I was thrilled yesterday to be headed again to El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). With all the changes that have happened in Nashville over the three years I lived abroad, I was happy that Cheekwood still hosts one of my favorite fall events and one of the most important festivals in Latin American culture. On El Dia de Los Muertos families honor relatives who have passed into the next life by creating altars as memorials and tapetes (carpets or murals usually made of sand to represent the brevity of life). They also celebrate the gift of living with joy and thanksgiving. The fall before I moved to Morocco, my International Club students and I really enjoyed the event. This time I was with my friend Sara, a teacher at Centennial High School, who was excited that their school had done its own festival and students were also participating in Cheekwood’s Tapete competition. I was excited, too, that her son, Trent, was at his first celebration.
As we headed to the food trucks, I saw another old friend, David, who had taught my students Latin dance years before. “Welcome to Nashville!” he grinned.
He pointed to a booth where I’d see what he had been up to. There I saw another Colombian friend, Marcela Gómez, who had founded a company called Mi Tribu (My Tribe) which gives back to her home country and shares its beauty with the world. Mi Tribu sustains female indigenous and displaced artisans who create the unique goods and reminds women everywhere we belong to the same tribe. Check out the website for Christmas gifts that will continue giving.
As Sara, Trent, and I walked to the Frist Center to see the Aztec dancers, we passed a long line of school busses. In its fifth year, Cheekwood’s El Dia de Los Muertos fiesta had drawn students from many Tennessee and Kentucky middle and high schools–some sharing their native tradition, others wanting to learn more. The tradition here was alive, well, and growing. Authentic crafts, foods, art activities, face painting, and live music against a backdrop of gorgeous grounds beginning to burst into autumn color was energizing. Seeing people of all ages from diverse backgrounds having fun together was beautiful.
Thanks to the Hispanic Family Service, Catholic Charities of Tennessee for more history:
Dia De Los Muertos started 3,000 years ago by the indigenous people in what is now Mexico. The practice was discovered 500 years ago by Spanish Conquistadors.
When the Spanish couldn’t eradicate the ritual, they merged it with Catholic theology and moved it to coincide with All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Skulls are still used as they were by the Aztecs to symbolize death and rebirth. The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations believed the dead visited during the ritual. They didn’t fear death but embraced it: “To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.”
Today Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in some parts of the US and Central America. In rural Mexico, families visit the cemetery where loved ones are buried. They decorate the graves with marigolds and candles, toys for children, and tequila for adults, then picnic beside the graves eating the favorite foods of loved ones. In larger cities in Mexico and the US, families build altars in their homes memorializing the dead with flowers, food, and photos of the deceased.
Another Christmas gift idea…
I’ve been a fan of Cheekwood since moving to Nashville in 1987, and now that I’ve moved less than two miles away, I bought a membership to enjoy all the 55-acre botanical garden and historical estate has to offer. (It’s also part of my Walden Woods season–more on that in the next post). I’m looking forward to fall in full bloom, then holiday lights November 24-December 31. Check out their plans and discounts for military, educators, students, and seniors (65+), benefits locally, and reciprocal admission to nearly 200 botanical gardens, arboreta, and conservatories nationwide and over 60 museums in the Southeast. Reciprocal admission is also offered in Canada, The Cayman Islands, and the Virgin Islands, and opportunities for Travel Study abroad with the American Horticulture Society are linked here.
We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.–David Mamet
I am not a glutton. I am an explorer of food.–Erma Bombeck
Santo Domingo has surprised me with its wealth of food choices– from mega groceries full of imports to familiar chains and international cuisine. While many coworkers have cooks and cars, I have neither, so I try to do a big grocery trip on Saturday or Sunday as I did in Morocco to make comfort food–cold salads for lunches and seafood chowder, chilli, Irish beef stew, or jambalaya for dinners–to last the work week. But come the weekend (or sooner when I miss my deck and grill so much I have to find a place to sit, sip, and socialize outdoors), I head up the street in my Piantini neighborhood to an area that after four months here finally feels like home.
Sweet Spot: La Cuchara De Madera
Two blocks from the apartment–dangerously close for sugar overload– is a bakery/brunch/tapas/coffee destination. A coworker took me to La Cuchara De Madera (The Wooden Spoon) last August promising it “feels like visiting a friend’s house.” She was right. On a second visit, I met the owner’s father who gave me a tour. I have always loved baking, but in the heat (only the bedrooms are air-conditioned) up until the last month turning on the oven was done on a must-do basis. Knowing cheesecakes and cherry pies are just around the corner is a lovely thing. To locals, La Cuchara is Birthday Cake Central, cozy quarters for a late breakfast, battery recharge station for afternoon coffee, and gathering spot for evening wine and tapas.
