August 30th, 2009 :: Traveling Days
Some of you might be curious about the timing of our trip to Italy.
I mean, who goes to Italy in August? Don't they know, (I can hear the whispering) that Italy is unbearably hot and crowded in August?
Of course we knew. But when the travel gods offer you a trip you don't argue about the time frame; you simply say, Grazie. Besides, this is Italy we are talking about here. Italy.
Rome was 100 degrees every day we were there. (It sounds less hot if you translate it to Celsius.) We took a tour of St Peter's crypt. It was fascinating seeing thousands of years of history piled up under that formidable basilica. It was also 97% humidity down there, and, for heaven's sake, we were basically in a tomb. Let's just say the air in New Mexico never sounded so good.
We bought tickets to the Vatican Museum. As an art buff, I usually can't get enough of art museums. Italy promised to be a binge of great art viewing. I had been looking forward to this for months.
The lobby of the Vatican Museum was delightfully cool after the long walk in the sun around the walls of Vatican City. There was little to no line. I could almost taste how much fun this was going to be.
Armed with Rick Steves guide to the museum, we enter the first room. Rick tells us that the Vatican Museum is a one-way road ending with the Sistine Chapel. You don't have to make decisions about where to go, you simply have to follow naturally from one room to the next.
The first room has probably 200 people. I don't know if there was any art because I couldn't get close enough to see it. The air begins to feel less than great.
The next few rooms grow progressively more crowded, and the heat increases. Clearly, they only air-condition the entrance to the museum. I have yet to actually glimpse any art, because the crowds are starting to be shoulder to shoulder.
Everywhere there are signs pointing you to the Sistine Chapel. Rick Steves is right -- we aren't going to get lost -- but after about 15 minutes, we realize these signs are taunting us, because we have a long, LONG trek to the end. There is no turning around. I am beginning to grow faint from the heat and lack of fresh air.
After an hour of steady trudging, pushing our way through the mobs, we enter the Sistine Chapel. There must be 1000 other people in there. I take one glance up at this ceiling I have been reading about for a decade and run out of the room. I can't really say that I have seen the Sistine Chapel, only that I have run through the Sistine Chapel.
This proved to be the only art museum in Rome we attempted. Some day we will go back to Rome (preferably in January) and see:
the Spanish Steps
the Trevi Fountain
the many art museums
the Sistine Chapel
....but this trip, we had no choice but to seek solace in long siestas; leisurely, wonderful 3-hour dinners; and lots of gelato. After all, When in Rome....
We spent a week on the Adriatic Sea in a hotel on the beach with at least a million Italian tourists. Beach umbrellas were lined up in the sand like soldiers. You have to reserve one of these umbrellas in advance if you want to sit and read a novel while burying your feet in the white silk-like sand; otherwise some angry Italian will come and scream at you and wave their hands dramatically.
While on the coast, Matt led choir rehearsals, I played choir rehearsals on the worst keyboard imaginable (It didn't even deserve the term "electronic piano." It was like playing a kazoo.). There was an inspiring performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in a little coastal town called Vasto, with the American choir, a choir from Italy and an orchestra from Romania, which was a musical Olympic moment if ever there was one.
It was the evening of the Beethoven performance that Matt had what may yet prove to be the highlight of his career. During the solo bows, he is brought out to take a bow as the chorusmaster. Leaving the church, he is enthusiastically embraced by a random Italian woman who shouted "Maestro!" and kissed him on both cheeks. Then she dragged him over and placed him between her two parents (105 years old, about three feet tall, no teeth), and took his picture. His moments of fame and glory may all be downhill from here.
We ate four days in a row at a fabulous restaurant in Ortona called La Vecchia Lanterna. The first day we ordered bruschetta. When the grilled bread arrived, topped with perfectly oiled and seasoned slices of tomatoes, it was so good that it made us weep. One night we ordered lentils-- lentils I tell you-- that were life-changing. These Italians have a cooking gene that we simply don't have. The last day, Matt tried to tell the owner, who spoke no English, that we were leaving to "go back to America." The man became very animated, shook our hands, and from behind the bar brought out a little ceramic cup with the name of the restaurant on it and presented it to us. I will grow cactus in it and long for that bruschetta.
