March 27, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Four: A Catholic Tourist in Spain

Parish Church in Granada (where we attended Mass
The ritual of the Mass in the Catholic Church has a uniformity throughout the world.  The prayers follow in a particular order, and if you are visiting a cathedral you can pop your head into a side chapel and know within a minute exactly where the priest is in the order of the Mass, even if you don’t speak the language. There are, however, a number of variations. Sometimes there are extra prayers, before, during and after Mass; and traditions vary on when to sit, stand, or kneel. Fortunately, nuns in Europe still wear habits and the two or three at every Mass are easily identifiable. So, my mantra was, “Follow the nun.” When she sat or knelt, I followed—a failsafe method should you ever require it.

One of my earliest memories of the churches in Spain (from 1972) is the overwhelming amount
Gilt Under Guard
of gold inside them. On our recent visit the wealth inside the Church was juxtaposed against the beggars sitting outside the church (a sight less visible in the day’s of Franco’s rule). I wonder what Pope Francis has to say about the abundance that is denied the poor. I was also struck by the fact that the bishops sit and kneel on plush cushions, while the congregation sits on hard wooden pews and kneels on unpadded boards.

Columbus with Ferdinand and Isabella
My conscience was pricked on this visit by the numerous statues of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whose presence is sprinkled throughout Spain’s cities and churches, more than five centuries after their rule. Pope Alexander VI conferred on them the title “Catholic King and Queen” in their lifetime, the assumption being that they were doing God’s work. Today they are still called “the Catholic Monarchs.” When one studies the atrocities they committed, especially the Inquisition, one wonders if that label is one of praise. Because they expelled those of other faiths from the country and segregated those who were not like themselves, I could not help but wonder how much of today’s intolerance between religions can be traced back to them.

Courtyard of a historic Jewish home in Cordoba
The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. There is some irony in the date, the
same year that Columbus discovered a land that would be built (after initial atrocities to the native populations) on the principle of freedom and inclusion of all. Since our return an Associated Press story reported that the Spanish government is in the process of passing a law that grants Spanish citizenship to descendants of the Jews who were expelled. It cannot repair the damage but does acknowledge a wrongdoing.


Sometimes it’s easier to be Catholic in a foreign country. I can figure out the Scriptures and the Mass prayers from past experience, but the preaching is often beyond my understanding of the language. This means I hear no breaches of history or didactic pronouncements that prickle my sense of the real meaning of Christ’s message. (Gary understands more than I, but I don’t ask him to translate. It’s easier that way.)

From A Catalonian Cave Church

February 5, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Three: Money Talks

(This is written with apologies to my wonderful economics professor David Jobson at Keystone College, so many years ago. If I have misunderstood or forgotten any of the lessons you taught me, I regret that.)

Solution to the Economic Problem in Southern Europe

Sun and Shade in Seville

In Greece, where the economic distress is apparent, we saw solar panels stretched across agricultural fields and our guides told us they were owned by private individuals and not by the government. I was wondering why Germany and other more financially secure nations don’t loan the governments of Spain, Italy and Greece money to create an infrastructure for a solar power system. There is so much sunshine that the countries could reduce their dependence on oil and gas and sell the excess power to raise funds—perhaps even to Germany? They should be able to general adequate income to pay back the loans, with interest and improve their economic outlook.  

Sun and Shade in Rhodes

Sun and Shade on an Amalfi Hillside

A Fortune to be Made

I don’t know how everyone else travels, but we schlep a lot of electronic gear and many people we met or observed did as well. Those traveling in pairs usually have two telephones, two cameras, and 
two computers or tablets (sometimes both). This means they have at least six devices that need to be charged. Since each device has its own set of peripherals, our bag of cords, spare batteries and foreign plug adapters take up significant suitcase space. Then we must find ways to charge the devices in foreign hotels where the rooms sometimes have only one or two unused and adaptable plugs. While traveling I wondered whether there might not be a lot of money in finding a solution, perhaps a universal charger with adapter incorporated. When I returned home I learned that Eesha Khare, an eighteen-year old Californian has invented a supercapacitor that charges devices in 30 seconds or less. Maybe the answer is on the way. Let’s hope it’s versatile enough for all our devices.