The pages-long sweet list includes churros, bagels, muffins, cheesecakes, and ice cream. Also on the menu are tea sandwiches, beer, wine, and breakfast. Above is the typical Domincan breakfast–eggs, fried cheese, grilled ham, and Mangú de Guineos (green plantains cooked with onion and olive oil). They also serve omelets, crepes, pancakes, and waffles and tea sandwiches.
Piantini Patios: Bravo Forna, Maria Bonita, City Market
A couple of blocks beyond are three patios illuminated by twinkling lights and friends’ laughter.
Bravo Forna offers Italian dishes, fresh salads (Insalata de Pollo Santa Fe below is my fav), fantastic sangria and great music in a relaxed setting.
Next door is Maria Bonita with gourmet Mexican dishes, seafood, and grilled beef and lamb. The service here is five-star from friendly and attentive waiters who make solo diners feel welcome. In fact, the staff allows locals to camp out on laptops here and I’ll never forget the kindness of the chef who, after I’d had a bout of illness and decided to brave solid food again, made me plain grilled chicken and rice–not on the menu.
Just beyond is City Market, a small grocery with fresh produce and a popular deli of cheeses and meats. Packed into their few aisles are imported foods and wines. Here locals gather for lunch or after work for sandwiches and salads. I stop in here as often as my family did at the minute market just around the corner from where I grew up.
Some nights there are free samples of food and wine. My favourite find, the bees’ knees, is this local honey (miel in Spanish and French) which ties for the best-I’ve ever-tasted at La Maison Arabe’s cooking school. I love it in my coffee.
On the Grill
Another place I’ve enjoyed my weekly fix of grilled steak is Sonoma Bistro–always full of locals. They have a deli and wines, cheeses, and Angus beef in the market next door. But of course the ultimate treat is meat on a grill surrounded by friends under the stars. For a cookout on our friend’s rooftop terrace, we bought some ribs and Italian sausages at Sonoma and turned them over to our friend, Master Chef Moises. Between the meat, the view, and Dharma’s hospitality (and potato recipe) it was the perfect night.
Moises Cordero now caters for Destination Weddings at Punta Cana, Samana and beyond (for catering, call 829-944-1521), but when I first moved here he was the man behind the grill at Shorthorn at Galeria 360 just past Agora Mall–both within walking distance of my street brimming with beautiful (though out-of-my-budget) boutiques. Below are photos of our feast there last summer with Steve, Sana, Taylor and Mariya, our friend and coworker who is marrying Moises in January.
Moises also took us to his friend’s seafood restaurant next door, Pier 47 , which was delicious and and just around the corner from the mall’s Margaritaville.
Recently I took Griselda’s advice (below) and checked out Ciao–a great place in our neighborhood not only for healthy soups, wraps, and salads but also a great American-style burger. And around the corner just before Blue Mall is a popular trio of restaurants where folks frequent for food and drinks at 2 for 1 prices–Francesco Trattoria, La Posta Bar, Julietta Brasserie (beautiful indoors and out).
Everyone here has been gearing up for Christmas since trees sprouted all over town November 1. It’s almost 11 PM here and outside my window speakers have started blaring from a party in the courtyard next door. Think I’ll check it out…salsa music calling…
(Added the next morning…So The Who may still hold the title for the World’s Loudest Band by the Guinness Book of World Records for a 1976 concert, but the DJ under my window until 4 AM last night blasted that record with speakers we used to call “mind-blowers” (this from a girl whose hearing was maimed by bands like Aerosmith, YES, and Pink Floyd back in the day). The good news is the rooster that crowed from the same apartment building starting at 4 AM hasn’t been heard since Thanksgiving.)
“What will be your moment this summer?” asked Jodie as eighteen coworkers sat Indian style on our apartment complex rooftop under a full moon.
