The Quarantine Blog VII: May 8, 2020

I am going to go back to Calcutta for a few paragraphs. Nirmal Hriday, however much I found it grim and earnest, at least provided people with a place to die that was clean and as comfortable as things get for the direly poor in India. It was not trying to solve a large problem.

The foreigners with whom I worked were varied as the jars on a spice shelf. I spent most of my time with a Dutch woman who was a psychiatric nurse in Holland, taking care of people out in the countryside. This couldn’t have been a big change of occupation for her, although the work was more physical than mental. There were a couple of Danish girls who had come for a week or two. There were Catholic groups organized by parish priests from all over the world. One such group was a dozen women from Malta, among them a dwarf. She attached herself to me because, as she explained, “You know what you are doing.” This, of course, was not true. But we had a good time together. She had a sharp wit in four languages.

We were given buns and tea at some point in the morning. Usually we went up to the roof to sip and nibble while viewing below us people buying fish cooked on a wooden spits over a tiny charcoal fire. There was a barber who shaved men, trimmed beards and one day cut a woman’s hair and then shaved her head. We thought it might be lice but it could have had a religious meaning.

We may have been sad at the state of the women but we all accepted the situation and our work whether unpleasant to us or not. I found bathing the women difficult because their mortality was a fact beneath my hands, the tactile certainty of bone under the thinnest integument of skin communicated the fragility of life, what would quickly and what more slowly be consumed in the fire at the ghat.

However, one day a young American woman arrived who it became apparent had thought she was coming here not to wipe up diarrhea but to sit sweetly, in a nice outfit, next to the suffering, hold their hands and say kind things to them. She was aghast by what surrounded her and walked around in rubber gloves doing nothing. I finally handed her a rag and said, “Wipe that up,” pointing to a pool of yellow diarrhea in the middle of the floor. She did wipe it up but that was the last we saw of her.

A very beautiful Italian girl sat, as instructed by a nun, beside a dying woman, holding her hand. She complained to me afterwards, ”I couldn’t talk to her. She wouldn’t understand me. I don’t know that she could even hear me. It all seemed so useless.”

The reason there is little contribution from the Indian community is due to the idea of karma. Your karma is the result of your actions in your past life. If you are a beggar dying on the floor of Howrah station it is quite possibly because you were a rich miser or you were mean or even violent to your daughter-in-law in your last life. Your fate in this life is a result of your deeds in your last life and you deserve it. This is a philosophy that certainly makes not giving guiltless.

Out of India and into Barcelona where this was the week children were allowed out of their houses. When I saw my first stroller occupants I was astonished, as though I had come across a furry duck billed platypus in a forest. They have such wonderful tiny fingers. They were looking a bit stunned too. Having been deprived of the outside world for almost two month must have made the streets a terra incognita with all those strange adults wandering around in masks, and then your own mask. They were very good about their masks. I wish I could say the same about the adults.

I have taken to scowling at people who don’t wear masks and occasionally asking them why they aren’t. To those who wear them dangling around their necks I want to say, “Is that a necklace? Do you have earrings to match?” Then there are those who wear their mask below their nose. For them my question is, “Do you breathe through your chin?”

I did a 10km walk, actually three of them, this week, one from Hospital up to Lesseps along Gran de Gracia where I turned left and wandered among small streets with delightful small houses until I came down again, stopping on Gran de Gracia to call a friend so that I could wave to her up on her balcony. Another walk took me up Balmes to Sant Gervasi where I took Via Augusti back down, switching over to Aribau to go to the cat food store on the way home. The third I started by walking down to the Post Office which I love for its beautiful stained glass ceiling—they had sent my package back to HK—up Laietana to Urquinaona, continuing on Bruc to Diagonal and coming down Balmes, all wearing a mask. The one to Sant Gervasi was a killer because the up hill part is aggressively steep.

There were people out but not too many on each walk; the sun was shinning. I would stop to gaze at flower shops, being tempted, and then not buying because it was a long way home and the weight sufficient to discourage a purchase.

I have discovered how difficult housework is in your 80’s and how boring cooking for one can become. However I have shelved books that have been lying about for months and weeded out about 35 that can be given away. I still have to go through my travel section where I cling to out of date guides to India. I would like to cut that in half. But I will not give up my family’s collection of Baedeker’s from the 1910’s or mother’s So You’re Going books.

These date from the 1920’s and were written by Clara E. Laughlin, a woman of great respectability and the very best taste. She knew her American audience was historically ignorant so she delivers small vivid dramas of great moments from the past to enable them to understand the importance of certain sites, saturating them with atmosphere. Her history is sometimes history and sometimes the richest gossip but it works.

When I was deciding to come to Barcelona to live I looked up Barcelona in So You’re Going to Spain, published in 1931. There is very little about the city in her book, which covers Gibraltar, Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, Seville and Madrid. I have to quote this excerpt because it reduces me to laughter every time I read it.

“He (Arthur Stanley Riggs) says the Church of the Holy Family is characteristic of both the city and its spirit and the Barcelonese regard it as their finest expression. Have you ever seen a picture of it? Those I have seen have given me such a feeling of horror that I have never wanted to go to Barcelona. Foolish, of course! I’ll get over it—or, at least, I’ll learn not to look at that church, or to think about it, and enjoy the things in and near Barcelona that are beautiful, even sublime.”

Ah, the opinions of a refined, cultured American lady, in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The Quarantine Blog VI: April, 30, 2020