Value of the Euro

The American dollar pales in comparison to the Euro, making European travel expensive. Why is there no discussion in our country, at least in the popular media, about that disparity?

Prosperity or Enhanced Quality of Life?

Spain is struggling economically and yet—at least in the Southern part of Spain—the quality of life (for the employed, certainly) is excellent. Cities are clean. Parks are plentiful and manicured. Gardens are blooming and maintained. Public transportation is efficient. The main streets are broad and accommodate both pedestrians and bicycles. Historic buildings are in beautiful repair. In my own country, highways and streets are not cleaned often. Parks are trimmed but not maintained. Gardens are often non-existent, unless funded privately. Public transportation is not designed for people. The list goes on. I’m thinking that I might be happy with a poorer economy in our country if we had a better quality of public life.




January 28, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part Two: What to Wear


I live in a part of the country that prides itself on being “natural.” The result is that Northwestern women are not recognized internationally for their fashion, especially not for their hairstyles. In Paris I was stunned by the wonderful haircuts. All women, rich or middle-class, with long hair or short, curly hair or straight, were perfectly coiffed. 

Most of them were also beautifully clothed. Their outfits stand as the antithesis of current American “fashion,” clothes that appear to be pre-shrunk and then studded with rhinestones. Parisian women wear clothes with elegant lines. Their dresses and blouses do not cling to unfortunate figures.

And the Japanese tourists were especially stylish. They wear clothes that are comfortable and eye-catching at the same time.

Undecided: Are Japanese or French women more chic?

Decided: Women from every country shift their hips when their photo is taken. They place one foot forward, and slim themselves by a turn of the pelvis. They do not present a full frontal face to the camera. And many cock their heads when they smile.

Venetian Laundry Over an Alley

The Saga of the New Blouse

In Spain I found I needed a longer sleeved shirt, so I took my six words of Spanish and went shopping. In a shopping store that had EVERYTHING (clothing, electronics, a travel agency, a clinic for surgical procedures, and more), I found the blouse I wanted. When the blouse did not fit, the sales clerk ran to another department to find one that did. It was a no-iron, tailored blouse and I loved it. It wasn’t until I was purchasing it that I realized it was made by Jones of New York!
Venetian Laundry on a Building

And then one afternoon we walked down the streets in Barcelona. Something hit the sleeve of my lovely new blouse, a leaf from the overhanging tree I thought, and I brushed it off. As soon as I felt the yellow slime on my fingers, I knew it was bird droppings, right on the sleeve of my new shirt! Two men rushed up to help us, which surprised us, until we realized that a sweater I had tied around my waist was completely covered as were the backs of the legs on Gary’s slacks. I cannot imagine what kind or how many birds did this damage.

State of Undress

Rhodes attracts an odd collection of people: young women who run around in bikinis and young men in briefs, middle-aged women looking a little the worse for wear and middle-aged men, with bellies hanging over their shorts, who have forgotten how to shave or comb their hair. Too many have skin that looks like a pig’s after roasting on a spit. I wonder if it crackles when touched?
Tattered Greek Flat in Rhodes

The Tourist Tan

I grew up in Mississippi, so I always knew that a farmer tan was a tan from the shirtsleeves down and across the neck and face. While traveling I had a tourist tan. My arms were brown up over the edge of my shoulders, in a scoop around my neck, and on my face. My underarms and the folds in my elbows were white and my feet striped from my sandals.

Doing Laundry

The most unpleasant part of traveling is trying to find laundry service that is reasonable in price and accessible to our lodging. We spent two hours one day trying to locate a laundromat. Everyone sent us in the general direction. They were sure it was there, but we came to think none of them had ever been there. That laundromat turned out to be very nice, but the machines automatically dispensed fabric softener into the clothes, a cloying, nose-tickling perfume that eventually contaminated everything in our suitcases—and continues to haunt a few pieces that will not yield the smell.
Venetian Laundry Over a Canal

We did learn one laundry secret. If clothes have not dried, the hair dryer that almost all lodging now provides will finish things off, especially the more delicate items. And then there is the mini-bar. Many of them are hidden and they generate a lot of heat. We had one in a closet with shelves. The shelf above the little refrigerator dried lightweight clothes in an hour and heavier things in a bit longer stretch of time.

