Sunday, March 19, 2006

I love this town

Ian and I arrived home last night around 6:15 pm, almost nine hours after leaving Sun Peaks, and 30 minutes after dropping D&E off, five miles from our house. Yeah, the traffic crawling toward downtown on a Saturday evening after a day of driving through snow, sleet and sun is not what I love.

What I love is this: S finished her master’s thesis yesterday and sent it off, so she and Intrepid Aunt L (S’s mother, if you’ll remember) and S’s husband, C, invited us to join them at the Fiddler’s Inn, a pub near their house, for a celebratory pint and dinner. A notice on the door informed customers of a $3 cover charge from 9:00 pm to midnight, as there would be live music. As 9:00 pm approached, people with violin—or, excuse me, fiddle—cases started arriving and a space was cleared near the bar. Someone else pulled out an accordion, much to Ian’s delight, and the band broke into song. Now, fiddle and accordion music makes for a rockin’ good time no matter what, but this was even better because—and I kid you not—this band, Skandia Kapell, has been around since 1957, and two of the fiddlers were original members. Yes, that’s right—the entertainment at the local pub on Saturday night from 9:00 pm to midnight was a band of 80-somethings. And I tell you—when a little old man asks you to stand up and do the chicken dance in a bar, to live music played by his contemporaries, you do it.

Another successful ski trip! Posted by Picasa

Sun Peaks sun breaks Posted by Picasa

Lake McGillivray. Very, very far away by snowshoe. Very far. Posted by Picasa

Apparently, the owners of our condo have kids . . . smaller than D . . . Posted by Picasa

Happy St Patrick's Day! Posted by Picasa

There comes a point in every knitter's life where she should really start to give things away. In this picture, I've made the turtleneck sweater, the scarf, the hat, and the mittens. Posted by Picasa

The beach is a little cold this year . . . Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 16, 2006


I do actually read the comments to my blog, which reminded me to add a bit more information about the dog-and-accordion busking I saw in Lisbon, and while I’m at it, I’ll throw in the quick tutorial on port, which I promised but didn’t deliver.

First of all, street performers are not uncommon in the touristy parts of Lisbon, even in late winter, but they are generally more along the mime vein. Having an Ian and a Spackle, however, I am definitely more interested in things involving dogs and accordions. This particular performance seems tailor-made for me. A boy, maybe high school-aged, strolls around the pedestrian streets playing Portuguese and gypsy tunes on a smallish red accordion. Perched on his shoulder is a Chihuahua, holding a tiny bucket in his mouth, in which to collect donations. This we saw at lunch; later on, we passed a different boy with a different accordion and a different dog—this one evidently in training—sitting in the middle of the promenade. I went to drop a coin in the dog’s bucket, and he kept bowing his head and not letting me, while the boy looked increasingly embarrassed and muttered at the dog. Finally, I dropped the coin in a hat next to the boy, and the dog rubbed lovingly up against my hand. The boy looked embarrassed and angry, but I told him I had a dog of my own, and his was very cute, and he seemed to be gratified. We found out from friends A&F (the Lisbon ones) that there seems to be an exploding trend all over the country of the dog-and-accordion show. Perhaps because trained monkeys aren't legal?

Port, a wine fortified by a grape spirit distilled from the same grapes as the wine, is much more complex and varied than the tawny, vintage, occasion ruby, and very occasional white styles we get here, including styles like lagrima (sweet white), colheita (single harvest but not a vintage), late-bottled vintage (aged in wood and bottled after it’s aged, like a tawny), and many more I can’t remember off hand, so I’ll focus on the ones we’re likely to get in stores here.

Vintage: This is a fruity port, which ages in the bottle. Store it in a cellar, if possible. Vintage ports are not made every year; only on particularly good years. Once a decade or so every port grape grower universally declares a vintage; usually, however, one grower will have a particularly good year and another won’t. A vintage port should be stored for at least 10 years, but can be stored much longer. 1994 was a universally good year; I have a bottle of that vintage in my cellar which I believe I bought for about $30 in 1998. It’s now sold for about $120. To serve a vintage, 24 hours before opening, stand it upright so the sediment can fall to the bottom (all wines should be stored on their sides to keep the corks wet). Open, decant into a carafe, and drink. Since vintage ports have had little exposure to air (being aged in glass), they are delicate and oxidize quickly. Once opened, a vintage port should be drunk within 4 days. This is usually not a problem for people.

