Saturday, October 18, 2008


Only for Geologists

Okay, Amber says I'm crazy. Perhaps. What can I say except that we are sitting on a patio and looking at some of the most beautiful geologic structures I have ever seen. So I'm a bit absorbed by them. Later, I hope to post pictures to show you what I mean. Trento is in the heart of the Dolomites, about which I know almost nothing. But I can recognize compressional faults and folds when I see them --- as grand as any that you'll ever look at. You won't see anything like it elsewhere, except perhaps in the Canadian Rockies. I showed them to some of the kids; a bit of a novelty. Only crazy geologists are likely to look twice.


Teresa -- Just looking around

Teresa and Margerita

Teresa and Margerita took their first breaths early in the afternoon. Like all of us, they screamed upon feeling the new air inside them, and realized that they were hungry. Especially Margerita who ate her fill and fell asleep at Anita’s side. Teresa fussed a bit more, not quite sure what she was supposed to do. But her eyes were wide open, looking at her four uncles, and Marcello. Perhaps she wondered what the excitement was about. All our incomprehensible jabber. At any rate there seemed too much going on for her to want to feed or sleep. Anita didn’t stop smiling, though she was too tired to say very much. The long awaited day was here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008



After we left Briancon, we drove further up the mountainside into the charming alpine village of Nevache. We were starving and in search of a restaurant recommendation we’d been told about, Chez Nicole where we feasted on Fondue Savoyarde and another dish I’d never heard about, if that’s possible, but mimicked a raclette (potatoes and cheese and lardons, of course). Some Vin du Maison and off we went, fortified, in search of the chalet where Paul spent a summer (43 years ago) with a Dr. Bichet and his wife and four boys. Forty five minutes later, driving through the most incredible scenery I’ve ever had the good fortune to see, Aspen and Larch trees turning color as far at the eye could see, we found the chalet. Sadly, the Doctor wasn’t there, but happily still alive, we drove up the mountain until the road ended at series of foot paths leading deeper into the rocks where Paul said he remembered the most beautiful lakes.

Camping in Nevache has been the most beautiful site on the trip thus far and while it was sad to leave such beauty, today we’ve made our way to Lago di Garda (25 km outside of Verona) where it’s so hot Paul has deserted me for a swim.

Our plan is to wake up early, drive through Verona and then on to Venice where we stay the next two nights and then on to Trento, Slovenia, and Croatia. We’re trying to break new ground, visiting places neither of us has seen except how can I not take the love of my life to Venice? C’est ne pas possible.

Our destination in Croatia is the Island of Pag – they say there is good camping there – we’ll see.

Monday, October 13, 2008


We never planned to come this way. Forty two years ago I spent summer in the high Alps close to this town, walked the streets, climbed hills along with some kids. For a month I was forced to speak only French -- even quarrel in French. The town is built as a medieval fortress it clings to the rock face, surrounded by a moat, narrow streets each with steps so that you can't drive there, never could drive a horse and cart up the hill. A large gutter with flowing water marks the center of the road. Shops are all closed today, Monday. The streets only have an occasional pedestrian.

Surrounding mountains haven't changed in 42 years, vertical cliffs and crags, clear running streams. Today they speak more of their history, folding, uplift, stuff that geologists understand. Trees everywhere are changing colours, accenting the landscape with an automnal palette, bringing out also the reds, and gold of the mountains.

We're heading for Nevache to sample Alpine Fondue, and other local specialties. Then to our camp by the river. Tomorrow, via Turin toward Venice.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Here I am, on the steps of the sanctuary of Rocamadour!!! 266 steps straight up