Most Pleasant Clothing Maintenance Job

--wiping the dust of ages from our shoes after trekking through the Parthenon, Knossos, Pompeii, the enormous Venetian fortification at Rhythmno, the ruins at Medina Al-Zahra, and Alhambra. 

January 21, 2014

Southern European Meditations, Part One: Feeding the Body and Soul


We are waiting in line at a boulangerie. A mother buys two long baguettes and hands them to her son while she pays her bill. He sneaks a quick peek at her, notices her distraction, grabs one of the baguettes, rips off about six inches and starts to gnaw away. Isn’t this better than sneaking candy?

Awaiting Salade Nicoise

I wonder what the Academy members who fight so hard to purge the French language of foreign words, think of all the shops bearing the name Sandwicherie.


At a Restaurant in Heraklion, on the Island of Crete -
We arrive at 7:00 p.m. only to learn the restaurant does not officially open until 7:30. We say we will return as the restaurant was recommended to us, but the owner welcomes us inside and hands us menus. While we choose our entrees and eat some proffered appetizers, the restaurant owner talks gently to a young boy, encouraging him to finish a plate of French fries that are piled on a plate at the opposite end of the restaurant’s closed-in porch, where we sit. The boy runs back and forth, halting abruptly and twisting his body into a Ninja-like stance, arms extended in fighting pose. Despite his theatrics, he is remarkably quiet, under the owner’s watchful eye.
             Later other customers arrive and another man, the age of the owner, who might be related, takes charge of the boy while the owner ushers guests to their tables. More people arrive, the second man disappears into the kitchen, while an elderly man in the corner—the boy’s grandfather?—takes charge of the young boy.
            The meal was delicious, but watching the men care for the little boy was the best part of the evening.

The Parthenon from a Restaurant Terrace in Athen

When we travel we always eat the food of the culture in which we find ourselves. When we visited the hill tribes in Thailand, we ate rice and peanuts cooked in bamboo. In Vietnam, the fish sauce permeated everything. On this trip we ate paté in France, shrimp from the Aegean Sea in Greece, liver and onions in Venice, and tortilla (firm potato omelets) in Spain. In Gibraltar, we ate fish and chips and mushy peas.

Using food to make friends with a monkey on Gibraltar


At the Alhambra, Gary went up in the towers and I sat in a plaza. Trees were planted so that parts of the plaza were shaded and other parts were in sunshine. In the center stood a kiosk selling wine, beer, and soft drinks—in real glasses! There were no tables. You just sat on a wall or bench, drank your beverage and returned your glass to the kiosk.


They say the Mediterranean diet prolongs life, but as I observed the Italians I wondered if researchers have linked the wrong cause and effect. Italians are also passionate. They express their feelings and do not bottle them up. They spend time over their meals, don’t just eat and run. They spend time with family—over meals, walking in the park, sitting on a bench in the piazza. They are connected to their families and to one another. They stop and talk on the streets. They walk more than we do. They kiss one another when they meet. And they live in a sunny climate. I wonder what really contributes to longer lives?

Wasted Dates – Seville, Spain
In Southern Spain, the “Mediterranean diet” includes, if the restaurants are any indication, lots of meat, fish, and eggs. Vegetables are a tablespoon of carrots in an oxtail stew or a slice of tomato on a piece of bread. We have been told most of them eat very little breakfast. Does this sound like the diet proscribed by American dieticians? And yet the people are usually trim and energetic. Makes me wonder.

Hams in shop window –Seville, Spain


Number One: Crepes with Sausage Paste and Candied Orange

Also: Toast with jam, ham, and blue cheese


If tomatoes and arugula in Italy can give you wet dreams, why can’t we get a decent tasting tomato or lettuce in the U.S.?

Italian Restaurant in Heraklion, Greece

AND, Why is the house wine almost always drinkable in France, Italy, and Spain, whereas we wouldn’t think of ordering house wine in most American restaurants?