of driving while using a cell phone, Cardinal Marino says that saying the Rosary is a good thing to do to keep children occupied since it is “well-suited to recitation by all in the car since its ‘rhythm and gentle repetition does not distract the driver’s attention.’” That should work. (See International Herald Tribune article linked below.)

For folks like me, Number Five is especially useful—since I grew up at a time when the back seat of a car was, well, a place to maybe “get lucky,” the requirement that “Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.” Though something gets lost in translation (I prefer the Latin version myself), this one hits close to home since I still think of cars for such “occasions.” And what will this fifth commandment mean to the drivers of big SUVs who, I assume, bought them for the express purpose of appearing to be powerful and dominating, when in truth they feel powerless and all else in their lives seems out of their control?

I admit that I’m making fun of these good intentions—again, anything for a cheap joke—so let me end with a word about Number Ten—“Feel responsible toward others.” To me, this notion of charity is at the heart and literal soul of Christianity; and, ah if we could only follow it, wouldn’t we have a better world? Though not as eloquent as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” it will still do. Particularly if, since these commandments are about cars and driving, it could also apply to responsibility for our planet.

But alas conspicuously missing is any guidance about that responsibility. Wouldn’t it have been good if there had been an Eleventh Commandment—“Thou [you can see that I still like “Thou”—I’m more inclined to follow a commandment that refers to me by the second-person familiar pronoun] Thou shall not drive gas guzzlers.” Admittedly not very eloquent, but nonetheless responsible.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

June 21, 2007--Food for Thought

This island is now experiencing the latest form of globalization—becoming more and more a preferred landing place for illegal immigrants boating over from North and West Africa. So much so that the government is installing extra-high-tech mobile radars and high-speed coast guard pursuit craft.

It is a wonder that Mallorca has up to now avoided this “problem” considering that it is ideally situated—located almost equidistant between the costs of Algeria and mainland Spain. A mere hundred and fifty miles or so from both continents. And for Sub-Saharan Africans, fleeing Senegal, Mali, and other Francophone nations, it is a shorter ocean hop to Mallorca than to Spain’s Canary Islands, another frequent destination.

But what is lost in the current anti-immigrant fever, and fever it surely is, is any sense of history. The sea that surrounds the Balearic Islands is called the “Mediterranean” because when it acquired that name it was thought to be situated in the “middle of the earth,” all that was known of the earth to the people who lived on the lands surrounding it. And to get to one end of that earth to another, east to west, north to south, frequently Mallorca and the other Balearics were right in the middle of the middle.

Thus, archeologists have found evidence of Paleolithic human habitation as well as remains from the Phoenician, Roman, and of course Arabic and Hebrew peoples, among many others. And DNA studies of contemporary “native” Mallorquins have found that they are indeed as a result a mongrel race. Thus, the evidence, the gifts of this ancient version of globalization are contained within their very bodies. So, what is happening today and being reported in increasingly hysterical headlines here and in the rest of Western Europe is almost as old as the Sea itself.

To the intermittent visitor this blending of peoples and cultures is everywhere evident. Of course most dramatically at the archaeological sites where there are 6th millennium BC Stone Age remains; or at the Roman sites, dating from the second century of the Common Era, where there are surviving amphitheaters; or at the ruins of Moorish dwellings where visitors encounter extensive terracing and irrigation systems, hot baths, and decorative gardens. And wherever one turns place names, towns and roads, reflect this crossing of borders, this mixing of cultures and blending of genes.

And of course, closer in many ways to my day-to-day reality, every meal one eats here also reflects this hybridization. There is considerable interest these days in the so-called Mediterranean Diet because people who live by the Mediterranean appear to be healthier and live longer than others in the West. Spain, as evidence of this, numerically has more people living into their 100s than any country other than Japan. This in spite of all the relentless cigarette smoking and consumption of alcohol.

Is this relative health and longevity the result of all the fish they eat? All the good-cholesterol found in olive oil? The fresh fruits and nuts? And maybe even all the red wine that is freely poured beginning in the late morning and continuing until well past midnight? Perhaps the Siesta is also a factor? A recent study of Greeks, another siesta-ing people, suggests that snoozing just three afternoons a week contributes to health and well-being. So what will doing so six or seven days a week do for you?

I can report from unscientific personal experience with all of the above that I do feel much better here than when in New York.

But what is often missing from these studies and discussions about the Mediterranean Diet and way of life is any recognition that it too is a mongrel. It too is made up of inputs and accretions from all of the peoples of all of the Mediterranean regions and well beyond. A look at any local menu or just a glance at any recipe for any dish considered to be Mallorquin reveals that if it weren’t for the Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, or Moors there would be no Mallorquin Cuisine, or Mediterranean Diet for that matter.

The olive trees that cover the island and from which the elixir of all oils comes is the result of Roman cultivation. They are not indigenous. Some on Mallorca are more than two thousand years old and are still producing fruit. Likewise the orange, lemon, and almond trees that are equally widespread are all Moorish imports. Just think what these add to the Mediterranean Diet and the well-being of all of us. In fact, I could make a list of virtually all of the island’s agricultural products—peaches, plums, red peppers, figs, walnuts, artichokes--or go through the ingredients needed to produce any “indigenous” dish and it would be immediately obvious that the Mediterranean Diet is in fact a multicultural, globalized diet.

Take one of my favorites—Tumbet. It is at its best in the late summer or early fall since it is a sautéed and then baked mixture of vegetables such as eggplant (indigenous to India) and potatoes (from Peru). To make it the “authentic” Mallorquin way requires the use of nine ingredients—with just one being local. In addition to the aubergines and potatoes, it requires ripe tomatoes (also from the New World—Columbus in 1500 brought the first two from there back to Spain); zucchinis or courgettes (also originally from the Americas); green pepper (another Columbus import); garlic (indigenous to China and India); olive oil (Roman); black pepper (first found in Southern India); and salt (from the Sea surrounding Mallorca!) And of course, having Tumbet for lunch requires one to imbibe at least half a bottle of vino bianco, of Roman origin.

So while I understand why anti-globalization protesters turn out in such force at every G-8 summit, attacking McDonalds and Starbuck franchises since to them they represent the exploitation of labor and homogenization of culture that they abhor (and God knows I’d be the first one to chain my body to our café, La Consigna, if it were slated for conversion to a Starbucks), they should also know that they are not protesting anything new. As much as they and I avoid Big Macs and grande frappachinos; we should understand that at some point back in time, some on this blessed island threw themselves in front of the Moorish farmers who were sticking the first orange trees into the ground.

Tomatoes, on the other hand, indigenous Mallorcans might have welcomed because they were thought to have aphrodisiac properties.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

June 20, 2007--Another Lazy Day

More tomorrow from here--"Food for Thought."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

June 19, 2007--"Less Self-Deceit"

If you will, take out a map of the Middle East. A big one, if you can, that also includes a section of northeastern Africa. For my purposes, the best one would at the minimum include Ethiopia, the Sudan, and for good measure, Somalia.

Look at the map with fresh eyes, freed from elementary-school geography memories. Forget for the moment what you learned back then—the names of the capitals and the natural resources for which each country is known. Perhaps the first things you will notice are all the straight lines that define significant parts of every country’s border. Since there are all kinds of potential natural borders in the region—mountain ranges, rivers, riff valleys, and such—you might wonder why the map does not reflect this. But of course you know: literally every country on this map was artificially, politically created early in the 20th century.

Primarily, with an assist from U.S. economic interests (read oil), all of these borders were created by the then colonial powers who held sway over this region—France and especially Britain. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the victors, still dressed in stiff military uniforms, literally sat around a huge mahogany table with a borderless map spread before them and created each and every one of these countries—victors dividing spoils—and gave many of these countries made-up names and assigned to them new, appointed ruling families.

