Puffin pens and flamenco aprons: my souvenirs

beautiful but leaky vase from Tlaquepaque

What’s in a souvenir? Nothing as sweet as a rose, but  it is a reminder of a person, place or event important to the collector. Souvenir is the title of an entertaining, hundred-page book by Rolf Potts.

I admit it. I can’t travel without purchasing at least a small souvenir, something reminiscent of the country I’m visiting. I had never thought of souvenir collecting as worthy of its own written history but Potts’ book changed my mind.

Potts begins his story by describing a gift shop in Paris where tourists can take home all things Eiffel: “Eiffel Tower t-shirts and Eiffel Tower snow-globes; Eiffel Tower whiskey flasks and Eiffel Tower oven mitts…” I’ll spare you the rest of the list of Eiffel towers that goes on for two long paragraphs.

Souvenir hunting is not a modern phenomenon. It started with the Crusades followed later by people making pilgrimages. It appeals to the famous as well as the faceless — the rest of us. While in Britain, U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, took “turns with a pocket knife and each carved chunks from an antique chair alleged to have belonged to Shakespeare.”

Over the centuries, not all souvenirs, such as contraband, were as innocent as Eiffel towers, and some — human scalps and ears — were downright horrific .


Sometimes the experience of acquiring the souvenir is as rewarding as the object. As when I bought scarves from the multilingual Alibaba in the Casbah of Tangier who offered a special price of five euros each or three for twenty. Or when my husband and I visited the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico hoping to see examples of  the black pottery for which it is famous. We drove around and around residential neighborhoods empty of shops and other businesses, eventually saw a small sign indicating “pottery for sale,” and parked.  Victory was ours. Minutes later, we walked into the kitchen of a private home just as the family gathered around the dinner table. Oops. Wrong door. The family was gracious in pointing out where we should have gone and now we have a small pot to remind us of our persistence and our red faces.

Souvenirs don’t always turn out as expected and those too can provide memories. I once bought a gorgeous vase in Tlaquepaque, Mexico, got it home safely despite the hours it spent in the nose of a small plane. and christened it with fresh-cut sunflowers. As the day passed the water seeped through the porous pottery and ruined the table my new vase sat on.  We still have both the table and the vase, the latter in better condition than the former.

puffin pen

Though I mostly collect quality mementos when I travel, I admit to taking occasional pride in the tacky. The puffin pen will always bring Iceland to mind. I haven’t yet worn the flamenco dancer apron from Seville. It’s going to take just the right occasion and menu.

Flamenco apron

If you’re a traveler and collect souvenirs as I do from the places you visit, the book, Souvenir, does a great job of giving a larger historical context and will make you consider taking a photo of the Eiffel Tower as your souvenir in place of the Eiffel Tower ashtray or poker chips.

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My odd little 2019 calendar

No pretty thoughts here, only lists

In preparing my last blog post I got carried away doing research on the history of the modern calendar and ignored my original plan to describe the calendar I created for 2019. Today I’m returning to that topic. My calendar is not for hanging on the wall nor is it a date book. It’s but a small notebook with blank pages in which I write the date and make a bulleted list of how I spent my time. I don’t include how much time I spent on each activity, just list what I’ve done during the day. It’s not that different from my first grade school diary in which I noted the day’s highlights:  went to school; played with Darlene after school; had my piano lesson; Jimmy Butler smile at me today. I started that one with the goal of capturing my secret life. Having none then or now, I just want to get a picture of how I spend my time.

The inspiration for this investigation came from questioning why I never seem to have time to explore two projects that interest me. One is sketching. Years ago, when we spent a month each summer in Mexico I sketched and turned my drawings into greeting cards, primitive looking greeting cards, but ones I enjoyed and my friends did too.