Ruby and Tawny: These are basically the same. Both are aged in wood, and blended by tasters so that the character of each remains the same year after year. The main difference is that ruby is aged no more than about 3 years before it’s bottled, whereas tawny is aged up to 40 years in oak. The names refer to the color: since ruby is only in wood about 3 years, its deep red color hasn’t leached into the oak barrels. Tawny, however, gets paler, tawnier, with age. Ruby and tawny ports are not delicate and can be enjoyed for up to a year after the bottle is opened.

White: Dry white port is an aperitif instead of a digestif like the rest of the ports; it’s a little like sherry in that way. Serve this port (but only this port) chilled. Being white, it’s usually not aged (perhaps like the ruby, about three years tops). It does last a long time in the fridge, though.

My favorite cellar is Calém, which, yes, looks like my name, but is incredibly good and consistent nonetheless, producing rich, fruity ports that somehow manage to avoid being syrupy. Other good names are Ferreira, Taylor-Fladgate, and Ramos Pinto. I tend to avoid Fonseca and particularly Sandeman, which seem to have better marketers than wine-makers. Graham’s Otima 10 or 20 year in the clear bottle is drinkable, as well, and I admit I like how the bottle shows off the rich color.

And thus ends Europe.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shameless plug for a fantastic winter resort

This is the third year my brother and sister-in-law (D & E respectively) and Ian and I have come to Sun Peaks, near Kamloops, BC, for our annual week-long ski trip. The tradition started when I was living in Boston for those two distant years, and D, coming from Seattle, met me in Colorado for spring break. The first year, we stayed somewhat near Vail, but closer to Keystone, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. Vail was definitely best, so the next year we went directly there. The first year Ian was around, we four went to Vail again, but I had long since moved back to Seattle and we realized that for the price of four plane tickets and a rental SUV, we could drive our own SUV and stay in a place much nicer than the pseudo condo-with-microwave-which-counts-as-kitchen we could afford in Colorado.

We visited Whistler the first year, and stayed in a ski in/ski out condotel for a week. This was pretty nice, but there were other places within driving distance. The next year we chose Sun Valley, Idaho, which is, it turns out, at 14 hours, beyond our limits for how far we’re willing to drive. The benefits of Sun Valley were two-fold, however: E’s southern Idaho family came to visit for a day (well, seven of the remaining eight came); and my second cousin happened to be living there, in Steve McQueen’s old house. One of his ex wives (perhaps his widow?) was renting it out for the extra income. The house was 1960’s awesome—a giant log-cabin place, with a red carpeted game room (complete with original fridge, covered with stickers and Steve’s friends’ handwritten notes, behind the custom bar), and a very sexy master shower/bath thing that reportedly took advantage of a hot spring up the hill behind the house, and was all tiled and had some steps going down and was behind large windows and a glass door. So you could, presumably, watch sexy young starlets bathe each other. But I digress.

The next year, we came to Sun Peaks. D had heard from a friend that it was a newly minted resort, and so not terribly crowded yet. My mother, hearing it was near Kamloops, reminded us that her grandmother had been the first white child born in that town (a somewhat dubious distinction—I mean, exciting and all, but a little sad. Presumably, previously non-white children were born there, before they were shuttled off to the local reservation). Anyway, we came, and fell in love.

Sun Peaks lies about 7 hours from Seattle (although we’ve only once in three attempts so far made it here in anything approaching that little time . . . easy to get lost if you actively try, which we did the first two years, although we are familiar now with many back roads in rural Whatcom County, and many even backer, dirt roads, in whatever township it is around Kamloops). In the last three years even, development has exploded, with large, beautiful townhome vacation condos going in all over the valley. But they’re nice looking on the outside, all timber framed and full of windows to take advantage of the scenery, and fantastic on the inside. This year we’re staying in a two bedroom plus den (for accordion, horn, or computing), which shares a wall with a vacant place on one side and a place on the other side full of a family of five. Here’s the amazing thing—we really only know they’re a family of five because we’ve seen the kids in their hot tub. We hear them not at all, except when they’re going up or down the stairs, which they evidently can only do as fast as possible, but they also evidently only do rarely. Really, the soundproofness is amazing.

