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The call of the tomato

Here’s the thing: I really love tomatoes.

Spain has amazing fruit. Melocotones and ciruelas, frambuesas and cerezas – the cerezas (cherries) were particularly spectacular, especially when picked straight off the tree on a hot afternoon.

Cherry picking, somewhere past Leon

But the tomatoes, like many other vegetables in Spain, are terrible. And in the end, that’s what brought me back home.

The problem was the e-mails I kept receiving. “Kale’s in,” one would say. “Radishes just starting to sprout.” “You should see the carrots. You should really see the carrots.” And most importantly, “Tomatoes are coming along just fine.”

Meanwhile, my life underwent a radical change when I decided to move to Texas in the fall. The more I thought about Texas, and tomatoes, the more I came to understand that I couldn’t bear a summer more fresh vegetables than you can possibly eat. So, despite the temptations of European travel, I changed my plane ticket and returned home early. I visited family and friends in New York and Pennsylvania. And then finally, on Sunday, I arrived in Worcester and went straight to Nuestro Huerto, my favorite urban farm. I arrived just in time for their block party. And I went straight for the heirloom tomatoes.

I go to Texas on Monday, where it will be about 10000 degrees outside and in the middle of a drought. But this week I’m soaking up the rain, and eating all the tomatoes I can get my hands on.

Ripening verduras*

Weather:
Rainy and 71 degrees.

Mood:
Hannah: 8 out 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. yum.

Anna: 7 out of 10. Just ate a tomato.

*Photo credit to Nuestro Huerto. Photo is from last year’s crop.

I never imagined hiking the Great Wall of China. Pictures I had seen — the throngs of tourists with cameras, the sea of bodies moving from watch tower to watch tower as the wall darted and rose in the background. But three days ago, I woke early and traveled to Mutianyu, about an hour and a half drive from the Forbidden City in Beijing, where I’d stayed since Tuesday.

We drove through ring road after ring road until we reached a highway I hadn’t traveled on before. In less than 45 minutes, we were passing fertile farm towns where rows of corn stretched wide and the stalks rose high. Willows and poplars lined the road and ushered us past a small river dotted with bridges. Soon we came to a place advertising itself as an “eco village” and one of Beijing’s most beautiful towns. We bounced past once-colorful, now-muted and rusted playgrounds and campgrounds — empty except for a smattering of colorful tables — until we arrived at the busy entrance to Mutianyu.

Tourists have several climbing options: they can take cable cars up to the wall or choose to climb one of the paths, hundreds of steps long, to one of the many watch towers. On the way down, there’s a third option — a toboggan — that looks not unlike a giant twisting slide you would find at Disney World.

I tried to spot the actual wall as I climbed the path, but the trees and the mist obscured the view. Even when I finally ran up the watch tower stairs and swiveled around to see the surrounding land, I could barely make out the rest of the structure in the distance. Visibility was more or less limited to one watch tower ahead of my position. At 9:00 AM on a Friday morning, most other tourists were still on their way to the wall, and with the heavy fog, I could almost imagine I alone kept watch in the towers.

The Great Wall in the mist.

Watch tower.

In less than a half hour, though, the visibility improved and hundreds more climbers poured into the towers and onto the wall. I overhead conversations in Chinese, Japanese, English, French, Spanish, and Hebrew as people from all over the world walked along this magnificent granite structure, originally built by the Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577) and later rebuilt and reinforced by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Better visibility.

China is, at once, everything I expected and nothing I imagined. Every which way I look, I find something that fascinates, that spurs my imagination, or that baffles me. In Beijing, at all hours of the day, there are people playing cards on the sidewalk, dancing or practicing tai chi in the parks, or men in public spaces, carefully honing their technique with a giant whip (I filed that under the hybrid “baffling/fascinating” category). And each day, before tucking into bed, I observe the city one last time from the top of my hotel, taking in the tiled roofs and pagodas around me. Until 10 PM, that is, when the lights illuminating the historic buildings of Beijing turn off all at once, snuffed out by some invisible worker.

Weather: Now in Delhi, India where it’s hot, humid, and gray.

Mood:

Anna: 8 out of 10 on my first day in India!

Hannah: Hopefully happy and staying cool after her magnificent travels.

100 Percent Hot*

It’s pouring rain outside of my window and I finally feel like I’ve come home.

I was in Europe for two months. Two months always goes faster than you think it will: I could swear it was only a few weeks ago that I packed up my bags and walked through security at Logan Airport. But when I left the blossoms had just come out on the trees and it was still cold enough to wear sweaters in the morning.

