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Mustangs and Unicorns

Mustangs and Unicorns

Meaningful travel leaves marks. Some emerge immediately and others linger, buried until revealed.

I’ve been listening to talks, attending workshops, and writing for five days in a San Miguel de Allende conference hotel. My brain is addled with no more room to absorb anything else. And my imagination has gone dark, out of words to put on paper. While I’m charmed by the high ceilinged, airy lobby and colorfully tiled outdoor spaces, I’m anxious to escape to the Mexican countryside. Wherever I am, after several days in a city, I long to break free, to smell the fresh air, shake out the stiffness in my muscles, and go for a lung-expanding hike. On this particular morning, however, over a breakfast of huevos rancheros, a fellow conference attendee, Naomi, recommends I head for the hills with a posse of cowboys. It takes all of five seconds for me to decide: yes, absolutely, a vigorous horseback ride through Coyote Canyon is exactly what I need.

What is it about women and horses? The love story begins when a little girl in pigtails reads Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, or Misty of Chincoteague. She learns to ride a horse. She wants a horse for Christmas. The majestic creatures are like unicorns that feed her fancies, powerful symbols of dreams, desires and aspirations. Is it their beauty and elegance that inspires her to romanticize these gentle giants? Or is it because of where they can take her, off to the horizon, into the sunset?

We take a half hour’s bumpy drive across rutted roads outside of San Miguel to landscape that would be the perfect backdrop for a classic Mexican Western. I meet my sorrel steed in a dusty corral at the base of the canyon, Lucifero is a Mexican mustang, small and lithe — just fourteen hands high — the perfect mount for my sixty-three inches. I wonder about his name, Lucifer, in English. Will he indeed be a devilish ride? I dismiss the possibility and opt for the Latin meaning of his name: morning light. I’m an adolescent stroking his broad forehead with its elongated white star, gazing into big, dark eyes behind a shaggy forelock. He has a beautiful face. I put my left foot in the stirrup, swing my right leg up and over, and settle into the broad saddle. I grip the Charro horn, bigger and flatter that its Western counterpart, as the vaquero adjusts my stirrup length.

Our group of six is well tended by four cowboys in straw hats, each swinging a red lasso. Our amigos are connected to the land in ways only possible in the wilderness. We’re soon on the trail splashing back and forth across the river at the base of the canyon. Unlike other outings where the horses remain in an obedient nose to tail caravan, this excursion is billed as an adventure. Those of us able to ride leave the others behind to gently lope and then gallop ahead. I sense the wild, muscled power of Lucifero beneath me as my eyes water, my hair flies, and I’m one with my horse. Do we have to stop? I think, as we slow to a trot to let the others catch up. Yes, we must because it’s time to scale the canyon wall up steep, rocky switchbacks. After just an hour on the trail, Lucifero and I trust each other. We’ve bonded. We crest the canyon summit at last and can now see in the distance the spires of San Miguel’s Parroquia to the northeast and the rolling crests of extinct volcanoes to the south. The breeze has picked up, cooling the plateau.

If hiking is my favorite moving meditation, then surely riding a horse is my preferred seated version. The rhythmic rocking of the saddle and the steady, soothing movement of the horse’s hindquarters become an effortless sway. I’m mesmerized on the back of this graceful animal, absorbed in the moment. Dust and desert. Cactus and mesquite. Sun and sky.

***

I sit in the hotel lobby with a glass of wine, relaxing before retiring. Someone taps me on the shoulder and I wince.

“So sorry,” apologizes Naomi as she sits down across from me. “Looks like you got a nasty sunburn today.”

“I did,” I reply. “But I had a wonderful day and can’t thank you enough for your excursion tip.”

As I cross my legs and shift on the sofa, an audible “ouch” escapes my lips. I look down to see a long, narrow bruise on my inner calf where the saddle fender pinched. Ah, I think, here they are, the immediate marks of my adventure.

I finish my nightcap and hustle back to my room, anxious to return to my writing. Refreshed and renewed, the words bubble forth. About mustangs, and canyons; about yearning and unicorns.

Coyote Canyon Adventures: http://www.coyotecanyonadventures.com

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Posted by on March 1, 2017 in Travel

 

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Me Llamo Mariana Cañedo

Me Llamo Mariana Cañedo

“Did you know that Mayan Indians have crooked fingers?” my grandmother asks as she rubs my oddly shaped adolescent pinky. “It’s true,” she says as I wince and look at her quizzically. “Your grandfather was born in Mexico, so you never know. You could be an Indian princess.” She gives a quick laugh that ends in her characteristic snort. My Midwestern grandmother has a penchant for coming up with all sorts of interesting, random, tidbits of information. “Don’t cha know,” she says, “one day you’ll go to Mexico and find out for yourself.”

