Books California Christmas Letters

2017: My Year in Books

I’m not sure if I’ll muster the will to write a Christmas letter this year, mostly because my will has been sapped by much of 2017 on both the personal and political fronts. As the saying goes, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.

There is, however, one thing about which I have only nice things to say, and that’s all the lovely books I’ve read this year. Sure, I’ve read far less in 2017 than 2016, a fact I attribute directly to the draining of my attention and energy by the personage currently occupying our White House. But I’m grateful to my bones for the knowledge and enjoyment provided by every single one of those I did manage to get through, so I’ll turn my festive cheer their way.

Let’s keep up the positive vibe with a shout out for Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge. I first read Stibbe’s charming collection of letters, Love, Nina, about her time as nanny to the editor of the London Review of Books, and it turns out she’s a terrific novelist too. Paradise Lodge is the second novel in a series about the Vogel family, but you needn’t have read the first—I didn’t—to enjoy this one. The protagonist, teenager Lizzie Vogel, who works at a decaying but somehow still charming nursing home while trying to finish school, is so deftly drawn that I loved every minute I spent with her. Also, I don’t think it spoils things to say it has a happy ending. I suspect people might need one of those just about now. (I’m not sure why the cheery yellow cover of Paradise Lodge doesn’t appear in the photo above, but I hope it’s because I gave my copy to someone else to enjoy.)

Now that I’ve sweetened you up, I’m going to go ahead and hit you with Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, a post-apocalyptic—by which I mean a totally believable, especially after this year’s fire season, twenty-first century version of the dust bowl—novel about a couple fleeing California with a neglected baby they’ve kidnapped, who ends up an unlikely messiah figure. The writing is stunning and cinematic, and someone better make a film out of it so I can bluster about how the book was better.

Two other novels I enjoyed this year were Rachel Cusk’s Transit, mostly because I’m deeply drawn to her detached protagonist Faye, and Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which has a much more conventional (read: likable) protagonist in the form of Lois. If you work in tech and like food, I think you’ll like Sloan’s story, which includes gentle send-ups of both those cultures. I also got to see him read at Mrs. Dalloway’s  (more on this special store below) after I read the book, and it was fun to hear him talk about writing it. I like that he’s a developer and a writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I bought this a few years back at a literature festival in England (not sure why it was there since McCullers is long dead), and randomly picked it up to read earlier this year. I subsequently gathered she’s famous in some corners of the literary world, but why McCullers is not as well-known as Harper Lee is beyond me. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the nihilist version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s brilliant. The novel is populated by an ensemble cast, but the young female character of Mick Kelly slayed me. I once worked with a guy who had named his daughter Scout after Atticus Finch’s daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have kids, which means the highest honor I can bestow a character in a book is to name a pet after him or her. Let’s just say there’s a cat called Mick Kelly in my future and leave it at that.

Now for the non-fiction portion of my reading list, starting with three books of author’s diaries: Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding, and Joan Didion’s South and West. I wrote an essay about them here, so I won’t say more except that if you like these authors I also think you’ll like these books. Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration is a terrific book that reminded me I like science and is a great example of how to riff on a theme in non-fiction. This book is so much more than a story about someone who hiked the Appalachian Trail. Finally, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is a lovely book for anyone who adores books, with the bonus that each essay is the perfect length for a bath. If you’re still looking for a gift for someone, you could do worse than this book packaged up with a nice bottle of bubble bath.

A few of the books I read this year don’t show up in the pictures in this post because I checked them out from the library. I’ve spent much of 2017 in Berkeley, and one of the benefits has been access to two remarkable libraries—the downtown Deco and Craftsman extravaganza just a block from my office and the mock-Tudor Claremont branch, complete with a gas fireplace and comfortable chairs. Three cheers for libraries and all their card-carrying members.

The other delight of Berkeley is its terrific independent bookstores, including Moe’s Books on Telegraph; Revolution Books, where I made a point of shopping after alt-right bullies decided to intimidate the staff; Pegasus Books, from whom I buy the Weekend FT (mostly for its terrific Books section) each Saturday, plus whatever else they tempt me with, whether a cute greeting card or a little tin of “impeachmints”; Issues on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, quite possibly the most wonderful newsstand left in America; and best of all, the gem of my neighborhood, Mrs. Dalloway’s. This is a beautiful bookstore with a helpful staff and a sparkling roster of author events, and I thank them for making the neighborhood feel, well, like a neighborhood.

For all my trepidation and uncertainty about 2018, one consolation remains: it will come with more great books. Happy reading!

Bought but not read in 2017. Something to look forward to in the year ahead!

Cotswolds Walking

What’s in a name?

Dry-stone-wall porn

I will be the first to admit I have a habit of propagating the concept of Twee Cotswoldia. My version of this part of rural England is all idyll and no ills. I have anthropomorphized every tree and animal within a ten-mile radius of our cottage to within an inch of its non-human life. You can always tell when I’m here because my tweets turn into a feed of hardcore dry-stone-wall porn.

This narrative of the countryside suits me—an outsider who comes here to relax—but of course I know this is a curated concept of these hills. I was reminded of this truth last weekend at the local wine bar when, for some reason, the origin of the name “Helen’s Ditch” came up. I had known it for the decade we’ve been coming here as the way everyone refers to a footpath that runs across the top of a field on the southern edge of town. I always thought someone named Helen owned the land behind it or loved walking there and therefore became its namesake, but it turns out Helen’s Ditch is called that because it’s where her body was found sometime in the 1980s. I wondered if someone was pulling my urban-rube-of-a-leg, but the story was corroborated by one of the more sensible patrons of the wine bar. There is no happy ending here. Nobody knew, or at least remembered, who killed Helen, and her legacy was the most prosaic of landscape features.

