Friday, November 25, 2011

Paris Revisited

The summer after I graduated from the University of Minnesota, I was an au pair (live-in-nanny) for a French family who lived near the Eiffel Tower. Each morning, after our pitite dejeuner of fresh crusty bread, creamy Montrachet goat cheese, and a bowlful of café au lait, I would walk the children to the Eiffel Tower playground. I felt flooded with awe at the fulfillment of my dream of living in France.
This spring Becky and I spent a week in Paris. One afternoon, after a picnic near the Eiffel Tower, we discovered that the playground with its little carousel is still there.  My little ones who loved that carousel would be in their forties now and probably have no memory of the American who spoke French badly but loved playing with them in the sand.
Being in Paris reminded of my second visit for the 1986 publication of Ma Soeur, Mon Amour, the French translation of Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. My co-editor Rosemary (Curb) Keefe and I spoke at a women’s bookstore (no longer in existence) and discovered that Parisian women-loving-women regarded our lesbian-feminist zeal as rather quaint, unsophisticated, and somewhat embarrassing. Having achieved equality with men, they were past such narrow concerns. And why were we still using that old term? Lesbian was so militant! They preferred to be “discrete” about their private lives. It sounded to us as if they were still in the closet.
This time Becky and I found the GLBT Center of Paris, thanks to a delightful Lesbian Connection contact dyke. This young Portuguese woman who has lived in several countries told us that the Paris Gay Pride parade draws thousands of revelers, mostly straight people. It’s more party than political. Sonia says that French lesbians are still very . . . discrete.
Being in Paris also reminded me of two months my partner Barbara and I spent there in 1988. The Gare D’Orsay had recently been converted into the glorious Musée d'Orsay, full of light, huge open spaces, and beautiful French art. Barb and I went on the free day each week and enjoyed the sumptuous salad buffet in the chandeliered restaurant. Since the buffet is no longer offered, Becky and I split an order of soup and salmon. We felt like royalty lunching at Versailles, surrounded by mirrors and full-breasted women frolicking amidst clouds on the ceiling.
After this fourth visit, much as I love Paris, I don’t long for my magical city any more. My French dreams have been fulfilled by stolling hand-in-hand along the Seine with my beloved wife, exploring Notre Dame together, and walking the magical labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral with her.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Edith Bohan, 1914-2011

Edith Jean Bohan, 97, died November 2, 2011, at Luther Memorial Home in Madelia. The daughter of John and Ida Norton of Frost, Minnesota, she was born February 19, 1914, and was baptized and confirmed at Bethany Lutheran Church. Her parents were both immigrants from Norway and, consequently, Edith spoke only Norwegian until she began school. After graduating in 1928 from Frost High School, where she won prizes for track events, bread baking, and embroidery, she attended the University of Minnesota Farm School.
(Pictured above: Mom and my sister Vicki)

To support herself during the Depression, Edith became a hairdresser in Minneapolis after graduating from Paul’s Academy of Hairdressing. She moved to Oakland, CA and worked at the salon in the prestigious Claremont Hotel. She later moved to Los Angeles, where she worked for a number of years in a Hollywood salon frequented by movie stars. In the mid-1940s Edith returned to Minneapolis, where she opened her own shop, Miss Modern, on Nicollet Avenue. Benefitting from Edith's Hollywood aura, her business thrived.
(Pictured above: Becky, Mom, Nancy)

On November 5, 1947, Edith was united in marriage to Clarence “Doc” Bohan, D.V.M., at Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis by Reverend Rueben Youngdahl. After a winter in northern Minnesota, where Doc tested cattle, the couple moved to Madelia and made it their home for the remainder of their lives. While raising two children, she helped in the veterinary clinic, located in the basement of the family home.

Edith was an active member of Trinity Lutheran Church and Rachel Circle. She taught Sunday School for fifteen years and was a Luther Memorial Home volunteer. She served as First Lady of Madelia for the fifteen years that her husband was mayor. Edith’s hobbies included gardening, baking, quilting, and embroidering. She enjoyed traveling and twice visited relatives in Norway. After Doc retired, he and Edith often drove to Florida or the Southwestern United States during the winter.

In 1996, Edith moved into Luther Memorial Home with her husband, who passed away the following year. While diminished by a failing memory in her later years, she maintained a sweet and loving disposition.

Edith is survived by her daughter Vicki Bohan and her husband, Richard Havens, of Lincoln, CA; daughter Becky Bohan and her wife, Nancy Manahan, of Minneapolis; grandson Scott Havens of Boise, ID; and stepchildren Jack Bohan and Deanne Bohan, San Jose, CA. She was preceded in death by three sisters and four brothers.

