Monday, October 6, 2014

A Day of Remembering

Last week, Jews in Glen Rock and everywhere around the world joined in small or large gatherings to celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The holiday marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It has several different names in Hebrew. My favorite is Yom Teruah, which literally means “the day of making noise.” That probably refers to the noise made by blowing a ram’s horn called a shofar many times each day. But it may also refer to the loud talking that often goes on between friends in the synagogue. I’m just as guilty as anyone else on this count. And I still got a little embarrassed this year when, at age 65 much like at age 8, I was urged by someone sitting in the row in front of me to shhhhh. It seems I had gotten a little too enthusiastic sharing news with my friend Joe, whom I see just a few times a year. Let’s face it, prayers may be important at this time of year, but not as vital as sharing stories about our families, some of Joe’s infamous legal clients, or the prospects for Rutgers’ football team. As a faithful attorney, Joe doesn’t say much about his clients of course, but we do have a laugh about one family whom he has dubbed “the evil Katzensteins.” We laugh because Audrey’s maiden name is Katzenstein, and, luckily, these evil ones are not related to her. Gossip…gossip.
The many names of Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hazicharon, which means “day of remembering.” I wondered why that name was chosen by the ancient rabbis, and I asked my modern rabbi for an explanation. Not surprisingly, he gave me a religious reason—he said that we hope God will remember us as the new year begins and, once remembering us, will keep us in mind for the whole year to come. I suggested another explanation to him, more human than religious. Throughout most Jews’ lives, they join with their families, in large or small gatherings, to celebrate holidays. And they share family traditions at those gatherings. That’s what we remember on Rosh Hashanah, and it helps us get a good start on another year.

For me this Rosh Hashanah was a special time for remembering. My mother died in early March, and this was the first year in my lifetime that I didn’t see or speak with her during the holiday. But she was well remembered. Amanda had several friends visiting during the holidays, and while they sat around talking to each other, they wrapped themselves in one of the many afghans my mother had knitted for us. And Brett pointed out that while the chicken soup Audrey made using Ina Garten’s recipe was very good, it wasn’t quite like Nana’s. Nana would take out some of the vegetables used for the soup, puree them, and add them back in to thicken and flavor the broth. Memorable. And I made my mother’s matzoh balls, which, she didn’t really make from scratch. Instead, she insisted that you had to use Streit’s matzoh ball mix (no other brand would do), and you had to use the one with the soup packet enclosed inside the box. And, like my mother’s, these came out perfect this year.
Nana cooking and making memories
And I told some stories about holiday celebrations with my family in Savannah. I have a favorite picture of our family gathered at the table when I was around five years old. Everyone is looking toward the camera, except me; I’m too busy eating to pose. (Some things never change.)
The family at holiday time. My grandfather is on the front right;
my grandmother is  in the very middle, where she belonged.
I hope my kids are building up memories of our family gatherings on Rosh Hashanah or other holidays, and that they will be sharing them with children, or cousins, or friends in the years ahead. After all, the New Year is not only a time for looking ahead; it’s also a time for reaching back and holding on strongly and happily.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Danish Cure

“The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”
—Isak Dinesen

Our fifth day of biking in Denmark featured all three salt water elements in Danish writer Isak Denisen’s quote above . . . and more.

We didn’t have to break a sweat to get to our first destination of the day—the Valdemar Slot (castle), located not far from our hotel in Troense. Our group was given a personal tour by a woman who truly loved taking people through the grand home. The castle is still occupied part of the year by descendants of the same noble family that was awarded the castle in 1678 after a famous naval battle. Family photos and portraits abound, as well as a museum with lots of hunting trophies, including a huge polar bear that one of the nobles bagged years ago.  For those of us who are non-hunters, the trophies were a little disconcerting and a lot scary.

My favorite part of the tour was a visit to the basement level, where the housekeeping staff spends most of its time and effort. In one corner was the head housekeeper’s bedroom. Right outside her door were several ironing boards. I figured they were there in case she woke up early in the morning and needed to fill her time productively. Talk about working overtime!

The castle seemed like the perfect place for us to take a group portrait. Here we are!

Here's the crew posing in front of the castle:
Barb, Doug, Casey, Phyllis, Harvey in the front
and Leah, Audrey, me, and Patti in the back.
The sweating came after we left the castle. We made a brisk ride across the island of Tasinge and came to a bridge that looked like Mt. Everest to me but didn’t seem to deter anyone else. I de-biked and decided to walk up the bridge, grumbling all the way. I am not sure what was going through my head, but I knew that I HATED that bridge! I had had it, at least for a while. I bailed out, and decided to hitch a ride with Per in the van for most of the rest of the day. I am a little ashamed, but not sorry, as you will be understand as you read on.

