January 31, 2010

Singing Sardinian Dishwashers

In May of 2009, I accompanied my dear friend Lisa Bartolomei to Sardinia on a scouting trip for Anthony Bordain's 'No Reservations'. Even though Lisa is Florentine, her mothers side of the family comes from Nuoro, a small town in the 'introterra'of Sardinia. We visited her Aunt Luciana who is a true herbalist that harvests wild plants and grows some of her own to make medicines to sell in her 'Erbosteria'. Needless to say, the hospitality was stellar and we ate extremely well. (more on that later)..

In between meals, we raced from venue to venue to 'fix' locations and meet the people to let them know how the production would unfold. Slowly and surely, I fell into a trance as the countryside flew by me.

Tooling around the green hills dotted with sheep was not unexpected. Neither was savoring world class ricotta from 'Pecorino sardo'on pan caracao.

What I didn't expect, was to see such uninhibited passion in the everyday. It shouldn't have surprised me. Italians are passionate about most everything. Take that passion and push it out into the middle of the Mediterranean and you will find an even more independent folk;'I Sardi', used to doing things their own way- even the dishes. And they'll be darned if someone tries to stop them.

A passion for life? Put it to work.

The ladies of Santuario San Francesco di Lula, do just that.

I must be the only visitor to Sardinia who barely saw the sea..but apparently didn't need to.

January 26, 2010

How long does it take for a man to wrap his turban?

I had a lovely time wandering around Jaipur with Shalobh, a most articulate guide, to see the largest sun dail in the world 'Samrat Yantra' made of marble and stone, built in 1727. It's gnoman stands 24 meters high, which measures apparent solar time.

It even measures time at night, provided one has some knowledge about the movement of the stars, specifically that a star makes a complete revolution of the earth in 23 hrs, 56 minutes and 4.09 seconds which is the length of the sidereal day.

Afterwards, we walked through the flower market to the City Palace. There we met the most charming man, whom showed us how he wraps his turban. Shalobh said, 'It's not as easy as it looks'.

A man must know something about the time it takes for him to make a complete revolution around his head. It took him exactly 40 seconds in sidereal time.

January 20, 2010

Tuscany in the Spring- May 23-29 2010

Tuscany in the spring. It's green, lush, and bursting with flavor!
We'll walk the hills and steep ourselves in fresh peas, artichokes and fava beans, fresh spinach pasta and delicious ricotta. We'll use spring herbs in our salads and soups, and find out about 'agretti' and 'cicoria'and greens of another nature.

We invite you to join us in the poetry of food. Inspired by the tastes of the Renaissance.

January 13, 2010

Basil Ice Cream? Cafe Sicilia. Noto, Sicily

Probably the most delicious gelato in Sicily comes from Cafe Sicilia.

Wanna taste? Come with me in the springtime..May 9-17 2010.

The wildflowers will blow your mind..and the gelato will blow your tastebuds.

January 11, 2010

Hammam a leuyah

Sorrow pushes you down to the bone. It seeps into the marrow to scoop up the sweet. It leaves you lying there like a corpse with the world spinning it’s luscious web all around you, and you cannot move.

In this womb-like place, it’s dark and quiet. You are reminded that it's hard to face the everyday all tied up and keep functioning with joy. This is not depression, it is a sense of being lost.
And Thinking too much.

high arched doorways, ancient and crumbling

old women sit cross-legged on folded blankets
wrapped in patchwork

wrinkled skin with a hand at the end
covers the heart

women strip

With big eyes, They enter the domed room painted with stars. They indeed strip and give their belongings to a small bossy woman, who gives them plastic slippers in exchange.

Toweled, They follow her into a steamy room with low light and marble floors. Buckets of water are side by side a handful of women of various shapes. Towels are placed on a hook, They are motioned to sit down on mats with other bodies they do not know. The mats and the floor are warm and wet. Cross-legged like monkeys, They are lined up like See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil and Think no Evil.