A memorial service will be held 10:00 a.m. Friday, November 11, 2011, at Luther Memorial Home in Madelia. Memorials should be sent to the Luther Memorial Home or Trinity Lutheran Church in Madelia.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Terry and Amy

In our blog posts from Greece, we didn't say enough about our friends, Terry Cramer and Amy Posmantur. This delightful couple has lived and worked in college and school education in Vicenza, Italy, for nearly two decades.  We met them five years ago in Venice and have joined them almost every year since then, in Puerto Rico, Mexico, or Italy. This year we spent Amy's spring break in Athens and Crete.
Like us, Terry and Amy love to hike, so we took long walks through Athens and longer hikes through the deep Imbros Gorge and across the windswept mountains of Crete.
We shopped for fresh fruit from street vendors.
And then we ate in on a rooftop in Athens looking up at the Acropolis.
Too bad Terry and Amy had to go back to work and couldn't toast Crystos Anesti! (Christ Risen!) while cracking the traditional red Greek Easter eggs.
Our next trip with Amy and Terry? They've invited us to Morocco in April 2012. Inticing!


Friday, May 6, 2011

Homage to the Oracle of Delphi

"Over a vast period--ages in which people came and went, empires rose and fell--the Oracle proved to be the most durable and compelling force in what was arguably the most important society that humans ever devised. She was the guide star of Greek civilization. We have no equilavent. . . . No voice, civil or religious, carried further. No authority was more sought after or more influencial. None. She quite literally had the power to depose kings."

So writes William J. Broad, award-winning New York Times science writer, in his fascinating book The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets. Broad pulls together the strands of ancient history, archeological quest, and modern scientific inquiry regarding this figure shrouded in so much mystery. (Actually, there were many Oracles, often matronly women, succeding each other. During Plutarch's stint as high priest of Delphi, there were two Oracles and one back up. Even Plutarch was not privy to the inner rites of these Oracles.)

The ancient Greeks laid the foundation of our scientific world. Pythagorus, Euclid, Aristotle, and scores more, established the basic principles of mathematics, geometry, physics, and philosophy. These great thinkers respected the Oracle of Delphi. Socrates even credits her with setting him on the course that made him one of the world's greatest philosophers.

As described by the ancients, the Delphic Oracle would sit on a tripod, breath in vapors, enter a state of exaltation, and then answer questions put to her, the answers coming directly from the god Apollo. Her answers were sometimes ambiguous, othe times quite specific. King Croesus once sent a courier to ask "What am I doing now." When the Oracle said he was cooking lamb and turtle stew, it seemed improbable. Yet she was spot on. On that day, at that time, the king was cooking that stew!

Broad's book chronicles the unearthing of the ruins at Delphi and the scientific search for the source of the fumes that enabled the Oracle to reach her elevated state. After years of research, John Hale, an American archeologist, and Jelle de Boer, a Dutch geologist, published their findings in 2001. The tripod sat directly over the intersection of two geological faults where a mixture of gases, including the ecstacy-inducing ethylene, wafted through tiny fussures.

The media was quick to mock the Oracle as getting high and rambling, but the question remains, how could she have been so accurate and commanded such respect for hundreds of years?

I like to think that the Oracle tapped into "the Field," much like Edgar Cayce did in his self-hypnotic trances, where she could step into a higher level of consciousness, the transcendental state where the past, present, and future all blend, where all knowledge is accessible.

The Oracle continued to have power into the Roman period. The Christians, however, labelled her a witch in league with demons, and after 1200 years and thousands of accurate prophecies, in 395 C.E., the shrine was closed by the Roman emporor. Subsequent earthquakes eventually shut off the fumes.

Nancy and I leave Crete tomorrow to journey to Delphi. Amidst the stunning scenery and awesome ruins, I will be paying my respect to that "sisterhood of mystics" as Broad calls them, who generation after generation, guided one of the world's greatest civilizations.


What's Missing in Minoan Art?

The Minoans didn't need Title IX to ensure equality in athletics. Their culture radiated female power and presence as shown in frescos from the palace walls of Knossos, Crete. Here are three bull dancers: the woman (always light-skinned in Minoan art and often bare-chested) on the left about to launch herself over the bull's horns, the man in mid-somersault over the bull's back, and the woman on the right, landing after her vault.

It has taken 4,000 years for the Western world to begin to catch up.