The group rode across part of the island of Langeland (“long land”), and finally joined Per and me at a ferry landing. (What took them so long? I joked) Waiting for the ferry along with us was a family of daredevils, too crazy to be believed. They were a young mother, father, small child, and either a friend or sister (I never learned which). They were cycling across Europe from their home in Paris, with the child being transported in a cart, and the sister/friend/cousin making the trip mostly on roller blades (you can’t make up this stuff!). Now they were making their way across Denmark.

Here are the dad, child, and crazy roller-blading sister
waiting for the ferry as they biked across Europe.
Coming off the ferry, our group began biking across the island of Lolland, which rhymes with “Holland” and was supposed to be just as flat. The plan was the ride for about 15-20 miles on Lolland, moving from west to east. This should be a snap, we were told, because the winds supposedly always blow from west to east there, providing a strong tail wind. There is an old Yiddish expression that goes, “Man plans, and God laughs.” God was definitely chuckling that day because the winds were very strong from east to west, turning helpful tail winds into sweat-inducing headwinds. Even Audrey bailed out after a time, but Lars and many of the group soldiered on. Then Harvey discovered that his difficulties biking that day were not all wind-related. He was riding on a rapidly deflating tire. Even that had not deterred him much. The group stopped to help fix the tire and then took a potato chip break to replenish the salt they had lost while sweating as they rode into the wind near the sea. If I had been there, I would definitely have been shedding tears to complete Isak Denisen’s triumvirate.  But I was safely in the van (chuckle, chuckle) on the way to our next destination in the town of Maribo.
Harvey, Audrey, and Phyllis rode happily
without my grumbling this day.
According to Isak Denisen, the cure for everything is salt water. Not to disagree, but I think the best cure for uphill climbs over high bridges and biking into stiff headwinds might be a welcoming van and a few glasses of Danish beer.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Our Danish “Odyssey”

“I am saying that erotic love is comic to a third party—more I do not say.”
—Soren Kierkegaard

On our fourth day of riding in Denmark, we went from Faaborg to Troense. The trip took us onto four different islands, and we rode not only on our bikes but also on two different ferries. We ended up in a charming little town that had a dirty little secret. Well, not exactly a secret, because it is mentioned in the guidebooks and Lars, our guide, shared it with us. And not everyone might consider it dirty . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Because I am always an English major at heart, I am going to call this day “our Danish Odyssey.” Our adventures were not exactly epic, but they did have some unusual Homeric parallels. We started the day with a quick ride to the harbor in Faaborg, took a walk along the town’s cobblestone streets, and came across my favorite Danish sign of the trip—a store window that advertised home delivery of pizza and kebabs with the quaint saying “du ringer, vi bringer,” which I figured must be translated “you call and we deliver”—though doesn’t it sound better in the original Danish? From there, like Odysseus, we boarded a ship and sailed for the island of Aero, a name that certainly sounds Greek to me.
Anyone need kebabs delivered?
Once in Aero, we mounted up and began a trek across the island to its largest town, Aerøskøbing. Halfway through our ride, we stopped to admire the beautiful seacoast and the blue seas, when we were attacked by marauding lady bugs. I know that sounds a little overdramatic, and not exactly on a parallel with facing down the Cyclops, but those bugs were downright vicious. Below is my photo of the creatures resting up en masse on a rock to prepare for a new attack. Perhaps there was mythological symbolism in that attack.
Did any Greek myths mention marauding lady bugs dotting the coastline?
We continued biking on to Aerøskøbing, enduring some Odyssean uphill and downhill stretches. Then we boarded a ferry that took us back to the town of Svendborg, which we had left two days earlier, and we quickly biked from there over a bridge to the island of Tasinge and the town of Troense.

I have received some feedback that my accounts of our Danish trip have been overly negative. To which, I say, “nope, nyet, nein, no way!” I have only positive things to say about Troense. It was the kind of small, quaint European seaside village you dream about. After dinner that night in our charming, small hotel just across the street from the water, Lars took us for a walk along the town’s most appealing and notable street. That’s where he revealed the town’s “dirty little secret.”