***

Going to San Miguel de Allende is a calling. The city has been tucked away in a cobblestoned corner of my imagination for twenty-five years. Mary Morris’s courageous chronicle, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, put it there. Her soul-baring tale of living in San Miguel, 6,400 feet high in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico, captured my heart and gave me even more courage than I already had to travel alone. And now, I’m finally here, lucky girl that I am, on my own for a weeklong writer’s conference.

The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color: greens, and golds; mango, mustard, and lemon; and of course, every shade of red imaginable — burgundy, cayenne, paprika and raspberry. Ceramic pots filled white, purple, and blue blossoms set off the pueblo colors. Brimming with boisterous gardens and with a temperate, year-round climate of brisk mornings, warm afternoons, and cool evenings, San Miguel is eternally spring. With more than 140,000 residents, it can certainly be labeled a city, but deeper down, at its heart, it’s a delightful, lively, village.

There are many places in the world others consider lovely, but leave me feeling cold. San Miguel, on the other hand, embraced me the moment I arrived. I feel I belong here, with these people of my tribes. During the day, I commune with writers of every ilk — novelists, poets, essayists, playwrights, memoirists, and screenwriters. And when I escape into the long shadows and crystalline light of the late afternoon to wander narrow lanes between high, painted stucco walls and monumental wooden doorways, I’m at home among the locals. They look like my father and my grandfather before him. The men are short and the women shorter. Just like my Dad and just like me. I recognize my siblings’ body types in those of the flower vendors and musicians on the square in front of the Parroquia church. The features set in their silky brown complexions — heavy-lidded eyes and full lips — are the very same features that look back at me and my easily tanned white skin in the mirror. These people are my ancestors, those in the sepia picture of my grandfather’s 1906 First Communion, his mother and his sister beside him, multiple aunts and cousins in the background. Yes, indeed, I feel at home here.

I stop for breakfast one morning on San Miguel’s central square. I choose a table in the shade, the breeze already warm. My mouth waters as a beautifully arranged platter of fresh fruit is set in front of me – mango, melon, banana, pineapple, and papaya, with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of granola. The waiter could be my brother with his sturdy Cañedo silhouette. My years of Spanish classes serve me well as he and I chat, even though I admit: “Comprendo mucho, pero hablo solamente un poquito (I understand a lot but I speak only a little).” Fruit juice drips from my chin and my thoughts drift to a what-if of my family tree. What if my Mexican grandfather and my American father after him, hadn’t both married Irish women, Mae Duffy and Mary Darby? I would likely look just like her, this woman who passes by in a hot pink dress and turquoise apron — traditional dress worn to help sell the handmade dolls and woven flowers spilling from baskets looped over her arms. My long, dirty blond hair, while still long and straight, would be lustrous and dark, just like hers. Mi hermana mexicana.

My new friend clears my empty plate and asks if I’d like more coffee. “No, gracias,” I answer and smile. It’s time to get back to my second tribe – my writing tribe — but I’m reluctant to leave this comfortable spot where it’s so easy to watch the world of San Miguel pass by. I pay la cuenta and leave a tip worthy of family.

“Hasta mañana?” he asks as I swing my bag over my shoulder. Will I see you tomorrow?

¡Claro que sí, señor, hasta mañana!” I step from behind my table, my crooked pinkie waving goodbye in the sunshine.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2017 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Seasons

sunflowers 2The calendar and the heat say it’s summer but the end is unmistakably near. Autumn is set to step in. It’s the vendange in the south of France – grape harvest time. Vines droop with the weight of fat, taut, juicy fruit, ready to be picked. The lavender is gone, the spiky, gray past-their-purple-luster plants trimmed to rows of tidy dull mounds in the dirt. Sunflowers – the few that remain – are brown and dry, bending with exhaustion to the ground; their round faces no longer speak their names. Orange nets are poised beneath wizened trees to catch olives ready to drop. Nature’s progression surrounds us as I walk among the vineyards, fields and sturdy stone farmhouses.

