Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ringing in 2010 in 1970s style

Cambridge, Mass - If you haven't seen the Donkey Show at the American Repertory Theater, you should go see it. If possible, you should see it on New Year's Eve, but you may have missed your chance to do that. But it doesn't matter, just to see it. And be prepared to laugh, to shudder, to gawk, to sing, to dance, to celebrate.

Here is a partial list of elements that get incorporated into the Donkey Show:
  • Roller skating
  • Disco dancing
  • Gender bending
  • Interactive theater (meaning you - the audience - can talk with the actors and dance on stage)
  • Glitter
  • Bestiality
  • Shakespeare (lest anybody think this isn't high-minded stuff)
  • Lots and lots of music that you remember and love, even though you thought you'd rather forget it
It is A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a disco in the 1970s. And yes, you'd be wise to reread (or at least review the plot of) the play before attending the show. Then put on your poyester and your platform shoes, and get ready to par-tay.

Really, the Donkey Show cannot be described, it must be experienced. But here is a little video of a promo that the actors did over the summer in Harvard Square. Put this in a dark theater and turn up the volume... that gives you an idea...



Happy New Year, one and all. Here's to the passing of another decade that - one day - we will look back on with derision and delight. Bring on the twenty-tens.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Next Adventure

Somerville, Mass - Whenever there is a lull in conversation, people tend to ask me things like "So, what's your next adventure?" or "What's your next big trip?"

Recently, this has created a little bit of an awkward situation for me, as there is no "big trip" in my foreseeable future. I will not be celebrating Carnival on the beaches of Brazil this winter, as I originally thought. In fact, I have no travel plans for the entirety of 2010. (I figured out that this will be the longest period of time that I will be in my own country without leaving since 1995.)

Ladies and gents, for 2010 I have a different kind of adventure planned: motherhood. Come May, the pink house will have not one but TWO new residents. Not felines this time, but humans (hopefully). Twins.

Regular readers can look forward to posts about teaching my children to count in Polish and hiking through the rainforest with kids on my back (or maybe just reviews of children's museums), as I attempt to combine my travel writing career with motherhood. Wish me luck.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Quiet

Somerville, Mass - Has anybody been wondering where I've been? I know it's been awfully quiet for the last few weeks - and not just in the blogosphere. I am just back from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, where I engaged in "Noble Silence" for the entire period. No talking, no non-vocal communication, no passing of notes. AND no music, reading or writing. That's quiet.

The course was remarkably challenging in ways that I did not predict. I couldn't help but compare it to my 10-day bikeride across Botswana and Namibia that I took earlier this year. For the bikeride, I expected a big physical challenge, but it ended up being just as much of a mental challenge - psyching myself to keep going and finding ways to occupy my mind over hours and hours of pedaling. For the medition, I expected a big mental challenge, but it ended up being just as much of a physical challenge. Who knew it would be so tough to sit still for 10 hours a day? (You read correctly: 10 hours of meditation per day. Ouch.)

In both cases, I had a lot of time to think. Eg, Why can't you take a normal vacation? You could be relaxing on a beach drinking fruity cocktails right now, but no...

And in the end, they were both worthwhile and rewarding experiences.

In this case, I learned a LOT about this particular form of meditation - the same one that the Buddha taught all around India 25 centuries ago. I learned about the philosophy behind the practice, and also experienced how it works.

For me, the goals of meditation are (a) to train my mind so I have more focus and more control over how I'm spending my mental energy; (b) more specifically, to be more present, more aware of what is happening in and around me at this very moment, instead of dwelling on the past or daydreaming about the future.

Vipassana is a specific method of meditation that focuses on the breath and the sensations in the body. The meditator observes the sensations in the body - whether pain or pleasure, discomfort or delight - without reacting. Just observe with the knowledge that each and every sensation has the same essential characteristic: it is temporary; it will soon pass. The idea is that this practice trains the meditator to go through life with the same balance and equanimity, observing without reacting, appreciative of the present moment and comfortable in the knowledge that change is constant.

Of course, the 10-day instruction is only the most basic introduction to Vipassana. In order to see the method in action, one must make this a life practice. But the course gives a pretty good taste: making one realize how wild the mind is, drifting off in every direction whenever given free reign; making apparent the subtle vibrations and sensations in our bodies that we are normally oblivious to; demonstrating that the pains and itches and other discomforts do eventually go away if you just sit still and observe them.

Unfortunately, I did not record these experiences as they were taking place, as we were not permitted to read or write during the course. But I'm hoping to post a sort of retroactive day-by-day account (or maybe two or three days at a time) to share what happens when one sits in a dark room for 10 hours a day times 10 days. Stay tuned...

Day 0
Day 1
Day 4: Vipassana Day
Day 6
Day 8
Day 10: Metta Day

Saturday, December 12, 2009

VMC Day 10: Metta Day


Posted retrospectively.

Shelburne, Mass - There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air at VMC, as we awoke for our morning meditation session. Although we started at 4:30am and proceeded to breakfast in silence, as per usual, we knew that this was the last day.

During the morning group meditation, we would learn a new form of meditation, Metta. And after that, Noble Silence would be over. "Then noble chatter begins," Goenka had said in the Dhamma Discourse.

Metta, or "loving kindness", is a practice used by Buddhists of all strains. I have been exposed to this practice in various forms at my Unitarian-Universalist church, as well as in other books and teachings.

Traditionally, it starts with directing loving kindness toward one's self, then toward one's family, friends and community. The next step (the hard one) involves sending metta toward one's enemies. In some practices, the meditator is encouraged to consider a specific person, like the gossipy neighbor you can't stand or George W Bush, which is much more difficult than thinking about enemies in general. Then the circle expands even wider, as you send out this positive energy out to the whole world, or all beings.

As we learned about this practice on the final day of our course at VMC, I was surprised that there was no specific procedure for this practice (surprising, since our instructions for Vipassana had been so precise). Even my description above - with four or five specific thought targets - is something that I learned in my previous experiences, not at VMC. Here, we just sat in the glow of our good will while Goenka recited chants in a language we could not understand. He encouraged us to use this practice for a few minutes at the end of every meditation sitting. And he asked that we might include him, our teacher, in our thoughts of loving kindness.

Personally, I have found the practice of metta to be a powerful tool, and I was disappointed that we did not get a little more direction. But this is clearly not the main dish in Vipassana meditation - it's just a little dessert, or a "healing balm," as Goenka described it.

Then the session was over. We exited the meditation hall. Everyone knew that Noble Silence was over but nobody knew what to say. Back in the residence hall, a group stood dumbly, examining the schedule for the rest of the day.

The course manager came over and broke the silence, encouraging us to talk to each other. Day 10 was meant to be a transition day, to prepare to leave this monastical setting and re-enter our real lives. We would still sit through two more Group Sittings and one last Dhamma Discourse, but the other sittings were completely optional.

Once the course manager broke the ice, VMC became a hive of chatter, as the students were anxious to share their experiences. Many people had used their time to confront some pretty serious life issues. It's a brave thing to do - sitting in a dark room, surrounded by silence for 10 hours a day, there is no escape. You can imagine that might result in some emotional upheaval.