Troense's nicest street lined with thatched cottages.
Check out the placement of ceramic dogs on the window sill.
Lars explained that many Danish naval and merchant marine captains decided to settle in Troense even before they retired. Not a bad choice. Some of the wealthiest of those captains bought homes on the street on which we walked that night. Most of the houses had bright whitewashed walls, dotted with windows, and thick well-cared-for thatched roofs. Lars prompted us to look on the window ledges inside several of the houses, where we spotted pairs of ceramic dogs. Some pairs of dogs were facing out toward the street; others were facing inward. The dogs, he explained, had been gifts the captains picked up for their wives during their travels. What was behind the dogs’ orientation on the window sills?  That’s the dirty part. Some of the wives found an unusual use for the gifts. If her husband the captain was home from his travels, his wife would turn the dogs inward. If her husband was away at sea, she would place the dogs looking out toward the street, as if anticipating his return. A nice gesture, and nothing dirty about that, you say. Oh ho. It turns out that some of the wives had boyfriends on the side, who would check out the placement of the dogs. If they were looking in, the boyfriends would wait for a better time to woo their married girlfriends. If the dogs were looking outward, the coast was clear. And we had been told that the Danes were such straight-laced people!

Which brings me to my last Homeric connection. As I remember the story, Homer considered Odysseus’ wife Penelope to be one of the true heroes of his epic tale. During the 10 years during which Odysseus sailed to and from Troy and got into all sorts of travail, Penelope stayed home raising their son as a single parent. During those 10 years, many people—particularly potential suitors for the desirable but unwaveringly faithful Penelope—tried to convince her that her husband was long dead and it was time for her to move on. She turned all of the suitors away. There were no ceramic dogs on her window sill. At least I don’t remember any. But I read The Odyssey a long time ago, and my translation may have been cleaned up a little.
Penelope's suitors compete for her attention but never win her love.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle . . .  

To commemorate his 80th birthday, former president George H.W. Bush parachuted out of an airplane some 13,000 feet in the air. Pretty daring.

To commemorate my 65th birthday, I also took on a dare. I floated in a red 16-foot kayak on Monksville Reservoir in Ringwood, New Jersey.

Not the same, you say. Not even close!

Let me explain some of the parallels and the contrasts. I would bet that the last time Mr. Bush jumped out of a plane, he did so successfully. As I recall, he even made a successful parachute jump at age 20 during World War II when some bad guys were shooting real bullets at him. So another parachute jump without bullets must have seemed like child’s play to him, even at 80.

The last time I kayaked some three years ago, I ignominiously flipped over and found myself underwater looking up into my boat. Undeterred (well, only slightly deterred), I scrambled from under the overturned kayak. I managed to flip the boat back over, but it was filled with too much water to bail out. My peaceful sail near my currently uproariously laughing wife (was there no empathy to be found!) was interrupted. Only somewhat daunted, I dog-paddled myself and the boat to shore, where I managed to persuade a sunbather to help me pull the boat onto dry land and dump out the water inside. Then I got back into the kayak and tried to pretend that all was normal as I paddled back to the boat rental launch.

President Bush had cameras recording his safe return to land and a supportive family cheering him on. I had that same laughing wife recording everything mentally, and she was sure to tell everyone we knew about the incident. While it is true that, unlike President Bush, I was never in a life-threatening situation, was he ever in fear of dying from embarrassment!

So is it any wonder that I had not returned to kayaking for three years? And I might have stayed away longer, except that Audrey gifted me a kayaking “discovery activity” as part of my 65th birthday present. I guess she figured that if I was going to drown while kayaking, I should at least know how to paddle correctly before my demise. She was even coming along for the ride and possibly to take a picture as I went over.

Our lesson on Labor Day featured two guide/instructors and one other paddler, who probably didn’t suspect the danger possibly at hand. Both Audrey and I had worn bright shirts for the outing. The lead instructor thought that was a good idea. “At least we won’t have any trouble spotting you in the water,” she quipped. (Still no empathy!) She also proudly proclaimed that no one had ever overturned during one of her lessons, which smacked of hubris to me.

So many kayaks, so much potential danger!

We donned our PFD’s (portable floating devices, aka life jackets), and Audrey made sure I was snuggly strapped in. (She did care.) We learned proper paddle techniques (or PPT, as we kayakers might say) on land, and then headed toward the boats. Audrey’s was a 14-foot recreational kayak. I was given the 16-foot craft, noted for being a little wider and a lot more stable. Flipping this one over might be a challenge.

I made an almost graceful entrance into the boat, aligned my butt and back in the seat, planted my feet firmly on the foot rests, and began paddling—a little right and a little wrong. The instructor noted that how I handled the paddle could influence how quickly and smoothly I went places and how likely I was not to overturn. I spread my hands slightly, loosened my wrists, moved my body to about 10 degrees less than straight up, and tried to pivot my “core” without rocking the boat. So much to remember in order to have “fun.” Amazingly, it all worked. I paddled around one part of the reservoir, went under the overpass to the other side, made a circle that was a little wider than everyone else’s (not just because of lack of skill but also because by choosing a wider, longer boat, I had sacrificed some maneuverability for stability—a worthy sacrifice).