Montsegur Pictures

We're catching our breath here at Les Moureous. It's a peaceful place, with a steep drop off on one side, cliffs that reach for the skies. A little like Rivendell, or how I imagined it.
Is it the warm sun, the armosphere in the valley, or perhaps the spirits of the good people --- les bonhommes that altogether allows you to think clearly and creatively. The mornings we sit quietly and write. A new novel is kicking about in my head, and the words of the first chapters are appearing on paper. Already the stone alignments of Carnac have found their place, names and features of people called into existence.
Yesterday we walked across the meadow, and up a steep woodland path to Montsegur. I had a deep feeling that I was walking along a very ancient path. Nigel confirmed my insight, that the path could have been used a thousand years earlier. Closing my eyes I could see the black robed figures who climbed that way to the citadel, the small encampments. Campfires, meetings under the trees. It all ended in 1243 when the French and Basque armies stormed the peak. 200 Cathars who would not renounce their faith were burned together on a large fire. We're staying a few more days, then on to Italy and the Dalmatian coast.


Dear Friends,

Normally I’d send a personalized letter to each of you, but our facilities, such as they are, have been challenging; camping in frigid conditions and covering distances we never anticipated but yesterday afternoon we arrived in paradise outside the town of Lavelanet, near the ruined castle of Montsegur in the Pyrenees. In fact, from my kitchen window, it’s the view I see when I have my morning coffee. We’re staying with Nigel, a friend of Paul’s, who bought the property about fifteen years and never looked back. I can see why. The majesty of these mountains is so enchanting and the environs thankfully still unspoiled that we’ve decided not to go the Greece. (If we had another month we could do it, but…even I find that a bit too greedy).

So we’re going to stay here at Nigel’s for another few days (besides, there’s a party on Thursday night that I couldn’t bear to miss) and then head down the Cote D’Azur, dividing the rest of our time between Northern Italy, Croatia (we both want to see the Dalmatian Coast again, especially Korchula and Hvar) and a quick trip into Munich to see Natalia, Tomek and Elzbieta.

The highlights so far have been the climb to the top of Mont St. Michel and the climb to the top of Rocamadour where we saw the Chapel of the Black Madonna. Exquisite. We’ll be off on a hike today and a stop in Mirepoix; tomorrow the steep climb up Montsegur.

I’m hoping Paul will be able to attach pictures to this letter; if not, then I’ll send them along when we get home.

We’re having the time of our lives; loving every minute together. Amazing things happen when you challenge yourself. (I think so, anyway).

I’d like to say I’ll be sending post cards, but we’re moving too fast for that and it’s hard to write in a tent.

Look us up on the map and you’ll get a general idea where we are, where I’m thinking about you, missing you and wishing you were here too.

As I close this letter, I’m wondering if maybe we shouldn’t instead head south through Spain into Morocco – I’ll have to speak to Paul about that…see what he thinks. I’m pulling out the maps again – I’ll let you know.



PS – We’ll have to save Morocco for another trip.
Last night, feasted on Cassoulet, crusty bread, red wine, whisky and watched the classic International Hotel (W.C. Fields, Gracie Allen, George Burns, Bela Lagosi, Cab Calloway) with Nigel in the Blues Bar and laughed so hard our sides split.

Monday, May 07, 2007


Voting Day in Scotland! Hooray, for the first time in my life I'm going to vote. Not being a US citizen I didn't have a vote in the US. Neither could I vote in the UK, as proxy voting is difficult to set up. Voting card in hand I head down to the polling place, a local church hall. I'm to choose a representative to the Scottish Parliament and local Aberdeen city council members.

Alas, I should have remembered the Florida butterfly ballot and the hanging chads.

At the doorway, a sleepy lady glances at my card and sends me to a curtained-off part of the room where I find a couple of people behind a desk. They look at my card, check off my name from a master sheet, and give me two pieces of paper, 81/2 by 11 inches, and point to a small voting booth. No one asks for a picture ID. I guess they trust I'm not impersonating the real voter. Neither did they ask me if I knew what to do. The first paper, for the Scottish parliament, presents a list of parties. You vote for one by putting an "X" in the box next to the name. I reach for the pencil provided, a two inch stub with a blunt point tied with a string to a nail. It has seen many elections; at least twenty years worth. I read the instructions that call for two votes, presumably one in each column. I scratch in my "X" for the Green party, and a second for the Independent candidate who shares my view on the Aberdeen Bypass. The second card, for city council, has a list of folk I never heard of. I put an "X" by the Conservative candidate, who might do the least amount of damage.

