Goddess Travel, The Beginning: Feeling All Mercouri in Santorini

On this voyage to Greece (my first!), it was clear already on the plane that the gods were with me. After finding myself in the middle of an altercation between the two women in front of me (who had decided to recline as far as their seats would go, from boarding time and even through takeoff) and the sweat-smelling neighbor to my side (who objected), I (the passenger most negatively affected by the situation, stuck in a seat that itself refused to recline) was upgraded to the three empty exit row seats! I personally did not participate in the controversy, conflicted between my firm belief that if the seat you paid for reclines you can recline it and Vueling Airlines’ combination of absolutely no space between rows and seat backs that tilt to a 25° angle over the tray table behind. However, I did reckon that if payment of her ticket price entitled the front passenger to stretch out onto my lap, payment of mine entitled me to push the hard corner of my travel guide as far into her back as it would go, as well as bang my glass incessantly against the tray table, seemingly by accident, until she called the flight attendant to complain. And so it was that I came to have a whole extra-leg-room row to myself, and we all got happily to our destination: Athens. Luck, a gift from Tyche!

All my adventures this summer seem to begin with birthday parties, and upon arrival I barely had time for a quick funicular ride to Mount Lycabettus,


apparently for some reason known as Athina’s Boob, for a first fabulous view of the city, Acropolis included (OK, and a glass of champagne, and truffle fries–there is no edible food on Vueling)

Lycabettus  Lycabettus 2

before heading back to the celebration in honor of my gracious, gracious hostess, Miss I.


Held by a true gourmande, the party could not but feature an assortment of yummy dishes, two cakes including Miss I’s delectable strawberry pavlova, and my first incursion (but definitely not my last) into the wonderful world of Greek wines–which, aghast for the past two decades at that vile concoction named retsina (or at least the varieties I tried), I had never bothered to explore. A surprisingly lovely blend of Papargyriou muscat/assyrtiko that totally got me chummy with Dionysus on my very first night.

Off I went the next morning on my (adventurous) own to the island of Thira or Santorini, a trip that Miss I assured me was the best way to see NOTHING of the Greek summer BUT it’s the one on all the pictures and postcards and all my life I’d been imagining myself all Melina Mercouri on its spectacular cliffs. Against my inveterate custom (and probably because I’d been forced to use my travel guide as a weapon), I had done very little advance research/planning aside from reserving a room in the Senses Boutique Hotel, an adorable eight-room house in the “village” of Imerovigli, halfway between the two better-known towns, Fira and Oía (US$639.52 including taxes for three nights, via Orbitz).

First Part, then, about the lodging: it is not perfect. Santorini holidays are not perfect, unless your budget is much larger than mine (and even then, I’m not sure). If you are not someone who can get into an island vibe and go with the flow (even strictly occasionally, as is my case) you should not go there, but you will miss one of the most breathtaking views on planet Earth. So, at Senses, a little this or that may not have been ideal (the tiniest bathroom sinks, a supermarket breakfast with no way to heat your milk, and such) and, as you will see, there was some room confusion, but it has these definite advantages: 1) It’s in Imerovigli, a sleepy town with few establishments, lovely silence and, to me, the BEST views as it’s on the highest point, and in the middle, of the side of the island facing the caldera (because, yes, you are on top of a friggin’ submerged active volcano). 2) It’s little, and intimate, and beautifully decorated. 3) Yannis. He is the one person in charge, and if you arrive/need something and he is momentarily busy you will have to wait. However, he attends to anything, responds to everything, and misses nothing. Whatever needs fixing he will fix, and if (like me) you arrive with no research and no plans he will tell you what to do, and you will do it, and you will like it. Really: look at reviews of this hotel on any travel site. It’s all about Yannis.

When I got there I was checked into the Blue Room, which was truly enchanting, and had exclusive right to the use of a little terrace with astounding views.

Blue Room

The problem, of course, was that I had reserved an “Elegant”-category room, whereas the Blue Room, albeit très jolie, was in (in fact, constituted the entirety of) the “Petite” category. Cons: It’s not actually a wee room by European standards (if you are familiar with those) but the terrace is not in the room: it is (just) across a tiny outdoor hallway. Windows face the street, so the need (or choice) to keep curtains closed leaves the room a little dark. The pros were many–as Yannis pointed out, it actually has the prettiest and most private terrace, and possibly the best view in the hotel. It also seems more recently renovated than other rooms. Never mind; it is the (annoying) case that, regardless of what she reserves, three times out of four a woman traveling solo (sola solita!) gets redirected to a smaller room, just as in restaurants she gets the back table next to the toilets. Ours is not to ask why, but in any case I insisted on wrongs being righted the next day, and was obligingly moved to the Purple Room:

Purple Room

It was just a tad larger, and had much more light. Most importantly, although the view was (very slightly) less sensational, the terrace being actually attached to the room meant I could pop right out of bed in my sexy lingerie for a panoramic breakfast. Or so I thought: unexplainably, there is no divider between that terrace and the one for the adjacent room (which would be SO EASY to install!), so the next morning I popped right out of bed in my sexy lingerie to say good morning to the couple next door, and wait until they finished their leisurely panoramic breakfast to start my own. In truth, the moment I saw Purple Room I decided I liked Blue better, but I had been too self-righteous (and they had been too helpful in moving my stuff) to go back on my decision. (There is a “Superb” room category which apparently takes care of all issues, and also precludes any risk of being stuck in an entirely purple chamber.)

I think Yannis could tell I was a bit disappointed, because ON THE THIRD DAY he offered, as amiable compensation for the previous mixup and only if I wasn’t too tired to move again, an upgrade to the King Suite With Its Own Private Jacuzzi (oh, Yannis, if you insist that I keep moving around!). And OMG:

P1050950             IMG_20150620_132758

IMG_20150621_102342It should be noted that the little pool is private only in the sense that it’s accessible strictly to the suite’s guests, as in Santorini (unless you spend a lot more money than I have, I guess) most rooms/terraces oriented toward the view are also facing the walking trail that goes from town to town. So pedestrians will pass by and see you when you’re


but that didn’t deter me from soaking there with my bottle of wine (the glass railing does fog up, anyway). After a whole afternoon sailing (see Part II, below), it was SUBLIME.

Inside, the suite is also sublime. Huge, with a wonderful living room with vaulted ceilings and gorgeous original furniture that came with the property purchase (it is a restored traditional house), an actual king-size bed, and a bathroom bigger than either the Blue or the Purple Room, complete with twin showers for when you want to bathe with your bollycao but not in excessively close proximity.


There are a few cons: the tiny little fridge they could fit inside a beautiful armoire isn’t as handy as those in the other rooms, and makes no ice; the larger space isn’t as perfectly cooled by the air conditioner as the other rooms. Anyone who knows ice and a/c are the two things I consider most essential to survival will understand that I suffered a bit, but not enough to turn my nose up at the ritzy digs.

I would definitely go back to the Senses. I will. There are five rooms I haven’t tried yet, after all.

Part II: Activities. As I had jabbed my travel guide into a woman’s ribs instead of reading it, I had no real plans for my three-day Santorini vacation, knowing only that the first order of business, given how touristy it is, had to be to STAY AWAY FROM THE PEOPLE. Luckily, I had Yannis, who asked me in what activities I would like to engage. In addition to this,


I said, ideally with my feet as high up as possible, I would love to go horseback riding (thinking wishfully, I’d carried riding boots in my otherwise minimal luggage). There are no horses in Santorini, he replied, but you can ride a donkey if you like.


NO. Wrong equine, plus there’s the whole matter of whether or not they are abused. So, then, I would like to go on some sort of boat. For that, he informed me there were many options, ranging from 18 to 150€. Now, if you don’t want to mix with The People, this is the kind of thing on which you selectively splurge, so I instantly decided on the most expensive option.

Caldera Yachting’s Gold Sunset Cruise picks you up at your hotel at 3:30 p.m. and brings you back around 10:00. In between you are on a brand-new 45-ft. catamaran with a limit of fifteen passengers; the sail makes three stops and ends with dinner and sunset viewing. With GLORIOUS weather we departed from the port of Ammoudi on the shore below Oía

P1050854  P1050851

toward the first stop, the island of Thirassia, where we were informed that we were to snorkel, and I–who, as my dear friends know, am decidedly against even slightly cool water–steadfastly refused.


Well, I did try to refuse but our Serbian chef-ringleader Maria, who oozed enthusiasm, was not the kind to take no for an answer:


Ordinarily that would have been very annoying, but what the hell: in Santorini you get into the island vibe and go with the flow, plus, did I mention the flow included unlimited amounts of boldness-inducing krasí?


For once in my life, the word “refreshing” was not used by evil connivers to lure me into shock-inducing frigid waters: it was indeed refreshing, and delicious! After that, there was no stopping me; I was the only person on the boat who swam on all three stops. After Thirassia, that encompassed the Kameni islands: Palea Kameni, where you jump off the boat and swim toward muddy sulphur springs (we were told a single old man lives on the island, with his chickens and goats), and Nea Kameni, where you float on the volcanic crater itself.



After all that swimming, Maria and the rest of the crew made a delicious dinner and, again, did I mention the free-flowing wine?


By the final part of the cruise, everyone had gotten all lovey-dovey and all Rolling Stones as we went off into the sunset:

We’re going to blame the sun-on-my-hand photo also on Maria. And, as you ponder the beauty of the scenery, please notice my strategic placement next to the boat’s only bollycao, proof that no matter how relaxed or poetically communing with nature I am, my radar is absolutely never off.


That was my utterly dazzling gift from Poseidon, of course. But the rest of my time in Santorini was dazzling as well. I walked a lot between Imerovigli and Fira, which you do out of necessity (dining/shopping), or maybe just for the quaint corners and the views.


I visited Oía on my second night, because everyone says that’s where you need to go for the best sunset view. But that is only if you enjoy the company of the masses, which, as it has been established, I do not.


Oía has beautiful views all over,

P1050815  P1050818

but the sunset thing really is a waste of time, because a majestic sunset can be enjoyed in blissful isolation ANYWHERE ELSE in Santorini. So I got tired of waiting with the crowd and went to dinner at Thalami Restaurant, Yannis’s least successful recommendation. The food (taramosalata, meatballs and rice–I was on a quest to try all the Greek dishes I’ve always known in Greece) was correct, and the view might have been magnificent if I weren’t a single woman, sitting as usual by the back wall.


When I finished dinner and walked back to the town square, the sunset was FINALLY just ending, and everyone clapped. So touching. Moi, I went to Oía’s famous Melenio pastry shop and got myself a treat to have back in the apartment, with my personal post-dinner wine tasting.


(I did not like/finish my ekmek, BTW–a sort of baklava with pistacchio frosting–but to each his or her own.)

The (white) wines, however, were a different story. One of them I had obtained in Fira, a Ktima Aptypoy Kahaani 2014 made from one of Santorini’s characteristic grapes, aidani. The other one I acquired during my one visit to a winery, Koutsoyannopoulos, which in addition to wine tasting


has a unique wine museum with funky animatronics recreations of Santorini winemaking through the ages (complete with wagging dog-tails):

Given my previous limited wine connoisseurship (I enjoy really good wines but can’t explain why; in a drought, I can drink gasoline), I can’t say I learned a lot about Santorini wine except that they have a very peculiar way of growing vines close to the soil to protect them from wind, like so (ignore the moviemaking dummies, please):


And this, together with the volcanic soil and the salty sea air, results in white wines that you really, really, really want to drink. Like the one that I bought, made from another typical Santorini grape (assyrtiko), and which I was told is sold only at the winery:


So those two were my personal tasting wines back at the hotel, and what can I say… two bottles in three days. I would describe both as dry and crisp and mineralish, and I don’t know if those terms contradict each other, but yum, yum, and slurp. 🙂

A final note on dining: I was advised by wise Yannis to avoid most of the sea-view restaurants and seek small local spots and little tavernas. Again, right on. I ate at two that, from what the sales guy at the Germanos store said, are owned by brothers: Mama’s House


and Taverna Nikolas (at both of which the price is definitely right). Until I ate at Mama’s House, I was with John Oliver on moussaka: “disgusting potato lasagna.” NO MORE. At Nikolas, I had a mighty fine plate of pork souvlaki, and the place was SO cute (I think that might be Nikolas wearing black there–it’s one of the owners, in any case)


that I didn’t even mind their incessant playing of that song from Never on Sunday (instrumental version) over and over again in a loop.