Not only were the potential natural borders ignored, related, but more significant, so were ethnic, tribal, cultural, and religious divisions. So the nomadic Kurds, as one example, found themselves living in at least three “countries”—the new Turkey, the freshly-minted Iraq, and parts of what the mapmakers called “Iran.” While in Ethiopia, the also nomadic Ogaden people found themselves confined to a corner of that newly-configured “country” while for millennia they had freely wandered across lines now inked onto what had hithertofor been a blank map.

This mapping or country-creating was going on at about the same time in other regions of the world—in South’ and Southeast Asia where Pakistan and Bangladesh, separated by a newly-bordered India were carved out for a large portion of India’s Moslems so “India” could be a Hindu state; and what we now think of as Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand were also largely redrawn, in effect they were fictions—all made up again by ignoring cultural and ethnic realities.

There is something else that all of these countries have in common—ever since they came into being in this way (and I could extend the list to all the rest of Africa, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, etc.), they have been troubled, at war with their neighbors, rife with internal strife and civil wars, with many having equally ahistorical and unrepresentative central governments that have perpetrated various degrees of genocide against “their own people.”

And we should wonder—is it any surprise?

For decades we have seen precisely the same kinds of thing leaping out of the headlines about the former-Palestine, the current Israel, and maybe now two competing Palestines--one in Gaza, as the result of Hamas last week defeating Fatah there in a five-day civil war, and one, a Fatah version of Palestine, emerging in the so-called West Bank of so-called Israel.

The U.S. and the EU, both again caught flatfooted and surprised about this rapid rearrangement, which in fact has been bubbling and building for many years, are scrambling to find ways to feel optimistic about the situation. One diplomat said it’s an opportunity “to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” (never mind that neither Jews nor Moslems in the region are allowed to even touch sows). Other’s are saying let’s provide massive doses of economic aid to the Fatah faction, starve Hamas (or leave them to the Iranians to support) and in this way show other Islamic people that, with the right help from the West, economic bounty and democracy can flourish in the area; and who knows, maybe others there will see the light and feel better about us and stop all this terroristic activity. Sound familiar? (See the attached NY Times article that attempts to describe some of this.)

Israel Prime Minister Olmert, also attempting to put a good face on the new facts-on-the-ground, said, “I suggest we look at things in a much more realistic manner and with less self-deceit.” All the while turning a blind-eye to the continued Israeli settlement of the West Bank—the new Fattah Palestine! Self-deceit indeed!

But then again, maybe we’re equally blindly stumbling into something promising—maybe there and in Iraq and in the Sudan and . . . we should encourage this redrawing of the map. This time letting it occur naturally (admittedly there would be great bloodshed as well—but what is happening in any case right now?). Perhaps there should be a Kurdistan; maybe the Ogaden of “Ethiopia” should be set free to track along their ancestral trading routes. With cultural and geographically-defined borders, maybe the world might begin to heal itself.

Monday, June 18, 2007

June 18, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: "My Way"

When friends said, “How about joining us for dinner at the Villa Italia,” since it occupies a special place in our hearts, we eagerly accepted their invitation.

We originally found our way to Puerto Andratx on Mallorca by accident. Actually, as a sort of third-choice accident. It was not at all where we wanted to be visiting. We had been to the island the previous year and had stayed at a wonderful rural hotel, or finca, in Valldemossa and wanted to return to it, the Vistamar. But we were late in making plans and it was completely booked. Very disappointed, we did some quick research and came up with what appeared to be a reasonably similar country place in Deià, in the same general area so we could still eat at some of our favorite restaurants. That at least would be some form of compensation. But, alas, it too was all booked and we had to settle for something that felt very much less desirable, the Villa Italia in a place we had never heard of with an unpronounceable name, what with that ATX at the end. Less desirable, we thought, not just because it was in Puerto Andratx, wherever that was, but what kind of an authentic experience could one expect at a hotel whose name sounded as if were a pizzeria?

But we wanted to experience Mallorca again and so we reserved a suite. Since it wasn’t really where we wanted to be, we thought—let’s make up for it by splurging. On the other hand, when they told us we would be staying in the tacky-sounding Michelangelo Suite, to tell you the truth, we thought maybe we should cancel the whole trip and go instead to, I don’t know, Disneyland.

Rona said, “Who knows, maybe it won’t be as bad as it sounds.” And so we took off for Spain. After a week of delicious driving around Andalusia, we flew to Palma on Mallorca and after a couple of very good days there headed south and west toward Andratx. When we got to the port itself, as we looped around it, passing the scattering of cafes and restaurants, it looked pretty enough; but since the traffic was heavy and we didn’t know where to go to find the Villa, we didn’t get a good chance to look carefully at things—Rona’s nose was buried in the map and I was straining forward in the driver’s seat, clutching the steering wheel, to get a better view of who might be threatening to cut us off or slam into us. Thus it was by pure chance, after zigging and zagging up a torturously narrow road, truly better suited to one lane of cars than the two it permitted, exhausted from the effort, we miraculously found ourselves stopped right at the entrance to the hotel—a nondescript wall of stone with an entrance rudely lanced through it.

There was no place to park, except on this hellish road, and no one to greet us. So I squeezed into a parking place with literally inches to spare front and rear, needing to use the emergency brake liberally to keep us from skidding violently backwards into the car behind us as I popped the clutch when shifting to first—the road was that steep. Even more exhausted, we scrambled out of the car—Rona needing to crawl into my seat to get out on via my door since I had to park so close to the wall to allow cars to pass without shearing off my side-view mirror—retrieved our luggage, and thought, without saying anything to each other (we were afraid if we spoke even one word it would lead us to an argument about whose fault it was that we chose this place or, worse, whose fault it was that we came to this stupid island when we could be . . . ), and thought, “We have no choice so let’s try to make the best of things.”

Again, since there was no bellman or porter in sight, we decided to take just our bag of valuables and leave the rest—who knows, maybe we would be able to find someone after we checked in who would agree to come get the rest of the bags if we schmered him with a million pesetas.

We passed through the entrance and were faced with a steep stone staircase. It wound its way up through a series of balconies, we had to admit, one more spacious and charming than the next. This place was in fact beginning to look like a real Villa—though we weren’t as yet ready to feel good about the Italia part.

A series of signs led us to the small office which was cut into the side of one of the terraces; and when we got there we were not only warmly welcomed by the clerk, but a man who was clearly a porter leapt up, asked for our car keys, and quickly disappeared. By the time we had finished signing in he was back, smiling and holding all four of our bags in a remarkable act of balancing. He spoke enough English to say, “Your suite is right this way.” He added, with considerable pride, “It is the Michelangelo!”

We followed him into what we later learned was the main part of the Villa and, once inside, up a series of yet many more steps--there was no lift. I thought, not only does this appear to be a nice place, even for a third choice, but having to go up and down all these steps might not be so bad after all if we could think of it as a natural form of exercise—I was looking for as many ways as possible to rationalize and feel good about the experience.

After about five minutes of trekking we finally arrived at the entrance to our suite. The porter carefully set the bags aside and took from his belt where they were hooked a set of huge, medieval-looking keys, the largest of which was for the door. He inserted it and needing both hands, it was that large, twisted it to disengage the lock. The door swung in and he stepped back to allow us to enter, gesturing with his right hand to direct us that way once we passed into the room.

In an instant we knew why he had pointed us in this direction because out of the five arched windows we had a sweeping view of the entire harbor and the glorious cliffs and mountains surrounding it. The light was perfect, glinting off the water, making it look as if it had been painted by Monet, and the windows themselves turned this glorious panorama into a series of framed landscapes.

I’m not sure who first silently began to weep at this magnificence—Rona or me. But in that instant, both with wet eyes, we were totally taken in, smitten by the splendor; and in retrospect, this is when our love affair with Mallorca, especially with this region of it began.

