Tales of a wandering lesbian


Today, after a week of running up and down the coast, the Ant and I decided to head inland to the city of Potenza.  Potenza isn’t in our guidebook, and we didn’t find a ton of information on it, other than it’s the highest regional capitol in the country, and that it has a lot of historic churches.  Oh, and its name means, “Power.”

We spent yesterday afternoon examining bus and train schedules, and planning our trip.  It seemed best for us to catch the 9:35 high-speed train from Salerno.  Because the station is an hour and a half walk, we hopped a bus to downtown.  After a week, we’ve got the busses pretty well figured out (knock on wood), so we ended up at the station with tickets in hand about an hour before the train left.  We congratulated ourselves and decided a cappuccino was in order.

It took about a week for us to have a favorite cappu place.  It’s our favorite gelato place, too.  Just up from the train station, on a corner by the sea, it’s also our favorite bathroom stop.  They’ve started recognizing us.  This morning after ordering in Italian, I heard the girl who has helped us 3 or 4 times tell one of the other baristas something that sounded a lot like “these don’t understand anything.”  Funny how I understood that.  It wasn’t said with malice, just an acknowledgment that we reach for our money to pay too early, or that we struggle a little with the size of the coins, pulling a 50 cent piece out instead of a 20.  But we made it through today, and our girl said, “thank you” when we paid.

Even after our cappunation, there was still about half an hour before our train left, so we went to the tabacchi to buy stamps.  Another successful exchange.  I think.  Not sure if we put too much on the postcards, but we got them posted and the right slot on the big-red box.  We were feeling pretty confident.

Back in the train station, we located the right platform, and after letting several other trains come and go, we boarded the right train, and even found our seats, where we informed a gentleman that he was sitting in them.  Success.

The ride out of the city and to the interior of the country was magnificent.  As the train rumbled along, I got an intense, soul-filling feeling.  I realized I’m more of a hill town girl, than a costal town girl.  The beaches are nice, but the rivers flow a milky turquoise, dancing atop the rugged, bleached shale and bedrock.  It’s otherworldly to me.  It feels deeply and powerfully like home.   Like time could stop and I could plant myself in one of the little caves that flank the rugged riverbeds.

But the train rolled on, and I watched the locals watching us through my sunglasses.  I even watched as the woman across from me took a covert picture with her phone.  I could hear the little camera “click” and watched her close the cover.  So I took a picture of her.  I think that’s super-fair, don’t you?  She probably thought I’m an American celebrity.  Understandable, really.

As we rolled into the station, it was clear we had our work cut out for us.  “Seems pretty spread out.”  The Ant was looking around at the non-city that surrounded the train station.  The night before, when we’d considered the train schedule, we noted that there were a couple of different stations to choose from.  Without a guide, we opted for “centrale,” hoping it would get us closest to the city center.  We were good with busses, but would we be able to navigate when we didn’t know where we were going?  “Nah.”  I was confident we could walk this one out.  “Let’s start walking.”

After a short debate about which way we should go, we started up the hill.  After all, we knew the city sat at the top of a hill.

“I think maybe we should ask someone.”  My Ant did have a point.  It was already about 80 degrees, and there didn’t appear to be any shade ahead.  We’d tried the lady in the tobacco shop, but, without a destination she wasn’t able to give us much.  Not even a map.

There was a guy walking ahead of us, but I wasn’t too excited by the way he felt, so I turned and looked behind us.  A middle-aged, dark-haired man with a jovial walk and newspapers tucked under his arm was moving toward us.  I waited until he was in earshot.

“Prego.”  He looked up.  “Dové il centro?”  He looked quizzically at us.

I find it takes a minute for folks to understand my accent.  I don’t really speak that much Italian – enough to eat and get around – and I mumble to boot.

“Il centro?”

“Si, della città.”

He rocked back on his heels.  “English?”  Awesome.  I prefer it when I can get through a conversation in Italian, but it’s kind of nice to get directions in English, when you’re going to walk in the sun for an extended period of time.  “It’s a long way,” he said, looking from one of us to the other.

“We walk a lot,” the Ant assured him.  He continued to look at us.

“How far?  Venti minuti?”  I tried.

“Si, si, about twenty.”  The Ant and I looked triumphantly at each other.  We could do twenty.  Twenty was nothing, even if it was hot and uphill.

“Bene.  Molto grazie!”

We all smiled and nodded, and headed up the street, our new friend in the lead.  The Ant and I chatted and wondered if there had been a better station for us to use.  Our friend stayed close, but not too close.  After about a minute, he turned.  “I am going to the center.  I will take you.  You can ride with me if you like.”

“Vero?”  The Ant and I exchanged a grin.  “Grazie mille! Thank you so much.  That would be wonderful.  Are you sure?”

We walked on just a bit, exchanging pleasantries.  Yes, we’re from America.

“New York?”  He asked eagerly.  Usually people wanted to know if we were from California.  “My parents worked in New Jersey.  Patterson, New Jersey.  You know it?”  We shook our heads.  “I was there in 1980.  Thirty years agao.”  He shook his head in disbelief.  He was walking toward a small, white, 2-door car.  He opened the door for us and we climbed in.  Something I would probably never do in the US, but something that seemed completely natural here.

