A Night to Remember

Last night inspired me to write a long overdue blog post. It was my dad’s retirement party, thrown by the Pathology Department at Columbia University where he was a Director for the past 16 years. When I heard they were planning to roast him, I laughed and wondered what in the world was “roastable” about my dad. He’s just a normal guy. There’s nothing particularly quirky about him, unless you have the inside scoop after living with him for 20-something years of your life. 😉

I was proven wrong. Not about the “nothing particularly quirky about him” thing. No, there’s plenty of that. What I was wrong about is the “he’s just a normal guy” part. Perhaps because my siblings and I grew up in the presence of greatness of the quiet variety, we took that greatness for granted. There’s actually nothing normal about my dad. Hearing how his boss came to hire him, a guy with none of the credentials for a job in pathology, made me realize just how bizarre and extraordinary his journey has been.

At nineteen years old, amidst the protests of both of their families, my dad and mom married. They had lived next door to each other since they were thirteen. Exactly a year later, I was born. My dad drove a Wonder Bread truck to make ends meet. He ate a lot of doughnuts en route to diners in the middle of the night, and saw his share of roaches scatter when he turned on the lights to refill the bread boxes.

When I was almost four, he decided he needed something a bit more stable and became a New York City Police Officer. He worked in Canarsie, which was very close to our home in Ozone Park. When he was on the 8-4 shift, we were eating dinner by 4:30. Very stable (and good practice for the early-bird specials he’ll be eating as a newly retired person). Several years into his police career, he was injured and placed at a desk job in the Audits and Accounts division at Police Headquarters. As he was growing in his administrative skills, he returned to college at night and managed to get a degree in Sociology, despite the craziness of raising three rug rats in a very small home. Eventually, he became a sergeant and lieutenant.

Then, something happened that changed the course of his life. He applied, via a program in the NYPD, to Harvard for a Master in Public Administration. Future Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had been the candidate accepted a few years before. Dad went off to Harvard as I returned to my senior year at Washington University in St. Louis. Since he had never attended sleep-away college, I counseled him about the temptations and distractions he would face, namely excessive partying, drinking, middle-of-the-night fast-food runs, the freshman 15, sleeping through morning classes, and cramming the night before exams. I told him I knew he had a good head on his shoulders and he’d do just fine. I sent him off with a pat on the back, happy that I could share my extensive knowledge with him for a change. At the end of the year, my parents came to the Midwest for my graduation and I went back East for his.

He returned to the Police Department and became the Quartermaster. After 22 years on the job, he retired at the tender age of 46. In his next career, he was the Associate Executive Director for EMS at Health and Hospitals Corporation. Six and a half years later, they merged with the Fire Department and he decided to leave. But he was only 51, and mom wasn’t quite ready for him to be retired, as the story goes. So, she started sending out résumés to jobs listed in the New York Times and was pleased to announce someone had contacted him for an interview at the Pathology Department at Columbia University. By his own admission, his big qualification for that environment was knowing there was a difference between blood and urine. Lucky for us he wasn’t colorblind.

As dad’s boss related the story last night, they had been interviewing people for weeks when the department’s fax machine spit out a final résumé. He took one look at it and thought it was suspicious—New York City Police Officer with a Master’s from Harvard—but he was intrigued enough to offer him an interview. Thanks to intellectual curiosity, the rest is history.

To hear the regard that people have for my dad and the many things he achieved was very moving. He has never been one to talk about himself or his achievements and is the most humble person I know. So, it was a rare gift to hear the stories, told with such feeling, by the people who have worked with him the past 16 years.

My hat’s off to you, dad. You are a man who has worn many hats literally and figuratively…and worn them well.

Looks just like every other New York cop in the 1970s.

Graduation Day at Harvard

From our cross-country camping days

With the grandchildren born, I’m pretty sure this hat was worn for their benefit and not my mom’s.

Notice the color-coordinated headband.

[This amazing event was held at Bouley Test Kitchen. The food and the space were magnificent. For those of you who know me well, if I eat in a place this good and manage to write an entire blog post without mentioning any of the culinary details, you know how powerful the non-culinary portion of the evening had to be. It truly was. With that said, “Damn, that place rocked.” Click here to take a peek.]

Rethinking Games from My Youth

When you’re a kid learning how to play games from adults, you latch on to certain things, depending on your personality and perspective. For me, in Scrabble, it was “Oooooo…7-letter word. Aaah…triple-word score.” I was a nerdy, dictionary-reading kid, so as part of my strategy, I also memorized the “q” words that could be spelled without a “u.” In my circle of family and friends, I was a very good Scrabble player.

Fast forward about 30 years. I started playing Words with Friends online, and one of my pals was whipping my butt. The worst part? He was doing it with plain, old, two-letter words, stacked one on top of the other and attached to another word on the board. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it, but I’d never considered that as a strategy. I was too mired in the “rules” as I had learned them—or perceived them—as a child. Needless to say, my Scrabble game has greatly improved.

Which leads us to chess. I came home from a friend’s house one day at the tender age of five and surprised my dad with the ability to play chess. I suppose it was impressive at that age. At 47, when you’re still playing like your former, five-year-old self, not too impressive.