We’re back in the Luberon after six weeks of traveling south to Corsica, Sardinia and Italy’s Ligurian coastline. Physically, the landscape is transformed and emotionally, my world will no longer be the same. I lost my Dad while we were away. New days dawn. Seasons change. The world goes on without him. Life continued after my Mom died nine years ago and will continue now as then. But I no longer have my parents in my material world. Their love gave life to eleven children and twenty-nine grandchildren — the masterpieces of their lives.

 

grapes 2As the vines and flowers wither only to bear new fruit and blossoms in spring, so will my parents’ legacy go on. My siblings, our children, and our love for each other are testaments to my parents’ love. Summer, fall. Their lives will go on in ours. Winter, spring. We will share their love; we will make them proud.

Buy my book here: http://amzn.to/2iFti8H

 

 

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Posted by on September 4, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Healthcare à la Mode

Bonifacio

My worst travel nightmare has materialized: a throbbing toothache in a foreign country. From experience, I’m sure it’s a dead nerve and I need antibiotics tout de suite. After two days of downing pain relievers miles from a town of any size on Corsica, I know I must deal with this immediately. Certainly before boarding a ferry from France to Sardinia, Italy so the doctor and I can communicate. We arrive in Bonafacio, a striking city with a stout hilltop fortress and stunning white chalk cliffs on the southern tip of the island. France is famous for its red tape and I’m ready to tackle it with respect to healthcare.

We reserve the day until our late afternoon ferry for my emergency, knowing it could take some time. Close to tears from the ache, I tell our hotel desk clerk what’s wrong and ask if she can get me a medical appointment. She picks up the phone and dials the local doctor whose office is down at the port. “Yes, he is seeing walk-in patients this morning. Here’s his address and our shuttle will take you.”

We enter his bare bones, second-story walk-up office in a pastel 18th century building overlooking the sparkling harbor. I wait ten minutes until his current patient comes out and then in I go. All he asks is my name. No ID, no insurance paperwork, nothing else. I’m in need and he’s treating me. A couple questions, a quick look in my mouth, a few taps on my teeth, and he writes two prescriptions: one for an antibiotic and one for pain (a drug not available back home). Total damage: $33. We head to the pharmacy next door, shell out a whopping $16 for the meds, and we’re on our way. Less than an hour after my plaint at the hotel and just shy of $50 for an impromptu doctor’s consult and the cure for my pain. I pop the pills and by the time we board the ferry hours later, my jaw is no longer on fire.

I can only imagine how long visitors to the US would wait, what documents they would be required to provide, and how much they would pay for the same treatment. Red tape and unconscionable fees in France? Not when it comes to healthcare.

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Bastille Day

Bastille Day

We arrive in Provence, specifically the Luberon, my favorite region of France. Rosé wines flow with pink flourish, ripe olives soaked in oil and herbs precede every meal, and fresh vegetables crown lamb and seafood platters. The crusty bread, as always in France, is addictive. My taste buds are tantalized, anticipating meals to come.

On a really good day when I hold my head high, I’m all of five foot three. I’ve always wished I were taller, but especially when I’m in this part of the world. Everything on the table appeals. With five more inches, I could eat so much more without worrying about calories and my thighs.

Today is Bastille Day, July 14, celebrating France’s independence from the king. The window of our hotel room in Roussillon, a charming amber-red hilltop hamlet in the heart of one of the world’s largest ochre deposits, looks over the village’s one main lane. A young Maman and her two sons, one with a baguette under his arm and the other munching a pain au chocolate, stroll home from the boulangerie. The children clench French flags in their tiny hands and sing La Marseillaise. “Le jour de gloire est arrivé!” The day of glory has arrived!

We’ll celebrate the day by catching up with the twelfth stage of the Tour de France. At 1pm, more than two hours before the cyclists are expected, we pull our car to the side of a country road that runs into Departmental Route number two. The D2 will take racers up to and through the picture-perfect perched village of Gordes and then towards Mont Ventoux, a critical climb in the annual competition. Despite the fact that it’s mid-July, temperatures are cool. The Provençal sun does its best to prove it’s summer, but the chilly bursts of the Mistral wind keep us wondering. It’s jacket-off, jacket-on weather. Dozens of onlookers line the road, holding tight to hats, blankets and picnic goodies the wind attempts to whip away. A group of children in striped blue, white and red tees, jump up and down chanting, “Allez! Allez,” willing the athletes to arrive. We overhear that seventy bikes will eventually pass us by.