During the 5 minute switchback ride to the city center, we exchanged names.  He was Paulo.  He worked for PostaItalia.  I noticed he had a wedding ring, and wondered what his parents had done in Patterson, New Jersey.  He asked how long we would be staying and how many times we had come before.

When he dropped us off, it was across from a very tall building.  “Inside that big door you will find, how do you say, ascensore…”

“Lift.  Elevator,” I supplied.

“Si, brava.  Elevator.  It will take you up to the next street.  Via Pretoria.  That is the main street.”

We climbed out and waved as he drove away.

So we needed an elevator to get to the main street.  This city really was on a hill.  We climbed in with the lines of locals and took the quick ride up.  At the top, we looked down, taking in the excellent view.

And the stairs that we could have climbed.

We were grateful for Paulo.  We prepared ourselves for the walk back.

The top level of the city was before us, maze-like and strange.  The streets had been paved over with new blocks, giving the city a clean, new feel.  We took a look at a map posted in the first piazza we came to.  I even took a picture so that we could take it with us.  Unfortunately, the map was posted facing the wrong way, rendering the “you are here” icon pretty unhelpful.  After an hour of wandering through the streets in a big circle, we realized something wasn’t quite right.  Thankfully, though, the hilltop felt something like an island.  I didn’t think we could get too lost on this side of the elevator.

We took in the architecture.  The Napoleonic city wall, the painted buildings, the hitching posts.

Starting from the map, we headed right, in the other direction, toward a group of people that seemed to be window-shopping.  I was fairly certain I knew where we were, but that didn’t help us fill our stomachs, which were rapidly becoming demanding.  We saw alarmingly few eateries as we walked, and only one pizzeria, which was closed, though the smell wafting from the kitchen was fantastic.

We decided it was time to take Paolo’s advice and find Via Pretoria.  Perhaps we’d have more luck finding a pizzeria there.  The side street we chose had nothing that looked like food on it.  “Maybe we should ask someone.”

I’d already started feeling around for someone who could point us in the right direction.  I could see the Ant was melting a little, and marveled at the feeling of openness I’d been experiencing since I arrived in Italy this time.  It was not at all like the pressed feeling I had come to know during my last visit.  The discomfort with being unable to communicate.  The paralysis of feeling out of control of my surroundings.  The feeling of being in a bell jar.  Being able to see out, but not to move in the world the way I wanted to.  I could feel the Ant going through a small grief cycle as she experienced this feeling of loss now, in a strange city, with no guidebook, no guide, and little language to help us along.

A young woman stepped out of a shop into the street in front of us. “ Prego!”  She turned.  “Via Pretoria?”  I wasn’t really up for conjugation.  She smiled.

“Diritto,” she motioned ahead.  “Sempre.”  Okay, go straight ahead, always straight ahead.  We could do that.

“Grazie.”  She turned off, and we walked ahead, following a red line painted on the cobblestones.  We followed it to its end.

Then we went on some more.  Until we saw a sign for a restaurant and pizzeria.

“I think we should go there.”  The Ant and I travel well together.  We’re pretty easy going, until we’re not.  And then we’re direct.  She was done.  Enough wandering.  It was time to eat.

I paused at the top of the steep stairway leading down to the restaurant.  Vines hung down, and I wasn’t sure whether we were going into a café, or a piazza.  Walking down it became clear.  This was a nice place.  We were in for a treat.

“Aperto?”  It wasn’t entirely clear whether they were open.  We were a little early for the lunch crowd.  There was nobody else there, but we were welcomed in and seated near the middle of the restaurant by an older gentleman with a bald head, baggy jacket and designer glasses.  He looked like he was probably the owner.

He took our drink order and explained where to find the daily specials.  Then he left us to look over the menu.

“We should go all out.”  This place reminded me of the restaurants in Venice, and I was eager to have a real pranzo.  “What do you think?  Primi, secondi, the whole thing.”  We rarely do this, opting for the less expensive pizza route, often disappointing our wait staff.

The Ant agreed, and we started translating the menu, my little dictionary at the ready.  There was spaghetti with tomato sauce, fettuccini with artichoke, and other things I couldn’t even translate.  The Ant settled on maccheroni  al forno – baked maccheroni – and a timballetti of lamb and eggplant.  I chose pasta with lentils and a plate of vegetables.

When I asked for a plate of mixed vegetables, our friendly waiter/probable owner, was accommodating, considering what he’d bring me, and making notes on his tablet.  Then I tried for a cheese plate.  He did me one better.  He would put cheese on top of the grilled vegetables.


Seeing his face light up, I celebrated for a moment when I realized that I’d understood the description well enough to respond with a genuinely excited face.  This was a good day.

The pasta comes first at a meal like this, and this pasta was fantastic.

The Ant’s maccheroni was beautify and crunchy.

My lentils were amazing.  Delicate and savory, they were prepared with olive oil, and a small bit of tomato sauce.  We swirled the bowl around trying to identify ingredients.