A packed school year had ended with high energy and emotion— Moroccan Heritage Day, ASM’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, Graduation, our final faculty meeting sending some of us off for summer…others for good. Tears, hugs, and kisses had given way to a mellow mood. I’d sat in circles with colleagues over the last two years not only discussing work but life. Good times gathered around turkeys at our annual Thanksgiving dinners, birthday cakes, desert camp fires, and pools…challenging times around family members sick at home or a loved one in a hospital bed in Marrakesh after an emergency appendectomy…confusing times as we wondered what was going on with sad world events and the US Presidential race. The next day we’d disperse all over the globe—many traveling for ten weeks and some going home for summer. I couldn’t imagine not seeing these people again in August at our annual Welcome Back rooftop cookout.
“So…your moment? What will be that thing you can’t wait to do?”
“Hang gliding over the fjords,” said Sylvie. We’d hiked in the mountains together and she biked to school—a trek that took our bus 30 minutes to make. She’d been to Nepal last Christmas, hosted our annual Thanksgiving meal in her apartment, and shown me an amazing French cheese store and bakery in our neighborhood.
“What about you, Jodie?”
“Driving a scooter on the coast of Crete,” she beamed. “You know, I can’t believe we are living this life. We’re going to Greece! I always thought if I did do something like that it would be the trip of a lifetime. Now we take school breaks and say, ‘Want to go to Paris? Tickets are $20.’” She sat beside her husband, Jordan, as she did daily on the bus. They had raised four children and now the empty nesters were loving their first year of freedom abroad. Their summer plans also included doing the Camino de Santiago alone. Both witty, she’d sit on the outside on the bus each morning energetically singing, laughing, and proposing we contact the show, “Pimp my Ride” to enter our bus for a makeover. By afternoon his soft –spoken zingers, naturally timed with hers, made them a comedy duo. Both have huge hearts and when they’d kiss each other bye as she turned down the kindergarten wing and he headed to the middle school to start their days, I smiled. Jodie and I had bonded as moms and bloggers. She’d recorded my southern accent reading a children’s book for her students and we’d held babies together at the orphanage.
“Jordan?” We looked at the other half of the Dynamic Duo.
“I’m excited about the history in Greece and I also look forward to just reading books on the beach.”
“Mike?” He’d taught in Ecuador last year and we all loved his one-of-a-kind laugh.
“Having a beer made at a monastery that has produced it since 1050.” He was meeting his dad in Germany and then would continue onto several other countries.
“Jason?” We turned to half of another kind couple.
“Seeing my new nephew who is now six months old,” he grinned. Jason had taught middle school in our English department, would be upper school principal next year, and headed a writing workshop at the beach last spring. I’d taken yoga from his Irish fiancé from Belfast, Siobhan, a doctor, blogger, and all-around Renaissance woman. They’d met in Costa Rica where he was teaching and both have hearts of gold.
“Thelma?” Thelma and Laurance, also empty nesters, had been in my yoga class and writing workshop. They’d owned a café in Nicaragua where she was from and had given me valuable tips on The Dominican Republic where they vacationed. Their daughter, pretty and sweet like her mother, was studying close by in Nice. Both dedicated teachers, Laurance was a talented screenwriter and made us laugh. Both helped me lighten up by encouraging me to sell my house as they had done to allow for travel and expat life in this new season.
“Seeing a national park Laurance and I have always wanted to visit in Croatia.”
“Rachel?” The age of my daughter, she sat beside me as she did most mornings on the bus. Eliza was sleeping strapped to her chest. She’d taught me how to do a bun I now call “The Rachel” because it saved me from heat and bad hair days. Her husband, Jon, had tutored me in photography and painting. He’d led the Marrakesh Photo Walk last fall and was an amazing artist who first came to Morocco to do commissioned work. I’d seen Eliza grow from a month old infant to a toddler in dog ears. We’d laughed and prayed together and I’ll miss them so much. They are moving to Casa.
“Seeing my mom again who has been sick. It will also be special for Jon’s grandmother to meet Eliza for the first time.”
Other destinations included Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and Korea. We traveled every school break during the year and traded stories to plan future trips. My coworkers were from ten countries I can think of—probably more: Canada, Russia, Scotland, England, the Philippines, Australia, Portugal, France, Morocco, and the US. Fellow Americans were from Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Texas. They’d attended schools like Berkeley and taught previously from Alaska to Las Vegas to Harvard. Overseas they’d taught in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Europe, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East….