Today I went out alone on a walk and was halfway along Helen’s Ditch when I remembered the story. I wasn’t scared as much as morose: somehow Helen’s Ditch seemed a fitting metaphor for the current hurricane season with its combination of benign names of elderly people and deadly consequences. My parents, who live in South Florida, had thus far refused to evacuate ahead of Irma, and I was feeling more furious at them than scared for them. I made it to the end of the ditch path and headed down a dead-end road I had never explored—one of the boons of the Cotswolds is its never-ending supply of new forks in the road. At the end was a gate into a field and the ever-welcome badge-on-a-post indicating it was a public path.

I walked through long grass that soaked my feet through my running shoes, while nettles scraped my ankles. I walked alongside a pond and turned right before turning around to take the route that would lead me into a wood where I would startle a fawn and watch it pogo away. Soon I was at a large pheasant pen, a sort of ginormous chicken coop with tunnel-like entrances fashioned out of chicken wire and metal grates every twenty feet or so. A dozen of these skittish birds had made their way into an adjoining field and were lined up along the fence like they were waiting to face a firing squad, which, sooner or later they would (pheasant season here opens October 1st).

From here there was no way to get into the hamlet I had been aiming for, and so I walked back down the hill around the pen, slipping in mud and scattering pheasants as I went. I fashioned a path through a copse to avoid another particularly treacherous patch of nettles, emerging in a farmyard off a road at the far end of the hamlet. I was happy and out of breath and had forgotten about the world and its ills for an hour, reminding me my narrative of the countryside isn’t so naïve after all.

California Random

Lessons from the 51B: How riding the bus helps me be less of an asshole

Berkeley bus stop

I skipped kindergarten, which may explain why at age forty-five I still haven’t learned everything I need to know. I require periodic reminders of the most basic tenets of human decency, which is where the bus comes in.

I hadn’t intended to start riding the bus when I moved to Berkeley for work back in January. I rented an apartment less than two miles from the office so I could walk or bike my commute. Then California had one of the wettest winters on record, and the advantages of a bus stop two blocks from my front door became clear.

The bus route to my office runs alongside the Cal campus, and my fellow-bus riders were often college students. The first time I heard one of them say “thank you” to the bus driver as she got off the bus, I assumed it was an oddity. This student was surely from Kansas or someplace where people still said “aw shucks” and “gee willikers.” Then I noticed everyone—except me—said “thank you” when they got off the bus, and the bus driver usually said “you’re welcome” back. I briefly felt like an asshole, then I, too, started saying “thank you” when I got off the bus. This felt good in a way that was disproportionate to the act. It was shocking how nice it felt to be nice.

(In fairness, I don’t think my failure to vocalize gratitude after every bus ride was a breach of global public transit etiquette. A decade earlier I had lived in London and been a regular bus commuter. There I witnessed many interesting behaviors aboard a double-decker, occasionally involving the expulsion of bodily fluids—but nobody said “thank you.” The closest I got to a life lesson from that experience was to wash my hands a lot. I’ve never had more colds in my life than my first six months in London riding the 23.)

The next thing I started to notice while riding the bus in Berkeley was how many wheelchair users rely on it. Roughly every third time I boarded a bus, someone in a wheelchair did the same. There’s a procedure for this, starting with the driver lowering the bus, extending the ramp, then leaving her seat to fix the wheelchair in place using a set of straps with hooks. Nobody else can board the bus until the driver is back in her seat and the ramp is up.

The whole thing usually takes a few minutes and yet it’s long enough to notice. And what I noticed is how rarely in daily life I, a non-parent, defer to the needs of someone else. I operate my life in a series of maneuvers designed to maximize, well, me, and the on-demand economy is complicit in my selfishness. The few minutes of stillness, of waiting, while someone else goes first reminded me that most the time I’m in a hurry for absolutely no reason other than to be in a hurry. I’m addicted to self-inflicted stress. Waiting my turn was good for the soul.


In late spring the rain finally stopped and I mostly traded the bus for my bike. Occasionally I make exceptions, like when I need to be in the office for 6:00AM calls with my European colleagues. This happened twice in the last week, and the timing couldn’t have been better. My experience on the 5:34AM showed me I had relapsed and was due for a refresher course in decency.

That early in the morning most stops on the route are empty, and the bus makes it to my destination in half the normal time. But on Tuesday we stopped somewhere near Cal for a gentleman with a cane. I was nose-deep in my phone reading work email and yet somehow felt annoyed when he chose to bypass the priority seats in the front. The bus waited while he instead made his way to a seat up the half-set of stairs, just behind the rear door. There I was again, in a hurry when I wasn’t even late and being an asshole in the process.

On Thursday, we stopped at the same stop for the same gentleman. As he got on, the bus driver bantered with him about the Oakland victory parade for the Golden State Warriors later that day. Then I watched as again he made his way to the same spot behind the rear door. He was dressed impeccably: a white fedora with a black-ribbon band decorated with a small feather, a single-breasted overcoat atop a suit, and a crocodile-embossed bag hanging diagonally across his shoulders. I was reminded of an episode of the nineties sitcom Just Shoot Me! in which the character of Nina Van Horn, a fashion-magazine editor, blames the downfall of civilization on the rise of casual separates. It seemed to me this gentleman was making a similar case.