With alarming speed, our plates were empty, and we were soaking up the remains with bread.  Any concern that we wouldn’t be able to eat everything shoved aside.

I wasn’t sure exactly what a timballetti was, but we got an approving look when we ordered it.

The little patties of lamb and eggplant sat on a bed of roasted red pepper and olive oil.

I grinned at my plate of cheesy veggies and dug in.  I’ll be grilling my greens much more when I return.  I forget about how earthy and sensual this can be.  Arugula and hearts of romaine, as well as zucchini, eggplant, tomato and potato were covered in slivers of pecorino and parmesan.

We marveled at the flavors and the perfect serving of each.  Again, the food disappeared.

The restaurant was now starting to fill.  Locals, including carbinieri filed in.  Other than us, there was one other woman in the place.  I started to notice looks coming from the table next to us.  Quick glances and mimed photographs told me I was being watched.  Not in a comfortable way.  I try to be respectful and not too obvious with my photographs of the food, but I’m not always successful.  Regardless, I was enjoying the meal, and our service was lovely, so I put it aside.

We ordered dessert, one of each of the torte brought to the table for us to choose from, and a couple of coffees.

The waiters were all now bustling about.  Several more had appeared, and those who had earlier been in shirtsleeves with visible chest hair now had on ties and vests.

The guys at the table next to us were quiet.  Very, very quiet.  Not even really talking.  I’m sure I was projecting, but I felt like they were agitated with our intrusion into their routine.  I tried to let it go.

We paid the bill and took turns in the bathroom.  The Ant first and then I headed in.  “I’ll meet you outside,” she said as she gathered her purse.  I thought about the great meal, but my mind wandered back to the guys at the table.

I walked out, looking for the owner.  He’d been so helpful, I wanted to give him a wave and a “grazie, arrivederci,” but he was in the back.  I paused, and smiled, but wanted to get out of the gaze of the quiet table, so I hurried out, not sure he’d seen me.  I greeted and thanked another of the waiters on the way out, and then walked up the stairs to find the Ant.

When I saw her face, I froze.  She looked shaken.

“You alright?”

She looked at me with big eyes, and nodded just a little.

“What happened.”  My mama bear was coming out.

She opened her mouth and looked like she was going to lose it.  “Did he say goodbye to you?”

“What?  Who?”  My mind was still on the table.  “I smiled, but I’m not sure he saw.  Why?”

“Well, he came over and asked if everything was good, and then he shook my hand and grabbed me and kissed both cheeks.”  She was on the verge.

My tension melted.  I felt sheepish.  “That’s awesome.  He was great.”  I walked over to the little stairs and peered down, hoping to see his grinning face.  If the owner was pleased with our effort, delighted with our enjoyment of his food, I didn’t care much what anyone else thought.

We hugged, and headed up the street back to the piazza and the map, finding it easily.  It was 1:30.  Stores were closing, and we’d seen a lot of the hilltop, so we decided to head back to the station to catch the 2:20 back to Salerno.

Down the elevator we went.  Then we tried to reach a lower level by escalator.  But that just took us under the street and through an interesting art display.

This left us with the option of walking down the street, way around the downtown area, switching back to the lower levels, or taking the stairs, and hoping we could find the right street to the station.

We opted for the stairs.  Which went on.  And on.  And on.  Not steeply, just in flights, switching back and forth, crossing streets, working us further down into a gully.  At one of the street crossings, we saw a guy cut down the stairs in front of us.  He looked like the trek was a familiar, jolly one, and disappeared quickly.

We looked around, trying to assess if we’d gone far enough down to be at the level of the train station.  Despite our best efforts, neither of us had paid very good attention while in the car with Paulo.  We continued down the last flight.

When we reached the bottom, the guy from the stairs was there, talking animatedly with two women: , one wiry, with long dark hair pulled up on the top on her head and a tattoo of Asian characters on her neck, the other smaller, in pink with bleach-blond, short hair.  They moved as a pack, lovingly jostling each other as they crossed the street toward a car.  I’d been watching them with curiosity.  In this comfortable town I hadn’t felt anyone quite like them.  “We’ll ask them.”  It was clear to me they were our next step.

“Prego?”  The dark-haired woman stopped and looked at me.

“Di mi.”  They were all looking at us now.  And they were curious.

I’d tried to work out a way to ask how to get to the station.  “Come andare alla stazione centrale?”

They all gathered around and began the deliberation.  The dark-haired woman wanted to send us the long, direct route, while the short-haired blonde thought the short route was better, but more confusing.  They all agreed it’d be too hard to tell us how to get there.  They looked up at us and motioned, saying something quickly.

“No parlo bene.”  My hands coming up in a plaintiff gesture.

“English?”  Really?  Wow, they were good.


“Okay, you’re coming with us.  We’ll take you.”  Well of course they would.  Truthfully, I had been waiting for the offer.

“Where are you from?”


“AHhh.  America!”  They were super-excited.  This was the best reception we’d had.  The women looked at me with what seemed to be a new understanding.  Yes, short-haired women were more common in America.  I’ve honestly seen 3 since I’ve been here.

