Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day Tribute: Maria Jesionka Borysewicz

I am lucky to still have my mother, Annette Anderson, sharing the earth with me. I am also fortunate to have had bunch of very special pseudo and surrogate mothers, grandmothers and mothers in law. Grandmothers Borghild Olsen and Marian Anderson. Stepmother Sandy Schroeder, pseudo mothers Mary Jane Metaxas, Dottie Schweitzer, Arline Wakeham. Mothers in law, Martha Cunningham, Lynn Spawn, Sondra Spawn and particularly Maria Borysewicz.

I have unending respect and admiration for Maria Jesionka Borysewicz. She defined strength and perseverance in the face of adversity. Sent with her family in a cattle car to Siberia by Stalin in 1938, where she watched a sister die, she lived through hard labor, little food and scant medical care. Grit and faith in the Catholic Church kept her going.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union she and many of her fellow Poles were freed and permitted to trek to Palestine and join the British Army. Maria travelled across North Africa and Italy with the Polish brigades under command of the Brits.

It was along this journey she met and married Walter Borysewicz, a Polish Army officer and engineer who miraculously escaped Stalin’s mass murder of the Polish Officer Corps and had also hooked up with the British Army. Walter was in the Polish brigade that assaulted Monte Casino on the main road north of Rome that had held the Allies in check for months.

The war’s end found Maria in Italy, where she had her eldest child. The family then migrated to England and their second was born there. Ultimately, they made their way to Manville, NJ. Despite being college educated and an engineer, the best job Walter could find was in the factory at Johns-Manville, making products from asbestos. In that time, a factory worker could support his family.

Maria had five more children in New Jersey. Her large extended family and rich Polish community throughout Manville and Hillsborough permitted the family to live the American Dream – with Polish flavorings. She raised her children in the Catholic Church and while they rebelled (it was a rebellious time) her faith was solid in her core. 

All of her boys went to college; all of her children were successful. Walter died of asbestosis before his 60th birthday. When I met Maria, she had been a widow for over 10 years. Her kids, Henry, Richard and Krys were grown but still (or back) living at home for various reasons. Maria worked full time in production at RCA in Branchburg.

Even so, whenever you visited that house you could not get out without eating a meal. One of my first dates with Krys, we were going to dinner and a movie. I went to pick her up and Maria sat me down and made me eat a meal before we were allowed to go out. Saved me a dinner check, though.  

She made the most remarkable Polish jelly donuts. They were called Paczki (punch-key). Ahhhhhhhh. The only thing better were the Pierogi. Some filled with potato, others with sauerkraut. At Christmas, she made tiny pierogi and filled them with mushrooms.

After she finally retired, she would start cooking dinner at 2 in the afternoon. Bigos, Golabki, Pierogi, Klopski (meatloaf with tomato sauce) and Kielbasa of course (we pronounce it Kabasy), Ryba smażona – breaded and fried fish filets. One time she forgot I was allergic to peanuts and cooked the fish in peanut oil. When she discovered her mistake, she got so excited she could hardly speak.

Speaking with Maria was a wondrous thing in itself. She spoke a mix of English, Polish, Anglicized Polish, Polish-ized English and made up Polish-sounding English words. She called me Bruce-ova. She was wonderful and full of love. She always talked about the weather. Her mother once allegedly told her, “If you can’t think of anything to say, you can always talk about the weather.” Many of her conversations began with a discussion of the current weather.

Maria was always proper and formal, kind and generous. Her manners were impeccable. Her home was blessed by the parish priest at least once each year -- he left a mysterious chalk mark at the top of the kitchen door frame which remained untouched all year. On the wall in her kitchen were portraits of Jesus Christ and Karol Józef Wojtyła, Pope Jan Pavel II.

I am grateful to have known Maria Borysewicz. She introduced me to the magic of eastern European culture and made my life so much richer by setting an example in her unique, kind and utterly guileless way. I am grateful to have seen her one last time before she went to meet Walter and Karol Wojtyła in September 2007.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

We lost Lullahby Lily today

We lost Lullahby Lily today. She was a racehorse, brood mare, trail horse, hunter jumper and dressage horse. She was a good mother and a great friend.

Lily was foaled on April 26, 1992 at Thornmar Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. By Horatius out of Bantullah (Fleet Nasrullah), She raced mainly in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Her favorite distance was 6 furlongs, but she won at a mile as well. In 28 lifetime starts, she had five wins and finished in the money 13 times. Her best year was as a three year old, when she had 11 starts, 4 wins and finished in the money 5 other times.

As a brood mare, her best baby was Sarah Creek, who was still racing and winning as a nine year old.

We rescued Lily from a one way trip to “The Auction” in March 2005. Some of my favorite memories of her go back to when we had her at a farm in Powhatan, Virginia. I never owned a horse before and was constantly astonished at her unique personality.

Haley and Lily at the Deep Run Hunter Trials
One day, we were trail riding with a group of about six or eight other people. Running along a wide grassy path with Kim behind me, the trail curved to the right. As Lily moved into the bend, I slipped slightly off balance on her left side. To Kim’s amazement, as I slid, Lily actually dropped her body down and shifted to her left to get back underneath me and save me from falling off.

She took good care of me, but had a spooky streak. On a solo trail ride one day, we were trotting through a field along a hedgerow. Something in the brush scared Lily and she launched her body straight up into the air. When she reached the apex of her hop, I kept going up and came right out of the saddle. 

As her four feet hit the earth, she jumped sideways to escape the killer rabbit or whatever it was lurking in the bushes. When I came down, there was no horse under me.  I landed on my feet, Lily was 10 feet away, munching grass, looking at me and wondering why I got off. She was very kind and (mostly) tolerated my sketchy riding.

Back in the Powhatan days, I was a new rider and a little hesitant to ask Lily to really run. But I wanted badly to see how fast she would go. She was a racehorse after all. In a great big field one day, Kim and I switched horses. While Kim sat on Lily, the rest of us rode off about 100 yards, turned and waited for them. Damn she was fast. What a thrill! A beautiful girl on a beautiful horse tearing across the field, mane and tail flying to catch up.

