Friday, August 26, 2016

First World Problems.

So, I was driving to work on Monday when suddenly a buzzer sounded and several warning lights came on the dashboard. What. The. Hell. I pulled over to the side of the highway and called my husband. Our initial plan was to get me to work, but on thinking it over, I pulled my car ahead a bit to a safer location and we called AAA for a tow truck. And waited. And waited. Three and a half hours and another call later, they sent someone from a different company. A guy named Cory called to say he was on his way and as we waited we both made guesses about what he would look like. My guess was about 28 years old, average build, light brown hair, a beard and mustache, black work boots. My husband's guess was a 40-something heavy set guy, brown boots, and some form of camouflage clothing. When Cory got out of his truck we both laughed - except for his shoes being black sneakers instead of boots, I was dead on. The only part my husband got right was that he had on camo shorts. "Wow," he said, "You totally nailed it!"

While we waited, I'd also started calling and canceling out my patients for the day and we followed Cory back into town to a Toyota dealership. Because no other mechanic we could find would work on the electrical system on the Prius. Many hours later we got the bad news - the hybrid battery needed replacing. Which might not sound like a big deal until they explained that we were looking at nearly $4000. That presented something of a dilemma - my battered little Prius is a 2008 with 154,000 miles on the odometer, so it is not worth even that much. On the other hand, it is definitely not in the budget to get another car. My husband did some research and discovered that this costly repair was likely the only serious one it would need. The Prius doesn't have a regular transmission with multiple gears. Instead it has an electronic continuously variable transmission unit which uses a single planetary differential gear set to combine power from two electric motors and a gasoline engine. I honestly don't have a clue what that means except that a Prius doesn't have transmission problems the way other older cars do. So I gritted my teeth and handed over my credit card.

It's weird when you have some major repair done on a car that doesn't involve body work. It looks exactly the same. And because it failed rather abruptly, it even drives exactly the same. But with any luck, I'll continue to use it for commuting and running errands and hauling a surprising amount of mulch and garden supplies for at least a few more years.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

War on weeds.

In addition to making sourdough bread (which I am still doing, every week), I've been pre-occupied lately with yard work. Okay, let's be honest - when am I NOT pre-occupied with yard work? Even a couple of days before my wedding I was outside pulling weeds.
So, about a year ago I declared a fatwa on ground ivy. Also known as creeping charlie, this stuff spreads by long runners to blanket the lawn and infiltrates into the mulched beds. It's not a bad looking little plant and has a spicy smell but I hate it. It's a member of the mint family if that gives you any idea how invasive it is. My dilemma is that I'm not willing to use poisons, so my one recourse is to pull it up by hand.
And lately, I've noticed an upsurge in crabgrass. I also hate crabgrass. I am weirdly particular when it comes to weeds - crabgrass and ground ivy have earned my wrath but I'm happy with clover and wild violets. At any rate, I made the decision to try to improve the grass in front by de-thatching and weeding and then over-seeding with grass seed when the weather cools a bit.
This involves raking through the grass one patch at a time to scrub up the thatch and pull out vines of ground ivy and then digging out the clumps of crabgrass. I would like to say here that I love this garden tool. It has tines on one side and a hoe-like blade on the other and is incredibly handy.
While I work, I can watch the cardinals battling for territory in the dogwood tree and the hawks being chased by angry crows in the sky above me. Bees hover nearby and earthworms move out of the way. And I am often supervised by Hödr, who lounges in the sun like a panther in the jungle.
There at least half a dozen holes in the front yard, which I believe are entries and exits to some interconnected burrow. This is the largest of the openings. I don't know who lives here - rabbits? chipmunks? a chupacabra?
I worked for hours and hours last Saturday and Sunday and left this pile to be taken away by the city. I ended the weekend sore and sunburned. I was more careful this weekend, working in long sleeves and retreating into the shaded area as the sun took over the yard. By mid-day yesterday, I'd pulled probably 80% of the crabgrass and ground ivy out. I say 80% because every time I look, I find renegades.
This morning in advance of the forecasted rain I scattered milky spore powder, a safe method of infecting Japanese beetle grubs in the soil without harming the pollinators I love. It should soak into the ground. When I researched it, the article I read said you could tell if a grub was infected if you lopped off one its legs and milky liquid ran out. Um, no. I will not be testing it. I don't mind the grubs dying but I'm not amputating their tiny legs.
So now the front yard has bare spots and is largely violets with sparse patches of grass. I am planning to put some compost out next month and then scatter a seed mix of grasses that are shade and drought-tolerant and mini white clover. And then hope that I end up with a bunny-friendly yard that doesn't make me wince at the sight of it.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Back to regular life.