Enter Chess.com. I began playing with my Words with Friends pal, and he repeated his butt-whipping performance. That is, until I started taking advantage of the free resources on Chess.com and went on a 17-game winning streak.

So, here’s my analysis. I know you’re waiting for it. As a child, I learned how to move my pieces and internalized “Don’t let them get your king.” As a result, I was a reactive player. No strategy. I would haphazardly move pieces and when one threatened, I would react. With the help of Chess.com, I’ve learned to get those power pieces on the board, castle early, set up pieces six moves ahead, and use certain pieces together.

Bobby Fischer: Please, no visitations from the other side. I understand there must be even more than this, but for me this is huge. Let me have my moment of glory.

[Men, look away for a moment. Women of a certain age: If you’re suffering from a fuzzy, perimenopausal brain, you’ll be pleased to know that playing chess has returned me to my former, sharp-minded self. I assume this “therapy” would also be beneficial to women in the postpartum stage, but we all know you don’t have time to brush your teeth, let alone play chess. Men, welcome back.]

Just before I started playing chess again, I caught a movie on Netflix that, no doubt, inspired me to take it up again. Queen to Play is a French movie, starring Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire, with a bit but tingly performance by Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame. Totally hot, flirtatious, seductive, and that’s without an ounce of sex. It’s like porn for the intellectual. Sort of. Check out The New York Times review to whet your appetite.

So, do you wrinkle your nose at all properties except Boardwalk and Park Place, or are you a real estate tycoon? Do you play rows of same-color guesses in MasterMind or mix it up from the start? Do you focus on the corners or the middle in Battleship? Let’s discuss.

I’m Alive…and 49 Pages Closer to “The End”

You lookin’ at me?
(Thanks MKD for the photo.)

Another heavenly week has come and gone. This was year 2 of my Virginia Beach writing retreat with the Doll Babies. If that’s conjuring up images of sweet, little ladies popping bon bons as they write, well, the bon bons are not far off course, but sweet…nah. If you saw us coming, you might think we were a gang. We’ve got the thriller-writing motorcycle mama, and the tattoo-covered fantasy writer. Then there’s the one that sounds like My Cousin Vinny. Ahem. Throw in a former investigative journalist, a nuclear plant engineer, and a flamenco-dancing biologist. Don’t let the two southern belles fool you. And beware of the one who induces death by chocolate every night. Scarier still, the one who cannot be bribed with chocolate cake and has some frightening ideas on revenge. You don’t want her moving those ideas from the page to the street. Trust me on this.

Were we having fun yet? Hell, yeah!

Long story short…I had hoped to complete another 18 manuscript pages, but I ended up with 49. Don’t ask me how. As everyone sat at their computers for hours, I got up for a snack, and then some relaxation on the beach, and then a run and shower, and then a nap. Oh, look at the time—dinner. You get the idea. Whatever works.

There were moments I wanted to skip over the tough scenes and write the easier ones. But I knew I’d never have this kind of uninterrupted time again, so I forged ahead. It was a good decision. It forced me into the dreaded middle of the novel and I got some momentum going.

Besides the writing, there were a few other highlights:

I went down to the beach, one morning, sheet in hand. I kicked sand into a few umbrella holes, laid out the sheet, and then lay down with my eyes closed. The sound of the surf lulled me into a meditative state. A short while later, the excited screams of two women disrupted my peace. “Oh my God. Look at all those crabs.” I lifted my head slightly, shaded my eyes with my hand, and realized the women were pointing at me. My sheet was surrounded by crabs. Those umbrella holes I covered up…not umbrella holes. The crabs were digging themselves out of their wrecked homes. They looked angry. Some of them wielded little beach sticks in their claws. Frankly, they were menacing. I grabbed my sheet and ran.

Another day, a fellow writer and I walked to a nature preserve. It was a long walk. A very long walk. It was hot. We didn’t have water. All the snack bars were closed because it wasn’t quite the season. When we arrived at the entrance booth, a friendly man gave us each a cup of water and then told us to mind the venomous snakes and the wild pi-igs. Wild pigs? Yup, those ones with the tusks. I was convinced he was having some fun with me and my New York accent. Not so. There’s something about the word pig pronounced with two syllables that scares the hell out of me.

So now it’s back to the real world. Work. Bills. Chores. Not enough time to write. No worries. I’ve got memories of ten women sharing their stories, eating good food, laughing like crazy, not a care in the world. It’ll keep me going until next year.

A strong suggestion for my readers: Do this for yourself. You don’t have to be a writer. Carve out a week with like-minded people. It’s food for your soul.

7 x 7 Link Award

My pal over at Celluloid Zombie passed along this award, which led me to revisit some old blog posts.

The rules to the 7 x 7 Link Award are simple:

  1. Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.
  2. Link to a post I think fits the following categories: Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride Worthy Piece.
  3. Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.

And we’re off.

Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows

If not one person knew some deep, dark secret of mine, I can’t imagine why I’d suddenly tell everyone. But here’s the thing…I’m a pretty open person. I’d offer up even the most cringe-inducing confession if I thought someone else would benefit by it. So there you go. Not nearly as exciting as the bodies under the floorboards over at Celluloid Zombie, I know.