I will miss the way she would come up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder. It kills me that these wonderful animals come with expiration dates. Lily’s was up today. She had been colicing off and on for a week. We thought she was out of the woods, but we were wrong and today we had to do her that last great favor. RIP, baby.

Friday, August 15, 2014

My First Heroes

My uncles were my first heroes – after Dad of course. The Anderson brothers Gene, Al, Bob and Don and Mom’s brother Erik. To a little kid, these guys were all great, kindly giants.

Erik Olsen was my mother’s adopted brother. He was a big burly NYPD cop. He worked shifts and got extra pay for holidays so sometimes was not around for family gatherings, but if we were at Grandma’s house at 29 Treadwell Avenue on Staten Island, he would usually stop by (He was actually born in that house in 1921).

He was on The Emergency Squad and didn’t ride around in a regular black and white police car but in a truck that I remember being like a UPS truck. These guys are the SWAT teams, the special rescue teams, hostage negotiators and also the canine units.  

During WWII, Uncle Erik was in the Navy. He was two years out of Port Richmond High School and joined up right after Pearl Harbor. He became a Chief Petty Officer in the Seabees which was the nickname for the Construction Battalion. He and his men would land on the heels of the Marines as they island hopped across the Pacific building back what the Japanese and the Marines blew up.

Uncle Erik was thirteen years older than Mom. He and Ruth Lucker were married on May 24, 1947 and lived on Floyd Street on Staten Island. I think Aunt Ruth had a sister or two that lived in the same block. They had a daughter named Ruth Ann, who I remember  married a guy named Harlow and they had a daughter.  Haven't seen them in a long time, though, so not sure what became of them.

Uncle Erik was a great genial guy who looked to me like Santa without a beard. Back then, all of our parents and Grandparents generation were members of ethnic clubs or Freemasons or both. The women were in the Eastern Star. Uncle Erik was in The Sons of Norway, and The Vasa Order of America – both clubs like The Elks, but for people of Scandinavian heritage. Their social lives were built around these organizations and they all had regular parties and dances and picnics. As a kid, I always looked forward to those events.

One of my best memories of Uncle Erik was at some Scandinavian picnic at a park called Pigeon Hill in Morris Plains or Parsippany – I think it’s part of Powder Mill housing development now. Back then there were picnic tables, b-ball courts and a lake to swim in.

Well, the men had a galvanized metal tub about as big around as a garbage can but only half as tall. It was full of ice and clams and sitting on a picnic table. They were drinking beer and shucking clams and sucking them down raw. I never had one before. Uncle Erik cut one open with a pocket knife and handed it to me saying, “Here try that.  That’ll put some hair on your chest!” (They were big about putting hair on your chest).

You know, I sucked down that clam and was so grossed out I made a really hideous face, which got him and his buddies laughing like it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. Then he hands me his brown bottle of Rheingold Extra Dry to wash it down. So I had my first clam on the half shell and my first beer within seconds of each other and I was all of about 7 years old. I thought they were both disgusting at the time but, hey, I was one of the guys!

The big picnic every summer for the Swedes and Norwegians was at Vasa Park in Budd Lake, NJ. It was a private retreat for the Scandinavians. The went there from all over New York and New Jersey. If you go to Scanfest, that’s the place. Vasa Park had shuffleboard courts. We kids would try to get on the shuffleboard courts and play, but the old men would chase us off. Shuffleboard was to these guys like Bocce was to old Italians.

Vasa Park has a gigantic pool -- it’s still there. It was fed from a spring so the water was freezing cold. They also didn’t have skimmers so there was always grass clippings and about a million dead bugs floating around the edges. We didn’t care. I seem to remember learning to swim there. No one had life jackets or water wings or any kind of floatation. It was unheard of and probably for sissies, anyway. Dad threw me in and yelled “Swim!” so I did.

They had a slide and a diving board. I don’t think there were any rules except don’t go in for an hour after eating. I cannot remember any adult ever saying don’t do this or don’t do that around that pool. We ran (there was no concrete around it, just grass) jumped and dove off the sides. Jumped on top of other kids in the pool. Pushed each other in. Went down the slide headfirst. It was completely out of control and wonderful. My father was always right in there with us doing cannonballs and throwing us in the air.

I can remember they had a soda machine at Vasa Park and one time a kid stuck his hand up the chute to try to catch the can as it was coming down.  Well, the can dropped and jammed his hand up in there so they had to take the whole machine apart to free him. It was very funny. For us. Not so much for him. If I remember right, he was crying the whole time.

There was a concession stand, but we always brought hamburgers and hot dogs and stuff and cooked on the charcoal grill. There would be potato salad and macaroni salad and chips and pretzels and all kinds of other terrific unhealthy dishes, but the only Scandinavian food I remember was Swedish meatballs. The grownups always had plenty of beer.

After swimming and shuffleboarding and eating and drinking all afternoon, as it got dark Uncle Erik and Aunt Ruth and Mom and Dad and Grandma and all the other aunts and uncles and great aunts and great uncles and other ancients would gather in this big wooden open aired pavilion. It was a big building with a roof, no walls and a dance floor. There would be a band with (of course) an accordion player, and those old Swedes and Norwegians would start dancing the Polka. There had to be twenty or more couples at any given time flying around in a big circle on the dance floor spinning around and stomping their feet so the floor shook.

The party would go on and on and on. It seemed to me like the dancing lasted very late into the night, but since most of the Staten Islanders came up on buses, they could drink to their hearts content and sleep all the way home.

Uncle Erik’s moment of fame came in the Summer of 1965. Less than a year after the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened (Brooklyn to Staten Island), he went up to rescue a would-be jumper. There was a photographer along who snapped this really powerful image of Uncle Erik standing out there on a girder in the dark, hanging onto the jumper and hanging onto a cable at the same time. The picture was on the cover of that summer’s issue of Spring 3100, the NYPD’s internal magazine. My grandmother had it framed and hung it on the wall.

Uncle Erik retired from the NYPD after putting in his twenty years or so and then he went to work for Farrell Lumber on Staten Island, working in the lumber yard. As he got older, his hair went from gray to white and his face got very red. He probably had sky high blood pressure and one day at the lumber yard he had a massive coronary and just dropped dead. I think it was 1984. He would have been 63. Aunt Ruth lived to be very old – close to 90 I think. Here’s that picture.