Polls close at 10 PM, so we never heard the results till the next day. First the counting problems. Many machines couldn't read the scratched "X" so rejected the ballots. Also, some folk put two "X"s in one column --- no one told them not to do that. And others, like me, put an "X" on the second ballot instead of ranking the candidates by scratching in 1,2,3,4 or 5. Oops! All told, about 100,000 ballots were rejected, including a couple of batches that were rain soaked on the way from the Outer Hebrides. Dangling chads look like a simple problem to sort out by comparison. In one district, where the Scottish Nationalist (SNP) candidate won by 47 votes, there were 1,000 rejected ballots. That seat will probably be challenged in court. Especially since the SNP won the election by only one seat over Labor. As the SNP do not have an overall majority, and no party wants to join them to form a coalition, they may have to struggle ahead as a minority government.

Most commentators feel that Iraq cast its shadow on the election. Unlike the US, where most people at one time supported the war, Blair dragged Britain into the conflict against the wish of the people. Today the dreadful war with no end in sight, seems even more incomprehensible. Daily stories of corruption that involves Labor did not help at the polls either. But the SNP and their single agenda of Scottish Independence? Most English would as soon quit subsidizing Scotland through their taxes and would not mind it if the Scots took a hike. But in an age where Europe is drawing together as a federation, Scottish Independence has a bizarre ring to it. I doubt that, given the high costs, Scots would vote for independence in a referendum, but anything is possible as long as they cling to voting with the stubby pencils and the scratched "X"s.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I had not been to the Findhorn Community for thirty five years. Back in 1972 it was the most exciting and controversial New Age center, where folk coaxed remarkable growth out of trees, grew ten pound cabbages by talking to them, communed with nature spirits, and listened to daily messages from God. Moving to Ojai, California, Findhorn's shadow was never far. I ran into David Spangler there and some of the Findhorn singers. When Ojai people found out I was from Scotland, the next question was, "Have you been to Findhorn?" I had, a brief day visit. I recall the peaceful atmosphere, the vibrant plants surrounding each trailer, my frank conversations with a gardener who explained the difficulties in gardening in a sandy, windswept location. The people were very friendly and hospitable, excited to talk to you about their vision for a new world. Yet I suspected a large measure of self-deception. The philosophy was authoritative, channeled by a few gurus with little room for dissent. Several years later came a series of upheavals typical of such movements, following which David Spangler, Peter Caddy and other Findhorn luminaries left to continue their work in the New World.

Last week Amber, Basia and I found ourselves in the Findhorn trailer park on a day trip, mainly curious about what had become of the legend. Near the entrance stood a large bookshop, a reception center, a map of the community. In the distance rose large ostentatious looking houses. The bookshop contained a large collection of esoterica, recalling Hollywood's "Bohdi Tree", music, jewelry and very fine wine and beer. I headed for the section with Findhorn community writings. The early books were there, I had to hunt hard before I found David Spangler's works, tucked away on their own. Old separations seem to persist. Also, no music from the New Troubadours, the Findhorn singers whose music we all knew by heart in the seventies.

We walked to the new houses and found tall wooden structures, unusual for Scotland whose houses are mostly stone, ecologically friendly with solar heating, grass insulated roofs. Not cheap to put up. The pottery center was neat. A couple potters worked there and spoke with us politely. Overall, we spoke to few people, and few stopped to chat with us. I suspect that the continual stream of visitors has made the residents a bit jaded. You wouldn't know today that the garden had any place of prominence. The small garden patches were still bare. No one was working there. Glancing into greenhouses, I noticed that electric seed propagators had replaced old fashioned talking to the plants.

The original sanctuary still stood there, with the peaceful atmosphere I remember. I sat there for a while and let my thoughts drift into silence. Nearby stood the original trailer, a museum piece from a past that no longer existed.

