Lights For The Darkness

Sweet Baby’s parents recently sent a little video of Sweet Baby sitting on the floor next to her dad, surrounded by toys. She has a plastic flip phone with a realistic (old-fashioned) ring, even a fax tone, and she answers and initiates calls:

“Hello, I’m playing with daddy until Christmas! Bye!” Her dad asks who she’s talking to, “Poppa Jim!” When offered the phone to call back, she says, “No, I call Granny Kaytee.” “Hi. Playing with daddy. Christmas lights in the dark.”

When her parents ask for clarification, she (with a little sigh of exasperation), grabs the phone to “redial,” “Hi, Granny Kaytee. I’m just playing with daddy and Christmas lights in the dark. OK? Bye.” She snaps the phone closed with authority.

Well, OK, she’s right! For those of us who live where darkness comes early in the evening and stays long in the morning, dark defines December. And on a morning dim from clouds and rain, when Sweet Baby was here for Thanksgiving week, we lit candles at breakfast. To my delight, each day thereafter Sweet Baby requested that glow.

All the celebrations and realities of the season call for light – warm lamplight, twinkly outdoor sparkles, firelight – and trees! This year will be magic for a nearly three-year old, reading books, decorating the tree, cutting out cookies – and yes, Christmas lights in the dark!

 

Happy Halloween!

I have heard tell that certain little people will be transformed today – in Alaska we’d find one duckling, and one cowboy riding a horse (that part is important, the horse is handsome) – and in California,  a kitty cat with all the feline moves!

I hope you find some cheerful orange this autumn day – Pumpkin pie remains my favorite orange on a dark and spooky night!

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Sweet Baby Explores The Bluff

A week ago Sweet Baby and her family came to visit from Saturday to the next Sunday – a luxury of time. As she came in the door from the Buffalo each morning, we heard a hearty: “Hi Granny Katee, Hi Papa Jim!”

She switches readily between Thai and English depending on her interlocutor – and uses some endearing turns of phrase, “thank you my dada” being one of my favorites. Seated next to me during a discussion about hair color, “my daddy has brown hair, my mommy’s is black,” she then patted my head and said: “cloud.”

Recently a person unknown drove into the fence at the head of our driveway and knocked two posts and the boards asunder. Having lately helped her dad build a pergola in their California backyard, Sweet Baby carried a mallet and trowel and put them to use in the repair. One day we talked to a contractor friend at a building site, and she piped up, communicating urgency with hand gestures while holding a tape measure, saying: “I need a ladder to measure up high.”

The weather was changeable, but we walked many short loops through the nearby woods, where Sweet Baby climbed over mossy windfalls, negotiated tree roots, and initiated game after game of slightly confusing hide-and-seek, “I count, you hide-and-seek!”

Low, low tides meant great beach walking on hard sand. Sweet Baby filled her yogurt container bucket with stones and shells. She slowly overcame her reluctance to touch the giant snakes of kelp her dad waved, and began to carry along a short stub – with bulbous head and topknot fringe of roots – named “Kelpy.”

At Wilderbee Farm we walked a trail behind its cultivated acres, wild roses gone to rose hips, dry mown grass underfoot, and hiding places aplenty. Sweet Baby fed the sheep and, happy to find a friendly animal after the bad attitude of our Frances, petted the huge sheep dog.

She was excited when deer wandered by our windows, and she crouched over slugs to locate their tiny horns. Rabbits, camouflaged against our brindled lawn, froze long enough for Sweet Baby to see their noses and whiskers twitch. From the house I watched her stop with her dad and gently tap the green plastic watering can on the garden steps, to glimpse a frog’s head emerge from the spout.

The final Sunday, a warm and blue-sky day, we spent on Bainbridge Island, walking the trail at Bloedel, eating lunch outside at the bakery, and playing at the Tot Lot. Then, too soon, we headed for the ferry.

Rain returned the next day, and the house seemed quiet and scattered with lonely stuffed animals and toys – but I’m grateful for a grand week!