I was lost in thought about it when we arrived at my stop and mechanically got off through the rear doors. As I walked by the outside of the bus I snapped to, just in time to say “thank you” to the driver through the still-open front door.

Britain Walking

Lock, Weir, and Barrel: a day on the Thames Path

Last August we walked the first two legs of the Thames Path, from its source near Cirencester to Cricklade, then onto Lechlade the next day. This past Wednesday we picked up where we left off, taking in the ten or so miles from Lechlade to the evocatively named Tadpole Bridge, where a lone inn sits on the river’s south bank along the edge of a remote road.

Before Lechlade, the Thames is not particularly convincing as a river, much less the thing that goes by the same name in London. It flows mostly underground to begin with, making fleeting appearances before it becomes a stream, then something eventually resembling a canal. Only near Lechlade does it become a full-fledged navigable water source and, as such, the defining feature of this stretch of walking is a series of locks and weirs.

Father Thames, reclining at St John’s Lock

There were also meadows of dandelions and buttercups; swans; herds of cows, some of whom had ventured into the river to cool off; and a collection of pillboxes, dilapidated concrete structures that are relics of the second World War and a last gasp of homeland defense, thankfully never used. The occasional matte-gray plane overhead, either from the nearby Brize Norton or Fairford bases, lent a more modern military touch. But it was the locks and their keepers and their hint of a sort of fairytale life that captured my imagination.

Leaving aside the current U.S. president, there is an unmistakable air of romance about jobs that come with their own houses. Princesses have palaces, but I’m thinking more of a park ranger’s lodge, the lighthouse keeper’s tower, or the shepherd’s bothy. I’m decidedly not thinking of the current crop of corporate high-tech campuses that cater to employees’ every quotidian need to ensure the worker never need leave work. Both categories of worker share a lack of separation between work and home life, but somehow the former’s proximity to nature lends it an air of desirability lacking in the latter.

Eaton Weir

Over the course of the day we passed a series of four locks and weirs, not counting the charming Eaton Weir, where there is a footbridge and cottage but no remaining weir. Pubs were equally as plentiful, and we stopped first in Kelmscott—also site of William Morris’s country home—at the Plough Inn, then in the beer garden of the Swan at Radcot before settling down in the garden of our lodgings for the night at the Trout Inn. It was, perhaps, a good thing we were on foot rather than attempting to navigate the locks on a narrow boat as some of our fellow travelers along the Thames were doing that day.

The next morning we returned to Buscot Lock in the car, where we offered a hand to the lock keeper as one such narrow boat made its way upstream. As he opened the sluices he explained that he works for the Environment Agency and that his main work wasn’t so much helping boats through—which he clearly enjoyed—but keeping the river navigable by managing the weir. He answered our lock-and-weir-101 questions without any hint of annoyance, noting that he had enjoyed “sixteen happy years” in his lock-side home. It was not the storybook cottage overlooking the weir, but a still-handsome, newer construction nearer the lock. The cottage, he explained, was a National Trust property rented out to the public. Turns out my fantasy of having one of those jobs that comes with a house is available for rent, for a minimum of a three-night stay.

Thames Path Tips:

  • Lynwood & Co Café in the Market Square in Lechlade is a stylish place to caffeinate before setting out for the day
  • Lunch at the the Plough Inn in Kelmscott, perhaps after a visit to William Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor, which is right off the Thames Path
  • Dinner and a bed at the Trout Inn at Tadpole Bridge
  • Rent the National Trust Cottage at Buscot Lock
California Walking

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

The most visually striking picture I took at yesterday’s Justice for All March, my California hometown’s offshoot of the Women’s March in Washington, was of a sign featuring Donald Trump’s face in the style of the iconic Obama “Hope” posters, only this one said “Nope.” In the photo, the great orange one’s face is illuminated against a bright blue sky, a regal palm tree behind his head suggesting, rather conveniently, a coronation rather than an election. It was, I thought, a no-brainer for what to feature at the top of this blog post. Then I started scrolling through my pictures again and I was struck by this one, both for the pink pussy hats that have become the emblem of these marches and the pose of the woman on the left in sunglasses: hand over heart, her face an expression of gratitude and appreciation. This—not Trump—is what yesterday was all about.

Like many locations across the country, the crowd at our local march exceeded expectations at an estimated 2,500 marchers. In a town of just over 100,000 people this was a terrific turnout, but the most striking thing was the diversity of the crowd and its causes. Kids, clergy, local elected officials, and regular citizens came with signs demanding equal rights for women and LGBTQI, water rights, racial justice, reproductive rights, access to healthcare, action on climate change, defense of science, and, notably, kindness. It seems the uniting factor of America’s latest government is that it’s managed to do something to piss off everyone.

But yesterday was not about being angry. Yesterday was about taking a huge collective sigh of relief at finding out your neighbors are as distraught as you are and they’re going to show up to do something about it. Yesterday was about allowing yourself a few hours of joy as we inched along the sidewalks of our old-school Main Street (no road closures were in place), answering call-and-response chats, my favorite of which was “show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.”  Here, in one of my other favorite pictures from the day, is what democracy looks like:



Favorite Reads of 2016

The rest of the 2016 reading list is currently in Deutsche-Post limbo somewhere between Berlin and California

I’ve just finished the last book I’ll get through in 2016, William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, prompting me to consider my favorite reads of the year. All four were non-fiction, reflecting the bias of my overall reading list rather than any malaise in the world of novel writing.