The Minoan civilization thrived on Crete from 3400 BCE to 1450 BCE, when Santorini's volcanic explosion and the subsequent earthquakes and tsunamis devastated the islands, leading to the collapse of the Minoan culture. What remains is the ghost town at Akrotiri, Santorini (only 3% excavated) and the ruins on Crete, the most famous being Knossos because of Sir Arthur Evans's partial reconstruction.
One of the remnants of this amazing culture, so unlike the patariarchal culture of the last four millenia, is the subject of their artwork. The frescos show dolphins cavorting in the sea, blue monkeys picking fruit, an octopus waving its tenacles, a young man stepping through a lilly field, tall papyrus plants bursting with color.

Even the pendants and seals show a remarkable gift for precision and beauty, with representations of bees and deer so finely crafted that I have to wonder if the artisans had magnifying glasses.

What is missing in Minoan art? Scenes of war, of the abduction and rape of women, of torture (on the cross or otherwise), of dour church patriarachs and saints devoid of joy.

The Minoans flourished centuries before the Trojan War, an epic event in the early days of patriarchal hegemony that became a touchstone for art of the Classical and Hellenestic periods. Later, with the rise of Christianity, art has focused for centuries on the passion of Christ and matyred saints. I remember a few years back leaving a museum in Florence feeling queasy because of all the horrific scenes of crucifixion and torture.

Nancy and I leave for Paris within a week. We will, of course, wander through museums during our five days there. But really, do I need to see one more rendering of Zeus taking a woman by force or of a bloody Christ suffering on the cross, or a martyr being beheaded, stoned, flayed, or set ablaze?

Give me the Minoan world of light and sensuality, where the joy of being alive in this glorious world pulses through each brush stroke.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Our Mediterranean Diet

Here on Crete, Nancy and I have been enjoying the "Mediterranean diet."

For example, yesterday for lunch we fixed the above plate and savored by the swimming pool: green salad, fava beans, olives, bread soaked in olive oil, and feta cheese.
Basically, the diet emphasizes plants: fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt, fish, and poultry. A little red meat, mostly lamb. Olive oil is important, and we love the Cretan tradition of drizzling it on rusk, the whole grain hard-as-rock bread.

We have been carrying a tin of Cretan olive oil with us since our first weeks on Crete. The olive oil of this island is renowned for its "lightness." I don't know if that's true, but it certainly is delicious enough that when I return home I will look for Cretan olive oil at the market.

A glass or two of wine also is part of the Mediterranean diet, and here we have all sorts of delicious wines in even the smallest grocery store. On Santorini we tried some local bulk wine in a plastic bottle. Not great, but satisfying. Right now we're enjoying a bottle of dry red from the Boutari vineyards, one of the most prominent vineyards on Crete and Santorini.

The produce here is also reputed to be more flavorful than elsewhere because of the volcanic soil and climate. Nancy praises the eggplant. We have noticed that the egg yolks are the rich, almost orange color we see in the eggs from our Minnesota brother-in-law's free-range chickens.

I don't want to give the impression that we are dietary angels. We have enjoyed plenty of gyros-- spicy shaved pork with thin-sliced onions and tomatoes, tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber sauce), and a few French fries, all tightly rolled in grilled pita bread.

And the baklava! Crispy filo dough, chopped nuts, honey, and cloves wins out everytime over a piece of fresh fruit. Anyone in Athens who is looking for the best baklava, head for the Plaka and Benethe Bakery. Their version is made with pistachios and abundant cloves, a generous piece for only one euro 20 cents that we eat standing at one of the tiny tables on the pedestrian Adrianou St. and people-watch.

Socrates once said, "Moderation in all things, including moderation." That goes for the Mediterranean diet, too. Bring on the baklava!


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May Day Bacchanelia

Agreco, an organic farm a few kilometers south of Rethymnon, Crete, puts on a special tour and lunch every May Day. (It's a variation of their regular evening dinner.)

Located on a slope overlooking the Sea of Crete, the 40,000 square meter farm provides produce for select hotels in the area. This re-creation of a 17th century farm also operates as a sort of working museum with stations showing traditional Cretan methods of agricultural production.

At the olive press, a donkey (now retired) would move stone wheels that crush olives as the oil runs off through a drain hole. The tailings are dried and put down as floor covering, much as we use sawdust or gravel. We sampled two Agreco olive oils dipped in fresh crusty bread and in Cretan whole grain rusk, a hard crunchy bread that takes a strong set of molars to chew.