We kept this up for over an hour. Then, thankfully, we headed back toward dry land. Just one more hurdle to overcome—emerging from the boat without falling butt-first into the water. More instruction from the guide, and I was up, out, and striding toward shore. Take that, George Bush! And I did my birthday ride solo; Mr. Bush sailed down from 13,000 feet tethered to a guide, the wimp!

So I had conquered kayaking—at least for the time being. But could I rest on my laurels? Later that day, Audrey, looking over the L.L. Bean adventure guide, asked with a straight face, “So do you want to go on a three-hour, full moon kayak sail in two weeks?” Could she be intent on collecting my life insurance now that I’m an official “senior citizen”?
The two candles on my cake are a 6 and a 5. Oh my!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Road Less Traveled By — Part 2

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” 
 Søren Kierkegaard*

Our four biking excursions have each been a combination of fun and adventure. We had a lot of fun in Denmark, but for one day on this trip, we were caught up in quite an adventure.
Preparing to mount up. Clockwise from bottom right: Phyllis, Audrey,
Leah (in purple), Barb, Casey, Patti (in green), and Harvey.
Now, where was I in my story? (See Part 1 for the beginning.)

Oh, yes. We had just completed the gravel detour taking us from near Egeskov Slot (castle) toward Faaborg. All of us had been jostled on our arms and bottoms by riding over the loose rocks—something Audrey particularly hates—and three of us had gone the wrong way at the noted fork in the road. We were reminded of a Yogi Berra-ism—“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

But the “lost souls” had been found, and now we were regrouped on a paved road and ready to begin part two of our ride. We mounted up, and this time I moved near the front of the line. I planned on staying as close to Lars as possible just in case there was another fork in our future. We did some ups and downs over hills. I, of course, shifted gears to help climb more easily; Lars never felt that need. He pedaled steadily and evenly no matter what the terrain. 

We got into such a good rhythm that we hardly noticed when Lars turned onto another gravel byway. This one moved steeply downhill and became swift when the gravel gave way to sand and then slippery when the sand turned a little muddy.  Even Lars nearly skidded out on that stretch. I breathed a sigh when I got through the bad part and reached pavement again. Then we heard a shout that someone was down. Leah had lost her balance in the muddy section. Several other bikers stopped to help her up, and one shouted that she had cut her leg badly on some rocks during the spill.

Looking out from the first gravel path to see a windmill
and wind turbine both creating power.

The next few minutes were a blur as various riders searched their belongings to locate some ointment, swabs, and bandaging materials. Luckily, we had Patti in the troupe. Patti, also from South Dakota (what are the odds that in a nine-person group from around the country, two would be from South Dakota?), was an ob/gyn who spends much of her time working on Indian reservations or going into scary-sounding places in Africa, and Central and Southern Asia. She even worked one time within shouting distance of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden holed up until the CIA found him. (But I am getting off the point.) As self-appointed medic (we would gladly have voted for her), Patti calmed Leah and cleaned her cuts. Then she applied bandaging and tape. When she was done, no blood was visible, thank goodness. Leah bore up really well, and even insisted on biking on. Which was a good thing, because Lars was unable to get any service to contact Per, our driver, to come pick her up.

[A few weeks after the trip, Leah sent us all an email noting that her cuts and scrapes were healing fine, but the pain in her shoulder turned out to be a fractured collarbone. None of that stopped her. Obviously, she is made of stronger stock than I.)

We were at a crossroads, literally, and started up the road going straight ahead. Our new path had both good and bad qualities. It was paved (positive) but moved fairly steeply uphill (in my opinion; and, after all, I’m telling this story). We had gone a little over a mile when Lars thought something wasn’t right. He reviewed his map and instructions and called a halt. We needed to head back down and go the other way, he announced. I wasn’t even a little upset. After all, we would be going mostly downhill this time, even if we were retracing out steps.

We got to the bottom, turned left and kept pedaling. It turned out that we still had a number of miles to go, and soon I was ready to begin grumbling again. But I was so grateful when Lars announced that we were only one kilometer away from our hotel, that I stifled my complaints. And, there it was!

According to an Internet account I found, the approach to the harbor town of Faaborg by sea is gorgeous. We got there by land and were covered with sand, mud, a little blood, and lots of sweat. But that hotel looked gorgeous to me! Tomorrow, we are promised a shorter day of riding and two ferry boat trips. Piece of cake. . . .
Our hotel in Faaborg is directly ahead. Note the bike lane on the highway.
*[Based on the above quote, I would bet that Kierkegaard was never called “the happy Dane.”]

