Anderson Christmas Epistle 2018
It seems our lives are always changing.
Having a three-year-old granddaughter who grows and changes every time we visit keeps our lives in flux (and full of joy). But as I write this, we are expecting the birth of a grandson any day now (maybe before I get finished writing). I am sure that Katherine and Bill’s boy will bring more changes to our lives (but not as much as it will change theirs). I’m glad I never got around to taking off those child-proof cabinet door latches and other safety devices around our house (even though they are a pain to live with). Kat and Bill’s daughter, Lise, started preschool this year at the same Montessori school at which Kat teaches middle-school students, so it is convenient for them. Bill continues to teach at Edmonds Community College, that is when he is not writing poetry, giving readings, conducting writing workshops, playing soccer or playing with Lise. When Kat is not in her classroom, she is organizing school events, trips for the students to the school farm on Vashon Island and other places, chaperoning the trips and other school duties as well as being a mother (and lately carrying a developing boy).
Well, let’s see. What else changed in our lives this year? Oh, we traveled to a new place. We’ve been to Italy seven or eight times, but not much in the south (except a few days on the Amalfi Coast years ago). We were looking for some place a bit warmer early last spring and decided to spend a week or so in Sicily (or Siciia pronounced see-CHEE-lee-a as we learned to say) in April. We’d always been fascinated by the long history and ancient cultures that crossed paths there and after reading more, wanted to see the extensive surviving ruins all over the island. First, we added three days in Naples (Napoli), the birthplace of pizza, including a visit to ruins below Pompei and one or two of the street markets that are all over the city. We discovered that Napoli is the graffiti capitol of Italy. Virtually every outside wall in the city is covered in graffiti to as high as a spray-can can reach.
In Napoli, we used taxis and found that taxi drivers practice something akin to shape-shifting, becoming (along with taxi and occupants) an amorphous fluid to drive through impossibly narrow spaces. We kept thinking “we’re never going to make it!” … “oh, we did.” No driver waits for a stop light, or even an opening in traffic. One taxi driver took a left-hand turn across two lanes of on-coming traffic by just doing it, and somehow on-coming traffic just flowed around us. Amazing! Since we, not being natives, were not born with the necessary instincts and reflexes, had no hope of surviving in such an environment, we wisely avoided driving in Napoli or in Sicilian cities.
Then we flew to Catania where we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast / art gallery, complete with a 12-foot flamingo just outside our room (and other art object scattered in the halls). We had a huge and wonderful balcony outside our room, complete with succulent plants and a view of the active square below. It was a great place to sit in the evening and watch the show put on by about 30 swallows swooping and dieting on the local insects. Our first evening on the island gave us an opportunity to witness the prodigious appetite of the locals. A table near us had a dozen, all men, consuming nine full and complete courses of food (some had seconds on some courses). They also seemed to give deference to one older, better-dressed man at the end of the table (?).
We avoided renting a car for most of our time (as explained previously, it is just too scary to compete with Italian drivers, nor do I have the required skills), so we took a bus to Siracusa (Syracuse). We had a room on the island of Ortigia (the oldest part of Siracusa) overlooking the sea (which we learned on arrival was run by a local Catholic cloister which also operates a health spa across the street). It was an easy walk (for Terry) to all the old buildings on the island, but we took a taxi to the oldest Greek ruins on the hillside at the edge of the city. The city dates to about 300 BC. The Greeks were the first of the “modern” arrivals and left ruins all over the south part of the island some dating to 800 BC.
It was hard to get to some of the ruins we wanted to visit using public transportation, so we rented a car for three days (but stayed out of any cities). On the road, we first visited a non-historic site. The house where our favorite, fictional, Sicilian police detective, Commissario Montalbono, “lived” (well where he was filmed). Then we drove on though a rural countryside with extensive fields of citrus fruits and pear cactus. We had no idea that pear cactus could be a commercial crop. We learned that the buds are used to make Jam and are one of the largest agricultural crops in Sicilia. They also sometimes feed the leaves to cattle (after removing the spines). But another surprise for us was the hundreds (thousands?) of acres (or hectares) of land covered by plastic covered green houses. Even though the climate is warm with lots of sun, they need to preserve moisture.