Apparently a lot changed in my absence, because on Wednesday I stepped out of the airconditioning and found myself in the middle of a heat wave. The temperature peaked at 98 this week, according to my household thermometer. (That’s 36 in celsius!) For the last two days all I’ve done is sit on the couch in a stupor, reading Gary Shteyngart or staring off into space. I don’t know whether it was the heat wave or the jet lag that did me in, but I’ve hardly been able to move, never mind speak in complete sentences or write coherent statements. The Emotional Calendar has all kinds of tips for managing jet leg, but I was too hot and tired to do any of them. “I should have stayed in Barcelona,” I moaned several times a day.

Then this morning I woke up at 5:30 (that’s 11:30 Barcelona time!), just in time to hear the first drops of rain against the windows. Minutes later we were in the midst of a full-fledged thunder storm. Lightning flashed, water poured in through the wide-open windows (I took a break from writing this to run around shutting them) and the temperature dropped to 70 degrees. Finally, I’m glad to be home.

Weather: 70 degrees and raining
Mood:
Hannah: 8 out of 10.
Anna: in Beijing!

*Image courtesy of weather.com

The End of the World

Sunset at Finnisterre

Sunset at the end of the world

The other day I walked to the end of the world, and I watched the sun set in the Atlantic from the most Western point in Spain. According to the Romans, this was the end of the world; each time the sun fell beyond the horizon there was doubt as to whether it would rise again. According to older traditions, a boat that sets out from this point will arrive eventually in paradise. Not to be too symbolic about the whole thing, but we now know that if I were to set out in a boat and sail west from Finnisterre, I would arrive, eventually, in Boston.

I walked about 790km, or 36 days, to make it to the end of the world. I walked through Basque country, where I could see my breath in the morning and where the fields of wheat rolled towards red clay towns nestled in the valleys. I walked across the meseta, which is utterly flat farmland that shimmers in the sun. I passed through Rioja, famous for its wine, and through Burgos and Leon, with the most beautiful gothic cathedral I have ever seen. Near the end I crossed a windy mountain pass and entered Galicia, where they speak Galician, a derivative of Portuguese. In Galicia the houses are made of slate and the hills are covered with oak forests that drip with moss: tradition says Galicia, which was once Celtic, is the home of witches.

One super-hot 40 degree day I walked 40km and ended up sleeping in a cow field on a hill surrounded by eucalyptus trees; the next day I got up early and walked to Santiago de Compostela. According to Catholic tradition, the Camino de Santiago ends there, and it was an ending of sorts as I reunited with friends I had made along the way. But the camino predates the Catholic church and so I kept on walking until I reached the ocean, which to me felt like a more fitting ending to a long road.

On the camino you follow yellow arrows, or scallop shells, which show you which way to go. It was a running joke among my companions that we would be totally lost without these symbols to guide us. And it’s true that for the three days I spent in Finnisterre, I didn’t know what to do without anywhere to go. I slept on the beach, I went swimming, I collected shells, watched the sun set, hoped (liked the Romans) that it would rise again. To my surprise, every day, with or without yellow arrows, it did.

Basque Country, Northeast Spain

 

The meseta, outside Leon

Approaching Galicia, northwest Spain

Weather: cool and sunny, London!

Mood: Hannah, 7 out of 10, a bit groggy after a long weekend.

Although for me summer began as soon as I could ditch my coat and sweater every morning, it’s official start is today, the summer solstice. Many people mark the year’s “longest” day — the day when we in the Northern hemisphere experience the lengthiest period of sunlight all year — but my favorite celebratory ritual is a fictional account from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (best known for The Hundred and One Dalmatians).

On the morning of Midsummer Day, the narrator, Cassandra, closets herself in the attic of her family’s crumbling castle and reflects on the rites she and her sister, Rose, traditionally perform each June 21:

“Yesterday I instantly remembered that it was Midsummer Eve, my very favorite day, and lay awake looking forward to it and planning my rites on the mound. They seemed all the more valuable because I wondered if it might not be my last year for them — I didn’t feel as if it would, but Rose outgrew them when she was about my age. And I agree with her that it would be dreadful to perform them just as an affected pose; they were a bit peculiar last year when Topaz [her freewheeling stepmother] kindly assisted me and went very pagan. The nicest times of all were when Rose and I were young enough to feel rather frightened.”

In this year of transition, Cassandra is celebrating Midsummer without her sister, and so she gathers wild flowers, braids campion and bluebells into a garland, and weaves roses into her hair alone. Then, as the church bells ring nine times, she piles twigs on top of logs and ceremoniously lights them on fire with a taper. Only when “the whole world [seems] filled with hissing and crackling and roaring,” does Cassandra carry out the ritual and dance and leap around the sacred fire — but this Midsummer she’s joined by an unexpected guest.