Many students were still sort of analyzing what we had just come through. Some people called it a life-changing experience. But most people - like myself - recognized that the life changing comes only with years of practice. And I certainly recognized that it would be difficult to incorporate into real life routines (especially as Goenka recommends a minimum of two hours of meditation a day - one in the morning and one in the evening).

One guy who was a passenger in my car (yes, we were even allowed to talk to the boys on Day 10) shared his experience, as this was his fourth 10-day course at VMC. He said that it was only after returning to
VMC as a volunteer - not as a student - that he was able to incorporate a consistent Vipassana practice into his daily life back at home. Anybody is invited to return to VMC to serve after completing one 10-day course as a student. These volunteers still participate in the three daily Group Sittings, but they also cook meals and clean and keep the place running for the students.

This is the highest form of dana, or generosity - selfless service to share with others the good you have acquired at VMC. It is also an opportunity to refresh the teachings of Vipassana, and at the same time put them into practice while interacting with others and trying to get some work done. It was this merging of action and contemplation, my acquaintance explained, that allowed him to make Vipassana a regular part of his life.

Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about this technique and - even moreso - about the Buddhist philosophy that underscores it. I was a little put off by the emphasis on suffering and misery and Vipassana as the only way to end one's suffering and misery. I am neither suffering nor miserable, so what does Vipassana offer me?

But I do recognize the Noble Truth that my good fortune will not last forever. As we know, everything is always changing. I may not be suffering now, but certainly I will be at some time in the future. And I appreciate the value of approaching these changes with balance and equanimity, trusting that the universe will not throw us anything we cannot handle, and recognizing the impermanence of everything and everybody. Vipassana has provided a tool that I can use to remember all of that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

VMC Day 8

Posted retrospectively

Shelburne, Mass - The wise teacher SN Goenka did not lie. After two days of feeling this overwhelming rush of energy coursing through my body, on Day 8, it stopped. Nothing was left but aches and pains and itches and very cold feet. I went back to the "part by part" scan of my body, analyzing each body part for some sign of life, some sensation, any sensation.

Considering how intense Days 6 and 7 were, I was a little relieved when I woke up on Day 8 to find that my body had quieted down. On the other hand, meditation became a lot less interesting, and I found my mind wandering off to all corners of the universe.

Of course, the last thing you want to do is develop a "craving" for funky electric currents going through your body, as this would defeat the whole purpose. So I tried to observe what was happening in there without judgement or reaction, "without attraction or aversion" as they say.

The previous night, Goenka had commenced the Dhamma Discourse as he did every night, announcing "Day 7 is over. You have 3 more days left to work..."

"But," he went on, "You have only two days to work seriously, since Noble Silence ends in the morning on Day 10."

This was news to me. Two days! I couldn't believe we had only two days left! I was ecstatic. This process which had seemed endless was suddenly nearing its end.

For better or worse, this revelation really changed my frame of mind. I'm sure it is one of the reasons that "the flow" stopped on Day 8. It certainly affected my ability to concentrate. Instead, I was thinking about what was happening at home in the pink house, and how soon I would be there too.

Suddenly, I had no tolerance for the myriad rules at VMC. The place is littered with signs reminding you to remove your shoes, to limit the length of your shower, to refrain from flushing anything besides toilet paper, to stay within the course boundaries, to walk quietly in the halls, etc etc. "Signs, signs, everywhere are signs, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that. Can't you read the signs?"

I understand the point of all these signs. Nobody wants to break the silence to tell you what to do or not to do. The course - indeed the entire facility - is designed to ensure a smooth operation of the teaching. But suddenly I couldn't stand it anymore. I also couldn't stand the fact that the entire facility was kept at 60 degrees or the fact that my roommate cleaned the bathroom every other day. (God knows why I had a problem with that - I hadn't cleaned it once.)

I was done. I had sat through 10 hours of meditation each day - diligently - without skipping (except once, when I didn't feel well, but that was a legitimate excuse). I had learned a lot about the philosophy behind Vipassana and appreciated its wisdom. I had no problem sitting with adhitthanna, or strong determination, meaning sitting for one hour without shifting positions. I had experienced "the flow" of energy through the body and observed it without aversion or attraction.

But now I was done. It was time to go home.

Unfortunately, I still had three days left to work.

After observing my wandering mind too many times, I slipped out of the afternoon meditation early and returned to my room. I was in a funk, feeling sorry for myself for being cold and homesick, feeling exasperated for getting myself into such a situation.

I sat on my bed and sniffled. I believe it had been an emotional week for many (it was not unusual to hear crying in the meditation hall). But for me it had been a week of happiness and hopefulness, a little bit of anxiety, a lot of curiosity, and overall equanimity. This was the first time that intense negativity was coming up.

Where's your equanimity now? I wondered.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. I wasn't done yet. I had had a pretty easy time of it so far. But now I finally had the opportunity to put into practice all these teachings that I had been hearing about all week. Here was a real live situation that I knew was temporary. You'll be home in three days, I reminded myself. Chill out and finish what you came here to do. Here was my opportunity to observe without reacting, recognizing the value of what is happening in the present moment and understanding that it will soon pass. Anicca. Anicca.



Tuesday, December 8, 2009

VMC Day 6

Posted retrospectively.

Shelburne, Mass - Practicers of Vipassana meditation become so attuned to the sensations in the body, that they begin to feel the constant flow of energy that is coursing through our bodies at every moment. This is what happened to me today at VMC.

On Day 5, we continued to practice the technique, scanning the body from head to toe, head to toe. On Day 6, we changed things up by scanning the body first from head to toe, then backwards from toe to head. Head to toe, toe to head. (Best if recited in a thick Indian accent, this little mantra continues to resonate in my head days after the retreat ended.)

At some point, I started to feel a strong wave of vibrations that was following my focal point. Before I knew it, I couldn't even concentrate on a particular part of my body, as the vibrations seemed to be flowing through me uncontrollably, causing my muscles to contract and relax as the wave passed through. I didn't really feel it in my legs and feet, but the core of my body - from shoulders down to my butt - felt like a towel that was rippling slow-mo in the breeze, as if being gently shaken to remove the sand after a day at the beach. My hands and fingers would get hot and tingly. And my face would buzz with light vibrations moving from the crown of my head down to my chin and back.

It felt sort of like getting an all-over-body rub-down with a vibrating massager (or at least what I imagine that might feel like).

So, yeah, it felt pretty good, although I was slightly freaked out by the way the sensations were so strong and so involuntary. I even continued to experience the after affects when I was lying in bed later that night - at one point being awoken from a sound sleep by this rush of energy going through my body.

It was only after these sensations started that Goenka mentioned that we might start to feel "a flow of subtle uniform sensations." So I wasn't making it up.  This is what was supposed to be happening. My awareness had become so attuned that I was feeling the movement of the "mass of bubbles" that actually makes up my being. I have to admit that this was a very cool experience - especially to think that this movement is taking place all the time, but we are normally oblivious.

Goenka constantly reminded us to refrain from developing any attachment to or expectation for these sensations, because they would not last forever. Just like the pains and strains, itches and twitches, the good vibrations would also pass.