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Road Less Traveled By — Part 1
“To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
—Soren Kierkegaard
International Biking Tours (IBT), the company that organized our Danish trip, has a unique system. Each day, our tour guide appoints one traveler to be the “sweep.” The sweep rides at the back of the line of bikers to make sure no one gets left behind and to let the tour guide know if any of the bikers has a problem that may require attention. The sweep is entrusted with two key tools—a cell phone programmed to make a quick call to the guide and a pump to blow up any rider’s tire that may go flat.

No special skill is required of the sweep, just patience and observation, which was evidenced by the fact that Lars appointed me to the task for our first day of biking, the trip from Menstrup to Nyborg. Luckily, that trip was uneventful and not even very hilly. I had no trouble keeping up from my farthest back position. The cell phone remained thankfully silent all day.

On Day 2, we rode from Nyborg to slightly larger Svendborg, both on the island of Fyn (the home island of Hans Christian Andersen). This time, Casey, a computer programmer from UNC who often dressed in Carolina blue, was appointed sweep. Casey is a powerful rider who told us during the previous night’s introductions that she often bikes to her job each day, and the trip includes a level 5 hill. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I’m certain I would hate it. Her day sweeping also went smoothly.

When Doug, a retired Spanish literature professor from Colorado, was appointed sweep the next day, Casey and I kidded him that he had to maintain the trouble-free tradition we had established for the trip. He laughed and promised to follow our pattern. It must have been a hollow laugh. Trouble was ahead! No one expected the trouble. In fact, we had been told that our day of biking would actually be much shorter than the previous two days. We even started the day later and, by the time we biked to a grocery store to prepare for the day’s picnic lunch, it was nearly 11 a.m. We were on our way to tour a famous nearby castle, Egeskov, built in 1554. [Danish castles are unique in their appearance, use, and history. I will write about Egeskov and a few other castles we visited in another blog post.] We walked around Egeskov, picnicked on the grounds where we had a brief encounter with a nosey peacock, and then mounted up to continue our trip with Lars at the front and Doug at the back.

Egeskov, like many other Danish castles, is still being
used part of the time by one of Denmark's noble families.

I had checked my trusty iPad earlier in the morning and noted that the trip from Svendborg to Faaborg was only about 28 kilometers (17 miles), a piece of cake for “talented” bikers such as we. And we would break it up into segments punctuated by water and bathroom breaks. (I would say “no sweat” here, but as I noted in an earlier post, Denmark was experiencing a record heat wave, and I did some serious sweating.)
Audrey is willing to pose with me despite my sweaty appearance
But that distance was based on using the main road between the two towns, a pretty busy thoroughfare. True, it had bike lanes delineated on the side of the road, but the fast-moving passing cars were a little intimidating. Lars signaled that we were making a quick left turn onto a side road. I figured a detour would add to the distance we would travel, and I was right. (Later, Lars would confess that this alternate route was a new one mapped out by the tour company and provided for him as a way to save time and distance while avoiding the high-traffic main road; he didn't know it very well yet. Oh, ho!)

The detour turned out to be mostly gravel with some sandy patches, at least for the first part. There would be paved road ahead, we were promised. So we braved on through the gravel. Now, as I have noted, I hate hills. Audrey, on the other hand, hates gravel, especially when the gravel path heads downhill, which this one was doing. She was riding her brakes, but she wasn’t complaining aloud. Under her breath? That’s another matter.

The road narrowed out a little more, and we had to go around some fallen branches and even had to maneuver through a gated entrance. This apparently was Robert Frost’s road less traveled by. The group was starting to separate a little. Somehow Casey, Leah (a retired school teacher from New York who is petite but tough and plays tennis almost every day when she is not biking through Central Park), and Doug as sweep fell a little farther behind and lost touch with the rest of us.

Then Lars led us to a fork in the road and took us into the left branch. Someone in the group (perhaps Barb, the massage therapist from a little town in South Dakota, who had noted that she was in training for the upcoming “Tour de Corn,” a ride of scary length) hoped aloud that no one behind us would choose the right-hand branch. She turned out to be a prophet. Doug’s bad luck as sweep was just beginning.
The rest of our group. From left are Harvey in profile, Per and Lars (our guides),
Casey, Leah, Doug, Phyllis, Patti, and Barb

Lars and six of us finally completed the gravel portion of our ride (or so we thought) and took a break to begin the paved segment. We waited for our three comrades. And waited…and waited.  Lars finally decided to head back on the path to find the missing bikers. Luckily, he spotted them near that infamous fork in the road, and they quickly rejoined us.