We saw spits of lamb roasting on open-air wood fires and bread baking in the outdoor wood-fired oven. All the aromas mingled with the smell of fresh herbs and blooming flowers--many had been picked and woven into wreaths to adorn the heads of the many French, German, and Russian girls -- and boys -- at Agreco that day.

The wine tasting station offered red and white farm-produced wine and next to it, a wood-burning still, where the fermented must from the wine press was boiled. The steam escaped though a tube that passed through an urn of cool water and emerged as 70% proof Cretan raki. Nancy and I tossed back three half-shots of the delicious tequilla-like liquor that the tradionally-dressed workers kept handing us.

"Yamas!" they'd exclaim as they clicked their glasses to ours. This traditional Greek toast is a contraction of “Stin ygeia mas” (Στην υγεία μας), which means “to our health!”

Happily we moved on up the hill to our open-air lunch overlooking vineyards and fields of artichokes and out to the sea.

Course after course of delicious Cretan appetizers, crusty bread, rice pilaf, lamb, chicken, roasted potatoes and eggplant, salad, more lamb, more potatoes, fruits, goat cheese, creamy yogurt, and desserts. Oh, and a pitcher of house wine.

And that's all I remember...except for a vague memory of Nancy and me holding hands and dancing Greek-style in a large circle . . . .


Note: For more info about the farm, go to

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fire in a Greek Synagogue

The old synagogue in Chania, Crete, suffered two arson attacks in 2010.

Our guide Alexander smiled sadly. "The police caught the men who set the fires. Two British, two Americans, and a Greek."

"What was their motive?" Amy, a school counselor, asked.

"We don't know," the handsome young Greek said in almost unaccented English.

“What was done with them?" asked Amy’s partner Terry, a criminal justice teacher.

Alexander smiled sadly again. "They were released. There were no charges. We installed a security system, something we never wanted."

Amy, Terry, Becky, and I were visiting Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete, where Jews have lived for over 2400 years. The synagogue, originally a Venetian Catholic church, was given to the Jewish Community by the Ottomans when they took over Crete in the 16th century. It remained a place of worship until the Germans occupied the Greek island four centuries later.

On June 8, 1944, the Nazis obliterated the Jewish community on Crete by putting all Jewish families on a ship for the first leg of their journey to Auschwitz. A British submarine sank the ship, killing everyone on board, including many children. The synagogue was destroyed and remained virtually a ruin until the World Monuments Fund named it a most endangered site in 1996, and Nikos Stavroulakis completed the restoration in 1999.

Last January, this exquisite little restored synagogue was broken into and set on fire. Although there was damage, the Torahs were unharmed. Two weeks later, with the synagogue's interior cleaned and repainted, the arsonists struck again. This time the fires completely gutted both floors, destroying the main archive, and burning many of the library's 1000 sacred texts and reference books, valuable 16th century Ottoman textiles, and the synagogue's data base. In the Mikvah, the ritual bathing room, we spotted boxes of charred books. Again, the fires spared the Torahs.

As we four sat silently on the wooden benches, I recalled the monument Amy had discovered in the square beside Athens' cathedral a few days earlier. It depicts the archbishop who opposed persecution of Greek Jews during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation. When arrested in 1943, Archbishop Damaskinos told the Nazis, "Members of the clergy of Greece may not be shot, they may only be hanged. I beg you to respect this tradition. . . ." His life spared, he lived another six years.

Anti-Semitism runs like poison through the centuries. It is inspiring to see people like the Archbishop and Jewish Greeks like Alexander and other members of Etz Hayyim Synagogue face down bigots and affirm their place in Crete, where a long Jewish history came very close to being obliterated.

Information about the Chania synogogue and the story of Crete's Jewish community can be found at If you want to contribute to the restoration of the synagogue, contact Alexander Phoundoulakis at


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Becky's Sinister Paradise

Becky's first novel, Sinister Paradise, was published in the spring of 1993. We re-met and fell in love that fall, a time of delirious happiness for me.

One night before bed in my apartment in Rochester, MN, I picked up her book. Since I had to teach an 8am English class, and since I don't read mysteries, I intended to skim the three-page prologue so I could say I had at least looked at the book.

But from the first sentence, I was hooked, transported to Santorini, Greece. I couldn't stop reading. Would Britt and Cassie admit their love for each other? Would Britt survive the "accidents" at the archeological site? Would she uncover the smuggling operation? I finished the book at 3am.