My impression that mega-money flows through the community was later confirmed by Ian, the gardener at Camphill, whose vegetable garden is incidentally bursting at the seams, and remains the subject of my untrammeled envy. Apparently you do need to be very wealthy to live there, to build such a house and contribute seriously to the community. "Yes, they still talk to the trees. Ask tree moss permission before they remove it." Ian may not grow his vegetables by speaking to them, but he grows his seedlings without an electric propagator, on magic compost. With all the leeks, carrots and lettuce in the ground, you'd never know that the growing season has not yet hit its stride.

There is a garden which is the life of the community.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mega Markets: Pilgrim’s REgress

When I was thirteen, Westheimer Road between Loop 610 and Fondren was nothing but undeveloped land. It was the country. It was the road to horseback riding on Saturday mornings. Apart from the subdivision in Walnut Bend, the closest thing to civilization was the tea room at Sakowitz on South Post Oak and the Weingarten’s grocery store across the street from it. Houstonians, at that time, psychologically perceived this drive in the same way one might today consider the daily commute from Magnolia into Downtown; it’s done, but not without preparation. For example, before the road trip can begin today, one must first stop for a steaming hot latte from Starbucks, then grab an egg and bacon breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s, plug in the latest technology, set the dial to music, talk radio, or the most recent in a spellbinding book on tape, turn on the cell phone and adjust the ear piece, and not until these tasks are completed is one properly prepared to take the leap of faith required to chart the hour and a half of pavement, toll roads, other drivers, road rage and traffic to make the commute from Magnolia to Downtown and back home again tolerable.

In 1967, before Houston was divided by a loop, the preparation from Downtown to South Post Oak Road was usually by invitation to a ladies luncheon at the Sakowitz tea room, the border crossing between civilization and the country and you had one month to prepare for it. From that point on, it was horses and hay and roadside fruit and veg stands. (My father was known to drive out there occasionally to buy Tyler roses for my mother, which has nothing to do with this story apart from the sweet memory of it).

So what’s your point, granny? Did you expect Houston to stay a cow town forever? Did you not think that some clever marketing personality wouldn’t eventually give birth to one stop shopping? We don’t have time anymore to conduct our lives in the old fashioned way of supporting individually owned markets, hardware stores and bookstores. What if they don’t have what we want at the very moment we want it? I’ll tell you what happens; it’s a waste of our time, that’s what. We don’t have time to court those kinds of relationships anymore, to wait while some old fool, some old Mr. Sanders orders a part for the washing machine or a book to be sent by mail. For goodness sake, this is the 21st Century where we can either order it online or go to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Border’s to meet the needs of our modern lifestyle. We don’t have time for Mr. Sanders because we’re too busy building Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Border’s while we move further and further into what little patch of land is still available, building our houses near what trees survive, and preparing for our hour and a half to two hour commute so we can continue to support Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Border’s; because we don’t have the time to wait anymore, we want it when we want it; we want it now.

In the small Scottish community of Glass, burrowed in a valley between Huntly and Keith, is our new home, Cottarton Cottage. We are one of the elite who can move to the country and have a patch of land surrounded by a 360 degree panoramic view of hillside, woods, and grazing livestock. We are not rich, but fortunate, elitist, able to leave the congestion of the city, the traffic, the fast pace and simplify our lives in the country.

Yet, not more than seven miles down the road is the mega market, Tesco and within a literal stone’s throw is its competitor ASDA, better known in the States as Wal-Mart.

I could write for hours about the sociological reasons for this and their legitimate purpose which seems to ease the very stressful lives of the young and their growing families. Today’s modern family requires two and half incomes and housing is expensive, forcing people to grab what little space they can in the city for easy access to employment, holding on to what little security modern business offers the common worker which isn’t much. Technology is so fast paced that one might say a worker who doesn’t stay on top of things could potentially suffer what is called in this country redundancy, not marketable or obsolete in the States. But in any language, the outcome results in a very similar lifestyle: rushing out the door to work, getting the kids to school, picking them up, racing to football practice, choir, violin, swim meet, etc., home late shoving some processed something into the microwave for what we erroneously call dinner, homework, bedtime, a bit of sleep to resuscitate the muscle to do it all over again on Tuesday.