This was a bit of a relief for me. While the sensations were pleasant - and they certainly kept my attention wrapt - it was also overwhelming, especially this feeling that I had no control over it. But I tried to refrain from reacting, and instead observed - with fascination - the party that was going on in my body.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

VMC Day 4: Vipassana Day

Posted retrospectively

Shelburne, Mass - Day 4 is a big day around here. It's Vipassana Day! This is the day we actually learned the method that has the power to eradicate everybody's suffering. As it turns out, those first three days of breathing were just preparation for the main course.

On Vipassana Day, the schedule remained the same, except that everybody had to report to the meditation hall from 2pm until 3:30pm for special instruction in the technique of Vipassana.

Basically, it involves scanning the body from head to toe, focusing on each individual area and feeling any sensations that might be happening at that moment. An itch, a twitch, a pain, a strain, a dryness, a moistness, a pulsing, a vibration, whatever... As soon as we felt something - anything - in one area, we could move on the next, passing slowly but surely from the head, down through the torso and arms, through the butt and into the legs and feet.

There were also a few rules added. Mainly, we were not supposed to react to any of the sensations, just observe them. No scratching that itch. No stretching out the leg to relieve the pain. In fact, starting on Day 4, we were not supposed to shift our position at all during the shorter one-hour Group Sittings. We were supposed to adopt addithana, or "strong posture", for the duration.

The idea is that we can train ourselves to NOT react to every sensation - negative or positive - and eventually it goes away. If this is true in meditation, it is also true in life. Everything is constantly changing, so there is no reason to get all upset about some unpleasant incident, as it will pass.

This new method was a lot more work than just breathing. Personally, I appreciated the extra assignment for the brain and I found it much easier to keep my mind focused on scanning the body and feeling the sensations, which was more interesting than just breathing.

But the addithana was really tough at first, as my feet fell asleep and my knees screamed for relief and my back ached. The first time I completely failed. The next day, I found that as long as I started in a good position with plenty of cushions for support, I only had to shift once during the hour. And by Day 6 I could sit still through the whole hour with only a slight stretching of the back now and then. Oorah.

Meanwhile, I had taken to meditating almost exclusively in the hall (once the outside thing was ruled out). I tried to meditate in my room once a day, but more often than not I just fell asleep, sitting on my cushion against the wall. The gong would sound to summon us back to the hall, and it would rouse me from my unintentional nap. Woops.

We had two hour "rest" periods when there was no meditation required. After breakfast, I usually went back to bed. But after lunch, I always always always went outside to walk around the grounds.

On Day 3, a sky full of snow flakes shimmered in the sunlight. On Day 4, the temperature dropped and I stomped through the snow with my hands thrust deep into my pockets. On Day 5, there was a veritable blizzard. But I insisted on going outside. I needed my Vitamin D; my body craved the revitalizing fresh air. Besides, there was nothing else to do.



Thursday, December 3, 2009

VMC Day 1

Posted retrospectively.

Shelburne, Mass - Here is the normal daily schedule at VMC.

4:00 am                 Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am         Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am         Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am         Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am       Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 am     Lunch break
12:00 -1:00 pm     Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm        Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm        Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm        Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm        Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm        Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm        Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm        Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm        Question time in the hall
9:30 pm                 Retire to your own room--Lights out

So there I was on the first day, up and at 'em at 4am. Actually, I quite enjoyed the early morning meditation - slipping into the warm, inviting hall while it was still dark outside and tuning into my mind before it became stimulated by the events and activities of the day. We were not required to be in the meditation hall for that early morning session, so many people just stayed in their rooms. Indeed, I suspect that many people just stayed in their beds. But somehow, I did not have too much trouble getting out of my warm cozy bed, knowing that I was just moving my body to the warm cozy comfort of the hall.
 
If and when I got sleepy, I would take a short break, get a drink of water, walk around in the cool air outside, then return to the meditation hall. At 6am, the assistant teacher would play a recording of chanting, which (I later read) was supposed to fill the room with love and positive vibes to enable our learning. It actually was an uplifting start to the day.
 
After breakfast I was back in bed for an hour (nothing else to do), then we all made our way in the meditation hall for our first Group Sitting.
 
Instructions for Day 1: focus your attention on your breath (always through your nose); when your mind wanders - as it does - don't get frustrated, just gently bring it back to the matter at hand - the breath. This is what we would do all day long.
 
For the record, things would not change too much on the following days. Our instructions became a little more explicit, eg, narrowing the area on the nose and lip where we were to focus our attention and feel the breath. But for the most part, we spent the first three days just breathing. Breathing.

I definitely got antsy. It's interesting to see where the mind wanders off to, though. I rehashed incidents from the past - as far back as high school and college. I fantasized about my next assignment in Belize (and "fantasize" is the right word, as the book is not even scheduled for an update yet). I had fullout arguments with friends, who I imagined would question my intentions for doing this course. Occasionally, I would realize that I was in the midst of a completely nonsensical dream sequence... Each time, I would patiently pull myself back to the present moment. The breath.
 
We were required to be in the hall for all four Group Sittings (listed above in red) - and somebody would come find you if you didn't show up. We could not leave the hall during these one-hour sessions. We had a little more leighway with the longer meditation sittings (in blue). So, for example, nobody ever gave us permission to use these 90-minute slots to go back to our rooms and go to bed, but there was nothing to stop us from doing so.
 
Day 1 happened to be sunny and springlike, and it felt wonderful to emerge from the meditation hall into the fresh air and blue sky after the first Group Sitting. I had the brilliant idea to do my meditation sitting on a rock in the sun, a la Henry David Thoreau. Even when the sun retreated behind the clouds, I stayed outside and did a walking meditation. "This isn't going to be so hard if I can keep this routine up," I thought. In fact, after my first half-day (one-twentieth of the way through the course!) I felt great.
 
That night we had our first Dhamma Discourse. This is when Goenka addressed us by video, explaining the philosophy behind the practice and giving tips to make sure we stay on course. "Danger number one," he said, "Do not meditate outside. The sunlight, the breeze, the noises... there are too many distractions." Dammit! Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought.
 
I was disappointed that the discourses took place on a TV screen. I had anticipated having some personal interaction with the teacher (not Goenka, but a teacher), and the video seemed pretty impersonal. That said, even by television, Goenka came across as a wise, compassionate and even funny person. It was clear that he understood the challenges of what we were doing, ie, that it's HARD to sit still for 10 hours a day. He was supportive but unwaivering in his insistence on the importance of following the schedule. "Day one is over. You have nine more left to work..."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

VMC Day 0

Posted retrospectively

Shelburne, Mass - I arrived this afternoon in Shelburne - two hours west of Boston - for a 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center. It's a pretty impressive facility, housing and feeding about 80 students, while we sit in silence and meditate for 10 days straight. The students pay nothing; the course is offered for free to ensure that the teaching is available to anybody who is interested. And the entire place is run by volunteers. Most of the individuals that are cooking and serving our meals are meditating in their spare moments, also using this 10-day period as an opportunity for self-reflection and purification.

VMC was founded by SN Goenka, a teacher from Burma. Goenka claims to teach the method that was used and taught by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago. Apparently this method was used widely back in the day, but over the years it was changed and adapted, while the "pure" form all but disappeared. Except in Burma. Now Goenka is teaching this method and establishing Vipassana Meditation Centers all over India and around the world.