A big thanks to Google Maps. We could never have navigated the backroads without it. Not only were signs in Italian but most intersections had NO signs. We’d still be there finding our way out of the twisty mountain roads and small hill towns (too small for street signs but big enough to think they needed one-way streets). Especially because Jan, at the best of times, is a reluctant navigator. Somehow Terry is much more willing to respond to computer-generated voice commands than a human voice from next to him in the front seat giving directions in between screams of panic. But the mountain areas in the middle of Sicilia were delightful and gorgeous.
Driving through the green, mountainous interior, we stopped for a few hours in Villa Romana del Casale. This was a resort-castle get-away for the rich of Imperial Rome (or at least they think so but there are limited records). What was so amazing was that all the floors in the sixty-odd rooms were laid with mosaic tile showing hunting and other outdoor scenes and while most of the walls are gone, the mosaics are nearly perfect and are like detailed painted masterpieces. [One scene proves that the bikini was not invented in Italy in 1946, but by Roman young ladies tossing a ball.]
Then we drove on to Agrigento which is built on a steep hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. On a ridge just outside the city lie the best-preserved Greek ruins on the island (modified and added to by the Romans). One temple is almost completely intact, but there are portions of eight or nine structures. Our room, on the eleventh floor (thankfully it had an elevator) in the city had a small balcony where we had our breakfasts, gave us a view of the ridge from a couple of miles away and beyond it, the Sea.
Not yet having enough of Greek ruins, we drove on to Selinunte which has one intact temple (without a roof) and several others in poorer shape. The delightful, pick-me-up for us, when our energy flagged from exploring ancient ruins, was to stop for a lemon granita. Cool, fresh and sweet. It never failed to hit the spot. Even in April the days were hot in the sun, but not as bad as they would have been in July.
Finally, we drove to the Palermo airport and turned in the car (I was not about to drive in Palermo. I didn’t know enough Italian curses to compete). We had thought that Palermo was just a modern city with a few interesting sights outside it, but after reading more guidebooks we learned enough to set aside three days there and we filled them easily visiting the churches, castles and hiring a driver to take us to the Monreale Cathedral (extensive gold mosaics) with a stop at Cappuccini Convent which has a ghoulish catacomb with friar’s bodies dressed up and hanging from hooks in long underground hallways. In later years they began to accept non-monks who paid enough so there were also lay men, women and children, in all about 8000 bodies dating from 1599 to 1920. Wandering through the tunnels, we felt like we had wandered into some sick, elaborate Halloween fun-hall. But really… Who would want to come and visit their dearly departed, dressed, desiccated and hanging on a wall? Not us! It will probably be the strangest thing we will ever see.
We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the old part of the city. It looked like a warehouse from the outside, but all modern inside with a wonderful rooftop patio with views over the city where we were served fantastic breakfasts. The website reported our room to be on the third floor (fourth by US standards which refer to ground floor as first). But Jan counted the 72 steps to our room and the 14 more to the roof-top breakfast area. I only had to recover from carrying her luggage as well as mine up the stairs!
With some sadness, we flew from Palermo back to Napoli to catch our flight home with an overnight stopover in London, where we spent a few hours in a hotel inside the airport. The rooms were tiny and modeled on ship berths. The bed was wall-to-wall-to-wall at one end of the room and a phonebooth-sized bathroom with the toilet and sink under the shower, but it allowed comfortable sleeping for the few hours we had to wait for our flight.