The other is digging deeper into my family tree. I receive at least one message a day from MyHeritage.com notifying me of someone waiting to hear from me as to whether we share a great-great-great-great-great-great uncle on my father’s side of the family, one who was the third husband of an aunt preceded by the same number of greats and not a blood relative at all.  Given the arrival of these announcements, I calculate that a possible 400 relatives are waiting for my response. I don’t feel guilty about not answering.  I only want to know who my real relatives were. Without time to  research, I can only create fantasies about my Viking ancestors, residents of Normandy, France, who fought alongside William the Conqueror.  I do have speculative documents that suggest the latter but no proof they are accurate, and I made up the part about the Vikings on the basis of my Swedish great-grandmother named Mary.

Ten days into the year I’ve already learned something important: though I’ve slowed down some I’m not a big time waster, but I eat a lot. My daily writing, exercising, reading and less frequent volunteering take sizable amounts of time,  I’m also — with my husband — doing chores, cooking meals, shopping every few days for groceries, paying bills, answering emails, trying to solve one annoying tech problem after another, and feeding the cat (if you saw him you’d know he eats a lot too).  I would have much more time to devote to the important stuff if I had 1) a butler 2) a cook 3) a volunteer to take over my volunteering 4) a teenage grandchild who understood technology 5) a personal shopper and 6) a nail technician who made house calls.

However, something tells me that if I had all these attendants I still wouldn’t be drawing or digging into family history. I’d be trying to escape from all the extra people running about the house making me wish I were alone.  And where would they sleep? The only one worth wishing for is the teenage grandchild.

Although I now have a picture of my days, I’m still going to keep track of what I do.  My calendar has a limited number of pages so I don’t have to bother with it for long. Over the course of a month or so, I may find some holes in the schedule. And perhaps someday I’ll give up one of my current projects and go back to one waiting for me to return.



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What day is today?

Happy New Year (on whatever date you celebrate). Here’s hoping your celebration was — or will be — filled with joy, peace and gratitude for waking up to another year.

Pope responsible for the calendar most of countries use (Wikimedia Commons {PD-US}

When I began this post, the subject was the calendar I’m creating for 2019. I didn’t intend to write about calendars in general, but as a result of several fascinating pieces I read about the origins of our current calendar, I changed my plan.

In the U. S. and most other countries, we’ve adopted the calendar that runs from January through December with alternating 30 and 31 days except in February, but in early Roman civilization — from which ours came — calendars had too many or two few dates.

Early Romans used a 355-day calendar. Astronomers working for Julius Cesar modified this in 46 AD and it was used — though not without confusion — for more than 1500 years.

But by the 1570’s the Roman ]– or Julian — needed replacing, because “it was a messy hodgepodge, with extra days tacked on in February every now and again…” Apparently politics also added chaos to the calendar. “Since the pontifices were often politicians, and because a Roman magistrate’s term of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power.”

The ancients knew that the year was slightly longer than 365 days. By the 1570’s the problem caused by the average year adding up to 365+ days created a calendar that didn’t match the seasons. Pope Gregory commissioned a group to set up a replacement calendar, which involved moving the first day of the year from March 25 to January 1 to better fit the seasons. As someone said, at the rate the days were changing, in time they’d  be reaping before they sowed.

In 1582, the Pope also had to remove 10 days from the calendar — a one-time effort — to make up for all those partial days that added up to one full day every four years. He snatched the days from October.

Not all countries responded to the new calendar with enthusiasm. Catholic countries adopted it the same year it was born. The Protestant countries didn’t want a Catholic pope forcing them to change their calendars. And for various reasons related to their own religious calendars, five countries waited until the twentieth century to adopt it.

This means that most of the world celebrates New Years on January 1, but not all.  In 2019 the Chinese New Year will take place on February 5, in Iran on March 21 and in several southern Indian states on April 6.

In the contemporary world, our calendars come in different forms in paper and digital. They are less useful however to retirees. Without a work schedule we still have to ask, “Is this Monday?”





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Preparing for Christmas– a full-time job

It’s been a month since I last blogged, though not since I last wrote.  My November goal was to complete my first draft of my second novel. (When I say this to friends they always ask what happened to the first novel.  My answer: It reads like a first novel and it’s living in the cloud — or floating in the clouds — where no one else can see it.)