1. Most Beautiful Piece

Without hesitation, my most beautiful piece—One Two Three Kick—is about the person responsible for so many happy moments in my childhood (even if I do shudder when re-reading the paragraphs detailing the excessive snacking. What did we know? It was the 70s.)

2. Most Helpful Piece

Felix the Cat and MacGyver inspired this post that I hope encouraged you to consider how the simplest things and a bit of imagination can take life from mundane to memorable. Check out Felix the Cat and MacGyver Picnic on a Purple Sarong.

3. Most Popular Piece

Reading Old Journals…Yikes! struck a chord with many readers. It is my leader in Comments and what great comments they are.

4. Most Controversial Piece

Controverisal? Moi? Well, if you’re planning on hiring me sometime in the future, please don’t read Denim, the evil fabric until we’ve finalized all the contracts.

5. Most Surprisingly Successful Piece

Who could have guessed that my family recipe for Migliaccio (Italian Farina Custard) would top my Most Viewed chart? When did farina, eggs, and sugar become so popular? It just goes to prove that the whole, bubbling concoction is greater than the sum of its parts. With Easter right around the corner, you don’t want to miss this one.

6. Most Underrated Piece

Apparently, readers don’t want to hear about one of the more embarrassing moments in my life or the possibility that Child Protective Services has a file on me for subjecting a minor to naked aliens. If that sort of thing doesn’t interest you either, then don’t read Signs.

7. Most Pride Worthy Piece

My post Travel: Gaeta, Italy in October is the one I’m most proud of. It was a labor of love to condense two of the best weeks of my life into a CliffsNotes travelogue. I’m so hopeful that someone out there will make this very trip and then tell me all about their experience. I love reminiscing about this vacation and I often return to this post to immerse myself in a sea of memories.

My 7 Nominees

I know people are busy, so don’t feel obligated to participate. However, you are the ones that entertain me the most and it would be fun to read some of your posts I may have missed.

Altared Spaces

Finding the Humor

Girlboxing

Huffygirl’s Blog

Mostly Bright Ideas

The Fordeville Diaries

The Glowing Edge

Winter Status Update in Bullet Points

  • January and February are not my favorite months.
  • I go into hibernation mode.
  • I run less.
  • I stretch less.
  • My hamstrings tighten up.
  • I eat comfy foods more.
  • My love handles bulk up.
  • My belly looks like Baby Roo has taken up residence.
  • My back aches.
  • The number on the scale increases.
  • I don’t walk as much.
  • I don’t get as much fresh air.
  • I don’t get as much sunlight.
  • My mind is not as sharp.
  • I am reduced to writing in bullet points.
  • My emotions are not as stable.
  • I make the scary discovery that the state of my mind really does influence how well I land planes on Flight Control HD on the iPad.
  • I decide that putting my fate into the hands of an air traffic controller who has been running less, eating comfy foods, not getting enough fresh air and sunshine, and feeling a bit out of it may not be such a great idea.

But there’s hope.

  • The days are getting longer.
  • They’re also getting warmer.
  • I’ve had just about all I can handle of comfy foods.
  • My tight, aching body actually is beginning to crave exercise and fresh air again.
  • I have a gift certificate for a massage waiting to be redeemed.
  • The Chopra Center is sponsoring a 21-Day Meditation Challenge, which begins on Monday, February 20th.
  • My life coach buddy has invited me to her 3-day Soulful Cleanse.
  • I’ve made some progress on the novel.
  • March is right around the corner.
  • History indicates I do this every year and always spring back.

How are you surviving the winter?

Horror: What truly terrifies you?

There are countless books and movies that attempt to scare us. Some succeed; many fail. Being scared out of your wits is a personal thing, it seems. What succeeds in scaring you may completely fail to frighten me. So, I ask “Which bits of a book or movie are capable of truly terrifying you?”

There’s something exhilarating about entering into a potentially scary experience. It’s a delicious sensation that builds and creates goose bumps on my skin and chills in my core. I curl up tighter on the couch and sink lower under my blanket. My hands make their way closer to my face so I can hide my eyes if necessary. This is a good kind of scariness, one that you anticipate when watching certain movies.

It is in no way similar to feeling disturbed by themes that involve violence done to children, which does my head in but could never result in the scary sensations described above. In fact, I can’t watch horror movies or read books that involve harm coming to children.

When I was a kid, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories scared the heck out of me and probably set the foundation for what I would later find scary, namely suspenseful horror that is not overdone and psychological in nature. For example, Fortunato being walled up, one brick at a time, in the wine cellar. The thought of being trapped like that and no one ever knowing where you were was terrifying to me at the age of eight.

About that time, there was a TV show called The 4:30 Movie that had theme weeks. Vincent Price Week was a favorite. Several of his movies were based on Poe classics and to this day, when someone mentions Edgar Allan Poe, I see Vincent Price’s face (and hear his distinctive voice).

Then there was Monster week. Though I’d watch intently as people screaming in Japanese fled the city with Godzilla, Rodam, Gamera, or Gargantua chasing after them, I was never scared by these fake, rubbery monsters. The horror came later if Mom happened to cook something jiggly like eggplant parmigiana. Then, I’d hear the screeches of Gamera and Godzilla coming from my plate. To this day, whenever I bite into an eggplant parmigiana hero, I always think of them.  