Midsummer bonfire in Mäntsälä, Finland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve never marked the start of summer in quite the same way, but I like the idea of pausing to reflect on the seasonal transition. I have, however, been to a Swedish Midsummer party with garlands and cake and a feast. Maybe next time I’ll suggest a bonfire.

Weather: Gorgeous, sun-filled day with a temperature around 80 degrees. Currently, a lovely summer night.

Moods:

Anna – 7.5 out of 10. Summer has returned and with it, my energy!

Hannah – Perhaps hiking over sacred mounds or enjoying a roaring campfire. I’m imagining the possibilities…

I’ll admit it. At the first sniffle, jabby pain at the back of my throat, or cough, I start worrying I’m coming down with something. I’m particularly conscientious of my health in the fall and winter during the back-to-school flu season, but it’s in the summer that I usually get sick.

Last year, it was the (possible) cat scratch fever (long story) that plagued me until the leaves turned orange. The year before that, just as the warm weather greeted the Northeast, I picked up swine flu at BookExpo America (thank you, Javits Center for your recycled air!). This year, it was nothing as dramatic, but, like clockwork, I got slammed at the beginning of June.

On Sunday, I woke up with a telltale scratchy throat. By nightfall, I was cowering in my bed. The virus passed in 24 hours, but I felt sandbagged all day Tuesday, every motion a chore.

Unpleasant recollections of my week with swine flu rushed back to me, and I relived a two-year-old memory: my epic swine flu-ridden walk to a  local convenience store the day I needed more medicine. At the time,  I felt like I had crossed the Sahara (without a camel) while the sun zeroed it on me and laser pointed its rays at my head. Not pleasant. I couldn’t believe a 15-minute excursion had me gasping for air, burning up, and slightly delirious, but so were the joys of H1N1 that summer.

And so, as I walked to work on Tuesday, I thought back to that more excruciating journey two Junes ago, and celebrated the fact that this time, at least, I didn’t have a disease that was terrifying America and parents everywhere. Just a 24-hour bug.

[There’s no song that I know of about swine flu, but here Ted Nugent croons about cat scratch fever, to the delight of the cats in the video.]

Weather: 70 degrees and cloudy. No sign of tornadoes.

Moods:

Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Friday!

Hannah – She’s on an adventure, and hopefully thrilled by the beautiful landscapes around her.

The only thing I hated more than fire safety week in elementary school was having to watch “Night of the Twisters” in class. Both terrified me. I don’t remember whose idea it was to show the film, but I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be a treat (to be fair, Devon Sawa starred in it, and he was a hit). Instead, it caused me endless nightmares, despite the fact I lived in Massachusetts. Everybody knows that Massachusetts doesn’t have to worry about tornadoes. Except when we do. Like today.

Imagine my surprise today when I received a very serious sounding email from my mother, the weather maven, reading: “Be very, very careful about this weather situation. No joke.” Now imagine my terror when I read her follow-up email: “Tornado watch. Severe storms heading this way with major hail and winds, etc.” I spent the next hour debating whether I would be safer at home or at my office, until I finally took a deep breath and practically ran outside. The flash of lightning and clap of thunder that coincided with my exit didn’t help matters, nor did the too-dark-for-5pm skies.

I’m home now, tucked inside and listening to the news about western Massachusetts, especially Springfield. I’m hoping everyone emerges safely after the storms, although sadly, I’ve heard that one casualty has already been confirmed. The coverage is nonstop even though the tornado warnings have been lifted. Apparently we’re in store for severe thunderstorms and high winds here in Boston, but as of two minutes ago, it doesn’t sound like we’ll have our own night of the twisters tonight. Thankfully.

Springfield after the tornado, courtesy of @TheFalconsAHL

Springfield after the tornado, again courtesy of @TheFalconsAHL

Weather: Lightning, dark skies, wind…and soon enough, rain. Generally, tornadic weather.

Mood:

Anna – 5 out of 10. Happy to be inside, but nervous about funnel clouds.

Buen Camino

Puente la Reina, Spain

I write from Puente la Reina, my fourth stop on the Camino de Santiago, a 30-day medieval pilgrimage route that goes from St. Jean Pied de Port, in France, to Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest corner of Spain.