Norm Anderson: A Brief Family History

I'm writing characterizations of my family for my newly discovered nephew, Jerry. He has 21 years of catching up to do and I thought others might find them fun to read. These are solely my impressions and will likely piss some people off. Sorry in advance. Here's the first:

My Dad’s dad was Reinhold Eugene Anderson. One evening when he was a toddler, his father said to his mother, “Olive, I’m going out for a sack of tobacco,” and they never saw him again. Reinhold was raised by a single mother and spinster aunt in household of women. She was nearly forty and frustratingly superstitious when he was born, so it was an odd upbringing. He left home to be a doughboy and grew to manhood on the battlefields of France during WWI. Whenever he spoke of his time in France, it was clear he thought it all a wonderful adventure.

After the war, he came home to Monroe, New York and learned the carpentry trade. He met a girl from Newburgh. She came from a good family that had a little money. Her name was Marion Mapes. She was a suffragette and had been to business school – a rare accomplishment for a woman in that time. One thing led to another, and the couple ran off to New York City and got married. They had a bunch of children -- nine altogether, but only six lived past infancy.

They were a family of six when the stock market crashed in ’29. They were seven when he lost his job in ’31. He never found another one.

My dad remembered early childhood as fine time. He told me that he and his brothers would run down to the bus stop each afternoon to meet their father coming home from work. He carried his toolbox on sling across his shoulder. Their house was full of happy children and overflowed with love.

That changed in 1931. With no work, the electricity was sometimes shut off. No money for coal to heat the house meant the cookstove was the sole source of heat and hot water. Baths were in a galvanized metal tub in the middle of the kitchen. Food was delivered by charities. They ate a lot of beans. The in-laws in Newburgh sent money when they could, but it wasn’t very much. The last child came in ‘33. In summers the kids were sent to farms upstate where they picked berries for pennies.  Their teeth rotted for lack of dental care.

It was a bad time. After years of useless searching for a job that didn’t exist, my grandfather descended into a black despair and just gave up. The house he owned free and clear fell into disrepair and deteriorated around them. My grandparents fought bitterly. The Anderson brothers figured out soon enough that if they were persistent and scrounged for work they could make a little money for food, so they did. They all stayed in school and got good grades.

By 1940, the oldest brother, Gene, graduated high school and was able to find a job and that helped a lot. When WWII broke out, he joined the Army and went off to the South Pacific. My Grandmother got a job building PT Boats for the Electric Boat Company (ELCO)  in Jersey City and living got easier. In ’42, Uncle Al finished school and joined Gene in the Army. Both brothers sent money home to their mother.

Dad worked after school and tried to join the Marines when he finished high school in ’44, but they wouldn’t take him. Neither would the Army or Navy. An umbilical hernia made him 4F and he was humiliated. So he got a job working for Cunard Steamship Lines on Broadway in Manhattan and joined the NYPD Special Police. Everyone had to have a uniform. If you didn’t have a uniform, you were nothing.

In America after WWII, life was good. The Anderson brothers came home safe. My grandmother got a small inheritance and bought a new house but my grandfather wouldn't leave the old one. He was now physically falling apart. He developed a hump on his back and stopped shaving. After great effort, the brothers persuaded him to abandon the decrepit house and join them in the new place. But he was so emotionally broken he spent nearly all of his time in the attic.

In June of 1950, my dad had been at Cunard for nearly six years. He was climbing the corporate ladder when the North Korean Army swept across the 38th parallel and invaded the south. Several weeks later he got a draft notice. Although he was 4F in WWII, the Army needed men and to Dad’s surprise (and delight), they took him. He was twenty-four and that was old. They took his two younger brothers, too. Dad was the only one who saw combat.

Dad figured if he was going to be in the Army, he’d rather do it as an officer, so he qualified for Officer’s Candidate School (OCS), got his bars, was assigned to the artillery and made a forward observer. He spent his war on the front lines with the infantry. 

Skipper Matthiesen, his boss and best friend in the bunker in Korea was a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. This impressed Dad immensely. While Dad was in Korea, his father died. They called it a heart attack, but there was no autopsy.

When Norm came home from Korea, he got his old job back at Cunard and enrolled at Wagner College. He used the GI Bill to pay for it. A College Degree was another rung on that ladder away from where he’d started. He met my Mom while commuting to Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry in 1955.

Norm’s  parents
Mom: Marion Mapes Anderson b. 2/18/1900 d. 12/22/1991
Her parents Willard Mapes and Angeline Lendrum Mapes; Newburgh, NY
Dad’s Dad: Reinhold Eugene Anderson b. 4/24/1893 d.10/12/1952
His parents Olive Cooley Anderson 1855 – 1917 Reinhold John Anderson b.? d.? 

Olive is the last of our family buried in the Cooley Family plot in Seamanville Cemetery, Monroe, NY. Olive’s grandfather is Nathan Bailey Cooley b. 1802 d. 1861. Also buried in Seamanville Cemetery. I have a copy of his will.

These are our People…

Friday, August 8, 2014

Who's the Sucker?

I was talking with my friend Jack yesterday. We were lamenting the loss of thoroughbred horse racing in Virginia.

Jack became a horseplayer on a summer afternoon in 1975. He'd been caught smoking under the Seaside Heights boardwalk the day before. As punishment, his dad banned him from the beach for two days. So to enforce the penalty (Jack’s mom was a pushover), Dad dragged him off to Monmouth Park for the afternoon. Some punishment. Jack found his life’s passion at age 12.

Jack’s the kind of guy who wears boots, jeans and a cowboy hat even when it’s 90 degrees out. If he needs to dress up, he puts on a tie. He's never spent a single overnight on a farm. He also knows more about race horses, pedigrees, past performances, tendencies and so on than anyone else I have ever known.

“I really miss going out to Colonial Downs,” I said. “I always enjoy hanging out there with Kim and whoever else watching those horses run. It gets me all juiced up.”