It did not hurt to learn later that evening that the Villa Italia had been built early in the 20th century by a deposed Italian royal for his mistress, as a trysting hideaway. It made the place even more romantic for us when we also learned that it took so long to construct, carved as it is out of the granite of the mountain in which it set, that she never saw it, having tragically and unexpectedly died. Becoming, thereby, a kind of local Taj Mahal.

And so, when recently, eight years after our initial visit, we were invited to dine at the Villa, we were swept by these first memories.

From the same impossible road, nothing appeared to have been changed, though we had heard it now had new owners, Dutch someone sneered, who were interested in doing things “differently” to attract a “younger crowd.” This to us had actually sounded promising because though we loved it that initial time and during subsequent visits, it attracted a decidedly older crowd, mainly German tourists and the menu in its restaurant reflected that—heavy on the meats and light on the local seafood and vegetables. Nothing very Mediterranean about that diet. In fact, unless the hotel could attract that younger crowd we feared it might not be able to remain economically viable—the older crowd was, well, dying off. We loved the Villa so much, including the Italia part now that we knew its history, that anything they needed to do to preserve it and not let it slip into governmental hands (where one would need to go, for example, to renew drivers licenses) was all right by us.

So when we saw that they had enclosed the previously open terrace with its expansive harbor and mountain view with sliding glass walls and had replaced the foldable canvas awnings with retractable aluminum and had covered the stone and terrazzo terrace floor with planks of teak wood, though these were not our favorite kinds of changes, we knew that that younger crowd they were seeking would probably think this made it more modern, sleeker, more nouveau-Euro. More like what they were used to back in Berlin, Hamburg, or London.

They seated us at the table where years ago Rona and I had had our last candlelit dinner together—we felt, what a great sense of hospitality this represented: we hadn’t been there in six years and even these new owners remembered. Tears began to return to our eyes.

Every table was filled and in spite of all the renovating and “improvements” the view was still spectacular—nature here is so powerful and abundant that whatever humans do cannot overwhelm it. But though there was not one empty table, even a casual glimpse around did not reveal a much younger crowd than we had remembered. In fact, it was decidedly middle-aged and not at all sleek or sophisticated. Though it was still early for Spain, just 9:30, it was evident that drinks had been plentiful and as a consequence the crowd was already not feeling much pain. They were having so much boisterous fun that it was difficult for the four of us to hear our own conversation.

Just as we were getting used to this (I reminded myself that for the Villa to survive it probably needed to attract this kind of fun-loving and hopefully high-spending crowd), just as I was half-convinced of this and even beginning to get reconciled to it, ah the view and all the love that suffused the Michelangelo Suite--including some of ours, just as I was feeling good again, as the vino began to work its magic, the music began.

Not the piped in cool jazz that we recalled (yes that older-crowd liked jazz) but from a local band. A loud and raucous one, heavily miked and amped, with a singer no less who blasted out medleys of 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s popular music. “Something In the Way She Moves,” I think was first, followed immediately by “The Way You Look Tonight,” and of course, three or four times during the next three hours, “My Way.”

We cringed—too much change that even the views could not obliterate. And worse, everyone else there appeared to be loving every minute of it—offering standing ovations, yes, and even jumping up frequently to dance! So that’s what the teak floor is all about.

During one of the band’s infrequent breaks, we were wishing they were governed by U.S. musicians’ union rules that required them to take 15 minute breaks after every 15 minute set, Rona leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that maybe tomorrow we should go to the real estate agent to see if they can sell our flat?”

Unlike in the past when we were suffering from jet lag and feeling frustrated that neither the telephone nor septic systems were working, and thus we were really serious about putting our place on the market (at least serious for an hour or two), this time Rona said this with a wink and half a smile.

Though we reside here periodically and because of that intermittent relationship with the town and its residents and visitors, we have fantasies about who is here with us. Those fantasies certainly do not include anyone who was having dinner much less dancing last Tuesday at the Villa Italia. Indeed not!

But the next afternoon, on more sober reflection, we found a way to begin to become all right with that reality. If we truly want to be a part of this place, to begin to belong, we need to accept its full reality. To stop being so self-satisfied and exclusive. Get over it.

We are not the only ones entitled to a place in this glorious sun.

Friday, June 15, 2007

June 15, 2007--Fanaticism LXXIX: The House of Fatwa

Bear with me as this will take some explaining.

Among other puzzlements, I grew up attempting to understand how a very ancient religion, Judaism, my faith, with seemingly thousands of teachings, read rules, managed to reconcile itself to life in the modern world. When it came to food, for example, very dear to me at the time, where there were dozens of prohibitions, what doctrine or interpretation of the Book of Deuteronomy could speak to us in the 20th century when the first pizzeria opened in the neighborhood or when my father drove us to Coney Island where among other things we bolted down a could of Nathan’s hot dogs and a quick Coke. Neither these nor my first pepperoni pie, I was certain, were listed in either the Kosher or non-Kosher column in the Old Testament.

But somewhere, sometime the rabbis of Babylon or Brooklyn sat together and issued rulings about soft drinks, Nathan’s Famous, and pepperoni—yes to Coke but a resounding no to Italian sausages. Thus, if one were inclined, there was guidance about what to do. I, as you might imagine, feasted on all, transgressively especially liking anything labeled traif—forbidden: shrimp, bacon, lobster, and pepperoni.

So it is no surprise that another great Religion of the Book, Islam, has its own texts and methods to guide behavior more than 1,400 years after the Prophet died and left us the Koran and the hadiths, thousands of his sayings. We Jews have rabbinical decisions, Islamic folks have fatwas.

Most famous to non-Moslems is the fatwa pronounced against Salmon Rushdie after he published Satanic Verses, considered blasphemous by the ayatollahs in Iran. But most include resolutions to questions such as—should women be allowed to drive, can girls and boys go to school together, can one wear jewelry that includes a cross in its design. Like Judaism, but unlike Catholicism, Islam does not have one centralized center of authority and so one finds women driving in Egypt but not in Saudi Arabia, just as Orthodox Jews must wear yarmulkes while Reform Jews do not.

But the situation with fatwas appears to be getting out of hand. Not only is there an exploding number of sources issuing them, including on the Internet, and this is leaving Moslems either confused about what to do—wear a head scarf or not—but also shopping around among them for the best rulings. (Jews, by the way, have been known to do this too—not all rabbis of even the same denomination have the same views.)

And, according to the NY Times (article linked below), the situation with fatwas has gotten to the point where some feel there is now chaos. To illustrate—one esteemed source for them, Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, or House of Fatwa, recently issued a ruling about a perplexing subject: in a place of business where men and women are allowed to work together, what to do about women who recently had babies and need to nurse them? Since it is forbidden for a woman "to reveal herself” to a man who is not her husband, this presents complications. Of course to accommodate working nursing mothers the place of coed employment could provide a private place for that; but in case that facility is not available, a woman, it was ruled, can nurse her child if and only if she also nursed her male co-workers. Not once, but five times. You heard me.

Let me tell you that things never got that raunchy in Brooklyn.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

June 14, 2007--Garbage

Yesterday morning at La Consigna, after the siemprecortados, orange juice, aqua sin gas, and a toasted pan integral with butter but no jam—a muscular man of about thirty-five shimmied up the palm tree out front and disappeared up among the fronds.

Almost immediately a shower of cut fronds and other tree debris tumbled down; and when he was finished with his pruning and slid back to the sidewalk, the tree was nearly denuded—it was a so-called hard pruning, just right someone assured us for this high-growth time of year. And around the bottom of the palm, covering much of the walkway and spilling out into the road was a huge pile of his cuttings. Rona said, “I hope they’ll clean this up soon—look what it’s doing to traffic.” True, a long line of cars and panel trucks that had slowed to either avoid the falling vegetation or, more likely, to have a close look at all the excitement, stretched back to the turning in the road.