So who comes to a place like this? I drove out from Boston with two guys. One is a former computer programmer, probably about 30 years old, who is now writing a book about people who give up stable careers to pursue dream jobs and happiness. The other slightly older guy used to be a psychoanalyst, until he quit is practice, rented out his house and set out to see the world. That was six years ago.

Once we arrived, we were segregated by gender (as we would remain for the rest of the week). Amongst the female students I met several freelance writers, a massage therapist, a singer/dancer, an aeiralist (eg, trapeze artist) and at least one itinerant traveler. My roommate was a police officer. Interesting.

Most of the students were white Americans (or Europeans), but there were a handful of Indian and Chinese students as well.

We were allowed to chat until after dinner. Then we were ushered into the dark, warm meditation hall to begin the course. "Noble" silence began. That means no communication whatsoever with other communicators. There was an assistant teacher whom we could address with questions about the meditation technique, and a course manager who attended to any physical needs. But otherwise, students were to act as if we were going through the week in solitude, without interfering with our neighbors.

Everyone had a designated spot in the meditation hall. We made ourselves comfortable with various arrangements of cushions and blankets. Then the lights dimmed and the course began.

We had to take a pledge to follow the Five Precepts, or Sila, during this 10-day course:

- to abstain from killing
- to abstain from stealing
- to abstain from sexual misconduct
- to abstain from speaking lies
- to abstain from intoxicants

It seemed reasonable enough to me.

We also had to pledge that we would honor and respect the teacher SN Goenka, as well as refrain from practicing any other meditation techniques or religious rituals while attending the course. This seemed rather authoritarian, but I guess I can understand how praying the rosary or doing yoga might interfere with getting a true introduction to a new technique. Personally, I don't have any other meditation techniques or religious rituals that I do on a daily basis, so I didn't really have a problem taking the second pledge either.

All of these instructions were coming at us from the teacher Goenka via audio recording. He has this deep gutteral voice, which he uses to chant in Pali, an ancient language of India. When guiding meditiations, he speaks slowly and dramatically with a thick Indian (or Burmese?) accent, repeating phrases to drill them into your consciousness and drawing out the ends of sentences for dramatic effect.

To be honest, I found that part of it pretty weird at first. But anyway, I came here with an open mind. I was willing to go along with it for 10 days, just to hear what Goenka had to say and to experience firsthand how it would work for me.

After that, we retired to our rooms. In silence, police officer roommate and I brushed our teeth and washed our faces and turned off the light and went to bed. We would start the next morning at 4:30am.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bigos Blog

Somerville, Mass - My faithful readers will remember the story of the cabbage, and my brilliant idea to turn it into sauerkraut. Well, here's where the story ends...

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved being a member of the Food Project CSA this summer. It was a joy to receive all of those fresh organic veggies every week. Sometimes it was a challenge to figure out what to do with them, but it led to the discovery of many new kinds of soups, salads and other veggie delights.

One week back in July, my CSA box contained the first head (of what would be many heads) of cabbage. Having just returned from Krakow, Poland, I was inspired to make sauerkraut. The Polish national dish is bigos, a sort of hunter's stew made from a sauerkraut base, with many kinds of meat, mushrooms, etc. mixed in. One tends to eat a lot of bigos when in Poland, but I had never made it myself.

Well, I confess, the sauerkraut thing did not go so well. It's easy enough to make, but I was overly liberal with the salt, meaning I didn't measure, I just dumped it in. It did cause the brine to form as it's supposed to, and underwent the fermentation process. But it was way too salty. And when it seemed to be ready (after about a month), I moved it out of the "Bigos Bucket" and into a tupperware in the fridge. At this point, I dumped out most of the brine, which was a little grody looking. Unfortunately, I think that brine is actually important to the preservation of the sauerkraut. By the time I got around to making my bigos, my sauerkraut was covered with a fine fuzzy mold. Ew.

In the meantime, I had stocked my freezer with many pounds of meat and I really had my heart set on making bigos. Fortunately, I found a jar of sauerkraut in my pantry. I know it's not quite the same - not sure it would meet the approval of the Polish peasant - but it would have to do. At least I checked the label to make sure it was the real deal: sauerkraut made with only two ingredients - cabbage and salt - and no vinegar or other additives.

There is no consensus about exactly how to make bigos, mainly because it's one of those dishes where you can throw in anything that you happen to have in the root cellar (or fridge, if you are not actually a Polish peasant). Did you shoot a wild boar on the hunt last week? What a great addition. Trying to get rid of some Polish sausage left over from last week's cookout? That'll work too. The more the merrier. And remember, this is "hunters' stew" so game is good.

I got some great pointers from this poster on Chowhound, who revealed her mother's secrets. But I did a lot of other research, and came up with my own version of the recipe:

1 lb pork shoulder (or some other stew meat), cut into 1-in cubes
1 large onion, coursely chopped
1 small head fresh cabbage, coursely chopped
4 carrots, thickly sliced
10-12 oz mushrooms (I used baby bellas), halved
1 lb sauerkraut
1 lb sausage (I used elk sausage, which was delish), thickly sliced
1-2 stock cubes
bay leaf
pepper
1 C dry red wine
1 C pitted prunes

Briefly brown your pork cubes over high heat to seal. Set aside.

In a large pot, saute onion, fresh cabbage and carrots in vegetable oil for about 10 minutes. When the volume of the cabbage has reduced by about half, add mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes.

Add sauerkraut and just enough water to saturate the mixture. Mix well and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer and add your browned meat and sausage, plus stock cubes, bay leaf and plenty of pepper. Simmer on low heat for about an hour.

After an hour or so, add wine and prunes. Return to simmer.

After simmering a few more hours, I started eating it. I couldn't help it, I was hungry, and it was pretty tasty. But everyone agrees that it tastes better the next day. So if you can wait, store it overnight in a cool place (the poster on Chowhound said "My Babcia would do this on her balcony"). The next day you can bring it back to a simmer and cook for a few more hours, adding water if necessary. Every time you do this - cool and cook - the flavors get more intense and more delightful. Serve with a hardy peasant bread or boiled potatoes.


Bigos is also supposed to good for freezing and eating later. But I wouldn't know. I gave some of it away, and we ate the rest in two sittings.

Incidentally, I still have two heads of cabbage sitting in my fridge leftover from my CSA. Maybe it's time to give that sauerkraut another try.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The First Thanksgiving



Plymouth, Mass - Sure, it's a repeat. But it's worth repeating, right? In honor of Thanksgiving Day, here is a little history from the Lonely Planet guide to New England:

Plymouth is known for one thing most of all - Pilgrims. And, as all schoolchildren in the US are taught, Pilgrims are known for one thing most of all - Thanksgiving. Maybe two things - Thanksgiving and big-buckled shoes. While footwear styles come and go, Thanksgiving remains a time-honored tradition of feasting and football for American families. But to what extent is today's celebration of Thanksgiving consistent with the Pilgrim forebears?