Only six of the twenty-one books I read in 2016 were fiction, and if I had to pick a favorite it would be Lisa Owens’ debut, Not Working, in which she gently skewers the aspirations of millennials to find meaningful careers. Said skewering transfers exceptionally well to older generations, who shall remain nameless, too.

Onward to my non-fiction list then, starting with MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference. I didn’t plan my reading list this way, but Doing Good Better is a lovely companion piece to Not Working—a sort of left-brain to its right.

MacAskill is a millennial himself, who also happens to be an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, and has used this book to set out a rigorous framework for how we might do the most good. Along the way he considers charitable giving, consumer choices, and career choices—turns out following your passion is horrible advice. What MacAskill is talking about is how to save lives, and if this sounds like a preposterous, do-gooder goal, well, you may have become as cynical as I am. Read this book. It helps.

Earlier this autumn I read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, a book about the author’s relationship with a person, the artist Harry Dodge, who identifies as neither female nor male, and motherhood—two topics that have little personal resonance for me. In that sense alone, Nelson’s book was “good for me,” a self-imposed dose of getting outside my own comfort zone. But to attribute that as the major merit of the work is to sell Nelson way short. The book is structurally unique (no chapters) with writing in turns fiercely intimate and academic. My faculty with language prevents me from explaining further; Nelson’s does not.

My last two favorites of the year were way more illustrative of my usual fare. First was Anna Funder’s excellent Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a wondrous piece of journalism with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. I started reading it because I was living in Berlin, but it turned out to be way more prescient for what would happen in American politics later in the year. Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book needs to be required reading for Americans on the psychological and criminal ruin that happens when you have a ruling kleptocracy where people are intimidated into tattling on each other.

Finally, there’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin. On the surface, it’s another woman-on-the-verge-takes-a-big-trip memoir. And what’s wrong with that? I love these kind of books, and Crispin is the imperfect, very real, very smart guide on this grand tour of Europe and its artists (which includes men, despite the title). This is Eat, Pray, Love written by the anti-Liz Gilbert.

So, voila! There you have it, my best of 2016 in books. I’m still pondering what to read in 2017, but the shortlist for January includes A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine, Robert Moor’s On Trails, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Oh and Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, and Olivia Lang’s The Lonely City, and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City (I’m sensing a theme here). Or maybe Sarah Einstein’s Mot or Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus or Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. And, oh god, I forgot Alan Bennett has a new set of diaries. The specter of 2017 looms large but at least I’ll have something to read.

Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2016

Portmeirion from on high

2016 made short work of qualifying as an annus horribilis what with the holy trinity of horrors that is the Trump presidency, Syria, and the seemingly endless string of deaths of beloved artists and entertainers. I have been devastated by these things to varying degrees and observed with worry the deep suffering they continue to cause others less protected by the socio-economic bubble I inhabit, although I’m keenly aware said bubble is not impenetrable.

Somewhat to my embarrassment, despite all these things, I still find that my ability to experience both exasperation and joy daily is driven by matters much more pedestrian than those that make the news. (I’ve always excelled at compartmentalization.) And since this is a Christmas letter, I’ll focus on the joy rather than the exasperation. 2016 has been an annus horribilis and yet I also was privileged to occasionally enjoy the ride.

In May, we completed my ambition to walk the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile path along a Jurassic-age escarpment in southwest England. I took to the trail in the spirit of a religious pilgrimage with the modest intention of figuring out what to do for the rest of my life. (At that point we had agreed to leave Berlin at the year’s end, which I assumed meant quitting my job.) As the saying goes, solivtar ambulando: it is solved by walking.

Despite my grandiose vision of this walk giving me space to think and figure stuff out, its real power was narrowing my world. Choosing what to wear is surprisingly easy when you’ve only packed three shirts. For the duration of the walk, all our worldly possessions fit in two backpacks, and the most taxing decision of each morning was whether to switch to a fresh pair of socks. Once outside, there was a path to follow and a destination to be reached, one step at a time. Never once did we have to ask what we should do that day. Any spare brain power was taken up reading from the National Trail guidebook I carried in a waterproof map holder around my neck.

By the end of the Way, there had been no lightning bolts of insight, but the sights and sounds alone had been an embarrassment of riches: panoramic vistas, Neolithic long barrows, a cricket pavilion built by J.M. Barrie, and a fairytale tower designed by Capability Brown, to name a very select few. Not to mention pubs—so many pubs, the best of which, The Woolpack in Slad, was Cotswold writer Laurie Lee’s local. To ask for more from the Cotswold Way would have been downright greedy. And walking the trail had solved a problem—it just wasn’t the problem I thought I was walking to solve. What I would do next remained unknown, but our hike had at least ended the paralysis of modern life’s infinite choice and given us an actual vacation for the ten days it lasted.

Oh, and in all my pontificating I forgot to mention the most important thing: it was really good fun.