I also at one point missed my stop on the bus to the wine museum (they’re not great at calling out the location names) and accidentally made it to the final station, Kamari beach. As world beaches go, it’s pretty unremarkable, but the detour led to an unscheduled gyro at a random fast food place (on the street going down to the beach where the bus drops you off) that was TO DIE FOR.


I don’t know how I’m going to live without gyros back in Barcelona. Or in the States–they’re just not the same.

There ARE things to avoid in Santorini. Like I said, the masses. Especially the throngs of young ladies wearing chiffon gowns, with their photographer in tow because what girl in her right mind doesn’t want a picture of her beautiful self on a windswept cliff, with hair and clothing floating behind her. The multitude of idiot newlyweds who hang locks all along the trail path, because what better symbol could there be for marriage. The tourist traps in Fira and Oía, especially the jewelry shops that will attempt to sell you a gorgeous yet ridiculously overpriced 1530€ pair of earrings (you must do like Ulysses with the sirens here, and like me–although I did almost go insane with desire).


Most of all, if you could, you should avoid The Bus. Imagine riding down California’s Route 1 on a packed bus, standing up, holding on to WHATEVER you can (oops, sorry beautiful young lad, I didn’t mean to do that!). Dizzying. Dangerous. And the crowds, and the waiting, ugh. But I’m afraid it’s not entirely possible to skip, as there are only 39 taxicabs in all of Santorini, and the alternatives (car/scooter rentals) have their own dangers. With that, good luck.

And when you leave, remember: avoid The People. On that ferry,


splurge again on the VIP ticket (not even that big a difference from the regular ticket). The seats are quite similar to cheaper ones, except of course that you might just get four chairs to yourself without even having to assault anyone for them.


Return to Santorini? I hope I do. I will. It is the kind of touristy place you love to hate (next time I’ll go to a real island where I can actually see something of the authentic Greek summer), and also the place your eyes ache for when you don’t know if you will once again behold the beautiful caldera.

It made me feel free, and hippie, and mod!

hippie  warhol

As Cavafy wrote (if about something else altogether),

Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me—

I hope I do return, or it comes back to me.

But first, back to Athens. That must, however, remain for a later post.

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Sleepy Summer, Accidental Tourism, and Barça!

Two weeks in Barcelona! It feels like summer is going by too quickly, and yet it’s also been sort of sleepy and uneventful. I did, however, inaugurate the season by spending my first weekend here in the beach town of Sitges, the “Gay Capital of Spain.” This wasn’t so great for my bollycao hunting–certainly already under way–but it was fabulously relaxing because of this


and this.


The wonderful pool was at the Hotel Terramar, which I did not research or choose (I was with a group of friends), but was very clean, wonderfully air-conditioned, and relatively inexpensive despite the bountiful breakfast buffet. It also had fantastic views, such as in the picture above–which was not, sadly, from my own room. I had a “single” room, which means that you get no balcony, no view, deafening noise from the elevator, and the tiniest bed in the universe, to ensure you stay single while you’re there.

Sitges can get very crowded in July and August, but is just perfect in June. In fact, the only people crowding it were the twenty-plus friends (me included) of the debonair Mr. S, who were there for the 50th-birthday weekend bash lovingly arranged for him by his partner Mr. A. On Saturday, we had a delightful picnic lunch with more than fifty guests in a sort of summer camp site on the Garraf, and it was a beautiful occasion that at times felt like a wedding,


down to the two delectable Black Forest cakes with romantic messages from popular songs (which people sassier than me also performed–there were many performances throughout the weekend!).

Colonias 1


People other than me also did healthy, mindful things like get up in the morning to do Pilates on the beach,


but that is more esprit de corps than I can muster while still afflicted with jet lag (or at least that was my excuse). A wonderful time was had by all, and after the horrible winter of 2015, my summer has officially begun.

Back in Barcelona, and always the conscientious academic, my first order of business was to make my way to that old haunt, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, where I promptly booked myself a private carrel (or cabin, as they call it), which for the modest sum of 23.95€ a week enables you to work in blissful isolation from The People.


Cabina 4 is several miles away from the bathroom, a lucky circumstance that allowed me to stumble onto a beautiful little art exhibit scattered throughout the cavernous reading room: Memòria Llarga, Memòria Curta, a series of artworks made by students of the Escola Llotja’s Conservatory for Book Arts, most of which manipulate books and book-related objects as a reflection “on the relationship between the book and human cultural memory.” The description doesn’t sound too exciting, but I do love the artworks themselves and their fit into the beautiful BC environment. Definitely drop by if you’re in town before September 25, at least if you can get past the airport-type security at the library entrance.

Other than working I’ve been trying to make myself at home, which mostly involves the purchase of large numbers of candles to avoid turning on those ghastly fluorescent ceiling lamps hung too high for me to change the lightbulbs.

Home Fireplace

But, alas, the photo above suggests I spend my time relaxing, whereas it is mostly devoted to household chores. After considerable effort, I figured out (without the benefit of an instruction manual) the three different steps it takes to turn the oven on, and made oven fries! (To eat with eggs and luscious txistorra, both of which were fried so I should have just gone all the way with the flow.) I also chase–or rather, am chased by–a superbionic mosquito that won’t quit biting huge chunks off me. And I do a lot of ironing, mainly because the ninety-minute wash/dry cycle (which takes four hours if you choose “fully dry” in step #4 of the settings–and why the hell WOULDN’T YOU choose “fully dry”) results in this:


I never thought I’d say this, but it makes me nostalgic for the apparatus-for-hanging-clothes-out-to-dry I had last year in Bilbao…

Of course, if you live in my neighborhood, the Barri Gòtic, household chores can acquire their own unique character. After days of unsuccessful inquiries as to where on earth I’m supposed to drop my recyclables, a neighbor finally revealed I should walk all the way around the block to the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid. When I ventured there, I kept looking for the usual yellow, green, and blue containers, and actually wondered if these structures were the new receptacles:


But, no, they are not the new receptacles; they are just 2nd to 3rd-century AD Roman sarcophagi to which I somehow never paid attention on the way to the Athenaeum next door, a private institution with frequent interesting cultural events (check out their calendar if you speak Catalan!) in whose gorgeous little library I have sometimes worked. Naturally, it makes all the sense in the world for the necropolis to be right there, as my street was the city wall in Roman times.

Running errands in the Barri Gòtic, there is no end to the possible surprises. You can decide to emerge from home to get some groceries (as I did yesterday, June 13), and step right onto this outside your building’s gate:


Gegant and casteller parades in the middle of the street might conceivably happen any weekend, but yesterday there was a particular city celebration I had forgotten all about, and which I accidentally stumbled into just a few minutes later: the new Mayor’s inaugural.


On this particular occasion people at Plaça de Sant Jaume, the square where the Catalan Governmental Palace and Barcelona’s City Hall face each other, seemed particularly excited. The election of Ada Colau was part of a widespread turn to the left in the most recent Spanish municipal elections that drove the right-wing party in national power (the Partido Popular) and other traditional majority parties out of a good number of local governments. Rather than a career politician, she is a long-time social activist, and her message has struck a chord with the many Catalans who have long felt economically and socially disenfranchised while the main political parties take turns doing little for their plight.

So waddayaknow–ever the accidental tourist, I just keep chancing upon history in the making!

My flâneuse walks around the city have had a much more frivolous side. I’ve browsed at several of the markets that pop up around town in summer, like the weekend handicraft bazaar on Carrer de l’Argenteria, where I just had to buy a darling little felt bag.



And at my favorite Barcelona clothing store, Anna Povo,


where I already eyed a few items for July’s rebaixes (everything is on sale, everywhere in Spain, in July).

On Passeig de Gràcia, however, I also had to face true tragedy: the imminent closing (at the end of June) of the Vinçon store, founded in 1941.

Vinçon Internet

Vinçon’s history, as detailed on its web site, doesn’t convey what this place meant to me and to Barcelona’s development. Much more than a home goods/furniture store, it was one of those shops that become so associated with a city that they turn into tourist attractions in their own right. It helped of course that it was located in the Casa Casas-Carbó, a modernist jewel on the same street as the famous Mansana de la Discòrdia and steps away from Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà. Its beautiful interiors were as much of an attraction as the exquisite furniture they showcased, featuring the best of Barcelona, Spanish, and European design. And even if you couldn’t afford the high-ticket items (or couldn’t well fly a gorgeous bookshelf back home), you could go every year for their summer red or black fans, or the new calendar, or original little gifts that you could carry out of the store in their latest bag. The store “took off” in the early nineties, just as I began my almost-yearly trips to Barcelona, and it was always one of the first stops on my itinerary, a sign that I was finally here. Seeing its empty shelves broke my heart:


I hope it doesn’t just become another chain store, or global luxury franchise.

The only possible consolation for the loss of Vinçon, of course, is the Barça store, whose many outposts outside the Camp Nou Megastore I don’t seem able to just walk past. I wonder what the subliminal pull is…


Really, do they have beefcake dummies in U. S. stores??? I think I’m falling in love! I know, they are not human, don’t even have a face and my lusting after them is a little insane. But what’s a girl to do when there are no more Puyol posters around, and she’s in withdrawal from… the Rúa!!!!

Because last Sunday (June 7) I did make it back in time for Barça’s parade through the city on their way back from Germany, where they won the Champions League title against Juventus. Still in Sitges, I had missed the crazy celebrations at Canaletes on the actual night of the game (not that I’m sure I would have survived them; I did try that once). However, I was there in spirit lending them my (arm) strength.


This was, of course, Barcelona’s third title this year (in addition to the Spanish Liga and Copa del Rey)–the second treble in their history. And I made it to their welcome!

Rúa 1 Rúa 2

As usual, I ended up on the friggin’ wrong side of the street and missed both Messi and my new hearthrob beau Suárez, but if you scan the pictures carefully you can see Luis Enrique, Pedro, Mascherano, Jordi Alba and, decked in the Catalan flag, dreamy Sergi Roberto. Of course (and thankfully) my best view was of Xavi, in his last couple of days with Barça:

Rúa Xavi

It was very sad and very moving and I can’t face his having gone to Qatar (mourning and withdrawal again). I am, nevertheless, a bit heartened by Puyol’s diligent efforts to learn English (unfortunately at Berlitz), which I’m taking to mean I’ll soon have him WITH ME in New York.

On the culinary side, no big adventures yet but going up and down Passeig de Gràcia I discovered a place where you should NEVER eat (I only even tried it because it’s new and didn’t seem to be the same kind of establishment as all the horrid tapas chains around there, plus I was going to drop dead if I didn’t have a meal IMMEDIATELY). I also went back to an old favorite, Sushi Shop–for when you just have to take a break from the jamón and absolutely need a place with BITCHIN’ AIR CONDITIONING (a recurring need of mine in Europe). Miss L and the Blacksongs will be imminently landing in Barcelona, at which point I will be hitting the restaurants and night spots more often and will have interesting tidbits to share.

