a wandering woman writes

Monday, July 30, 2007

I knew I liked William James

Most people live...in a very restricted circle of their potential being.
They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of
their soul's resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily
organism, should get into a habit of using only his little finger.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

From Rolf Potts at Vagabonding

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The urge to be some place

Prats de Mollo, France

"When I was very young and the urge to be some place was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.

When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.

In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.

Nothing has worked. . . In other words, I don't improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable."

- John Steinbeck


Running into home: Oscar the cat

When I stopped in the Casa de las Conchas Saturday morning to search Friday's El Mundo for an interview with Kathleen, I found not my American friend from Madrid but my little-known American birthplace shouting at me from the top of the paper's front page.

RHODE ISLAND the headline spelled out, loud and clear, right across the top of the portada.

It was one of those expat moments. You know those moments: when you find yourself double checking that you are where you think you are, working in the language you think you're working in. Could that say Rhode Island?

My diminutive home state made headlines in Europe this week. Here's the story in El Pais, and El Mundo, and if you prefer English, the BBC.

Seems the New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article by a geriatric physician working at Steele House, a nursing home in Providence. The article profiles the intriguing behavior of the cat who lives on the center's 3rd floor, a floor reserved for patients with advanced senile dementia. Oscar the cat has an uncanny knack for knowing when a patient is close to death along with a compassionate way of reacting to that sixth sense. He climbs up on the bed and lays alongside the patient until he or she passes away a few hours later.

Oscar has accurately predicted a patient's death in more than 25 cases. No one dies on the third floor of Steele House without spending a few hours with Oscar, who doesn't visit the patients on any other occasion. When Oscar climbs up into a bed, the 3rd floor nurses start making phone calls. A few hours later, the patient inevitably dies, surrounded by family, friends, and often, a priest.

If the nurses try to take Oscar out of the room before the patient dies, he paces outside the closed door and meows in frustration.

Give the story the explanation you like. Maybe he smells something chemical, as the physician suggests, or maybe he simply senses ... whatever.

I like the story, and I like Oscar.
That's he's a Rhode Islander is just icing on the cake.

Update, thanks to Laura, I can offer you this link to the full article. It's a beautiful read, a look at a day in the life of compassionate Oscar the cat.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dancing feet, La Alberca

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Change your world and the world changes

...here it is in all its blinking simplicity: Change Your World, and The World Changes. We are not powerless....

This is not the time to throw up our hands, nor to exhaust ourselves over-defining our problems. It is time to choose our lives. In so doing, we’ll have a rippling impact that will make all the difference.

Consider this:

If we are sick of foreign wars, make peace with our personal enemies.

If we are concerned with our nation’s debt, save our own money.

If we are sickened by materialism, buy only what we really value.

If we are concerned with global warming, conserve, walk, telecommute.

If we are worried about the environment, recycle, plant trees, grow something.

If we are angry with our leaders, propose and post real solutions.

If we are worried about health care costs, eat right, exercise, and sleep.

If we are worried about crime, drugs, and violence, participate in a neighborhood watch.

If we are sad about the decline of marriage, make ours the best example of commitment and fulfillment we can.

If we are worried about terrorists, put some boundaries between ourselves and those who use or abuse us.

I hope you can see what I’m trying to get at. .. These are simply reminders that for every big overwhelming problem in the world, there is a version of it in our lives. If we focus on what we can control, our own lives will bloom and our influence will spread.

from a recent blog post by Will Barre, founder of the American Dream Project
found at Motto

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The world is small, and round.

I've been outed.

To Kiva, at least.

In their own words, "Kiva.org is a non-profit organization revolutionizing the fight against global poverty by enabling people to connect with and make personal loans to low-income entrepreneurs in the developing world." If you'd been reading me a while, you know it's also an idea I (frequently) get (vocally) passionate about.