We finished and needed to go to the market to assemble what we planned to have for lunch—you get the picture of our day: coffee followed immediately by working on our next meal—and less than 100 meters up the street, where there were equivalent piles of palm droppings, was the truck Rona had hoped would be there with a man seemingly sorting through the fronds and dried seed spikes and frond cowls.

About twenty minutes later, all we needed were a couple of tomatoes and a melon, we retraced our steps since we hade parked south of Consigna. We noticed that the man with the truck had indeed been sorting through the prunings and he had separated them into three neat piles at the bottom of each tree—fronds, the cowls or circular parts of the fronds that attach the fans of green to the trunk, and the knurled seed spikes. We assumed that they would subsequently be collected separately and then used, recycled, in at least three different ways—for thatching, baskets, and who knows what; but certainly nothing would be just tossed away or wasted.

This was not really that much of a surprise since obviously Europe in general is considerably more Green than we in the States, both the result of a culture of thrift that comes from a history of periodic bouts of scarcity and because they have legislated more rules than we about the source-separation of garbage, power usage, open burning, liter-per-gallon minimums, and even to not allow anyone to heat their swimming pools with any form of fossil fuel.

So when in our Rome here we act accordingly. Though back in New York we are attempting to act more responsibly, we even bought a string bag recently to cut down on our need for plastic supermarket sacks, on Mallorca we become instant recycling fanatics. Even before adjusting to the six-hour time difference, we pour over our refuse, dividing it into myriad categories and stashing in a variety of receptacals. The back seat of our rental car, for example, can no longer accommodate passengers since we have set it up as a mini, mobile source-separation vehicle. The far left-hand corner is devoted to empty clear plastic water bottles; right next to it is our space for tins; in the middle we stack cardboard, neatly torn into two-foot-by-two-foot pieces (we haven’t yet switched over to the metric system—maybe by next visit); and next the cardboard we place a neatly-folder pile of old Herald Tribunes, Majorca Daily Bulletins, and El Pais’s. You get the picture.

Oh, we simply toss our vegetable scraps over the lip of our terrace balcony as a form of compost for the greenbelt below,

The current municipal system (more about this in a moment) requires everyone to bring refuse to collection points scattered throughout the area. Which we do every few days when we have accumulated so much refuse in the back of our car that I can’t see out the rear window. In truth, in our mania we have established more recycling categories than the town requires. They do not have receptacles for glossy paper as we do in our trunk so sometimes we toss our newspaper inserts and direct mail brochures in among the cardboard while at other times we add it to the paper bin. We plan to write to the municipal counsel about this—just as soon as we have enough Spanish.

Not withstanding the glossy-paper conundrum, the island has the recycling situation under control. The garbage situation, on the other hand, is something else.

Until this visit, in our La Mola community, each villa or complex of flats had its own container for trash. Good citizens still brought glass and plastic and paper to central collection points though that was not required. You could put everything into your local container and it would be picked up twice a week and then things that could be recycled would be recovered. Sure, this cost money to do but, let me be frank here, it also provided work for some of the less-than-legal immigrants who have boated over here from equatorial and north Africa.

So either to save money, out of mean spiritedness, or some combination of both, the PP Party (Spain’s equivalent of Republicans) made it illegal for us in La Mola at least to have our own trash containers. Every scrap, therefore, must now be brought to the collection stations. This shouldn’t prove to be the end of civilized life as we knew it. After all, the rich folks in La Mola (and this is the very highest-rent district) have staff to deal with garbage and everything else while the rest of us are used to various versions of separating garbage at home and disposing of it in more complicated ways than just tossing it down a chute or into a pile.

But there is still a lot of grumbling going on because no one likes change of this kind, especially when no one here got a tax refund for the government doing less. At least we haven’t yet seen any checks in the mail, and don’t expect to.

Something else, though, appears to have been unleashed by this new policy—everyone in our area now seems to be as obsessed about garbage as we. And it has nothing to do with recycling.

If you are concerned about the lack of political and social activism—for example why people who are furious about and opposed to what is being perpetrated in the Middle East are so passive, no mass marches on Washington—here on the precipitous heights of La Mola we have action in the streets. And it involves garbage.

During the past few weeks, since the new ordinances went into effect, much of La Mola has become, how else to put this, a dump. In the absence of our fondly-remembered rubbish bins and the requirement to bring plastic and such down the hill (something everyone was pretty much doing anyway) each morning we find yet another street corner that has become an unofficial site for cardboard, wood scraps, plastic drop cloths, rubber tubing, or empty paint cans. And of course, since there are no services to pick this up, where one day there was just one discarded appliance box, by the end of the week, there may be half a dozen more.

So while Rona and I struggle to understand this sociologically and culturally, as it is our wont to do during our evening walks through these, in spite of this, still-glorious streets, unable to decide if the new rules have unleashed a streak of latent Spanish anarchism, or the obstinate feeling that-if-you-require-me-to-do-something-I’ve-already-been-doing-voluntarily I’ll do just the opposite, or if this rampant trashing is just the result of simple laziness, whatever its root causes we have decided to enjoy it, yes, to see it as another expression of Mallorcan “foreignness” (dare I say “authenticity”?) something to try to assimilate if we want to come eventually to “belong.”

Actually, we hope to see the new rules revisited, our treasured containers restored or, failing this, a change in local culture (to speak anthropologically).

In the meantime, we are doing two other things—first, during our sunset peregrinations we are neatening-up the informal or indigenous trash piles (how’s that for political-correctness?); and second, on those nights when we return home from dinner past midnight, with the vino still running in our systems, we have been known to load up our car with the junk and schlep it down to the recycling bins.

To tell you the truth, though we can force ourselves to think about this as a form of charm, or strain to understand the “cultural contradictions”—why for example do people who paid 3.7 million euros for a villa accept living with heaps of trash right at the entrance to the long stone-paved drives—rather, I wish everyone up here would just behave a little better.

Sorry, I know to call for “better” behavior is a culturally-ladened and constructed way of thinking about things. But garbage is garbage, and there’s no way to sugar-coat it. Though I should try to come up with a better way to put this.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

June 12, 2007--Manana

I'm being lazy again. See you on Wednesday.

Monday, June 11, 2007

June 11, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: Majorca, Majorca

There are three principal cafés in our village where people gather for morning coffee and then, not much later in the day, for drinks.

As if by hierarchical design they arc along the eastern rim of the circular harbor with the one anchoring the northern end, Las Palmeras, filled in the morning primarily with men who in the past worked the fishing fleet which is still found right across from where they sit, smoke, drink coffee and Hierbas, and talk and talk and talk. In Mallorquin.

The next one down the line, La Consigna, our regular place, serves a mixed clientele—early, most are local shopkeepers, still working or retired; a little later, owners, family, and staff of the many restaurants that thread through the back streets, alleyways, and around the harbor; later still there is at least one table filled with a clutch of the village’s most-estima abuelas; and toward the end of the morning the Consigna restocks with a trickle of German and British second or third home owners—many of whom have been here for decades.

And then there is something very different--Café Cappuccino, a glitzy recent addition to the puerto which has branches across the island in only the most fashionable of settings. Here it faces the most expensive yachts and here one never encounters any locals. Its devoted following, willing to pay a premium for their café au laits while listening to the Cap’s (that’s how it is referred to) specially produced, endless tape of Brazilian bossa nova covers, is made up entirely of what one of our most delightful neighbors calls people seeking “Important Coffee.” Though there is nothing really special about the coffee, in truth Palmeras may have the best cup and deal in town, what draws the crowd, I feel, is its physical separation from the other two cafés (the gap between it and Consigna is at least twice the distance than that between Consigna and Los Palmeras).

