Monday, February 29, 2016

Brighter Days

The seasons are definitely turning, with winter releasing its muddy gray grip and spring bringing a softness to the still-chilly air, a much brighter sun. I'm seeing birds I haven't seen in months, like our back-garden woodpecker and the Eurasian jays.

When Olga and I went to Hampstead Heath yesterday, it was noticeably drier -- I didn't have to slog through bogs of squishy mud, and Olga almost didn't need a bath when she got home. (She would have been fine if she hadn't chosen to belly-down in a cool black puddle at the very end of our walk. She thought it was worth it, though.)

These tiny white flowers create clouds at the edge of the playing fields in the park. I don't know what they are, but they seem like some kind of ornamental fruit tree.

And we already have a few camellias popping open. Last year they waited until mid-March to appear. I think it's been a tad warmer this winter -- we had frost and a dusting of snow but never a hard freeze.

I am woefully behind on current movies, so I can't say much about the Oscar winners. The only nominee I've seen is "Bridge of Spies," and that was on an airplane. Dave and I have been lurking on iTunes, waiting for the others to become available for rent, and in several cases it's going to happen within the next week or two. Woo hoo!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Farewell, Mr. Croque

I was sorry to see, when I went down to Baker Street yesterday for my French class, that Croque Monsieur has bitten the dust. Where will Sherlock Holmes go now?! There have been other casualties in this same building -- Bar Linda is long gone and has been replaced by a chain sushi restaurant. Methinks the landlord may have hiked the rents?

I suspect this is a lean time of year for small businesses. Dave and I tried to do our part on Friday by going to a small local restaurant we've been curious about, called The Petite Corée ("The Little Korea," en Française). It's a cute place and we were very impressed with the food, sort of a French-Korean fusion -- which sounds unusual, and I suppose it is, but it works. We started the evening at the nearby Railway pub, where supposedly the Beatles played back in the day. (And where recently there have been a few renovations. It is indeed very light and pleasant inside -- although I seem to remember some grumbling among locals, either online or in the newspaper, about gentrification.)

I got out in the garden yesterday and cleaned out the area where our climbing roses and blackberries grow. It was getting a little jungly over there, overshadowing the day lilies and other flowers beneath. I cut out one of the biggest blackberry canes, which I hated to do, but after I'd cleaned away the rest of the brambles it looked ridiculous lying across the flowerbed all by itself. So, gone. We will have fewer backyard blackberries this summer. I never could keep up with them all, anyway -- and I can always pick them on the Heath.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Shelf of Books

OK, Red is right. I should cut my poor leaf-discarding neighbor some slack. At least he or she is trying to recycle, even if the leaves wound up in the wrong container! (The rubbish collectors took it all, which is the important thing.)

Another quiet day yesterday. I worked on a library project in which we've asked certain Middle School faculty and staff members to take a selfie and submit it with a list of 10 books that describe them, or are especially meaningful to them. We then photograph the 10 books, lined up on a shelf, and students are going to be asked to connect each staff member with the correct book shelf. Should be a fun challenge!

My 10 books:

-- All the President's Men (Woodward and Bernstein)
-- The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (E. Buchanan)
-- In Cold Blood (Capote)
-- The Sheltering Sky (P. Bowles)
-- Slaves of New York (Janowitz)
-- 50 Photographers You Should Know
-- The Nature of Photographs (Shore)
-- Ariel (S. Plath)
-- The Martian Chronicles (R. Bradbury)
-- Maurice (E. M. Forster)

I thought that represented a good mix of journalism and photography, along with places I've lived and other identifying factors. I confess I've never read "All the President's Men," though the movie is one of my favorites. Is that cheating?

(Photo: Brixton, South London.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Brief Recycling Rant

I just got done taking out our trash, recycling and bags of yard waste from Dave's recent spate of gardening. Someone had thrown a bunch of dead leaves into the recycling bin, which makes me crazy, because it's for plastics and paper and glass and metal and cardboard -- not for yard waste. The bags are for yard waste.

Why people struggle with separating their trash I will never understand. It's just not that hard. I once had a boss, back at the dawn of the municipal recycling era, who steadfastly refused to do it. He believed local government officials were shifting the burden of labor onto residents rather than taking care of a responsibility -- solid waste disposal -- that was rightly theirs. "I pay taxes for that!" he would say. Nowadays at least most recycling can be mixed, rather than set out in individual bins for each category -- so my old boss's vision has somewhat come to pass.

And separating can go too far: When curbside recycling first began in the U.S., we were advised to take lids off jars and bottles, including those annoying little metal or plastic rings around the tops. I think we may have even been expected to soak off labels. That's a bit extreme.

Anyway, it's all become much easier now, which is why it makes me nuts when I find dead leaves in the bin rather than in a yard waste bag. These neighbors of mine, I tell you.