Ann from Kansas City, with whom I seem to have all kinds of things in common, wrote today to tell me she's been reading me on and off for a year or so and:

The reason I decided to write you today is this -- I learned about Kiva on your site a while back and last week finally made a "loan." My two kiddos (10 and 7) and I had just watched an amazing show on PBS, following the education challenges of seven or so kids around the world. It was so moving and my kids, especially the 10 year old, were so engaged. I decided that would be the night to finally do the Kiva thing and together we picked two enterprises to help fund. While on the site, I noticed a volunteer opportunity to translate the project descriptions from Spanish to English. Capitalizing on the rush of great feelings I had gained by loaning, I e-mailed to volunteer.

That's when it got fun. She mentioned in the translator application that she'd discovered Kiva through this blog. Which sent Kiva's translation coordinator to the web to check out the mysterious Kiva-plugging blogger.

Who turned out to be me, one of the first members of her Spanish to English translating team.

El mundo es un pañuelo.

It's a small world - and I'm convinced it's a world we can improve through simple little acts like clicking your way through an online loan or two at Kiva. If you've yet to wander far enough into this blog to read my previous posts about Kiva, now is the perfect opportunity.

Better yet, check out this video: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof travels to Kabul to meet the baker he loaned to through the Kiva site.

This Kiva post I have a new idea. As I told Ann in my e-mail this morning, the only thing that comes close to the rush I feel reading payment updates from the Kiva businesses I've helped fund is the grin that spreads ear to ear every time I translate an entrepreneur's story from Spanish to English so his business can be posted on the Kiva site.

If you have the ability to translate from a language of the developing world to English, stop by the Kiva volunteer page to see if you can help out. The site lists Spanish, French, Khmer, Russian and Ukranian as the languages most needed at the moment. You'll find non-translating volunteer opportunities posted, as well.

I led Ann to Kiva, and Alex, too, as I recall, and Laura, all by simply yapping here and pasting a banner in the sidebar. You'll also find banners, email footers, links to Kiva groups on Facebook and LinkedIn and all kinds of neat ways you can help out just by spreading the word at the Kiva Get Involved page.

I promise you'll be helping motivated, hard working people change their lives for the better. That's a good thing, but I tell you, you'll also taste this magic rush Ann and I share - this simple but rockin' rush at knowing you stopped simply caring, and did something to make a tangible difference.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Three perfect days in the enchanted forest

I'm back from three perfect days in the enchanted forests of the Sierra of Francia.

A weekend in La Alberca in honor of Kathleen's performance in the Teatro Municipal on Saturday night turned into one of the most magical trips I've taken during my three years in Spain. We joined in a traditional alborada Friday evening (parading through town behind the drum, pipe and castanets to serenade first the groom and later the bride of Saturday's wedding), caught a wedding with all the traditional trimmings, hiked to a paradisical mountain spring in Las Batuecas for an icy-cold swim, and hung out with a herd of Iberian mountain goats halfway up the Peña de Francia. And then there was Kathleen's heavenly voice, written up today in Salamanca's La Gaceta.

If you haven't met Kathleen, you'll find her here now and again round the comment box. Her own blog is always a pleasure to read, because it is, as she says, the blog of someone "privileged to be make a living doing the thing that they love". In Kathleen's case, the "thing" is to sing. Saturday night I was privileged to see what a stroke of luck Spain snatched up the day Kathleen decided not to board a plane back to New York. Watch her sing and you'll hear that little voice this blog is about. You know the one .. the one that wants you to spend all the minutes you can just doing that thing ... that one thing you love.

This is a photo of Friday evening's walk to the Ermita of San Marcos, while the sun set over the lagoon.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chasing butterflies in Prats de Mollo

And lucky for me, he picked that cool Dr. Seuss flower to land on. I like to think the other flower is reaching up, waiting her turn.


A mis 95 años, or, if you ever needed a reason to learn Spanish

I'm very late to this party, but I discovered a warm, funny, entertaining and inspiring blog yesterday: A mis 95 años.