I'd had no idea Becky could write so well. Good writing touches me deeply. If I hadn't already been completely smitten, this intense lesbian mystery/love story would have toppled me into the caldera.

I soon learned more about Becky's connections to Greece and other ancient cultures.

When she was 27, for her first trip abroad, she backpacked alone through Greece for six weeks. Four years later, she returned to gather material for Sinister Paradise. She stayed nearly a month.

Becky's idea of a good read is The Iliad. She re-reads it or The Odyssey almost every year. She pores over The Aeneid, Herodotus, and descriptions of Minoan culture. Our Kindle contains, among her books for this trip, Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe, The Oracle: Ancient Delphi, and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, published in 431BCE! One day a few years ago, we rounded a corner in a museum in Torino, Italy to a huge breath-taking statue of the goddess Athena. Becky burst into tears.

She often said that she wanted to take me to the Acropolis, Santorini, Delphi, Knossos, and other places she loves, but Greece got bumped to the back burner by other more pressing travel.

Finally we are here, in a land where history is measured in millennia, where huge temples to Athena dominate contemporary cities' high ground, and where Becky believes she lived in one or perhaps many past lives.

Last week our ferry sailed into Santorini's extraordinary caldera, created around 1450BCE, when a volcano exploded and collapsed. We hopped a local bus to Kamari Beach, the site of some of the novel's most intense action. Although it was so cold that we were the only people on the long black beach, I could imagine Britt and Cassie's sailboards blazing through the sun-drenched blue-green Aegean waves.

I had been re-reading Sinister Paradise for the first time since 1993, restricting myself to 3 or 4 chapters a day to prolong the pleasure. That night, I picked up Sinister Paradise to read a chapter near the end. Mistake! Gripped by the action and impressed all over again by the sheer skill of the writing, I couldn't stop until I had reached the nerve-shattering conclusion.

If you haven't read Sinister Paradise, there are several copies on Amazon for one cent plus shipping. Or, even better, you can reduce our attic inventory and get a personally autographed copy directly from the author!


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lindos, Rhodes

The town of Lindos, on the east coast of Rhodes, is a popular resort town with tens of thousands of Europeans flowing to its beaches in the summer. The high season hasn't started yet, so the crowds are thin. Strolling along the narrow streets, many with pavement and floor designs made of colored stones, is easy. We hear a lot of French, German, Danish and Swedish being spoken by tourists. No English, though.

The town is a World Heritage site, its sugar cube buildings dating from medieval times. No cars are allowed--only scooters, donkeys, and pedestrians.

Above the town soars the 4th century BCE Acropolis. It's built on a promontory that separates the two main bays, both with beautiful blue-green water and sweet, though rocky, beaches.

The Acropolis's main temple, built to honor Athena, is mostly a ruin, with only a few columns standing. A female deity named Lindia was being worshipped here thousands of years before Athena showed up.

The Romans built on this site, as did the Knights of St. John, who constructed a medieval fortress around the Acropolis using blocks from the ancient temples. This 12th century religious order, also called Knights Hospitallers, came from European Catholic countries to care for wounded and sick crusaders. They arrived in Rhodes in 1309, built a huge hospital that Nancy and I saw in Rhodes' Old Town, and defended the island against capture by the Turks for the next 200 years.
The morning was rainy as we ascended the winding stairway to the Acropolis. When we reached the top, thunder rolled from the thick dark clouds, and lightning flashed above the sea. It was thrilling. I felt close to the ancient deities who once filled people with awe...and occasionally still do!


Acropolis Museum and Noble Athena

The new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2008, is brilliant and innovative. As Nancy and I walked toward the entrance we were startled to have the pavement turn to plexiglass, exposing an archaeological dig below our feet. There are outlines of buildings, vases halfway exposed, and tables and chairs for the workers. Inside the museum, sections of the flooring reveal more excavations.
The Acropolis with its magnificent Parthenon (Athena's temple), towering high above the museum, is visible through the glass walls. The museum's second story sits at an angle to the first floor, purposefully skewed to parallel the Parthenon. Inside steel columns mimic those of the ancient temple in a 1:1 proportion so you get an idea of the size. All around the museum recreation of the Parthenon are beautiful works of art. The inner row displays the friezes, another shows the metropes, and the third contains pediment sculptures, all at a level where we can see details--something the ancients could not do. Most of these pieces are place holders, waiting for the authentic marbles housed in the British Museum, to be repatriated to Greece.