But that will be in two or three weeks. Before that (this Wednesday), I am taking off for an actual one-week vacation in GREECE. And I’ll have plenty to report about that!



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Barcelona, 2015

Well, here we are again. I somehow miraculously survived the spring of 2015, which included at least three months of horrible (HORRIBLE) winter weather, two months of Lady F convalescing with me in New York (she is now in much better shape, thanks), enough work for three of me (the “me” from when I was young and energetic), and lastly the great and nearly-fatal tumble down those blasted Morningside Park steps, still in need of repair and a damn handrail. And here I am again, on the other side of the Atlantic, back in my beloved Barcelona, which last summer I spurned for Bilbao and other points North. So exciting to fly into that familiar landscape!

Landing I have been here for just over forty-eight hours, although most of it is still a jetlagged blur; I slept all of Monday when I arrived, except for a brief saunter to the Mercat de Santa Caterina for the First Meal of, what else, croquetes casolanes (because I could eat myself to death with croquettes), pebrots de Padró, and my FAVORITE, grilled calamari in the typical Catalan garlic/parsley sauce,


all of it ordered in not-as-rusty-as-I’d-feared Catalan and consumed with, what else, CAVA, over a newspaper spread proclaiming what we all know, that Messi (Messi, Messi, Messi!) is not of this world. Because, days later, the “locals” are still raving mad about THAT GOAL at the Barcelona-Athletic Club Copa del Rey final (and so am I).

The First Meal ended, inevitably, with a turró (nougat) ice cream cone from Planelles Donat at Portal del Àngel #7. And don’t argue: it has to be from that particular location of PD, and no other establishment, please. I will begin minding the diet just as soon as I’ve tasted all the must-haves at least once.

Got back to bed, and on Tuesday I set my alarm for 10:30 a.m., as per my foolproof anti-jetlag system (sleep for an entire 24 hrs upon arrival, you’ll be set to go at a normal time on day 2). Unfortunately, it seems as you get older that must turn into sleeping for an entire 48 hrs upon arrival, as there was no getting me out of bed before 3:15 p.m. At which point I had occasion to inspect my ULTRALUXE Airbnb apartment, which is interestingly outside my usual neighborhoods, in the Barri Gòtic or, as the Ex immediately labeled it, Guiriland. I live on the fabulous pedestrian Carrer de la Portaferrissa, so named for being the site of one of Roman Barcelona’s gates, and now most famous perhaps for leading to another little street, Carrer Petritxol, known as one of the quaintest little corners of Barcelona (more on that in a later post).

My ULTRALUXE woman-cave is in a building that looks pretty medieval itself, although its modern history seems quite interesting too. I found out from my friend Mr. A, who knows EVERYTHING about Barcelona, that it used to house the Casa Regional de Murcia y Albacete (casas regionales were social clubs for people outside their province), and someone on the internetz reports that it didn’t close during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, continuing to hold a dance party every Sunday throughout. I did find a program for a theater performance as late as 1958:

Portaferrissa 2

Held in MY VERY OWN APARTMENT (or rather, the floor of which my apartment is now 1/6th or 1/8th). I do believe the Casa remained open at this location until ten or fifteen years ago. However, something else I found when looking this up is that in the 1920s you could come here to buy TOP-QUALITY Catalan Arbequina olive oil (curiously the same kind I buy at Fairway Market in NYC):

Portaferrissa 1

In this day and age, my building’s claim to fame may be to have the only front door not covered in graffiti or piss in the entire Barri Gòtic, something for which I may have the Manta salesmen to thank (at almost any point you may buy folkoric fans and castaignettes from a guy outside my gate). Immediately inside is a beautifully serene entryway with inner patio:


That little staircase (which I don’t take because after the Great Morningside Tumble of 2015 I am DONE WITH STAIRS and a BCN place that’s not a walkup is true luxury) leads to a fabulous space purportedly decorated professionally by a studio named HOME-DECO, and featured in the magazine Interiores because of the to-die-for fireplace (that IS my fireplace, too bad it’s summer!). Though I’m not sure I’m “at home” in the apartment yet, it is definitely one of the most palatial I’ve ever rented, if not terribly “medieval” in style (except for the volta catalana arches preserved in the living-room area).

IMG_20150601_075222 IMG_20150601_075007 IMG_20150601_074640 IMG_20150602_185439

Every time a classified reads “loft” I think “studio,” but it’s actually huge, which makes it strange that they decided to keep it as a no-wall space with the dining table right in front of the bed. Also, despite the enormous windows facing three sides, it’s not that bright. The CFL bulbs in the industrial light fixtures (do I have a steampunk apartment???) don’t really enhance the sultry olive skin tone I plan to acquire very soon. The graffitiesque artwork is a bit disturbing (guess I avoided it downstairs not upstairs). And there are… words all over the headboard.


Words that do not exactly match my habitual moods when I’m in bed (like coño, WTF, or oohlala!). THAT SAID, the little indoor garden on my floor is the cutest thing (I’m not actually sure I’m allowed there, but I tiptoed through it). The double-pane glass makes for complete silence (also true luxury in BCN); there are THREE indoor units for the multi-split air conditioner (very silent as well); and that black leather Arne Jacobsen-style Egg Chair may or may not be an original orgasmatron–it is the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat on. So comfortable, in fact, I’m hallucinating about buying a small desk so I can work there.

So, on the evening of the second day (Tuesday), after a bit of home exploring, I met Messrs. A & S for dinner at La Monroe, the little restaurant at the Catalan Film Archive. Very reasonably priced, and quite tasty; I had a culturally incoherent dinner consisting of (shared) Nachos and a second course of secreto ibérico. And then it was midnight, and Mr. S’s FIFTIETH birthday, which we celebrated by the full moon on Carrer Petritxol:


Today (Day 3), I managed to get out of bed–if not to be actually awake–by 11:30 a.m. I bought the ugliest (and cheapest?) shopping cart ever, and got some basics. I ran some secret errands with a secret friend. And managed my first home-cooked meal of the summer, the very Catalan botifarra amb mongetes, on my fancy made-to-look-like-a-repurposed-door-with-peeling-paint dining table:


So here I am! It’s 2015, Barcelona this time. (No Basque vocabulary needed, but you can send a little Mikel this way anytime!) I’ll write from time to time with a travel diary, Barcelona tidbits, and miscellaneous miscellanea. Since I have SO MANY FRIENDS who know the city and the area, I hope they’ll use the comments section to add their own recommendations (for me, for whomever might read this).

I’m here for work (yes, sigh…). For FRIENDS. For FOOD. For Barça (see you on the night of the European Cup final, June 6!). For my old and forever boyfriend Carles Puyol, and my new boyfriend Luis Suárez (yes, somehow that happened). Most of all, for TWO MONTHS!

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Death and the Groovy Maiden: Ruminations on Widows’ Fashion at the MetMuseum

I am (or at least hope I am) part of the last generation of women who were taught that life’s full realization would come through marriage and children. It would all, of course, be in a groovy kind of way. I don’t think we were expected to love the whole idea, or my first vinyl record would not have been Cenicienta Pop [Pop Cinderella], to which I incessantly go-go danced at the age of four:

Cenicienta Pop

No me importa fregar suelos

Ni los zapatos limpiar,

Tampoco planchar pañuelos

Ni la papilla lavar.

Mi familia no me entiende,

Nadie, nadie me comprende…

Lo que a mí me gustaría:

Con minifalda vestir

Sin que nadie me critique

Cuando salgo por ahí.

[I don’t care to mop the floors,

Am not into shining shoes,

Not much for ironing hankies,

Or washing off baby food.

My family doesn’t get me,

No one really understands me…

What I’d really like to do

Is put on a mini-skirt

And not have everyone trash me

When I’m painting the town red.]

It was clear the operational orders were to keep our eyes on the prince–in this particular fairy tale a long-haired charmer who ruined me for crew cuts forevermore (“veo que tiene el pelo largo, él sin duda me entenderá” / I see his hair is long, he will get me for sure!). And just as clear that after he swept you off your feet you would be sweeping the dirt off his.

Dubbed American TV shows offered a range of ways to deal with this, none of which were at my grandmother’s disposal: from Mrs. Brady’s Electrolux-laden maid to Samantha and Jeannie’s magic. Around my part of town, the advice was how to train your dragon by keeping him permanently under the illusion that he was in charge (which sounded a whole lot like his being in charge). My mom (then a gay divorcée) may not necessarily have understood the concept, but she did try her best on the motherhood part, culminating in 1973 with the gift of Baby Alive, a doll that required after-market purchase of expensive food packets and tiny disposable diapers and which, as Wikipedia succinctly explains, “produced droppings and threw up regularly.” When I demanded to hear exactly how this was blissful, mom grudgingly confessed that she wasn’t quite sure, since our entire mother-daughter bonding had hinged on the miraculous fact that I was the only baby in the maternity ward who excreted little poop pearls that made no mess and didn’t smell (yup, you heard it: my shit don’t stink). And so, at the tender age of nine, I explained to Lady F that there would be NO GRANDCHILDREN. As for the long-haired mod prince, she could rest assured that I would postpone running off with him until I was way old, like TWENTY-THREE. While she seemed to take it well, I felt confused about the future. What if I was sweet on the prince part, but not on the Babies Alive, Electrolux, dragon-training accoutrements? Being a nun was already out of the question, and I didn’t want to be an old maid! (Pop Cinderella did not really rescue the stepsisters’ figures.)

Then, as so often happened in my multicultural Puerto Rican childhood, Spanish film furnished the epiphany. One afternoon after school, watching Telecine de la tarde reruns, THERE SHE WAS:

I knew instantly what I wanted to be when I grew up: A WIDOW.

I have no memory of the rest of that movie (Las leandras, 1969), but do you see????? Roughly contemporary with Pop Cinderella (I am a child of the 60s!), its merry widow protagonist is wearing a mini-skirt, and no one is trashing her as she paints the town red. Furthermore, she is wallowing (a fabulously ambiguous verb) in the emptiness of her luxurious suite: “En la cámara nupcial ya no hay sombra conyugal, y en el baño el pobre espejo, no tiene el reflejo de lo habitual” [In the marital chamber, no more conjugal shadow, and the poor bathroom mirror misses its habitual image]. While she mourns for her dearly departed, she can now console herself with… a bunch of boy toys! Not quite long-haired or mod, but good enough “para que su vacío no sienta, no” [so as not to feel his void, no]. CLEARLY the lifestyle for me. I wonder if my lifelong obsession with wearing black and deep V-necks originated here…

In the end it was more advisable for me to live in sin with Him Who Must Not Be Named than to count on his early death. But my widow fixation continued, this time related to my academic research on the creation of women’s cultural repertoires in nineteenth-century Spain, with its Catholic variants of the angel in the house–only partially coinciding with Anglo-American models. Among these, most fascinating was the widow: at once the (figurative) virgin and the whore (most likely figurative as well).

The legal frameworks of a society structured around virtually compulsory marriage left little space for non-dependent women to operate in-dependently. Fathers and husbands controlled women’s sexuality as much as their movements in both public and domestic spaces, and the confessor’s influence covered the tiny crevices outside their reach. Beyond the obvious fact that a woman could not vote, paternal or marital license was needed to exercise one of the few available occupations, enter into any sort of contract, or even manage those assets that Spanish law did consider wives’ exclusive property. As budding politician Rafael María de Labra keenly observed in 1869, there was little difference between the citizenship status of women and of colonial populations. Perhaps more surprising, though, was women’s subordination as mothers. The father, sole holder of custody (patria potestas), could even bequeath it to a male executor. Should the widow of a man deceased without a will gain hold of such tutelage, she would nevertheless lose it upon remarriage. For a woman’s remarriage was, if not unthinkable, at least eminently distasteful. As Severo Catalina, author of the immensely popular treatise La mujer (1858), put it, “es de ordinario loca la viuda que pasa á segundo matrimonio, porque si fué feliz en el primero, debe su corazon y su existencia á la fidelidad” [a widow who takes a second marriage is evidently insane, because if she was happy in her first, she owes her heart and life to faithfulness].

