Thursday, July 21, 2016

it's all greek to me

Before I decided to retire in Mexico, the leading candidate for my new home was going to be Greece.

Or London. Or Paris. Places I had lived and thoroughly enjoyed the complexity of life. But, my favorite was Greece.

Nostalgia is a harsh mistress. Joys always outweigh disappointments when we think about our pasts. It was that way with my Greek memories.

I lived there only one year -- from August of 1973 (when the Watergate was coming to a boil) until August of 1974 (when Richard Nixon made his stage left exit from the White House).

My title was "Technical Advisor to the Hellenic Air Force." A clever little mask that allowed me cover to advise the Greek Air Force in its machinations against the Army dictatorship that was winding down its hold on the government. It was all very heady stuff for a first lieutenant.

But the political doings of the Greeks was not what made me think of retiring there. It was the country.

I lived on the western shores of the Peloponnese (the grape leaf portion of Greece that juts out into the Mediterranean) in an adequate villa in the village of Kato Achaia (or, Κάτω Αχαΐα, as the Greeks would have it). "Cato, Ohio" as it was called by my Air Force colleagues, who never passed up the opportunity to reduce any Greek phrase to something American. I will not titillate you with the bawdier examples.

That portion of Greece was poor, but not extremely poor. Compared with northern Europe, it had not progressed much from its days as an Ottoman outpost.

Telephone connections were difficult. Roads were narrow and pot-holed. And finding any European food imports (let alone American) was a rarity. Greece would not join the EEC for another 5 years, a decision that many Greeks now rue.

The country was (and still is) beautiful -- the type of stark beauty that made Maria Callas a star. Sheer mountains plunging into the blue Mediterranean. And some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

I finally decided not to retire there. Greece bears some rather sad memories for me. The night I left Athens on my way to England, a group of friends held a party for me at the marina in Vouliagmeni. I never saw most of them again due to Philip Agee's treason.

But it was not just politics. I was always surprised how my middle class Greek friends, who lived in Athens, managed to survive. The cost of electricity and gasoline was exorbitant. Even though they always had enough money to go out on the weekend, they always seemed strapped for cash.

When I was ready to retire, the siren call of the beaches nearly called me back to southern Europe. Even in 2009, though, Greece's fiscal problems were evident. It did not look like a country with a future. Thirty years of crony government made the place not much more attractive than Russia as a retirement spot.

It is funny that a lot of my good memories of places circulate around food. I would regularly drive from my assignment on the Peloponnese to Athens. There was a natural break point at the Corinth canal -- the ill-fated narrow channel cut in the limestone to connect the Aegean Sea with the Gulf of Corinth.

There was a souvlaki stand there that served some of the best lamb I have ever tasted. Simple. Grilled. With a bit of lemon, olive oil, and oregano.

I have subsequently attended every Greek  festival and eaten at many Greek restaurants in a vain hope to once again experience that first taste. But, like an opium addict, I am merely chasing the dragon. The experience was a one-shot deal.

On Monday evening, I tried it once again. Alex offered up at Greek night at Magnolia's in La Manzanilla. There were, as always, three entrees offered. When I saw the chicken souvlaki with tzatziki, I knew what my dinner would be.

Alex's dinners are always done well. And this was no exception -- one of the best souvlaki I have had in years.

But I did not catch the dragon. And I never well.

That is one reason I am now retired in Mexico, instead of exploring the archaeological sites of Greece. It has been a fair trade.

After all, the dragon needs to rest, as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

oh, the humanity

Each disaster has its own clues.

And it need not be anything as dramatic as the smoking skeleton of the Hindenburg or the breach in the South Fork Dam above Johnstown. Sometimes, it can merely be a knife.

I saw it sitting on top of the hose box when I returned from my dental appointment in Manzanillo (more on that later). One of my good kitchen knives. The woman who cleans my house (Dora) has a great respect for tools. That meant if one of my good knives was outside of the kitchen, we were in the midst of an emergency. 

And we were. Dora called to me from the upstairs terrace asking if there was a way to shut off the electricity to the pump. A quick look at the stairs showed me why. I had not seen that much water cascading down the stairs since hurricane Patricia visited us last October.