You see the similarities, right?

As a teenager, I saw the standard teen horror flicks. With the exception of the original Halloween movie, the teen horror movies just never did it for me. They relied too much on cheap thrills and such far-fetched plots that eventually I decided to willingly unsuspend disbelief. Cheap thrills leave you hungry for something more substantial. Sure the startle factor is powerful, but it’s short-lived. Something would pop out at you and you’d scream. Remember what you did after screaming? You laughed, right? Because it was more a feeling of “you got me” rather than “wow, you really scared me down deep and that fear is going to linger for a while.” After the movie, you’d walk home with your friends and rather than looking over your shoulder in fear, you’d laugh at who screamed the loudest at those moments.

A good scare is a lot like garlic. It lasts long after the story has ended. Here are some of my favorite, scary viewing/reading moments:

Jaws: It doesn’t matter that I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever be eaten by a shark. The possibility exists and so I’m never quite at ease ever since I saw this movie as a kid.

Open Water: To start, I have a fear of being under water. (I won’t tell you how old I was when I finally learned to put my entire head under the shower, cheeks puffed with extra oxygen stored up.) This movie had me on the brink of an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t stop watching it. Even if I didn’t have a deep-water phobia, as clearly the divers in the movie didn’t, you can’t escape the horror of their situation. First of all, it happens in real life—fly-by-night operations leave divers behind. Then there’s the near certainty that you’re going to die and probably in a gruesome way. The nudge of the shark wasn’t even as terrifying as waiting for the shark’s nudge after the partner died and drifted off. The suspense made me sick inside. Oy! I’m starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it.

Communion (the book): It is a mistake to read this book in bed at night. It terrified me. It’s supposedly a true story about author Whitley Strieber’s encounters with aliens at his cabin in the woods, and there are witnesses. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter; it feels real. And the horror of this book carried over into my real life in strange ways. See my post Signs for the details. And speaking of Signs…

Signs: I love this movie because you don’t see the aliens until the end and it’s still scary as hell. The rustle of those corn stalks gets me every time.

Fire in the Sky: Freaky. Freaky. And can I just say, freaky. The whole “based on true events” thing already kicks the scare-o-meter up a few notches for me. DB Sweeney cowering naked in the corner of that shack made my hair stand on end. And the whole icky, sticky beehive-like thing was disgusting, but in a scary way. Imagine waking up to find yourself in something like that. Jeez. But that part only worked for me after the rest of the movie had done its job.

Twilight Zone: The Movie: Can you honestly tell me that when you take a night flight you don’t look at the wing expecting to see that thing standing out there? Shiver.

Planet of the Apes (the original): This is not a scary movie, but the final scene on the beach stayed with me a long time with all the unspoken facts: There’s nowhere to go. You’re where you wanted to get to, but it’s not what you thought it would be. Your life is a nightmare you’ll never wake up from.

With that said, I think I’m a bit clearer about what scares me. It’s the sense of being trapped without control, whether it be in the middle of the sea, among talking, dominant apes, or prodded by aliens. And most likely, this loss of control scares me in books and films because it disturbs me in real life, too. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you’re shocked by this admission. 🙂

Your turn. What truly terrifies you?

Felix the Cat and MacGyver Picnic on a Purple Sarong

I’ve been on holiday in England the past couple of weeks. A travel blog post is on its way, but in the meantime, I was wondering…

Do you have tangible items in your life that are symbols for your dreams and desires?

You might remember that I attended a Writers’ Retreat in Virginia Beach back in May and, while there, visited the Edgar Cayce Center. In addition to several books, a purple tie-dyed sarong with fringes caught my eye. It didn’t match my bathing suit, and yet I knew I had to have that sarong. It was more than a beach cover-up. It was a fabric talisman that would transport me from suburban mom to sophisticated world traveler with a minimum of luggage. I would carry it with me on every trip and this one item would eliminate the need to pack several others. Sure, at the beach or pool, it would function as a cover-up, but there were several other uses for this piece of plum material. Felix had his bag of tricks, but I would have my sarong, and like MacGyver, I would transform it into anything I needed at the moment.

On a windy day, it’s a hooded scarf.

When there’s no time to change for dinner, it becomes a wrap that dresses up my outfit.

Tied in a few places, it’s a halter top…

…or a bohemian skirt.

At the outdoor market, I’ll pack up my fruit, cheese, and wine and carry it over my arm.

In a pretty meadow, I’ll lay it down for an impromptu picnic.

Back at the hotel and without a proper dining table, I’ll drape it over my suitcase and serve a decent cup of tea.

Caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, I’ll hold it above my head and run to shelter.

When injured, I’ll use it as a tourniquet or to support a sprain.

Even when I don’t speak the language, I will delight children with a game of peek-a-boo.

In a church, I’ll cover my shoulders.

Where religious norms in other countries require my head to be covered, it shall be…in purple tie-dye. Hmmmm, maybe not.

In a pinch, it’s an extra towel.

After waking up at 5 AM and traveling hours to Bath to take part in the Jane Austen festival and consuming way too many scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, I’ll lay my sarong out on the grass in a park and take a two-hour nap.