And outside, not only are there almost 3000 vertical feet and almost 3700 skiable acres for downhill, there are also 40 or more miles of cross-country skiing trails (with more than half track-set), and probably 15-20 miles of snowshoe trails which I can now say, without hesitation, is way more than enough.

We always get 4 of 5 day tickets so we can take a day off in the middle and recover our strength, and today was that day. Except for the three hours of snowshoeing (which is, in fact, more painful on the feet than skiing and way more tiring) and the 1 ½ hour return hiking on one of the graded cross-country trails. Yeah. Totally rested.

Of course, there are also such adventures offered as driving your own dogsled team, a fondue dinner and a torchlight ski down an easy hill after dark, sleigh rides and more.

But the true best thing about staying in an actual condo with an actual kitchen? Dinners like tonight’s—homemade mushroom risotto and weisswurst—or last night’s Indonesian tempeh with peanut sauce, or the upcoming halibut curry and mango sticky rice dessert, or the aforementioned nerd pizza.

Really, isn’t it always about the food?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

You know you’re on vacation with a bunch of nerds when . . .

. . . after a dinner of pizza (two types, homemade—even the crust and sauce—by yours truly’s brother), you ask “did we even eat one whole pizza?” and the answer, after lengthy and heated discussion is “Not quite. We ate only 77/80 of one pizza.”

Monday, March 13, 2006

European Highlights

  1. Having someone ask me directions, in Portugal, in Portuguese. Granted, she was British, but still—a European thought I might have been one, too. And not even a northern one! (in the same vein, the British man next to me on the plane from Porto to London couldn’t tell at all where I was from . . . which was nice.)
  2. Getting around fairly fluidly in Portuguese in general. My facility with this language makes me wish for at least equal facility with language anywhere I go. I’d love, for instance, to be able to understand which nights the vampires come out in Greece (it seems to have been 27 February this year in Portugal).
  3. Showing two of my dear home friends around a place—Porto—that I came to love several years ago, and having them see why (and also impressing them with my language ability which is, okay, back tracking a little, far from fluent, but is also more than merely serviceable).
  4. Staying with friends A&F in Lisbon and finding that there really does seem to be a sort of global culture, and I really do seem to be a part of it. We had the same series of Lonely Planet books (give or take a few), plus many other authors in common; F cooked a mushroom/asparagus risotto one night and a Moroccan stew another (both things we eat frequently at home); we made similar jokes about each others’ country’s politics.
  5. Staying with A&F (different people, but very similar in name and cultural background and thus very confusing for friends when I talk about them) in Porto and getting to meet their youngest daughter, age 2 ½, and meet again their eldest, age 5 ½. Absolutely gorgeous girls.
  6. Seeing my friend perform on two stages in two major European cities.
  7. Getting to know Cousin S all the more.
  8. Becoming reacquainted with myself out of context—that is, myself in a context from my past, but with current self-knowledge—and realizing how far I’ve come.

The Synergy of Music and Words

The impetus for the European vacation taking place in late winter was, as I said, to attend AC’s international debut, singing the soprano part in Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos. AC had given me a CD of the piece so that I could be familiar with it; Golijov is a modern composer, and while that doesn’t mean atonal (far from it), it also patently doesn’t mean Beethoven. I listened to the piece in the car several times, and loved it. It’s tribal, wistful, anguished, joyful. But it’s in Spanish, so aside from an occasional word or two, I really didn’t have any idea where I was in the story.

Any Passion, of course, is telling the story of Christ’s last days and his annunciation. It’s a familiar story of despair and betrayal as well as hope and love, and it’s a story that has been set to music for centuries. The fact that Golijov is Jewish may make it seem as though he were not an appropriate choice to tell this very Christian story, but he recognizes the universals of humanity and emotion, and that’s what is needed.