I ran upstairs to see what had happened. Apparently, while Dora's young assistant was cleaning upstairs, the terra cotta cover over a light fell and snapped off one of the water pipe stems the contractor had left for future expansion. We had our own private water feature.

Dora had attempted to use electrical tape to re-attach the pipe (thus the presence of the knife), but the water pressure was too great. The only happy being was Barco, who thought he had a full-day pass to the water park.

I unplugged the well pump to stop the water flow. Dora and I then walked around the corner to purchase a new piece of plastic pipe, a connector, and a cap -- plus the inevitable tube of plumber's cement. Dora's husband will stop by early this afternoon to assist me in undoing the pipe damage. I can then restore water to the house.

At some point, I will need to find a replacement sconce. But, this is Mexico. And terra cotta is as cheap as dirt.

Like most household disasters, this one will be easily resolved. And that may prove to be my undoing. If the Hindenburg crashed in my courtyard, I would have it cleaned out in hours. If a sconce breaks, it may stay broken for years.

I think it was it was Tolstoy who said: "All big disasters are alike; each small disaster is a disaster in its own way." Or something like that.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

big doings in a small town

We may be a small village, but we do have our attractions. Growing attractions, it would seem.

I have already told you about our local dog park. Well, the dogs think it is a dog park. Everyone else thinks it is a sports park. And it looks far more like a sports park these days.

Last April I mentioned a variety show was in town (the pail woman). The troupe had staked their tent just inside the park's fence. And, for over a week, the entire show was broadcast to the neighborhood over speakers positioned on top of the tent. Mexico may have a reputation for being a calming country, but it is not a quiet one.

If the show rolled into town today, it would need to find an alternate site for its doings. What you see at the top of this essay squats on the ground so recently occupied by the variety show.

I cannot remember the exact date, but Barco and I were wandering by the park on an afternoon outing when we encountered a group of people (mainly children) being addressed by the 30-year old attorney who is the president of our municipality. All of them standing in front of a grader and a backhoe.

A fellow who works in the park, who we see often, was walking by. I asked him what was happening. He knows the shallow depths in which I wade in the great sea of Spanish. So, he slowly gave me the short-syllable version that a football field was being installed.

That seemed odd to me. The space looked far too small for a full soccer field.

It turns out I was correct. But my lack of soccer knowledge betrayed me. It is an indoor soccer field -- or what the local kids call showbol or fútbol rápido.

What was rapid was the construction. The contractors had the place up and running within two months. The first official match was on Friday -- once again with our young president and hordes of children in attendance.

And to show we are part of modern Mexico, the inaugural match was played between girl teams. A game that went well into the evening. And, in true Mexican fashion, the contractors managed to get a lighting system erected just in time to prevent the game from being rapid -- and blind.

But the football field is not the only new construction in Barra de Navidad. Ed and I took a stroll along Barra's newly-reconstructed malecon. Hurricane Patricia did its best to turn the whole thing into a rival Atlantis Road.

The town relies heavily upon tourism -- especially upon Mexican families who have trekked to the beach to indulge in sand, sea, and a sculpted mango on a stick. Because the sand has been retreating from our beaches, the malecon is an important tool to let visitors enjoy the natural wonders of Barra.

What made it so vulnerable to the storm is its beauty. On one side is the bay and the Pacific Ocean. On the other side is the lagoon with its boat marinas and moorings.

A friend of mine convinced me years ago that one of the joys of living in Barra de Navidad was getting up each morning and walking the malecon before digging into a breakfast by the sea. After living here for almost two years, I still have not done that. Not even once.

It may be time for me to slip the leash on the dog and fully enjoy where I live. I may even challenge Barco to a game of
fútbol rápido.


Friday, July 15, 2016

breaking the rules

Blogger rule #2 clearly states: "No two consecutive posts can be on the same topic."

Well, I am here to tell you that I am breaking that rule. (For you law and order types, don't worry. I made up the rule in the first place.)

Come to think of it, I have already broken that rule. a tale of two cynics and the dog that did bark were purportedly essays on our senses and watchfulness. But, we all know that is mere justification (and not the theological type). They were about Barco.

Two consecutive posts. Same topic. Rule violation.

On Wednesday, I told you in spinning the wheel with karma miranda about a culinary treat at Magnolia's: a beef sandwich with fried plantains instead of bread -- what Theresa Diaz Gray informs us is called a jibarito. Even though I tried to tart up the essay as my flight from boredom, it was clearly about food.