Our other major discovery of the year was much more serendipitous, a coastal village in north Wales, Portmeirion, best known for being the set of a 1960s British TV series, The Prisoner. We went mostly because husband was a fan of the show, and I fully expected to find the sort of dank, depressing British holiday accommodation that hadn’t been updated since The Prisoner was shot.

You approach Portmeirion through the stark drama of Snowdonia National Park until finally, improbably, you are in an Italianate seaside village. It’s a sort of Disneyland for grown-ups, staffed solely by people you wish were your aunts and uncles speaking with that lovely, lilting Welsh-accented English. The alfresco café serves local Welsh cheeses and Italian wine and the village bookstore specializes in Welsh literature and the whole thing backs on to a forest of giant rhododendron and hydrangeas criss-crossed with gentle walking paths. I immediately developed a mild obsession with Clough Williams-Ellis, the late architect and mastermind of the whole operation. We liked Portmeirion so much we went back to celebrate our 15-year anniversary in June, the first of hopefully many return visits.

Husband also fulfilled a long-held ambition this autumn, which was to buy a convertible in which to cruise the highways and byways of California. Thankfully for me, his mid-life-crisis car was not anything too ridiculous, unless you find a white VW bug with a blue denim roof and Herbie “53” magnets on the doors ridiculous. Proving I have become my father in at least one way, I refused to trade-in our twelve-year old Volvo to make the purchase, and I fully plan for these two cars to be the only ones we have for the rest of our lives. Channeling an elderly relative who refuses to take the plastic off her “good” settee, husband has thus far refused to remove the plastic and paper coverings of the floor mats and arm rest in a purported effort to retain that new car smell. I’m encouraging him to ask a therapist about it.

In October, I decided to take my health seriously and switched to a vegan-plus-seafood diet. I was exposed to some excellent research that persuaded me to take the plunge, despite my misgivings about never again eating cheese. That wine is vegan was some solace, and I am happy to report it has been much easier than expected thanks to the vegan-friendly offerings of both Berlin and California. It has even been liberating in the same way I found the experience of constricted choice on the Cotswold Way liberating. There’s no more agonizing over what to order at a restaurant—I take whatever is on offer that fits my needs. A bonus is the veil of insufferable vegan piety that I happily don, even though I’m not primarily motivated by the ethics of eating this way.

Earlier this month, I officially left Berlin for the second time. In January, I will start work in Berkeley, continuing my work-world-tour of cities that start with B—Bristol, Boston and Berlin having preceded this latest gig. I’m counting on my employer opening an office in Barcelona next.

We spent the last few days tearing around Berkeley trying to find an apartment, our expectations lowering with each successive viewing of what can most charitably be described as hovels. Then, at the eleventh hour—literally at 6pm the last night we were in town—we found a gem in a charming neighborhood. It is a lot like the apartment I had in Los Angeles when I was twenty-five, except three times more expensive. I’m trying to rationalize it as a return to my youth.

To be fair, the neighborhood has a lot going for it. Husband appreciates the art-deco-fronted cinema, while the organic-with-vegan-options ice cream shop and French bakery appeal to the always-hungry person in me. We were already on our way to sign the lease when the landlord dropped that writer Michael Chabon was practically our neighbor—a factoid that seemed custom-created by the universe to titillate me.

We’re looking forward to new adventures in our new digs in 2017. Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and here’s to a better New Year!


Return to Venice



Last weekend I made good on a promise I made to myself 25 years ago, sitting alone on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute as my semester abroad in Venice ended. Those four and a half months in Venice remain one of the few things I did in college that was worth a damn, a fact I already had an inkling of that long-ago morning. The tourist hordes had thinned, leaving me alone to my woolgathering. This, I thought, is the time of year to be in La Serenissima.

Fast forward twenty-five years as I prepare to leave Berlin for California at the end of the year. Scanning my psyche for any potential regrets after my departure, the only thing that registered was not taking advantage of my proximity to Venice to make a return trip before I go. I booked my flights immediately.

The Alitalia flight landed in drizzle at Marco Polo airport. I made my way to the airport dock to await the Alilaguna blue line—a boat bus—into the city. It’s a leisurely route, stopping in at Murano before making its way down the calf-side of the Venice boot, around the heel and down the toe before heading out to the Lido, then back to San Marco and the mouth of the Grand Canal before finally snaking around to the shin and my stop along the southern promenade of the Zattere. My hotel, an art deco gem called Ca’Pisani, was just a five-minute walk north.

The light was already starting to go, and so I dropped my backpack and headed out into the streets to feel my way to the Rialto Bridge. I had read about a shop nearby selling le Furlane, velvet slippers once worn by gondoliers, that I thought would make nice Christmas presents. Crossing the Accademia Bridge, I recalled my first journey into this part of the city on my very first day in Venice, when my classmates and I had stopped for a picture at the foot of a statue of a winged lion. Later this route became synonymous in my head with a Saturday afternoon outing with another classmate, ostensibly to find ingredients for a Mexican dinner but with several stops for beer and an ear piercing on the Rialto Bridge along the way. Muscle memory took over and I was sure-footed as I made my way through a sequence of corridors and campi that widened and narrowed as if at the whim of a drunken accordion player.

Night walking

Night walking

Having completed my shopping “chore,” I reversed course for my old stomping ground of Fondamenta Nani, a canal-side calle that’s just around the corner from the hotel. Here I stopped into Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, a wine shop and cicchetti bar, for a glass of Prosecco and a couple of slices of baguette topped with raw shrimp and smoked swordfish (price tag: €5.50).