The London performance was the first performance of any passion I’ve seen with supratitles, which told the story in English while the chorus and soloists sang in Spanish. I found myself almost awed by the increased power of the music, once I knew what specifically was being sung. Peter’s song (sung by AC), when he realizes that he has, in fact, denied Jesus thrice before the cock crowed twice, went from a merely beautiful and sad air to a heart-wrenching lament about personal weakness and humiliation, disbelief, and a dawning, horrible understanding that he’d just left someone he loved to die alone—indeed, perhaps killed him. And now Peter is going to live, still, tortured by this knowledge of himself, as well as missing his friend.

The other section that made a deep impression on me was the choral piece telling of Christ’s walk to Golgotha, carrying his cross. When listening to the CD in the car, I dimly assumed that the fierce joy and frenetic rhythm of this piece was responding to Jesus having risen; after all, that’s a happy time, right? But no. This particular piece, full of fast dance rhythms and exultant chords, tells the story of the impending crucifixion. How? Why this? Part way through the song, I started to understand. This cheering, jeering, frenzied mob, infected by its own excitement, was going to see a public execution of a very controversial figure, and they were thrilled. They couldn’t wait! This was like a monster truck rally, a circus . . . or a public execution.

A part of the story I had never really paid much attention to—the people lining the road on the way up to the hill—was suddenly, chillingly clear. It’s a sad story—I had always assumed that, overall, even the jeerers were a little sad. But no, this music made it abundantly clear—on a visceral, horrified, almost cellular level, that they were very likely having a great time.

And therein lies the amazing alchemy of lyric and note.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life Tapestry

When I began this blog about nine months ago, my intention was to write exclusively about travel and my experiences away from home. I thought that travel writing, even travel memoiring, was solely writing about day to day life on the road. Much as travel is an escape from day to day life at home, however, most of us do not, cannot, entirely leave our normal selves behind just because we’re disembarking from a saeung taew in Lampang, or eating warm, creamy pasteis de Belém near Lisbon, or buying a crazy bonfire skirt on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, or galloping bareback up a twisting forest service road in Clearwater National Forest. Most of us carry a bit of the fears and joys and mundanity of our everyday lives with us wherever we go.

For me, the biggest thing I carry around all the time is the fact that I’ve had breast cancer twice now. The first time I was 26; I had a recurrence less than two years after finishing my chemo and radiation, when I was 28. I’ve been in remission since then, over four years since finishing chemo for the second time. My remission has been supported by a continuation of some therapies—I am currently in the clinic every three weeks for about three hours, receiving an infusion of Herceptin and a pellet that blocks ovarian function, plus I take a teeny pill every morning. Every three months, I also get a battery of blood tests and a dose of Pamidronate (which brings clinic time up to about six hours), either a chest X-ray or a chest CT, and I visit with my doctor. Once a year I have bilateral mammograms and breast and brain MRIs. This is not an insignificant amount of time, and it was, I believe, misguided of me to assume that the effects of these things on my travel would be insignificant. They are not.

For one thing, having to be at the clinic every three weeks places a sometimes inconvenient framework around my flexibility. I liken the three weeks to a bungee cord—I can stretch my limits a little for a short time—having an infusion two days late or one day early—but nevertheless I have to plan carefully, which frequently has me in the clinic either the day I take off for somewhere or the day after I get back; thus I’m combining jet lag with my day or two of chemical adjustment.

The greatest effect at the moment, though, is my fear of flying. In June, I have my last infusion. I will be set free from this onerous, tedious, exasperating existence—or maybe I will have my safety net removed and come crashing into the ground. I believe that my fear of flying is related to my cancer in two ways.

One, it’s a clear transference of my fear of death. There’s a limit to what I can do to keep from dying of cancer. I can eat well, I can exercise, I can be honest with myself about what makes me happy and try to lead an examined life. I can avail myself of resources outside my own personal control, such as medical experts, literature, support groups. But ultimately, the outcome will not be decided in any clear way by me. Thousands of people die of cancer every year. There are no guarantees.