And so is today's entry. But, food that came from my own kitchen.

There is not a soul alive who cannot deny their kitchen produces the best food in town. And for good reason. We tend to cook dishes that appeal to our personal taste.

That is what I did last night. Butchers in Mexico are very accommodating. Most meats on offer are still in large pieces, and the butchers are willing to slice your requested purchase as thick or thin as you like.

For me, it was a stack of pork chops -- each cut about two inches thick. I was looking for a pork loin strip, but I settled for the chops.

The pork was destined for a very simple stir fry dish. Pork strips. Thinly-sliced red onion. Shredded fresh basil. Toasted pine nuts. Balsamic vinegar. All topping a pile of pasta.

Usually, I put a lot of vegetables in my stir fry. Not last night. I was after simplicity with the pork.

But I did have a nice stack of fresh vegetables. Two jalapeños. Two bell peppers: one red, one yellow. Fresh ginger. Carrots. Garlic. Onions. Water chestnuts. With a nice dash of rice vinegar.

There is something about experimenting in the kitchen that I really enjoy -- especially when the experiment produces a successful meal. And it certainly did yesterday.

Barco and I ate our respective dinners in the courtyard surrounded by the sounds of water splashing in the pool and birds high-tailing it home before they became some predators supper.

I am where I need to be.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

spinning the wheel with karma miranda

Karma runs a fixed game.

Whenever I start mumbling about being bored, as I did in going commando with the japanese about our local food, fate plops a plate of revenge on my lunch table -- a dish that is not necessarily best served cold. Take last Monday.

On each Monday evening, you will usually find me at my favorite table in Magnolia's with my friends Ed and Roxane. It is one of our local rituals -- to climb the hills to La Manzanilla's enchanting beach to dine at one of our favorite restaurants.

During the summer, Alex, the owner-cook, prepares a special menu for the three days she is open each week. There is always a theme. Mediterranean. Asian. All-American. But always something new.

This week, she did something completely different. She turned the kitchen over to Mari, the proprietor of the
pop-up restaurant Sol y Mar.

Mari is usually our waiter. Last week, she told us one of her offerings was going to be a Puerto Rican sandwich with a garlic sauce, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sliced beef. The difference was fried plantains would be substituted for the bread.

I was skeptical. I first tried fried plantains in Cuba. They were underwhelming. My subsequent encounters had not changed my initial impression. I was loth to give them another try.

Until I remembered my two rules of dining out: 1) order something that is too difficult to cook at home, or 2) try something new and different. So, #2 it would be.

And I am glad I ordered the sandwich. It may be the first time I have discovered umami -- that taste our mouth devotes to the savory -- in a sandwich.
Tied with a scoop of potato salad and a root beer float for dessert, my sandwich was a practically perfect meal.
I almost passed up that experience for an equally-tempting pink mole and chicken. But life is made of choices.

The nice thing about Magnolia's is that the portions are large enough I almost always take half of the serving home for my lunch the next day. That is my Tuesday lunch at the top of the post.

Morals are playing a big part in my essays these days. But not in this one. I have learned that Karma can easily play the role of Loki the trickster.

So, with apologies to Mr. Stephen Sondheim, I will close with: Morals tomorrow; comida tonight.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

the dog that did bark

Few things in life are more valuable than the recommendation of a good book from a friend.

Not long after Barco nuzzled his way into my household, my blogger pal Jennifer Rose told me to get a copy of Alexandra Horowitz's Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know -- and to then read it. She promised great insight into the ways of dogs.

I bought the book earlier this year, but it has been sitting in my Kindle waiting for me to weary of my read-about-all-the-dead-presidents project. (I will explain that modified title in a later essay.) A friend in the United States has mailed me a hard copy of a Harding biography -- the next entry on my list. While waiting for it to arrive, I decided it was time to learn a bit more about my rather fickle dog pal.

Barco usually joins me in the pool when I start one of my reading jags. Not because he is infatuated with my presence, but because I usually eat my dinner while I read. He is a food-centered dog.

On Saturday, I shared the two different worlds Barco and I occupy (a tale of two cynics). Mine is sight and sound. His is nasal.