There are no tables here, no place to cordon yourself off and make a pseudo-private space. Instead you must jostle with your fellow man to place your order and stake your spot either at the bar or along the rear wall lined with shelves of wine. It is a microcosm of the city itself where the lack of cars creates a communal life of pedestrians that’s disappeared in many cities and suburbs today. As Tiziano Scarpa wrote in his charming cultural guide, Venice is a Fish, here is a place “where privacy doesn’t exist. You are constantly meeting people, you greet them seven times a day, you go on talking as you part, until you’re twenty metres away from each other, raising your voice as you disappear into the crowd.” I may have come to Venice on my own, but it’s not a place where I feel alone.

For dinner, I walked the few steps to Taverna San Trovaso, the restaurant that was a special treat in my student days. Several of my classmates had affairs with waiters here—I was far too prudish for such things, thus I always paid for my gnocchi ai quattro formaggi—and I couldn’t help examining my gray-haired server for a hint of recognition. I had a table in the far corner from where I could survey the crowd as it gently but surely filled the dining room: a German couple, a local family, a beautiful young woman reluctant to remove her sunglasses or cashmere beanie, who seemed to be known to the staff and was dining with an equally glamorous middle-aged woman.


Courtyard at Museo Fortuny

Courtyard at Museo Fortuny

On Saturday morning, there was more rain. I did a quick tour of the nearby neighborhood where I had lived in college, including a visit to Santa Maria della Salute, near “the point,” where the Grand Canal opens into the lagoon. The wind was at war with my umbrella, and I stepped inside the central apse of the church for a moment’s reprieve. Outside on the steps I had noticed a beggar on his knees, unprotected from the elements with an upturned baseball cap in front of him. His position on the spot of my 25-year-old reverie seemed symbolic and, on my way out, I gave him some coins. Later that afternoon we would cross paths on the other side of the Accademia, proving again that it’s hard to be alone in Venice.

The early morning pilgrimage over, I headed back towards the Rialto to spend the remainder of the morning discovering something new, Museo Fortuny, on the site of Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei. I had been led to it via a series of serendipitous connections made over the course of the year: a rainy day visit to Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ Cotswold home, that had sparked an interest in his work and art, followed by an excerpt from A.S. Byatt’s book, Peacock and Vine, introducing me to Mario Fortuny, a Spanish designer, painter and architect who had much in common with Morris.


Yann Sérandour’s Cactus Show & Sale

As I paid for my ticket, I was disappointed to learn that a contemporary exhibit was on display—I had been expecting to see Fortuny’s workshop—but that disappointment turned to delight as I ascended to the darkened second floor of the palazzo. Here contemporary pieces mingled with Fortuny’s lush tapestries and oil paintings inspired by Wagner’s operas. A black-and-white video installation hung above a low-slung couch, piping out horror film music box melodies. There was a stack of vintage luggage and a series of photographs of a bearded lady’s head in a bell jar. An ante room held one of Fortuny’s large-scale models of an opera theater accompanied by life-size velvet theater chairs. Around the corner, Yann Sérandour’s Cactus Show & Sale cleverly juxtaposed a large-scale black-and-white photograph of a cactus sale with an assembly of mid-century branch-like tables topped with books on cacti. The combined effect was as lush and creepy and playful and atmospheric as the city outside.

It was time for lunch and my destination, Al Covo, was on a route that would allow me to tick off the obligatory visit to St. Mark’s Square. I had a notion to stop into the Florian for an apertif, but the arcade was jammed and unpleasant and I was relieved to get back to the open air of the Riva degli Schiavoni, where workers were busy assembling platforms and ramps for the possibility of flooding, the city’s famed acqua alta. I was early for my 1:00PM reservation but happy to get out of the rain and to have the pleasure, as the night before, of watching the dining room fill. It was my first meal at Al Covo, which I had read about online, and I was relieved to hear only Italian voices at the tables around me.

There is a special pleasure in dining extravagantly alone. In my younger days I trained myself to eat out solo by carrying a book, but now I don’t bother. I’d much rather shamelessly eavesdrop, or at least attempt to, as on the table next to me that alternated between French and Italian and then English, when they asked me if I minded their dog, a handsome, sullen Italian pointer named, rather unfairly, Brutto—the Italian word for ugly. I did not mind Brutto and, seeing that I would be offering no scraps, Brutto took no mind of me either. I worked through four courses, mostly of creatures from the nearby lagoon, accompanied by Prosecco and local, organic Pinot Blanc, biding my time until the tide receded.

Gelateria Nico on the Zattere

Gelateria Nico on the Zattere

The only downside of a luxurious lunch was I had no interest in dinner. Instead, that evening I took a walk to Campo Santa Margherita, site of our favorite dive bar during my college days. It had changed names and was populated only by two sullen old men, so I kept walking towards a light at the south end of the square. The shining beacon was a lively bookstore, Libreria Marco Polo. There was a small English-language section and it seemed the right time to make a start on the Ferrante Neapolitan quartet. I bought My Brilliant Friend and a turquoise library bag bearing the shop’s name in red. On my way home I stopped in Cantine del Vino già Schiavi again for a glass of red wine.