The first Thanksgiving was held in the early fall of 1621 and lasted for three days. The Pilgrims were thankful, but not for a bountiful harvest. In fact, virtually everything they planted that year failed to come up, except for some native corn. The Pilgrims were thankful simply to be alive. Of the 100 passengers aboard the Mayflower, only half survived the first year in the wilderness. There may have been a wild turkey on the table, but the plates more likely featured venison, lobster and squirrel…mmmmm. There was no pumpkin pie, alas, the Pilgrims did not have any ovens.

True to legend, the Indians were on hand for the first feast. Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags had no problems with the pathetic Pilgrims, since he had set them up on the land of a rival tribe, the Patuxet. The Patuxet certainly would have objected, but they were wiped out by smallpox a year earlier. The Wampanoags, in fact, provided most of the food. The Pilgrims were really not very good hosts.

There were no Lions or Cowboys, but there were games played that weekend. The Pilgrim men folk competed against the natives in shooting, archery and a colonial crude version of croquet.

Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims pretty much ended there. The fall festival was not repeated in subsequent years. The Pilgrims were pious, not partyers. The Wampanoags came to reconsider their stance on the newcomers. Over the years a fall harvest feast was common in some colonies, especially in New England. In 1789 George Washington called for a national Thanksgiving day to honor the new constitution, but again this did not become a widespread annual event.

The Thanksgiving celebrated today has more to do with 19th-century nationalism, than with 17th-century settlers. It is an invented tradition. In 1863, in the midst of civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday. The popular depiction of the Pilgrims in peace and harmony with natives and nature was meant to emphasize the common heritage of a people at war with itself. The Thanksgiving tradition is the celebration of a myth, but a myth that unifies the nation.

Oh, and by the way, the Pilgrims really did not wear big-buckled shoes either.





Friday, November 20, 2009

20 Years

Somerville, Mass - Twenty years ago this month, I sat through Professor Dick's Russian class, as he made jokes about the Russian tendancy to use the negative when making requests (something like "You're not getting off the metro here, are you?" instead of "Excuse me, I'm getting off". Or "You wouldn't be able to help me?" instead of "Help!").

"The Russians are so polite," Professor Dick said mockingly, and everyone laughed.

I'm sure Professor Dick was a good teacher, but I didn't think he was funny. Nobody is funny at 8:15 in the morning.

Aside from the cases and the conjugations and the other torture that Professor Dick inflicted on us, I remember his utter amazement as he read us the headlines from the Washington Post each morning. "Are you following this? Are you reading your newspaper? I hope you are reading the newspapers, because this is absolutely astounding, what's taking place over there."

Of course, I was not reading the newspaper. (I was reading hundreds of pages of European history and microeconomics and "The Problem of God", but I was not reading the newspaper.) In retrospect, it's a good thing that Professor Dick brought to our attention the events unfolding in Eastern Europe; otherwise, I might have been completely oblivious.

So here we are, 20 years later. Who would have guessed that these events would so shape my life?

This year, I was back in Eastern Europe. Indeed, I was in Krakow on June 4, the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking Polish election -- the first that allowed participation by an opposition party (and in fact resulted in a landslide victory for Solidarity). It was arguably the first tile in the domino effect that would take place in Eastern Europe throughout that fall.

Twenty years later, there were some parades and some protests in Krakow; but there was no denying that this day was a day to be remembered.


November 9 was the anniversary of the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall - the first time that residents of East Berlin were able to travel freely to West Berlin. Borders all along the East-West German border would be flung open throughout the following week.

To commemorate this historic event, the Goethe Institute here in Boston is hosting an excellent exhibit. "Moments in Time 1989/1990" traces the events of those years - mostly using photographs taken by regular people, amateur photographers from both East and West Germany, who were experiencing the events as they unfolded. The photos and accompanying descriptions express surprise, wonder, curiosity, confusion, exaltation and - more than anything else - bewilderment about what might happen in the future.

As indicated by the exhibit's title, it covers not only the events of November, but also the following months, which saw the dismantling of the wall and the reunification of Germany (which seemed to catch everyone by surprise). The exhibit will be in Boston until mid-December, and it is highly recommended, especially for people (like me) who did not make it to Berlin before the wall came down. Alternatively, you can visit the expanded online exhibit.

This week (November 17-20) marks the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. It started with a peaceful student protest in Prague, and ended - just over a month later - with the election of playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel as President.

December saw demonstrations in the Romanian town of Timişoara. Unlike in other countries, the Romanian police fired on demonstrators. Angry citizens responded to the violence with mass protests, and by the end of the month, the crazy communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife had been sentenced to death. (This pseudo revolution and other wacky Romanian historical events are the subject of the Communist Dracula Pageant, which was performed by the American Repertory Theatre last year.)

The communist regime in Bulgaria voluntarily stepped down in February 1990 (you would too, if you had seen what had happened to the Ceauşescus). And that was pretty much the end of the Iron Curtain.

Eastern Europe is obviously a different place than it was 20 years ago. I learned all about it, when I worked on the anniversary edition of the big Lonely Planet guidebook that covers the entire region (now 20 independent nations - read an excerpt here). And while all of these countries are moving closer to their western counterparts, they are still colored by their communist past. And that is part of their charm.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not Your Babushka's Moscow

Somerville, Mass - A friend of mine sent me this awesome video of a flash mob that took place in Moscow last week. Personally, I'm not sure it counts as a flash mob if the participants practiced for two weeks beforehand, but that doesn't really matter. Check out what happened when they came together on a Saturday afternoon in a Moscow shopping mall.

I love the babushka at 2:20. She doesn't know the moves, but that's not stopping her from throwing down. She's like "Communism, shmomunism.... We didn't do this back in the Soviet Union!"

MK Flash mob, Moscow, 31 october 2009, 16:00 from Timelapser on Vimeo.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Duck Village

Somerville, Mass - Oh, Somerville, how I love thee. Today I discovered a new Duck Village on Hanson Street.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Indian Summer, Part 2

Medford, Mass - The warm weather continues. Today we decided to check out a new destination. Although I have ridden my bike many times past the Middlesex Fells Reservation, I have never really stopped to explore it.

Today was the perfect day for it. Sunny skies and warm temperatures drew out plenty of dog-walkers and a few mountain bikers, although the trails were remarkably unpopulated compared to our regular destinations. The main reason for this is that there are miles and miles of hiking trails - I mean some 25 miles of marked hiking trails, as well as a mountain biking loop - so even if there are people, your chances of seeing them are slim.

We had no idea where to go. We parked on South Border Rd and picked up the first trail we found, which turned out to be the Cross-Fells Trail. We didn't start at the beginning, which is near Medford High School, but this 4.5-mile trail was a pretty good sampler plate - offering a glimpse of the reservoir, a view of the Boston skyline from the top of Cairn Hill and some lovely secluded woods. (The Fells website classified this trail as difficult, but that's a bit of an exaggeration, really.)

Of course we could not come back the way that we went - that would be too easy. So we made our way back first on the Skyline Trail, then on the Reservoir Trail, with some fire roads in between. I never would have ventured off the Cross-Fells Trail by myself - yes, I do make maps for a living, but that doesn't mean I have a good sense of direction! Fortunately, my husband does and we found our way back to our car without incident.