The museum continuously plays a wonderful movie showing the history of the Acropolis and how it was originally decorated (the marble sculptures were painted). It also shows the painful history of how parts of this mighty structure were destroyed, including the desecration by early Christian zealots and the explosion of a Turkish armory.

One of the most interesting facts that I learned was that the Myceneans had erected a temple to Athena over 3,500 years ago--a thousand years before Pericles built the grand temple whose remains we see today.

It is awe-inspiring to see a temple and its statuary devoted to a goddess. The representations of the female denote strength, in such stark contrast to the churches and religions of the "modern" era where women have been disempowered for millenia.
Each depiction of Athena, from the broken marble figure on the pediment to the 1/12th scale model of the 40-foot statue that used to tower over worshippers inside the Parthenon, radiates serene, dignified power. She is no delicate, subservient girl. Her gaze is calm and direct; her breasts are full; her strong neck supports a noble head; powerful thighs show clearly through her robes. She is comfortable with her mature, womanly body.

I am grateful for such a splendid image of female strength, thankful that her people, the Athenians, have preserved her temple as best they could for nearly 25 centuries. May this beautiful new museum continue to honor her memory far into the future.


Note: Picture of inner museum is from Wikipedia, Tilemahos Efthimiadi photographer.

Athen's Metro

From our picture below, would you assume Nancy and I were in a museum?

Now would you think we were at an archaeological site?

Would you believe we took both photos in a subway station in Athens?

Work on the new metro began in 2000 and was slowed considerably by the nature if the city--Athens is built on the ruins of thousands of years of inhabitants. Every time the workers ran into a pot or bone, the archaeologists were called in to catalogue and clear the site.

Some of the artifacts are now displayed in cases. One amazing wall is made of glass, allowing a view of the strata under the city. Pots from the time of the Ottoman empire are visible, as well as an early Christian grave with the bones in place.

The subway is clean and fast. It has substantially reduced air pollution in Athens. The first day of operation in 2006, it took 100,000 cars off the streets. The Metro takes you to the airport or to the port of Pireaus to catch a ferry to the many Greek islands.

It is amazing what a city can do when it has the political will. I think of the struggle we have had in the Twin Cities trying to get light rail expanded. Mass transportation is the future. If Athens can do it, so can Minnesotans.


Friday, April 22, 2011

The T-Shirt Mystery

After visiting Kerameikos Cemetary (see previous post), our friends from Italy and we found a shady table at an outdoor taverna. A sturdy waiter brought us crusty bread, light Greek olive oil, grilled souvlaki, crispy calamari, traditional stuffed peppers and tomatoes, roasted eggplant, and a carafe of smooth local white wine.

At the table next to us, a lively group was enjoying a similar meal. A man in his late fifties whose back was to us wore a t-shirt. with the words "I hiked . . . " The rest was hidden. Where had he hiked? We had fun speculating. Finally he leaned forward, and we glimpsed "the trail." Ah. The location must be on the front of the shirt. It became our mission to find out.

Terry volunteered to glance in his direction on her way to the bathroom, but all she could make out was an unfamiliar name word beginning with K. Amy suggested she take a photo of our table from an angle that would include the t-shirt. But as Terry aimed her camera, trying to fit in our table and the man with the T-shirt, one of his dining companions offered to take a picture of our foursome, thinking that was Terry's intention.

Later, I went to their table, greeted them, and said we were curious about his shirt. The man expanded his chest to show the words Mount Kamakou."Is the highest mountain on Molokai," he beamed. Exactly 4920 feet high, I learned later.

"Well, that's impressive," I said. "Where are you all from?"

"From Belgium," the woman who had taken our photo said.

A little while later as we were leaving the restaurant, I saw the Belgian man near the entrance. We talked for a couple of minutes. He and his wife had been on Molokai helping out at the hospital Father Damien founded for lepers. When I was in the convent, studying to become a Maryknoll Missionary, I remembered learning about this missionary priest's extraordinary service to Hawaii's untouchable outcasts.

"Father Damien was from Belgium!" my new friend exclaimed.

"I didn't know that."

"You must see the movie about his life -- Molokai: The Story of Father Damien. He will become saint soon." His clear blue eyes blazed into mine.

My heart overflowed. Obeying an inner prompting, I rested my hand on his cheek. "Thank you for all the good that you do."

He held my gaze, smiling back at me. "I do what I can."

As we women threaded our way down the narrow cobbled streets away from the restaurant, Mary Oliver's question sang through me: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

P.S. Father Damien Day is celebrated throughout Hawaii the same week I met his blue-eyed Belgian champion.