We were all together again, and ready to continue. We were looking at paved road and figured Faaborg couldn’t be that far away. As long as we didn’t encounter any more surprises, we were home free, and Doug could retire his cell phone and air pump. Which turned out to be wishful thinking.

Stay tuned for Part 2. One warning—there will be spilled blood ahead!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dining and Biking Like a Dane

—Soren Kierkegaard

On our first day in Denmark, we got treated to the country’s two extremes. We started out in the bustling airport in cosmopolitan Copenhagen. Then we took a bus to miniscule Menstrup in the southern part of Zealand, the same island on which Copenhagen is located, but a million miles apart. Lars, our tour and biking guide, warned us. “Menstrup is a small village. Well, really it’s not so much a village as just a few houses.” He wasn’t understating. Menstrup was one block long with a small but well supplied (and fairly expensive) grocery store. I was especially impressed with a display outside the store of some of the tiniest heads of cauliflower I had ever seen. Those became the focus of my first Danish photo op with my new iPhone.
Two of Menstrup's houses and those tiny cauliflowers

Amazingly, Menstrup also featured a fairly spacious hotel with a huge dining hall that was nearly packed at dinner time. Why, we wondered? It seems that many Danes vacation by moving around the country from hotel to hotel. They get special deals from certain hotel chains that include breakfasts and dinners. Our hotel was a place to stay on the way from here to there. Menstrup clearly was not a destination in itself. I went online to see what information I could find about the place. One website was entitled “Things to do in Menstrup.” When I clicked on it, there was nothing listed. I would have at least included the unusual miniature golf course located on the hotel grounds. The holes were made of roughly planed and badly weathered wood with rather steep inclines. If your ball didn’t fall directly into the hole, it would roll back to the beginning and beyond. Harvey and I took on the course, and the course quickly won.
A colorful and challenging miniature golf course

The hotel provided our introduction to the special Danish treat known as smørrebrød, an open-face sandwich built in layers on a special type of rye bread. Being open-faced, the sandwiches have to be eaten with a knife and fork; lifting them up would just be an invitation to getting mayonnaise on your nose. Because of my vegetarian/fish diet, my sandwiches featured cucumbers and herring, salmon, or shrimp and lacked some of the strange-looking meats that graced everyone else’s sandwiches. I considered myself lucky. Also on the positive side was the abundance of Carlsberg beer that most of us indulged in.

Our smørrebrød did not look this appetizing.
The hotel was also our introduction to two other Danish (and anti-American) customs—lack of air conditioning and very limited offering of ice cubes with drinks. None of the hotels we stayed in, no matter how highly rated, had air conditioning, even the one in Copenhagen, and we had to make special requests for ice. This would not have been such an issue except that during our stay, Denmark was experiencing its strongest heat wave in nearly 100 years. (Now I know I am sounding like the “ugly American” here, but I’m just trying to give you some flavor.)

As it turned out, the hotel in Menstrup was a perfect place to start our biking adventure. It was calm and quiet, and so were the roads and bike paths nearby. We fitted and tested our bikes, discussed our next day’s route, and learned the rules of the road in Denmark, which are somewhat different from those in other countries. Danes are very reserved people, and they are serious about their biking. In Italy, we were encouraged to shout encouragement to each other, call out landmarks, and give warnings to the rest of the group when a car was approaching from ahead (“car up”) or from behind (“car back”). Italians like and expect a lot of noise. Danes frown on such “verbal assaults.” Danes expect bikers to stay single-file in line and preferably not too close together, just in case a car needs to go between bikers on a narrow road when another car is approaching from the opposite direction. They also expect them to do their biking quietly. Since Lars, our guide, was Danish, we quickly realized that we were expected to bike like Danes. At the end of our trip he praised us for being “American” in our enthusiasm about everywhere we went and “Danish” in our biking seriousness. (I think he even included me in the latter, even though I occasionally biked like a grumbling American.)

After a quick stop at the aforementioned grocery store to buy items for a picnic lunch using lots of the Danish krone we had exchanged for in New Jersey, we were ready for the first of six days biking through the Danish isles. Not all of them, of course (there are more than 400), but a respectable six or seven. We were nine relatively serious American bikers and one ultra-serious Danish guide. And we had already experienced Menstrup. Next stop, Nyborg, which was 30 miles of biking and one of the world’s longest bridges away. Bring it on!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Denmark Is Not What You Expect

Ready! Set!

I say “Denmark”; you say ­­­­­­­­­­­­_______


The odds are strong that for most people, thinking about Denmark would lead them to focus on the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen or some other landmarks in the Danish capital. Up until three weeks ago, I would have been part of that majority.