And at the end of the day, I’ll wash it and hang it to dry so it’s ready for another day of adventure.

That was my thought as I stood there holding the purple sarong in my hands. And it was a thought that made me very happy indeed. So, I bought it and brought it with me to England three weeks ago. I’m happy to say it came in handy after the Jane Austen festivities. 🙂 See photo below.

Lack of sleep + cream tea sugar high = eventual coma. Would Jane Austen have behaved in such a manner?

Are there items in your life that are symbols or reminders of who you are at heart or where you’re heading in life?

Travel: Gaeta, Italy in October

 This one’s for you, Nan.

If you dream of Italy, possess an explorer’s spirit, and enjoy immersing yourself in a foreign culture, have I got the vacation for you. Take a sledgehammer to your itineraries cast in stone, burn your vacation to-do list, and never again wake at an ungodly hour to catch a stuffy tour bus en route to crowded attractions. In Gaeta, you can’t help but fall into the rhythm of the natives, a rhythm steady enough to keep you on course but with breaks in the beat for some solo improvisation. Perfection.

Gaeta? Never heard of it.

This past October I fell in love with Gaeta, Italy during a two-week stay with a group of writers I met online. (For more on that story, click here.) Like many people, I wasn’t familiar with Gaeta, despite traveling north to south in Italy twice in the past. But I was familiar with two of the products Gaeta is known for…Gaeta olives and buffalo mozzarella. That was a good enough start for me.

Look at that sweet mozzarella face on the supermarket shopping bag.

It turns out this present-day fishing community was a renowned tourist resort to the wealthy, ancient Romans and its seaport had trade and military significance. In fact, its fortifications date back to Roman times. Who knew?

Driving with the Italians…and Michael Jackson

We flew in to Fiumicino Airport in Rome and found our driver Lucio, who would transport us the two hours to Gaeta. This was a less expensive and infinitely more comfortable option than lugging suitcases through stations to catch two different trains.

There’s no roller coaster that tops the exhilaration of driving with a real Italian in Italy. It’s a religious experience. And where else could we have enjoyed the endless Michael Jackson music that Lucio played for the length of the trip. I’m not sure if he was a fan or if he thought his American passengers were. Every once in a while his left hand would come off the steering wheel and do a little circular motion in the air, and the rest of us would erupt in a high-pitched “ooooo.” We joked we were singing along in the spirit of the great Mr. Jackson, but if I’m being honest, it was more a high-pitched squeal of terror—high speed, sharp curves, oncoming traffic, and a one-handed driver. Wait, I feel another “ooooooo” coming on…and maybe a wee, butt clench.

Two hours later, the music track was still playing, and Michael was instructing us to “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” Clearly, Lucio hadn’t. And I’d realized much earlier in the journey that screaming “Zio, zio” (the Italian word for uncle) at the top of my lungs did not translate as a cry of surrender. 😉

All jesting aside, Lucio was a wonderful driver and a charming man and I’d hire him again. Case in point, after a long train journey back to Gaeta after an exhausting day in Rome, we exited the station, not looking forward to the bus ride ahead of us.  Standing outside, as if sent by an angel, was Lucio with his cab parked at the curb. We let out a cry of joy and rushed toward him. He looked a bit frightened and probably has his own blog where he tells of the crazy Americans and one English guy he once drove around. 

Villa Accetta: A jewel on the Gulf of Gaeta

We finally arrived at Villa Accetta, which has been owned by the Accetta family for several generations and in existence even longer than that. In fact, it appears on an ancient map of Gaeta in the museum of Formia, a neighboring city. As I passed through the gates, I couldn’t miss the view of the blue-green Gulf of Gaeta, framed by fuchsia bougainvillea and swaying palm trees. According to Villa Accetta’s website:

“Built on Roman foundations, the property sits above the fresh-water spring called Artacia Fons that flows into the sea. Homer, Dante, Virgil and Ovid all wrote about this spring, where Ulysses and his crew found drinkable water after months at sea.”

The Gardens at Villa Accetta

The circular staircase leading to the various apartments has at its core a passage to this grotto, which supplies the property not only with water but also cool, fresh air. All of the apartments have views of the sea, from terraces, balconies, or oversized windows. The soothing ripples of the water lapping against the shore of the private, pebbly beach lulled me to sleep many a night. Once or twice, the sea turned angry and blasted the exterior walls of the villa with a violent spray. In the early morning, I’d look out at the calm water and think I’d been dreaming the night before.

We explored the property with rumbling tummies until a member of our party, who had arrived a few days early, led us to the old, handmaid table on the terrace, where she had set out a Gaetan feast so beautiful it could have been a spread for a photo shoot: fresh, and I mean fresh, balls of buffalo mozzarella waiting to be scooped from a pot of liquid; gorgonzola; olives; tomatoes; pancetta bread; cured meats like salami, capicolla, and prosciutto; finnochio (fennel); and wine. We were half starved from our journey and ate with relish, which is just a nice way of saying we inhaled our food like cafoni. With bellies bursting with joy, we returned to our individual apartments to take the customary afternoon nap. Boy, did we need it.