We turned to their car, a four-door, blue one, perhaps a Panda.  I pulled at the handle and the blonde, who was climbing into the driver’s seat said, “baby, wait a minute.”  Baby.  Okay.  The other woman smiled.

The door clicked and we climbed in, moving aside whatever random backseat items were on the seat.

“Grazie mille,” I started.


“No really, for something,” I laughed at the hand she’d put up, trying to stop a stranger from thanking her for interrupting her day for a ride to the train station.

Their other friend had disappeared, walking over to his car.  As we fired the engine and drove past, the Ant and I joined in waving goodbye.  The ladies slowed, and motioned him over, yelling out the window that they didn’t want him to feel abandoned.  He came around and climbed in, the three of us pressed into the back seat.  What a riot!

The ladies told us that they were dangerous, cackling wildly.

“Oh good, “ declared the Ant, joining in the laughter.

“Ciaro,” I added, realizing I was using the term “clear” incorrectly as I said it.

We drove and talked, the usual questions about where we lived in America, where we were staying in Italy, for how long, whether we liked Potenza.

“We like the people very much.”

“Oh, well thank you.”  They all seemed disillusioned with the little town, but happy we were enjoying ourselves.

“Yes, you’re all very nice.”

“Well, except for him, eh Vicenzo?”  The ladies were laughing.

“Si, il unico.”  He was the only grumpy one.  Not likely.  His warm, scruffy face was beaming.

“So, Vicenzo?”  I said motioning toward the man, “and what are your names?”

A hand came over the driver-side headrest.  I missed the dark-haired woman’s name, as I shook her hand, amused by the other hand in my face, the driver impatient for me to shake it.

“Mary.”  Not Marie, not Mari.  Mary.  Interesting.

“Kistin.”  They all said it, “Christin.”  Better than the usual Christina.

“Leslie.”  They all let out little joyous sounds at the name.  Something unusual.  “Lezli.”

There was much shaking of hands and laughter.

And then we were at the station.  Just like that.

Mary unbuckled and hopped out of the car.  I pushed the backseat clothing onto the floor and climbed out to thank her.  She positioned herself stoutly in front of us, her tiny frame looking resolute.  Her pink hoodie and piercings distracting from her serious face.

She started speaking, then stopped herself.  “No.  Francais, um…”

“En Italiano,” I encouraged.  Maybe I could work it out.  It seemed important to her to say whatever it was.

“Ok.  Il mundo,”  She was making a circle in the air.

“Yes, the world.”

“Si, il mundo e rotondo.  The world is round.  And you and I,” she had removed her sunglasses – something I always do when I’m wanting to make a connection.  Realizing that I was looking into her clear, beautiful, amber eyes, I took mine off, too.

“You and I siamo interconnessi, mmm….”

“We are interconnected, si.”  I knew this.  We’re all connected.  Even the guys at the restaurant.  But sometimes it’s more clear than others.  And right now it was clear.

“This is my philosophy.”  She dropped her hands form the air where she had been making connections between the three of us.

“It’s ours too.”  We smiled at each other.  I moved toward her, kissing her cheeks, embracing fully.

“Molto grazie.”  “Grazie mille.”  The thanks flowed heavy as she moved to the Ant for another round of kisses and hugs.

Then we stood and looked at each other, appreciating the connection that was so obviously there, unexpected and welcome.  She and I moved together at the same time, one last kiss on the cheek and a hard embrace.  And then the Ant and I were walking into the station, and the blue car was pulling away.

I looked over my shoulder about a dozen times, wishing they would come back, wondering why we hadn’t thought to exchange contact information and wondering if we’d be able to find them if we walked back up into the city, or returned on another day.

In the station, we bought tickets for the 2:40 ride back to Salerno, and then I ran to find the bathroom.  When I came out, the Ant looked worried.  “You sure you didn’t buy bus tickets?”  Crap, she was right.  The 4:20 was a bus.  We’d decided not to try taking the long-distance bus, as we didn’t know how to purchase tickets, or where to pick it up.  And now we had tickets, but 4 minutes to work out where to board.

Walking out the front door, we stopped a couple of guys in suits.  One was on the phone.  “Prego,” I tried with the other.  “Autobus?”  I handed him my ticket.  I didn’t have time for grammar (don’t tell anyone).

“English?” came the question from the man on the phone.  I nodded.  He finished his call and took my ticket.  “Wait a moment.”  He headed into the station while we waited with the other man.

“I’m not a train agent.  He is.”  Wow, good luck for us today.

The agent reemerged with my ticket.  “Yes, this is a ticket for the bus.  You catch it just over there.  It will arrive at 2:20.  It is a green bus.”

“Grazzie mille!”  We crossed the street and waited for the green bus that would take us down from the hill, back to Salerno.  The Ant and I thought back to another day in Italy without a guidebook, in another hill town, and the connections we’d made there.

Yes.  I’m a hill town kind of girl.