See No Evil is taken first..down on a brown lap, head on a thigh, before she can say jack rabbit and ‘I aint doin that’.

A skinny brown woman with empty breast and kind eyes takes a small bowl and dips it into the nearby bucket of warm water. She pours it over and over on See No Evil’s body. See no Evil has never been in a dark steamy room in a foreign county on the lap of someone she has never seen, naked. Not even when she was born.

The old woman rubs a handful of black olive oil soap all over her. More water follows, then she starts to scrub. Hand in a textured mit, she rubs vigorously, as dead skin rolls into black strings. She motions for See to flip over. Her dark arms are strong, but her face is soft. See relaxes into it, mind and body won over purely by the old woman's nurturing gestures. More water was followed by shampoo, which was followed by a few more bucket loads of water. For a moment she was five and remembered when her mother used to spider her fingers through her thick hair. See opened her eyes carefully. She has just shed a skin.

Brown mother with breasts like sacks, motions for See to move to another mat. See looks mesmerized. She walks without question to the next mat where she is met by a cross-eyed woman in red panties, who motions for her to lay down again. Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil are still sitting cross-legged with curiosity. They look at each other as if to say, ‘What will happen next?’

The cross-eyed woman starts to massage. A hundred years, she has practiced her technique. She moves and flips and caresses the muscles with precision.

See lay wondering if she had just landed on earth. For the last 6 years, she had resided on the moon. Out there. A snake with false teeth had just smiled and greeted her in her dreams. Her head finally felt attached to her body. She was happy to be back, but still a little jet-lagged.

Hear No Evil was next. She had said to herself, ‘I’m not sitting on that floor’ and then she was. Her scrubber was a bit intense, more like a laundress, breast looking more like atomic bombs and enough rolls around the middle to get lost in. Years of Hear’s skin came off just the same. Who ever scrubs the mother? Hear was the mother to everyone. She surrendered immediately and was tossed around like she was three. She forgot about the floor. She forgot her name. She forgot everything. Her strong legs were like willows bending in the wind. Her feet moved back and forth like windshield wipers. Comforted, her mind went to apples, baked apples in cinnamon and honey. She could no longer support her hesitations. They were lost, like moss hanging from a tree.

At that point, See wandered out of the room like a zombie and went where she was told and waited. Hear went to the cross-eyed red pantie’d masseus. She melted into the floor with gratitude. Her attitude lost altitude. It had fallen out of the sky and broken into small beads of sweat and the nearest powder room was somewhere over the strait of Gibraltar. Meanwhile, Hear took a deep rest.

Speak was speechless. Far away from harmony and beauty as she knew it, she feared only for the sorrow of her family if they could see her now. What could be lurking invisibly on the warm wet floor, that might choose her for transportation? But, it was too late. She was motioned down on the mat. Hopefully if she was chosen, it would not be too expensive to cure. Her insurance was limited. A sophisticated girl, legs folded to the side like Sophia Loren, water poured over her like a Raphael painting; lipstick still intact. It wasn’t long before Speak, eyes closed, was smiling through the falling water down her face, caution to the wind, happy, not sad, to be in unknown territory. It was new. A boundary crossed. After all, this was what she wanted. What she realized is that what she may lack in insurance would be made up by her assurance. This she had in spades. Maybe she would keep this to herself.

Think No Evil lay down with ease. It was not the first time for her. She willingly gave herself up to the scrub. She willed the release of 50 years of grief. She was not worried about the floor. She was worried that she might have to live with herself with spooned out marrow. She wanted to surrender, become reborn, find out what was left of sun-bleached bone and sinew.

The moist dim room felt like honey, dark manna, spread thick and antiseptic. It was healing something, perhaps a deep wound, a heart punctured with poison arrows. Deep tangible sadness, that didn’t even feel like it was all hers, rose like cream to the top and the pores opened up and the skin sloughed and sloughed. She was raw and felt very vulnerable.