He said, “If the track and the owners would just sign a damn contract, they’d open up the OTBs and we could at least go place some bets in town.” We were sitting in the shade on my back patio. He yawned and put his feet up on the table and I went to get us two more beers from the beer shed.

When I came back he said, “You really ought to think about picking up your game and learning how to make real bets. That two dollar nonsense is a waste of time.”

“Jack," I said, "An old Wall Street guy once told me any business deal that includes three or more people also includes at least one sucker. If you can’t easily identify the sucker, it’s probably you. Consider a bet on a horse race as a business deal. It definitely has more than three participants, so who’s the sucker?”

“Well, first you got the jockeys. A bunch of high energy highly competitive kids. They all know each other, like each other, hate each other, hang out together, run around with each other's sisters, brothers, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, whatever. Their actions, inactions,  motivations and decisions directly impact the result of the race. There might be a sucker in there once in a while, but not likely.”

“Then there’s the trainers. Definitely not the sucker, right? The good ones are diabolical geniuses and even the less good ones are still the brains behind the horse’s campaign. Trainers directly impact the horse’s performance and the race’s outcome, so it’s not them.”

“Owners can be suckers,” he said. A little defensive because he knew where I was headed.

“Maybe, but not really as far as betting goes. They might be a sucker if they let a greedy trainer get in and drain their wallet, but that’s a whole different story.”

“So you’re telling me we're the sucker.”

“I love you man, but it's you. You’re the sucker. The guy in this mix who thinks he’s gonna get a return on his investment but everyone else in the deal has some impact on the outcome except you.”

“And your little two dollar bet doesn't count?”

“Nope. My two bucks is just payment for service. Buys me twenty minutes of anticipation and two minutes of adrenaline. All for less than half the price of a cheap beer.” I grinned.

“You’re a dick,” he said.

Actually, when it comes to thoroughbred racing in Virginia, we’re all suckers: trainers, owners, jockeys, horseplayers and casual fans. At least the owners of Colonial Downs have played us all that way. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Radegast: Sausage Heaven

Don’t get me wrong, McDonald’s has its place. In fact, the McDouble on the dollar menu may be the best value calorie for calorie in American quick food gastronomy. Certainly it’s among the densest offerings I have found, but it’s generic food and has no soul.

I’m a fan of local food. Low brow ethnic proletarian fare. Peasant food. Cabbages, root vegetables, smoked meats and sausage. Pizza, pasta, hot dogs and burgers. Made by hand in small batches. Honest food for honest folk. Papa John should be shot. In the south, it’s barbecue, barbecue and deep fried whatever.

I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn the other day waiting for a contractor. When he texted me to say he was an hour late, I decided it was a good time for lunch and went off to find something different. On the corner of Third and Berry, a few blocks up off the East River behind the old Domino Sugar refinery I stumble upon the Radegast Hall and  Biergarden.

Two long low brick buildings half a block deep started life a hundred fifty years ago as factories or carriage repair shops or stables. They have identical gabled roofs and lay alongside each other like a pair of Siamese twins joined from the head to ankles. Red clay brick peers through the chipped and faded paint across the front of the buildings. A hand-lettered A frame sign on the sidewalk says “Open for Lunch.”

As you travel from western Europe across Germany and into the old Austro-Hungarian empire, an air of mystery and superstition gathers itself up and hangs over your consciousness. Cities, villages and countryside all feel like they have a clearer recollection of the earliest days when man first began building with stone. It’s as if humankind’s genetic memory-conduit to the middle ages has less interference when you move further east.

You know what I mean. It’s the same only different. There’s a darker feel to the landscape. The trees seem taller and the cliffs sharper. People are shorter and thicker with rounder faces. Cities once under control of Soviet dictators are a little bit sootier, the streetcars are older and the alphabet is different enough to throw you slightly off kilter.

That’s how I feel as I walk up the ramp into the barroom. That’s right, no steps, just a short steep ramp up off the sidewalk. As if the owners don’t want to discourage hard drinking customers by making them walk up and down steps.

It’s a dark wooden room with blackened raftered ceiling lit by Victorian-looking chandeliers and some natural light that leaks in the windows from next door. Age hangs thick on the place. Age that it wears proudly. This is no musty, dusty cobwebby place. It’s just dark, chunky and silent. Stern, beribboned Hapsburg generals in gaudy uniforms and walrus mustaches watch over the room from the safety of their picture frame.

The bar is kidney-shaped and broad enough to dance on. The lunchtime crowd is just me and the bartender.  I pull up a barstool and settle in. It has thick legs and a strong back like the factory stiffs and longshoremen it was designed for. The bartender, younger than you’d expect in a place like this, wears a tuxedo shirt with bow tie and has a vague accent.

I order a coke and ask for a lunch menu which I get right away. The menu is a list of sausages. Just sausages. Bratwurst, Kielbasa, Chicken sausage with somethingorother, Knockwurst and other names I don’t recognize and can’t remember. Across the top it says, “Order at the Grill.” At the bottom, “All sausages include sauerkraut and French fries.”

Like an idiot, I ask, “Can you get this for me or do I have to order at the grill?”

“You have to order at the grill”

I look around, it’s dark, but not that dark. Don’t notice a grill anywhere. “Never been here before. Where’s the grill?”

He points at a shining doorway to the other building. Friendlier. “Through there to the left. You’ll see it.”

Through the doorway it’s a different world. The roof/ceiling is about half skylights so the brick walls are bright as the sunny outdoors. Two rows of massive rough-hewn picnic tables run straight as railroad tracks from one end of the building to the other on a grey slate floor. 

The end wall is ancient discolored brick and has a giant Bohemian looking mural painted above an archway on its left half. There’s one guy sitting at a picnic table at the far end of the room in front of the mural. He has long hair and a long beard.  He’s eating something with plastic utensils out of a red and white gingham printed cardboard tray. The grill is opposite him. It’s a big grill. Set back behind a pass-through in the brick wall, the cook has to stand in the middle so he can reach both ends.

As I approach, I see the grill’s between me and the cook and there’s about a dozen sausages browning and sizzling on it. I’m looking at the sausages and the cook’s looking at me. I have no idea what I’m seeing. I recognize Kielbasa, but that’s about it. These are not Food Lion sausages. They’re fat and heavy oozing grease and goodness through cracked browned casings. I break the ice. Pointing at a promising one I ask, “What’s that?”