Not surprisingly, that is where Horowitz begins her tale of dog life. She had just told me about the mechanism dogs use to clear their nasal passages of old smells to make way for new -- with a slight sneeze -- when Barco did something I had never heard him do before. He was taking in short bursts of air. Almost as if he had suddenly turned asthmatic.

I was a bit concerned -- until I noticed he was very intent in his sniffing. He was not only sniffing; he was analyzing.

He got out of the pool and started toward the garage door grumbling, as he often does, like an old man muttering about socialism. He then stopped and ran up to the second level where he started barking. When he ran downstairs, I knew he wanted me to come witness some new danger to our sovereign existence.

I almost expected to see hordes of Canadians crawling over the wall. But I could see nothing. Nor could I smell whatever it was that initially set him off.

But he insisted, by barking at the top of the wall, that danger lurked. And then I saw it.

We humans love bathing in hubris that our eyesight trumps the puny efforts of dogs. But tied with his nose, Barco's eyes put mine to shame.

Sure enough, there were intruders. They are right there in the photograph that leads this piece. But, like me, you might need a closer look.

Yup. Two fellows were climbing the tower next to my house -- I presume to do some maintenance work.

In Barco's world, of course, there are no presumptions. People fall into two categories. Friends (people within our walls) and dangerous intruders (anyone on the other side of the wall). And those guys were definitely not inside our walls.

Popular culture runs in cycles. When I was young, westerns were the way to fill the Hollywood bank. No one is much interested in seeing one these days. Sherlock Holmes is far more fortunate -- having waxed and waned in popularity since Conan Doyle released him out of his imagination.

Barco could just as easily have told me, when I finally saw what had caused him to cry "Hey, Rube!" this afternoon: "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear."

Before long, he will be requesting a deerstalker and a briar pipe. It must be the bloodhound in him.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

a tale of two cynics

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Poor Charles Dickens. When he wrote that line, it was fresh and original. Even better, it perfectly (and brilliantly) summed up the tale he was about to tell concerning the glory -- and the horror -- of the French Revolution. Writers enjoy a good hook.

And now? It is like any other cliché. Stripped of its essence by familiarity. Gérard de Nerval's familiar bon mot captures the process: "The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet; the second, an imbecile."

Barco and I breathed some life into Dickens's line last evening during our sunset walk. We are both aesthetes -- each in our own way. The problem is we define beauty quite differently.

That should come as no surprise. Dogs find beauty with their noses. Humans find beauty through sight and hearing.

That is where our Dickensian struggle started last night. We headed out on our walk just as a thunderstorm was rolling in over the mountains. I did not need to look over the walls of the house to see a storm was arriving. As the front passed over the house, the change in air pressure along with an accompanying wind and falling temperature obviated the need for a protocol officer announcing its arrival.

The northern sky was almost purple -- forming a dramatic backdrop for the lightning that ran the full length of the horizon. It was a marked contrast with the various clouds that had gathered to the west promising what would be one of our memorable beach sunsets.

But Barco was having none of that. He was far more interested in who had dropped a birria bone or who had urinated on a roadside clump of grass. For him, the world was filled with the wonder of discovery through his nasal passages.

I, of course, forgot to bring my camera on this walk. When I decided to cut back on writing essays, I also lost the habit of carrying my camera. So, I had to rely on the camera in my telephone -- and live with the adage "good enough is good enough."

But, even that camera was a challenge to operate. Because one hand was tethered to Barco, I looked like a tight rope walker when I would stop to snap a shot. The problem? Barco wanted to keep walking.

That is ironic. Before Barco came into my life, I was walking four miles each morning in just under an hour. I still walk an hour with him. But we are lucky to complete four blocks -- let alone four miles -- in that time.

We just do not share the same aesthetic sensibilities.

If that sounds like a complaint, it isn't. I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know this dog. He is actually becoming a pal. And, at some point, like Sydney Carton, one (or both of us) might be able to say: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

But not quite yet. My metaphoric appointment with Madames Guillotine and Defarge can wait. Maybe they can take my seat in Emily Dickinson's carriage.

I would be missing a great opportunity if I dd not close this little ramble with Billie Collins's take on the aging of dogs.

A Dog on his Master
As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.

Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.

And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.