A mis 95 años is the blog of a 95 year old grandmother (soon to be great-grandmother, as she enthusiastically announces on the blog) from Muxía, Galicia. María Amelia talks about the history she's seen and lived, current Spanish politics, the best way to prepare Galician dishes, life in her seaside pueblo, daily life at 95 and whatever else occurs to her, while her grandson types. The blog was a gift from that grandson:
Internet friends, today I turn 95. My name is María Amelia and I was born in Muxía (A Coruña - Spain) on December the 23rd of 1911. Today is my birthday and my grandson, who is very stingy, gave me a blog. I hope to be able to write alot and tell you about the life of a woman my age. (my translation)

How cool is that? She talks, he types. Man, to give a blog and a grandson like that to more people who have lived (and continue to live!) like María Amelia.

When she first started her blog, María Amelia claimed the title of oldest blogger in the world. She's since lost that crown to an Australian woman over 100, a woman who says she was inspired by María Amelia.

A mis 95 años reached 100,000 visitors in its first month online, and María Amelia was invited to interview with websites, newspapers, television shows and radio stations all over the world; the interviews are now posted on her site.

But I say it wasn't María Amelia's age that kept me at her blog for hours last night. It was her blogging...er....talking.

She's frank. She's funny. She's wise. She's warm, even when she's feistily telling off a reader who's spewing partisan politics in the comment box or suggesting her grandson and readers are manipulating a helpless (hah!) old woman.

And she's lived the 20th century. Her first memory is World War I, and she's posted photos, stories and memories of her life before the Spanish Civil War, and during, and after. When she writes about an army officer she believes was her family's salvation at the war's outset, the man's nephew writes in to compare notes, suspecting the officer might be his uncle, who had been in her village when the war broke out and died later, in combat. Within a few e-mails, they piece together the officer's story.

When a 15 year old Spanish boy asks her a series of questions about the Civil War for a school project, she answers politely, and then asks whether he likes spending time talking about war. Because she doesn't.

She clamors in post after passionate post for ADSL in every pueblo in Spain, including hers. When her cries fall on deaf ears at Telefónica, she posts an open letter to José Luis Zapatero, the current president of the Spanish government, suggesting that her many years of loyal service as a Socialist alone ought to earn her ADSL access, and that he is her only hope of persuading Telefónica to offer it in her area.

She is beautifully open about expecting death. Before she leaves on a trip to Brazil she leaves orders to ship her ashes back to Muxía if she doesn't make it back alive. (She not only makes it back, but gets up to dance at the dinner she attends the night of her arrival in Brazil - after a 20 hour flight! I want to be 95 like María Amelia.) She celebrates her birthday monthly, since, according to María Amelia, that's what you do at 95.

At the end of one of the interviews posted on her site, the interviewer asks María Amelia a question I suspect he poses to all the bloggers he speaks with: what do you think your blog will be like in 5 years?

A few excerpts from my new blogging hero's answer (translated quickly by me):

Well, God gave me this spirit and he's going to laugh. I want to live. I'll have to die by force, because I don't feel at all like dying. Are there things to make us sad? Okay, but there are joys as well.

....I'm keeping my feet in the earth until I just can't anymore. I like this world because it's beautiful. We don't know how to respect it. But it's a paradise!

And the 95 year old blogger closes:
If at the age of 100 I'm not a mummy, well, this will be a very big blog. Because I have a lot of grandchildren.

En fin. If you can't read María Amelia in Spanish, go learn.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Eurospeak, mint and chamomile

There's a language I'm growing to love as much as Spanish.

I call it Eurospeak.

It's that odd dance of fully formed sentences, long lists of related words, and universal gestures that lets Southern Europeans communicate when they don't quite share a language.

In Lisbon, we spoke Spanish and decoded complex responses in Portuguese. After 4 days in Italy, I had learned only one full phrase in Italian. It's the phrase I heard most often, as I wandered Assisi with my 5 words of Italian: El español sí se capice.

And it is understood! In Portugal, in Italy and as the lovely man above taught me, in French Catalunya.

Of all the conversations I enjoyed in Prats de Mollo, the one that has stayed with me - and I suspect will long stay with me - took place in an odd mix of catalan and castellano. The stunning French Catalan you see above had just gathered chamomile and mint for his tea, and I had just completed a surprisingly vertical hike on a very hot day.