“That a bratwurst?” I ask pointing at another.

“No. that’s Easter sausage, that one’s a brat.”

“How ‘bout that?” I ask, gesturing at a lighter colored one.


I give up. Shrugging, “What’s your favorite?”

“Easter.” He’s grinning now. Clearly enjoying this.

“Ok, I’ll take your word for it. Easter it is.”

“Sauerkraut? Fries?”

“Yep, yep.”

He shovels a heaping mass of sauerkraut from a metal pot the size of a water bucket into a skillet and tosses that on the grill. It’s got a yellowish/orange tinge unlike any sauerkraut I’ve ever seen before. 

“Guess this is your first time here. Should come back at night.” He’s dropping a basket of fries into the fryer. “More people. Different menu. They have a dish called Goulash you really should try.” Odd to hear a cook in a place like this talking about Goulash like it’s something novel and glamorous.

“I’d like to but I’m just passing through. Gettin' some lunch, then I’m gone.”

“Too bad, they have live music here alla time. Tuesday through Sunday. Jazz, mostly. Old time jazz. New Orleans and like that.” 

Looking past him I can see a whole other room back beyond the cooking area. Fully stocked bars and tables in the same dark wood. The place is far bigger than you’d think from the street.

“I pay you or at the bar?”

“Me. It’s nine bucks.”

I slip him a ten and a single. He grabs two of those red and white gingham printed cardboard trays and doubles them up so they won’t leak. The sauerkraut goes on one side and the fries on the other. The sausage lands on top. He hands it to me. I hesitate when I see there’s no roll. Cook points to one side and says, “Utensils, ketchup and mustard. Enjoy.”

There’s about four different kinds of mustard in metal bowls. I take a spoonful of the reddish colored one and slather it along the sausage. Probably has some red horseradish in it I figure. Grab plastic utensils and head back to the barroom with the hot redolent cardboard going moist in my hand.

Back at my seat I drop that exquisite steaming aromatic mass onto the bar. I live for these moments. The dark coziness of the room and the anticipation of that sausage with exotic kraut makes me all warm and contented. I just sit here for a moment holding my plastic knife and fork, soaking it all in and wishing for some music.

The barkeep materializes and interrupts my reverie. “You wanna use real utensils?” He asks kind of sheepishly as he proffers the metal ones. They’re wrapped in a cloth napkin and he’s shoving them at me.

“Uh, yeah. Ok.” I reach for them without thinking and never really break my focus off the food. I snatch a fry. It’s hot and crunches when I bite into it. It’s a pretty thick fry. Not a steak fry, but bigger than a McDonald's one. About as fat as a Sharpie. Probably went frozen into the oil because it’s crispy on the outside and still soft inside. Good and salty. Perfect.

I’m saving the sausage. I go for the kraut next. It looks soooo weird. Clearly has turmeric in it. Probably paprika, too. What am I saying? Of course it’s paprika. Where the hell am I? Good hot Hungarian paprika. I had paprika like this in Budapest back in ’05. Even brought some home. Unmistakable. Garlic, too. The kraut’s hot, sweet, spicy and vinegary all at the same time. I’m in heaven.

Finally I drive my fork into the sausage and it spits oily sausage juice all over my French fries. I’m smiling. This is freakin’ awesome. And I found it by accident! I’m cutting the meat into little pieces and forking their wonferfulness into my mouth one at a time so it lasts longer. More than halfway through the fries, they’re still crunchy except for the wet spots where the sausage or kraut leaked onto them. And that’s ok because it just adds flavor.

Soon. Far too soon, I have to stop. Because I just can’t eat any more. It’s only some fries that are left. I figured out long ago that you finish the meat first, the veggies second and the potatoes last because they’re the cheapest and if you’re paying for that meat you sure as hell better eat it all and who cares about a bunch of damn potatoes anyway (even if they’re perfectly crunchy salty and fat as a Sharpie)?

I take a last slurp off the Coke and look at the check. A dollar fifty for the soft drink. I leave some cash on the bar, wave at the bartender and head for the door. I’m coming back here some day when it’s ok to have a few beers. Yeah. McDonalds has its place, but it’s not here and it’s not now. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Paris and the Loire in winter

Cold. Damp. Windy. But it was Paris, so who cared? We’d left Newark four hours late in a blizzard and arrived four hours late in the City of Lights. Our friend, an expatriate, met us at Charles DeGaulle Airport. We’ve been to Paris a bunch of times, but this is the first time that we didn’t have to fool around with a rental car or get a cab or train into the city. Knowing a local is a real treat.

Her apartment is on the Right Bank, a short way from the US Embassy. There’s a security gate at the street. Punch in a code and you get access to a passageway once used by carriages. Pass through a second gate and you find yourself in a courtyard garden. Cross the garden, push through the main entrance into the marbled foyer, up a short flight and welcome to the Elevator From Hell. 

Actually, it’s the Elevator Doors From Hell. The French have an obsession with self-closing doors. A good idea, but their springs are far too aggressive. The outer, wire mesh door opens out. The dual inner, wood and glass doors open in. Both require real strength to open, and both love to snap shut on luggage, grocery bags, backpacks and slow moving derrières.
We took the nickel tour of the apartment, showered, changed and hit the street. Lunch was in a small, smoky, brightly lit neighborhood bistro where the waiter knew our friend and made little jokes in French. He really was a pleasant guy, and the lunch of soup, salmon, bread, cheese and (of course) wine was perfect. We sat in a small booth in a corner and watched the other diners and their dogs as they chatted and ate and smoked and drank and barked and growled and talked and texted and just lived.
After lunch, we walked to the embassy. The US Embassy is on the Place de la Concorde, a traffic circle at the foot of the Champs Elysee. Opposite the embassy in the center island of the circle is an Egyptian Obelisk looted from the Temple of Thebes in Luxor. I saw its twin still standing in the original position a couple of years ago. It’s certainly impressive and dramatic standing there in Paris, but it would probably look more at home back in Luxor. It was a “gift” to the French Government, given while Egypt was a French colony. That was about the same time that Napoleon’s soldiers were shooting the nose off The Sphinx looking for treasure.