(I must sound like a terrible person, always kvetching about my neighbors. I promise, I am a nice guy, as long as everyone does their part!)

I scooped the leaves into the proper bag, at least the ones I could easily grab.

Anyway, otherwise, there's not a lot going on around here at the moment. At work, the students are off school yesterday and today. These two days are set aside for parents to meet with teachers. Since I'm not a teacher, I'm just reshelving and organizing books!

(Photo: The Thames from Rotherhithe, early last week.)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sally and Socks

On the culture front, I'm reading an autobiography by Sally Mann, a photographer who achieved fame (or infamy) in the early 1990s for her photos of her children. Some of them were nudes, and apparently she found herself part of a (ridiculous) storm of controversy surrounding national arts funding. I didn't immediately recognize her name when we first got the book, "Hold Still," in the library, but I do remember the issue. She's a bit annoying at first, coming from obvious privilege -- she grew up in Virginia horse country and keeps calling her father a "country doctor," which sounds very modest, but she had enough pull to get special consideration for admission to boarding school in Vermont and she was family friends with artist Cy Twombly. (It's who you know, right?) This is not to say she doesn't work hard on her photography, though, and I've enjoyed her writing about the creative process.

Also, Dave and I have started watching the TV show "Happy Valley," which at least one commenter recommended, and we love it. A bit rough-and-tumble like all police dramas, maybe a shade more realistic, with well-crafted characters. It reminds me of "Southland," but set in Yorkshire. It's a terrible title, though. Ignore the title and watch the show.

These are the socks Dave got me for Christmas. I should have been wearing them in Brussels -- then when I got attacked I could have simply hoisted my pant leg and said, "But look!"

(Top photo: Another favorite shot from Brussels, last week.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ten Things I Did Yesterday

1. I hoisted Dave's new stock pot up to a rarely-used cabinet above our hallway, finally clearing it off the living room floor.

2. I called my life insurance company to ask them why I received a bill for $1.35 in interest on a $21 "loan" I'd allegedly taken out against my policies. (I never took a loan and I pay my premiums in full.) Turns out they'd billed me in error during the last cycle and thus I didn't pay my full premium. They offered to eliminate the interest and take the shortfall from surplus earnings in my insurance account. Why they didn't do that in the first place is beyond me.

3. I delivered a note to our next-door neighbor containing the contact information for our managing agent. The neighbor is once again making noises about pruning the cypress trees in front of our flat. I asked her not to do anything herself and to contact the managers, and informed the managers of her comments. Why she thinks our trees are hers to maintain, well...again, it's beyond me.

4. I took down the garden cam and downloaded the roughly 267 pictures it's taken during the past three weeks. We got about 193 pictures of Dave gardening, 42 pictures of me and/or Dave playing Kong with Olga, 28 pictures of Olga alone, 1 picture of me and Dave clowning around, 2 pictures of pigeons, and 1 picture of a magpie -- from behind.

5. I got our sheets washed. This involves minimal effort on my part because I'm still routinely taking them to a laundry for a "service wash." The sheets for our American king-size bed are too big for our little European washer-dryer, and thus emerge damp and must be draped all over the furniture a la the Addams Family for 24 hours before they can be folded and put away. No more of that!

6. I repaired a place in the floor of our entry hall where a tiny wedge-shaped chip had broken off a floorboard. This involved fighting with the dried-shut applicator nozzle on the Gorilla Glue bottle, before finally giving up, unscrewing the lid and applying said glue with a screwdriver.

7. I watered the amaryllis bulbs. Three of the four have sprouted. Flowers soon, hopefully!

8. I discarded the rest of the haggis. It's been sitting in the back of the refrigerator, where Dave abandoned it a few weeks ago. I was growing afraid to touch it, much less eat it.

9. At work, I re-shelved about 100 books which have been sitting around the library on various carts for various class projects, including lots of American literature that I feel guilty for never having read (John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Kate Chopin).

10. I finally got through all but one of my accumulated New Yorker magazines. And I made the sad decision not to renew Harper's, which I've been getting for more than 15 years. Maybe it's me, but it seems to lack the zing it once had -- and besides, we get it in the library.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


I was walking Olga yesterday morning when I noticed these little water droplets on some moss growing atop a brick wall near our house. Even though I was running late, with about a million things to do, I had to stop on my way to work and take pictures!

Back when I lived in New York, I occasionally browsed in a great shop in Soho called Moss. Maybe it's still there. They had shelves of overpriced but really interesting, artistic gadgets and tchotchkes. I don't think I ever bought anything there, though.

When it comes to moss, I prefer the real thing.

The first day back after a break is always a bit of a shocker. Lots of materials coming back to the library, a week's worth of magazines to be catalogued and racked, preparations beginning for the days and weeks ahead. I had a crazy, frustrating morning -- which isn't worth going into in detail -- but things evened out later in the day.