As soon as I met my writing goal, I began to consider Christmas preparations, which had not been on my things-to-do list for several years. Instead, my husband and I had chosen to escape the chaos of shopping malls, and the temptations of parties serving so much rich food that eventually drove us to the shopping malls to buy larger-sized clothing.

What could be more relaxing, we asked, than a December drive through blinding snow and ice storms, while facing the threat of closed mountain passes to reach quiet, snow-carpeted central Washington and X-country ski for a week?

After several years of spending a lot of money so that in addition to the terrifying drive we could awaken to seven degree mornings and ski in 19 degree temperatures, this year we decided to cocoon in our house and get our exercise at the local Y. We have little family left and none close by, so face no pressure to buy gifts for people we don’t know or fears of dinners where conversations begin with, “That President sure is doing a great job.”

However, now that we’ve gotten back into the holiday mode without family, we’ve rediscovered how much work is involved. Finding a tree with a small enough trunk that didn’t require a forklift to move it and thus avoid buying a Christmas tree stand large enough to hold an elephant’s leg was an early challenge.

Then came the letter and card crisis.  Normally we write a letter, but I couldn’t think of anything to say this year and wrote one anyway. Then I decided to make a few cards for friends who had sent them to us.  Hours and many mistakes later, the thrill of sending handmade cards was waning, especially since they looked just like cards one might get from a young grandchild, perhaps a toddler. Yesterday, we bought cards, a little late in the season, but very presentable. But now we have run out of stamps.  Maybe if we get to the post office before it opens, and before people are lugging in boxes the size of a refrigerator and the postal worker tells them they have wrapped them improperly.

This year, another challenge involved baking.  A pie for this Christmas party, different cakes for others and now one on order for New Year’s. We never had to bake on our ski trips.

The gifts were the one easy part. We bought electronics for ourselves and books for everyone else.

Perhaps next year we should go somewhere warm, some place where they’ve never heard of Christmas, though a friend is blogging from the Middle East and posting photos of Christmas trees from Abu Dhabi.

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Spanish and the new me

Since returning from Europe I haven’t blogged. First came jet lag, then the cold and cough, and then all the other activities that make up an ordinary life, but don’t always inspire me to write. Three weeks passed, and friends tired of asking me what was my favorite part of the vacation, probably because my answers were as exciting as a summary of a trip to the dentist.  Ultimately, I pieced together different experiences and realized what made our two weeks in Seville special for me, namely, making connections with Spaniards. This means I have a couple more Spain blogs in me.

There’s something wonderful about knowing a language that’s not your own, even if you don’t know it perfectly. When you speak the other language you become someone else. What a shock to meet the new me shortly after take-off on the plane from Amsterdam to Seville.

I am only outgoing with people I know.  I rarely talk to strangers on an airplane. (An exception occurred when I sat by a white-bearded man on a plane to Honolulu, who was a professional Santa Claus. He even had a business card to prove it.)  On the flight to Spain I sat next to two men comparing the length of their thumbnails, which was all it took to get the conversation flowing between them. (My poor husband was stuck alone in the back row because we didn’t ask for seat assignments quickly enough.)

Right way I knew the secret club the men belonged to. But that doesn’t explain why I didn’t open my book and ignore them as I would normally. Instead, I leaned over and said, “Do you both play flamenco?”

They smiled and said yes. One man was Spanish and the other Dutch. The latter spoke fluent Spanish, and the former spoke little English, so there was only one language available to all of us. I’d picked up enough information about guitars, players, and flamenco from forty-six years of marriage to a guitar maker that I could speak comfortably about the subject. The Spaniard played flamenco and classical guitar and sometimes traveled to the U.S. to play at events for his sponsor, Bose. He even gave me his latest CD. The Dutch musician was going to Seville to play at a memorial. I asked him how much time he devoted to flamenco, expecting him to say he had a day job to support his habit, since Amsterdam isn’t a flamenco hub. Instead, he said that flamenco was his life. Imagine getting something that personal out of someone on an airplane. The old me could never have done it.