There’s a bar in the Embassy, and that night, five American women were putting on a musical show for an audience of about fifty people. The youngest performer was a seventh grader who sang two original songs and played guitar. She gave a solid performance. The kid was followed by four forty-something diplomats who together and in combination entertained with original and cover tunes on vocals, guitar and piano. It was mostly folk music, but with a splash of lounge jazz. The bartenders were competent, the drinks strong, the pizza bad, and the company terrific.

After the show ended, we had a late dinner at a pasta restaurant a few doors from the embassy with a bunch of our new friends. The place had faux-painted sandstone walls with statues in little carved niches. Italianate tapestries hung from the walls and potted plants provided privacy. We had salad and pasta and wonderful crusty bread and wine and conversation and laughs ‘til no one was left in the place except us. When I travel to Europe, I try to stay up as late as possible on the first day in order to acclimate to the time change. I usually make it to about nine in the evening. This time we went til two in the morning on three hours of airline sleep!

Next morning, after a quick breakfast, we toured the neighborhood. A few blocks from our friend’s place is the local market. The street’s lined with food shops for several blocks, and the vendors build sidewalk displays on Saturday. The stands were filled with geometrical arrangements of fresh fruits and vegetables, some familiar and some alien. Oysters in their knobby grey shells and scallops in their brownish shells about the size of a big man’s open hand were piled in great mounds. Mushrooms were everywhere – chanterelles, portabellas, tree ears, and many others that I couldn’t identify.

One of the things I love about French food markets is their lack of squeamishness about displaying meat. Americans are neurotic about not wanting to know that their meat used to walk around under its own power, so we package it to look sterile and unrecognizable. 

The French have no such quirks. Gutted suckling pigs dangle from hooks. Skinned and cleaned rabbit carcasses aligned in display cases, stacked against each other in a row. In one display, a turkey was cleaned and plucked, but the iridescent feathers were still on its head, neck, and tail. The bird was laid in the display case with its feathered neck curved into a graceful loop and luxuriant tail spread in a smooth arc. It was beautiful and it reminded me of 17th Century still lives in the Louvre. We didn’t visit the Musee du Louvre on this trip; our plan was to concentrate on the Chateaus of the Loire Valley.

Later that morning, we headed southeast on the A10 highway to Blois. France has a system of superhighways much like our own, but the speed limits are higher -- often in the eighty mile per hour range. Along the route we got a good look at one of the famous high speed TGV trains as it passed us at nearly double our speed. Including stops for gas and junk food (how about mustard flavored potato chips?), the drive lasted a bit over two hours. Our final destination was a bed & breakfast inn, or "chambres d'hôtes", called Le Saint Michel, in the tiny village of Les Montils a quarter of an hour outside of Blois.
Villa Ste Michel

Le Saint Michel was built in 1835. The brick and masonry building is three stories tall and has four guest rooms, formal salon and dining rooms, a library, and commercial kitchen. Less than two years before, innkeepers Dominique Couvreur and Marie-Paule Rondpierre bought the run down and overgrown mini estate. They hired a renovation team of seven men and spent nine months bringing it back to life.

The salon has a detailed ceiling, painted crown moldings and working fireplace. The library and dining room both have beamed ceilings and in the library is a Louis XII fireplace rescued from a far older building. The dining room seats ten, has an elaborate carved fireplace with the salamander motif of King Francois I and the Eagle of Napoleon. The dining room walls are covered with rich, old, raised panel oak woodwork.

Marie-Paule met us at door wearing blue jeans and a University of Maryland sweatshirt -- not at all what I expected from a French country innkeeper. She shook our hands after giving our friend a pair of the traditional two-sided air kisses. Although she was born in France, Marie-Paule has a perfect Queens, New York accent. Her father moved the family to Detroit after World War I, but returned to France in time for World War II. After the war ended, he planned to return them to AmericaChile this time, so the family all learned Spanish. But he changed his mind, had the family learn English, and went back to the USAForest Hills, Queens.

We were joined shortly by her partner, Dominique, a slight, elegant woman of indeterminate middle age. Dominique greeted us formally in French. Although she didn’t seem to speak much English, Marie-Paule let the cat out of the bag and told us that Dominique actually speaks English well enough to handle a hotel full of Americans when she has to.

All the guest rooms in Le Saint Michel are named for Former Queens of France, except “Diane”. That room is named for Diane de Poitiers, a favorite of Henry II, and enemy of his Queen, Catherine de Medici. We stayed in the room named for Queen Charlotte of Savoy, wife of King Louis XI. Our friend had Catherine. Both rooms were furnished with antiques that the two women collected, appropriated from relatives, and picked up from local estates.

The innkeepers added private bathrooms to each guest room. The big rooms, Charlotte and Catherine, have full bathtubs with showers, while the smaller rooms have just a shower stall, sink, and commode. All the tile and fixtures are shiny and white. The sink in Charlotte is the only fixture saved from before the renovation. It’s a gigantic free-standing double sink. About 5 feet wide on rounded white porcelain legs, it has two bowls and the original 1920’s faucets.
Marie-Paule arranged a wine tasting for us at a local vineyard. Michel Contour is the proprietor of the vineyard, and he makes his own wines from Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes that he picks by hand. He makes a red, a white, and a rosé that was surprisingly unlike any rosé that I have tasted. It’s fruity and vibrant and a delightful drinking wine. The wine is named for the region, Cheverny (sheh-ver-NAY), and Michel’s name is in small print near the bottom of the label.

M. Contour lives on the property in a compound with two homes. One is for him and his family, and the other belongs to his mother who helps him in the business. At seventy-one, Madame Contour is an energetic wisp with grey hair and a handy smile. She manages the bottling operation and the retail shop while Michel runs the vineyard, makes the wine, and serves as the mayor of the village of Cellettes. He could expand his operation to make more money, but he enjoys the life of an urbane, hands-on viniculturer and winemaker, and he revels in village politics. We were fortunate to show up on a day when the vineyard was hosting a pottery exhibition.