I'd been alone since morning, chasing butterflies (photos to come) and making wrong turns (French hiking directions). I remember noticing this gent working in his garden as I passed his house, tucked all by itself on the mountainside, just where the steep col starts its more gentle slope back toward town. I wished he'd look up at me panting my way down the hillside. I longed to let out my best bon jour and stop a while.

A few minutes later, he found me. I had just landed on this bench in an ecstatic, exhausted heap when I watched him come round the corner from his house. He spotted me and stopped, as if to consider something. A few minutes later he raised his head decisively, seemed to mark a silent beat and slowly started to march toward me. I finally let out that bottled-up "bon jour".

And so he joined me on the bench. He described the tea that mint and chamomile would make and asked about Salamanca, and Chicago. He was skeptical about the presence of a pottery in town, until his friend, "El Español", arrived and quietly informed Mr. Camomile that he didn't get out enough. He'd missed four years of a very nice British potter and his wife, and a workshop where foreigners and villagers alike learned to work with clay.

"El Español" turned out to be a Spanish Catalan who didn't seem to speak much castellano. (I found myself wondering how many years you can live in France and still be known as "El Español".) The pride with which he announced he personally knew someone who spoke castellano (a Galician-born sister-in -law) made me wonder with whom the poor woman was speaking her native tongue.

We chatted a long while. My companions seemed to do quite well with my Spanish. I grabbed what I could of their local Catalan, and resorted to waving my hand over my head when they'd completely lost me. After every language jam, we'd try a little French. Then I'd take my best guess in Spanish and we'd gradually settle back into Eurospeak.

My friend of the chamomile and mint laughs easily, and finishes his sentences with a brilliant, eyes-dancing smile. You'll have to take my word for that, though. When I asked for a photo, he opted for the stoic look.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Wandering Spain

Well that faceless roving photographer has finally published some of her photos of our wanders in Cáceres, La Alberca, Mogarriz, Ávila and Salamanca. Her photos say what I'm not sure I've managed to say in two years typing about what a pleasure it is to wander this little corner of the world. She's captured the magic, as I knew she would.

And yes, as she so boldly announces in my comment box, you can also meet me face to face in an interesting (to say the least) portrait of the wandering tour guide and the photographer's husband here.

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Secreto, or a wandering woman finally meets Spanish caller ID

I bought a new phone the other day. A phone for the house.

Tired of answering telesales calls during the work day, and equally tired of hearing friends and family from the States complain I never pick up the land line (I don't) despite it being far cheaper for them to call that line, I picked up a phone with caller ID.

All week I've been taking my office chair for high speed spins straight back to the phone to make the ever important decision: to answer or not to answer

A minute ago, my new purchase rang anew. Away to the phone I flew like a flash! (This spinning in the desk chair is a lot of fun, actually.) I squinted at the text screen to see who it was.

My phone said it couldn't tell me.

Seriously, this may be standard for caller ID in Spain but it's a first for me. The phone's ID screen typed out: SECRETO.

Oooh. Secret.

I just received a SECRET call. Intriguing.
It was all I could do not to answer it. I mean, come on. SECRETO. Like you could resist that?

Now if one of you doesn't assure me SECRETO is Telefónica's way of translating a sterile English "UNLISTED", I'm going to spend the rest of my days regretting I didn't pick up that phone.

And hear the secreto.


A room above a pottery....with a view

And what a view.

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Two pots in Prats

I fell in love with these pots. I must have snapped these pots and the steep alley they sit on 25 times, from every angle and distance possible during my 8 days in Prats. There's something about the color of the flowers, the door tucked behind them and the stones you don't see in this shot, the grey, blue and pink cobblestones of the cuesta they're resting on. This path leads to the church and I followed it a dozen times, snapping these two every trip up.

And so two pots become one of my favorite memories of Prats.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

My little town?