I needed cat food the other day, which took me out to the Rambla for the first time in at least a week. It is now wearing its leafy arches, but is totally silent except for bird song, and almost totally empty, the shops on the margins shuttered unless they are a pharmacy or tabac. The waves of the pavement stretch away under the trees like a lost, wind-ruffled stream. Even pigeons seem fewer.
Pigeons and various sectors of the population dependent on others for sustenance are in difficulty. Someone bought baguettes and stuffed them into the holes of the monument for Margarita Xirgu, transforming it into a sort of avian buffet.
The Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns with whom I worked for two months in Calcutta, Kolkata, at her hospice for the dying destitute next to the Kalighat Temple, are feeding long lines at the back of Sant Augusti. But there are those who either do not chose to frequent the Sisters or perhaps are not welcomed by them. The Sisters are strict about behavior, talking and prayers. You pray before your meal or you don’t eat. Mumbling, however, is accepted. My two months at Nirmal Hriday did not elevate me to a Mother Teresa enthusiast.
There is a black and white couple that have been camping out and looking desperate in tiny Dr. Fleming Park. He is a black man going grey; she is white and totally out of her mind. While he begs in front of the Dia supermarket on Carme she sits up under a quilt roaring in a hoarse voice in English, American English I believe, about unidentified “bastards” and “assholes”. She retains a faded prettiness along with blond curls going grey. I bought them some cheese and ham. When I did it this week again, she was sipping a beer, looking pleased with life and lucid enough to thank me.
But there seem to be fewer street people than usual. I am supposing many have gone into shelters. What is on the street is exclusively male, decidedly rough, definitely drug and alcohol addicted and living on the salvage edge of the fabric of sanity likely to fray out into madness at any moment. When I walk through the open area behind the Boqueria I do not look at anyone.
Another group, thieves, must also be suffering since their source of income is no longer on the street. Pickpockets have no pockets available and with everyone standing a meter away from each other pickings must be extinct. Unfortunately what may have happened is that the normally nonviolent thieves have taken to violence. A friend walking home one night from shopping had a rope thrown over his head. He was garroted to unconsciousness, robbed of his phone and left. Luckily he survived. This is not the only case I have heard of. Everyone is trying to make a living, however precarious that may be for yourself or those who are your source of income.
I cut over to Universitat on Tallers, zigzagging through narrow streets where there was no one. The plaza before MACBA, my least favorite BCN museum, was silent, without the usual roar of skateboarders gliding at an unnerving pace over the pavement and leaping on and off platforms. Since there are a number of these platforms in the plaza this is a favorite place for practicing this maneuver. It leaves an interesting hiatus in the roar followed by a clunk as the skateboard lands again sometimes with and sometimes without its passenger. I wonder if there are statistics about the number of broken ankles achieved in front of MACBA. I was in an abandoned city, until I heard the traffic on Gran Via.
Once across Gran Via, however, I reentered that abandoned metropolis, silent now in a soft rain that slicked the pavement and pebbled with shiny droplets the parked cars lodged at the sidewalk edge still as chloroformed beetles in a display case. There was nothing particularly sad about these cars packed tightly into their block long cue but the stores, rain dribbling down their fronts, seemed pathetic castaways with their accordion gates looking permanent.
The store, Kiwoko, was new to me, a pet supermarket replete with every variety of food for gerbils to Great Danes and every source of amusement for that species span as well, from exercise wheels for the former to gargantuan rawhide bones for the later. The other customers, there were three, knew what they wanted and darted about loading up their baskets. I wandered in wonder at the infinite varieties of cat foods, cat beds, cat scratching posts, cat towers upholstered in a variety of plush and fake fur, selecting cans of tuna and chicken in a leisurely manner.
It says something about our society that our companion animals eat a plethora of hygienically prepared foods that children in desperate pockets of the world would gobble given the chance. I had a Vietnamese student who said to me once, “When I am reincarnated, I want to return as your cat.” I quite understand his point.
I am about to digress from Barcelona to Calcutta for no better reason than I can. I went to work at Mother Teresa’s, she was dead by that time, partly because having lived in the American culture where attitudes toward death are odd and artificial I thought a dose of reality might be good for me. A friend who had worked there a few years before told me all I had to do was walk into the hospice, pick up a rag and start to work. I would understand what to do by watching others. She suggested I bring boxes of latex gloves and any left over medicines I had.
The hospice is next door to the Kalighat Temple where each morning hundreds of goats have their throats cut as sacrifices to Kali until the gutters run with blood. Kali is usually portrayed in her fierce aspect as a blue or black woman with many arms who sticks out her tongue. She wears an opera length necklace of severed heads and sometimes a skirt of severed human arms. To the Western eye she is at the minimum disturbing and not someone you would be eager to trust, but ask any cab driver in Calcutta and he will tell you, “Kali is a good mother. Bring her a goat and ask her for what you need. She will give it to you.”
She is either sticking out her tongue or biting it in embarrassment because when her “husband” Shiva tried to calm her rage, she twisted in his grip and committed the appalling solecism of stepping on his chest.
This is the neighbor of the Christian hospice of Mother Teresa. Every morning I went to work there, six days a week, I found the contrast between the two religions as bracing as a dip in the Atlantic off the coast of Scotland.
On my first day I found, as my friend has told me, that all I had to do was walk in and work. Someone showed me where to lock up my things. I put a box of gloves I had bought on the counter, pulled on a pair, grabbed a rag and entered the women´s section– the house is divided into a male and a female section with the kitchen and laundry in between—where skeletal women of unknowable ages were lying on hard beds with plastic under the sheets stained and pooled with yellow diarrhea. Many could neither stand nor walk. Those who were capable of locomotion of any kind, including walking on their knees or hopping went down the center aisle on their own power to the bathing room. One woman walked in a squat; she could not straighten up but she was adamant and angry if offered assistance.
The nuns ran the kitchen and the laundry but the foreigners with a little assistance bathed the women, washed the nightgowns, sheets and blankets in home-made lye soap, wrang them out and carried them upstairs where they were hung out on the roof. From there one could look down on the Kali temple and the lively very un-Christian neighborhood.
Part of the Mother Teresa philosophy is that the hospice should be run at the level of a household in the neighborhood—no washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, modern devices or conveniences. No medicines or doctors to speak of either. A local doctor did turn up once a month. Sometimes, rarely, someone in Calcutta would donate medicine; therefore, the leftover, out of date medicines the foreigners brought were of use. With very rare exceptions the women were of subnormal intelligence due to lives of malnutrition.
It was a place to die in. The nuns received calls from people who noticed that the beggar on their corner was comatose or that someone was lying on the floor of Howrah Station unconscious. Volunteers went and picked these people up.
It was a severe place. The inmates were prayed over but not actively encouraged to become Christians since they understood nothing. There was one Christian patient. She said grace before each meal. The others had no idea what this was but knew you didn’t eat until it was over.
Death was constant, not every day, but every few days, someone would die. I spent time caring for a woman whose main symptom seemed to be infected bed sores which made her moan. She died of them as I sat by her feeling as useless as if I had been trying to cure her with chamomile tea and rice crispies.
Once while I was there two women recovered and left—they had been temporarily saved from malnutrition and starvation—but although they were joyous at leaving the hospice what was ahead of them but more starvation and malnutrition.
The atmosphere was grim, of that variety of Christianity, which in its earnestness seems incapable of imagining even small pleasures or a space in which laughter or beauty might breathe for a moment. Sorrow and sadomasochistic sainthood are its themes. I met the Mother Superior, a woman dedicated to Mother Teresa’s principals, without imagination, and rule bound.
Some years later I returned to Calcutta where I was joining a group of friends to do a trek in Sikkim. Arriving a day early I decided I would go over and do a day at Mother Teresa’s. The very air seemed different when I walked in. I was astonished to see in the arches above the women’s beds cages with birds singing and aquariums in which bright fish darted amount colored rocks.
There was a new Mother Superior. She asked me to help with changing the bandages of patient who had been severely burned when her nylon sari went up in flames as she bent over her cooking fire.
“Hold her hands and talk to her while we change her bandages,” the Mother told me. “She thinks foreigners are a sort of television.” I took the woman’s hands, looked into her dark brown eyes and said, ”Let me tell you if our places were exchanged, I would be screaming this place down to its foundations. You aren’t making a sound, not a moan. How do you do that? I couldn’t.”
When they had re-bandaged her, they asked her, to my amazement, what side she wanted to lie on—back, front, left, right. They didn’t approve of her choice but they put her on that side. I was amazed. The nuns under the earlier management, treated patients as objects, they were never asked anything, and if a patient protested, or cried out under treatment they were scolded.
Then the Mother told me that the woman was eating very little and was likely to die. Some one had donated some sweets—Indian sweets have a decibel level of sweetness that can only be heard by saccharine bats—which they wanted me to feed her since sugar was the one thing she ate. I spoon-fed her the entire hyper-sugar desert while she stared at me.
I asked the Mother Superior what happened to the women who never recovered enough to go out of the hospice but did not die. They are sent to an institution in the country she told me.
“We have tried to teach them things but their brains are so damaged by starvation and malnourishment that you cannot even teach them to peel garlic.”
I told her I thought the birds and fish were an exceptional idea. She became a little flustered and said defensively, “But we don’t take care of them or buy them. The foreigners buy them, feed them and clean the cages and aquariums.”
No Mother Teresa would not have approved of birds trilling in the hospice. But what a difference a thinking person can make in an institution.
To return to Barcelona the line for the Sisters of Charity soup kitchen at the side of Sant Augusti is now enormous, following the side of the church and then snaking in front of the church and spilling across the Plaza de Sant Augusti.
And to return to a Barcelonan convent, one morning this week I heard the rushing sound of debris hurtling down a chute. They are gutting the convent next door. My upstairs neighbor tells me the convent is being reorganized as a halfway house for abused women. Nuns will run it. However, I don’t suppose the nuns I knew will return. The gardening nun’s garden also went down the chute. But if she does return I am going to La Rambla and investing in a garden for her. I would love to do that.
The swifts have returned but they do not come to the back of my building. I think this is because the French pilot has turned his huge terrace into a sort of spa cum Coney Island. There are hammocks, canvas beach chairs, tables, a wadding pool, cushions, planters full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini. And he has ordered more things from Amazon. I don’t think the swifts approve.
And the court of the Hospital is now open. At the moment the homeless have not moved in so that it is a quiet, enchanting place to walk through smelling the single white roses and looking up at the last of the oranges clinging to the branches overhead.

The Quarantine Blog V: April 22, 2020

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

That is T.S. Eliot from his poem ASH WEDNESDAY. It feels appropriate. We are having difficulty with our empathies, our will is useless, it may be a detriment to us, and though we know stillness is both a remedy and a necessity we squirm within our skins like six year olds at an incomprehensible grownup event.
My latest evidence of this was when a friend told me she had heard on the radio that those 80 and above would not be allowed out of quarantine when everyone else was. I was precipitated into immediate belligerent rebellion and outrage not a notch above the reaction of the teenaged daughter of a friend who when told her boy friend would not be allowed to visit her caterwauled in anguish, “Oh Daddy, you’re soooo unfair.” It may not be true. I hope not.
Among my many luxury problems, I am tired of cooking. I cooked two to three meals a day for about 20 years. I was a very good cook; I enjoyed cooking. Somewhere around the age of 78 I stopped enjoying it and took to restaurants, even traveling the metro three stops to a favored one. I have not been doing badly but I’m definitely sullen about exercising this slightly atrophied muscle. I look in cookbooks for inspiration but what they inspire are thoughts such as, “Too complicated. Too many pots. I can’t get up to Balmes to the store that has shrimp paste.”

Too many pots is a bottom line objection. I find I want to clean two pots at the most at the end of a meal. But I also know that to leave the pots in the sink is not only the act of a sloven but that there is a mysterious retributive backlash for such minor acts of procrastination. Some how the abandoned pots have a malign, accusational quality about them. They shame.

Part of my cooking has taken the form of a game. Various people, of divergent tastes have stayed in my apartment over the years leaving behind edibles, mostly starches. I have spent recent weeks using up half or quarter boxes of spaghetti, macaroni and bow ties, a couple of half used bags of quinoa. But the big challenge has been a large bag of lentils I bought myself for an Indian receipt. I didn’t feel like lentil soup, which would have been the obvious solution. I found a receipt for dhal in an Indian cookbook that can be frozen. You serve it with a topping of garlic butter. It is very nice but still it is going to take a long time to consume all those lentils. It was a big bag.

Along with using up edibles, I am “using up” books. I inherited my Aunt Liz’s library. It was small and largely composed of histories, biographies and historical novels written from the 1930’s to the late 50’s. I have been making my way through these, most old and out of date, but not the less interesting for that. I have read now in fact and fiction about Richard III, one of the first biographies to absolve him from the Tudor slander, so stirringly told by Shakespeare, of having killed his nephews, Warwick the Kingmaker, an earl whose reach for power exceeded his life, Queen Elizabeth, a survivor if ever there was one, Sir Thomas Moore, one of the rare righteous in English or any history, a superbly written novel about Harry of Monmouth (Henry V) and a slender volume about Jane Shore, a goldsmith’s wife who became and stayed the mistress of Edward IV. She is mentioned in Shakespeare’s RICHARD III.