She sat up, took a few deep breaths, opened her eyes and floated over to the red pantie’d wonder, who put the muscles back on her bones and got the blood flowing again.

The next thing she knew, she was lying flat again in another deliciously steamy room, spread eagle on dry warm marble.

Her other monkey friends were there too. All They could do was nod and smile. A week in the woods solo, would not have done more for their souls.

Refreshed and renewed, They threw their towels over their shoulders and walked out of the hammam like They owned it.

They left sorrow, fear and hesitation on the floor. And threw a bucket of water on top to wash their sins away.. before someone else sat down.

A story about Western women in an ancient community hammam. Some hammams are chic, some are anticeptic. Some are raw and real.

January 10, 2010

Escape Adventurism is Intimate

The Dades valley spreads out supernaturally from the Tizi ‘n Tichka pass of the High Atlas. Majestic mountains pour out onto a dry desert that pools into a riverbed oasis of a thousand Kasbahs.

A long days journey begins with exhaustion and a chance for me to take a look at the sub-Saharan uplands of southeastern Morocco.

I initially set two friends up with a driver and some suggestions for acommodation in a swank desert hotel. Jenny lay, a journalist here on assignment, could easily get in for a song, I thought, and sure enough, they offered her a smashing deal. With little persuasion, she asked me if I would like to join them. I thought, why not? I had wanted to visit this hotel, but it felt to be just a little too far. But today I was content to rest in the back of the car, not being in charge of anything. I left Jenny to grill the driver. She was full of questions, as she should be, and I found myself empty handed of answers most of the time. I’m no expert on Morocco I quickly found out and memory challenged as I am, I often couldn’t remember what I do know. Now someone else could carry the ball and if not, say ‘I don’t know’. I was tired of saying it.

The Tizi ‘n Tichka pass was friendlier than the Tizi n’ Test ( from Imlil to Tarandant that I taken just a few months earlier for my birthday). It was greener, shorter and the roads were seemingly in better shape. It reminded me of Colorado and from photos, quite similar to Tibet. The people live close to the road. I love seeing the mountain people in action herding their sheep, cooking their tagines on the roadside,meandering around in the middle of nowhere looking like mystics in the mist. They seem indifferent to the dark and the elements.

Before reaching Ouarzazate we took a side road into the desert to visit Ait Ben Haddou, a village of Kasbahs, built in the 12th century. It’s the most photographed place in all of Morocco. Protected by Unesco, what looked like a city of sand castles was being carefully restored by local craftsmen. A visit was a must. We drove closer and awed at her beauty from afar. Our driver, Fatah, said, ‘ too bad it’s raining, we could have taken a walk’. Jenny, Carol (her mom) and I said, ‘we don’t mind’. We were adventurous. We were also hungry and tired after being in the car for several hours, but a walk in a 12th century earthen village sounded too refreshing to pass up.

I changed my clothes. I was all in white, pearls and linen, in preparation for our night in one of Morocco’s only three Relais Chateau Hotel’s, called Dar Ilham. I had been salivating all day. I was so excited to go that I postponed my flight for two days back to Italy. It wasn’t just to see an area that I had not seen before. It was a purely hedonistic decision. I wanted to rest ‘in style’. A walk in Ait Ben Haddou in the rain was not my first choice. but I was willing and I knew it would do me good. I shimmied into a pair of jeans, grabbed a jacket and a scarf and stuck on some flip-flops. Since it was raining, it seemed the appropriate choice. Suede was out.

We walked 50 ft and encountered a riverbed with a strong muddy current. Some local boys were vying for an extra dirham to give passage on a donkey. I assumed it was normal considering the infrequency of rain. Jenny and Carol went with a valiant head-dressed horseman, who hoisted them up by turn with ease beside him on his steed. I meanwhile was hoisted up on a small reluctant donkey and taken across 10 feet of wildly rushing desert colored water with some difficulty and hesitation.