I hope Tennyson was right when he said, “I am a part of all I’ve met.” Though we are from different places, backgrounds, and religions and teach students aged three to eighteen, we are all committed to being part of something bigger than ourselves. Together we worked hard and tried to love each other and our kids well. We respected each other. We collaborated. We listened. We lived out hope before our students. To be part of the solution rather than shout and shame others over the problems. To mute voices that promote negativity, fear, hate. To believe in and fight for a world of peace and understanding. I’ll miss these guys and am forever grateful for the community.
“I’m glad I met you Cindy McCain. What’s your moment?” Jodie asked before I hugged her bye and headed down to my packed apartment. “Hanging out with your kids–a movie night in perhaps?”
“Exactly,” I smiled.
That was just over a week ago. As I post this I see on Facebook Ritchie thrilled to be with her aunt in Milan, Emily having a big time in Germany thanks to the kindness of strangers, Todd and Jose on the beach in Portugal, Jodie surrounded by statues in Crete with hands in the air giving Julie a shout out for her signature pose. Moments in Morocco and beyond. We’ll remember.
I will miss Ritchie, my dear friend, and my sweet neighbors across the hall, Christopher, who kept my Mac running and provided karaoke for everyone, Bevs who fed me Filipino cuisine, and their three little ones who grew so fast and made me laugh.
Just before our 7:15 AM commute, teachers dashed to the hanut (mini market) next to our apartment complex for egg sandwiches, clementines, or whatever else we needed for the day. Likewise, when we dragged off the bus at 5 PM needing water, gas for our stoves, vegetables for dinner, or fresh mint for tea, this young man welcomed us in with a smile and asked about our day. He and his brothers work seven days a week until 10 PM–always friendly no matter how high the temperature or how many locals stormed the counter.
Mary (below) and her husband own Les Jardins de Bala–my favourite Sunday lunch spot where Anu, another teacher, celebrated her birthdays and my guest including my kids loved. We taught Mary’s sweet son, and I enjoyed her French flair for fashion. On the right is a chic dress she designed for 200 DH/$20 USD which included the cost of fabric and a tailor. She is beautiful inside and out.
How I miss Sayida. She kept the Woods and me organized and was nanny to their three children. Coming home to a spotless apartment, clothes and sheets washed, and dinner ready and mint tea brewed was a treat I’ll never forget. Just before I left, she surprised me with this beautiful gift. She was a Godsend and a great friend.
When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused. —Rainer Maria Rilke
When drowned by stress, I go to one of my Happy Places which is often the ocean.
In my 2015 travels one of my happiest solo travel stays was at Hotel Santa Marta –a beauty break amidst botanical gardens winding down, down, down to the shore. Sheer. Bliss.
The near 15-acre (6-hectare) estate is located on its own private bay, Santa Cristina, and was chosen for the opening night party of this year’s European Travel Bloggers Exchange. I had already booked a stay there for a restful retreat after the networking/workshops of the conference ended, but by the time the ship reached sand I was in love with a wonderland lit by sunset.
The Spanish Mediterranean coast is as beautiful as beaches in Southern Italy and France. I was there in spring when, like late fall/winter low season, a single sea view room can be as low as 115 Euro per night. I love boutique hotels for their privacy, but plan ahead because this paradise stays booked, particularly by Europeans who vacation along Costa Brava in high season.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.— Kate Chopin
The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.–Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I loved swimming in the pool and sea, writing on the balcony, and sleeping to the sound of waves in the ultimate room with a view. It’s the perfect solo, group, or romantic retreat in Lloret de Mar.
I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.–-Anna Quindlen
For more on the beauty of Girona and the Costa Brava Coast, see my 5-Part Series (links below) and go here for more information.
No joke. I truly thought when my children left the nest I’d fly away, too. If I didn’t make it as far as Italy or Ecuador, I’d migrate south to Seagrove or west to Big Sur. I’d park my vintage camper (circa 1959) and chase seagulls, collect shells, and make a mermaid my muse. I’d bake pies like Sylvia Plath and burn rubber if I met a Ted Hughes. I’d brunch with friends every Sunday, do book tours, and sell shirts at book fests from Austin to Boston.
My baby moved to college last August. I’m still on Jenry Court. It seems that while the gypsy- in- me has fantasized for years about holding up a sign on the Church Street bridge that reads, “WILL WORK FOR TRAVEL,” the mommy- in- me isn’t going anywhere. Not for now anyway. Maybe when my kids are out of college and in careers they love. Maybe when I’m over teaching. Maybe not.