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June 10, 2010   1 Comment

The history of skiing hair

This is sometime around 1983.  This is what happens when you grow up a mile from a ski resort – in the 80s.

Those are my super-awesome K2 skiis.  (I would later be known as K2 in my legal career.)  For those of you who know my sister, that’s her in the red suit in the background.  We were rad.

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March 18, 2010   1 Comment


A trip to see my family is a trip regulated by meals.  We’re planning lunch and dinner while eating breakfast.  My trip this Christmas was no exception.

The first meal I had with my parents was on the way back from the airport.  Dad was excited about a barbecue place, and I wasn’t so hungry, so we headed to some ranch-styled chain near the Boise mall.  I was still finding it difficult to figure out what to eat (a problem since my return to the states).  I thought a barbecue joint would probably have exactly one option for a vegetarian, which would make my choice easier, but this place had two – so I ordered both.

When we sat down at the table I laughed out loud.

BBQ roll

Along with several bottles of bbq sauce, Each table was outfitted with its own roll of paper towels – you know, just in case.  I ate about half of the salad and side of mixed veggies I ordered, and packed the leftovers home.

The next morning’s breakfast was much more exciting.  Like Portland, Ketchum has a number of really excellent restaurants.  Eating at restaurants I knew meant ordering from familiar menus.  This morning it was “Huevos Kneadery” at “The Kneadery”, a restaurant that has been around as long as I can remember.  Eggs (over-medium), black beans, cheese, salsa, avocado and sour cream in a tortilla or two occupied me as I remembered how to eat again.

Huevos Kneadery

The fresh cookies on the way out helped, too.

The following days were filled with several pizzas, frequent coffee outings (my dad likes to go every Wednesday and Friday when the local paper comes out), and fantastic home-cooked meals.  The most important of those meals was, and always is, Christmas dinner, when we have my mom’s ravioli.

There is a day sometime in November that is set aside for ravioli-making.  Mom gets out the food processor, the pasta-rolling machine, and her immense Formica cutting-board.  Dad sets aside the better part of the day to assist in the folding, cutting and crimping that will ensue.

Over the years, I’ve watched them assemble the pasta, and on occasion, have been allowed to help as well.  The making of the ravioli is serious business.  Everything from the amount of flour on the cutting board to the type of fork used to crimp the edges makes a difference in the way they turn out.  Mom, who grew up watching her grandmother hand-roll the pasta dough is a master.  Dad, the heir to a distinctly non-Italian, German tradition, has proven himself a capable helper.  I, however, have proven that I can push too hard with the fork, turning a well-crimped edge into pasta fringe.  I can whip up a darn good timbalo or saffron ricotta sauce, but the ravioli is an item I’ve yet to master.  I’m hoping to take on the challenge in the next year or so.

The ravioli come in two kinds on Christmas:  cheese and meat.  The cheese version is ricotta and spinach, and the meat is ground beef and spinach (correct me if I’m off, Mom).  Both are delicious, and until last year, Mom’s ravioli was one of the few exceptions to my vegetarianism.

In addition to the ravioli, Mom makes her sauce from scratch.  She starts with a roast – or two – tomato paste and sauce and other stuff, and lets it cook all day long.  One of the great treats of going home is walking into the house in the afternoon to the smell of the sauce simmering away.  From the time she was tall enough to lift the lid, my sister has been sneaking tastes.  First it was with string-cheese dipped into the deep red sauce.  More often now, it’s with bread – my mom’s excellent rolls if they’re available.

No, the sauce is not strictly vegetarian, but I remove as much of the meat particles as I can see, and remind myself that even the Dali Lama eats meat every other day.  I might eat only the cheese ravs, but I’m not willing to give up the sauce.

About an hour before dinner is served, the grand ravioli count begins.  A complex calculation takes place.  It includes the number of people in the room, their relative hungriness, as well as an evaluation of past performance on the part of the eaters.  Some kind of an algorithm is employed to tell my mom and dad exactly how many dozen meat and cheese ravioli should be brought from the basement freezer where they have been stored, spread in single layers, in plastic bags.

The ravs are big.  The squares measure about 3-4 inches on each side.  Cooking takes a while, and is done with extreme care and delicacy.  If one bursts, the parts are fished out to be tested, or added to the leftover bin.  Not much is ever wasted.  They are too precious.

There was one year my family didn’t spend at my parent’s house.  I had surgery, and my family came to Oregon for Christmas.  Along with presents, they packed ravioli and sauce in a cooler.  And there was a fabled year when mom sent a similar care package cross-country to her sister who was spending the holiday in Massachusetts.  Nothing interrupts the ravioli.

When it is time, the ravioli are brought to the table last, after everyone is seated, and remain in the center of the table, people passing plates to those sitting closest, and calling out orders “2 meat and 3 cheese!”


When the ravioli are made, they are marked.  They are pierced one way with a fork for cheese and another for meat.  Even though they are placed on separate ends of the platter, the markings can help with identification.  And Identification is something of an art at the dinner table.  “That’s a cheese.”  “No, it’s a meat.”  “Give it here and I’ll find out.”  The cheese seem to flatten out while the meat poof up ever so slightly.  It’s more of a parlor game to see who can identify them the best.  Nobody is really disappointed if they end up with the wrong kind on their plate, and I can always find someone to take a stray meat rav off my hands.