As lame Americans with barely one language at our disposal, we had numerous humorous incidents trying to communicate: One night we stopped in a cafe for a nightcap. Matt ordered "Limoncello" (pointing at me), "Amaretto" (pointing at himself), and, having seen beautiful looking cantaloupe being consumed for dessert all around us, "melone." The waiter was understandably confused by this combination of items, so Matt repeated it, this time making a round globe-like gesture for the melon. (Surely the international symbol for cantaloupe.). The waiter continued to look confused. After a while he brought out a lemoncello for me (Go Matt!) and something mysterious for my dear husband, which we can only speculate was Amaretto mixed with melon liqueur. Matt found it absolutely undrinkable. Some time later, a cantaloupe appeared on the table. It was delicious.
Another time we were having an argument about whether or not everything would close during siesta in the afternoon. I said yes. Matt thought not. We were planning a picnic on the beach that evening and wanted to get some food at the market, but Matt didn't want to carry it around. "We'll get it after lunch," he argued. "It'll be closed," I replied. "I'll just ask," he said impatiently. There was no way this exchange was going to go well.
First he accidentally said the name for church (chiesa) instead of closed (chiuso) leading the puzzled proprietor to start naming big churches in his little town. Then he said, "No chiesa. Chiuso. Are you chiuso?" Which puzzled him more, as clearly Matt now wants a closed church. Then he mimed falling asleep (there was lots of miming on this trip, making us in good shape for our next game of charades), which lost the man completely. What the hell? He must have thought. This crazy American wants a closed church for sleeping. We didn't get our question answered, but I won the argument. Everything in Ortona closes for the siesta.
We had four fabulous days in Florence, our time there book-ended by drinks we had in a rooftop bar we stumbled upon the first night. From our perch in the sky, we could almost touch the Duomo.
Like all of Italy, Florence was overrun by tourists, but by this point in the trip we had starting adapting our expectations and had grown more tolerant of the heat. We took an interesting walking tour one morning, and stumbled upon a parade, which seemed to have something to do with different sections of the city making their annual allegiance to city hall.
We didn't see David, only the copy in the Piazza della Signoria.
We attended Mass in the Duomo. Matt, being a former Catholic, could at least follow the gist of the service. I, raised Methodist, couldn't and so concentrated on trying to keep my shoulders covered with my gauzy shawl, and tried to imagine what the tiny charming old priest might have been saying. The next day we ran into the priest in the street. He greeted us with a huge smile, clearly recognizing us from the previous day, which was a sweet small-town kind of moment in a foreign country.
We continued our pattern of eating copious amounts of gelato and nearly wore out our shoes walking the cobbled streets and alleys of the beautiful city.
Our Italian holiday ended with a journey of at least a dozen legs:
a walk with our luggage to the train station in Florence
train to Rome
two buses to our hotel
night in Rome
taxi to the train station
train to the airport
countless shuttles to various terminals
delayed plane from Rome to Atlanta
missed connection to Albuquerque
later flight to Albuquerque
car ride home.
From the first step to the last--nearly 48 hours. From the taxi ride in Rome to walking into our door back in Albuquerque---a grueling 24-hours, sans sleep.
This holiday required as much internal shifting as actual physical traveling. Faced with the Disneyland-like crowds and the unmanageable heat, we quickly learned to stop expecting to see or do much and started learning simply to be in a wonderful place. In many respects, this was both disappointing and enlightening all at once. August will never be my preferred travel month, but I learned that I can do it and keep my mostly good humor intact. This is no small lesson, and worthy, perhaps of all the sweat, mobs, and gelato.
August 23rd, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Don't tell my mother, but I have started hiring a housekeeper.
I am embarrassed to admit this, thanks to my mid-western upbringing which frowns on such luxuries. It does seem like a luxury; after all, I work from home. One would think that I would be able to keep my house clean. But I can't -- not even close -- and I have finally accepted this truth. Either I spend every non-working minute cleaning house, or I get some help. Finally, ("It's about time!" my husband said) I have resorted to the latter.