Sadly, we have been deceived and manipulated by nothing less than – Advertising. We are told what to eat and are blatantly lied to by those who process our “home bake dinners”, teeming with preservatives, that eating like this won’t harm us. The American farmer has already ceded to the strong arm of the fast food companies, raising their chickens and cattle in factories that never see the light of day or experience anything natural like grass or rain, are injected with hormones to stimulate rapid growth, and not carefully transported from factory to slaughter house, increasing the stress levels of the animal; a nasty formula for tainted meat which is not meticulously regulated by the FDA. This very scenario now threatens the British farmer into a perilous position of being forced into either producing for the Mega Markets or being driven into bankruptcy.* Unfortunately, this is the 21st Century blueprint of the kitchen table. “What’s for dinner tonight, Mom?” “Poison, dear.” As our waistlines expand, ironically our knowledge of food diminishes. As the latest fad diets betray us, we are inconsolably in search of an answer as to why we remain fat and unhealthy.

I’m not suggesting that we stop eating meat, just know where it comes from. Buy as close to your back door as is possible. Get to know your butcher. Ask him where the meat comes from. Are you eating a happy cow? If so, the likelihood of residual illness is less probable.

But the ongoing debate between carnivores and vegetarians is not, in my opinion, as paramount a debate as the one which challenges where the food comes from. If we continue to depend on advertising and the latest scam diet to direct us, we’ll never come out victorious and we will poison our children in the process.

I have stopped shopping at all Mega Markets. I will not go into a Tesco, Costco, Wal-Mart, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, ASDA, Somerfield’s or Sam’s Wholesale. These stores are designed to drive out the local farmer or merchant and provide the consumer with a product whose origin is unknown. Whose hands kneaded that bread? Where does the chicken live that brings me my omelet? These questions may sound a bit eccentric, but when modern man can begin to see the connection between the earth and what we put into our bodies, as we are as organic as the chicken, the cow and the beetroot, then I think we stand a chance of reclaiming our better health.

Fortunately, Scotland boasts of Co-Op Markets which is a friendly food source, mostly fair trade and all produce, excepting bananas, are locally grown. It takes time to organize your kitchen like this, but in the long term, everybody wins. Not to mention the impact of the carbon foot print eased somewhat if we buy what’s in season and we buy locally. The hardest hit, of course, is the poor. Those who don’t have more than five dollars until pay day and have children to feed. What are they supposed to do? Drive through McDonald’s and at least they can grab something from the dollar menu and fill up until Mom can get to the store.

The Corporate West should be so ashamed. I’d venture a guess that the CEO of McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Burger King don’t eat there. I have a feeling they probably eat organic vegetables, free range chickens and drink fabulously expensive champagne. If they’re not eating it, why should we?


*This boycott of mine spawned after watching a BBC One program about a local English farmer who had been growing butter lettuce for Somerfield’s for many years (his biggest client actually). The lettuces were carefully cultivated, beautifully packaged and delivered on time; no previous signs of distress between client and farmer, when out of the blue, the marketing rep from Somerfield’s called him to say his services were no longer needed. It was during his peak season, when his greenhouse was bulging with lettuces and he was depending on this income for his livelihood, but that didn’t faze Somerfield’s and their decision to remove his product from the shelf on a whim. The farmer did seek legal counsel, however, and fortunately the crop in the greenhouse was salvaged and Somerfield’s was obliged to honor the contract to the season’s end, but after that, the local English farmer had to close his operation. On that same program, a dairy farmer was profiled after Tesco drove him out of business forcing his cattle to auction. Tesco can afford to sell milk cheaper than bottled water and have enough market share to dictate the price of milk. It’s heartbreaking to see and it can be stopped. We can learn to live locally, seasonally, and ethically again. We have more power as a consumer than any CEO of any corporation anywhere. If we say no, they have to listen.

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