The trip home from Italy was mostly uneventful. Except that while we were in the Amsterdam airport between flights we decided to stop in at the Irish bar for a whiskey, to remember our previous trip. We walked back to our gate to catch our next flight, holding hands and talking. We were clearly a couple. Two tall young Dutch guys were walking in our direction and as we passed, the closer one leaned into my face, made eye contact and said softly, "Hey girl." And kept walking. My husband and I looked at each other, flummoxed. He said, "Um, am I supposed to kick his ass now?" We both laughed and continued on to our gate. It was an odd but funny ending to the trip.
There was so much to do when we returned - putting away things from the wedding, writing thank you notes, catching up on gardening, returning to work. So naturally I decided I should learn how to make sourdough bread. I started working on making a batch of starter, which I dubbed Frances. Okay, at first I called it Francis, after St. Francis, because sourdough makes me think of San Francisco. But later I decided that something that gives life should have a female name and I changed the label. I had read that it is traditional to give your starter a name.
I spent a week feeding it every night and once it was ready, made the first loaf. That involves taking half a cup of the starter out of the fridge two nights in advance. I put it in this old glass measuring cup with a quarter cup of flour and a quarter cup of water and let it rise until the next evening. Some people pour off the liquid ("hooch") that forms but I stir it in because I like the flavor.
The set-aside starter is mixed with whole wheat flour, water, and a little olive oil.
That's it. The wild yeasts in the air that make the starter a living thing take it from there.
After another night, the dough has grown and abandoned its ball shape.  I have been letting it rise in the garage where it's a little warm and it expands like crazy.
The bread gets folded down and left to rise again for half an hour. And then into a ceramic crock to bake. I put in a bowl of water in the oveb next to it to provide a little steam.
The first loaf I made was pretty flat and dense, but I've been gradually improving as I figure out what works best. I have to say, it's pretty good. And good for you, since it's all whole wheat (except for the starter). My younger son loves it and I frequently seeing him cutting a fews slices for himself. I think this new hobby is going to stick.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 7, May 29th: Last full day in Italy.

We went downstairs for our last wonderful breakfast, and then returned to our room to have fresh cornetti and cappucino in bed. The hotel was built in the 1900's and has a nice old world feel to it. It was overcast but warm enough to have the balcony doors open so we could hear the church bells ringing in town. Our last day in Italy was the only rainy day we got.
About noon, we went down to the hotel restaurant wanting to get pizza because it seemed strange not to have pizza at least once in Italy. It would be like not having fish and chips in Ireland. As it turned out, the hotel didn't make pizza on Sundays until dinner time. But we' were planning a nicer dinner than pizza for our last night. The obliging concierge called a restaurant on the other end of town and made a reservation for us at Crotto dei Pescatori.
The dining room overlooking the lake was filled with a couple of large family groups and two or three other couples. We were the only non-Italians in the place and it was lovely listening to the loud, happy talk around us. We had a simple pizza Margherita and a Chianti Classico.
With a rainy afternoon ahead of us, we decided to spend the rest of our last day back in Bellagio. We walked up to a gelateria for cups of gelato, which we ate outside under the balcony.
Across the piazza was a Catholic church, Chiesa San Giacomo (Basilica of Saint James), built between 1075 and 1125. The lower part of the bell tower was originally a defense tower. It is of Romanesque-Lombard architecture.
We walked over to have a look at the interior of the church, including the carved marble balcony.
The glowing main altar from the 18th century was of carved gilded wood by a local sculpter, Domenico Pini. There was also a smaller altar from the late 500's, art from the Perugina school, tryptics from the 900's and a 12th century cross.
And a Spanish Baroque polychrome wooden statue, "The Buried Christ" in a lighted sepulchre, which is carried in a procession every Good Friday. The story is that it belonged to a Spanish settlement and a the tip of Lake Como and was swept up in a flood of the Adda River and washed into the lake. Bellagio fishermen were reported to have found it and brought it home to their own church.
We window-shopped again along the lakefront, in search of a leather wallet to replace the battered one my husband had been carrying for almost a couple of decades. As we looked into one window filled with mementos, I heard a German woman behind us say something to her companion that seemed to include the words "schnicke schnocke." That is now my new word for souvenirs.
We finally located a leather shop on a side street and bought a wallet. A fellow blogger had recommended I try a barolo wine while I was there (thanks, Mike!), so we stopped a cozy little wine shop, Aperitvo et al to have a glass. Delicious. We also bought a bottle of Prosecco for the night. Another American was talking loudly to the folks at a nearby table about his distaste for Trump. Which was fine until he started insisting that we would take even Mussolini over Trump. Um. Yeah. We'd take a brutal fascist dictator. I find Trump appalling. Even dangerous. But Mussolini? We quietly took our bottle of Prosecco and headed to our car.
Back at our hotel late that afternoon, we dressed for the last dinner of our honeymoon.
The restaurant has such a beautiful view over Lake Como. The tallest mountains were still snow-capped.
We started with a bottle of white wine and an appetizer of bruschetta with white lake fish pate, smoked white lake fish, and air-dried Agone lake fish with fresh tomatoes and basil.
We split a plate of mixed lake fish prepared four different ways and a huge bowl of steamed mussels with hot pepper and parsley. The mussels, especially, were delicious. We finished with a lemon sorbetto.
But, is it just me or are mussels bizarrely personal?
The clouds were moving back in and we retired to our room where we had chocolates and that bottle of Prosecco chilling. As we were getting undressed for bed, we stopped to slow dance on the balcony in the light rain. At one point I looked down and accidentally made eye contact with a man crossing the street, and we ducked back inside. I wonder if he's told people the story of seeing a woman in black lacy underwear dancing in the misting rain on a balcony?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 6, May 28th: Day trip to Switzerland.