I still have not completely gone over to the dark side. Ellen comes once every two or three weeks and gives me a couple of hard hours cleaning the kitchen and the bathroom. I do the rest. Truthfully, I can't afford to have more help than that, and most of the time I manage fairly well. Although I say that rather sheepishly, as the rug under my feet needs seriously vacuuming for it has collected a good week's worth of crud--not to mention the shavings from the pencil sharpener that a kid dumped on it on Friday. Talking this housekeeping thing over with my friend Lora, I am reminded that Lora lives alone, is hardly there, and rarely cooks, which makes cleaning her house a snap. On the other hand, I live with a "closeted-neat person" ("It's time to let that neat guy out of the closet," I frequently grumble to Matt.) and I have a serious amount of traffic in my sweet little 1250 square-foot cottage. Just to prove my point, I counted the number of visitors that came into my house last week. It was 91. Yeah, that would be 91. Let's say that just 20% of these people use the bathroom, and you see why Ellen has her work cut out for her. Last week nearly a hundred people were in my house (and this would be a week without one of our frequent music parties/receptions--last November we had four of those, including the annual St Cecelia party , which alone is 100 people easy.) AND I worked some 8-12 hours a day. This is my dilemma.
But in spite of all this, I still am in conflict about hiring Ellen, sensible, no-nonsense female genes run strong in my family. The branches of my family tree are full of women who kept immaculate houses, cooked dinner every night, and raised lots of children. I never saw my maternal grandmother less than perfectly put together: hair in place, jewelry on, clothes ironed and missing no buttons. Her house could pass a white glove test. She owned knick-knacks, decorated at Christmastime, and always had fresh towels.
My paternal grandmother lived most of her life in an old farmhouse, which possessed somewhat less than the modern standard of technology. We worry when we are without high-speed Internet; she didn't have indoor plumbing until she was 40. While her house was a delightfully messy assortment of projects: she planted acres and acres of gardens, canned enough vegetables every summer to survive any emergency, sewed her own clothes, and was easily the best cook in my family. My favorite childhood memories of holidays are in that rambling white farmhouse, waking up to the smell of a turkey roasting all night in the wood stove she still used in her kitchen. It's daunting, however, to imagine living up to Grandma's domestic skills; I, who have never grown a vegetable, let alone canned one.
Although fully equipped with modern appliances, my mother was also no slouch in the domestic department. She raised six children. She never opened an empty refrigerator at 9pm and declared that we were ordering pizza. Her plants were always watered. She never sent her laundry out just because she was too occupied with reading Haiku poetry to do it herself. The babies always napped at the same hour. We children went to bed every night by eight o'clock with our piano practicing done. She didn't do yoga or see an acupuncturist. She even taught Sunday School. In all her years of teaching school, she has never called in sick. Momma doesn't have a massage therapist or a herbalist. She has no weakness for fine leather and has never needed shoe therapy. Neither my mother nor any of the other matriarchal figures in my family needed two pots of coffee in the morning to counter the effect of a late dinner and a bottle of wine. These women didn't drink wine. Good grief, they didn't even drink coffee.
In spite of these stalwart genes, I won't cook dinner tonight. Truth be told, I haven't cooked in weeks.
The irony is that there is every evidence that there are active domestic genes winding around my double helix. I garden. I read cookbooks and M.F.K Fisher. I knit. I have a sun-room full of geraniums . But there are holes in my domesticity: I have never ironed my husband's shirts. I couldn't roast a chicken if my life depended upon it. I pay someone else to hem my skirts. ("Why didn't you do it yourself?" Because I can't, Momma.) I forget to clean my kitchen. In fact, it only recently came to my attention that some people set aside time to clean their kitchens, and don't just assume that it is clean enough if the dishes are done.
Instead of cleaning the kitchen, this week I have:
spent 4 hours in the recording studio with a singer
taught 27 piano lessons
answered countless e-mails and phone messages
finished a column for a music journal
gone on several walks
read Billy Collins' new book of poetry
practiced God-only-knows how many hours
listen to a recording of Angela Hewitt playing Bach
held Downward-Facing-Dog until I turned purple.