In my mind, there are three things that must accompany the ravioli – aside from cheese, I mean that’s just a given: a great crystal bowl of sauce and meat, just in case; my mom’s rolls (they are super-tasty, but super-sticky to make); and olives.  Pitted, extra-large, black olives are always passed around the table for my mom, aunt, sister and me to put on our fingers and wave around briefly before devouring them.  There are always other things on the table for Christmas.  A ham was incorporated into the meal when my brother-in-law was incorporated into the family.  A few slices are eaten, but the main attraction is the ravioli.

We each have our own ways of eating them.  I favor a quadrant approach.  I carefully cut each rav into four, square pieces.  They are perfect bite-sizes (pretty much the size of your average store-bought ravioli).  That way each bite has the same proportion of dough to filling.  It is a tradition of rituals, and the method of eating is a deeply personal one.  (I’d never think of criticizing the way someone eats their ravioli.)  There are others, however, that are distinctly communal.

As the eating begins, so does the counting.  A close accounting is kept, and regular reports made to the table, as though the number of raviolis a person eats secretly determines whether they will get into heaven.  There are great ravioli controversies surrounding the most consumed by one person at my mother’s table.  There is a legend of a guest eating 21 in a sitting.  I was there for the alleged incidentt, as was nearly everyone else in my family, but over the years the number has become so fuzzy that none of us knows  exactly what happened that night.  (It wasn’t Christmas, so I’m pretty sure the accounting wasn’t as critical.)  I know that I, personally, have maxed out at 14 ravioli, and my aunt at 12, because we were competing one year.  (I won.)  But, in a sane year like this one, I stopped at 6 and had room for pumpkin and apple pie.

Every year someone exclaims the ultimate praise, “I think these are the best you’ve ever made!”  Most years, Mom smiles kindly and goes back to eating – the ravs are always good.  But some years, she looks down at the piece on her fork, studies it carefully, and nods her head, “they really are good this year, aren’t they.”  And then one of us will pass a plate calling out “I want that meat one right there – no there.  Thanks!” as another of us waves an olive-laden finger in the air.

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January 6, 2010   1 Comment

Christmas in the mountains

Christmas in Idaho, for me, is magical.  The place where I grew up is one of those mountain locations that looks more like a postcard than anything else.  Many days have some kind of precipitation, whether it’s thunderstorms in the summer or snow flurries in the winter.  Every day, however, is marked by a beautiful clearing of the sky that is eye-watteringly blue.

There are some things that happen every year when I go home.  Christmas eve is marked by a soup-feed at my parents house (usually attended by the priest who will be celebrating evening mass), evening mass at my childhood Catholic church, hanging of stockings, a morning feast, and the crowning event, a Christmas ravioli dinner.

There are other things that are unexpected, variations that make the holidays interesting.  Yes, my sister and I will get in trouble for whispering and giggling in church, but the results vary.  We didn’t do it much as kids, when we were busy serving as altar-girls, but as adults, it seems that we can’t help ourselves.  “I’m sitting next to Kristin!” my little (30-year-old) sister demanded.  I climbed over my grandparents and mother to kneel next to her at the bend in the pew, my knees widely straddling to different kneelers.  We kept it together until my mom turned us in to my grandmother for whispering.  The resulting boxing motions made by my 89-year-old, heathen grandmother sent me into fits of stifled laughter that brought tears rolling down my cheeks.

When the mass got to the “prayers of the faithful,” a time when parishioners pray aloud their hopes for world peace, the healing of friends and family members, and the memories of lost loved ones, my sister gripped my hand tightly.  It wasn’t because she was distraught or devout in her prayers.  It was to keep me from saying anything.  As an adult, I’ve found the prayers of the faithful a nice gesture, a time to fix the positive thoughts of those in the high-ceilinged room on the betterment of all.

During a previous Christmas mass, I opened my mouth to voice a prayer for a family-friend who had suffered an accident and was undergoing a difficult recovery.  I imagined the positive energy floating to the hospital bed, and the warm feeling the family would feel knowing that people were sending love.  I didn’t hear the gasps down the pew when I said the name, but it became clear that I’d let a cat out of the bag as soon as mass was over and groups of people darted in my direction.  Apparently, the accident wasn’t public knowledge and I’d missed that piece of information.  Fortunately, my family clued me into the situation, and I was able to rapidly employ Jedi mind-tricks.  When we got home from church, the message light was already flashing on the phone, the sign of a truly small town.

From that point on, we referred to the incident as “the time Kristin ruined Christmas”.  This year, however, I kept my jaw firmly clenched and my sister and I celebrated when I made it through mass without ruining the Christmas of 2009.  I left it to the frozen, overburdened powerlines to try to do that.