For the important-coffee crowd which consists of multi-million euro villas and mega-yacht owners who pull into one of the area’s magnificent calas and dingy into town for a coffee and some shoulder rubbing, the Cap is the only place to sip and, much more importante, be seen.

And closer to the subject of the day, the Cap also serves as the daily gathering place for some of the area’s expatriate community. For all of them, I contend, it is the social distance from the other two cafés that being here is all about—It’s the best place to display and say, “I have all of this and you don’t.”

As semi-expats ourselves, at least in our own minds, and as one who has lingering Romantic notions of what it means to be one—does it get any better than Humphrey Bogart, Rick in Casablanca smoking and drinking his way to forgetfulness every night in his eponymous café; or, closer to home here, Robert Graves self-exiled in Déja, high up in the Tramuntana Mountains, where he settled to write I Claudius, drink (is there a pattern emerging?), engage in occult and spiritualist practices, and of course transgress—fool around, in other words, with a parade of lovers and mistresses—with our expat orientation we some mornings make our way from Consigna, after our siempre, two cortados, to Cap for yet something else to drink but more to sit among the expats who can afford Cappuccino’s prices.

And it is here that some of my Romantic musing gets tested, occasionally shattered while at the same time I find some sense of on-going community.

Yes, one of the Puerto Andratx expats settled here after a life of roaming and working at various stops around the globe, which included setting up a vast bamboo plantation in Amazonian Ecuador where not only did he work the land in a sustainable way but also built and funds a school for local indigenous children; and another had a signficant career as a filmmaker for the BBC before giving it all up to live on a boat in the harbor; but most of the others came here to retreat from whatever world they were born into and grew up in; and, after rounds of frustration and dissatisfaction, in search of a place to get lost in order to find themselves, and hearing that the local wine was both good and cheap, after some fits and stops, they wound up here; and one finds them settled in each day at the same cluster of corner tables in the Cap.

It’s an open situation—sometimes there are just two or three squinting at their papers; other times more than a dozen, including us, drift in and out, pulling tables together from the least-fashionable parts of the café, which for this group, living lives filled with their own special set of contradictions, for them, for us, this suits them, us, just fine. Actually, not one of us would want to be caught within line-of-sight of someone in Guccis who just stepped off a hundred-meter anything.

It all gets started at about 10:00 am—no one jumps out of bed here—and some days there is still a group going strong at 3:00 in the afternoon.

What do we talk about? It’s easier to say what is never discussed—what you “do” or “did” (we’ve been an intermittent part of this floating group for three years now and not one among them knows or cares that I was an educator, have a blog, or am working on writing fiction—nor do I know much about any of this about them, even with my enquiring New York City kind of mind where “What do you do?” back home gets asked even before the coffee arrives); no one discusses politics very much (expect to share a casual distaste—that’s as strong as it gets—for George Bush and Tony Blair); religion is another non-subject (I’m not sure that this is because everyone is secular or because for some who left home it is too painful a subject); and even less often is there any talk about one’s background or ethnicity (for some of the middle-aged German expats I of course suspect why that might be true); and totally neglected or ignored are any stories or sweet reminisces about families left behind, especially about children or grandchildren (a familiar central topic in my experience among the retired non-expats back in the States where there is so much spoken about my daughter who never calls or visits and my son who is a doctor and who of course is the “biggest” specialist).

There is though considerable talk about real estate (what’s for sale and especially for how much); also about the state of local land development (the municipal government is corrupt, the mayor is finally in jail, and the environment is being ruined); how difficult it is to get anyone of the “locals” to do anything, much less on time, no matter how simple the job (it’s all mañana, mañana); the price of things (too much and getting worse—even the obvious millionaire expats among the group, particularly they, are careful when the cuenta comes to divvy up the separate charges to the last cent); of course there is lots of chat about where to eat, which is a highlight of almost everyone’s day (the most recommended places are those serving large portions and offering good value for the euro); and then there is endless gossip, mostly good spirited—little Schaudenfreud is in evidence here--about other expats not that morning at the table and celebrities in the news (I have been stunned to see how universally well-known Paris Hilton is and how much debate gets stirred up as she moves from court to jail to house-arrest to the hospital and finally back to prison).

From what gets talked about, more from what is either not discussed or no longer important in our expat friends’ lives—careers, politics, family ties, and such—one here is less about a résumé or pedigree than about what you bring to the table today. Not even yesterday, but this morning. I like that simultaneous sense of freedom and expectation.

But what I don’t like is how many expats here too much depend upon defining themselves by enforcing local differences—fishermen from aristocratic abuelas from middle-end from high-end second home owners from the super-yacht crowd from the Cap expats. Human nature I suppose, but still unattractive in even this otherwise paradise.

Perhaps this feeling is the result of bringing too much of an American perspective into this more class- and caste-bound environment. At least that part that represents the best of America’s myth of social mobility and blending.

But we can’t seem yet to stop ourselves from being thus American. We keep seem yet to not try to probe these differences. And so when we talk about our favorite places we often tell about a local bakery we like that has some of the best confections we’ve ever encountered (and as Jewish people from Brooklyn, we know cake!) no one else, even though they have lived here for 20 years and need to walk or drive by the place on their way into town every day, no one has ever shopped there or even noticed it. Perversely, confessedly that’s largely why we mention it. But we now understand that though the other day we told a couple of dessert-obsessed expat acquaintances about it that there is virtually no likelihood whatsoever that they will ever set foot in that or any place that caters so exclusively to locals.

And try as we might to get folks to say why they insist on using the British spelling of “Mallorca,” which is the way “natives” spell it, and continue stubbornly to use “Majorca,” no one has a good answer. We of course when with expats do as the expats and do not press for an answer nor do we wonder out loud why those who have also been here 20 years or more, forget going to the bakery, seem to insist on not speaking even one word of Spanish, always saying “Thank You” when their coffee is brought to them.

Even I know “Gracias.”

Saturday, June 09, 2007

June 9, 2007--Saturday Story: "Crazy Rona"--Part Three

In Part Two we found Lloyd Zazlo and his assistant Rona on the r6ad heading north on I-95. She was telling him about her childhood. A very unusual one at that, which included parents who sought peace at all cost largely by isolating themselves from the perturbations of normal life, especially any problems that manifested themselves in the lives of their children. A son dropping out of high school, for example, or a daughter, Zazlo’s companion, moving into the garment bag in her closet to get away from them and her troubles. This was all too strange for him and he was glad when he was able to switch the subject since he had other things on his mind. As, apparently, did that surgeon Dr. Weinstein. Had he really said,“Take him out and shoot him”?

Thus, in Part Three we discover that . . .

“Into that clothing bag I took with me everything I needed, as if I were running away from home. Which I suppose I was.” While I was squinting into the light at the road signs, feeling my way for the turnoff that would take us north toward Amherst, Rona, in spite of my hopes, returned to the subject, speaking now pointedly not to me but into the space that surrounded her as she curled herself against the car door, as far away from me or anyone as that tight space would allow. “My portable radio, my books, a flashlight, apples, my pajamas, my shredded baby blanket. It was, it still is the happiest time of my life.”

I knew enough not to interrupt much less try again to touch her. How much further, I thought, until we get there?

“You probably wouldn’t understand this,” apparently, in spite of seeming to be ignoring me, in her monologue, she was still aware of my presence. “You who told me what a happy family you came from. How did you put it? You were called by your father his what, his ‘number-one son.’ I can only imagine how that made your brother feel.” I pretended to ignore this. If she was going to insist on continuing in this vein I was not going to get drawn in. In fact, if I were to have responded I would have said that I always suspected my brother was motivated by being relegated to second-tier status in the family hierarchy. After all, look at us now. Who’s doing better? My brother the doctor, the pediatrician or me the struggling academic who’s been bounced around from job to job?