When I boarded the plane I assessed my Spanish skills as adequate. As we landed I knew I was better prepared than I realized. Both of my seat mates were kind, friendly and willing to engage in a long conversation with someone at least one generation older, if not two. This made for a good introduction to Spain. If they were representative of the rest of the country, we would be fine. And we were.

I just checked out a book on flamenco at my library. The old me is back, but the interests that came from my weeks as the new me are here to stay.


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Picture perfect

One day remaining in our two week experiment of living in a Spanish city on our own and I hadn’t found the perfect setting for my annual travel photo.  Yes, I must be in the photo, ideally with my hair combed, but more importantly the picture must tell a story about where I am. Last year’s, from our trip to Scandinavia, featured me and a troll, a perfect couple and symbol for that part of the world.

I was stuck on how to represent Seville. I didn’t want to pose under a taxidermied bull’s head in a bar, or be dwarfed by a bell tower as tall as a football field is long, or ask a male flamenco dancer with no hips and weighing what I did in high school to pose beside me.

What else could I find that typified this beautiful Andalusian city? The answer came to me last night. Every street in our neighborhood has at least one small shop dedicated exclusively to flamenco-style dresses, none of which appealed to my middle-class or life-as-a-retiree clothing tastes. But the dresses were ubiquitous, which made them the perfect symbol for Seville. The next question was how to put myself in a picture with them.

“I’ll pose in front of a rack of dresses,” I told my husband, feeling uncomfortable as I walked into one of the hole-in-the wall stores knowing I had no intention of buying a dress, or even looking at one. I hid from the shopkeeper behind a pillar, he took the photo, and we fled.

“That doesn’t work,”  I said as I viewed the shot from a safe position in the alley. ‘It’s just me in a dress shop.”

In store 2 we found a single dress for me to stand next to. “No good, It looks as if I am asking how it would look on me.”

As I looked into the next store, with the shopkeeper sitting at a desk facing the door, I realized that lurking was not getting me anywhere. I walked toward her, glancing at the racks of dresses on both sides of me.

She must have sensed my amazement at the size of her stock because she said, “Una semana, We wear these for only one week a year.” She went on to explain that the occasion is the annual Feria, the Seville Spring Fair, an event that occurs every April. She said that everyone — rich and poor, old and young — dresses up. Maybe not too poor, I thought, as she showed me price tags on the least expensive and most expensive dresses, 250 and 500 Euros, respectively. She works alone now but keeps the store open for Christmas shoppers looking for next year’s dress. Starting in February, the shopping season begins and she hires eight others to help out. I don’t know how the eight could fit in the shop. Where would they put the customers?

I asked if she’d mind our taking a picture of me in front of her dresses.  “Wait,’ she said as she came out from behind her desk and walked over to one of the racks.  “Here. Put your arms through it.”  She moved my hands to my waist and signaled to my husband that I was ready for the photo.

All of a sudden, the dresses didn’t look so ridiculous. “It’s really heavy,” I said, still wearing a t-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and my multi-colored polka dot compression socks.
“Yes,” she added, “and harder to walk in when you’re wearing high heels.”

I was thrilled to have my photo, but it now seemed less important than having made a connection over an important element of Sevillana culture. “I hope to see you again,” she said. Today’s our last day here, but if there’s time I’ll drop by again and ask what they do during those seven days while wearing their heavy dresses in eighty-degree temperatures.

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I should have stuck with Spanish


It’s not a surprise that I don’t remember much of what my high school teachers tried to teach me. Perhaps that’s just as well, given what I do remember: the never-ending reminder coming from an unsmiling English teacher, a character straight out of the nineteenth century, always to use “forbad” instead of “forbade,” though I’m not sure any of us ever needed to use either form; an assignment to team up  with a friend in my twelfth-grade health class to research and report on syphilis and gonorrhea; and a U.S. history class taught by the Vice-Principal whose job duties including paddling misbehaving boys, whom he then assigned to his history class so he could keep an eye on them. (I always wondered why I ended up in his class.)