The Rhythm of Gaeta

The rhythm of Gaeta is a soothing ebb and flow. After a while, you suspect that the sea, and not blood, flows through the veins of its inhabitants. Before sunrise, the fishermen set out in their boats; before sunset they return to lay out their catch at the daily fish market. Day after day, I was drawn to that market to see what treasures had been pulled from the sea and what I might be eating at a local restaurant later that evening.

View from "port hole" window beneath Villa Accetta

In the mornings, we’d have sfogliatella and cappuccino for breakfast at Triestina, our favorite café. You may be familiar with the flaky, clam shell-shaped version of sfogliatella. But there is another variety I have never seen in New York called sfogliatella frolla, which has a smoother dough but the same filling. You’ll never find a cappuccino in the States like in Gaeta. Perfect every time. And even if you do, you’ll pay at least $4.50 for it rather than 90 cents or a Euro. For all you “bacon and eggs” people, fuhgeddaboudit. Not gonna happen. I suppose you can improvise with groceries bought at the PAM supermarket in Gaeta and cooked up in the villa’s kitchen, but isn’t it more fun to have a reason to eat pastry for breakfast? And there’s no need to worry about your figure. The terrain is so rugged with its ancient stone pathways, steep hills, and long stretches of beach that I didn’t gain a single pound and came home with a few new muscles.

After breakfast, we’d take in the sights. There are castles, churches, beaches, shops, outdoor markets, ancient paths to walk, mountains to climb, legendary sites to visit, and neighboring towns to explore. But don’t lose that rhythm or you’ll find yourself hungry and locked out of shops when the entire town closes for its big meal of the day and siesta. After all, this isn’t Rome with its tourist restaurants and menus written in 37 different languages. The first day, we walked through the streets a bit stunned, realizing what had happened, and stared longingly through screenless windows at families sitting down to their pranzo. You don’t make that mistake twice. And so, just before 1 PM, we’d stop at the salumeria or caseificio to pick up some fixings and head back to the villa for a leisurely lunch and siesta.

Sometimes, before that afternoon nap beckoned, we’d stroll on the villa’s beach, collecting shells, beach glass, unusual stones, and what I like to think is some kind of ancient Roman building material. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 😉

After naps, we’d freshen up and add a layer to our outfit since the October nights can be a bit cool. Then it was on to the passegiata, the pre-dinner stroll that is an Italian tradition. We’d pass the fish market to marvel at tender octopus and tiny clams, and then walk on to the piazza along the waterfront path. No one was in a hurry. Dinner doesn’t happen before 7 PM.

Memorable Meals

On that unforgettable afternoon when we realized we hadn’t planned for lunch, we wandered through the deserted streets until I spotted a statue of Padre Pio, a much loved saint in Italy. Padre Pio has a list of credits to his name, but he is now officially my patron saint of finding food in Italy when everyone has closed up shop and returned home for their big meal of the day. That’s because he sat at the entrance of La Saliera da Mario, the only restaurant open for business, it seemed. We ordered platters of bruschetta, fried calamari, gnocchi, seafood salad, and cheese and cured meats and passed them around the table. After lunch, the proprietor brought bottles of amaro, an herbal liquer, and grappa to the table to finish off the meal. Nice touch.

When the scent of the wood-burning brick ovens called to us, we headed to Da Emilio for pizza.  I enjoyed the quattro stagione, which featured salami, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and Parma ham over a crisp, evenly cooked crust. For appetizers, we sampled the mixed seafood appetizer, fried calamari, and fried alici (whole, pan-fried anchovies). Let me tell you, Gaetans know how to catch a fish and fry it up in a pan.

Down a vicolo off the Via Indipendenza we happened upon L’enoteca di Luigiraschi. A lucky find since that was their last night serving dinner before closing up for vacation. The steamed mussels and clams were tender and sweet and the garlicky broth was quickly sopped up with bread. The seafood salad was fresh, as all seafood is in Gaeta. As delicious as it all was, one dish really stood out—the seafood risotto. We all had a taste of it and then kept eyeing it as our friend ate his meal. Some of us were bolder than others and I have the fork marks in my wrist to prove it. (Located in Gaeta, Via Indipendenza, Vico 1, 15)

There’s a traditional pizza in Gaeta called tiella, and Nari is the place to go for it. I only wish that these restaurants had websites so I could link to them. Tiella is a stuffed, pan pizza. I adored the zucchini/calamari tiella. I also sampled the one stuffed with onion. (Located in Gaeta, Via Duomo 11/17)

In the best gelato category, Il Molo wins. We ordered multi-flavor cones and sampled each other’s flavors so we’d know what to order next time. There were many “next times.” Nutella and bacio were good. Pistacchio, coffee, and coconut—excellent. (Located in Gaeta, Piazza del Pesce, 1)