Dominique Garet and Roz Herrin were the potters. We didn’t meet Dominique, but were surprised to find that Roz is actually an English woman named Rose. Fortyish, she has a girlish look and a disarming flirtatious little twisted smile that cracks open her animated face. It’s a face that’s seen a lot of sun or a lot of hours before a hot kiln, but the crinkly seams and wrinkles add warmth and character. She’s designed and invented some unique pieces, too.

One that caught our eye was a broad, flat, funnel-shaped bowl about as wide as a dinner plate. The mouth of the bowl is filled by a removable disc, into which are punched a couple dozen holes of various sizes. Some of the holes can accommodate a fat toothpick, others a pinky finger. The entire unit is no more than three inches tall. I examined it for several minutes trying to figure out its function before surrendering and begging an explanation. The disc is a frog -- for arranging live flowers. Water goes into the bowl. Those annoying and apparently useless little short-stemmed flowers that you always seem to end up with go into the holes. Since Krys is forever putting stumpy-stemmed flowers in shot glasses, we had an immediate use for Roz’s invention.

Medici's - Blois
Dinner Saturday night in Blois was at a place called Medici’s, named for Catherine de Medici who was a daughter of the great Florentine family. We didn’t even need a reservation. On the edge of a light industrial district, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Inside, though, it’s a riot of classic Florentine style. The walls and ceilings are heavily decorated and painted in the rich deep green, gold and peach of the Florentine Duomo. All that’s missing are a couple of Michelangelo sculptures.

We spent the evening at the restaurant; it was a five-course, four-hour dinner. Aperitif and hors d’oeuvre, entrée, main, cheese, dessert, digestif and coffee. We had venison in a black currant sauce, steak and fish. The cheese was served the old fashioned way, a couple dozen varieties on a rolling cart. We pointed to our choice, and the waitress cut and served. Cheverny is famous for its goat cheese, which is rolled in soot to cure. I tried the goat cheese, the Roquefort and the camembert, which is a cow-cheese that comes only from Normandy. It was soft, sweet, creamy and contrasted perfectly the drier and more piquant goat cheese.

On Sunday, we followed the river down to Amboise, a small town with a famous chateau. Amboise is also known for its Sunday flea market where you can buy anything from breakfast to a new sofa or a pair of used trousers. The market’s on a strip of land along the river side of the dike that protects the town from floods. The most elaborate vendor stalls are permanent structures, like sheds or pole barns. Others are enclosed trailers opened up and transformed into full working kitchens -- one had a pot four feet across full of Choucroute Garni, Alsatian sauerkraut and sausage -- and elaborate merchandise displays so tall it took a pole with a hook to get shirts down from the top.
Uphill from the river is a small estate called Le Clos Lucé. It’s surrounded by a wall and, once through the gate, a wide lawn bordered by trees and nearly as long as a football field slides gently down to the left. To the right is the three-story renaissance brick house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. Invited to Amboise by Francois I, he was provided with housing and a pension. Two rooms on the main level were renovated during the eighteenth century, but most of the house still appears as it did during da Vinci’s time. The floors are softly worn terra cotta tile and window shutters are carved with a folded fabric pattern found throughout the region. 

Many pieces of furniture actually owned by da Vinci are still there, including the bed in which he died. I was struck by the look of the study. Tall-ceilinged, neat, orderly and sparsely furnished. Five hundred years ago I bet it was a fantastic mess of books, models, dust, and clutter.

The curators have built displays with thoughtful imagination. One of da Vinci’s sketches of the town and the Chateau hangs beside the window where he sat as he drew it. The view is unmistakable and the effect startling. In the lower level of the house are models of machines that he invented. The reproductions were created by IBM employees using techniques and materials of the Renaissance. 

A servant of Kings, many of da Vinci’s innovations were for implements of war: Improved catapults and cannons. Prototypes of machine guns. But he was also fascinated by flight. There was a crude helicopter and a glider. He even invented the parachute – a pyramid-shaped device of fabric stretched over a light wood frame. The display included his mathematical calculations specifying the relationship between the height of the parachute and the size of the open area at its base.

Da Vinci was a close advisor of King Francois I, and in the basement is a secret underground passage that connects to the Chateau almost half a mile away. This long tunnel passes beneath the caves of the troglodytes, which are cut into a long cliff face. I grew up thinking that troglodytes were a race of ancient cave-dwellers, but in Amboise they aren’t too ancient. In fact they have satellite dishes outside their caves. They have homey-looking curtains in the windows and pleasant, tile-topped chimneys jutting out from them as well. We didn’t have an opportunity  to get inside any of these modernized caves, but we did walk up close in a failed attempt to look through a window. I wonder if this is where Tolkien got the idea of Hobbits living in Hobbit-holes. They match his description perfectly!
Chateau Royale d’Amboise dominates the center of town. It’s built atop a spur of rock that juts out into the confluence of the Loire River to the north and the Amasse to the south. There has been fortification of some sort here since the time of Christ. One of the most striking features of this Chateau is The Horseman’s Tower. It’s a two-tiered crenellated cylinder standing on end, over sixty feet across and almost a hundred fifty feet tall. Inside the tower is a brick ramp that spirals five times around an empty core and permits access to the Chateau for horsemen from the town.

Most castles open to the public in Europe are massive, stark, stone-cold edifices. Signs usually inform visitors that in their heyday, tapestries would have adorned the walls…. We visited ten of the several dozen rooms in the Chateau d’Amboise, and tapestries still adorn those walls. Expansive, gorgeous, three, four, and five hundred year old Flemish and Aubosson tapestries drape from ceiling to floor on many walls and original paintings by old masters hang in the state rooms. Fifteenth and sixteenth century antiques fill the Chateau and in the guardroom two Milanese suits of armor stand sentry. Since it was off-season, we were able to wander unimpeded by summer crowds.

Like any other seat of medieval or renaissance political power, Amboise has a history of tragedy and bloodshed. During the thirteenth century, the Chateau was repeatedly attacked by the Dukes of Anjou and the Count of Blois. In 1498, King Charles VIII tragically died at there after accidentally hitting his head on a low doorway, and following the failed Protestant uprising of 1560 (think Three Musketeers), many of the reformists were hanged and beheaded on the Chateau grounds.