Funny, after all these years living in Somerville and writing about Boston and New England, I am still making new discoveries!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Indian Summer, Part 1

Concord, Mass - Most of the leaves are brown by now. We finally raked and swept in front of our house, convinced that there will not be too many more coming down. Aside from my day canvassing in Maine, I didn't take any special leaf-peeping trips this year. There was no time for hikes in the White Mountains or drives along the Kangkamangus Highway. Foliage season is so fleeting.

But just when I thought fall was going to fade into winter, we experienced a sudden spike in temperatures. The sun came out, the thermostat reached into the 60s and everybody took off their wool jackets.

We spent the afternoon at one of my favorite urban escapes, Walden Pond. We had brought with us a little picnic - roasted vegetable and goat cheese quiche from Petsi's Pies. Don't you think that's what Thoreau used to eat when he "went to the woods to live deliberately"? Isn't a roasted vegetable and goat cheese quiche one of the "essential facts of life"?

After lunch, we enjoyed a delightful stroll around the pond - so peaceful now without the splashing and screaming of kids. Last time I was here was back in August, when we rode our bikes and swam in the pond to escape the brutal summer heat.

Now, the pond is silent. Even the birds have retreated to warmer climes, although we did spot a great blue heron, posing majestically as he spied on the fish in the water. Other than that, the only signs of life were a few walkers circling the pond and the brown and yellow leaves, still stunning against the blue sky.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Witch City

Salem, Massachusetts - Mom and Dad are in town for Halloween, so we decided to take them to Halloween Central. Witch City, USA. Salem, Massachusetts.

Salem recently came in third place in Lonely Planet's poll about the best place to celebrate Halloween, coming in behind heavies New York City and San Francisco. But neither of those cities hosts a month-long extravaganza like Salem's Haunted Happenings.

For literary buffs, there are readings of Edgar Allen Poe and presentations in the creepy House of Seven Gables. For history buffs, there are re-enactments of scenes from the 17th-century Witch Hysteria. For party buffs, there are haunted pub tours and zombie balls. Ghost tours, pet parades, dream interpretations,  art exhibits, pumpkin carving, fun runs and more.

We actually went up on the day before Halloween because we feared the crowds. We picked up Mom and Dad at the airport, stopped en route for lunch at Kelly's Roast Beef on Revere Beach, and zooped up to Salem. It was Friday night and the streets were bustling (but not packed) with costumed revelers. As afternoon faded into evening, there were more and more people in costumes of all sorts - not just witches, but ghosts, goblins and characters of all sorts. In our regular streetwear, we were starting to feel out of place.

Live bands were playing on a makeshift stage on Derby Street. Artists were offering face painting and tarot card readings. All the Wiccan accessory stores were packed (yes, I'm sure that "Wiccan" has its own section in the Salem Yellow Pages). One creepy guy waved me over to give me a business card. "We're the only store in Salem selling real human bones," he promised. "Finger bones, foot bones..." Thank you, sir, I'll keep you in mind for all of my human bone needs.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New England in the Guardian!

Somerville, Mass - The BBC Worldwide purchased Lonely Planet about two years ago, with founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler retaining a 25% share (with option to sell at any time). The purchase generated a fair share of controversy in the UK, because it was considered to be "over expansion" by the public company. As recently as last month, British conservatives condemned the BBC Trust for approving the deal.

Now it's in the news that Tony and Maureen have been allowed to extend their option to sell their one-quarter stake. It's not unusual that the original owners would want to continue to play a roll in the company's growth and development. But it has raised questions about why the BBCW would allow them to extend their option to sell, which it is not obligated to do.

For some reason, this has generated speculation that the BBCW is considering unloading the travel publishing company, a rumor which has been flatly denied.

To me, this seems to be a lot of buzz about nothing. But it does mean that Lonely Planet is in the news (in the UK anyway), and look at what book is featured in the article in the Guardian. Beauty!


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Standing on the Side of Love

York, Maine - Tis the season to go leaf-peeping in New England. This year I decided to combine my annual fall outing with some political activism.

This past May, the state of Maine enacted legislation giving same-sex couples the right to marry (hooray). Now, there is a referendum on the ballot to take that right away (boo). Polls are showing that the vote is going to be really close, with 48% supporting marriage equality and 48% supporting the elimination of these rights.

I drove up to Maine with a group of friends from my church to canvass Maine voters. Just so you know, canvassing does not mean that we are trying to convince people to change their minds (which is probably a lost cause). Rather, we were trying to locate the supporters of gay marriage and make sure they are planning to vote on this important issue. Specifically, we were encouraging them to vote early (as everybody is allowed to do in Maine), so that Maine Equality could focus their resources on other undecided voters.


Although it was a gray day, Maine was beautiful in all of its multi-colored fall-foliage glory. The surf was up at York beach, and the surfers were out catching the waves. We spent a great afternoon driving around this lovely beach town talking to the good folks of Maine. "Do you support gay marriage?" I asked one resident. "I support marriage for people who are love," he responded. Amen, brother.

It was heartening to see that the vast majority of folks that we talked to planned to vote No on 1 - but that is to be expected in this liberal county. Maine Equality faces a greater challenge in other parts of the state (which is why it's so important to get as many Yorkers as possible to get out and vote!) See also the account posted by my friend and colleague, Susan Leslie, who was out canvassing with her husband and son.

I had the honor of driving up and canvassing with my friend, Marcia Hams, who also attends my church. She and her wife, Susan Shephard, were the first same-sex couple to get married in Massachusetts in 2004, which means they were the first in the country! Marcia shared this video, which was made by her son, who gives his perspective on why we should not be allowed to vote to take away people's rights.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Southwest Rap

Somerville, Mass - Here is another airline-themed video that's making the rounds of the internet (and providing good publicity for Southwest Airlines, no doubt). It's not quite as good as the painted-on uniforms of the flight attendants at Air New Zealand, but it's pretty good.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Did you ever see a manatee?

Somerville, Mass - I was thrilled to read in the Globe this morning that Ilya the manatee is making his way back to Florida, after spending the summer at Cape Cod.

Manatees are good long-distance swimmers, but scientists are baffled about why a Florida manatee would make the 1500-mile journey all the way up to New England waters. "Warmer water is one possible explanation, scientists say, and this year’s record warmth in coastal waters could certainly be a lure," according to the Boston Globe.

This is the second year in a row that a Florida manatee has caused a late summertime stir off the coast of Cape Cod. Last year, a stubborn creature was dubbed "Dennis" by marine mammal fans in that Cape town. Sadly, Dennis stuck around too long and the waters began to chill to uncomfortable temperatures. Although a crew attempted to rescue big Dennis and truck him down to Sea World to recuperate, they were too late. Dennis died of hypothermia before he made it back to Florida.

Fortunately, Ilya is faring better. Apparently he is in better health to begin with. More importantly, he seems to be heading home on his own, as he was spotted off the coast of Connecticut last week. Go, Ilya, go!

I have been in love with the manatees ever since I met their West Indian cousins (up close and personal) last year in Belize (Read about it here). What's not to love about a gentle 1600lb vegetarian giant that floats around - never hurting a soul - except for the 100lbs of grass that it eats every day!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

LP Guide to Travel Writing featuring an interview with yours truly!