Once deposited on the other side, we walked over stones in the dry part of the riverbed to the edge of the village. Fatah knew it well. We were having trouble walking. Dry desert dust and water make mud. Every two feet we would have to stop and clean our shoes, or else lose them. It was tediously funny. Finally we hit stone paths and entered the ancient Kasbah.

Climbing up the pathways, we could see where the old buildings had been restored and where they were still in ruins. Families had begun to move back in, bringing life to what seemed like a movie set. Which in fact it was at times, for films such as, ‘The Sheltering Sky’, a Bertolucci film adapted from the book written by Paul Bowles.

Fatah met a woman he recognized on the road that cautioned him about something we couldn’t understand. He said, ‘waqqah’ and moved on. I asked him what she said. ‘She said, the river was rising and it would be difficult to cross’. At that point I forgot all about the ancient city and all I wanted to do was find a way to get back so that we wouldn’t miss our precious evening at Dar Ilham. I started weaving through the pathways to find the front entrance to the old Kasbah. I met another western woman who said, ‘ the river is too high to cross. We can wait an hour or we can hike 5 k to a bridge.’ I knew how far 5 k would be; perhaps two hours by foot. In the mud it would be
futile. Fatah was close behind and when he heard the news, he spoke to a few locals who suggested donkeys. I am a great fan of burros. Burroughs was my family name. I was quick to mount. I felt it was the best and quickest solution. It would cut the time in half. While we waited for a third donkey, it began raining harder. The Berber men who provided the donkeys for us suggested that we wait for the rain to subside and invited us into their family home for tea and couscous. We were grateful to be dry and eating crumbly couscous with a spoon instead of our hands.

It stopped raining only long enough for us to eat in dry shelter. As soon as we were back on the donkeys, it started raining again. At this point we were ready and restored, rain or no rain. We were off on an adventure over the red mesa, with our arms around the kindness of strangers.

The entire landscape was full of rocks and boulders and fissures that we had to navigate through. Carol was barefoot and drenched. Jenny was still full of curiosity. ‘It seems we are headed away from the river. If we are looking for a bridge, shouldn’t we be going in the direction of the river? I was the most covered, in a woolen scarf and the happy holder of Carol’s umbrella. She didn’t want it. I preferred it to shield the wind. I must have looked a site on the back of the donkey in the middle of nowhere looking a bit Poppins like. I said to Jenny, ‘don’t worry, these Berbers know what they’re doing. I trust them totally.’ Then we smiled at each other in total disbelief that we found ourselves in such a predicament. An hour before we were cozy, dry tourists admiring the sites from our vehicle. Next thing we knew, we were refugees escaping a flood, totally exposed to the elements,at the mercy of the locals, still unsure of our fate. We were bonded for life.

As a woman, I appreciate a valiant man- especially one with no pretense.I have gotten to know the Berbers over the last 5 years and I find them extremely gentile. They are kind, generous, big-hearted people, genuine to the bone. We gave them a mission and they were on it. I was behind Aziz; a strong jawed man with a talent for donkey driving. His series of clicks and commands had us jumping over creek beds, picking our way carefully down rock wall fissures and at times galloping. ‘Rro, rro’, the most common command, makes your donkey go forward. The shrills and trills that came after that were ingenious and the donkey never failed us. Aziz would place his hand respect- fully on my knees to protect them as we brushed against rock in tight places. I held on tight with my arms around his waist, moped style. He took a turn with the umbrella to give my arm a rest. He also kept checking to make sure I was ok. Speaking very little English, he would ask, ‘it’s nice?’ What he really meant was, are you ok? I would say, ‘yes, it’s nice’ just to please him. Cold, raining, in the middle of nowhere, not knowing if we would make it to our destination by nightfall, I would say, yes. It’s nice. Ones experience is always relative. I was on my edge and it was challenging. I could have complained or whined. But I didn’t. I was grateful to be cared for.