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Summer Into Fall – Checking Back In

At the very end of August, during that season of national natural disasters, we added a family plague outbreak to the litany. We arrived in Anchorage just as Mrs. Hughes fell to what the pediatrician (two days later when both children had succumbed) declared to be H1N1, Swine Flu.

But in the early days, we had fine grandchildren time – we ate muffins and played tabletop hide-and-seek with the plastic animals at the bakery, and we visited the familiar playground, where Lady Baby tripped across the wiggly bridge and walked the balance beam with utter confidence – activities that once gave her pause.

A week from his first birthday, Baby Brother slithered – that’s really the best word for it – a locomotion also described as a “military crawl” – all elbows, arms, and wiggling bottom and legs. Technically not crawling, a kneeless move, he’s speedy nonetheless – circles the house, investigates, and gets in the middle of elaborate Papa Jim and Lady Baby adventure guy set-ups on the floor. His babble intones like proper sentences, and he says little words like woof, dada, mama. (I wonder what he will call Lady Baby.)

That Monday should have been the first day of kindergarten for Lady Baby. Kindergarten! But it wasn’t to be (maybe saddest for her mom to miss that official day). By Friday a photo showed Lady Baby ready – a missing top tooth and a big smile as she joined her friends at her new school. She’s serious about school – told me she would learn things there.

We brought the flu home, and then I, yet again, managed to morph it into pneumonia. Lost days of reading and avoiding forest fire smoke, with murky air and the sun a red ball sunrise and sunset.

Thank you for all the cheerful comments about the blue and white vase series during the summer break. The gallery has asked for 24 little drawings for December, so there might be a few more. They want more blue and whites, the armchairs, and “whatever suits your fancy” – a wonderful thing for a gallery to request.

And I’m ready to work. Welcome rain left clear days, crisp with chill in the mornings, and sunny warm in the day. Autumn in the Northwest is here.

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Un Lieto Fine – Roma

In Rome, the Val d’Orcia heat persisted as we joined other tourists near famous sites: an impenetrable cluster around the Coliseum, mobs being shushed in the Pantheon, people packed around the Trevi Fountain. But the eternal sites are still rewarding.

One day we all rode the Hop-On Hop-Off sightseeing bus, and Lady Baby and her family pedaled around the Borghese Gardens in a “surrey” – a family bike. Another day they took a tour of the Coliseum geared to children, while Baby Brother sat happily on a comforter on our apartment’s tile floor. He played with his traveling toys, empty boxes, plastic bottles, and utensils scavenged from the kitchen. The day her parents toured the Borghese Gallery, Lady Baby learned the rudiments of chess from her Uncle Tu Tu and dissolved into private laughter with her cousin.

The Testaccio neighborhood might be the place to stay in Rome – quiet streets, few tourists, lots of interesting food, and a fine playground. On an early morning run, Mr. Carson discovered Testaccio’s Nuovo Mercato, and led us back later. Mrs. Hughes and I sifted through piles of riches in a stall selling vintage linens – white cotton tablecloths and pillowcases embroidered with images of teacups or countryside flowers, with and without lace – deciding who would like what.

Trips usually include the unexpected – but countless warnings predicted our first pickpocket experience: at the Barberini metro station, crazy busy on a Sunday evening, two girls oddly pressing close as we boarded the Metro, then Poppa Jim discovering an empty front pocket.

And that mishap led to another new experience – filing a police report in Rome (not in hopes of recovery, but perhaps insurance). We learned the appropriate agency was not the carabinieri but the polizia – where we were initially turned away from the station, told to sit on the curb and wait, and then finally admitted. A helpful officer took our information, covered a copy of her report with official stamps, and remarked: “You don’t expect us to do anything about this, do you?”

We retreated to Eataly, the enormous Italian food emporium where you can sit at one restaurant, gather food from any other, and eat together. Sweet Baby’s parents bought us dinner and groceries, and we called the credit card companies.

On our last day we set out early, stopped at a nearby “bio-café” for chocolate croissants, then followed the Trail Boss to the quiet neighborhood of Trastevere and the beautiful, 16th Century Villa Farnasina – few other visitors, windows open to the gardens, and walls covered with frescos by masters like Raphael.