I can, however, guarantee that I won’t die in a plane crash (this tragedy in Chicago last December not withstanding): I just won’t fly. For someone who loves to travel, who loves to experience different cultures and different climates and who gets intense joy out of learning by doing, not flying would be a grave sacrifice. But, completely illogically, part of me thinks that that’s the one way to save my life. And so, naturally, whenever I fly, I feel like I’m tempting fate—not just that, I feel like I’m daring fate.

Two, flying is a transition, and transitions can be incredibly scary, particularly the one I’m entering now, winding down five years of chemically supported health and finding out if I can go it alone. Moreover, I have the habit of using foreign travel as an excuse to relax my standards for healthy eating and drinking—I have dessert or sweets regularly, I drink wine or beer or a cocktail (or some combination of all three) every night, I eat meats, cheeses, fats—in short, I allow the transition of flying to free me from habits I know to be reasonable, and usher me into a carefree lifestyle I crave but, deep down, fear.

My last 36 hours in London on this most recent trip, all alone, really brought these habits home to me. There was no one around to distract me from myself, from the three pints of cider I was drinking, the doughnut I was snacking on, the cheese and bread and chicken and bacon I was having for dinner (don’t ask). I couldn’t avoid examining my choices. Even as I was licking my fingers and reveling in the joys of consumption, a thread of worry, of consequence, the color of cancer, ran along at the base of my consciousness.

I see my life as a tapestry, and cancer, bile-yellow, is one of the threads. On its own, the color is jarring, blaring, nauseating. But woven in with the other threads, it creates a masterpiece. It throws the intense crimsons and plums of love into deep relief, adds an edge of fierce immediacy to the vivid, glinting goldenrods and platinums of joy, slides along subtly underscoring the periwinkles and indigos of peace and reflection. My life is infinitely the richer for it . . . but that doesn’t make the weaving easy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Almost Embarrassingly Dilettantish

So here I am, having been home for a mere 24 hours from my just-shy-of-a-fortnight European vacation, and the main thing I’m doing is making a list of thing to pack for the ski week we’re leaving for on Sunday. Yes folks, the Dilettante is living up to her name vacationing in the lovely cities of London, Porto and Lisbon, and soon to head off to Sun Peaks, BC for—yes—more vacation.

In general, I try to justify my travels—at least to myself—by having the trips be varied in register (i.e. posh and luxurious for one, back packery and Chinese hotels for another), moderately infrequent (i.e. I’ve been in five countries on three continents within three months and that strikes me as a touch excessive, particularly for someone with a newly minted fear of flying), and somehow educational. Fortunately for that last category I was raised by parents who believed pretty much anything could be educational if you did it with awareness, and so I try to make a point of being actively, intellectually involved in the trips I’m taking.

For some, like Jerome Creek, much of the intellectual involvement comes from my writing—just like it does when I’m actually home. In Portugal, much of my intellectual involvement came from using my knowledge—not completely unskillfully—of the language. For Sun Peaks, I will also maintain some habits of home; writing, exercising, practicing some music.

So you see, any vacation is legitimately justifiable if you put your mind to it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Different Trips

For the last several years, since I met Ian, really, I've traveled primarily with him. He's been out of the country without me (granted, for a fish conference, or more specifically a meeting of the Herpetological and . . . um . . . Fish Scientists Societies so not technically fun), but I've only been to places like Jerome Creek without him, or on Memorial Weekend trips with the girls, of course. This trip, however, has involved everywhere from 9 people I was more or less traveling with in London, to three in Porto, to just two in Lisbon, and from tomorrow it'll be just me. It's actually made it difficult to write--the experiences of traveling with a variety of people and to a variety of places I've been to before has made me notice old things in new ways . . . and I haven't spent a lot of time by myself really thinking about what I'm doing--I've been too busy just doing it.

So . . . All this to say that this may be my last post from overseas . . . but rest assured I'll bore you with tedious details, and thrill you with not tedious ones, as soon as I get back home. After all, everyone needs a tutorial on port, a review of the concerts that were the impetus for this trip, written by a friend of the soprano, and a description of the dog-and-accordion busking we were entertained with on the streets of Lisbon.