Somerville, Mass - All you would-be travel writers, check out the latest edition of Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Writing, by travel writing guru Don George. This substantial book offers "expert advice on  travel writing from the world's leading travel publisher." Most importantly, this valuable resource includes interviews with established writers, editors and agents (ahem).

You're a fool if you don't rush out and by this book right away. But just in case you you can't wait, here is an excerpt. This is the interview you've all been waiting for... Don George gets down to the nitty-gritty, asking probing and personal questions, and eliciting information never before revealed to the public!

Interview with Mara Vorhees

How did you start off in your career as a guidebook writer?

I was living in Yekaterinburg, Russia in the late 1990s, working on a US-government sponsored foreign aid project. I was becoming increasing disillusioned with the field of international development in general and increasingly frustrated with my job in particular. But I was doing a lot of writing, which I enjoyed.

Living and traveling in Russia, I always used the Lonely Planet guide, but I felt like I probably knew more about that country - or at least the region where I was living - than the authors did. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Lonely Planet, sent some writing samples, and offered to work on the next update. I was completely floored when somebody actually responded. As it turned out, that was the start of a new career.

What is the best way of establishing yourself if you’re just starting out in your career as a freelance guidebook writer now?

Develop a regional expertise: travel, learn the language, develop a network of contacts. Learn as much as you can about that place, so you can demonstrate that you are an expert. And by the way, you'll probably do better if your regional expertise is not France.

How do you think guidebook writers get the numbers to add up in terms of an income?

Guidebook writers get the numbers to add up by spending a lot of time on the road, doing back-to-back and overlapping assignments, and taking on other jobs (teaching, temping, waiting tables, whatever it takes). Many guidebook writers are homeless: they crash with friends or family between assigments and avoid housing costs.

How do you get the numbers to add up?

When I started working for Lonely Planet, I had a full-time "real job" that paid my bills quite nicely. I had a great relationship with my boss, who allowed me to take a leave of absence once a year to work on a guidebook. Eventually, I got laid off from that job, and that was the kick in the pants I needed to transition to being a full-time writer. Now I usually do three full-fledged guidebook writing projects a year, and a slew of articles and other smaller pieces. Also, it helps that my husband is gainfully employed.

What advice would you give to budding guidebook writers?

Take every opportunity to travel and be sure to write about it along the way. Even if it's just keeping a journal. That's a fantastic resource which you will really appreciate when you try to turn your adventures into marketable writing.

Are there any courses or any training that you’d recommend a budding guidebook writer to undertake?

Learn the language! You don't need to be fluent, but being able to communicate in your country will make your job hundreds of times easier. And you'll have a lot more fun along the way.

What are the most common mistakes that guidebook writers make -- in their research and in their writing?

The most common mistake in research is not allowing enough time to cover the destination. It's inevitable that you will discover some new unexpected place that you want to explore, and there is never enough time to do everything. I still make this mistake, even after writing guidebooks for almost a decade!

The most common mistake in guidebook writing is using the book as a soapbox to spout one's opinions. Writers should certainly not be shy about expressing their opinions, but readers get turned off by a preachy, snide or sarcastic tone in the text. They want to learn from the guidebook, but not be lectured by it.

What are the main differences between guidebook writing and writing for a newspaper, magazine, or web site?

Guidebook writing comes in relatively big chunks, meaning that one assignment will keep you busy (and pay my bills) for several months. Assigments from newspapers, magazines and web sites are usually much smaller, occupying a couple of days or perhaps a week. Compensation for these smaller assignments is usually comensurate with the amount of time required, but it does not account for travel and research or - the bane of my existence - sending out pitches.

The writing itself is also different. Guidebook writing is very structured, although there are plenty of opportunities to get creative within the confines of that structure. Depending on the demands of the publication, newspaper and magazine writing often allows for more creativity, writing from personal experience, crafting a story.

What, in your opinion, constitutes ‘good’ guidebook writing?

`Good' guidebook writing is accurate and informative, but it is also entertaining. It is insightful, funny and inspiring. It allows readers to make informed decisions about how they will spend their valuable travel time.

What constitutes ‘bad’ guidebook writing?

The obvious example of `bad' guidebook writing is factual inaccuracy. But guidebook writing is also bad when it states the obvious instead of providing an insightful or informed perspective.

What are the rewards of guidebook writing as a career?

The biggest and best reward of a travel writing career is seeing the world. Travel always inspires learning - even moreso for guidebook writers, who must become experts about their destinations.We go everywhere, we see everything, we have incredible adventures; then we come home with a suitcase full of notes and a head full of stories and histories to share with others.

What has been the downside for you?

Sometimes I get tired. The travel is very intensive. Even when I technically have enough time to cover my destination, I always feel like I could be doing more. The write-up process is also stressful, expanding to fill the available time. As a freelance writer, there is a constant pressure to do more in less time.

What’s the role of the Internet in the landscape of contemporary guidebook/travel writing?

With the proliferation of travel websites on the Internet, there are more outlets for travel writing than ever before. There are also more sources of information than ever before. The web can be a very useful resource when it comes to verifying information for inclusion in guidebooks, but it's no substitute for first-hand experience!

How can would-be guidebook writers best utilize the Web for their own professional development?

Get yourself a blog. Write for your friends at home, your parents, your own amusement. You'll get in the habit of writing for other people's consumption and you will amass a good selection of travel writing samples.

Where do you see guidebook publishing going in the next five years?

I see more interplay between guidebooks and technology. I can imagine that travelers will soon be using digital guidebooks that incorporate audio, video and other elements that we can't even imagine. For example, it won't be long until guidebooks include virtual tours of Ancient Rome or Machu Picchu that allow travelers to experience the place as it was in its heyday. Technology will also make it easier for publishers to put together customized products that fit individual travelers' needs: customized itineraries, thematic walking tours, one-stop trip-planning tools. I also see more interaction between publishers, writers and readers, as the industry takes advantage of the increased opportunity to get feedback from readers.

Any other tips or reflections you would offer would-be guidebook writers?

Remember that life is trade-offs. This is not an easy job. Guidebooks are born of blood, sweat and tears. No, really, we work our butts off. But along the way, we have more than our fair share of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and that's what makes it all worthwhile.

That, and meeting our fellow travelers, who lug those books around, trust our opinions, share our adventures, forgive our oversights (hopefully) and make the planet a little less lonely.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What the Fluff

Somerville, Mass - As every native Bostonian knows...

It takes Fluff, Fluff Fluff, to make a Fluffernutter
Marshmallow Fluff and lots of peanut butter.

But Bostonians may not know that marshmallow cream actually originated right here in Somerville, Mass! In 1917, Archibald Query went door-to-door to sell the gooey treat made in his Somerville kitchen. A few years later, two enterprising WWI veterans bought the secret recipe for $500, and moved the operation to Lynn. Good management and even better marketing made the Fluff business a sweet success.

Maybe it is mostly air-whipped sugar and not real marshmallow (a plant that actually grows in marshes), but the squat white-and-blue jar of Fluff has been present in cupboards across the region for more than three-quarters of a century. So it's no surprise that it generated quite a controversy in recent years, when a state senator tried to ban Fluffernutter sandwiches from the school lunch program.
Health benefits aside, nobody can deny the iconic cultural status of marshmallow fluff. Certainly not after attending the Fluff Festival, which is was held today in Union Square. Bigger this year than ever before, the festival really celebrates the many diverse functions of marshmallow fluff.