And yet no woman was more socially disturbing because, while a maiden’s chastity was guaranteed by her innocence and a married woman’s safeguarded by her husband, the widow’s already-awakened (and now unsatisfied) sexuality was guarded by nothing but social convention and her own conviction. Nothing attests to its perceived precariousness better than the insistence with which Catalina defends it: “La castidad de una viuda es. . . la castidad más difícil y meritoria” [A widow’s chasteness is. . . the most difficult and meritorious]. Outside the regulatory bonds of marriage, widows simultaneously seduced and frightened men, threatening their command over the public sphere. Accordingly, their behavior was among the most heavily regulated. As detailed in an 1858 legal dictionary, “la mujer que, en estado de viudez, vive escandalosamente pierde los gananciales a beneficio de los herederos de su marido” [the woman who, as a widow, lives scandalously forfeits matrimonial assets to her husband’s (other) beneficiaries].

Thus the widow, perhaps more than other women, was forced to perform a social persona far removed from her “inner” self, principally through luto or mourning: practices designed to openly signify grief, conformity, solemnity, and respectability. While this code of conduct comprised myriad rituals and prohibitions, it especially emphasized dress. At the dawn of the twentieth century, an urban bourgeois Spanish widow was still expected to wear black for two years, gradually shifting from full luto riguroso to lighter medio luto (rural widows might wear it for the rest of their lives). The heavy fabrics and sober styles were intended to metaphorically bury the widow alive. But when the going got tough, the tough went SHOPPING! In 1855, a sarcastic (male) columnist in the women’s magazine Correo de la moda made note of a piece of popular lore: “La mujer compensa el dolor que la produce la pérdida de un pariente con el placer que encuentra en la conversación de la modista que ha de hacerla el traje de luto” [Woman makes up for her affliction at the loss of a relative through pleasant chitchat with the dressmaker who will sew her mourning outfit]. And from the folds of black taffeta emerged the defiant merry widow, unscathed.

In my work, I have often seen the figurines on which these women based their designer or homemade confections

Trajes luto

as well as newspaper ads selling mourning fabrics and attire:


I have seen many period paintings and movies full of enlutadas. But until yesterday I never had the haunting three-dimensional experience offered by the excellent Metropolitan Museum exhibit Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (on view through the end of January 2015, please go!).

Death3Death1That otherworldly stroll among weeping widows, themselves long-dead (the mannequins, with their white faces and wigs, projecting flickering shadows onto gallery walls, all to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem playing in the background), paradoxically brought to life the many layers of meaning hidden in pleats of skirt. Above all, it showed widows’ radical resignification of oppressive fashions to reveal their charms in the very act of hiding them, until grief turned into alluring distress, conformity into composure, solemnity into elegance, respectability into class, indeed mourning into seduction. Death, in fact, became them: it looked well on them and suited them–enabled them to take charge of their lives by mastering a discourse of duplicity.

In Spain, the rituals of mourning were first codified by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1497. Their proclamation on los lutos, i cera que se pueden traer, i gastar por los difuntos [the mourning and wax that can be carried for and spent on the deceased] and a corollary set of regulations both established its visible conventions–including the use of black to replace the previously customary white–and restricted its ostentation by strictly limiting who could exercise it, for how long, and in what (decorous and restrained) manner. As explained by Enrique Casas Gaspar in Costumbres españolas de nacimiento, noviazgo, casamiento y muerte (1947), widows were required to be shut away for a year in a room wallpapered in black, with no sunlight; a rule so restrictive that just two centuries later (1729) Philip V reduced it to six months. A widow’s outside dress prescribed total coverage–a sort of ambulatory substitute for the black room.


By the nineteenth century, however, the ascending bourgeoisie–the first class whose social standing rested on exhibition of wealth rather than documented lineage–had begun to repel statutes enacted precisely to prevent its accession. In fact, Article 1379 of the 1889 Civil Code stipulated that, regardless of how the rest of the dowry and inheritance were handled, “en todo caso se pagarán a la viuda, del caudal de la herencia, los vestidos de luto” [in all instances the widow will be paid for her mourning dresses from the estate’s funds].

And rightly so. Because she needed a morning dress and an afternoon dress, a promenade dress, and let us not forget the evening dress.


Not only did widows (and other mourning women) figure out how to transform quasi-monastic vestments into high fashion; they managed to steal the show from death through carefully placed flourishes, details that accentuated their voluptuous shapes (including the liver-splitting corset, but oh well), the delicate translucence of a glove or veil.

DeathGlove           DeathVeil

Is that a dance card or a love note tucked into her hand?


And what a way to have her husband wrapped around her finger (on a mourning ring, of course)!


One has to understand widows’ ambiguous status to realize how truly subversive they could be. Case in point, one of my favorite Spanish literary widows, the namesake character of Juan Valera’s Pepita Jiménez (1874), who rode her Andalusian mare dashingly, tending to her profitable vineyards and olive groves, refusing the attention of the richest, most gallant suitors until she set her sights on who else but the hottie priest. Against the town’s trashing and her confessor’s advice, she tried the subtle thing first. She OOHED and AAHED when he learned how to ride a horse (naturally). She had two gorgeous servant girls who resembled her sybaritically serve him fresh-picked strawberries (look, hon, THREE of us!!!). And when he didn’t catch her drift and started going on about how they could be platonic lovers from afar, she was all, like:

¡Ay, don Luis!. . . Yo ni siquiera concibo a usted sin usted. Para mí es usted su boca, sus ojos, sus negros cabellos, que deseo acariciar con mis manos. . . Yo amo en usted, no ya sólo el alma sino el cuerpo, y la sombra del cuerpo, y el reflejo del cuerpo en los espejos. . . Soy idólatra materialista.

[Oh, Don Luis!. . . I can’t even conceive of you without you. To me, you are your mouth, your eyes, your dark curls, through which I want to run my fingers. . . In you I love not just the soul but the body, and the body’s shadow, and its image in mirrors. . . I am a materialist idolatress.]

Who would have said and done that, but a widow???!!! Needless to say, she got her long-haired priest and turned him into a prince (totally through her magic kiss!). She dressed him pretty and took him SHOPPING all through Europe. She did marry him (oh well, it was the 1870s), but still… Clearly the lifestyle for me.

I figure since the Good Lord has denied me a dead husband, for the upcoming holidays I can always get a little black dress. Not a Victorian one; the poor Queen’s mourning frocks were not very… forgiving.


A GROOVY dress. What do you think of these?

Darelle   fringe

For starters. 🙂


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Barça, Barça, Barça of the Lonely and Lovelorn

My exhausting scholarly obligations have been keeping me not only from this blog (eagerly awaited by my faithful mystery readers in Brazil, Venezuela, and the Philippines, if not by my actual friends), but also from one of my foremost passions, Barcelona fútbol. I have missed game after game of what I was under the impression (up until yesterday?) might be the comeback year. So two nights ago I committed myself to returning to both blog and football thereupon. Overexcited, I truly could not sleep a wink thinking about the upcoming game (the first Barça-Madrid Clásico of the season) and thus was awake at the crack of dawn to check out the day’s convened squad. IMPOSSIBLE for crappy Real Mandril to win against Barça forwards Messi, Neymar, Pedro, Munir The Teenage Revelation and, last but not least, playing his much-anticipated first game after the World Cup biting-incident sanction, Luis Suárez!!!!! (Aren’t those perhaps five of the best six, seven, ten strikers in the world?) With the Chilean World Cup goalie, Claudio Bravo, against whom NO goals had been scored since the Liga season started in August: a record 720 minutes unbeaten. With the best of the Old Guard (minus my beloved of course): Iniesta and Xavi. With Madrid third in the standings (to Barça’s #1)!

I jumped out of bed much earlier than my two hours of sleep warranted to make sure I found my latest team jersey model (two years old, I couldn’t bear to buy a new one this summer with Busquets as #5) and don the special-occasion WAR PAINT

War Paint

which I still had sense enough to take off again right away rather than wear down the street to Miss G and Mr. Chxyzk’s apartment (I did carry it in my pocket for later reapplication). These two dearest friends having offered, on top of their 42″ (56″? 395″?) TV, a civilized brunch of Swedish Pancakes, whose existence I was oddly unaware of, despite having temporarily inhabited the picturesque town of Lund. (They were DELICIOUS, in any case; primarily, I imagine, because like me, Mr. Chxyzk is authentically Swedish.) I should have known the airs weren’t propitious when I arrived and Mr. Chxyzk was tiptoeing around the kitchen, Miss G was nowhere to be seen (afflicted with a migraine she thereafter bravely tried to will away), and Miss G’s son revealed himself to be a REAL MADRID SUPPORTER (would absolutely not let me paint his arm blaugrana)!!! And then Barcelona DID THE IMPOSSIBLE: it f****** lost the game. I remember little of this debacle–perhaps because of the various intoxicative accompaniments to the Swedish pancakes–but Miss G spent the entire cab ride back from our later evening gallivanting about in horrified flashbacks (“WTF were those two lines of four? That hasn’t been seen in Barça since the days of…!!!!”). All I will acknowledge remembering (and would that I could also erase it from my mind) is that RM’s third goal scored by Benzema was sort of OK (roll of my eyes, pffffff).

I will additionally acknowledge being a little wistful for José Mourinho, or rather the inevitable rumbles of the Mourinho-Guardiola era, which so entertained the audience when games were made unbearably soporific by the defensive tactics Luis Enrique now seems eager to imitate:

Speaking about wistfulness and  fútbol… There are things about which a gal must be indiscreet, because their sheer fabulousness trumps any and all grownup prudence (thus a high-ranking academic official at my institution, thankfully since departed, was once stunned to hear all about a calendar-worthy seven-foot-tall California firefighter upon casually greeting me with an unsuspecting “how was your break?”). And so I have to blab in this private anonymous setting about my recent brush with WAGness. Here I was, heartbroken upon the loss of my cherished michelangelesque bollycao to famine or disease or some other natural disaster, when out of a billowy nebula in the sky there fell upon me a consolation prize in the form of a young English expat footballer (!!!!!!). To protect the identity of the innocent I am unable to show you one of the many selfies he generously shared with me (and more, or perchance less, knowingly, with my coterie of old-witch friends), but let’s just say we are still in general Michelangelo territory. Evidently the Hand of God was at play and, like Diego Maradona, who am I to question divine intervention? And so I applied myself to channeling Victoria Beckham, but (alas!) our love was not to be. We immediately ran into insurmountable linguistic obstacles, and not just because I am notoriously unable to communicate with the British, but because apparently my academically-infused vernacular is completely unintelligible in the pro-sports echelons. My hyperbolic verbosity in praise of his assorted virtues just met with expressions of utter bafflement, and I was disappointingly discouraged from lavishing upon him the many ingenious saucy limericks that were his predecessor’s glee, and at which I truly excel (and which I may publish, at the witch-friends’ urging, after I am retired from respectable employment). Also, I have to say I was disheartened by his olympic indifference to my attempts at actually conversing about soccer (OK, and show off my middling competence, but how many ladies of a certain age do you know who possess a paper + kindle library on the subject–BTW thank you Miss K for the latest addition!).


Inexplicably (given the fact that I rarely or never excite the interest of English footballers, let’s be honest), I started minding his neymarish side-swept pompadour (all the rage in his circles, of course), and it was clear our differences were irreconcilable: the Beautiful Secret Footballer and I had to part ways.