They are all interesting personalities but I was hooked by Jane Shore, despite the fact that the novel by Jane Plaidy is not particularly well imagined. Plaidy has her tricked into the arms of Edward by a woman Pandarus, I suppose to make her more blameless. But Jane interests me, not because of her sexual adventures which were many and varied, but because she was by all accounts a nice person, even Edward’s wife liked her. She successfully talked the King into helping people and forgiving them.
Under Richard, who was a prig, she had to walk through London in her kirtel, a one-piece undergarment. It increased her popularity and the men of London came out to see what King Edward had admired. I found myself annoyed that Plaidy gives Jane the kind of end a bad girl is required to have. In the novel she dies in poverty, a beggar on a street corner in London. The actuality may have been that she retired to a not unpleasant middle class life and died in bed.

There is a forty-page poem in MIRROR FOR MAGISTRATES, a source much used by Shakespeare, about her. I have been trying to find this poem on line with no luck. When Edward died she went on to other well-heeled lovers. I like to think of her comfortable in a cottage outside of London in her old age.

I pile these books up as I finish reading them to be given to my son, my grandson and others who are interested. At the moment I am on Churchill’s HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING PEOPLE, the first volume. I am amused at how thoroughly it reflects his worldview.
Once I am finished with England I go on to France and then Egypt, which fascinated my Aunt. It was the last foreign trip she took, a Cook tour. She became very ill, returning to the U.S. That experience made her give up her foreign travels. I believe she was eighty.
So in quarantine I am spending time with my Aunt Liz who has been dead for thirty years. She was born in Reed`s Landing on the Mississippi in Minnesota when paddle steamers took travelers up and down the river in 1887. She went to New York to study at Columbia and get away from her mother, a ring-tailed witch. One night she went to see a Japanese dancer and was so entranced by his performance that she went back stage and asked to become his student. She learned Japanese dance from him, then Indian dance from an Indian woman who was his friend and toured with her troupe. She danced with the Ziegfeld Follies, although she was not one of the long stemmed roses, being a diminutive five foot three. I thought she was the most interesting woman I had ever met until I was eighteen or nineteen and began to know women who ”did things” besides cook tuna casseroles.
The clapping has started. I must go to my balcon and join.

The Quarantine Blog IV: April 15, 2020

I am now in absolute quarantine, lodged there by my upstairs neighbors. When I told them I thought had had a form of the virus last week they responded by declaring I had to stay inside; they would do my shopping. So here I am on a rainy Barcelona day looking out on the tiled roofs of the Hospital made a richer red by the rain. I feel like a grounded teenager who has been apprehended sliding down a drainpipe to a midnight tryst with a dubious young man.
My experience with what may or may not be the virus might be useful to others, therefore…
Last week I began to feel seriously terrible in that way the flu takes you where you feel that death would be an enormous relief. Something is sucking all your energy leaving you flapping about like a scarecrow’s empty glove. I was not coughing. I had no temperature, indeed, my temperature was subnormal but I felt nauseous and my intestines after breakfast were severely upset, although not at all in the kind of dramatic state I have known them to be in India or Tibet.
I slept and awaited developments. I had the day before received a call from my red button people who keep track of the elderly here. They urged me to call them if I felt unwell while saying in the same breath that all hospitals were on overload.
The next day I felt slightly better but not much and nausea was still lurking slyly. However, I did not feel worse and that seemed to me the important factor. I slept more and I decided to wait another day.
On the third day I felt better although tired and unenthusiastic about life. As time goes on I am a little more enthusiastic.
I wrote in a previous blog about housework and forgot an area of that activity, ironing. I find ironing a contemplative occupation but in one aspect I am totally defeated. I cannot fold a fitted sheet. Every house cleaner I have ever employed has been able to do this, has demonstrated it to me, and still I cannot do it. Even the man from Chile who worked for me for almost ten years in New York, and was divorced by his wife because he was faithful and didn’t beat her, could fold a fitted sheet. But I cannot. I will try again on Thursday when I do the ironing but I know defeat awaits me. It did, abysmal defeat.
Shopping has taken on the aura of adventure in this time. It feels like a slightly illicit activity. I go out with my bag as I might otherwise go with luggage to some exotic clime, Madagascar or the Seychelles. My supermarket has never been so crowded that I have had to stand outside of it. Although the shelves are a little sparse, they have never been so clean. I find that pleasing. However, I have had to wait for as long as twenty minutes at my local Veritas. Most of us, six feet apart, took this fairly easily but there was one young woman who needed to get in there NOW. It was like watching a racehorse trying to break out early.
I also notice that people often seem to be in a controlled state of rage and are not nice to each other. As I was walking along my almost entirely empty street one afternoon, a woman, coming up from behind me, thrust herself violently between the buildings and me. There was no reason to do that. She was wearing what looked like either nurse’s or pharmacy clothes. Fear usually manifests itself as anger. I could understand that she might be fearful in either of those professions.
We are all afraid. I find, for instance, I am annoyed at my butcher for not wearing a mask. That’s my meat he’s breathing on. At my vegetable stand in the Boqueria I am sometimes passed over and have to assert myself to pay.
One day the man, not the usual one at the stand’s cash register, passed over me with a brusque nod when I told him I had everything. I was impressed when the woman he chose to wait on, in mask and gloves, a careful meter away from everyone, told him I was next on line. I was grateful because in this time it takes certain courage to do what she did. I find one of the results of lockdown is people tend to just fall in line; they go limp and passive. There is little effort to push against things.
Going to my cheese counter on the other hand is like a reunion with an old friend. The proprietor and I greet each other effusively. I ask about his mother—she’s younger than I am, in her seventies—about his wife and daughter. He wants to know how I am before we get down to the intense decisions about Brie, Stilton and Gorgonzola with truffles.
I went to a pharmacy on the Rambla for masks. It was the first time I had been on that broad and beautiful avenue since we shut down. The trees were budding in pale green overhead but there were no more than four of us in sight. Farmacia signs were blinking, tabacs were open but people were absent from the picture. It was surreal. Who was the Italian painter who portrayed architecturally elegant town centers that look as though they have been hit by the hydrogen bomb erasing all humans? It had the eerie quality of those endless corridors in LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. My grandson tells me that he runs utterly alone through Columbus Circle.
But now I am deprived of even the entertainment of shopping. My house is beginning to be as clean as the supermarket’s shelves. I move between three forms of reading, 1) The TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT over lunch, 2) a mystery by Michael Innes or a P.G. Wodehouse novel, 3) a fairly serious historical work, usually out of date because either it was inherited or has been on my shelves waiting for me for years.
Next week I shall be able to do my own shopping again. I am still waiting for the swifts to arrive.

The Quarantine Blog: Chapter III, April 9, 2020

I have not done house cleaning for years. I am one of the lucky who has someone, young and vigorous, to do it for me. When I came to Barcelona a friend said to me,” If you want a really clean house find a Russian.” A couple of days later an acquaintance said he had a Ukrainian cleaner who needed more work. So began my association with Ukrainian cleaners. They are wondrous. I am on my second, the first having had to withdraw her services because of a sick husband. This one is young, embroiders vestments for the Orthodox clergy in her spare time, and because of her abilities I never take down a book and have to wash my hands. I consider this miraculous.
In my first week of returning to housekeeping I learned how to use my Dyson vacuum, succeeding, without reading the manual, in learning how to empty it. I consider manual reading a sign of intellectual failure. But I also rediscovered the truth of one of Betty Friedan’s dictums in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE that housework expands to fill the time available. Things began to appear that needed “doing”. Therefore, I firmly initiated a list of “no’s”. No windows. Only lower books shelves. Furniture polish once a month. Silver, brass and copper objects once a month.

 