We moved to this old house when Cole was three months old, and he’ll be twenty March 8th. Outside my bedroom window, the magnolia tree, leathery leaves rustling, recollects when my boy fell from a high limb, chipping the growth plate in his ankle. The dogwood creaks in the winter wind, bare arms spread protectively over the resting place of Annie, our golden girl three years gone. The swing that held Taylor and Precious, her Persian, sways silently, patiently waiting for the little girl to return.
And she does. Running ahead of her to my front door are Lindsey and Laila, the four and seven year-olds she loves like her own, my precious “grandgirls.” They can’t wait to climb all over Cole, a 6’4” Gentle Giant come home from college, and love on Ella, my late-in-life child.
I had been on dog rescue lists for about a year, and my friends, Emily and Kim, had Facebooked me pictures of dogs in need of homes, but I wasn’t sure I could handle loving and losing again. Likewise, since my niece, Abby, started volunteering at the Bowling Green Humane Society, she’d texted photos of puppies. I wasn’t sure if this time I’d go for a petite poofy pooch—a cuddly couch cohort–or another Golden Retriever—a hiking companion with a watchdog bark. As a Romantic, I just knew I’d know it’s time when I saw The One.
When Abby sent a picture of a beautiful 4- month- old yellow lab with the softest fur, velvet ears, soulful eyes, and sweet face, I knew she was my baby. The nesting I did last year– the unexplainable energy to grow a garden, paint walls, and make cupcakes pretty- as- Pinterest–all makes sense now. I knew I was cooking like Paula Deen to lure my kids home, but I didn’t realize I was feathering my nest for new chicks. The angst I felt a year ago, the need to make a move since Taylor and Cole were moving on, settled down and not because I settled. Though I planned to heed the lead of my globe-trotting friend, Rawsam, and downsize to a single box of possessions, freeing me to fly, I found myself filling a sole box…for Goodwill. Becoming a mom again didn’t ground me. It was grounding.
Like a decade ago when I stockpiled frozen casseroles and decorated nurseries with Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh, I’m now filling Hello Kitty totes with crayons and coloring books and a dress-up trunk with feathered boas, head pieces, and old evening gowns. I’d worn those formals out-on-the-town, then Taylor wore them trick or treating, and last New Year’s Eve, Lindsey and Laila wore them too.
Bringing in 2013 was wild. Cole, Taylor, Chris, the girls, the pets and I gathered at my house for a sleepover. We popped popcorn, ate candy, and watched television till midnight—just like I’d done with my grandparents, sister, and cousins. The girls had never stayed up so late. Laila lined up Taylor’s dolls as we watched Marley and Me (sans the sad part). We laughed at how much Baby Marley looked like Baby Ella. Then I didn’t laugh at how much they are alike.
As the ball dropped on Times Square, Lindsey twirled around the room in my satin formal, saying she was at a “beautiful ball.” Then she squealed—not because she had lost her glass slipper, but because Ella had pooped on her dance floor. Since some parts of 2012 had been poopy, we said all the more reason to look forward to an even better 2013. I insist the poop fell before the ball, and I’m sticking to it.
As for Ella, the adventure continues. She licks me awake every morning and still tries to jump like a jackrabbit to my chest, on the couch and sometimes on the cat despite doctor’s orders and my commands not to. While I was at work, Houdini bent the kennel with her nose, escaped, and chewed my favorite shoes. Pulling fast ones, she switched toys and rawhides to chew her leash and the foot of my antique sofa. Though I puppy-proofed the bathroom, she apparently climbed on the toilet seat, yanked the Venetian blinds from the top of the window to the window seal, and chewed them like bubble gum. When I came home, she limped to see me as Cole did when he fell from the tree. Ella fractured her tibia crest near her growth plate, scaring me to death and sending the vet on a vacation. I wasn’t invited. But as a friend with four golden retrievers said, I’ve invested in a companion and Europe will be there. My mom, sis and daughter rallied around the patient, offering to sit with her if needed. She’s family, and I couldn’t love her more.
Guess I’ve come full circle. With a twist. Keeping with tradition, I might take Ella to Florida this spring since Cole went there after his foot fracture—his cast covered in plastic. Maybe the whole gang will go. Or one day we may pull that camper to Cali, Ella riding shotgun, my kids and their families following behind. Home is where the heart is. I hope mine always beats with kids, chaos, and puppy love.