The grounds of the Chateau, filled with formal gardens and ranks of tightly pruned trees, extend in a dramatic, terraced sweep upward from the rear of the building. The view from the summit takes in both rivers, the Chateau, the town’s rooftop panorama, and the Saint Hubert Chapel. The chapel is built alongside the fortification wall on the edge of the Chateau’s grounds, and it’s a spectacular example of flamboyant Gothic architecture. It includes the expected pointy-arched windows and the finely carved interlacing is sculpted out of Touraine chalk. An elegant cupola grows from the center of the roof and builds into a tall spire decorated with stone hart’s antlers. Inside the little chapel are two fireplaces and the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, who asked to be interred there while on his deathbed in the spring of 1519.

After lounging about Amboise for the entire day, we rushed back to Le Saint Michel because Marie-Paule was preparing a special dinner for us.  is a traditional winter peasant dish. A stew, it features four different cuts of beef and includes potatoes, turnips, carrots and other vegetables. Two of the cuts were from the hindquarters and the other two were the tail and cheeks. 

I don’t know the proper name for beef cheeks, but they are a delicacy so tender you can chew the meat even if you were toothless. That makes up for the tail. My first experience with oxtail was mainly a struggle. Since the tail is an extension of the spine, the meat clings tenaciously between bone and cartilage that spokes out from the center. I worked it for a while and had some marginal success. Yuri is a fourteen month old Alaskan Husky that lives at le Saint Michel. Yuri was hungry and highly experienced in oxtail.

Our dinner started with cocktails in the salon at seven thirty. It ended with coffee in the dining room at eleven thirty. Over the course of four hours, we enjoyed our Pot au Feu with leeks from the garden. We dined on salad with Marie-Paule’s dressing, local cheese, chocolate tort and magnificent fruit compote. We enjoyed three different wines -- a Cheverny, a Bourgogne, and a taste of Bordeaux. In the meantime, we learned about the region, the house, and the village from our remarkable hostesses. We knew that we’d be saying “au revoir” in the morning, so we milked the evening.

Monday dawned damp and overcast. What a surprise. We fussed with our hostesses over a long farewell, packed up our vehicle, and set off for Chenonceau. Home to some of the most beautiful and powerful women in French history: Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers, Mary Stuart – Queen of Scots, and Louise de Vaudemont – the famed “White Lady of Chenonceau”. On learning of the death of her husband Henri III (a son of Catherine de Medici), Queen Louise fell into such despair that she lived the last twelve years of her life in a black draped bedchamber. She dressed herself only in white and dedicated the remainder of her life to solitude, prayer and ceaseless generosity to the unfortunate.

Chenonceau was originally a fortified mill, but Thomas Bohier tore it down in the sixteenth century and built the original portion of the structure that’s now standing. Access to the property is along a lane bordered on both sides by a colonnade of gigantic sycamores. Stone lions guard the entrance to the grounds and the Chateau rises from the midst of the river Cher. The Chateau is fronted by an honest-to-God moat. We crossed it on a drawbridge. Catherine de Medici’s intimate garden lay on our right and Diane de Poitiers’ massive formal one was on our left.

As we stepped through the doors, the chapel opened to our left. Four hundred year old graffiti, carved and dated in Roman numerals by Mary Stuart’s Scottish guards is scratched into the door jamb and protected by plexiglas. Just beyond the Chapel is the guard’s chamber. Thank goodness for the fireplace! There’s no central heat, so the curators built a fine hot fire in the guardroom. As with Amboise, many of the rooms in Chenonceau are decorated with ancient tapestries. In Catherine de Medici’s bedchamber, her motif of interlocking “C’s is carved into the beamed ceiling.

After Henri II, her husband, was accidentally killed in a fight by Gabriel of Montgomery, Catherine effectively ruled France in the names of four of her sons. When she moved into Chenonceau, the building stood on the riverside with a moat in front and bridge across the Cher at its back. She built a two-story gallery atop the bridge and created one of the most stunning and picturesque of all the Loire Chateaus. During the First World War, the gallery served as a military hospital. 

In WWII, the river Cher was the border between Free and Occupied France, so the gallery/bridge entertained some interesting traffic – smugglers mainly. Even though there was a warm fire on the second floor as well, the cold chilled our bones so we moved on. Paris called and we had only one more day to drink it up.

“Les Francais ne respectent pas la loi.” Translation: “The French have no respect for the law.” Especially traffic laws. We were stuck in rush hour traffic on the Periferique, which is the Parisian version of the Washington Beltway. As we inched along, motorcyclists tore past between the car lanes. Although the law requires motorcyclists to follow the same rules as automobiles, French motorcyclists have no respect for the law and these guys feel entitled to go wherever they want. The French also have no respect for parking rules. One evening we watched a well-dressed man park his new Porsche smack in the middle of a crosswalk. In Paris, no one cares about parking rules and pedestrians are used to being inconvenienced.

Paris loves to decorate herself for Christmas. On our final Parisian day, we wandered the quaint Christmas markets on the right bank a few blocks from the river. Later, we bucked the crowds at Printemps Department Store in search of gifts for the nieces and nephews (don’t miss the view from the rooftop café). We also stopped by Shakespeare and Company, the notorious English language bookstore. Originally founded by Sylvia Beach, it was a hangout of Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein and the other expatriate writers of the 20’s. Shakespeare and Company was the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The original store closed during WWII, and the current version opened in 1964. As always, they have books for sale and serve as a lending library to itinerate English-speakers. 

Our last evening, we dined in a proletarian French/Lebanese restaurant and then wandered the streets of the right bank scrutinizing Christmas decorations. The air was cold and the wind  bit hard, so we bundled up in hats and scarves. Most of the stores were dark, so mostly we shared the sidewalk with folks hurrying home and a few hardy dog walkers. The trees along Champs Elysee were draped in tiny white lights. Christmas time in Paris. We snapped photos on the center island of the grand boulevard while sparkling trees converged on a brilliantly lit Arc d’Triomphe.