I had saved a visit to Peggy Guggenheim’s small but perfect collection of twentieth-century art for my final morning in Venice. The house where I had lived during college was next door to the museum, and I had visited weekly on the evening it was free to students. By the time I left, I had memorized the walls. It was, then, a relief to find the first room hung exactly as I remember it with my favorite, Magritte’s Empire of Light, retaining pride of place on the back wall. I have always been a sucker for his literal surrealism—it appeals to my left brain—and I had it all to myself in the opening minutes of the gallery.

Next I lingered on a couch with Jackson Pollock and hunted down the Joseph Cornell Wunderkammer that had moved from its former location in the hall. When I finally found it I also found something new: a Max Ernst collage with an inscription explaining it was about the Postman Cheval, a French postman who built a Palais Idéal from found materials in his spare time over the course of 33 years. I had never heard of Cheval and was intrigued. As with Morris and Fortuny, this was a new piece of silk in my cultural web: a thread to follow beyond Venice—perhaps to the palace in Hauterives one day—but one that will forever be, in my head, connected to this city.

Although the weather didn’t call for it, I ordered a Campari spritz in the museum café, along with a timbale of vegetables from the nearby island of Saint Erasmus. It was only 11:00AM, but I wanted a last meal in Venice before heading back to the hotel and then the water taxi awaiting me next to the Accademia Bridge.

Leaving in style

Leaving in style

This mode of transport isn’t cheap—it costs €100 more than the Alilaguna boat—but it is an instant mood booster. It’s also a threefer: you get a ride along the Grand Canal, then alongside gondolas through an interior canal that cuts across the ankle of Venice, and finally across the lagoon to the airport at full bore. It also saves an hour on the Alilaguna, so I looked at it as buying an extra hour on my last day. It still felt like I was leaving too soon, but, as the saying goes, best to leave the party while you’re still having fun.

Ciao, bella. Next time I won’t wait another 25 years.

Europe Random


Opa on his 100th birthday

Opa on his 100th birthday

I, of course, didn’t know Opa until he had retired to Florida in a house just a third of a mile from where we also moved when I was six months old. I wouldn’t have picked up the information that he had earlier lived in St. Martin, Aruba, New York, Paris, and Cairo until I was at least a few years older, but relics of these past lives were everywhere in that tract home on Selby Drive—from a dinner gong to gilt-edged mirrors to the curvy armoire in the guest bedroom. It was these objects that made the most vivid impressions on me as a kid. The den at the front of the house was a veritable treasure trove: the oil portrait of Oma, the writing desk and letter opener, the camel saddle, and the cow bells and various tchotchkes on the bookshelves. Each time I visited I did a physical survey, scanning the shelves, tinkling the bells, turning over a six-sided clear acrylic picture frame in my hands.

All this stuff was downright exotic; to a kid growing up in the deep suburbia of southwest Florida it may as well have been plonked down from outer space. This was, of course, long before the Internet put the whole world in the palm of your hand. Coincidentally, Opa’s den also held a physical copy of that era’s Internet: a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was a nod to the importance of intellect and knowledge and, in the pecking order of reference materials, a step above the World Book Encyclopedia they had at my elementary school library.

If there was a whiff of pretension about those encyclopedias—or about any of the aforementioned objects—its smell was sweet. Pretension has negative connotations, but it’s the grease on the wheels of social and economic mobility, and I think Opa knew that. He also deserves credit for it. I spent hours on the floor of that den working on school reports with an open volume from his shelf, his house serving as both a literal and figurative reference library for me for a world outside of Fort Myers.

When I was a teen, Opa’s time working abroad and his multi-linguism also impressed me. I was resentful French hadn’t been passed down to my father and then to my sister and me, although there was admittedly nothing to stop me from learning on my own other than a tin ear and a lack of discipline. I like to think my own globetrotting adult existence owes something to his legacy, and I always got the impression he approved of—even took pleasure in—my choices, including my British husband. There was a rapport between Opa and D., a sort of mutual recognition of a fellow bon vivant. D. always looked forward to visiting Opa and being offered an ancient liqueur as an aperitif or digestif, depending, as Opa explained it, on the time of day. When I wrote postcards on vacation, Opa’s was the only one for which D. commandeered the pen.

Some years ago when D. and I were living in the UK, we were given the set of keys to a vacant apartment in Paris. We took advantage of our good fortune as often as we could, and one of the routines we most enjoyed was going for lunch on Rue Cler. It’s a pedestrianized street filled with produce stalls, specialty food shops, and the kind of outdoor cafés where all the chairs are facing out for maximum people watching. It’s also quite near the Eiffel Tower and, in my head, where Oma and Opa lived when they lived in Paris. I’m not sure where I got the idea—maybe the neighborhood was pointed out to me on a childhood visit to Paris with my parents or, more likely, it’s just something I heard over the years. In any case, as we made our way to Rue Cler on each visit I always pointed out a particularly beautiful stretch of mansion blocks to Douglas and said “That’s where Oma and Opa used to live.” Whether or not they ever did is beside the point. Even in that tiny den at the front of his house in Fort Myers, Florida, he managed to open up the whole world to me.

When Opa sold his house and moved into the nursing home, most the totems of his past life were dispersed amongst us. The cowbells and camel saddle now sit in my own den in California and, judging by my niece’s interest in the bells on a visit a couple of years ago, still hold the same allure for kids. On my visits to Opa in recent years, I always saw him in the common area of the nursing home—a pleasant enough environment but one stripped of the context his possessions had provided. The last object of his that I ever saw was a small rectangular painting he had made through an art program at the facility: a picture of a palm tree on an orange background set somewhere in the West Indies. He must have been thinking of going home, and it’s comforting to know he finally arrived. He will be missed.