There was a highly competetive cooking contest...



A Fluffernutter race... the blindfolded contestant was required to feed the fluffternutter sandwich to his/her partner. The first sandwich eater to sing the fluffernutter song was the winner.


A Fluffernutter hair-do competition, with some very creative contestants...



Lots of kids' games like fluff bowling...


And an excellent performance by the Flufferettes! You go girls! Show us your fluff!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Let the People Sing

Cambridge, Mass - I'm pretty sure this is the first time I ever celebrated the autumnal equinox. But really, we spend much of the year looking forward to summer, then we luxuriate in the long sunny days. Why - when it's time for the seasons to change - should we let it slip away without a farewell?
I suppose that is the reasoning behind RiverSing. It's basically a gigantic sing-along on the banks of the River Charles, led by musicians from the Revels. What an awesome way to bring the community together to sing songs that honor the river and the changing of the seasons.

The event kicked off in Winthrop Park in Harvard Square, with face-painting and stilts-walking. Then the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band led a procession down to the river, followed by hulahoopers, dragon puppets and hundreds of people. The Revels performers took to the stage near the Weeks footbridge, while the audience was invited to sprawl out along the river with blankets and picnics.
Volunteers passed out lyrics so everybody could sing along to folk favorites like The Water is Wide and Michael Row the Boat Ashore. (Not all the songs followed the river theme, but many did.) One song was written especially for this event - Sing to the Charles - a sort of ode to Boston's beloved waterway (not the first of course - but Dirty Water by the Standells was not included in this particular event).

The crowd favorites were the ones that everybody knows. It's pretty amazing when hundreds of voices join together in spontaneous celebration of something so simple as a seasonal change.
A bell was rung to signal the setting of the sun, and we said goodbye to summer.
The sky was dark by the time the grand finale took place. River Hymn is a call and response between the singers on the shore and a saxophone player on a barge in the middle of the river. The barge was decked out in lights, with a sun and moon on either end, and sax-player Stan Strickland sounding the melody. The barge circled around three times, as the singers and the sax called back and forth to each other.

Beauty is before me. Beauty is behind me, above me and below me.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

An American in Paris

Somerville, Mass - I am so proud of my fellow countrymen and women. According to a poll conducted by Expedia and published by the BBC, Americans are #9 on the list of the World's Best Tourists.

In case you are wondering, the French are the worst tourists. (Eh, bien sur, comme ils sont difficiles!)

 According to the article, Americans are most likely `to swallow their pride and order... in the local lingo.' Initially I was surprised by this assessment, as Americans are notoriously bad at learning foreign languagues. It just goes to show that you don't actually have to speak the lingo to please the locals, you just have to be willing to `swallow your pride' and give it a try - even if it means an oral butchering.

The article goes on to say that `US tourists also get top marks for generosity, as the biggest spenders and tippers.' This is directly related to the fact that we pay barstaff and restaurant servers below minimum wage in our country, which means that a 15-20% tip is practically mandatory. In Europe (and other places), restaurant workers actually receive a living wage from their employers, so the guests tip very little, if at all.

Such habits are hard to break. On more than one occasion, I have secretly supplemented the stingey tip left by otherwise generous European dining companions (in the US).

Indeed, I feel like I may have single-handedly skewed the numbers on this poll, since I tend to overtip pretty much everywhere I go (ever since my days waiting tables and earning below minimum wage). At least it seems to be appreciated by folks in the local hospitality industry.

Alas, my compatriots have fallen `short on other counts as the least tidy, the loudest, the worst complainers and the worst dressed.'

The French came in third place for cleanliness, so they beat us there. So much for calling them `the dirty French.'

What really concerns me is this bit about being poorly dressed. My fellow Americans, let us support President Obama in his efforts to improve America's global image. The single most effective thing we can do is to stop wearing sweatshirts and sneakers on the streets of Paris and Rome. Let's throw out our fanny packs! Let's show the rest of the world that we have pride in our nation - that our pockets are not only deep, but they are also well-stitched. Yes we can!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Razzmataz

Somerville, Mass - Apparently, the rainy summer delayed the berry season in New England. I read about it in this Boston Globe article, and then I witnessed it first hand, when the raspberries that grow along the side of the pink house burst forth into berry-dom. There were a few berries earlier in the summer, but not enought to get excited about. Indeed, I had sort of given up on them. Now this.

Funny thing about these raspberries... they used to belong to our next-door neighbors. But when new neighbors moved in, they tore everything out of the yard. Everything. The blooming lilac in the front was razed "to let more light in"; the gorgeous garden in the back was completely pulled up "because the dog will dig it up." I have no idea why the raspberry bushes were cut down to nothing - probably because the new neighbors had no idea what they were.
Fortunately for me, a few delinquent branches had started to sprout up on our side of the fence. So we let them spread. There was not much to show for it last summer, but this year - come September - these branches were laden with tart juicy razzmataz.
I had so many berries I decided to put the ice cream maker to work again. The recipe I used came straight from a website called Nibbledish, so I won't reprint it here. But I urge you to try it.
Best. Ice cream. Ever. (Shown here with a scoop of choco-choco-chip, but quite delectable all by itself too.)
I did have the idea that I should share some of the ice cream with my neighbors; but it was gone before I had the chance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Marine Mammal Mania

Boston, Mass - Mom was in town for the weekend, so we went to check out the new Marine Mammal Center at the New England Aquarium.
First of all, can I say that it's a little bit of an exaggeration to call this the "Marine Mammal Center." It should more apropriately be called the Fur Seal Center, because that's who is swimming around the new fancy digs overlooking the Boston Harbor.
Sure, there are a few fun facts and photos about polar bears and walruses, but the only animals you can see live and in action are four fur seals: Ursula, Cordova, JD and Isaac.
Don't get me wrong, the seals are charmers. It's worth catching the twice daily demonstration, when trainers show off their skills (mostly waving and otherwise flirting with the crowd). This is when you can see Cordova doing an excellent imitation of a harbor seal (which slinks along the ground like a worm, instead of propping itself up on its fins like fur seals do). And when the show is over, watch for Ursula doing a run and slide into the holding room pool.
Even if you can't catch the show, the seals are pretty entertaining. Cordova is the real crowd pleaser, climbing up out of the water to look at her visitors, then opening up her mouth and letting out a reverberating shout. This soggy little creature really does sound like a mad man yelling at the top of his lungs. To the endless amusement of the crowd.
One of the best things about the new Fur Seal Center - er, Marine Mammal Center - is that it has opened up this stretch of the waterfront to the public. There is a lovely vista from the inside of the aquarium (which I'm sure the seals are enjoying), but the boardwalk has been extended so it circles around the aquarium, allowing everyone to appreciate the view. Finally, the aquarium is taking advantage of its fantastic setting by the sea!
By the way, the harbor seals are still hanging out in their outdoor enclosure in the front of the aquarium, which means you can visit them without paying for admission. If you happen to be downtown in the evening, it's always fun to stop by and see what the seals are up to. They are usually surprised and excited to see you at that hour! 
Photos and video courtesy of the New England Aquarium.