Reflecting on it all (the nostalgia for fútbol excitement, the disastrous game, the romantic interlude), I’ve realized what has REALLY been missing from my life, why I truly grieve inconsolably (which reminds me, would anyone like to come with me to the MetMuseum’s 19th-Century mourning fashions exhibit?). Life just hasn’t been the same since the retirement this spring of my injury-besieged True Love Forever, CP5, Carles Puyol. Although he is now somehow (too invisible) part of Barça’s “sports management,” no longer will he spring forth from his mighty thighs and catapult himself through the air to drive a football home with his armor-plated cranium.

No longer will he unfailingly have every other player’s back, nobly encouraging fair play and fierce drive (especially from that blasted Piqué, whom I’m ready to sell to ManU or wherever). No longer will the wind blow through his most humble and careless curl to fill me with the starry night’s vapors of gold and pearl.

Lionel+Messi+Carles+Puyol+Real+Madrid+v+Barcelona+X9QFyxOyMptl  48107

Most painful of all is that he did not, as I had always counted on, fall in love at first sight with me after that July 2012 serendipitous encounter


that followed my not-at-all-planned-and-systematic 2012 pilgrimage (a more exact term than stalking) through all his urban and rural haunting grounds (two hours of illegal idling at a Barcelona bus stop included), and led to my #1 and #2 most memorable Facebook posts EVER. Or subsequent serendipitous encounters where I got to whisper I LOVE YOU CARLES directly fifty feet away from his ear (12/13):


Instead, he fell in love with a Barbie supermodel with whom he can engage in tantric yoga acrobatics on what looks like children’s interlocking foam floor tiles,


and purportedly spawned a lovely girl-child (I never did see anything inside all those blankets…).


I have been slowly coming to terms with the loss. While not yet ready to talk about my Android wallpaper, I did convince myself the other day to swap the Puyol caganer in my bathroom for a little Betty Boop,

IMG_20141025_205108  IMG_20141025_204950

during which operation THIS terrible thing happened, which I’m sure is a bad omen (theories about its meaning are welcome):


So, hard as I find it to move on, I’m trying. (But if rumors that Puyol is shopping for a condo in Manhattan are true, however, all bets are off, lighter-than-air supermodel!!!!!)

It seems clear at this point, in any case, that I need (dare I even type it out?) a NEW BARÇA LOVE. In consequence, once it became apparent that neither good goals (the Barça not RM type) nor good rumbles were on yesterday’s menu, I spent what remained of the second half scouting for my new Samson demigod. Let’s face it, the current Barça squad is not exactly strong on the demigod front.

For a brief moment in August, I tried to get enamored of Ivan Rakitić, to no avail (the hair was alluring, but such is the intractable heart). But, as of yesterday, I kind-of sort-of made a pre-decision on the Heir Apparent. Behold Sergi Roberto:




So he’s not there yet (he is a mere twenty-two years old). His muscles aren’t Tarzan-like; his ribs don’t extrude from his chest just so. But his curls have potential, maybe. A midfielder for a central defense, I don’t know… Will he be as great a footballer as my Puyi? Most crucially, will a golden nimbus eventually spring around him–as it did around my True Love, and BTW also around Hristo Stoichkov, my now-decaying-both-physically-and-mentally but also forever hallowed first Barça boyfriend–to shower all around with aurous dew? (The swimming picture seems to suggest so.) Can love grow when it didn’t burst out forthwith, as happened when I first laid eyes upon Puyol? Only time will tell. I’m not a great mover-on, but I do try my best.

[I hereby do also promise an intelligent post about a much more culturally significant subject next–already in preparation. But anyone who knows me also knows the momentous import of what I just wrote…]

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The Midlife Song

With utmost frivolity: I know I look good for my age. Friends’ and bollycaos’ recent estimates have ranged between 34 and 42, but they do of course have a vested interest (judge me objectively at your own risk!). Nonetheless, my esthetician, who knows my every inch and pore, clocked me at 40 (though I’m not sure her GASP when I said 49 was necessarily reassuring).

Of course, there is the obvious. With age my weight has crept up; my tummy and I are NOT on friendly terms. Still, like many an olive-skinned woman (or is that many an overweight gal), I have barely a facial wrinkle. I tend to age by freckling and already figured out, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS, that freckles can be zapped right off your skin! (Thank you, Universe, now send a belly fat-melting laser that actually works, please.)

In any case, things could be worse. Beauty-wise (if not financially) I’m proud–vain, even–to have turned my few assets into a well-managed portfolio. Because although money is no object (that I have), I spare no conceivable or inconceivable expense on luxurious hair color (my Ana!); waxing/beauty treatments (my Angela!); well-cut clothes to hide or accent the right parts (Donna Karan IS my friend!); good accessories to draw attention away from the waist situation (sunglasses, jewelry, handbags, shoes). I wear very little makeup, but then there are those fabulous pure Vitamin C ampoules… Ten years of higher education and giving away my first-born were well-worth sacrifices for the lifestyle.

Health-wise, things couldn’t be better! Though life is too short to live on a diet, I eat quality fresh ingredients, no processed crap, and absolutely NO calories from food I don’t thoroughly enjoy (sorry–if I have to wear it on my ass I might as well savor it). I exercise regularly (if moderately). And if I’ve perfected the art of balancing a glass of wine during my elliptical workout… what the hell, it’s antioxidant. So far (knock on wood, for how long?), my blood sugar, my cholesterol, my blood pressure: all ideal. There was, of course, the Unfortunate 2013 Broken Neck Incident, but–knock on wood again–at this point an early death seems most likely from breaking the rest doing something I shouldn’t be doing (or riding a pretty pony, which I totally should).

So, while I’m sure not the last Coke in the desert, at least some days, if the lighting is just right and I’m not suffering from the unspeakable cruelty of simultaneous dry skin and a zit, I look in the mirror and feel like the FUCKING FAIREST ONE OF ALL. Late bloomer (insofar as I bloomed at all), it’s made my 40s REALLY AWESOME.


The thing is: as conceited (conceited!) and egocentrical as I’ve gotten, it’s never felt either natural or destined to fade gradually and gracefully, Helen Mirren-style. More Dorian Gray, in sooth–fabricated and purloined. And doomed to crumble to the ground in a huge explosion of dust like so:


On a very particular day, like for example MY FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY!

And so, as the fateful day approached, I kept working myself into a frenzy, counting each day of my remaining life of beauty and health and fun. I went into a melancholic literary retrospective, searching for the meaning of life and some inspirational message to convince me that 50 is a beautiful age to be; that it would make me a wise and vital creature from a time much more exciting than now. Which it does, actually, BUT, BUT, BUT!!!… Every time I almost had myself convinced, the world conspired against me like so, and so:

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At some point after people started incessantly asking how I was planning to celebrate, I became aware that “Screw You” was not an appropriate answer. Also that sitting at home alone drinking my cares away as I double-checked that my breasts are still in the general vicinity of where they started out was going to be even more depressing than coming up with some properly commemorative project. I decided (with as little enthusiasm as humanly possible) that I should go spend the date with my mom given that, since I moved to the U. S. at 16 and work an academic calendar, my September birthday means we’re never in the same place for the occasion. At least that would be meaningful, if dangerous (as no two earthlings have more opposed desires / ideas about how things should be done, or more resemble each other in Bitch on Wheels mode).

The plan was, first and foremost, NO PARTIES. My Beloved Maman, Lady F, is not one to contain her enthusiasm, and I did not want my 50th to turn into this:


or, for that matter, this:

Q1   Q2

(even if I was such a pretty quinceañera in the throes of misguided teenage love).

At 50, I would have an intimate family-only gathering at home on the actual date (9/24). For the weekend (9/26-28), I’d rent a boat or a beach house with a strict single handful of friends, headed by my two best buddies from long ago and far away, Miss LG and Miss I. Exacting instructions were issued to Lady F: un bizcochito en casa con las nenas y nada más. As for the weekend plan, I found this lovely, lovely, lovely BEACH FRONT, WATER FRONT, STILT HOUSE.

So what was the first thing I encountered upon arrival, courtesy of my Beloved Maman???? Well, WADDAYAKNOW, a surprise party!


A party at a tasty, trendy restaurant with a bitchin’ beach view. The kind of elegant party for which you’d normally buy a dress, have your hair coiffed, get a mani-pedi (all of which I–OF ALL PEOPLE!–had skipped for the bizcochito/beach weekend). Even as I dashed from my afternoon beach walk to Edwin Scissor Hands salon that I’d never heard of down the street for a $25 emergency blow-dry (he did a damn good job, I must say), Miss LG texted that her husband was ailing and she may not be able to stay the whole weekend at the beach house, and Miss I that she may not stay either so as to drive Miss LG back home. Of the remaining single handful, Mr. R and Mistress Yodalina, respectively, had weekend work assignments, and Mr. P and Miss E happened to be in Boston: I might get to sit all by myself contemplating the southward migration of everything after all. I had also invited my family down for the day on Saturday, but my aunt wasn’t feeling up to it, my mom was wary of the drive, and my godson (child of my cousin Mc who always comes with my cousin Mm or not at all) had fallen ill with something called chikungunya I’d also never heard of, but was myself in danger of contracting from the certain mosquito invasion at the BEACH FRONT WATER FRONT STILT HOUSE forecast by my mom. As my marvelous NYC friends texted wondering why we had no plans for my birthday, it seemed clear that this had been my worst idea EVER.

To (uncharacteristically) make a long story short, that’s not the way it all worked out. Lady F kept it this side of too much. I had a delightful party with delectable food and the company of my close-knit (we’ll go with close-knit rather than suffocating) but DEAR family (I did deeply miss my older cousin and almost exact contemporary Miss A, and my younger aunt Miss S whom I will love forever), and friends who’ve witnessed my entire life and might somehow make sense (if it can be made!) of my being FIFTY–which was just what I wanted. Although I was, at times, overwhelmed,

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and no one had any doubt that I DO NOT WANT TO BE FIFTY YEARS OLD,


a good time was had by all:


Somehow I survived,

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And after the tasty, trendy, elegant party there was pool at a nearby dive of course:


The beach weekend was equally successful. Everyone showed up. Husbands recovered, children shunned their mothers, and no one left earlier than planned. There were no hurricanes (this is significant–believe me, they’ve ruined my vacation plans before). The BEACH FRONT WATER FRONT STILT HOUSE was to-die-for:

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Miss I, below, was an ANGEL. She drove us around, she speaks Puerto Rican (got our business done everywhere when I was, like, WTF), she got us early check-in and late check-out, she organized our grocery-shopping and found us the nice village restaurants, she cooked, she commandeered our Saturday rental boat, she HANDLED LADY F (when I was, like, WTF)…

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Miss LG… well, she set the style standard for our Golden Girls getaway:

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As for me, I coasted along through mangrove paradise, safe in the knowledge that my girls had my back.

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All of which gave me a newfound confidence! It’s not that I don’t know everything that’s hanging out and jiggling up there; it’s that somehow it doesn’t matter as much as it did just a week ago. The place, the people, the time, the fact that I’ve made it this far all of a sudden matter more.

As Miss I drove me back to my mother’s house, by chance we passed the exact place where I was born:


In 1964, it was the San Juan City Hospital. In 2014, it is the Puerto Rican Museum of Art (so fitting!). A perfect ending to a perfect birthday weekend, all about finding… what? On Tuesday night, the eve of my birthday, my mom told me the following (never-before heard) story: while she was home with contractions on such an evening fifty years earlier, waiting for my father (a musician) to come home, she was sure the ghost of a man named Xifré who had committed suicide in her office building (but was not really her friend) appeared to and sat beside her, reassuring her that everything would be fine.