I have a hard time justifying Ellen cleaning my bathroom so that I can have more time to practice. I have a million and one good reasons to need some help around here, but that doesn't mean I have made peace with the voices in my head that say I---childless and working from home as I do----ought to be able to manage it all.
Sometimes I want different examples, different mentors, different voices in my head. I am searching for the crazy aunt who ran off to Turkey with a lover and who wrote books. I want a cousin who knits not only gorgeous scarves but gorgeous melodies. I want to find the distant grandmother who didn't have kids until she was 40 because she was too busy riding horseback on beaches in the Bahamas. I want to know someone like the sister of a friend, who once left a note for her husband: "Gone to Paris. Took the kids." I want to know that she kept her hair long after the age of 30, made marinara sauce on a single burner, and sang opera arias while she cooked in a garret apartment. I want to know women who disobeyed the rules, who were not well-behaved, who didn't care about their husbands missing buttons. Whatever domesticity, whatever womanhood I may manage, my version will be more messy than the examples I grew up with.
But thanks to Ellen this morning, my kitchen is, for the moment, spotless---or would be, if I hadn't thrown my empty lunch dishes in the sink. As I write this, there are three pairs of shoes lying in the living room; if I don't do laundry soon we may have to actually go buy new clothes to wear; I have no idea what might be for dinner. On top of it all, I just had another birthday.
I think growing older has turned up the volume in my head. Now that I am firmly in my mid-to-late 30's (Matt lovingly puts the emphasis on the "late" part of that phrase, but that's not fair, or entirely accurate.), there is no question that I am now an adult. Whether or not I have accepted or approved of it, I am living some version of what it means to be a woman. I almost shudder to think of it, but this--dirty kitchen and all--may be it.
August 16th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I think there will be just one technique exercise to chew on today. You see, I'm just back from Italy and, what with all the food, wine, cappuccinos and art, I haven't been thinking seriously about anything very technical. (Except perhaps how to duplicate these pasta recipes at home.) Yesterday, buying lunch meat at our deli counter back home in Albuquerque, Matt said "Grazie" at the end of the transaction, his brain still on all things Italian. This is especially humorous if you understand that neither one of us actually speaks the language, as demonstrated by numerous stymied attempts at even the most basic communication (buying shoes in Rome and leather bags in Florence being just two important examples). But as evidenced from all this, there is little attention at the moment for mundane things like how to sequence good piano technique for beginning fingers.
And so, while I am tempted to chat about Rome, the Adriatic coast, our hotel on the beach, or the open leather market in Florence, (my new nomination for the happiest place on Earth) instead I will leave you with this little exercise. I must confess that I stole it straight from the Edna-Mae Burnam's A Dozen a Day books, but truth is, I don't think Ms. Burnam can really claim this one either. Everyone and their mother has played some version of this exercise over the years, making it as classic as, well, Michelangelo's David.
46. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
Play first in quarter notes, repeat in eighth notes, and then in sixteenths,
thereby doubling the speed with every repetition.
Either major or minor positions will do quite nicely.
Doubling note values with every repetition isn't hard, but it might be challenging to determine, from the quarter-note speed, what a reasonable sixteenth-note tempo might be. This is a great exercise to use rhythmic language with: I instruct students to say "watermelon" with every ascending quarter-note and "ice cream" with the descending quarter notes, thereby setting up a good tempo from the beginning. (If you can't say it, you probably can't play it, I often remind students.)
Speaking of watermelon, Italians do take their melons seriously. This being the season, they were on every menu, slices were sold from stands on the street corners, and there were advertisements on billboards around the country. As far as ice cream goes, I am officially in gelato withdrawal, having had it at least once a day for the last three weeks. By the way, I've decided that "gelato" is my new best word for the syncopated rhythm that is a hard match in the English language: short-long-short (could be eighth-quarter-eighth or sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth as two possibilities). Or "granita" would work as well---both having an accent on the second syllable. Using these words as much as possible, just might---might---help me get over the life-changing lemon granita and blueberry gelato we found last week in Florence near the Duomo. If you're in the neighborhood, find it. You'll thank me.