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My mother-in-law was Betty Friedan’s literary agent. One night at a small gathering when someone mentioned Friedan she said crisply over her martini, “She never would have written that book if she hadn’t had that nose.” I was amused, startled, I wondered how often a physical characteristic created a writer. I know of two cases, at least, where an inadequate father created a writer—Thoreau and Twain. The next evening at a family dinner I mentioned what she had said and asked if she really thought it was true. She looked at me wryly saying, ”Oh dear, I wonder how much I had to drink.”
I have always done my own washing. I own a dryer but only use it on rainy days, not only for ecological reasons but because I like the smell of a sheet that has dried in the sun.
There is an open space in the back of my building above the patio of the French pilot on the first floor, the principal, whom we do not approve of because a) he found a legal loophole that has allowed him to turn the apartment into an Air B&B, b) he refers to women as girls. These are serious offenses. He understands he is compromised by the first and, therefore, works very hard to be “nice” but I don’t think he has any idea about the second. I am planning a mild grandmaternal lecture for him in the future.
His patio, at the moment, is humped and lumped with athletic equipment and plant containers he has hauled out of a sort of closet at the back of the patio, which he is painting. This is definitely a quarantine activity.
In his favor, it should be mentioned that he has preserved the large plant on top of the closet that once a year puts forth a multitude of white blooms. On the wall behind the closet there is the sad tracery of a vine, which was executed before I moved in. My neighbors tell me it used to cover the wall with green leaves and once a year adorn itself with white flowers. But it dug its roots into the basement of the hotel causing them to cut it off near its base.
To the right of his space there is, beyond a high wall, the patio below and the roof garden above of what used to be the convent next door. It faces the street with a great arched door followed by another implacable door that I presume leads into the patio. To the side, in the gloomy vaulted area between doors, is a little window with a sliding panel through which you could make known your business.
When I hang out my sheets I look down sadly on the empty spaces of the convent. The nuns left, it may be five years ago now, lured away by the Church’s promise that the building would be renovated and they would return. They were elated. I was fairly sure this was a lie. My father worked for the Catholic Church, I was raised in it, and I have a thoroughly jaundiced view of that ecumenical corporation.
There were not many nuns and the youngest was in her late fifties. They were occupying a nice piece of real estate. I was quite sure the Church was coaxing them out so they could either sell it, BCN property values have been escalating, or alter it into apartments. A few months ago an architect came to look at it but nothing has happened since. Certainly they will not return. I have had friends who were nuns and priests and I know like many another international corporate entity the Church treats its elderly employees poorly.
Hanging out sheets I would often see one of the nuns tending her garden. She had no money to spend on plants, of course, so all she had in the way of flora she had acquired through gifts or cuttings from friends. She multiplied those cuttings and presents into her garden that bloomed and thrived under her love. Much of it still does although the little palm tree has died. Once when we talked across the evening air she said to me, “Soló los animales, y las plantas son inocente.” She was of Dostoyevsky’s belief. I didn’t tell her about sea gulls.
Beyond the high nunnery wall are the backs of the houses along Carrer d’En Robador. This translates loosely as Thieves Street. It is a narrow alley, not long, with an evangelical store front church that tries to help alcoholics and drug addicts, a bicycle shop, a laundry and a couple of tiny Pakistani supermarkets. It is a tough little lane and where it debouches into the square before the Filmoteca prostitutes of various colors gather, sitting on plastic crates or big water bottles or, if energetic, patrolling the street with their long black hair swinging behind them. But the backs of these houses are hung with laundry and the tenants I see are often in my age group.
I have been praying that nothing goes wrong in the house while we are in quarantine. However, the other day I walked into the kitchen to find a pool spreading slyly out from the dishwasher. I shut it off and mopped. Now I do my dishes by hand.
It put me in mind of things I am missing in quarantine. Not big things, because I don’t miss them with the same persistence as the little things. Outside of the obvious ones, the company of others and walking freely through the city, I think the main, irremediable one is flowers. I buy mine from a woman on the Rambla.
When I moved into my apartment I walked up the channel of flower sellers lining that famous street looking at the offerings. Since they were largely the same I then looked at who sold them. I chose my seller because she was a woman alone. Her thin, bespectacled face seemed a little withdrawn, slightly bitter to me but I became her faithful customer buying anemones and jonquils in season (we will miss them this year) and deeply scented lilies either pink or white.
Last Christmas I glimpsed what might be the cause of her withdrawal. In the local bank, she was urging forward gently, a smiling, awkwardly shy, ill looking little girl, holding a bouquet. She was perhaps nine and was almost bald. The bouquet was for one of the clerks at the bank. There was so much to guess and infer from that small scene. My flower lady did not see me but I felt guilty as though I had witnessed an intimacy from which I should have been excluded.
I wonder how she is managing with no income. So many are in that situation all over the world. A friend in Bangkok WhatsApped to say she is moving back in with her parents. She has had no income this month. Others are working from home and rearranging their lives. My grandson has a friend with two children who has lost his job in New York City. Luckily his wife, a lawyer, is still employed.
One of the first things I plan to do once the quarantine is eased is to walk to her stall and buy more than I need of lilies and if she has them anemones, jonquils and one of her tiny bouquets of violets.

The Quarantine Blog: Chapter II, April 3, 2020

As my building is about 120 feet long, I have been using its length as a track. Walking back and forth in my apartment means rolling back rugs, dodging furniture and being judged by a cat with an acerbic eye. On the roof I can jog a little, walk uninterruptedly and look about the neighborhood. Sometimes others are out on their roofs, not walking but reading, sunbathing or, probably illegally, chatting with a boy friend.

Since the roof is two stories higher than my apartment I can look down on the roofs of the hospital; I can look up to Tibidabo. In local legend the hill is the spot to which Satan took Christ to tempt him with the material world, namely Barcelona. Tibidabo is translated as Satan’s words, “To thee I give.” I have never been up to see the church but a friend told me it is better at a distance. It certainly is a romantic pile on top of the hill.

Looking about me while jogging, a little, walking, a lot, I thought I had discovered a hidden structure, church like, in the middle of the next block. I was quite excited by my little mystery. It took me two days to discover, to my chagrin, that I was looking at the back of the church of Sant Augusti, not a very interesting structure built in the early 18th century and never finished. What is most interesting about it is this unfinished quality, the rough angularity of the stones on its left side and above the porch, which were to have been covered with an ornate, baroque façade. The funding never appeared and neither did the façade. Its parishioners are, as far as I have been able to tell, down to the last baptized baby, Philippine. They have lovely parades down Hospital accompanied by drums in which the women glow happily in evening dresses and the men look embarrassed in suits.

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My neighbor’s painting on my roof

In May, on Saint Rita’s day, the square is a perfumed lake of rose sellers. Saint Rita is a saint of hopeless cases, los imposibles, and her acolytes come to buy a rose taking it to be blessed in her chapel.

The roof is wonderful because I am out in the open; I can hear the bells ringing from various churches on the quarter hour; I can see the birds above and around me. There is a pair of gulls who nest in some cranny of the hospital. When their young approach adolescence they bring them up to a flat place among the tiles to be fed and learn to fly. One, I’ve no idea whether it’s the husband or wife, broke a leg some months ago. One-leg carries the leg at an awkward angle. Since the red tile roofs of the hospital are pitched, she/he has difficulty landing with stability. But one-leg has survived six months or more now and seems to manage, although I hold my breath with anxiety at every landing.

Not that one should be sentimental about gulls who are murderers. In Venice once I saw one grab a sparrow and drown it by holding it under the water. The sparrow fought hard struggling and splashing in a small storm of wings in the canal but that gull beak held it under firmly until it was still.

There are also parrots, screaming, green flashes. They are escaped pets who have flourished among the palm trees in the streets and squares of Barcelona. They also kill off the sparrows. Mourning doves cry softly among the antennas. Magpies strut arrogantly, chic in their black and white outfits, decidedly decorative against the red tiles. The pigeons, of course, moan and spatter in trees, on roofs and coast up and down the street just below the level of the eaves.

Sometimes my upstairs neighbor joins me at the proper distance on the roof. He has breakfast under a sort of sail he has set up and reads the paper on Sunday or he brings up his computer to talk to friends or hold meetings. He works for the Ajuntament, the local government, of Barcelona. He is an architect and he has painted the walls around the roof with starry skies that waver with colors like an aurora borealis and big initials whose, significance I don’t know. His daughter is with him. I have yet to ask where his son is, possibly in the country. His wife is in Madrid doing work for Barcelona’s educational institutions. I love them dearly.

One night when I first moved into the apartment, I went to the opera taking only the keys for my door on the elevator landing. When I returned home the elevator was broken and I needed the key I had not taken with me to the door on the stair. We found a locksmith at that late hour but he was no use, so they kindly took their daughter into bed with them and I slept in Sara’s bed that night.

Living alone I love hearing their footsteps above me. It is a comforting sound. I know Sara’s footsteps, her bedroom is over mine, because she is always on the run. Once when she was about ten or eleven I was awakened, not late, by a rumbling overhead. I pulled on my bathrobe to go up and find out what she was up to. When Marta, her mother, opened the door, I asked, “What is Sara doing?” Marta shrugged and called down the hall, “Sara?” Sara rolled out of her room on her skateboard, took one look at me and understood everything.

On days like today, when it rains and the roof is not an option I walk in the house, looking out at the slick, wet tiles of the hospital roof in front and the pale, hard little buds on my potted olive trees on the terrace. Soon they will burst into clusters of white flowers. By that time I may be able to do 4 circuits jogging with two of walking in between. At the moment I am doing three circuits jogging followed by three walking until I have done fifteen. Then I stop and gaze out the window before starting again. I am able to do five to ten kilometers. Today I did six in the morning.

Rain in Barcelona is a different. Sometimes it comes down like rain anywhere but mostly it falls tenderly in separate drops so that you can almost walk between its gentle splashes. The attitude toward this wet caress of lluvia is odd to me. A friend will call and say, “I can’t come to lunch today. It’s raining.”

I will stop writing this now to feed the cat and do three or four more circuits. She seems to have stopped pooping in the tiled corner of the living room; may this continue.

THE QUARANTINE BLOG: Chapter I, March 25, 2020

 

I live in Barcelona, Spain in a neighborhood, a barrio, called El Raval. When I announced to my young banker that I was buying an apartment in El Raval he exclaimed with much distress, “Señora Swenson” (Swenson is not a name that rolls easily off a Spanish tongue) “that is a very bad neighborhood. You can call off the sale immediately.” It is a bad neighborhood because there are Pakistanis, many, Africans, not many, and poor people some of whom live in places that I can’t believe are legal. They are storefronts with no windows, no air, only a door onto the street. Frightening.