We came to the edge of the mesa. Jenny saw the river and the bridge and was relieved. Carol was drenched, but still smiling. I said, ‘are you alright?’ she said, ‘just dandy’. At 63, she was more open and free than either of us. ‘That was a piece of cake,' she later told us. She had been through hell for the last 9 years with her son, a heroin addict. Both survived. ‘He has been clean a year, he’s in a steady relation- ship and I have a gorgeous grandchild. This was definitely cake.’

We clip clopped across the bridge then realized what goes out 5 kilometers, must come back 5 kilometers. It was easier terrain and went much quicker. We passed through a village where all the people came out of their houses to see the spectacle. Who were these wet women on the backs of these donkeys and why?

We made it to the car just before dark. We said goodbye to our dear friends and gave them an offering of thanks. I hated to leave so abruptly. I would have preferred to sit somewhere warm and drink something warming to the bones. Yet, it was time to go. I realized it was their kindness that warmed me the most. The site of Hamadi especially, looking as handsome as Omar Sharif. He ran behind our caravan in gum boots over rocky terrain the entire 10 k just to make sure we made it safely. I felt a reluctant good- bye. Escape adventurism is intimate.

I took the essence of Aziz to my dreams that night. But it wasn’t in Dar Ilham. The river there had risen beyond passage as well.We stayed at Ait ben Moro, a Kasbah run by a Spaniard. I lamented terribly the missed opportunity for Relais Chateau. But even that became transparent.

We were able to cross over the next day by 4 x 4. It was a sight alright. Very under- stated. The chef prepared us a wonderful lunch and we ate by the fireside,outside on the patio. He must have sniffed journalist. He was quite GQ. I was impressed with the place, but not too regretful for not staying there.
Relais Chateau is a state of mind. If you don’t have it, then it’s no fun to stay
there. There’s nothing to complain about. I made a plan to come back for a three day tented safari in the desert.

I am usually the one taking people to their edge, only because it’s no longer mine. Sometimes I find one for myself and when I do, I am grateful. It increases my own ability to stretch.

We headed back over the mountains, but not before we stopped on the side of the road for a basket of dates. After all, we were in the Dades Valley.

January 7, 2010

A woman is running from tigers..

A woman is running from tigers. She runs and runs, and the tigers are getting closer and closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds on to it. Then she looks down and sees that there are tigers below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks at the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth and ENJOYS IT THOROUGHLY.

photograph: Paulette Tovormina www.tavorminaphotography.com

January 6, 2010

'There is more to life than increasing it's speed'.

The world is moving fast. We try to engage so as to keep up. But what are we missing by doing so? Even sitting still, eyes closed, our minds race a million miles an hour. Eyes open, we take in a barrage of images that stir our minds and emotions. Must do's rule our lives.

What does 'more to life than rushing around' mean? Today I am sitting at my desk. I am watching it snow. Eyes open, sitting still, I can focus on the flakes falling. They evoke a cleansing stillness and quiet. I can hear my thoughts unraveling at a more manageable audio. I can feel the texture of the snow, even though I am not touching it. My emotions ride the waves of 'the genuine heart of sadness' on this winter day. The soft spot of deep feeling.

'The only way to relax with yourself is to open your heart. then you have a chance to see who you are. This experience is like opening a parachute. When you jump out of an airplane and open the chute, you are there in the sky by yourself. Sometimes it's very frightening, but on the other hand, when you take this step, the whole situation, the whole journey, makes sense.' You discover something in yourself that is 'basically good, wholesome and worthwhile.' Pema Chodron writes so much about facing ourselves. This IS what happens when we slow down.

'More to life' means that we can listen to what we need. Feel what we are feeling. Appreciate the preciousness of each day. What we think may be painful is actually quite delightful. Making space for it is a choice.

In the midst of a myriad of responsibilities, I am taking the time to watch it snow, fix a bowl of warming buckwheat noodles and vegetables, and write. Thank you Ghandi for the reminder.

Epiphany. January 6th. 2010