As we drove down the road to my sister’s house after Christmas mass, she noted that the streetlights were out.  I watched as porch lights extinguished at the passing of our truck.  Pulling up to the house, we saw the telltale sign of jerky flashlight bursts against the inside of the window coverings that told us the power was out.  We walked Cathy to the door and told her to come to the parents’ house if it got too cold.  Her parents-in-law were visiting, and the temperature was dipping below zero (that’s Fahrenheit, people).

When we pulled into Ketchum, a 20 minute ride from Cathy’s house, we found the traffic-lights were out.  That meant it was a darn big power outage – on Christmas Eve.  Fortunately, the lights were on at my parent’s place, so I powered up my laptop and climbed into bed, ready for a Christmas ritual of my own.  Woot.com is one of my online loves.  It’s an electronics clearing house that posts a new item every night at midnight central time.  Every so often, they post something called a “Random Bag of Crap” – $3.00 for 3 pieces of random electronics (and other stuff).  Everything from blow-up tiki huts, to Nintendo wiis and insulated beer mugs for $3.00.  Hundreds of thousands of people compete for these coveted items.  Usually the BOCs are posted randomly – but Christmas is one of the few days you can plan ahead to be ready for them.

So I sat in bed with 7 minutes to go, my account loaded and my credit card at the ready.  And then the power went out.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooo!!!!  The wireless router was no longer available.  I stayed up for the next 7 minutes, hoping that the power would roar back up in time.  At about 10 after, I gave up the ghost, dug around for my headlamp, and tried to get some sleep.  Surely, the power would be on by morning.

When my dad bought a generator for the Y2K meltdown, I laughed at him.  We sat in front of the tv and watched the celebrations in Australia and China as nothing happened.  Fireworks went off and the lights stayed on.  No computers burst into fire and no bank accounts were lost.

The generator stayed in the garage for 10 years, next to the 5 gallon container of gas.  When we woke up this year on Christmas morning, it was 55 degrees in my sister’s house, and you could see your breath in many houses in the valley.  But, at the Flickinger house, it was a different story.  Walking up the stairs to the kitchen, I saw a funny blue light.  Candles were lit and my mom was warming water for hot drinks; the 6 gas burners of the stove were on high.


Soon there was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and the sound of my dad pull-starting the generator in the garage.

It took a while to get the 10-year-old generator going, but he had it up and humming, and powering the furnace before breakfast.  Breakfast, however was on the barbecue.  For the past 5 or 6 years (maybe longer), we’ve had the same thing for Christmas breakfast.  It’s a breakfast strada.  A what?  A breakfast strada.  Here’s how it works:  You take a box of Eggo waffles, cheese, ham (if you like), and layer them in a 13×9 baking dish.  After 2 layers of each, you pour a scrambled egg mixture (including milk and cayenne pepper) over the top.  Bake and devour.  Just for the record, you can bake it on a barbecue, though it might result in a slightly burned bottom.

By noon, we’d eaten, opened our presents, played monopoly (another Christmas ritual for my bro-in-law and me), and started setting the table for Christmas dinner.  Mom had already calculated what parts of the ravioli dinner could be cooked on the gas stove, and practically giggled when she told us we could do everything without the power.

But the Christmas gods are just, and they like ravioli as much as the rest of us.  They didn’t want to take chances.  Right on time, the power clicked on.  17,000 people had been without power for 15 hours on a really cold day.  But all was well now.  Furnaces roared to life as Mom dropped the first raviolis into the boiling water.  Nothing could ruin Christmas now.

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January 4, 2010   Comments Off on Christmas in the mountains

Rocky Raccoon

I spent Christmas in Idaho.  It’s where I spend every Christmas.  My parents, sister and brother-in-law, grandparents and aunt – my entire family – live there.  Going home is always a deeply good thing.  This Christmas was especially good.  The valley where I grew up is a special place.  Nestled between the high desert of southern Idaho, and the unbridled beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains, it provides a dramatic stage for the day-to-day sagas of those who live there.  This Christmas, it provided a sense of stability in my changing world.

I had a fantastic flight from Portland to Boise over the volcanoes of the Northwest.  Hood, St. Helens, Jefferson, they all stretched out before uson a beautifully clear day.


I read my Italian version of Harry Potter, clinging to the little bit of Italian that I had managed to learn in two months.  I’d been back in the US less than a week when I headed home to Idaho.  My parents made the 2 and a half hour drive to Boise to pick me up.  There are smaller, closer airports, but they don’t have the cheap Southwest Airlines flights that Boise has.  It was wonderful to see their faces at the airport.  I remember seeing them just outside the gate in the “pre 911 world,” when they’d come to pick me up during a quick trip home from college, the years measured only by my dad’s shirt pattern, or my mom’s hairstyle.  There’s something terrifically comforting about knowing that there’s someone waiting for me if I need them.

The next week or so was to be defined by several excellent meals, a solstice celebration, Rock Band competitions, and increasingly less caffeine.  And raccoons.

Yes, raccoons.