What is surprising is how much I remember of one subject: eleventh-grade Spanish. Yesterday, as we wandered through the former Jewish Quarter of Córdoba, Spain, we touched the sculptured bronze feet of the scholar Maimonides polished by the hands of so many pilgrims told they would gain wisdom (still waiting), and saw a statue of Lucio Anneo Seneca, aka Lucius Seneca the Younger, both of whom appeared in early chapters of my Spanish textbook. Later, I saw a road sign to Ávila and thought of Santa Teresa de Ávila, which then triggered the memory of San Juan de La Cruz, two more characters in the book. Along with these historical figures, artists Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco also appeared in our reading. And their names are still with me.

Lucius Seneca

Why do these figures from fifty-plus years ago still come to mind?  It had to be the teacher. I can’t recall his name, but I can remember his enthusiasm for his subject. Every day he demonstrated his love for Spanish. Now I wish I had let his excitement push me toward more study, but at the end of the school year I decided I’d had enough Spanish.  In college, I didn’t have to take any more language, because I had completed the obligatory two years in high school. How many of us took the route of choosing to stop language study, just when it could have made an indelible difference? Nearly everyone I know. We told ourselves we weren’t going to use a second language, so why bother.

Since retirement, my husband and I have been traveling to Europe regularly, where we have met so many talented Dutch, French, Scandinavians, Belgians and others who spoke three or more languages.  Yesterday’s guide, Enrique, led a tour through Córdoba while telling the history of Andalusia in Spanish, Italian and English…for a group of six. Of course tour guides represent a high bar that the average person might not reach. Still, I think about what it would have meant for the size of my world today, if I  hadn’t waited so many years to absorb my teacher’s enthusiasm.

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Tracking down the elusive medical test in Spain

Hooray! Today, after a 6.94 euro cab ride, my husband and I landed at a medical laboratory in Seville, Spain where I had a blood test. And the results were in the acceptable range.I needed this for my doctors back home to properly treat the blot clot I developed in August.

A few days after we arrived in Spain, I walked into a pharmacy and asked where I might take a blood test and get the results analyzed quickly.  “The only place is a hospital emergency room; otherwise, laboratories will take one to two weeks to do an analysis,” said one pharmacist.  Great.  Nothing I like more when on vacation than sitting for hours in an emergency room. Then, the first pharmacist checked with a second one who said he had heard of a pharmacy that offered blood tests with fast analyses. He looked up a name and number and wrote them on a post-it note.

Two days later, I called the number hoping for an English speaker on the other end of the line, but with no luck.  It’s not easy to talk about blood clots and anticoagulants in English, much less Spanish, but somehow my explanation was successful enough that the woman I spoke to could assure me her pharmacy didn’t do tests. Then, as an afterthought, she gave me another phone number, and that phone call led to a private lab – Rider Laboratory — that would perform the test.

At the lab, the receptionist and Dr. Rider were reluctant to show off their English skills, leaving me to bumble my way through the initial explanations.  My husband and I were an anomaly, a curiosity. I don’t think they see many vacationers there. But they drew my blood, and afterward Dr. Rider and I had a long conversation. He was curious about what state in the U.S. I was from. I spoke with some fluency, missing proper verb tenses, but able to blab away.  He spoke slowly, thinking before every word that came out and making no mistakes. Regardless of our different styles we understood each other completely.

As we left, Dr. Rider came into the reception area to look over the email address I had given them (last name Oxrieder). He pointed to his name on the wall.  “Like mine.  Are you German?”

My husband said yes and explained that we had heard that his family name was once Ochsenrider. Then I said that I too had an ancestor by the name of Rider who was from England. Dr. Rider ended by saying, “Maybe we are family,” and we all laughed.

I started this blog by saying how much we paid for taxi fare.  I mentioned that because of what we paid for my blood test: 6 euros, slightly less than the fare for a 20-minute cab ride. Later we noted that we had spent more time socializing with the doctor and his receptionist than we ever spent with our own doctors.


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Lost in the labyrinth of Seville

The Mushroom

If it weren’t for the mushroom (see photo), our word for what is known as the Metropol Parasol, we would be lost. It is our guidepost. We are staying in an apartment in an old part of Seville, Spain — not just a few years old but centuries old — in a warren of narrow streets accessible only on foot. Yesterday, while looking for the square where the off-site apartment manger to leave our trash — Plaza de Alfalfa — we discovered a shortcut to the mushroom, which was good to know but also in the opposite direction of the trash bins.