Then Audrey and I joined with seven other intrepid bikers (plus a Danish guide and Swedish driver) to explore the Danish countryside on two wheels. [I’ll write about the group in my next post.]

And what we saw for the most part were “amber waves of grain”—miles and miles of wheat fields, barley fields, sugar beet fields, and grape seed fields that help to bolster Denmark’s strong economy. To my consternation, those fields were not American Midwest flat. They were planted alongside rolling hills, the kind that go up as much as they go down (or that seem to go up a whole lot and down not nearly long enough). The kind that make biking a challenge—at least for me.

Of course, we saw lots of other scenery—beautiful coastlines, majestic castles, streets lined with thatched-roof cottages, and lovely churches, made even lovelier by the fact that each one featured a clean public restroom that bikers were welcome to use. (That feature should definitely be included in guidebooks!) And no matter where we rode, there were paved bike paths or off-the-beaten-track gravel trails reserved for bikers. But what I seem to remember most are the hills—and one incredibly steep bridge that seemed to intimidate only me in our group. This probably says more about me than about Denmark. When it comes to biking, it seems that I am a “flatlander.”

This is the fourth consecutive year that Audrey and I have gone on biking adventures in Europe. We started in Holland, famous for being flat and quaint. Then we headed to Belgium, famous for being flat and quaint and noted for hundreds of great beers. Then we tried northern Italy, between Mantua and Verona, famous for its vineyards and wines and pastas that help riders like me put up with a few challenging hills. Then came Denmark.

I recognize that my problems with this riding adventure were a matter of mind over muscle. In my mind, I had somehow envisioned the Danish isles south and west of Copenhagen as being designed for a flatlander. My mind was wrong. Plus, I seem to have added some poundage in the past year (as Audrey is quick to note) that didn’t help my mind convince my legs that they were ready to take me up those hills and over that steep bridge. For the most part, I kept pumping. But I grumbled. Oh, how I grumbled! [And, as you can imagine, Audrey did not greet my grumbles with sympathy and understanding. I was alone in my “misery.” Though, I must admit, in retrospect, that it is hard to be miserable when you are traveling in Europe on bikes through a beautiful country with a group of interesting people who happen to be disgustingly fit (grumble, grumble)!]

So, now I have done my venting. In later posts, I will write about what we actually saw after climbing those hills and about the people with whom we traveled. Stay tuned. And, by the way, the trip did end with a visit to Tivoli Garden, which is worth waiting for.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Drifting into time passages,
Years go falling in the fading light —
Time passages,
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight.
Well I'm not the kind to live in the past;
The years run too short and the days too fast;
The things you lean on are the things that don't last.
Well, it's just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time passages,
There's something back here that you left behind.
Oh, time passages—
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight.
     —Al Stewart

Be careful. . .  There is a metaphor coming.

Seven or eight years ago, I planted a small rhododendron bush next to the steps of our Vermont townhouse to give the place some extra color. I am no gardener, so I stopped at one bush. Still, despite getting plenty of water from rains, run off from the roof, and melting snow, the bush stayed tiny for the first two years. Then the grower who sold me the bush suggested that I also begin feeding it twice a year. Duh! She sold me the right fertilizer, and I measured it out carefully in both the spring and fall and added water as directed. The plant began to grow. Still, my timing was never right to see the plant in bloom. I would see buds in late spring, but we seemed never to be around when the buds opened.
Drifting into time passages. . .

 Our daughter Amanda went for a visit to the house one June without us and sent back evidence that the rhododendron not only was blooming, but that its blooms were an unusual color—more pink than purple. The bush was tiny but very alive and beautiful and ready to grow. Since then, I have continued to feed it regularly and marvel at its growth. Somehow, it comes back each year after looking so droopy and sad when it first emerges from burial in snow and ice. Miraculously, there are new leaves and new buds, and the bush gets wider and higher. Another duh! This year, for the first time, we were in Vermont the same week that the bush bloomed. I snapped a picture and added it to the one Amanda had taken four years before. Time lapse photography of a sort. See our garden grow.

Time passages. . . Well, it's just now and then my line gets cast into these Time passages

More than six months have passed since I last wrote an entry in this blog. I’ve been busy—writing new books, a grant, loads of multiple-choice and short answer questions, and more. I haven’t been lazy; just a little distracted.

And I spent time in Savannah—quality time with my mother, and final time with my mother. That is hard to comprehend fully. But there’s a funny last-visit story that keeps me smiling.

There's something back here that you left behind. Oh, time passages—

Time runs toward us and away from us. And each year, the rhododendron blooms, whether we are there to see it or not. This year, we got lucky.

Drifting into time passages. . .

Monday, January 6, 2014

Is Ignorance an Excuse?