Every six or seven minutes, a staccato stream of police cars, motorcycles, and sundry security vehicles whiz by. Each time the crowd hears them approach, ears perk up and heads pivot to look down the road. There are many of these false alarms. Joe takes out his phone to catch up on news and I lie back to avoid the wind and soak in the sun. The young men on the slope behind us jam on drums as the minutes and finally hours tick by. At long last we see and then hear helicopters in the distance; two hover over outlying vineyards and two approach. Spectators crane their necks to follow the whirlybirds. Anticipation mounts. It’s palpable. Cowbells clatter. Whistles ensue. The crowd noise swells and the Mistral blusters full force. Even Joe chants enthusiastically, “Allez, allez!”

We have a perfect spot on a slight rise above the road’s shoulder. In a flash, a media photographer jumps out of a black security car and scrambles up the sandy bank, trying to elbow his way into our exact spot. We congratulate ourselves for choosing our position well and hold our ground, feigning ignorance to his offensive. He can stand shoulder to shoulder with us if he’d like, and so he does.

What we expect to see is a line of lead vehicles followed by a peloton of sleek bicyclists. What we actually see is a scramble of color and promotion, hawking and horns, unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. Who knew the Tour de France competitors would be heralded by a Mardi Gras-like parade of floats hurtling thirty-five miles an hour down a country road, tossing not colorful plastic beads, but samples and t-shirts? It’s a mad scramble for just a bit of loot.

Tour -- yellow guyA man on a swing promoting sausages paper airplanes coupons and special offers into the crowd. Teens on a bed pitch packets of madeleines. Is this happening in France? Who said the French don’t let their hair down? A float for the adhesive brand, Bostick, tosses glue sticks from under the banner, “Voulez-vous coller avec moi?” Do you want to stick with me? It’s a relentless procession of dozens upon dozens of floats: a yodeling van promotes Swiss Tissot watches; fluorescent cars lob bags of chips; French fry girls fling coupons and hats; the Michelin man sings about tires; cheerleaders chant about cheese. The Bic float hurls pens (how did I not know Bic was French?) and I can’t believe no one is stabbed by a ballpoint flying at such speed. A man in a pool on a flatbed truck shouts through a bullhorn, “C’est bon ça – ce sont des jolis cadeaux!” They’re all good, these pretty gifts! Can there be this many official sponsors of the Tour?

Finally, after a substantial lull and waning wind, we see the first group of a dozen competitors approach from way down the road behind a rolling wall of security. The crowdTour -- bikers goes wild. The frontrunner in the yellow jersey, British biker Chris Froome, is in the second pack. The cyclists fly by in a blaze of color amid earsplitting cheers. We’re just above the fray but the crowd is verging on swarming the riders, no barriers holding them back. In the flash of a few minutes, the excitement is over, the crowd quiets, the road is empty, and families disperse. We’re left in the wake. The race has moved on.

It’s no wonder that ninety minutes later during the final climb up Mont Ventoux in advance of the finish (moved six kilometers from the scree-strewn summit to avoid winds that threatened to blow riders down), spectator proximity plays a role in the race. In a melee of a media motorcycle, a fan and Froome, the leader ditches his broken bike and runs up towards the finish line. Although losing many minutes, officials declare that he maintains his lead.

Sun-soaked after an ebullient day celebrating La France and being buffeted by a fierce Mistral, we have dinner and wine and collapse into bed.

At one in the morning we’re awakened by a call from our daughter.

“I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

Why wouldn’t we be okay? I think in the fog of leaving a dream. “We’re fine, sweetheart. What’s up?”

It sinks in slowly, what’s happened in Nice, and then we’re jolted — suddenly, fully awake. The news is devastating. The frivolity of the day, forgotten in an instant. That’s how it happens with tragedy. Pain deep in my chest.

We assure Caroline that we’re hours north of the Riviera and ask her to let her brother , Chris, know.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Je suis Nice.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2016 in baby boomer, France, Passion for French, Travel

 

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Boomer Cafe Essay

Baby boomer celebrates turning 60 with adventure

 

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

A Veteran’s Recipe for Paris

We’ve visited Paris for almost 40 years – ever since we were 22 years old — and it always manages to surprise us. Things we never noticed suddenly appear. There are probably as many ways to “do” Paris as there are ways to make apple pie, and we each have our favorites. It can be difficult to go back, to revisit old haunts, to come to terms with the passage of time, so we paint fresh tableaux with brand new memories.

Here is our recipe for a perfectly romantic five days in the City of Light for veteran visitors. (Our first trip as retirees!)

Pre-departure — Book Les Bouquinistes studio through VRBO, so named as it looks out on the famous antiquarian booksellers in their green painted stalls above the Seine.