“How would he have felt if in the cabinet in the living room, the one where my mother displayed her wedding pictures, spare me about that, and the pictures of her parents, another couple of bargains, where she later on stuffed three pictures of my brother’s bar mitzvah, more ridiculousness—they never even had matzos in the house during Passover—and of course since my sister was the first born my mother had a whole shelf of pictures of her, all of them with her in crinolines, how would your brother, the doctor, have felt if there was not one, not a single picture of him? Get the picture? Sorry about that.” I was glad to see that her sense of humor had not entirely disappeared.

“Well, that was my life. That was me, ‘Crazy Rona,’ as my father anointed me after I told him that if he insists on paying his credit cards bills $20 dollars a month, the minimum, and thinks by doing that he’s getting away with something, he’s not as smart as he thinks he is since they charge him a million percent a year not only for what he owes but for all his new purchases. I was only eight when I figured that out. And I was the crazy one, right?” She was so incensed by this memory that from her still fresh-sounding anger it sounded as if this had all happened last month rather than fifteen years ago.

“So is it any wonder . . . ?” She cut herself off and dismissed me with a mocking wave of her hand. She contorted herself into an even tighter ball and I was relieved to notice that we were about to reach the Amherst exit.

I was a member of a Middle States accreditation team that was to spend three days visiting the University of Massachusetts campus there. My assignment was to look at their continuing education programs and add my assessment of them to the overall report. It was all to be largely pro forma. It was a foregone conclusion that they were going to be reaccredited so I invited Rona to come along with me to keep me company, which would allow her to get away from the office for a few days, and since I wouldn’t really have that much to do, we could perhaps have drinks, dinner, and who knows what else. I certainly wasn’t just going to drop her off at the motel where I had reserved a room for her—the team would be staying at the more charming Amherst Inn—and abandon her to her own devices. Her place would be nearby, there was a lot for her to do in the area while I was working, and it would be easy for us to get together whenever that might be possible.

She had seemed content, even nonplussed and had casually accepted my offer as if it was everyday that a much-older supervisor invited her to go away for a few days in the country. Rona, for certain, was from a different world than the one in which I had grown up—back then the only thing girls and young women were nonplussed about was whether or not to let you put your arm around them in the movie theater. But since things had been stressful for Rona at the office, to me her disappointing matter-of-factness made it appear that tagging along with me, and that must have been how she thought about this, tagging, was an opportunity for her to get away for a day or two. Nothing much more than that. Though earlier she had told me how much she loved the mountains.

But even though the foothills of the Berkshires had come into view, Rona still had other things on her mind, “If that wasn’t bad enough,” we still had about ten minutes to go before getting to the Best Western, “for an eight year-old whose parents thought more about what was for dessert than their own daughter, you might have thought I would have gotten lucky and been rescued by my grandparents. At least one of them. I still had four. My mother’s father, who with her mother lived downstairs from us, was the only one who showed any interest in me. My father’s mother didn’t even know my name.” She paused as if to elicit a reaction to that suspect charge; and said, when I didn’t react, “I can see that look on you face. You don’t believe me.” I did have that thought but couldn’t imagine she could see my face, much less any looks on it, curled up as she was. “It’s true. When she bought all her grandchildren necklaces with our names on them she spelled mine R-H-O-N-A. She didn’t know there’s no H in it. Shit.”

This in truth didn’t seem to be such a transgression to me, not enough at least to cause one to move into a garment bag. I can’t tell you how many times people misspelled Zazlo. With S’s instead of Z’s. You can only imagine.

Rona, though, was still thinking about her grandparents, “My mother’s father would take me down to the basement and show me where he kept his tools and where he stored all the things he bought for the house—if they were having a sale on jam or soup he would buy a supply big enough to last a year. He had been a grocer and was used to buying things in bulk. I loved that. Not all the things he kept hidden down there from my grandmother but the fact that he paid attention to me. Pathetic isn’t it that my fondest memories are going to the basement with my grandfather to look at cartons of toilet paper?”

Again I didn’t respond since I needed to pay attention to the driving. We were snaking our way through back roads with which I wasn’t familiar and the traffic had picked up as we approached town.

“Then one morning, I was eight as I said, he went out to the store to buy the paper and get cigarettes but he never came home. They found him dead, from a heart attack or stroke; face down on the sidewalk two blocks from our house. I was never again able to walk by there. To get to the store I would walk three blocks out of my way.”

I had my nose in the map and didn’t catch everything she had been saying. I knew someone significant in her life had died so I said, “Sorry about that.” And added, “Now where’s that damn motel?”

Ignoring me again, she continued, “On the day he died my grandmother, who had always kept to herself and was not much of a grandmother to any of us even though we lived right upstairs, I never remember her cooking anything grandmotherly for us, well the same day he died she had what I guess we would now call a nervous breakdown or a version of an instant case of Alzheimer’s. From that day on she wore her underwear on top of her dresses and only spoke Yiddish, which I didn’t understand. She called my mother in the middle of the night, every night, screaming into the phone that she was dying. And every night my mother would go downstairs and stay with her. All through the night. At least,” Rona snickered, “she was capable of paying attention to someone.”

* * *
“Is it OK if I put my hand there?” It was past 10:00 and we had finished dinner at the Asparagus Valley Roadhouse, as it turned out a not-very-charming or good steak house, in spite of the promise of its name or its weathered shingles. But the wine was adequate and by then we both had had quite a lot of it. It helped us forget the long drive and me to get past what Rona had shared and my less than half-sincere interest.

To my question Rona simply nodded and thus I allowed my arm to slide more completely around her back, she had already agreed to remove her sweater, so that the tips of my fingers could just begin to touch the swelling, above her bra, of her right breast. When they stealthily arrived at that delicious spot, I began slowly, and I hoped tenderly, to touch and stroke her.
This went on for some time and I could feel my arm beginning to grow numb because of the pressure of Rona lying against me and on it.

We were back at her motel room; I had failed to check in at the inn.

To be continued . . .

Friday, June 08, 2007

June 8, 2007--Another Day Off

What can I say, it's too beautiful to spend the morning inside typing. I'll try to squeeze some more out before tomorrow about Lloyd and Rona. But I can't really promise.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

June 7, 2007--Screen-Door Naturalist: My Mosquito Coast

What is that magical hour called that proceeds official sunrise? When the light seeps above the horizon before the sun itself appears, licking the grasses wet with the night’s invisible dew and pulling early risers from their last moments of fitful sleep? I could look it up, but do not have the time right now as I have other things on my mind, other things summoning me as I am still on Mallorca and right now stirring is the beginning of the world of the day.

When on other travel, on bigger budgets and thus feeling the pressure to fulfill more ambitious agenda, this time of day promises to delivery what you are paying handsomely for. If you are so inclined, it is the time when big nature yawns its way to life.

As an ecotourist or, if it isn’t politically incorrect to say, while on safari (though my friend Leslie Woodhead, off a recent article in Departures magazine devoted to “authentic” travel would chide me here by saying, “What’s so authentic about that?” And he would be right.), it is at those times between sleep and consciousness that the gilded brochures and Websites, the marketing products of the packager who lure you to the Bush or Rain Forest with shimmering images of the allusive Costa Rican Quetzal or the adventurous allure of encountering the South African version of The Big Five, it is then, in the pastel half-light that they had said would be time each day to get up and out since these are the hours when the animals blessed with the warmest blood, like you and I, are best able also to rouse themselves and take advantage of the protein that awaits them from their slower-starting pray.

We, alas, will have to wait some time for our complex protein. But we know, while stalking, back at the camp, while we venture, other staff are already baking the hot buns and precooking the bacon since we are thus happily from a very different phylum of being than our game.