Here is a test. The Final Jeopardy answer a few nights ago was:

When evidence was lacking, juries of yore would reply with this Latin word meaning “We do not know”; now it means a dunce.

Quick, the Jeopardy music is playing. Do you know the question?

As an intellectual exercise, I knew it: What is ignoramus? I’m really good at book smart, especially when it comes to trivia. As for street smart, or mechanical smart—not so much. All of which explains why I lived out being an ignoramus in so many ways last Friday. Here are the not-so-prideful details.

We in Glen Rock were experiencing our first significant snowfall of the year. We had had a few small snow showers with minimal accumulation in December, but not enough to demand the snow blower that has sat pretty much dormant in my garage for the past few years. The machine had been pretty lonely, and I had not really taken good care of its needs, such as draining the gas between winters and checking the carburetor et al. Which came back to bite me in the you-know-where.

So Friday morning, I opened the garage, brought out the snow blower and my trusty gas can, checked and filled the gas tank, and set to start up the machine to clean our long and winding driveway of the white stuff. I turned the dials to what I thought were the correct settings and pulled the cord to start up the monster. It gave a little whirr but had no intention of turning over. So I tried altering the settings of the dials, pulled again, and no change. What does a mechanical non-genius do in such a situation? I brought out the manual, which, amazingly, I found in the garage right near the machine. (I’ve used it before obviously.) Even more amazing was that I had indeed done the settings properly. But the darn thing wouldn’t cooperate. So I called the repair place that I had used to tune up the snow blower 2-3 years ago. He immediately said, “Bet you left the gas in the tank all summer, right?” Uh-huh. “The carburetor probably needs cleaning. You can bring it in today, and I can probably have it repaired by the end of the week.” Uh-huh. “Or you could try to drain the gas yourself and hope it starts.” Uh-huh. “I’ll bring it to you in a few minutes,” I said.

You can tell this is not me because the machine
is actually running and blowing snow.
So I opened up the back of Audrey’s Jeep and spent a few minutes working on the right angle to lift the snow blower and get it into the car. It hung out a little from the back, but I wasn’t worried. I should have been, of course.

I got about one block from home, moving very slowly, when I needed to make a left turn. The car did the turn well, but the snow blower decided to make a quick exit. I watched in horror as it bounced to the road. Not embarrassing enough? I discovered that a neighbor was driving not far behind me. He pulled up to my window and asked, “Is that your machine in the road?” Uh-huh. He hopped out and helped me reload it. This time, I dropped down the back seats to allow the machine to go farther inside. He also helped me lower the handle to allow the back door to shut. Pretty elementary stuff for those not mechanically handicapped. (Sadly, I didn’t have a manual to consult for transporting your snow blower by car to the repair shop.)

I dropped off the snow blower. As I pushed it into his storage area, I laughingly said, “I bet I’m not the only person who left the gas inside, right?” “Nope,” he replied. He pointed to a machine standing right next to mine—same model, same problem, it turned out. Its owner and I would both be shoveling our snow by hand that day.  

So I came home and did the shoveling with the help of our dog, who loves the snow but is not such a fan of the snow shovel. She tried to bite it a few times, taking a stealth position and then leaping ahead. At least someone was acting stupider than I today, I thought. Then I remembered that it was a dog I was comparing myself to.

Back inside, I tackled another mechanical activity that turned out to pose its own drama. Our son had given Audrey and me a “GoPro” video camera as a Chanukah present. It had been delivered just two days before, and we decided to take some time to open it up and check it out. Sadly, I could not figure out how to get the camera out of its intricate packaging. There was a diagram with pictures but not words. Frankly, I didn’t understand the pictures. (I can just imagine what you are thinking about me, and you’d be right.) Audrey suggested googling to see if anyone else had resolved the important “how to open your GoPro” problem and posted the answer. As it turned out, lots of people had. We were even directed to a YouTube video called “How to unpackage your GoPro 3,” and it was 16 minutes long! Take that, you who disparage me! Others have also walked this lonely road of ignorance. We watched the video and somehow managed to free the tiny camera from its challenging protective packaging.

Somewhere hiding inside is a GoPro yearning to be free!
But we still couldn’t make movies because the micro SD card was missing, whatever that is. We searched for several minutes until we spotted the small print in the manual noting that it was “sold separately.” I bought one of those yesterday, and, because our daughter was visiting, it is now properly enclosed in the camera. (She did major in mechanical engineering in college, after all.) And I plan to use it to film me as I blow the snow from our driveway later this week. That is, if the repair place calls me about picking up the machine by then and if I can be less of an ignoramus about turning both the snow blower and GoPro on and pointing each in the right direction.