It turned out that the Villa Aurora also had wonderful breakfasts - breads, yogurt with granola, fruits, eggs. Afterwards we took a second cappuccino outside to sit on the deck in morning sun.
Italy is the land of fashion and it seemed wrong not to do at least a little shopping while we were there. But good grief, the prices! I'd read about an Italian outlet mall just over the border (presumably for tax reasons) from Como, in Mendrisio, Switzerland. It was so strange to be waved through a border without needing a passport. Last time I was in Switzerland, it was pre-EU.
Four flights, 160 stores. The prices were lower than at little Italian shops, but it was still insanely expensive. Store windows carried signs with the prices of each item on the mannequin and we laughed out loud at three thousand dollar dresses and six hundred dollar shoes. No. But I am pretty good at finding bargains and I ended up with a cool dress and my husband bought a few shirts.
The one thing we really wanted to come home with, though, was a pair of good Italian leather shoes. I found a pair of shoes I really liked on a samples rack, in my size. I put them on and walked over to where my husband was. He said, "Nice! How much are they?" I told him, "$29." He said, "Sold!" 
I have wonderful memories from my time in boarding school in Switzerland and I was excited about going on into Lugano for the day. We parked in a garage and walked into the busy town center.
We had a glass of wine and complementary appetizers at an outdoor table, enjoying being back in the Alps.
Rain was again in the forecast, but our luck held as it had in Ireland, and we got yet another gorgeous, sunny day.
Lugano was hosting a three-day thrash/punk/jazz/hiphop/metal concert festival. My husband could not resist photobombing a band's photo shoot and I'm sure they looked at their pictures and wondered who the hell that obnoxious guy making faces was in all their pictures.
We spent some time walking around the beautiful city, people-watching. Of all the places we went to, Lugano had the most fashionable crowd. Nearly everyone we saw was dressed chicly and although this was a casual day for us, we still felt glad we'd dressed to fit in.
Down by Lake Lugano, we strolled past little kiosks and cafes. We made our way back into the town center because there was one thing I really wanted to do there in Switzerland.
While I was in boarding school, I often went to the patisserie in Villars for biscuits and chocolat chaud and I very much wanted to re-create that experience. We looked at a pasticceria but they did not carry the specific cookies I was searching for - fruit-filled and dusted with powdered sugar. Then I looked into the window of a chocolate shop and saw them. One apricot, one mixed berry. We ordered rich, creamy hot chocolate to go with it. I was in nostalgia heaven. As my husband paid the tab, he told the shopkeeper that I'd last enjoyed those cookies thirty-five years ago when I was in high school in Switzerland. She made my day by expressing disbelief to him that I was in school that long ago.
Walking again after the chocolate and pastries break, we passed this ornate door of the Chiesa di San Rocco, a Catholic church.
The altar inside of this 16th century church mimics the external door.
We went into a Coop, another boarding school memory for me, to buy chocolates to bring home. For the kids. Okay, I also bought some to bring home for us - the butter wafers topped with a slab of chocolate that I used to buy and a bar my beloved Cailler's chocolate. And, of course, a bottle of wine for the night. Near the entrance was a bull in Swiss undies. I have no comment on that.
You know you're in Switzerland when the shop employees speak an array of languages.
I liked the variety of stone and brick in this old building.
By now we were starting to feel ready for dinner as we hadn't had anything substantial since breakfast.
The restaurants on the square were starting to close early as they geared up for the concerts. We decided our best bet was to head up into the hilly part of the city away from the crowds.
We found Osteria Trani, a little restaurant and wine bar tucked into a side street. The tables were ranged along a staircase, with a passage down the middle for pedestrians.
We were expecting good food, but this place significantly exceeded our expectations. We ordered a bottle of white wine and then looked through the menu. The salmon tartare, with a lemon citrus dressing, was light and yummy. But the black squid ink pasta with prawns and langoustines in a tomato and cheese sauce was amazing. We kept passing our plates back and forth to share.
It was too nice to leave so we went back down to the lake for a last walk.
Two men were playing a game of chess, studying the pieces and then walking onto the board to move them. A younger guy sat on the bench and watched seriously.
I feel like a broken record saying it was beautiful, but I can't help it - it was beautiful.
We walked along the promenade of the Parco Municipale, with a view of Mount Bré through the gate.
We'd caught glimpses of swans on the lake so we kept walking for a while along the path that sprawled along the shoreline.
Finally we found the place where they'd come ashore.
And then left the swans behind to make our way back toward the parking garage.
Storm clouds were gathering and we wanted to get home before the rain. It was a long drive back along Lake Como and lightning was just beginning to flash as we got to the hotel. The skies opened up as we got to our room and we left the balcony doors open to let the breeze and sound of the rain come in as we slept.