As we slip into the center of town on the RER train, I reflect on the range of hotels and small apartments we’ve booked on our many trips and recall our very first Parisian hotel. Perfectly situated in the Châtelet Theater on the river, it was a shabby little no-star walk-up. Breakfast, delivered to your room was included in the pittance we paid. On our first morning, the chambermaid made her entrance, no knocks, no warning, to deliver croissants and cafés au lait. Joe was soaping up in the curtainless shower stall in the bedroom itself. “Bonjour!” she warbled with no hint of embarrassment. Joe’s face was the color of the strawberry confiture and I didn’t stop giggling all day.

We spent a month in a sweet, albeit dark, little five meter by five meter studio in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower during our gap year in 2011, but Les Bouquinistes is now our favorite. It’s chic, bright, efficient, clean, convenient and affordable (under $140 a night). On the ground floor of a 17th century private home looking over the Seine to Notre Dame, it allowed us to walk almost everywhere: the Île St. Louis, the Île de la Cité, the Latin Quarter, the Marais and St. Germain. Unless we inherit a boatload of money and can stay at the Pavillon de la Reine, this is where we’ll return on future visits to Paris.

When mapping our itinerary, we came up with a mix of old haunts and new discoveries. We kept our list brief, leaving plenty of time for relaxing and strolling. Ah, the beauty of visiting a familiar place.

Back to that recipe…

Day one — Arrive from a stay in Iceland with only a two-hour time change and little jetlag. Take an afternoon nap because, why not? Walk across to the Île St. Louis for a delicious French dinner at L’Îlot Vache – a longtime favorite for traditional French specialties. Work off some of the confit de canard and mousse au chocolat by following the lights of Notre Dame across the Île de la Cité and then the Pont Neuf. Head up the Rue Dauphine and slip into Cafe Laurent for an after dinner drink and some live bluesy jazz. You’ll never want to leave. 

Day two — Grab croissants (perhaps the best you’ll ever have) around the corner at the neighborhood boulangerie and enjoy a late breakfast in the studio. Wander around Notre Dame find new angles for pictures, and then dress for dinner on the Bateaux Mouches. Touristy, yes, but the food and wines are top-notch and the views of Paris at night incomparable. (It’s something we do each time we visit – whether on our own or with our children. We’ve traced the growing lines on our faces, ever since that first visit in 1978, with these dinner cruises and have a progression of pictures for posterity.)

Day three – Sleep late and leisurely make your way to the Marais for a lunch of crêpes complètes (ham, guyère and egg). Visit the bright, airy Picasso Museum for the afternoon, newly renovated since you visited years ago. Feel the excitement in Paris mount as the evening’s European Soccer Championship approaches. Enjoy goat cheese salads back on the left bank, and have the waiter paint your cheeks with the bleu, blanc, rouge French tricolore. Listen to cries of “Allez les bleus” – go French blue team – all around you, horns blaring, anticipation palpable. Despite the local support for a country that needs good news, Portugal wins with a double overtime goal. Zut, alors!

Day four – Wake up with another round of flaky, buttery croissants and walk to the beginning of the Promenade Plantée. This 3-mile raised, linear greenway cuts across the 12th arrondissement to the Bois de Vincennes park on Paris’ east side and was the inspiration for New York City’s High Line. Leisurely walk back along the Seine and take the recommendation of your landlord, Stéphan. Have a candlelit dinner at Le Reminet, a small neighborhood resto, sip a kir, and savor the fine dining.

Day five – Sleep in and take a bus across the Pont d’Alma to Le Français, a stylish Parisian cafe under a broad red and gold awning, the terrace outlined by a green privet. Arrive early enough to secure a table looking towards the street, the Eiffel Tower perfectly framed. Make your way up the fashionable Avenue Montaigne, past the parade of wealth that is the designer boutiques surrounding the Plaza Athénée hotel. Take your first tour of the Palais Garnier, Paris’ famed Phantom-of-the-Opera house. How could it have taken you so long to visit this masterpiece with its Grand Foyer perhaps more stunning than Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors? Finish your final evening in the City of Light with dinner at Le Train Bleu, the legendary, gilded Belle Époque eatery that looks down over arriving and departing trains. Order the baba au rhum, served with your personal bottle of Saint James to drizzle (or drench) your cake and whipped cream to taste.

Departure day — Before saying au revoir to your favorite world city, promise each other to make plans to return.

 

 

 

 
 

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