We made the mistake of trying to use miles from Alaska to pay for our flight. Since Alaska does not fly to Europe, we flew mostly on British Air, but with very inconvenient routing (in order to have the first leg be Alaska, we had to fly to Oakland to catch British Air even though BA flies out of Seattle, and then from Oakland we flew right over Seattle on the polar route to London before continuing to Naples. On the return, after the night in London, we connected through Las Vegas before ending in Seattle). Next time…
When we returned from this fantastic experience and thought about all the great places we’d visited and great food we’d eaten we said, “we must share this with our friends.” So, we started planning a Sicilian Dinner. Many of our friends in the area host events where we get together and share food, either pot-luck or hosted with variety or some theme, usually buffet style. But for a sit-down meal our house is a bit small for the 18 people we invited. So we decided to rent the club house in our development and invite everyone to a Sicilian Tasting Dinner: five courses with two or three items per course, all from foods we’d learned about on our trip: from cavolfiore arrosto, vendure grigliate, spaghetti “alla norma”, marsala di vitello, arancini di riso, caponata di melazone, insalata “la pullastona””, and insalata caprise to lemone granita and cannoli. Little did we know what know what we’d gotten ourselves into. Some invitees could not make it, but 14 accepted our invitation. After a week of constructing timelines, two days of cooking and a day of setting up and more cooking, we hosted the dinner for the group along with a slide show of about 200 pictures we’d taken. Everyone had leftovers to take home and helped us clean up afterwards. It was a great afternoon. We are thinking about visiting southern Spain in 2019, but we are not sure we will host a dinner based on foods from our next trip, and we have definitely decided against second careers as a caterers.
This year the smoke changed. Last year we got a little smoke from the wild fires in eastern Washington, but only a day or two when the winds were easterly, but this year we had many days of smoke (not “hazardous”, but “unhealthy for those with special issues”) from fires in BC, eastern Washington and the huge California fires. On several days we could not see the shoreline ¼ mile from our house. But our suffering was minor compared to those nearer the fires. We several people we know had relatives near the fires in California and who lost homes in the Camp Fire in Paradise. Now that fires and smoke are becoming common every summer, tour companies and event planners in our area are developing indoor alternatives during August and early September.
Let’s see. What else has changed? Three years without returning cancer is definitely a positive no-change. Also our going to 10, or so, concerts at Seattle Symphony, 7 or 8 plays at Seattle Reparatory Theater, DjangoFest Jazz, several Baroque concerts by Pacific Music Underground on Whidbey and our annual trek to see 7+ plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is not a change. But our friends, Carolyn and Paul, joined us this year for a delightful week of theater and food at the Shakespeare Festival.
Last year we traveled to Santa Fe to spend Christmas with Kat, Bill and Lise, Bill’s brother and wife, and Bill’s parents. We rented a great house a little out of Santa Fe and enjoyed delicious meals and good times with family. Kat and Bill have a close college friend in Santa Fe, Allegra Love, who we visited on Christmas Day, a lawyer who launched a service to help immigrants with their legal problems, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which has grown to several lawyers and legal aids and is providing a greatly needed service. If anyone would like to learn more or contribute, go to santefedreamersproject.org. We also visited two historic Native American sites: Bandelier National Park, which has ruins of dwellings of at least two distinct periods going back at least 11,000 years (Lise and Bill’s Parents came with us and we helped Lise in and out of several cave dwellings that permitted entry), and Acoma Pueblo (aka Sky City) built on the top of a mesa for protections about 1300 AD and still occupied today. The change is that this year, we are looking forward to spending Christmas at home, with Kat, Bill, Lise (and the new grandson), and Bill’s parents all joining us, to complete the family group.
Another non-change is our continued enjoyment of the view of Dugualla Bay and Mt Baker from our windows and deck, the osprey pair that raise 1-3 chicks every year on the navigation tower in the bay (we followed their development using our spotting scope), the eagles that occupy various perches nearby after the osprey have migrated away (when the osprey are here they drive the eagle away), the harbor seals that sun on the rock in the bay, the snow geese in autumn and spring, the hummingbirds, sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, northern flickers, starlings, doves, and other birds that come to our feeders, and the walks on the beaches, and Jan’s continuously expanding gardens. I continue working part time from my home lab and traveling to Maryland for a week every two or three months to meetings and demos with the folks I contract with.
We remain thankful for family and friends that make living so worthwhile and we wish the very best of 2019 to each of you.
Jan and Terry