Finally, if you happen to take the bus into Formia, the city next to Gaeta, you must have lunch at La Cucina della Nonna where Italian homecooking like your grandma used to do it is what you’ll get. Here, you grab a tray and point to the things you want if you can’t speak the language. We had stuffed peppers, pasta with eggplant, and potato stuffed with prosciutto. And then I saw the little chunks of golden, roasted potatoes and had to have them, too. The couple who run this restaurant are entertaining to say the least. I knew enough Italian and the man knew enough English to share some conversation while we ate our meal. The woman, recognizing that I was American, automatically threw packets of ketchup and mayonnaise on my tray, which I returned to her unopened at the end of my meal. She practically hugged me as she beat her chest and complained in Italian about the Americans who come and put mayonnaise on her food. I assured her that this American, raised by Italians, would never do such a sinful thing. She complimented me on being one of the few sane Americans that she had met. Like I said, entertaining. (Located in Formia at Via Nerva, 14)

Before you leave Formia to head back to Gaeta, be sure to stop at Pastacceria Troiano pastry shop, where we ordered one sfogliatella and one sfogliatella frolla and they wrapped them as if they were a gift for a king. The pastries happened to be delicious, as well. Truth be told, we never made it back to Gaeta. We parked ourselves at a park bench overlooking the sea and ripped into that beautiful packaging for a taste. (Located in Formia at Via Vitruvio, 76)

Places to See

You’ll discover many delightful sights as you wander the streets of Gaeta and travel to neighboring towns. Here are a few of my favorites:

Via Indipendenza – This narrow, stone street will have you believing you stepped back in time. Shops, stores, and restaurants line the way. Be sure to stop and stare into the kitchen of the man who bakes the sfogliatelle and cornettos for the local cafés and shops. If you’re a local kid, he has a just-from-the-oven pastry for you. If you’re not, no cornettos for you.

The Wednesday outdoor market – If you can’t get it here, it doesn’t exist. Fruits, veggies, meats, pastries, housewares, clothes, shoes…even pets. (Located in Corso Cavour, near the old Station.)

Old Gaeta – How I loved strolling along the sea and winding in and out of the old, narrow streets. Check out the Angevin-Aragonese castle and the old Sant’Erasmo bell tower.

Serapo Beach – When you leave the villa early in the morning and think it’s a bit chilly, turn yourself around, go back inside, and put your bathing suit on under your clothes. I’m glad I did. By the time we’d made our way into town and had our breakfast cappuccino, it was beach weather. We stopped and bought some panini and a bag of taralli (lightly sweet, anise flavored cookies) for a picnic lunch and ended up lying on the pristine sand of Serapo. The water was a bit chilly for me, but then my pool has to be 85 degrees before I venture in. So, stick a toe or two in and see for yourself.

Serapo Beach

Sperlonga – Ah, how I wish I could be back in Sperlonga for more than just one afternoon. Next time, I’ll rent a place there for a few days. When you get off the bus at sea level, you are in the center of a small town on a beautiful beach. If you stand on the beach and look up at the mountain, you’ll think there are a few houses up there. But when you start hiking the uphill roads, you’ll find a complex maze of alleys that lead to a hidden “city” of restaurants, shops, a piazza, sea views, serene shrines, and an ancient church. Oy, I could weep. Apparently, there’s a lot more to see. So plan to spend more than just a few hours. And have an alternate plan to get back to Gaeta since the buses don’t run between the two towns in the evening.

Beach at Sperlonga

View of Sperlonga from within the hill town

Annunziata Church – I happen to love churches and this one didn’t disappoint. Be sure to check out the paintings inside. It is said that Pope Pius IX, while living in exile in Gaeta, formulated his ideas on papal infallibility here.  

Montagna Spaccata  – Legend has it that this mountain split upon Christ’s death. Visit the church, see the tiled Stations of the Cross, and be sure to take the 200+ steps down to the grotto (Grotta del Turco). Also check out the handprint seared into the mountain wall, said to belong to a Turk who did not believe in the legend. 

Montagna Spaccata - The "Split Mountain"

Rome, Naples, and Pompeii  – If you want to visit “big city” sights, take the train from Formia station. Gaeta is about halfway between Rome and Naples, and depending on which train you take, it’s about an hour and a half to a two hour trip.

The Last Night and Day

For our last night, we stayed at the Hotel Malù in Rome, a more relaxing option than racing against time to get to the airport from Gaeta. I’m not even convinced it can be done. Disregard the warnings about staying near Termini Station. It’s a bustling area of shops, restaurants, cafés, churches, and fountains. Hotel Malù is owned by a lovely family and operated in a building with other apartments and hotels. Security was tight, prices were reasonable, the room was immaculately clean, well-decorated, and comfortable, and there was free wi-fi in the common areas, helpful for last minute travel inquiries. The delightful Ivan suggested Le 2 Colonne restaurant and I ate my final meal listening to the bells of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Heavenly.

il Bugso Bunny

Some Additional Links

Slow Travel Italy

The “Riviera di Ulisse”

Welcome to Gaeta and Welcome to Sperlonga by the Shapcott Family

A Vacation for My Soul

I’ve always believed that the universe sends gifts our way when we most need them. My most recent gift came via email from my friend Julie Compton. There was a spot available at a writers’ retreat at a rented beach house in Virginia Beach. Nine other women who had known each other for years had room for a tenth. Was I interested? I admit for a brief moment I was transported back to school yards of yore and uttered “that sounds like hell.” My friend laughed and reassured me, “not these women.” I decided to go for it because I was beginning to feel despair over the lack of writing momentum with my next novel.