I mailed off my absentee ballot yesterday, so my vote for the presidential primary is in. Despite his win in South Carolina, I can't get too worried about Trump. I still don't think he can be a serious contender and I think he can be nothing but good news for the Democrats. I hope I'm right!

Monday, February 22, 2016

More Moroccan Candle Labels

Back in November I mentioned my infatuation with the labels from packages of candles while I lived in Morocco in the early '90s. Here are some more examples that I unearthed recently.

These all came from the pages of my journal, which I am still working on editing and transcribing. (This project will take years.)

Between this post and the last one, I think you have now seen the entire collection!

Dave and I go back to work today after our weeklong February break. I know Olga will be bummed not to have us hanging around the house all day. I took her out to Hampstead Heath yesterday to make it up to her. More mud, comme d'habitude!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

An Orange Grove, and a Moment of Fame

Every week before French class, I go for coffee with one of my coworkers, who also happens to be taking French at the Alliance Française. We meet at the same cafe around the corner. At least, until this week, when we found the cafe closed. Like, permanently closed.

So we went across the street to another cafe, and what should greet me when we walked through the doors but this huge mural of an orange grove on the back wall. With the turquoise chairs and ketchup bottles, I felt like I was in a diner in Winter Haven! So this is clearly meant to be our new weekly meeting place.

I'm a bit fuzzy-headed this morning because Dave and I went to a dinner last night where numerous bottles of champagne and wine were consumed. This was at the home of the boyfriend of another work colleague, Natalie, who then came down with a fever before dinner and had to go to bed. We offered to go home and leave her in peace, but her boyfriend, who's a chef, wanted us to stay because he'd been cooking for hours. Awkward! Every once in a while Natalie would contribute to the conversation from her sick bed in the upstairs loft. (It was a very small apartment.)

It's been quite a social week, actually. I also met up with my old Peace Corps friend Rene, on Thursday night. She happened to be passing through London with her kids. We just had a quick drink at her hotel, but that was enough to check in with each other. I hadn't seen her since 1994!

Yesterday after French I went to the National Gallery to have a wander among some famous painters. It's been a while since I've been able to browse an art museum at leisure, and I spent a couple of hours there with Cézanne, Goya, Hogarth, Canaletto, Turner and many others. My favorite painting on this visit was this one, of a rhinoceros nicknamed "Miss Clara" who toured Europe in the mid-1700s. Can you imagine how strange a rhinoceros must have looked to most Europeans at that time?

Finally, did I ever tell you that once last June, while walking Olga from Hampstead Heath back toward home, I saw the Google Streetview car drive by? It was a fair distance away and I wasn't certain it was photographing at the time -- it seemed to be moving awfully fast. But yesterday I looked on Streetview and there we are!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Crocuses and Infinity

Olga and I took a long walk to Hampstead Heath yesterday, where we were pleased to find crocuses coming up. (The ones in the picture were actually in a nearby cemetery, but trust me, there were plenty of them on the Heath.) Spring has sprung!

As usual, my canine charge was thrilled to get out of the house.

We even found a light saber, left behind by a careless Jedi. The force was with us!

The weather allowed us a good view from the top of Parliament Hill. You can see how muddy the Heath is at the moment. I'll be glad when the grass begins to grow back after its winter dormancy!

In other news...

Several days ago Dave and I were watching the prison drama "Orange is the New Black" and Piper, the lead character, was talking about getting a tattoo. Something small, she said, maybe an infinity symbol -- for which she was chastised by a fellow inmate for succumbing to cliche. And I was like, "Wait a minute!"

Because that is my tattoo. I have a small infinity symbol, about the size of a dime, on my right foot, given to me by hand by a friend in the Peace Corps. (You could say it's my own version of a prison tattoo.)

How is it possible that a tattoo I've had for 23 years is now regarded as a cliche?! Here I thought I was being quite the rebel. I'm going to maintain that at the time I got it, I was breaking new ground, and the world has simply imitated me. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Also, I got my overseas ballot for voting in the Florida Democratic primary. It has exactly one race on it. I'll mail it off on Monday, and you know who I'll be voting for!

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Brussels Assailant

Yesterday I mentioned that almost immediately upon my arrival in Brussels on Wednesday, I found myself in a conflict with a local.

Here's the story.

At about 10:30 a.m., I was walking on the Avenue de Stalingrad from the train station to the center of the city.  I was noticing the interesting shopfronts, many with Arabic writing and Middle Eastern or North African names and themes. The avenue has a wide median with trees and benches, and I was standing in the median taking pictures of a tree shadow across a closed shop.

Suddenly a young, bearded, brown-eyed man came out of a doorway and, yelling at the top of his lungs, ran straight at me.