However I persisted in my error and live in a two thousand square foot, two hundred year old apartment with views of the roofs and waterspout gargoyles of the 15th century Hospital de Santa Creu. It is the hospital Gaudi died in, unrecognized in his shabby clothes. It was built because of the plague with a sculpture of San Roc at the base of one of the stairs. He was, so to speak, the patron saint of the bubonic. He is posed displaying a plague scar on his leg with the dog who fed him at his feet offering him a bread roll. So it seems appropriate to live here in this time of plague. An alternative way of getting into the spirit of things, a friend in Hong Kong is reading Defoe’s A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR or one might watch THE SEVENTH SEAL.

I have been under lockdown for a bit more than a week. A gift from the, dubiously, benevolent gods before we went into quarantine was a 4 to 6 year old rescue cat, Galata who had been managing on her own on the Costa Brava. She did not feel like a gift in our first weeks together. She peed and pooped indiscriminately, howled both from pain due to crystals in her bladder and because she had received, from some maladroit idiot, a botched hysterectomy which had left her wombless but with other bits that kept her in continual hormonal hell. First we got rid of the crystals with an expensive special diet and then we got rid of the bits. In between there were pills for worms in her intestines and snails in her lungs.

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She has two deeply ingrained beliefs. One, she is starving to death and food must be consumed immediately at top speed. Two, the world is a terrible place in which people steal your food and hurt you. The proof of the last is that she has four broken teeth. I was told that the boys in the village she came from would tempt her with food and then kick her. Is that how her teeth were broken, by being kicked in the face?

This relationship may not work, however, because while she no longer howls, she still poops in a corner of the living room, on the tile floor not the rug, from time to time.

The quarantine came upon us in stages. First restaurants and cafés shuttered. Our café on the corner, Mendizábal, also known as Mendiz, run by a couple of hard working, resilient and utterly amiable men assisted by a gaggle of young women, curvaceous with rings in their noses and ears. They all rush about from inside to outside where there are tables under trees in a tiny square with a cat park on one side, and an angular, bronze memorial with Henry Moore holes and a snip of a nose in its middle, to Margarita Xirgu, a Catalan actress who was a friend of Lorca, carrying coffees, pastries, salads and delicious small plates—rabbit ribs, beef stew with mushrooms, tripe in spicy sauce, oxtail—and sandwiches, often exotic—duck confit with poached pears—and some oddities—asparagus tempura. There is also an outside bar on the Junta de Comerce side of the restaurant where people stop for a café solo or un cortado, a beer or a glass of cava. I miss them. I miss passing the coffee and beer drinkers, the people under umbrellas beneath the trees just opening up their tender leaves to the Barcelona sun. I even miss the crazy man who sometimes appears at the edge of the little square by the ancient public water fountain let into the chapel wall to rant and rave and damn us all.

Saturday I went to the supermarket for paper towels and Frit Ravich pumpkin seeds, chicken broth, distilled water for the iron and Conejo, a cleaning fluid. There was toilet paper if you wanted it and though the shelves were a little empty, not seriously so. There were no Frit Ravich pumpkin seeds. But there were a lot of people about, not a crowd, but more than seemed healthy, however, it was the beginning of quarantine and the numbers seemed reasonable.

I also went to the Boqueria to buy vegetables, a couple of fuets, dried sausages, and honey. I shop as little as possible in supermarkets, which I loathe. My vegetable stand wasn’t very busy. I found honey at a counter that has since closed. My favorite purveyor of Serrano and Bellota was open, although they too have since closed. Customers were sparse but the fish circle in the middle of the market had glittering, fresh fish elegantly displayed in silver fans. I bought shrimp shiny in their grey armor lying on an icy bed and on the way home lamb chops from the Pakistani butcher.

My solitary life has become incredibly social, more so than before the arrival of the virus. I have Skype calls, WhatsApp messages and phone calls coming in from Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, French Polynesia, Vietnam and, of course New York.

I have listened to Lohengrin on YouTube with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman. Magnificent. And watched it with subtitles with Domingo and Cheryl Struder. Struder is good but can’t compare to the mighty and majestic Norman.

I am reading WARWICK THE KINGMAKER by Paul Murray Kendall, which is a bit out of date but an entertaining biography of a man who thought in terms of Europe rather than England. Incredibly efficient as a warrior, diplomat and ruler, I find him also scary in the intensity of his reach and grasp for power. That reach and grasp, of course, cost him his life.

I keep track of friends in town with phone calls. Two women I know here have had intense fear reactions. In one this resulted in her talking so fast, bullets of words flying by my ears, that I couldn’t talk at all. It was a monologue, not a conversation. But in a day she had adjusted and we did have a conversation. The other is more worrying. I have talked to her twice and decided I will only call her once a week because her fear is so intense that she cannot hear anything I say, or miss-hears it, and gets information twisted. But what is most distressing is that her fear is infectious. I have to detox emotionally after we talk.

And my own fears? I have to confess on Sunday afternoon, out of nowhere, I decided I had the virus, no symptoms, and that I was going to die. That lasted about 3 minutes.

We are quiet on Hospital. Normally a narrow river turbulent with noise from La Rambla to Sant Antoni, it is silent except for the occasional yap of a dog, heels tapping along or the rattle of a shopping cart on its way to the Boqueria.

 

2019, BLOG XXIII: HK, BKK, BCN

 

2019, BLOG XXIII: HK, BKK, BCN

 

Sunday in HK and, demonstrations or not, the Philippine maids were out occupying discrete areas of sidewalk, churchyards, underpasses and overpasses. It is sad that their working life allows them no real home but I love their presence; I love passing through them, their alien chatter rising around me an evening cloud of gossipy starlings descending to roost in a tree.

At Sunday dim sum brunch I was introduced to M, with an American accent. We had a long conversation about the Karakorum Highway, aka the Friendship Highway, a conversation I never, ever expected to have. This is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It’s in Pakistan. I took it from Gilgit to Sust the Pakistani-Chinese border town just after 9/11, still in shock from the incomprehensible news, to go to Kashgar for the Sunday market. I have told many people about those days around the news but I have rarely been able to talk to anyone about that landscape, a harsh, empty, land between cultures with Bactrian camels.

He had made the journey by bicycle for which he gets deep respect from me. I did it by bus with three Czechs I’d met earlier in the trip, a young French woman who hated having another woman about, even though that woman was forty years her senior, and some decidedly dubious Pakistani male companions. We also discussed other mutually known esoteric places. I don’t get to meet, often, someone who has traveled what I egotistically think of as “my” roads.

Monday I went with a friend who was frantically trying to pay the necessary fees to sign up for a race in November. No one wanted to take her money at one bank and we had to go on to the next. It did work and she is set to run.

After lunch we went to one of our favorite shops, small, crammed, and over priced in the Prince’s Building. It used to be run by the father who is gentlemanly and adamant about his prices. Now it is run by his son and daughter-in-law who hold his line about prices but have none of his grace. They are, however, usually knowledgeable. I wanted to show them the bracelet I had bought in Yangshuo whose components baffled me. I recognized the faceted rectangular pieces as rock crystal and thought the orange bead was probably glass but I wasn’t sure about the tiny brown beads or the blue and white ones.

The son was not there but his wife was. She is teeth- grittingly unpleasant, disparaging and condescending by turns. She thought the most valuable part of the bracelet was the rock crystal; that seemed probable. She didn’t think the blue and white beads were Chinese. I was sure she was wrong. The orangey bead she confirmed was glass and she said the little beads were wood. I thought this also wasn’t true.

The real problem with this shop, Tse Antiques and Collectables, is that they have uniquely interesting pieces, which you are not going to find anywhere else. That’s why they can be immovable about price. They had a pair of ceramic toads, covered in turquoise warts that made me laugh every time I looked at them because of their nose-in-the-air hauteur, however, their price did not raise a chuckle. Maybe they will be there next year.

We went on to Miranda’s little store in the Melbourne Plaza   building. She looked at the bracelet, said the tiny beads were coconut, the orange was glass, and the turquoise and white were Beijing Glass made in the late 19th, early 20th century.

The next day we went to see J who has been transferred to an elder home in Kowloon. We brought him food from Marks and Spencer as well as artery-blocking pastries from Deli France. There were six people to a room. It was clean and medium dreadful, meaning depressing. When you are going to die they put you in the bed next to the door so they can whisk you out surreptitiously when you transform into a corpse.

J is in pretty good shape, although he cannot walk, but his brain is fine. He told me how he got his nickname, Gem.

He was living in Paris, hanging out at a zinc bar in the mornings. One day the owner asked his name. When he told him the man said, “Non. Gem.” J explained that in English gem meant bijou. The owner said, “Oui, Monsieur Bijoux.”

A friend and I later in the day were putting away groceries when she felt something on the back of her neck, reached around and found herself with a tiny gecko in her hand. She brought him to show me. He sat in her hand quietly, whether in terror or ignorance, bright-eyed and still but electrically alert.

Lunch at the old Luk Yu Tea House was delicious but limited by what my friend can say in Cantonese. Neither of us can read the menu so we order on the basis of her vocabulary. We had shumai, har gaw and a huge platter of baby bok choy. It is a noisy but loveable old place with excellent food.

At Mountain Folk Craft I bought two meters of hand block printed red and white cotton for trousers. We drove to Michael’s, on Square Street. His store has a grandiose name, which I can’t remember but is something like Gorgeous Antiquities. I bought my son his annual lock. This one isn’t very old but I found it amusing and since he reads the blog I can’t say what it is.