And so, at the first light of predawn you drag yourself from sleep; toss aside the mosquito net that comes at no extra charge with all the extra-deluxe huts; splash some icy water on your face (authenticity in The Bush does come at some costs beyond the obvious); snap on your Abercrombies; climb into your Land Rover; and, with just a few quick gulps of coffee to brace yourself for the adventure, place yourselves in the hands of your driver and tracker. Is it any wonder that all of this costs almost a $1,000 a day for two? (Meals, though, and sundowners are included.)

The Big Five await. Or at least, they say, today two of them—you are booked here for two more nights and so what’s the big rush? What would you do with all your extra time if you bagged all five on the first Drive? This is the Bush you’re paying for and happily, in the spirit of authenticity, the lodge doesn’t even include a shop.

It is the same predawn here. Or just a few moments past when the sun breaks free above the cliffs across our cala, Cala Marmacen. It is one of our simple pleasures to emerge from sleep and, facing east, look out from our bed across the water of the Sea, calmed in the rocky embrace of the enfolding sheer-faced cala, to see the accelerating flicker of the birds that are beginning their hunt or to struggle, still less than half-awake, to describe to shifting palette of light that too is beginning its journey.

As more consciousness takes hold, I begin my daily count of our local Big Five. Actually, I’m aggrandizing because there are at most three to spy—the cormorant, gull, the . . . . Nothing that big here or numerous—this is after all quite a small island. This is no Galapagos or Madagascar.

This turned out to be a slow morning—many gulls, but not the allusive cormorant. But as on safari, which I confess to have “done,” there is always tomorrow—at least three more. So perhaps it’s time to snap on my Club Monacos and head for La Consigna for the first of the cortados.

But just as I am kicking at the tangle of sheets, other life stirs right before me, not ten feet away--clinging high up on the screen of our bedroom door I spot, without the assistance of a tracker, two mosquitoes. These are not of the variety for which you need to take your malaria pills; but, bad enough, are the ones that are dawn, dusk, and nighttime predators, which means, if they manage to breech your screen-door defenses, that they seek you as their pray and, worse than the resulting itch, torment you through the night with their relentless high-pitched buzzing. Thus the need for what the British here call the mesh. We had these retrofitted in our windows and doors at great cost after last June’s nocturnal mosquito hunts, old style, not with binoculars and cameras but where we swiped and slapped to kill. A losing affair.

Today, protected by our new meshes, I spent the hour before full sunrise observing Mosca behavior with the patience and objective care of a true naturalist—I could not help but be inspired by the image of Dian Fossey studying her gorillas in the mist.

First there were two who flicked out of the bougainvillea to alight on the upper right quadrant of our screen. They did not move from that spot for at least five minutes. How, I wondered, are they going to arrange to have their breakfast when so idle. This was no mosquito café with a friendly waiter waiting to bring them their siempre, their usual. But, wait, before I could worry too much about their morning nutrition, suddenly from out of a remaining shadow there were three more and these did not alight. Rather they hovered and circled, in an every-widening arc around their—were they?—pilot compadres.

After a few futile forays, clearly to me in search of a breach in the mesh, perhaps tiring, running low on blood sugar, one of the three returned to where the original two were waiting and appeared to bump into them repeatedly as if to rouse them from their lethargy. Two of these three, I was certain exhausted, slumped drunkenly onto the screen where they appeared to hold on for dear life while the third, almost expiring, at last managed to dislodge the lazy two who then made a few indolent probes of there own around the margins of the mesh, the most likely place to find access to our bedroom and the feast of our blood.

I suspected, by this behavior, that the first two mosquitoes were not just their scouts but also were blessed with higher cognitive powers—just like the distribution of brains among homo sapiens—and used these at first to let others do the heavy lifting and, while waiting, learned from their fruitless exploration that the best place to expend their waning energy was at those places in our defense system that promised to be most vulnerable. And so they hovered and probed all along the margins where the screens abutted the door frame’s sides and bottom.

As a result, one did mange to break through because soon I became aware, near my right ear, of the familiar sound of mosquito dive-bombing. Perhaps from the sounds of this potentially successful attack, via pheromones or other insect modes of communication, six more leapt from the bushes and with their up-to-that-point husbanded vigor, in formation, they attacked the screen simultaneously and energetically on all fronts--at its center and margins. I tensed for what I assumed would soon be a full bore attack and in so doing my naturalist’s vision sharpened and I saw that as they more and more frantically probed and slammed into the mesh, some in their frenzy were noticing the approach of . . . the sun.

They and very soon I could feel the building heat; and that as well as all that it took to attempt to find a way through our impenetrable shield quickly began to sap their remaining strength and hunters’ zeal. First one, I think of the original two, and then its mate, and soon thereafter the others but one dropped off the screen and disappeared back into the plantings.

The one that remained, about whom I was most curious, hung on, quite literally, for another 15 minutes (I was keeping careful track of time, distance, sun angle, and such for my naturalist’s note book) and then, literally again, it dropped to the ground. With that, ever the dutiful scientist, I at last slipped out of bed and quietly, but not pausing to relieve myself as I always do after arising, tiptoed toward the door, not wanting to interfere with what was happening in The Wild. Thus I did not raise the screen but crouched low and looked through where it touched the door’s threshold. And saw, breathing its last and then expiring, that final, lone mosquito.

This reminded me of my one Big Safari in South Africa, how when in a fit of perverse, self-congratulatory debunking—what after all was I doing here spending all this money—as my fellow adventurers were recounting their close encounters with the Big Five—I remembered how I had come up mockingly with the Little Five—among others, the Tsetse Fly, the Termite, the (yes) Mosquito, and my favorite the Dung Beetle.

After enough wine with our wood-roasted Impala, thus loosened up this notion of mine led all to have a jolly-good time; and the next day, our final day, when out hoping to gather the last of the Big Five, the Cape Buffalo, someone actually spotted a Dung Beetle at work. The Land Rover nearly tipped over as all slid to the left side to get a close look. And it was fascinating—as interesting many later agreed as the previous night seeing a pair of hunting Cheetahs—to watch this beetle posed up on its tiny hind legs so it could use those in front to roll a dung ball twice its size to wherever it was headed where whomever was eagerly waiting for this luncheon treat.

Who would have thought that some years later, in my bed on Mallorca, in that spirit, I would find myself on a Mosquito Safari? Talk about authenticity.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

June 6, 2007--Lazy Day

But good stuff tomorrow--all about the inner life of mosquitoes.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

June 5, 2007--The Best Job . . . Ever!

How does this ad sound to you?

Help Wanted--Someone to reside in Cremona, Italy [sounding good already] and work in the town’s Violin Museum [doing what you wonder—perhaps guarding them?]. Working hours are from when you arrive in the morning until you get the job done [sounds very Silicone Valley to me—but watch out for the all-nighters]. Usually your workday will run about three hours [I’m relieved]. Successful candidates will be self-motivated because if offered the position you will not be supervised. In addition, those who will be referred to the short list will have demonstrated a capacity to work on their own without colleagues or peers [that sounds like me].

Qualifications—Must be at least 70 years old [oh well—clearly they haven’t heard about the US laws against age discrimination], have studied the violin since at least age nine [that lets me out—I began at 10]; must be familiar with the violin music of Mozart and Bach, especially Bach’s partitas.

Applicants should submit a one-page résumé and be available for interviews and a practicum in a chapel of the Cremona cathedral where the museum is located.

References—three required.


So you get the job. You rent a small flat with cathedral view in the Gothic center of town. Every morning, after waking up at 7:30 or so, on your way to work you stop at the Guarneri Café. The waiter, who by now knows you, brings you your regular cappuccino (very little milk), hard roll, and the Corriere della Sera. You sip slowly while glancing at the latest headlines about Silvio Berlusconi and how the Grigiorossi footballers did the night before (they lost again). After finishing your second coffee, it’s time to get to work.