Cotswolds Walking

Thames Trek

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Emboldened by the success of our hike in May on the Cotswold Way, husband and I set out on another of Britain’s National Trails, the Thames Path, last weekend. We only had two days this time, so we stuck to the twenty-three plus mile stretch of the path that’s in the Cotswolds. It runs from the Thames Head near Kemble to Lechlade, with Cricklade perfectly positioned midway for an overnight stop.

The Thames Head Inn on the Tetbury Road (A433) seemed like a reasonable enough guess at where we should be dropped off to start the walk. The pub has a huge framed map with directions to the trailhead in its doorway, but I walked right past them without noticing and asked a waiter for directions. He showed me back to the doorway without batting an eyelid, apparently used to this kind of behavior from walkers. Luckily the Thames Path is so clearly signposted it requires negligible navigational skills. In less than fifteen minutes we had found the start of the path, marked by an old ash tree, a pile of rocks, an illegible monument stone, and a very legible finger post declaring that the Thames Barrier London was a mere 184 miles away.

It was 11:00AM by the time we set out, having waited out the morning in the hope of letting the worst of the day’s rain pass. There was more rain—and little sign of a river save an overgrown riverbed—on the first two miles of our journey, but that just made the Wild Duck in the village of Ewen all the more welcoming when we arrived bang on time for lunch. We ate and drank better than we deserved for the distance we had walked, but the food was so good that I recommend a late morning start on the Thames Path regardless of the weather.

Back on the trail the waterway gradually became a stream before widening out to something recognizable as a river running between the lakes collectively known as the Cotswold Water Park. The name is a bit misleading; while there are leisure activities like boats and fishing, there are no water slides or wave pools. Of the 150 lakes in the area, only three are open for swimming. We stuck to dry land, walking on through the architecturally diverse village of Ashton Keynes, then back by the lakes of the Cleveland Lakes Nature Reserve, along an old railway track, and finally the ancient North Meadow of the Cricklade National Nature Reserve. It was 6:00PM by the time we arrived at the Red Lion Inn in Cricklade, our quarters for the evening.

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Cricklade’s High Street, described almost 200 years earlier as a “villainous hole”

Conveniently, the Red Lion has its own microbrewery on site, Hop Kettle Brewing Company, and we sipped hyper local IPAs in the beer garden as we eased off our boots. Our spacious room was on the ground floor of a converted outbuilding adjacent to the garden, its only downside being a temporary plumbing problem that meant no cold water. After cooling down the bathtub with buckets of ice, we headed to the pub’s restaurant, hidden behind the main bar through a small side room. The gastropub menu included beer pairings for everything on offer, and, even though it was the restaurant’s recommendation, I felt awkward ordering a canned American IPA to accompany my excellent sole, peas, and homemade gnocchi. If you’re beginning to think this walk was just an elaborate excuse for gluttony, well, you’d be right.

Fortified by a locally sourced full English breakfast the next morning, we set off early in an attempt to miss the gales promised by the weather forecast (they never arrived). The path continues for a couple blocks along Cricklade’s High Street, past a plaque that points out the town’s less than illustrious past. In 1821, the journalist William Cobbett called Cricklade a “villainous hole” in his book, Rural Rides, noting that “…certainly a more rascally place I have never set my eyes on.” We left Cricklade by following the Thames under the A419, where the only sign of rascals was some graffiti under the overpass. Even that, though, had a gentle Cotswoldian slant: “Make tacos not war” it implored, complete with an illustration of a taco adorned with some frilly-edged lettuce.

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Once under the motorway the path continued for a couple hours through gentle farmland, crossing the river at various points over wooden pedestrian bridges. There’s another Red Lion in the village of Castle Eaton, this one stuck in an early 1980s time warp complete with David Essex’s Silver Dream Machine playing in the background. The pub’s placement on the Thames Path is perfectly timed for a lunch stop, but even we were too full to eat. Instead we took liquid refreshment, connected to the achingly slow WiFi, and bantered with the genial landlady about her collection of tunes, which also featured Status Quo.

Leaving the village we walked through more farmland. Harvest was done and Swiss rolls of straw dotted the fields. After a few more pleasant miles, the path left the river and we spent an unfortunate mile along a busy road, the A361. This most unpleasant part of the journey was partially redeemed by the reward of a tiny thirteenth century church, St. John the Baptist, that greeted us in Inglesham just as we rejoined the path. William Morris, whose country house was in nearby Kelmscott, oversaw the church’s restoration in the 1800s, and it was well worth looking in before we continued on the last mile along the river to Lechlade.

The Halfpenny Bridge in Lechlade marked the end of our endeavor, just a mile or so short of a reclining statue of Old Father Thames at St. John’s Lock. We will have to wait to meet him and the rest of the Thames Country Path, which ends at Hampton Court, until spring. Instead we headed to the churchyard of St. Lawrence in the center of town that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his poem Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade—on a day, I imagine from the first stanza, that had been much like this.

THE wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

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The Thames between Cricklade and Castle Eaton


The Details:
The Wild Duck Inn
Drakes Island
Ewen, Cirencester
+44 1285 770310

The Red Lion
74 High St
Cricklade, Swindon
+44 1793 750776