But I felt bad because it was not very expensive and I like supporting Michael’s shop. However my friend took up the slack magnificently by buying four elegant tile panels of the seasons with birds appropriate there to. She’s going to take them to a niece in England. Lucky niece.

The next day we said good-bye as I left for the airport. The best part of the transit from HK to BKK was the young woman in charge of baggage in the BKK airport who followed me into the lady’s room because she had told me the wrong carousel number at which to pick up my luggage.

Saturday I went to the gym and while working out on the elliptical I, and the Thai man next to me, watched a toad, not covered in turquoise warts, but bulbous, pale and frantic in a furious monsoon rain trying to get through the glass. His burrow must have been flooded. My elliptical neighbor was worried the toad would die. I assured him it would be okay once the rain was over and the toad’s hole had had a chance to drain. But I was made happy by his worrying.

Next to the A One Inn there has been for years a Nissan repair garage, against whose fence leans with spreading gnarled roots, an old banyan tree that is given offerings of jasmine leis, candles, food, opened soda cans and ribbons. Nissan has moved to larger quarters and someone has bought the land where they intend to build that commercial entity so lacking in Bangkok, a shopping mall. I have been worrying about the fate of the banyan. When I came home I found that someone had sawn off two large branches that intruded over the wall of the old Nissan garage. May that be all the damage done.

Another day I bought a pair of gold snake sandals. Arriving at the A One I found the landlady with her granddaughter. I showed the sandals to the grandchild who is about 6. She was definitely intrigued but mildly alarmed at so much attention from a foreigner. I was hoping the sandals would keep her mind off me but it didn’t quite work.

The next morning a group, Indonesian or Malaysian I think, wanted to have their picture taken with me over breakfast. Sometimes I can do this but I definitely could not that morning. I said to the six or eight of them, “But we don’t know each other. Why would you want a picture of me? No.”

One of my rituals in BKK is to go for lunch, once during my stay, at the Oriental Hotel. They have moved their Thai restaurant across the river. This means you must walk through the hotel, down to the little pier, get on their boat and cross the river, a pleasant exercise.

The restaurant is in a building with enormous windows looking onto the Chao Phraya River. They had a buffet. I started with small things—spicy chicken wings, peas, corn and carrots in crisp, tiny pastry cups with tamarind sauce, a fire breathing mushroom salad, small rice crackers with sweet-hot dipping sauce. Among the main courses were, my absolute favorite, green chicken curry, as well as shrimp and crab curry, and duck curry. I am writing this in Barcelona and may burst into tears at what I am not able to eat here. These were all in small portions. The waiter would dish out the rice onto a plate—brown or white—and spoon the curry into a small bowl while I watched. Then he would carry it to my table. The crab and shrimp curry was superb.

I had arrived around 2:30 so they were now interested in closing and I was the only remaining customer. They brought me a cappuccino and an array of desserts. The mango and sticky rice was the only one I ate. Good, but I have had better. Out the ceiling to floor windows I could watch the river traffic—tiger boats with monstrous V-8 engines, various cross-river vehicles, boat buses going up and down, big, lumbering empty rice barges, empty and high in the water in a train of three or four pulled by a tiny, shiningly enameled tug, fierce as a terrier at its task. It was my private good-bye.

I had made a reservation for N, T, W and N’s daughter, also a T, and me at El Mercado. I was going to get to take them out to lunch for a change. As I had expected, they were delighted with the venue with its variety of places to sit—the wine room, the patio, the tables near the refrigerated fish room which edge the cheese and ham counter. There is also upstairs seating but we wanted to be down.

They had me order; that was fine except but I was unsure about quantity. I know how many Thai dishes we can consume but Western plates and platters come in different capacities. I ordered a shellfish platter, huge, varied and superb. I now cannot remember everything that was on it. Some of it was: a large brown crab, oysters, shrimp, mussels, clams, cockles, razor clams piled on a three-tiered platter. Then we had a half a chicken roasted with potatoes and steamed mussels with pomme frit. There was something else but I cannot remember it.

The chicken was a huge success with W since he complains that chicken is often tasteless now in Bangkok restaurants. It turned out his wife, T, is a mussel-pomme-frit-fan. I was elated when W said he was going to bring his mother A to have the chicken.

When there was nothing left but empty shells and bare bones I sent the two Ts off to choose dessert. They returned with one huge slice of blue berry cheesecake that was heaven.

I was leaving in two days so this was good-bye. There were lots of hugs from my hugging Thai friends.

Before I sign off from this long series of blogs I would like to look back for a moment.

I turned 83 as I crossed the International Date Line. As I had suspected, my fears about Japan were fraudulent. People were kind and helpful, although I find having to have everything arranged months before I arrive too rigid for my temperament. But the answer to the question of being alone on the road at this age is an affirmative. It is also affirmative about being able to adapt to and be open to previously unknown cultures.

On the physical side I now know that Dr. F’s pills work well but of equal importance to successful travel at my age is flying with a good airline particularly on long flights. Finn Air and New Zealand Air are fine but Air China and Air Asia are not since they do not recirculate air with sufficient frequency. It is important to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible, again this has to do with getting enough oxygen. I should also bluntly state that if I could not afford Business Class I doubt very much that I would be traveling.

Although the pneumonia has had a lasting impact on my health and travel abilities—I have to go in a few weeks for yet another test about malingering bacteria in my bronchial tubes—I was able to, with Dr. F’s pills and good airlines, overcome these.

And that shadow in the background, the condescending attitude toward older women, which is hardly restricted to travel? I’ve decided to use it. If stating, “I’m 83,” focuses the attention of the stewardess on a flight, so be it. I will use my age card to my advantage.

I think of standing above Kyoto on the path up Mount Hiei to the Enryaku-ji temple, alone under the pillars of trees listening to the wind. I think of the couple with whom I walked Kobe searching for the Kobe City Museum. I think of A and her big wooden, handmade house on the North Island of New Zealand, the view of mountains and sea from the Dolphin Hostel. I think of the over grown path E and I walked among the green thumbs of mountains beyond Yangshuo. I think of Cooks Bay with its steep mountainsides and fish swarming waters. I have my black pearls as a tactile memory. But most frequently I revisit a green, sun-filtered glade on Hiva Oa where a small figure grins up at me out of earth and fallen leaves.

2019, BLOG XXII: Guilin, China

2019, BLOG XXII: Guilin, China

The next day we flew to Guilin, a pleasant town without skyscrapers. Those are out of town, huge residential complexes. Somehow I forgot to stop at the airport ATM. We asked for a bank at our hotel but none of the ATMs would take a foreign card. This is China.

We received vague directions to a Bank of China, taking us along a street by a tree-lined river that was lovely until it got dark. The Chinese like Americans believe in improving on nature. Once the sun went down the trees were illuminated with green, yellow, blue, purple and red lights. In the old days there was certainly artificiality in China. The Dowager Empress wore cloisonné fingernail protectors but in modern times artificiality tends to be garish.

By asking every fifty feet we found the Bank of China. I successfully withdrew money, but E, who is with Bank of America, could not. It was dark; we were hungry. When E wants something he prefers it now. We came upon a hotpot restaurant immediately after the bank and in we went.

Between various people they managed enough English so E could explain that he was vegetarian. He ordered three different kinds of tofu, and crisp lotus root, radish, and another vegetable I’ve forgotten. It was an excellent meal but spicy. Whatever was boiling in the hotpot was vegetarian and delicious. There was also a tahini dip, which cooled things down. I had beef shashlik, chewy but flavorful.

We found our way back to the hotel without incident.

We met the next morning our guide, Helen, of Manchu descent. Her real name means Rock-in-the-River and she was for us. We, with an international gaggle of tourists from the hotels, descended on the double decker boats lined up on the River Li. We boarded and were swept into the Li, quite shallow at this season, as the sugar loaf mounds of the mountains rose ahead and on either side. Despite the Lonely Planet’s admonition, “Let the cool breeze from the Gulf of Tonkin caress you;” in September it was hotter than the hinges making us happy for air conditioning.

These are, indeed, the mountains of the Chinese scroll paintings, prickly with trees, streaked with grey limestone patches, or black and occasionally red. They appear in groups leaning toward or away from each other, singly like thumbs or index fingers planted in the earth. We passed small boats chugging along with cargo. People fished from rocks or, knee deep in the river, searched for crabs. I had a plate of fried crabs, like crunchy nuts. Delicious.

 

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You could stand outside on the lower deck or the upper, which was crowded, but the sun got to me even with my hat on; I found I had to retreat to the cool cabin. Passengers in chairs on boats with shade roofs motored up and down the river. Water buffalo grazed at riverside. The vegetation was thick–vines, trees, scrub. It was continuously magnificent.

Seated near us were an American man and his Russian wife. Over our not very good lunch when I said I had been in Japan he responded that he didn’t like the Japanese, too polite. He liked the Russians who had edge. I began to pick up his political odor in part from his aggressive attitude. For some reason the disaster and decay of Detroit was mentioned and when he said, “Well, it was their own fault.” I knew I had been right about his Trumpness. I, with malice, commented that indeed the executives of GM and others had made a number of disastrous decisions, knowing that wasn’t what he meant; I felt him restrain himself. We left it there but I was amazed anyone could think workers, by not being willing to lower their wages and give up benefits, were to blame for the crash of the American motor industry. Apparently in his thinking the working class is there to absorb the errors of the executive class and cushion that class from its mistakes. However, he gets gold stars for being a traveler.