Many many, moons ago, when I'd first left my corporate job, I spent a few months nursing a small town fantasy. I'd linger daily, for hours, in a vivid daydream in which I moved to a small town somewhere in the US to start a small business. On weekends I'd drive north from Ventura on route 1, sure I'd find my town along California's central coast. I didn't know what my business would be. Bakery? Bookstore? Chocolate shop? Catering service? I didn't worry about what sort of business I opened - as long as I would pursue it in the intimacy of a truly tiny town. I wanted to greet everyone I passed with a enthusiastic hello and be recognized coming and going and going and coming.

I wanted to live where everybody knew my name.

Six years later, a lovely village in France has given me the chance to try on that fantasy.

I just spent an idyllic week in Prats de Mollo, population 600 (in winter), walking in the mountains, studying pottery, and staying in the apartment house run by the potter, Alan, a British expat, and his wife Patt.

I did indeed wander Prat's cobblestoned streets to a hearty chorus of "bon jour" and "bon soir". Any stage fright I was harbouring as a new potter was quickly sent packing by the curious townsfolk, French and expat alike, who stopped in the pottery - continually, if you ask me- to chat with Alan and watch me work. By the end of the week, the town butcher and Georg the bookseller were hollering and waving from inside their stores as I passed, as though they could imagine nothing so horrifying as the thought of someone walking through their village ungreeted.

I loved being recognized. And welcomed.

So what's all this talk about the gossip and utter lack privacy in pueblos?

Well, now that I think about it, there was that detailed report Patt laughingly repeated the morning after I dined in a hotel in the plaza. Seems the "pretty blonde woman" (with that description I was tempted to eat there every evening) had dined alone, and eaten....Well, I'll spare you the details, although poor Patt wasn't spared one. I will have you know I was said to have ordered well. By the French. Ahem. Kudos please.

In the end I shook off the dining report, made the sensible decision not to have a torrid affair with the butcher, and moved on to bask in the glow of instant community. By Thursday, I looked around my usual restaurant (having by then sworn absolute loyalty to Valeri and Jean Francois's remarkably tasty and fresh food at La Portella) and realized I knew everyone in the place: the Scottish couple who would eventally (and graciously) take me back to the airport in Girona, Bruno from the gourmet store where I bought my olives and wine, dining with his sister, and Marc, who came in every evening for a nightcap of one of Valeri's imported teas.

On my last night in town, a group of new friends (of all of a week), Irish, British and French, wished me bon voyage from my "usual" table at my "usual" restaurant. Jean Francois and Valeri served up my final glass of the Muscat Ambre they'd addicted me to ....and I left the small town ups/downs accounting as a washout.

Two sides to that intimacy thing, I guess, like anything else, eh?
Many more stories and photos of Prat de Mollo to come...


Monday, July 09, 2007

Quisiera hablar, y escribir......¿peor?

Oh how I wish my Spanish were weaker.

I miss those heady, blissful days when my Spanish skills were young and grave grammatical errors flew out of my mouth and off my pen...and I kept right on, oblivious. Blissful.

I must be in the cursed, dark stage of bilingualism. The almost there stage.

I live in Spanish, when I'm not working. But, on the fly, oh how I can make mistakes.

Each of which, invariably, reports itself to my gotta-do-right, damn-I-want-to-speak-this- language-well conscience. Exactly two and a half minutes after it's been committed.

I mispeak and ACK! then I hear it. When it's hanging there in the air in front of me, blocking my view. Worse still, I hit send on a routine e-mail and WHOP! comes a 2X4 across the side of the head. GRAMMAR, ERIN!

Ah, some days. To return to the happy ignorance of my Spanish youth...

I wouldn' t trade bi-lingualism for anything short of its sister tri, but oh, what I'd do to break through to that error-free stage. It's coming, right, linguists? Is there anything that will keep you working toward mastery more than a language?

Update: Wheylona, who very accurately describes herself as the house language teacher and linguist, left such a cool response to this post, I have to quote a bit of her comment here:

...Try not to think of language as art but rather as a tool. Use it, pound the hell out of things with it, get things done, and eventually you'll see you've created all manner of beautiful things without even trying!


Why are the most interesting churches always in the tiniest villages?

Door to the church in Prats de Mollo, France.

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