Spring in Greece

Spring is a wonderful time to visit Greece. The crowds of tourists and the heat of summer haven't yet arrived. It's cooler than usual this April, so Nancy and I bundle up on our hikes.

Best of all, everything that can be green IS green. The profusion of wildflowers is awesome, and the fragrance of orange blossoms in every neighborhood of Athens is intoxicating.

I can't stop taking pictures of blood-red poppy-like anemone, said to be the blood drops of Aphrodite's slain lover, Adonis.

The fields are white and yellow with daisies, and the meadows full of deep blue lupine.

(Nancy by daisies just below the Acropolis on a sunny day)

The most exciting find was the pink tulips saxatilis, which grows only in high mountain meadows in Crete. This delicate pink tulip is on the cover of my Flowers of Greece booklet, bought one spring 32 years ago when I first fell in love with this ancient country. We were lucky enough to spot at least a hundred of these rare wild tulips in full bloom.

An Ancient Green Cemetery

As Becky and I approach Kerameikos, we know it is different from the other archeological sites we had visited in Greece. It is the land that received many thousands of bodies for over 1500 years, the most important cemetery of ancient Athens. The earliest tombs date from the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BCE). Athenians continued burying their dead there until approximately the 6th century CE (Current Era).

On display in a small museum at the entrance are prehistoric grave offerings, tall urns that held ashes of the deceased, and archaic tombstones inscribed with expressions of grief over the loss of loved ones. One ornate chest is labeled ossuary, used where burial space was scarce. A body is buried in a temporary grave, and after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in the chest, making it is possible to store the remains of many people in a single tomb.

At the far end of one room stands a graceful life-sized statue of Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods). Becky and I marvel again at the powerful Godesses and human females depicted in ancient Greek art as well as the sculptors' skill in chiseling such realistic draped clothing.

The most interesting sign was about the Plague that struck in 430 BCE, killing thousands of Athenians. Physicians had no idea how to treat their patients and died themselves in large numbers. Each morning, the bodies were picked up, often near public fountains where the victims had tried to quench their terrible thirst. In violation of Athenian burial law, the corpses were dumped into a mass grave in Keramikos.

Outside the museum, sun-drenched and tree-shaded paths wind through ancient gavesites and the foundations of buildings and walls. (The Acropolis with its magnificent temple to Athena, is visible in the background.) Although we don't see any families lounging on the grass, my mother would have recognized this as a "fine and private place" for a picnic. Proponents of natural cemeteries can applaud Athens for maintaining this prime real estate as a public green space. Of course, Kerameikos was also green in the environmental sense: no embalming fluids, metal caskets, or concrete burial vaults went into the earth here. The cemetery, however, was full of marble tombstones, which contemporary green burial grounds do not include.

Once again, I'm reminded of "time's winged chariot hurrying near." Whether we succumb to hubris or live humbly, remorseless Nemisis pushes us toward the grave. May we drink deeply from the fountain and love our dear ones while we can.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Are You Ladies All Alone!?!

When we pulled up to the US/Mexico border crossing at noon last February 13th, an agent leaned down to our window. “Where are you driving from?” he asked.


His jaw dropped. “Cancun?! All by yourselves?!”

Translation: “Without a man along?!”

That response was repeated by the custom officials. Guess they don’t see too many middle-aged ladies driving through Mexico together.

And that, frankly, was a good reason for making the journey of 7,200 miles. It proved to ourselves ,to the people we met along the way, and to those who have heard about our road trip that we can do it.

Another surprising part of this border crossing was that we could bring fresh produce into the United States. We had a few leftover limes, avocados, oranges, bananas, and nuts that we expected to hand over. The only item the customs officials confiscated was an apple that probably had been imported to Mexico from Washington State. Maybe winter when we fly to Cancun, we’ll see if we can bring back a some delicious Mexican limones, avocados, and mangoes. And the next time we drive to Cancun All By Ourselves, maybe we’ll bring in a couple of 25-pound sacks of oranges that vendors were selling along the road by the fruit orchards in Veracruz.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Driving in Mexico: Pluses

Why did we enjoy our road trip in Mexico? First there’s the joy of beautiful and surprising sights, for example mile after mile of trees laden with oranges along the Gulf, thundering waterfalls and pine-forested mountains of Chiapas, a breathtaking flock of flamingos in the Yucatan, and the eighth most visited aquarium in the world in Veracruz. (See our February 4, 2011 posting)

Second, delicious and inexpensive regional specialties made from fresh ingredients, like the artistic mango-on-a-stick pictured in our February 10, 2011 posting. One noon we pulled into an open-air restaurant far from any town, right on the Gulf of Mexico. Within minutes, we were enjoying fresh red snapper, savory beans and rice, a stack of hot tortillas, several piquant sauces, and a cold beer, all for under $10.