We arrived in Yangshuo in the afternoon, got to our hotel and had dinner next door before going to a show featuring local minority groups, similar to the hill tribe people of Northern Thailand. This is how the Han Chinese like their minorities, singing and dancing and then disappearing. The show takes place in a natural setting around a lake with local fishing boats paddling on it, and mountains, all artificially lit. The “set” is real and everything else is artifice. It is slightly like the Pyongyang, North Korea show where colored pictures of great precision are made by flipping hundreds, maybe thousands of placards in unison and Radio City Music Hall with singing and some dancing but more frequently just a lot of moving in unison. Once, however, there was a “scantily clad” young woman who ran up and down a crescent moon making it rock. That’s Radio City straight up.

The audience didn’t clap much but shouted things. The music was traditionally tribal, some of it lovely, but distorted by amplification through monster speakers, although one children’s chorus was beautiful and delicately faint being performed without amplification. By intent? By accident?

The town of Yangshuo, once undoubtedly a quaint and poverty stricken fishing village, is an amalgam of amplified noise and neon, somewhere on the continuum between Coney Island and Las Vegas. It was so loud signs in our rooms told how to call the police directly. It was, every day, somewhere between 30 and 35 degrees. I don’t think we hit 40. Our rooms were cool with air conditioning and, until E changed rooms, quiet.

He was offered a larger room with balcony and lots of noise for the same price as his old, smaller, quiet room because they needed his room for another customer. Somehow he survived the noise assault. He kept his room at meat locker temperature. I couldn’t stay in it long without goose bumps.

We spent the next day being regulation tourists, going to the Silver Caves—I don’t like caves much being mildly claustrophobic—which was a bit more than an hour of going up and down dark, wet stairs through beautiful formations garishly illuminated in purple, acid green, bile yellow, red, as the river in Guilin had been lighted. One towering rock face looked as though it had a forest of high trees on it with foliage only at the very top of their long trunks.

Helen wasn’t quite sure what to do with an 83 year old. She held my arm through the caves, congratulating me when we emerged. Moon Hill was more difficult. I suspect she didn’t think I could climb it at all. I am decidedly slow up hill, which meant that I had made it a bit more than half way by the time we had to go down. I needed another half an hour to get to the top and our schedule didn’t have that half hour. So E went to the top and we decided to come back without Helen so I could get to the top in my own time.

We took mopeds to Moon Hill driven by women, all nicely dressed and solicitous of their passengers. The mopeds were electric, silent, wonderful in some ways but dangerous since one cannot hear them. Many mopeds are covered with insignia in the form of stickers, the two most noticeable being the British flag on blue mopeds and Hello Kitty decals on pink ones. It was a delight to see a cube of muscular Chinese male hunched over a pink Hello Kitty moped.

We went to see the 1,500-year-old banyan tree with its dependent trunks, well worth a look. The banyan is called the walking tree since it puts down roots from its branches and, therefore, can create its own forest around itself.

We were to go on a raft. I had thought this would be a nice leisurely drift or poling on the river. The rafts were made of plastic bamboo; they were poled up and down a small cul de sac of the Li where there were flotillas of young ducklings. E had worn his swimming trunks and went in. On the rafts there were large water pistols and people squirted each other. I was squirted, to Helen’s alarm, by a young man.

We picked a restaurant at random and hugged Helen goodbye. She has two children. He husband works in a corporation. I’m not sure what that means in China. We felt a bit abandoned with out her.

However, the next morning we found a backpacker restaurant, Lucy’s Place, run by a spirited little Chinese woman with a fair command of English. The food was good. E took to the banana pancakes like a veteran backpacker.

We hired a car to take us up to Shitoucheng, an old stone town. The views of the mountains on the drive were superb. Our driver dropped us at a town of houses strung along a paved road and then pointed vaguely up hill. I took my guidebook pages to two men who didn’t want to look at them but motioned us up the hill adding a gesture to the left.

We started up the path in smothering heat. It was very up, always with views of the Chinese scroll painters’ mountains and valleys with little human interruption. I think we must have been having a good time talking because we missed our turn off which, when we came back, was fairly obvious. We just didn’t see it. We did see mountains sometimes leaning into each other as though conferring or pulling back as though from an offensive smell.

The path was stony with bare patches of firm mud, the heat terrible and exhausting. Sometimes the path disappeared into waist high weeds where crickets leapt and yellow butterflies erupted. It seemed unlikely that this could be the path to the village but the walk was so wildly beautiful we just kept at it until we came to fields and small orchards where we could see a farmer working. He was the first person we had seen since we left the road. E took the pages to show him the name of the town in Chinese. We were far beyond the village.

It was as spectacular going down as going up. I slipped once because my Tevas had acquired a supplementary sole of mud. I asked E if he missed anything in the landscape. He couldn’t identify anything. I pointed out that we had neither heard nor seen a bird in all our walking. In China one does not. Mao was thorough in having them exterminated. There are waterfowl, ducks, egrets and cormorants hanging out their wings to dry but not one sparrow.

We were almost all the way down when E notice a path to the right that ascended stone stairs. This was surely the path to the village. We walked up it a bit but had neither the time nor energy to get even within sight of the village.

We came the rest of the way down to the road where there were ruins of stone houses of the variety we would have seen if we had made it to Shitoucheng. Ethan ordered eggs in the form of a gigantic pancake covered in chopped scallions at a little restaurant. It was, I think, a four-egg pancake.

That consumed we continued down and found the car waiting for us. Once back in Yangshuo I tried to get my outer sole of mud off my Tevas before entering the hotel. I scraped off some and later, after dinner, I washed them off throwing great gouts of mud into the wastepaper basket.

The next day, although E had decided to read and laze, he walked me to the main road. I had not listened carefully and thought I was to catch the bus to the Dragon Bridge from this road. E returned to his meat locker temperature room and I wait for the right bus that never seemed to come. A Chinese woman standing near me with her husband asked, “Do you speak English?” I then asked her where she had learned English. She told me she lived in Virginia. They got their bus and left.

I started showing my Xeroxed guidebook pages to bus drivers. Then I discovered I had to go to the bus station. I had been told that earlier but somehow it had slipped out of my mind. The next bus driver took me some blocks, then told me to walk ahead. Using my technique of stopping and asking every fifty feet I made my way. The last person I asked, a woman, lead me to the entrance. Never would I have known it was a bus station.

Once in the station, having put my daypack through the x-ray machine, I showed my guidebook extract and was pointed onto a bus where I was loaned a fan until the air con went on. As always in Asia there was a lot of waiting as the bus filled. We took off but stopped for more people in Yangshuo, started again and didn’t stop until we came to a small, ugly town where the Yangshuo passengers left and an entirely new genre of passenger got on board. They were country folk with town purchases. The woman beside me had peppers, vegetables and fruit. She gave me an Asian pear, a high priced fruit in New York City. It was crisp and refreshing. The woman next to her had a rooster in a plastic bag between her knees. He complained in a low mutter. Across from her was a man with a red plastic bag from which protruded the feet of a dead and plucked chicken.

Sheep and chickens, unlike horses and dogs, are structured so that they don’t notice the fates of their fellows. You can shoot a sheep and none of the other sheep in the meadow will notice the death. Chickens are limited in the same way. Therefore, while complaining constantly, the rooster never reacted to the plucked legs across the aisle.

I showed my neighbors my guidebook pages with the name of the bridge, Dragon Bridge, in Chinese. They nodded. When the bus stopped and the driver motioned me off, they all waved goodbye to me from the windows. I felt as though I had left my family behind.

Standing on the roadside looking about, I located the river, looked up and down it, but saw no bridge. There was a big concession for rafts by the river. I walked around it but saw no one I felt I could ask about the bridge. Coming back to the parking area I saw a young man, all in white, with an engaging smile in a big straw hat. After a great deal of linguistic fumbling, and after I had left him to go to some mopeds thinking perhaps I could hire one to take me to the bridge, he took his phone out and we began to talk using a translation app. What a wonder it is.

He prefaced everything with “Hello”. “Hello. There are two bridges.” “Hello. You want to go to them?” I asked to be taken to the Dragon Bridge first; then I would make up my mind about Fulin Bridge, the second. He had a white van; surely he rents this by the day. He ceremoniously seated me in the back. The Dragon Bridge was not far. Its shape was the Chinese high arch with little steps up to its top where the views along the river were of umbrellas in front of rafts waiting to be hired. The ripening rice fields spread their patchwork out on either side, a soft pale green.

Having seen one I could not resist another. We went to Fulin Bridge, even better, among swaying willows, little steps mounted to its high arch, mountains and fields spread out up and down river. Its stone was splotched, stained with age and lichens; it was missing stones; its steps were warped and broken. Coming down from its arch’s crest I walked beside the river to see a mountain perfectly framed in its stone reach.

We stopped at his favorite view for a photo before driving back to Yangshuo. I tried to hire him for the next day’s trip to Moon Hill but there was something about traffic police. However, it was grand having him in my life for the afternoon.