That makes NO SENSE, of course, except for the absurdity of finding comfort in the absurd, and in not understanding anything at all. In that vein, I don’t know why or how, but this birthday weekend almost had its logic–if I came to this world under the protection of a random suicide ghost, WHAT ELSE COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG????

In the end, it was also about feeling the love (even if the love has been known to drive me nuts):


And also about Lady F here channeling Sofía Vergara boding well to reassure me about my 70th…

Speaking of the love, before I end this, I must talk about Mistress Yodalina,


another lifelong friend. Inexplicably, I used to tail behind her when I (class of ’81) was about eight years old and she (class of ’76) was about fourteen, and she didn’t shake me off. There was something about her (independence, achievement, smarts, strength, caring, OOMPH) that I related to even as a wee babe. And she’s still here to help me make sense of it all. She is a gift from the gods–a photojournalist, and isn’t a professional photographer friend the best thing the Universe could bestow upon anyone???? But also A GODSEND, who made me the best birthday gift of all: the slide show at the beginning of this post. She got it for me, that’s what makes sense. As the Silvio Rodríguez lyrics say,

at the end of the journey there’s you and I, intact. / Those of us left will be the ones who can smile / in the midst of death, in broad daylight.

I still have to celebrate with my other cherished friends: the Puerto Rico/youth crowd who are scattered across the globe, the NYC bunch, the Barcelona-Bilbao connection, the Norway Brat Pack, the Syracuse Sirens, the Hopkins pals, my Harvard brethren, my former PhDs, the DC-Richmond Boys, the New Zealand devil, Ursula, Cruella, OohLaLa, Mr. V, my mirror friends Miss H and Mariita, Miss L, y’all know who you are!!! There’s still the chance that a precious Chippendales-clad brainy but sweet bollycao will jump out of a giant birthday cake for me (what I really wanted for my birthday, let’s face it). I’m still going to be a frivolous, vain Bitch on Wheels worried about all the wrong things. A badass cowgirl midlife crisis is still in the forecast. But this weekend was OK.

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Back in the Saddle, Again, or: The Kentaurides

Charles Bukowski may or may not have written: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Whoever did say it, at times I’ve taken it a little too much to heart. Case in point, the Unfortunate 2013 Broken Neck Incident, when a weekend of revelry ended with me hitching a ride back from Philly in Miss Ooh La La’s (Dr. Ooh La La’s) car and asking her (over a disgusting roadside hot dog) whether the pins and needles in my hands were normal. Turned out I had ruptured a cervical disc, which wouldn’t have been much of an issue except for the fact that, as it was then discovered, I have a congenitally narrow spinal canal–somehow related to my heart being three sizes too small. Hence, my spine is compressed. Largely, I’ve learned to live with my hands oscillating between Numb and Number (“I thought the Rockies would have been a lot rockier–that John Denver is full of shit, man”). On a bad day, my knees give out when I’m walking, I feel as if someone’s pressing on my shins, my back can hurt, I drop things because my fingers get weak, sometimes I get dizzy. None of this is actually too bad: indeed, my neck aches a lot less than it used to before the Unfortunate Incident (it always felt about to pop, until it popped!). But it does mean I am at a higher risk than others for even a slight injury to be disastrous. Hyperextensions of the neck, especially toward the back, are not recommended, so no yoga or Pilates (can’t keep up with the fashion!), and I DO NOT want to be in a whiplash situation. Go tell that to a friggin’ NYC cab driver.

All of which explains why last fall I held a stubbornness contest with Sexy Neurologist:

–I must absolutely, inevitably, perhaps fatidically, get back
on a horse. With your encouragement and blessing, please and thank you.
–If there is no convincing you to take up Extreme Macramé, do what you must. It will either kill you or it won’t.

The matter, in the end, was more complex. If trotting or cantering simply caused me discomfort, probably no harm done and I myself would want to give up. I was never one to stick with a pain in the ass (or neck)–just ask my childhood ballet-tennis-guitar-chess-etc teachers. However, falling from a horse I might easily follow in the sad steps of Christopher Reeve. Although I rarely give any thought to things I really want to do (impulse queen), this time I did. And I explained it to my loved ones as best I could: in the end, did Superman stay home because there might be kryptonite out there? What if I slip on ice on the sidewalk right outside my building? I’d be just as fucked as falling off a horse, and die without having gone riding, and THAT would really blow. As Bukowski may or may not have also said, “all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.” Luckily, no one depends on me for their livelihood or care. I leave money (hopefully) for my lavish Joan Rivers funeral (with all my PhD advisees wearing feather boas, as they’ve been instructed to), paying my (many) posthumous bills, and maybe helping send my godchildren to some cheap crappy college. My debts to society settled, Metropolis needs me able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

So this Friday I went to riding class for the first time since leaving for Spain/England in June. It was GLORIOUS; felt like wild, untamed, flying in the wind! Even if, in all honesty, it looked like this:


Although, in my life, very few triumphal tours-de-force have been preceded by the words “give Bill a squeeze”–usually leading to NO GOOD!–on this occasion they led to a thrilling ride (thrilling for me at least).

Bill, above, is not even my favorite horse. Not owning one, in the six years since I started (a midlife-crisis whim if there ever was one), I’ve had a succession of favorite school horses, the latest of whom is Jack-of-the-Quick-and-Smooth-Canter:


On the arena, as in life, I don’t always get my chosen mount (which is, surprisingly, a good thing). But Bill is a beautiful, gentle giant, about 16.5 hands tall, I’m told (roughly 5’8″ at the withers–the base of his neck–to my midgety 5’1″). I’m not sure exactly how heavy he is; an average horse his size weighs well over 1000 lbs. Astride him, I tower high off the ground (which could be scary but is NOT). On the down side, he can be a little contrary; sometimes I practically have to carry him to the ring, just like Pippi.


And sometimes when I cue him to canter he takes off on a bumpy trot for several strides (wherefore my instructor’s–Miss T’s–“squeeeeze!,” “a little more leeeg!”). But when he recognizes me, he puts his head down for me to pat and rubs his nose against my neck and it is instant love.

If you clicked on the video above, you probably guessed I kind of suck. Not a lot, but a little bit, as in: between all the 8-year-olds in the riding school and me, guess whose living room is full of ribbons. Ribbons or not, I’ve gotten to be a somewhat skilled rider, and adventurous–it’s taken me on several unforgettable trips.


Along the beach and through the rain forest in Puerto Rico; across Andalusian olive groves and Sound-of-Music Pyrenees landscapes; in the woods of the San Juan Islands; over lava fields in Iceland (the one time I truly had to GALLOP to keep up, whether or not I’d previously learned how!); with a Bedouin guide in Galilee (SO Lawrence of Arabia!!!) and a bitchin’ cowgirl scout in the Arizona desert (down almost-vertical Man from Snowy River inclines, I SOLEMNLY SWEAR–she said it was filmed around there and you really should watch one of the most amazing riding scenes ever).

I went a little slower, of course.

Since the Unfortunate Broken Neck Incident, I have not been on a riding adventure, because I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I can trust someone other than Miss T to have the will and know-how to both push me to my limit and keep me safe, with clear knowledge of my proficiency level and my injury. It is a little dispiriting. What if I never feel comfortable enough to do that again (I hope I will!)? What if it’s become seriously impractical to continue thinking of retiring in Jackson Hole with a sassy filly named Mrs. Robinson? Is there a point to continuing my lessons if I may never be a true horsewoman? (At my first school someone said you’re not a true horseman/woman until you’ve fallen off a horse seven times. As a beginner I quickly made it to three, and I intend to keep it there.)

I’ve given all this hard thought as well (my brain!) and the answer is still YES. Evidently, at root it’s because Oreo would rush to the fence of the turning pad when he saw me arriving, and Pippin would stop playing to come say goodbye when I called:


I already told you what Bill does, and I never rode a horse that didn’t feel like it loved me a little bit even after just one date. (I fancy that my dear Miss T loves me a little bit too! And Cowboy O!)


It’s also because even those formerly weekly, now twice- or even once-a-month lessons take me away from crazy city life (which, granted, I totally dig) and into blissful communion with so many inspiring parts of nature, to each of which (beginning with horse hair) I’m horribly allergic.

And because it CAN feel like you’re flying faster than a speeding bullet, and sometimes you are (I’ll always have Iceland!). Because even within the confines of the school arena, it makes you feel POWERFUL. The first time you ride a horse is always a test of wills: which one of us is going to be in charge? And when, by sheer force of your thighs (which are going to hurt like shit for the next five days), you make that 1000-lb beast do what you want, you feel like an Amazon warrior.


But power, if fun, is not what it’s about. Because, deep inside, that 1000-lb beast sees itself as prey (and you as a predator), and has to get as much over its fear as you do to ultimately trust you to protect and soothe it. If you find that bond, and the feel, and the timing, it will rush forward at the pressure of your legs and make dazzling circles and figure-eights and turns around a barrel at the slightest signal from your body.

Even at a walk, or standing, at your subtlest cue (sometimes almost telepathic!), the horse will dance with you a genuinely intimate dance, in which you both move beautifully. It will sashay left or right, it will bend around your leg or take a few steps forward or back, or turn on its haunches and make you feel like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained:

(I actually can–sort of–do that!)

And when you’ve REALLY got it, it will know what you want with barely a touch of the reins. In fact, nothing more fun–if a bit unnerving–than dropping them entirely and letting your instructor lead with a lunge line. Stretching your arms out and knowing you’re NOT going to fall because you are glued to that saddle and the horse and you are moving as one. No longer an Amazon, but a Centauress!


Do I look like a Centauress?

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Often I feel like one!


And so, even if I never win those goddamn ribbons, or have my own ranch, or even my own horse; even if I feel silly that my lessons are the adult equivalent of children’s weekend pony rides; and even if I run the risk of breaking that neck for good: I must absolutely, inevitably, perhaps fatidically, always get on a horse at least once more. Although on bad days I refrain from too much trotting and concentrate on precision work, it actually feels great on my spine, since good form is all about breathing through your whole body, sitting tall and centered, remaining balanced and flexible. It definitely makes my heart three sizes bigger. It makes me feel alive, and if it kills me it will only be because it’s life that kills you, both slowly and fastly (but it’s much better to be killed by a lover!).

[And if you’re tempted, you should call Fox Hill Farms. Beautiful barns with beautiful, well-cared-for horses. Lots of friendly faces. A hop, skip, and a jump from NYC on MetroNorth.]

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1964: A Literary Odyssey, or, Procrastinating by Commemorating, or, I Might Just Be a Gay Man

It was the enchanting Mr. K, my birth-year cohort, who had the great idea, in the weeks before his (50th) Doomsday, to find and post the books of 1964. He gathered a fantastic list of titles, including lots of poetry and some fiction (in English and Spanish): Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches; James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break (a branch theme?); Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel; Denise Levertov, O Taste and See; Ernesto Cardenal, Salmos; Nicolás Guillén, Tengo; Jorge Luis Borges, El otro, el mismo; and more. The list came with quotes and commentary, and occasionally spilled over into “1964-adjacent” books, other forms of print culture (most notably a very cool series of Time covers), and the Beatles album de rigueur (but one released in Argentina!). Superduper fun literary time capsule! I instantly became his most ardent fan–even started looking up works I didn’t know. And then Mr. K stopped.

I carried on merrily with my summer, happy in the knowledge that, while Mr. K had already crossed the threshold, I had NOT. I dove, head-first and with abandon, into the fountain of youth (drink up, drink up!). THEN came two unfortunate mileposts. First, the start of the last month before my own Bloomsday. Second, the impending start of the new academic year (oh woe!). And with them, an urge to commemorate almost as irresistible as the urge to procrastinate. Inevitably, I stepped into my own TARDIS and took off.