You arrive at the museum at about 9:30, 10:15, whenever. One thing not in the want ad, you must wear a jacket and tie—well, nothing’s perfect. You go to your tool cabinet—oh, didn’t I mention that, in spite of the suit, manual labor is involved—and take out resin, jugs of distilled water, and some soft cotton rags.

Then you proceed to unlock one of the glass cabinets and take from it a 18th century Guarneri violin (ah, the Café of the same name) and run some scales on it. After about six or seven minutes, you put it back carefully and take out one of the museum’s 16th century Amatis, from Cremona’s initial family of great violin makers. It too gets tuned and played for six minutes. And then you turn to the three Stradivari, each one worth millions. They get special treatment—in addition to their daily tuning and the scales, they require music, real music, so you knock out some Bach.

The current official music conservationist, that is the actual job title, 75 year-old Andrea Mosconi, who has held this job for 30 years [must be because of the benefits], says that “A great instrument should get great music and a great performance.” He quickly adds that those in his charge do not get that great performance from him. (See NY Times article linked below—no, Signor Mosconi did not get his job through the New York Times.)

A conservationist is required because these instruments must be played just like dogs and cats have to be stroked in order to keep them content. No one has been able to figure out, in spite of all our science and lasers and PET scanners, why it was in Cremona three, four hundred years ago that these great families were able to make instruments that to this day have not come close to being equaled.

And no one knows why they require regular handing and playing. It’s just a job but somebody’s got to do it.

Monday, June 04, 2007

June 4, 2007--Monday On Mallorca: Real Travel

In a recent issue of Departures magazine, my friend Leslie Woodhead wrote an article that I took to be something of a personal challenge—about “keeping it real,” the title, while traveling because here I am again, perhaps for my 20th visit to Mallorca in seven or eight years; and even to me, at my defensive best, this doesn’t sound much like adventurous travel when others are trekking in Nepal, visiting Stone Age tribes in the Amazon, or wandering along the Silk Road across the Stans of Central Asia.

And yet, Leslie, who is an intrepid traveler and documentary filmmaker, reports something we have all noticed that has made even the route to the peak of Everest a version of a littered highway—that as the remotest reaches of the planet are now fairly accessible: the South Pole, the source of the Nile, “lost tribes” in New Guinea. Jet travel, expanding populations, pressure to “develop” rural areas, mass migrations to cities, electricity, roads, cell phones, the Internet, the globalized economy all have contributed to shrinking and homogenizing the planet.

To help us understand this change, this loss, Leslie writes:

Sociologist Dean MacCannell has identified tourism as the defining emblem of modern life, in which people, driven by restlessness and mobility, yearn for something authentic. Observers of the adventure-travel boom talk about “staged authenticity,” “pseudoevents,” and the impossible pursuit of “more strangeness and more familiarity than the world naturally offers, a lifetime of adventure in two weeks,” as historian and cultural pioneer Daniel J. Boorstin put it. The result, he wrote, is that travel “has become diluted, contrived, prefabricated.”

Faced with all of this, is there any hope for the adventurous, to return the juice to travel, is there is anything authentic left to do, to experience? Perhaps. Leslie goes on to say:

How can the determined adventurer preserve a sense of that elusive authenticity? Committed wayfarers I’ve talked to say there are a few essential ground rules. “When the traveler’s risks are insurable,” Boorstin noted in the classic sociological tome The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, “he has become a tourist.” Abandoning the safety net of the package trip and the organized tour is crucial.

So what about poor me, sitting again at Café Consigna on Mallorca, sucking on my third cortado of the morning, looking out at the harbor where $5.0 million yachts ride at anchor side-by-side with the town’s remaining but dwindling fishing fleet?

It may be that depends on what the meaning of “real” is when it comes to travel. Perhaps to even how you define “adventurous” and “dangerous” and “uninsurable.”

To be clear, I think Leslie, and I know I are talking not about the travel of discovery or conquest—what Columbus and Magellan and Hudson and the Conquistadores undertook—or work-related travel or simple vacation leisure-travel where you check into a resort for ten days of R&R. He is alerting us to the fact that with so much packaged, so much staged by “natives” pretending still to be “primitive,” so much set up to appear to be dangerous and intrepid while just out of sight you are ringed and protected in the Bush by guides with high-powered rifles, there is hardly a way anymore to be challenged, as in the past, by truly other peoples, their “folkways,” culture, belief systems, and the threat that some might cut off and shrink your head while other members of the tribe boil you in a huge pot to tenderize you for their dinner.

My rejoinder to Leslie is that if by real travel he means travel for adventure’s sake, then I am with him. But if he is also including in his rueful critique travel for learning’s sake; travel to gain insight about the larger world; travel to be personally and spiritually challenged—to have one’s assumptions assaulted; and perhaps most important to me perched in the middle of the Mediterranean, travel that is more inner than external, if he is not including this kind of travel, then here he and I part company. Because travel of this kind can also be arduous, intrepid, and authentic. Perhaps it is an even more essential form of travel than that which takes you out to stare into the real faces of the Mursi, cattle-herding nomads who live in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, subjects some years ago of a remarkable series of Leslie Woodhead documentaries.

So what’s available to me besides those delicious cortados?

After the first one I remind myself that in the West, as early as the 8th century, the first travelers were religious pilgrims. Thousands would make their arduous way along, say, the Camino de Santiago, from southwestern France, across the Pyrenees, and then along the Camino below the northern coast of Spain, walking unprotected through heat and storm more than 1,000 kilometers to Santiago de Campostella to visit, worship, and do penance at the shrine of Saint James who, after his martyrdom, descended from the sky in a burst of stars and found repose at this thus holy site. Others early real travelers made their somewhat less intrepid way to Canterbury to visit the tomb of the slain Christian martyr Thomas a Becket. In the latter case it did not hurt to have the Wife of Bath along or Chaucer’s Friar, still that trek, though through physical space was for the authentic traveler of the time an inner, a spiritual journey.

And then after my second cortado, I recall that many years after those pilgrim-travelers, during the Romantic Period, when our modern ideas about travel were incubated, journeys from say England to the continent were not just to take the Grand Tour of the sights in Paris and Rome, for many it was just that with some transgressive fun thrown into the mix, but was also for many the chance to experience “awe” in the Church of Nature—from the peaks in the then wild Alps to find God in the mountains and glaciers. To, as they put it, “transcend” the material, the limited world of the senses, striving to reach something larger, more spiritually uplifting and challenging. Ultimately this was another version of inner travel even while transported by the very real Matterhorn.

And finally, after my third coffee, perhaps with a rush of caffeinated pseudo-perception, I remind myself that the repetitive nature of returning here again and again, tracking along the same trails and camis, moving at a pilgrim’s pace, if we are fortunate and work very hard at it, to reach a virtual meditative state—especially slowing ourselves down in body and spirit, to sharpen awareness--we find what William Blake indicated was possible, to see and grasp “the world in a grain of sand.”

Our last February’s search for the local wild asparagus was just such a journey. While making that journey, after days of futility and frustration, when we finally found a few stalks that had pushed their miraculous way through the newly tarred road, we understood as much from that display of the vegetative power of Nature as if we had spent a week hacking our way through thickest parts of Amazonian Ecuador. And we learned about how the women of the town, while passing along their secrets intergenerationally for centuries, until even today as cars and trucks ripped by at high speed on the main road less than a 100 yards away, how they retained their secret gathering places, not encroaching on any others in unspoken compact

And we finally learned not to intrude, finding satisfaction and a form of belonging by sharing their world, situating ourselves as resident-outsiders in the long, flat plane that lies between the town and port of Andratx. For us these special asparagus are to be found only and appropriately in the town’s market, just on Wednesdays as they have been there also for centuries, continuing until today in spite of all the bodegas and supermercats, a place where we, all of us are expected to meet and then go our separate but connected ways.

This feels real enough for me. But maybe, again, it’s just the cortados speaking.