My mother has a number of bird feeders that hang or stand on the second-floor deck just off of the living room.  The French doors to the deck make up one wall of the big living room.  That means we can watch the birds that come to feed during the day as they dart from the tall aspens a few yards from the house.  Every day or so, Mom goes out and fills the feeders.  One is a little feeder that hangs from a beam and feeds the little sparrows and chickadees that fill the trees.  The other is a big, flat-bottomed, wooden tray that has been affixed to the railing, and outfitted with a roof propped on four posts.  This is to keep the tray from filling and freezing over.  The magpies that use this feeder don’t like it when the feeder freezes.  They bang on the peanut butter, ice globs that form until someone comes out and refills the feeder with the sunflower seeds that live in a clear plastic container.

The container is the kind that has locking handles.  They “clack” menacingly into place, holding the lid securely onto the bin.  Mom got the container to keep the raccoons out of the seeds.  Ever since she looked out the window to see the raccoon in front of the open bin, running his fingers through the seeds in a gesture of pure pleasure, she’s had to take extra precautions.  Now, every night when the doors are locked, the bin comes inside.

Every so often, we see the raccoons.  Their white markings stand out against the dark glass, as they peer into the warm living room in the evenings.  I half expect them to reach up and turn the doorknob.  Usually, when we go to take a look or turn on the light, they crawl to the railing and lower themselves down into the snow, shimmying down the 6 foot post.

This Christmas brought a couple of close encounters with our furry friends.  The first came one evening when I went to pull the seed container inside.  I’d just gone to open the door when I decided to turn on the light to make sure there weren’t any friends on the deck.  “Click.” The first bandit looked up at me from the seed bin.  They’d already found a way into the seeds, knocking the bin over and scattering the black shells everywhere.   I moved toward the door, ready to scare them off.  “Wait!”  Mom wasn’t so sure.  “Don’t worry, I’ll just go out and shoo them away.”  “Oh really,”  she was smiling.

I opened the door, and in the full brightness of the floodlight, the raccoon looked up at me.  He backed away about a half a step and considered me.  I backed into the house.  These guys are cute, but they also carry rabies.  I wasn’t so interested in tangling with this guy’s black claws.  We turned off the light and finished locking up the house.  We’d clean up the mess in the morning.  Some people would have charged out, banging around to scare the animals off, but, like the magpies that so many people consider pests, my mom likes the raccoons.  The messes they make are fair trade for the cute faces that peer in the windows every so often.

The next morning, Mom cleaned up the mess and gathered the gifts that needed to be delivered to friends – packets of the homemade pizzelles that she makes every year.  Whenever I’m home I ride along.  When I was younger I’d hop out of the truck and drop off the packets of goodies.

Our first stop was a quick visit.  We were greeted by a skittish dog that Mom identified as the latest rescue.  He was a beautiful shaggy red and moved away from us, barking, keeping an eye on our movements.  We rang the bell and stepped inside for a quick hello.  After hugs and pleasantries, we reached for the door and backed out, still talking.  “Oh, watch for the raccoon.”

I turned to see a raccoon ambling up the walkway toward the front door.  “Mom!  Check out the raccoon!  There’s a raccoon out here!”  I was preparing to make a run at the fuzzy ball.  “It’s okay, it’s a pet.”   Our hostess had closed the door, making sure the raccoon stayed out, but now we were looking at the raccoon as he walked right up to us, climbing up Mom’s leg to stand on his back feet and play with the keys in her hand.  Raccoons are big.  They’re big in the way porcupines are big.  Mom and I looked at each other.  “Can we pet him?”  I was hoping she knew more to the story than I did.  “I don’t know.”   She reached down and stroked his back.  Cool.  My turn.  Raccoons are also soft.  At least this guy was.  And he was curious.  He had abandoned the keys and had his head up under my mom’s jacket at this point.


She realized quickly that he was trying to get to the dog treats in her pocket.  After a giggling fit she reached into her pocket and found the treat.  It’s amazing what dog treats can do.  At once, the raccoon was subdued and the dog from earlier had reappeared.  Taking my life into my own hands, I snuck a chunk of the treat from the raccoon to the dog, who slinked off.  The door opened and our friend reappeared.  “What’s the story with the raccoon again?”  Mom asked as the raccoon sniffed her shoes and eyed the doorway.  “Oh Rocky? He was a rescue.”  Evidently Mom had heard this story before.  We said our goodbyes and headed for the truck where she shared the story.  Rocky had been orphaned as a baby.  When Mom’s friend’s found him, they realized that he wouldn’t make it on his own, so they took him in and contacted the local raccoon rescue organization.  Yes, apparently, there’s an organization – or at least a woman who rehabs them.  Months later, there still wasn’t room at the rescue, and the raccoon was watching tv on the sofa, and had a name.

The next day while we were playing Rock Band, we had a visitor.  One of the raccoons that usually came at night made a special daytime appearance, sitting in the birdfeeder and eating handfuls of seeds.  We all watched him and said how cute he was.  And we locked the door.

Raccoon in feeder

Rocky was super cute, but he was also known to help himself to boxes of cake mix when he was hungry.  It’s a lot easier to clean up after one of these guys outside.  And this guy looked like maybe he’d been talking to Rocky.

Raccoon up close

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January 2, 2010   1 Comment