The rules: I would not repeat Mr. K (although right away I screwed up with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and it also, annoyingly, means I can’t use Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Le cru et le cuit). While literature-centered, I am after all a cultural historian, and would include music, film, and other types of production. I would focus on single poems or articles as much as on longer works. And, this being majorly about procrastination, I vowed to really read, hear, or view whatever I included, a requirement that benefited Jeff Bezos’s ever-swelling pockets but also sent me on more than one physical trip to the University Library’s deepest depths. Maybe embarrassed about my copycat quest, but also wanting to avoid never-ending comment threads, I made the odd choice to sidestep Facebook and “secretly” post on LinkedIn, where my few “Connections” are mostly limited to literature/culture colleagues and a number of former students whom at one point or another I guided in the pleasures of reading (what I hope they’ll most remember me for). Additionally, LinkedIn does not preserve a posting history (I think), so after a few weeks there would remain no evidence that, like George in Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (of, you guessed it, 1964), I just get “steadily sillier and sillier.” Judging by both the number of views (I fancy having brought a welcome literary moment or two to people in their oppressive offices) and the merciful comment silence (which gives me the illusion that I did not, in fact, “share” my treasure), this might have been the right forum.

I still have over two weeks left, but this is what I’ve (un)covered so far: It was EASY to start with two of my favorite books by two of my favorite poets: Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings (both anniversaries having been marked by the press, for example here and here). Same with Charlie. I then reread the first edition Saul Bellow’s Herzog, aided by Roger Cohen’s actually poignant New York Times homage review. Next came Isherwood, also in the paper version that originally sold for $4.00 (!). I newly discovered Leonard Cohen’s unfathomably sad Flowers for Hitler. And John Lennon’s delectably nonsensical In His Own Write (download here)–beware all you spelling purists because, as he himself tells us, “I was never any good at spelling, all me life. . . All I’m trying to do is tell a story, and what the words is spelt like is irrelevant really.” My latest textual recovery was Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, which I truly can’t remember if I’d read before (I went through all her Biblioteca de Oro Spanish translations when I was a pre-teen–they had the best covers by Tom Adams).


I now read the whole thing looking for a quote that would inspire me and found NONE. It’s not just that the novel is so dialogue-based it’s hard to find any narration (and thus introspection); the British-shallow characters hardly ever say anything vaguely interesting. I ended up quoting Dictionary.com, which took one of the novel’s lines to illustrate usage of a word-of-the-day, “shilly-shally.” But of course, ALL OF THAT is what Christie is all about, and I still had oodles of fun!

It does not escape me that Christie is the only woman writer on this list, which must be remedied (is this why Mr. V keeps insisting that I am, deep inside, a man?). But then again, it’s a reality of the publishing world…

I have yet to read Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait. ETCETERA!!! I’ve been shirking Spanish texts so far (like Pablo Neruda’s Memorial de Isla Negra [Isla Negra: A Notebook]), perhaps for the same reason I’ve never been able to say “I love you” to anyone in Spanish. Only one share to date isn’t poetry or fiction: Susan Sontag’s (the other woman’s!) groundbreaking critical essay “Notes on Camp,” so influential at a certain moment in my scholarly–and personal–development. And also still only one song, The Animals’ supergroovy “House of the Rising Sun” (but other great ones are definitely in store, in part courtesy of Mr. K himself, who sent me some). I haven’t even started with film (but first in line is Dr. Strangelove). Or given any thought to other arts! Like I say, two-and-a-half weeks to Bloomsday.

Surprisingly, and perhaps because I’ve been concentrating so much on literature, the experiment has only yet given me an oblique and indirect view–O’Hara: “A / Negro stands in a doorway with a / toothpick, languorously agitating”–of the time into which I was born. This post-Kennedy world of Vietnam; and Muhammed Ali; and a newly “triumphant” Cuban revolution (and people all over who still thought, rightly or wrongly, in terms of revolution); and the threat of nuclear war; and Bob Dylan; and dreams of reaching the moon; and what we thought was the winning battle for Civil Rights; and a feminism (Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique came out on paperback that year) that was still about complete equality and liberation, and not only about leaning in or back or around the purportedly primal and prime female desire for motherhood. And the friggin’ Beatles (since I always take sides, I’m for the Rolling Stones).


More evident has been that, in 1964 as across history, artists were drawn to “universals.” Love gained and lost. Isolation, loneliness. Life. Opportunity and coming-of-age. Aging. Death (and murder!). Divinity, or the lack thereof. Place (the city of New York prominent in this sample).

Those are, of course, suggestive observations (not sure they make the grade as “insights”). But the experiment is about something else that I, who make my living explaining things clearly, am not sure I can explain clearly.

But maybe this does: my favorite replevin of the past couple of weeks. I discovered James Merrill (together with Larkin, Wright, Heaney, and Levine) in an undergrad course at Johns Hopkins, and was immediately enraptured by The Changing Light at Sandover. As a graduate student, I was enamored when Merrill read at Harvard’s Boylston Hall and signed my well-worn copies of all his books (and everyone who knows me will attest to the fact that, as a rule, poetry readings make me want to puke). And now, my Google search surprisingly returned me to all that through his poem “Days of 1964” (since I’m quoting it in its entirety, I will encourage you to buy the book):

Houses, an embassy, the hospital.
Our neighborhood sun-cured if trembling still
In pools of the night’s rain . . .
Across the street that led to the center of town
A steep hill kept one company part way
Or could be climbed in twenty minutes
For some literally breathtaking views,
Framed by umbrella pines, of city and sea.
Underfoot, cyclamen, autumn crocus grew
Spangled as with fine sweat among the relics
Of good times had by all. If not Olympus,
An out-of-earshot, year-round hillside revel.

I brought home flowers from my climbs.
Kyria Kleo who cleans for us
Put them in water, sighing Virgin, Virgin.
Her legs hurt. She wore brown, was fat, past fifty,
And looked like a Palmyra matron
Copied in lard and horsehair. How she loved
You, me, loved us all, the bird, the cat!
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened
All day with it, or pain, or both.
(We did not notably communicate.)
She lived nearby with her pious mother
And wastrel son. She called me her real son.

I paid her generously, I dare say.
Love makes one generous. Look at us. We’d known
Each other so briefly that instead of sleeping
We lay whole nights, open, in the lamplight,
And gazed, or traded stories.

One hour comes back—you gasping in my arms
With love, or laughter, or both,
I having just remembered and told you
What I’d looked up to see on my way downtown at noon:

poor old Kleo, her aching legs,
Trudging into the pines. I called.
Called three times before she turned.
Above a tight, skyblue sweater, her face
Was painted. Yes. Her face was painted
Clown-white, white of the moon by daylight,
Lidded with pearl, mouth a poinsettia leaf.
Eat me, pay me—the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.

Startled mute, we had stared—was love illusion?—
And gone our ways. Next, I was crossing a square
In which a moveable outdoor market’s
Vegetables, chickens, pottery kept materializing
Through a dream-press of hagglers each at heart
Leery lest he be taken, plucked,
The bird, the flower of that November mildness,
Self lost up soft clay paths, or found, foothold,
Where the bud throbs awake
The better to be nipped, self on its knees in mud—
Here I stopped cold, for both our sakes;

And calmer on my way home bought us fruit.

Forgive me if you read this. (And may Kyria Kleo,
Should someone ever put it into Greek
And read it aloud to her, forgive me, too.)
I had gone so long without loving,
I hardly knew what I was thinking.

Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing

Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears— or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.

I would sound trite and maudlin if I tried to explain everything I experienced reading this. It is, first of all, seductive. Recently I called someone a verbert: someone who demands to be wooed with words, as much as images or actions. I think I am one too, and Merrill is my boyfriend forever.

Naturally, there’s all that makes a master’s poem a master poem. How Merrill plays with verse and stanza, and the way that rhythm follows the poetic voice’s epiphany (Ernest Hilbert compares the poem’s “oscillating rhythms” to “a waltz,” and Merrill to “a conductor [who] will alter the smallest element of a piece of music to great affect when performed”). The circularity of the form (those pools of night’s rain at beginning and end) that mirrors the conceptual circularity in which Kyria Kleo and the lover end up merging into a dual totality, as do the heights (of hills, of love) and the depths (of sinking in mud, of degradation). The way in which the last verse’s laughter, pain, and love literally fuse feelings separately ascribed to discrete people and experiences earlier on into a single figure masked, as who was not (was not “masked,” “everywhere beside me,” or “falling”?). Someone we know, from just one line (“forgive me if you read this”), is gone (the way of Kyria Kleo)–and who both is, and isn’t, David. The BRILLIANT imagery: you can see Merrill links the flowers he picks to the poinsettia-leaf lips of Kyria Kleo (thus they must somehow represent what she represents). So let me also tell you, for example, that both cyclamen and autumn crocus (also known as naked lady) are low-growing flowers he would have picked right off the dirt (underfoot, offering foothold). Cyclamen’s name comes from the Greek kýklos “circle,” and autumn crocus is as beautiful as it is deadly poisonous: Greek slaves killed themselves by eating it. Could Merrill have chosen better metaphors?

cyclamen   autumn crocus

There are also the references, from the modern Athens where Merrill had just bought a house, to ancient Greece. The connection is concretized in Kyria Kleo as the Palmyra-matron copy (an “impostor” of Roman virtue like Zenobia), who, through this iconography, metonymically becomes one side of the duplicitous tragicomic mask (the other is the lover). The Greek connection intertextually extends to Constantin Cavafy, whose own “Days of” poems (“Days of 1896,” “Days of 1901,” “Days of 1903,” “Days of 1908,” and “Days of 1909, ’10, and ’11”) Merrill not only evoked (in form and content) but translated

That year he found himself without a job.
Accordingly he lived by playing cards
and backgammon, and the occasional loan.

A position had been offered in a small
stationer’s, at three pounds a month. But he
turned it down unhesitatingly.
It wouldn’t do. That was no wage at all
for a sufficiently literate young man of twenty-five.

Two or three shillings a day, won hit or miss―
what could cards and backgammon earn the boy
at his kind of working class café,
however quick his play, however slow his picked
opponents? Worst of all, though, were the loans―
rarely a whole crown, usually half;
sometimes he had to settle for a shilling.

But sometimes for a week or more, set free
from the ghastliness of staying up all night,
he’d cool off with a swim, by morning light.

His clothes by then were in a dreadful state.
He had the one same suit to wear, the one
of much discolored cinnamon.

Ah days of summer, days of nineteen-eight,
excluded from your vision, tastefully,
was that cinnamon-discolored suit.

Your vision preserved him in the very act of
casting it off, throwing it all behind him,
the unfit clothes, the mended underclothing.
Naked he stood, impeccably fair, a marvel―
his hair uncombed, uplifted, his limbs tanned lightly
from those mornings naked at the baths, and at the seaside.

(“Days of 1908,” Merrill translation)

An inveigling homoerotic poem about the devastating beauty of “a sufficiently literate young man of twenty-five” whose depths of degradation were also the heights of love. (Oy, Mr. V, if I am indeed a man, it’s also clear that I’m gay. And, aspirationally, the son of Charles E. Merrill.)

And so on, and so on. If such things were allowed (alas, they’re not!), I could spend an entire semester with a group of students just picking this poem apart. But that is simply (simply?) the experience of reading a phenomenal piece of literature. The 1964 experiment, however, brought it to me in a unique way: it is mine, because the year was mine, because I found it with my TARDIS, and because it is now part of a work I composed with Merrill and O’Hara, and Larkin and Cohen, and Dahl and Lennon, and Isherwood and Bellow, interpreted by Sontag, to the tune of The Animals.