I flew in on Saturday and shared a shuttle to the house with Geri and Cal. We chatted merrily, unaware that our driver was hopelessly lost. When we finally arrived at the house, Linda and Mary welcomed us with gift bags filled with writing goodies and showed us to our rooms, the doors of which had been decorated with name plaques and doorknob signs requesting privacy for the writer within. Within the hour, Terri-Lynne DeFino, author of the fantasy novel Finder (but playing the role of gourmet cook), arrived with Signa. Finally, Diana and Sara (the dessert diva) pulled up. Julie would arrive the following day.

The Doll Babies, as the group is called, range in age from mid-forties to eighty-something and comprise talents and successes too numerous to list. Each woman had something special that drew me in and made me want to know more. I was reminded that everyone we meet in life is a potential teacher. If you pay attention, you can learn some wonderful things (about yourself, even) from other people. There’s something magical about admiring traits in others and realizing you can adopt them for the betterment of your own life. What a gift. Needless to say, a week just wasn’t enough, especially since I sensed immediately that this writers’ retreat was going to be about a lot more than just writing.

There’s something about being out in nature that sets me right, reminds me of who I am from the top of my gooey grey matter to the tips of my toes, and airs out my mothball-scented spirit. The house was huge, and there were balconies attached to every room that provided an awe-inspiring view of the beach. Before long, the natural rhythms of the ocean infiltrated the beach house and my existence. There was no set schedule, but my days seemed to flow as follows:

  • Wake to the sound of waves breaking on the shore
  • Exercise – I finished another week of the C25K running program.
  • Have breakfast
  • Write – I completed several scenes and had a breakthrough on a part of the novel that had me stumped.
  • Break for chats about writing and publishing – Writing is a solitary existence and it’s nice to know you’re not alone.
  • Do crafts – There’s something therapeutic about this even though I’m not very good at it. Focusing my mind on stringing beads or pasting paper silences the mental hamsters.
  • Eat dinner (and dessert) – Guinness beef stew, wine, homemade chocolate cake. Yum!
  • Converse – Listen to the stories of 9 amazing women.
  • Fall into a peaceful slumber, waves still breaking on the shore.

As an unstructured person (who secretly wishes she was more structured), this routine soothed. Life is best lived when we enter into its rhythms. I think my cells mutated from the joy of it all. 🙂

As wonderful as it all sounds, there was more. A spontaneous trip to Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment got my mind percolating about my purpose and how I can better integrate body, mind, and spirit. This was live-changing and it’s why it’s taken me so long to write this post. I needed to process it all. (Thank you to everyone who contacted me, wondering where the heck I’ve been. Who says you don’t make real friendships online? It’s nice to be missed. 🙂 )

What this experience taught me was even though I think I’ve carved out “me” time by working only 3 days per week, it isn’t the same as going on retreat minus all the distractions, personal and electronic. Sometimes we need to isolate ourselves from our routines and the roles that we play in our daily lives (not to mention the other people in our lives and the roles they play). We must fast from the things that keep us from going deeper, enter into a meditative space, ask the questions, and wait for the answers. Some questions in life are complex and it’s okay not to have all the answers. In fact it’s probably better to live a while without the answer than to rush into the wrong one. With all that said, I intend to make every effort to take a trip like this on an annual basis to share some one-on-one time with my soul. I hope you’ll consider doing the same. You deserve it.

Gone Fishin’

Fishin’ for words, that is. I’ll be out of town until next Saturday at a writers’ retreat with 9 women. We’ve rented a beach house in Virginia Beach. We each have our own bedroom and bathroom. From morning till about 3:30 PM, we’ll go off on our own to write. In the afternoon, we’ll come together to talk shop or read excerpts. For dinner, one of the writers will cook up some yummy sounding meals. She’s already sent us the menu:

  • Saturday: Guiness Beef Stew, bread, salad
  • Sunday: Chicken parm, and pasta in a roasted tomato sauce
  • Monday: General Tsao’s shrimp, rice noodles and stir-fried veggies
  • Tuesday: We eat out together.
  • Wednesday: Whatever fish looks good, fixed some delicious way, asparagus (or anise) and either risotto or wild rice.
  • Thursday: Sausage (chicken) and peppers
  • Friday: Fritatta

Another writer loves to bake desserts and there are promises of a chocolate cake, warm and gooey from the oven. Did I mention I’m bringing my Couch to 5K podcasts so I can continue my interval training? 😉

This sounds like it will be a wonderful break for me, but let’s not forget the real reason I’m going. The writing. I started my new novel during NaNoWriMo in November 2009. Do you know what today’s date is? After writing about 27,000 words, I was catapulted into the world of book promotion for my first novel, which came out that same month. Not much writing, except for blogging, has been accomplished since then. And that’s a very baaaaaaaaaad thing. So, I need this trip to get me back on track. In fact, there’s a wee bit of fear that I won’t be able to, but I’m doing my best to ignore it.

If you happen to stop by while I’m away, feel free to send me some love. I’ll need it. If I don’t respond right away, that’ll be a good sign.

Catch you when I get back. Have a wonderful week doing things that make your heart sing.

[Update: See my post A Vacation for My Soul for more on my retreat experience.]

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