Third, friendly, helpful people. Everyone was helpful and patient with my Spanish as I bought a cell phone, had my teeth cleaned, applied for a senior citizen card, and took violin lessons. Having a car meant Becky and I got to meet skillful, creative mechanics who went out of their way to solve the water leaks that plagued our rusty old Buick. My new friend on Isla Mujeres, Adolfo, welded patches over the rust holes and then escorted me to the hard-to-find local lavacar, where we had a satisfying discussion of 12-step recovery, parenting, and homosexuality while the car was being washed.

Fourth, a sense of competence in dealing with conditions that don’t exist at home. Being in a foreign country, much less driving long distances in one, stretches a person. It is fun and satisfying to accomplish something that seems difficult and scary.

Fifth, day after day of compatible togetherness. Becky and I love road trips, and this one was especially sweet…probably because it was so adventurous. We worked well as a team. When one person was tired, the other seemed alert. We found ourselves talking through situations effectively, such as locating lodging or trying to figure out the procedure at the border. We loved listening to music and to books on tape. We read a novel out loud to each other—Water for Elephants. The long drives went by amazingly quickly.

People often asked us if we weren’t afraid of all the violence. We didn’t have any trouble and never felt in danger. The main threat we saw up close is to the economy of Isla Mujeres. Restaurants and hotel, including our Nautibeach Condos, were half empty because of people’s fears of Mexico. But Mexico is a huge country, and the Yucatan has a murder rate roughly equal to that of France.*

I’m grateful for the whole experience. Even so, next winter Becky and I will take a direct flight to Cancun. We’ll be breathing in that tropical air and gazing at the turquoise Caribbean waters about 3 hours after leaving Minneapolis!

*Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 30, 2010, D8.

Driving in Mexico: Challenges

Although we didn’t have any serious problems driving 7,200 miles from Minneapolis to Cancun and back, Becky and I did encounter a few challenges.

The most consistent problem was the inconsistent quality of the roads. After hours of single-lane pot-holed roads, we might find ourselves on a modern 4-lane divided highway cruising along at 100 kilometers per hour. Finally, we’d smile, we’re making good time. And look– we’re only 1100 kilometers from Cancun!

Within twenty minutes, however, we’d usually run into one or more challenges:

1. Lane reduction. The divided highway suddenly narrows to a 2-lane blacktop road with no shoulder but deep, craggy potholes.

2. A village. We brake for ten to twenty topes. We creep over the high speed bumps, holding our breath as the muffler and exhaust pipe scrape against the cement.

3. Road construction. A guy in jeans and t-shirt vigorously waves a little flag. Cars, trucks, and buses creep through the next mile or so of dirt and rocks.

4. A military checkpoint. We wait in line for a few minutes or maybe an hour. Armed soldiers in combat fatigues approach the car. They examine our drivers’ licenses and passports, ask where we’ve been and where we’re going, and sometimes look through our trunk. Although these soldiers are unfailingly courteous, the barricades, machine guns, uniforms, and semi-automatic rifles are intimidating. We’re relieved when they let us proceed.

5. A local cop. In one village, the policeman who pulled us over said we were speeding, a serious infraction. In a larger town, the officer second said we had run a red light, a very serious infraction. The fine for each of these was well over $200. If we didn’t have time to go to the police station, he would allow us to pay on the spot. After negotiating a lower amount, we paid on the spot.

Eventually, we got used to challenges 1-4. Armed with tips from a friend who has often driven in Mexico, we even managed to avoid being pulled over again. But we never adapted to the inadequate signage. One morning, for example, the modern 4-lane highway we were cruising on forked without warning. Both branches looked like main arteries. The sign over the left road said 180D. The sign over the right road also said 180D. Quick! Choose! I went right. Within a mile, the highway petered out and we came to a tiny pueblo. More topes! Guess we should have gone left.

Even more challenging was entering a town with no signs pointing a route through the crowded, narrow streets to the highway on the other side. If it weren’t for our GPS, I wonder how we would have gotten through several large cities. But sometimes the GPS was wrong, and then we navigated by instinct, luck, and the kindness of the locals.

So would we drive to Cancun again? Absolutely!

What, are you two crazy?

That answer must wait for another day.