The next morning we awakened at five a.m. to help the Alaskans depart for home. As the taxi waited in the early darkness, a sleepy Lady Baby stood still for a hug from each of us, then grabbed her mom and cried. So me too. The rest of us left Rome a few hours later.

It was such a privilege to be with all of these people I love for this long adventure – I am very grateful.

 

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A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.

A Walk In The Val d’Orcia – Part I

Arriving in Montalcino, a small and walled hill town, famous for Brunello wine, we piled out of the van into midday heat and were led down a little street to our apartments in an old building (angled walls, wide wooden floorboards, and high ceilings). Later in the afternoon, we climbed to the ramparts of the fortezza for stunning views, walked part way around the town walls and up to the Duomo, and had a cheerful dinner on the edge of the town square. Under our windows that night, cars roared and accelerated up the narrow streets, noise amplified by stone buildings.

So the next morning a sleep-deprived group set off for our first day of walking – 11 kilometers to Castelnuovo del’Abate – up, along a ridge, and then down, often through forest on a rough track littered with stones slippery underfoot. The heat was a dehydrating bludgeon. (At some point on this journey, Mrs. Hughes allowed as how “choosing to be uncomfortable on a trip” was a Gilmore thing. Some truth to that.)

At first, kicking a soccer ball with the little travelers on the strade bianche and lots of snacks helped us along. But soon Mr. Carson loaded Baby Brother in the Ergo on his front, Lady Baby into the backpack, and then ferried his sleepy children the rest of the way! We carried so much water, but bottles nearly emptied by lunch where we stopped in the churchyard of a tiny hamlet. A passing resident led us to a spigot.

Exhausted, we arrived at the base of Castelnuovo del Abate at a guesthouse with kind owners. While the girls ran about the courtyard (using stored energy), dinner revived us, and we talked about the next day. An ominous warning in the route booklet: “please note this is probably the most demanding leg of your walk” – led Mr. Carson to offer to ride with the baggage and his children. Then we all decided to ride, except Mr. Carson who opted to run.

Always in Italy, comfort and delicious food can mitigate much self-inflicted hardship. In San Quirico d’Orcia, we found the Tuscan hotel you dream about – Palazzo del Capitano – with cool, spacious rooms and a beautiful garden fragrant with rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Near the town square we ate the best chickpea soup ever, followed by vegan pistachio gelato! Soon enough Mr. Carson appeared, dusty but happy, confirming that the route would be brutal and relentless as a walk – all down, all up, and all hot.

The next day, nine kilometers to Pienza, followed stretches of the Via Francigena – for hundreds of years a major route from Rome to the north, and now small gravel and dirt lanes. The floor of the Val d’Orcia is a series of steep, short, ups and downs over clay hills, the roadsides ablaze with red poppies and yellow broom smelling like sweet peas and jasmine.

Every once in a while someone would exclaim, “ooh!,” – a reminder to look up at Monte Amiata in the distance, scattered cypress near farmhouses perched on hills, and wheat fields – all orderly, all beautiful. Occasional cars passed – stirring up clouds of white dust until they saw us (crazy Americans, the Italians must think). The topo map would indicate a little patch of trees near a stream, but we’d find a dry dent and scrub shrubs.

At lunchtime, we deviated off the road to an empty farmhouse and a tiny chapel “dedicated to the Madonna di Vitaleta – the suckling Madonna.” Because our group included one so honored, we excused our probable trespass, and gratefully ate in the shade of a lollypop-shaped tree.

And this leg Lady Baby walked almost the whole way, with only occasional lifts from one of her parents. She speculated about an abandoned farmhouse with an outer staircase intact but no wooden floors, an echoing empty well, and a stone outbuilding with a large oven. Toward the end of the day, water bottles reduced to hot dregs, we stopped at the 10th Century parish church of Corsignano, once the center of paths and roads on the Via Francigena, with a spooky crypt to explore and a fountain outside for thirsty pellegrinos.

Up a little road, walls looming on either side, to the square by the gate into Pienza. All the hilltop towns amaze, but Pienza is perfecto!

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