Five days ago, we arrived in Seville after dark.  The taxi driver let us off at the entrance to this street, called Calle Siete Revueltas.  “A la izquierda” he said.
“What do we do after we turn left?” I asked my husband, who shrugged.

I first learned the adjective “revuelto” in Mexico in the context of “huevos revueltos,” scrambled eggs.  In this case the street name means “seven turns,” but scrambled describes it just as well.

One nice thing about this neighborhood without cars is that it’s dead silent. Back home, we live near a freeway and we’re used to car traffic and planes flying overhead. I woke up the first night here and wondered what was wrong.

Within the streets of this maze and everywhere else we go, strangers are not safe…from us. Asking for directions of people just stepping out their front doors, resolutely crossing a plaza, or sitting quietly on a bench in a public square occupies much of our days. Today, on our own, we discovered several new shortcuts, successes which always give us moments of rejoicing.

many carriages and horses for                         tourists to  choose from

Our Spanish is improving quickly.  It has to, because few people seem excited to test their English out on us. I’m thankful that Spanish words buried deeply in some storage bin in my brain are popping out. Usually these words make sense to the hearer. However, today, a man I was talking to kept backing away. He was trying to sell me a ride through the city in his horse-drawn carriage. I told him I’d taken this ride  years ago, and it had rained (llover) during the entire ride, just poured down on us. A few hours later I realized that the word I used wasn’t quite what I intended to say. I was talking about water falling, but didn’t mean to say I was crying (llorar) during the carriage ride.

I really need to get my Spanish straight tomorrow when I have to call a pharmacist to explain that I have a blood clot and need a blood test with an immediate analysis of results.  If this doesn’t work, it’s off to a hospital emergency room to ask for the same procedure, another potential scramble in this labyrinthine world. So far everyone I’ve asked for help has come through, except for two teenage girls who didn’t know where they were and even they tried.

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How not to pack


What to wear? What to wear? I’ve been packing a suitcase for nearly a week, which makes me well qualified to speak on the topic of how not to pack for travel. Today marks my fourth round of taking everything out of one suitcase, hanging one or two items of clothing back in the closest, removing one or two new things from said closet and repacking. I should mention that while I’m still repeating this shuffle, it’s not with the same suitcase I started with.

Ah, I loved that first suitcase I packed, compact, easy to wheel around, seemingly roomy enough for everything, and best of all, purple. After four days tucking, squeezing, and flattening my clothing with my hands, followed by jumping up and down to close that purple beauty, I transferred everything to suitcase two.

Why is it so hard to decide what to put in a suitcase?  Our more recent trips have taken place in cool climates among cultures that value the outdoors life. These lend themselves to easy packing decisions: one pair of clean jeans per week, a few sweaters, a coat and an umbrella.

Our upcoming destinations start hot and dry and end cold and wet, which makes planning more difficult. But I can’t blame my indecision entirely on the change in climates. I hold up this blouse to these pants, these pants to those shoes and this tank top to that pair of shorts and ask myself, will I be pegged immediately as coming from the U.S.?  The answer is almost always yes. I remind myself that these days clothing may not distinguish one traveler from another throughout much of the world. Who doesn’t wear jeans?

Maybe what’s more worthy of examining than whether my fashion sense matches anyone else’s is what our other suitcase contents say about us, either when we’re leaving home or returning. For example, I’m taking a Spanish language book to Spain, where you’d think I might happen upon something to read in that language. Last year, my husband and I bought brown Norwegian goat cheese (gjetost) to bring home, only to find it in our local grocery store. What I should remember when I’m packing is that the world is smaller than we realize, and I am bound to blend in with at least a few of the 11 million tourists who visit Andalusia each year or the 17 million who go to Amsterdam. And, hey, if I’m too cold in Amsterdam, I’ll take a wild guess that they sell sweaters there.

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