E and I breakfasted at Lucy’s and then set off for the main road and the bus to the bus station. The 801 came fairly quickly and let us off at a stop beyond the bus station. I kept thinking the bus would deliver me to my destination and I was always wrong. They immediately put us on the right bus and we left. Again we were let off not at the entrance to Moon Hill but a half a kilometer away on an unshaded dirt road. But we found our way, bought our ticket. There is a big billboard showing Nixon and Pat, who looks totally, wretchedly unhappy in a fabulous mink coat, at the start of the stairs. It tells how Nixon didn’t believe the arch was a natural phenomenon. He thought it had been made by a missile punching through a mountain. Once paranoid always paranoid.

I was totally unenthused about the climb with the temperature at 30 to 35. E recognized the path at the beginning and I recognized it further on. An Indian man, when we were beginning, told us there was an old woman at the top selling cold drinks. Beyond the place where I had turned back, it became very steep. It was all stairs. We were surrounded by bamboo forest—no birds—that closed the heat in around us. As we climbed steeper and steeper stairs, some of which had been built a little high, people coming behind us caught up. They were from Andalucía. You would think I was Spanish born given the enthusiastic reunion we had. The man in the lead, maybe fifty, told us there 800 steps and that we were close to the end. After another flight we could see the inside of the arch of the moon.

We came to the woman, indeed elderly, from whom I bought my annual Coke. The Andalucians were already ahead. The wife of the lead man, when I told her about my annual Coke, confessed she had done the same.

There were also four young Spaniards, shirts off, pants below their pale, young jelly-bellies. The Andalucians were a delight. These were not. They tried to bait me about being Catalan. I immediately became unable to understand Spanish.

We walked down. I do this slowly too. I started asking for a taxi. An older woman—she could have been fifty—who sold the usual purses, magnets and so on, intervened. I wasn’t having any luck with the ticket seller and other official types. She said she could get us a “tasi” for “eighteen yuan,” which I correctly interpreted as a taxi for eighty yuan. She had one there in ten minutes—I tipped her causing her total confusion—and we were home in twenty minutes.

The next day, after a long ride to Guilin in a car too small for E’s six feet four we flew back to Hong Kong. He left the next morning. I went to the train to the plane with him and the Apple Store for earphones. The American two-week vacation is ridiculously short. I went to Great Food on my way back and comforted myself with some excellent, expensive Camembert.

2019, BLOG XXI: HK

2019, BLOG XXI: HK

Despite my worries about demonstrations all was calm at HK airport and there was no excessive police presence. However, one stop on the train had been temporarily eliminated because of previous protest activity.

To my astonishment, I had a taxi driver who knew the Helena May and knew how to get there through St. Joseph’s back yard. In some twenty-five years of visiting HK I have never had a driver who knew the name Helena May. However, the passage to St. Joseph’s backyard was chained off because previous police-demonstrator clashes had injured the pavement. My driver was not only knowledgeable but kind. He pulled over on Garden Road just above the Helena May and got my bags and me onto the sidewalk, a not legal operation. I tipped. I didn’t have to brake going down the hill for as far as I otherwise would have. You brake because the hill is extremely steep. I have a recurrent nightmare in which my suitcases somehow elude my grasp and go hurtling down ending up crashing into Chater Garden or fouling traffic on Queensway.

My second astonishment was that not only were they expecting me at the HM but Ah Ling had stayed on to greet me. She takes care of the women on the second floor. She is a superb person and disapproves of my going barefoot in the corridor and bathrooms, providing me with hotel slippers to ensure my respectability. I gave her a big hug.

The Helena May was the mansion of the Governor of Hong Kong. His wife, Helena May, in her will, dedicated the building to be a hotel for women. That was about 1900. The women’s quarters are two floors of good-sized, nicely decorated rooms with elegant shared bathrooms. Men stay in small, but not for HK expensive, plain rooms tucked under the highway. They have their own baths.

Sorting things in my room, I noticed Garden Road was exceptionally quiet. I went out on the balcony to see below a police van, car and motorcycle. Further down there seemed to be a mass of people.

An elderly Chinese man walked down the hill swinging a blue plastic bag. When he came to the vehicles, the police were standing outside of them, he began shouting and punching the air. It didn’t require a knowledge of Cantonese to know he was cursing them.

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The police outside the Helena May.

I went out an hour later intending to go to Great Food in Pacific Place but when I passed through the Helena May’s front door I could see that the mass I had noticed was composed of police in battle costume, shields, rubber bullet guns and other equipment. I went back into the Helena May.

Later my neighbor came out on the balcony to look too and when I told her about my food-shopping dilemma she suggested I go up hill to a grocery named Fusion. I did.

Coming back down again I encountered a woman telling people it was all right to walk down. They were hesitant because of the line of police across the road at the St. Johns Building. I walked past the van, car and motorcycle and just as I was reaching into my purse for my notebook with the door code in it a man’s head popped out of the door. He laughed when he saw my notebook saying, “Yes. I had to do that in my first weeks.” He let me in both doors.

That was the extent of my contact with demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Sunday, a friend picked me up with a car full of people for lunch at a dim sum place. Both company and food were good. She and I went off on a full stomach to the Chinese Emporium. This is a government store that sells all kinds of Chinese things from jade carvings to silk lingerie. They are cheaper than other venues and are always busy. My best buy was when the store was Kowloon side, around the corner from the Peninsula Hotel. I bought on sale, for 100US, a handsome leather jacket. The size was XXL, which is why it fitted me. I was, however, this time, buying Chinese style children’s clothes. I bought enough to qualify for a free stuffed panda.

We took receipts and chits to the right counter but when we saw the panda on offer we recoiled in consumer horror. He had a curly black moustache, like a melodrama villain, but his cheeks were rouged like his virginal victim.

We took the metro back to HK side. People gave us seats; there was more friendly contact than I remember in former years. When there is the stress and fear that HK is going through now, people are often more open and eager for contact. A feeling of community, “We’re in this together,” is prevalent. I also felt people were subdued. Hongkongers are an ebullient crowd and they seemed hushed.

When I had my manicure and pedicure with Kitty next morning I learned that her son, a tuba player who has performed in Europe as well as HK, had participated in some demonstrations. Pushing back my cuticles, Kitty said, “I prayed. My God told me, ‘Shut up. Leave him alone.’” I could stand a god like that in my life. Her son has decided not to go to the demonstrations since the violence has escalated.

Talking to friends, I had a moment’s aperçu of the complexity of the situation. Their families are fractured by the demonstrations, but not quarreling. One friend’s father-in-law and son-in-law refer to demonstrators as rioters. His daughter, wife and he are pro demonstrators.

My grandson E came into HK, after being delayed in Beijing for twenty-four hours because demonstrators had been trying to close down the road to the HK airport. The Chinese weren’t going to let flights in until they were sure people would be able to get out of the airport.

The next few days were a blur of activity. We needed Chinese visas to go to Guilin where we were headed in three days. That wasn’t difficult. I have a good travel agent in HK and he sent a man to the HM who took our pictures. The Chinese are particular about these—no smiling– and he tried to get my hair to lie down as officially required but it would not. He went to the necessary offices, delivering the visas to the HM two days later.

Friends and I got E to some of HK. He took himself for walks on his own familiarizing himself with glittering Central.

We took him to Mountain Folk Craft, a favorite store of ours run by two bent over ladies, who sell bits of china, carvings, old children’s hats—now very expensive—puppets from Indonesia and China, block printed fabric, paintings on glass and jewelry. We mailed the Chinese children’s clothes to Albany, going on to the Star Ferry because you cannot say you have been to HK if you haven’t been on the Star Ferry. Getting out Kowloon side we walked to the Peninsula for a cappuccino in the upstairs’ lounge. We didn’t have time for the tea downstairs, unfortunately.

On our way back to the ferry E saw the teashop I have never entered but whose windows I have gazed into for years. I admire their tiny teapots and diminutive cups knowing I need none of these. E, who is fantastic about language, never cowed by it, dove in and tried out his Mandarin on Vivian who, with her mother, runs the little shop. They conversed back and forth between languages discussing tea. Often on this trip when he would say something in Mandarin people would just stare at him puzzled, then laugh, not at him but at the situation of incomprehension.

The next day S and E and I lunched with a friends at the Helena May before one drove us to the zoo entrance saving us a grand up hill slog. I love the HK zoo. Unfortunately my favorite orang was napping on a high platform where his amazing face could not be seen. He has great flanges, a sort of face decoration orangs grow but not until they are around 20 years old. Females prefer orangs with flanges.

We walked down through the caged birds looking at flamingos and a good-looking kookaburra, plump and white, pleased with himself. We crossed the road going up hill to the enormous netted aviary, one of my favorite places. It started to rain gently as we walked with unfamiliar birds all around us, on branches over head, on branches below us and a magnificent, white pheasant taking a stroll by the side of the palm lined stream at the bottom. Some had long green tails; others were chubby and blue sitting together, a tea party on a branch over head. They were unfamiliar but as fabulous in their colors as rare gems. Since you are not a threat they let you get close.

We went up to a second set of cages in further rain but after the aviary caged birds did not enthrall, although there were a lot of hornbills. It must have been mating season because they were making incredible squeak-squawk noises while lifting their heads and stretching out their necks. We were the only people among the cages.

It rained off and on all the way home to the HM where we finished our packing for China.