Bloomsday, the yearly celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is about a million people repeating a single experience, yet making it their own. So was, by the way, the Hull-to-King’s Cross journey with which Larkin fans celebrated Whitsun Weddings’s fiftieth year in 2014, two days before Whitsun. This experiment is my own such journey. If every Doomsday must become a Bloomsday, and every Bloomsday needs its Odyssey, I’m halfway to Ithaca. And it’s superduper fun!


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She Writes Again, in Anguish

For many academics, the most depressing time of the year is not Blue Monday (for which, as is well known, there is no scientific basis), but rather the three days in August/September known as Labor Day Weekend. As the rest of the world prepares for its last fun in the sun, you start feeling dizzy and restless, your chest tightens and your breath quickens, your muscles jitter and you want to cry for no apparent reason. At that point you think you’ve reached at least some understanding of what death row inmates feel because you know, with the absolute certainty of the irreparable, that classes start on Tuesday.

Throughout the previous week, as evidence of excited (but, you’re sure, hateful) students moving in mounts, you become aware that you now have to wait for restaurant tables just like the The People elsewhere in the city. You drop by the office because you’ve got to get something done, preferably on the college’s a/c bill. You catch sight of colleagues you’ve always liked, yet avoid saying hello. And they avoid you too because the tacit understanding is none of us are ready to face this: we’ll leave the big smiles and past-tense questions about summer for next week, and no one will be the worse for it. The Administration slowly starts the feed of distressing emails, which you resolutely skip to open a new browser tab and look for an alluring Labor Day Weekend escape. However, five-star and three-star hideaways get passed by as, deep down, you know that after a whole summer of gallivanting, your bank account has reached its yearly nadir. You contact those friends who do not have fancy plans (mostly academics too) to see who might welcome visits, and their eyes fleetingly light up at the vision of a relaxing deck barbecue before once again being forcibly lowered by the knowledge that none of us have finished our syllabi.

By Friday you know you’re doomed to spend all three days at home, and not even a bollycao is coming to your rescue (not even The Devil Himself, to whom you’re suddenly wanting to give your soul, seems immediately available). Desperately evoking the childhood joy of back-to-school shopping, you search for comfort and evasion at the DKNY end-of-season sale (NOT online, on Madison Avenue!), because when everyone else deserts you, Donna is always still your friend. Only she never fails to place a drape on top of something you’d like to hide, or come up with store décor that matches the void inside your soul:


You accept that you MUST sit back at the computer. SO WHAT–if you facebook in the forest, does it still make a noise? Is HuffPost Lifestyle not a respectable media outlet? Glass in hand (early wine-o-clock), you answer dating-site messages from a handsome UN guy currently living in Kyrgyztan (really!), passing on the corporate lawyer in full fishing paraphernalia (proud in the knowledge that you’re not a golddigger), and on the twentysomething who wonders if you dig younger men rather than gold (on this particular weekend, hon, you remind me too much of the incoming personae non gratae). You take a break for a one-hour phone call with your best grad-school friend in Seattle who, desperately evoking the childhood joy of back-to-school shopping, is combing the town for just the right pair of… ipod speakers. And then make a plan to talk some more later, because surely there’s something that went uncommented and undiscussed.

You try to read the readings–the ones on the unfinished syllabus–and end up revisiting Leonard Cohen’s Flowers for Hitler because you’ve lately gotten it into your head (another friend’s idea) to connect with works created the year you were born.

They all conspire to make me free
I tried to join their arguments
but there were so few sides
and I needed several
Forsaking the lovely girl
was not my idea
but she fell asleep in somebody’s bed
Now more than ever
I want enemies
You who thrive
in the easy world of modern love
look out for me
for I have developed a terrible virginity…

AND THEN you realize you want to write, but not the book. And–since time immemorial the failed poet–come back to the abandoned blog. Because what is this night, if not a Vicissitude.

Tomorrow is another day, and you can go to Newark.

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Bilbao > London > New York: Vegetable Sandwiches, English Champagne, Crappy Flights, Dead Plants, and THE END

All good and bad things come to an end, and so has my fabulous summer of 2014. All in all better than 2012 (chicken pox) and 2013 (broken neck, Lyme disease). Although there’s still three weeks to the start of classes, knock on wood.

No more news from Bilbao except that at the crappy airport bar I finally got documentary proof for my American friends of the contents of a Spanish vegetable sandwich.


Namely: white bread, trace amounts of lettuce, mayonnaise, tuna, egg, and in this strange case, carrots instead of the traditional tomato. During the ensuing Facebook debate, Miss H theorized that “tomatoes don’t keep as long as carrots, probably that’s why they didn’t use them… yuck,” and she is probably right because, for the modest amount of 3.80€ ($5.09) this came out of a vending machine. While I did, daredevilishy, venture a bite, that’s all I had (or intended to have). I’m obviously willing to pay five bucks for photographing rights (can hear my mother here: the spendthrift! where did I go wrong????).

I do feel some affection for this vile mash because it somehow relates to another Spanish culinary quirk whereby the word “salad” merely designates a mixture of things that may or may not be vegetable in origin (see for example, the menu at this nice restaurant in Bilbao), so that it is possible to eat a huge slab of foie gras, melted goat cheese, nuts, and cranberries, and still swear with your hand on the bible that “I just had a salad.”

I had to overnight in London, as my USA-Europe roundtrip had been kindly furnished by the University of Cambridge. Third time’s the charm and this time I found the Royal Park, a charming little hotel a hop, skip, and jump from Paddington Station and the Heathrow Express, for only half an arm and half a leg ($291 for an air-conditioned free wi-fi queen double). It clearly wasn’t renovated too recently and a slight a/c noise required ear plugs, but the décor was oh-so-Londonite


and both the desk personnel and the chap who helped with my luggage were very, very nice. (I even forgot an envelope with work documents and they wrote offering to mail it.) A friend even recognized the Royal Park (I keep wanting to say Court or Palm) on Facebook as the place where she stayed for her honeymoon some years ago!

I was lucky this time to catch Miss MC (of Pondicherry fame) in town, and we had a lovely ladies-who-dine time at the FABULOUS Gilbert Scott Brasserie in the St. Pancras Renaissance. Three glasses of wine and a salad came to more than $100 but it’s London (sigh!), and who cares when the company is first-rate and one finds out there is such a thing as a deliciously bone-dry English sparkling and the place feels like your own palace:


Miss MC also confirmed you really do not want to stay at the Tavistock if you can possibly avoid it–she may have called the time in her life she had to stay there “rock bottom,” but then again there was a huge domestic disaster involved. AND she revealed (too late for me this time, alas) a secret, beautiful, and inexpensive alternative, the Club at Goodenough College. Which certainly looks much better than good enough.

I didn’t have enough time in the morning to attempt my Westminster Abbey dancing-on-poets’-graves excursion (next time!), but luckily the hotel is also ideally located right across from Hyde Park. That’s just a public service announcement, though; in truth I decided to lounge in my sunlight-filled room all morning and have breakfast in bed, which was the ideal thing to do. At least I got to set foot on Paddington Station, since my second most-loved childhood character (after Pippi Longstocking) was Paddington Bear. Who, BTW, is coming to the big screen.

Room service remembered (alas!) to bring up a bucket of ice as I’d requested, but forgot the salt for my eggs. Fortunately I am never without my own, thanks to my adored BFF Mr. V, who did not rest until he perfected the ultimate little purse mill:


(Sturdy and non-spill thanks to his addition of that white rubber cane tip on the left, originally purchased for another of his crazy design experiments.)

No one took me to the airport in the Rolls-Royce parked outside,


but in any case I looooove the 15-minute Heathrow Express, although it’s 34£ round-trip as opposed to taking the tube from King’s Cross–ease and comfort are serious considerations if, like me, you really shouldn’t be lugging around a gazillion-KG suitcase at risk of paralysis. In such circumstances (as in so many others), money is your friend (words of wisdom from Cruella de Ville). And it’s still cheaper than the damn 90£ one-way cab.

And I LOOOOOOVE Heathrow, perhaps the only airport in the world about which I’ve said this (with my, granted, limited travel experience outside of Europe/Caribbean/North America). Most especially, lately, I love Oriel Grande Brasserie on Terminal 3, which serves a bitchin’ burger, impossibly crispy fries, and a very very friendly Côtes du Provence rosé, AND… if you travel solo like me, you get to sit at a marble bistro table complete with TWO ELECTRICAL OUTLETS underneath (and there’s that Heathrow free 45-min wi-fi too). In between the larger booths,


sheer brilliance! (Except for those people who, as above, take too many carry-on valises.)

There was also the Great Expectation of flying, for the first time, Virgin Atlantic (Virgin Virgin!). And lo and behold, what could make one feel safer and more twinkle-eyed than to be on the boarding line for Tinkerbell!


(Although I saw another plane whose Tinkerbell-analogue was holding a glass of champagne, which I’m sure was more happenin’ than mine.)

Miss MC (who, for full disclosure, is often upgraded because of her V-A credit card) could not say enough wonderful things about Virgin. Ursula chimed in on Facebook that “my Virgin flight was WONDERFUL!” And Mr. Blacksong, always a voice of reason, pointed out that “Virgin’s a bit like Southwest at its best. It isn’t that it’s actually awesome, but they know how to fake it just a little bit.”

Sadly, for me the flight sucked just as much as every other flight, and perhaps even more given that the flight attendant served me the inedible chicken instead of the pasta for which I’d asked, and by the time she got back to me the pasta was gone so NO DINNER FOR YOU, MISS FINNICKY! (Doubly thankful for Oriel!) And the girl in the next seat kept sliding on to me as she slept (much less interesting than teddy-bear salt guy on the JFK-LHR flight last month-boo The People!). AND my individual entertainment unit lost all sound midflight, but not before I could watch the worst movie with which Woody Allen ever had anything to do–featuring him as a pimp and John Turturro as a gigolo in a Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhood, with Vanessa Paradis as the lonely mother-of-six rabbi widow who falls for said gigolo, and somewhere in there a threesome between Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, and TURTURRO! (Me, Oedipus, with my precious eyes that I may now have to gouge out.)

Fast-forward to reality, and I am HOME. A little of it bitter, as my former


suddenly looks like


And there’s a mysterious note underneath that says “Don’t Panic.”

Also a little sweet, however (a lot sweet!). All those dear friends who couldn’t wait to see me, like Miss Ooh La La who wrote two days ago that we must DEFINITELY do something together immediately, like Saturday–only to follow this morning with “I went ahead and said yes to other plans for Saturday night. just fyi. welcome back!” At least the Welcoming Committee (from Bilbao) is currently in Chicago, and planning to come visit for a couple of days early next week.

And I’m sitting in my air-conditioned living room sipping tea from a glass chock-full-of ice cubes. And in a single morning (early jetlagged) have already tended to the most crucial matters: overnight wine delivery, same-day manicure and emergency root touch-up appointment with a mystery hairstylist because mine is on vacation (!!!!). And this, the last entry of plomaipel at least for now.

It’s been fun, if not my favorite genre (I am too obsessive about content, grammar, style, to not be all-consumed by a blog). Also a bit scary to suddenly find that even without search terms I’ve had readers in a few places where I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone,


despite knowing blogs straddle a fine line between private and public writing.

But I do love to write! And it’s been great to keep in touch with many friends who have “interacted” about my summer adventures via Facebook, texts, phone, etc (even a few blog comments), and a good way to gather travel information for the many who are always asking me for recommendations in my favorite cities. I hope my tips are useful to the “strangers” too.

I might write more when I next go to Barcelona or San Juan, or about an interesting NYC place/event. Until then, à bientôt! Back to my a/c and my ice.

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