It´s amazing how easy it has been to slip into a new way of life here. In Spain, I wake up at 5.45 and leave the Alburgue (hostel) by 6.30. A few hours later, if possible, I stop in a small village for a snack. I lunch on the road at noon – today, at a mysterious hexagonal cathedral surrounded by wheat fields. It´s mysterious because no one knows exactly who built it or why – perhaps, it is thought to be a 12th century structure modelled on Jerusalem´s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But it may also be the cathedral where medieval pilgrims were buried when they died on the camino.

It´s not just me that´s taking on this new way of life. There are people here as young as 20 and as old as 70 – I have met folks from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as Hungary, Holland, Korea, Japan, and of course the Americas. Everyone is here for a different reason and the common language is, as in so many other places, broken english.

But it´s fun to be on such a strange adventure with so many different people. Fun to feel united, too, not just with this group of walkers but also with those who travelled centuries ago, by donkey or on foot, to pay penitence or ask for favors or seek god or, a la Chaucer, because it was the thing to do.

Next week, I hope to return with some of the stories that I have heard along the way. Until then, Buen Camino!

Going on Pilgrimage

Botticelli's "Spring"*

Anyone who has read the canterbury tales (and who hasn’t read the canterbury tales!) knows that spring is the time for pilgrimages. After the April rains have washed away the droughts of March, “Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,” as Chaucer says in his infamous prologue. (“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” for those who care).

It’s been true at least since the middle ages and I think, to some degree, it’s true today. In the spring and into the summer, Rome and Florence (where I am now) come alive with modern pilgrims – folks who have traveled half-way across the world to pay their respect to  their own sacred places. Some come to see the Vatican: walking through the long halls of the museum was like being pushed along by a tsunami of tourists. Some come to see the churches, from St. Peter’s and the Duomo in Florence to the hundreds of less well known, but similarly stunning buildings across Italy. But today, I think, most people come to see the art.

It really is amazing how full of art these cities are. Michelangelo and Rafael, Brunelleschi and Botticelli, Titian and Giotto and so many more than I can name. There is something holy about seeing these objects that I have read about and dreamed of and heard described in literature and film. And there is something about spring – about the unfolding beauty outside – that gives these beautiful works of art particular force.  Chaucer describes it as the world and the spirit coming alive together in spring and I do feel like everything has been coming alive this week, both inside and out.

At the Uffizi Gallery on Saturday we spent a lot of time looking at the painting Primavera (spring) by Botticelli. (See above.) It depicts a version of spring that is full of romance and adventure: a blindfolded cupid, a seductive zephyrus, and the goddess Flora with vines literally pouring out of her mouth. Venus, standing in the middle, looks just like the Virgin Mary and it’s tempting to worship at the foot of this painting like you might say a prayer in a church. Some people go on pilgrimage to honor a particular saint or god. I like the idea of going on a springtime pilgrimage merely in order to honor the spring.

Of course, soon I’ll be starting a pilgrimage of an entirely different sort –  but more on that next week.

Weather: well it’s just about midnight here, but today was hot and sunny: close to 90s at its height.

Mood: 6 out of 10. Exhausted.

Anna – 7 out of 10.

*photo from wikicommons.

When in Rome…

Basilica Julia

Really Old Stuff in Rome

I’ve been thinking a lot about time these past few days.

I’ve had good reason. In the past week I have walked on stones that have been in place for thousands of years. I entered temples dedicated to pagan gods and I wandered through the ruins of palaces intended for emperors. I’ve even participated in rituals from another time or place. A few days ago I threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, build in the 1700s but inspired by Greek mythology. According to the story, it depicts Pegasus striking the rock that brought forth the fountain of the muses, from which water all poetic inspiration springs. And then yesterday, at the church of St. Peter, I was blessed with the holy water of the pope.

My brother, who spent the semester in Rome studying art history and classics, knows all of these stories. He has an intimate relationship with all of the Roman emperors (his favorite is Aurelius). He has a Roman god of preference (Sol Invictus) and he knows how to distinguish between Paul III and Pius XI, between Mark Antony and Marcus Aurelius. When he walks around the city, every single spot tells a story.

Because Rome is all new to me, I have a very different experience of time and space.  I don’t know this city’s stories yet, and so for the most part I am forced to make my own. My stories tend to be more based in the present: this is the giant column near where we got great pannacotta. This is the amazing church with the water fountain that sprayed me in the face. This is a giant head. (that’s all I’ve got for the giant head).

I love it when my brother tells me the “real” stories about popes and emperors. But for me, it’s the stories I create that bring the city to life.

Weather:
Warm and sunny. They say it will be in the 70’s today.

Mood:
Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Still a little sleepy today.
Anna: Wrong side of the Atlantic.  Still sleeping! [EDIT: Anna is now awake and working. Mood=5 because it won’t stop raining!]