I scarcely had time to react before he grabbed me by the jacket and shook me, yelling in my face something about mon maison -- probably "Why are you taking pictures of my house?" (As mentioned, I was photographing an apparently vacant shop, not the windows he pointed to above the shop, in what was not a house but clearly a multi-story apartment building. But I understand the confusion.)

I tried to explain but the guy didn't want to hear it. He pushed me and hit my camera several times and bellowed "DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!" inches from my face.

People were emerging from shops up and down the street to watch this very loud spectacle.

I've always wondered what I would do if asked (!) to delete a photo. In some cases, I might try to state my case in a friendly way -- but that was clearly not the path to take here. This guy was flat-out enraged. I have been challenged by people before while taking pictures, but never with this much volume, venom and violence.

So I deleted the pictures, allowing him to watch as I did so. (They weren't that great anyway.)

When I finished, he grabbed my jacket again and pushed me backwards, so that I very nearly fell. I turned right around and walked away, wanting only to get out of there. I passed an old man on a bench, who looked at me sympathetically and wobbled his hand beside his head -- the international "crazy" gesture. I nodded in agreement.

Now, I know that street photography is not everybody's thing. But photographing the exterior of an urban building, on a street that visitors must frequent often, hardly seems transgressive. Google Streetview? Real estate agents? His reaction was clearly off the charts -- unless he was genuinely mentally ill, or traumatized, or hiding something, or all three. And who knows. Maybe he was.

I considered going to the police. But in the end, I wasn't hurt, my camera wasn't damaged, and while being pushed around and manhandled could perhaps be considered some kind of assault, I didn't want to spend my one day in Brussels in a police station. I felt like it was best to let the whole thing lie.

(Photo: A sculpture known as La Pasionara, on Avenue de Stalingrad, just a short distance from where my altercation occurred. Ironically, it represents freedom of personal expression.)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Une Journée à Bruxelles

So yesterday, kind of spur of the moment, I hopped on the Eurostar and went to Brussels.

I've been nagging Dave for some time about wanting to see Brussels. We went to the Atomium years ago, but I'd never spent time in the central part of the city. Dave ultimately didn't want to go, partly because Brussels has a bad rap as a tourist destination, at least among people I know -- the belief seems to be that, as the capital of the European Union, it's basically a center for bureaucracy.

But I felt certain there had to be something to see there. It's a capital city of 1. 2 million people, after all.

So I left Dave happily at home at caught the train, arriving about 10 a.m. I almost immediately had a bizarre altercation with an angry, possibly deranged man on the street -- which I may tell you about at another time -- but afterward spent a nice leisurely day taking photos.

(I love the sign outside the cafe above: "YOU CAKE or DEATH? Or a sandwich?")

First I walked to see the Manneken Pis, the legendary fountain featuring a urinating cherub that might be the single most famous emblem of the city. I took pictures, but they're not that great -- the statue is a tiny little thing. OK, it's 400 years old, but still -- I don't really get the appeal.

(Apparently tons of other people do, because there are cafes called "Manneken Pils" and "Manneken Frites," among others, and you can buy Manneken Pis bottle openers, statues and t-shirts.)

I also went to the Grote Markt, the old main market square (top photo), which has some beautiful old architecture.

But I was more interested, as usual, in seeing how people live -- checking out the shops, the restaurants, the general atmosphere.

This was an interesting building, festooned with what appears to be tilework of bananas and oranges at the top.

I crossed a canal and went to Molenbeek, the neighborhood that has been the source of much distressing news coverage lately. I was curious to see what it was like. I walked around for about half an hour, and didn't get the camera out much -- not wanting to be provocative. It seemed like a perfectly respectable immigrant neighborhood. I'm sure like most places it has its good and bad elements.

Back in central Brussels, I had lunch at a cafe near the canal bridge (Chimay beer and vegetable lasagna) and then kept walking. I found the monumental fountain dedicated to Jules Anspach, mayor during a transformative period in the city's history in 19th century. The fountain is topped with this sculpture by Pierre Braecke of St. Michael slaying a dragon.

I also went to a cookshop where I bought some little presents for Chef Dave.

I got to practice my French, but Brussels isn't the best place for that, being a multilingual city. People were too tempted to switch to English rather than endure my mauvais Français.

Finally, my feet aching, I walked to the Parc de Bruxelles, where I sat for a while despite the fact that it was chilly. At least we had sun! There wasn't a cloud in the sky yesterday -- surely unusual for Brussels in February. I think I even got a bit sunburned on my neck!

As the sun set, I made my way back to the train and got back home around 8:30 p.m. Whew!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Silly Old Postcards

Still cleaning out the old stuff...*

Isn't this a creepy postcard? I mean, seriously. The scale of the disembodied, hovering orange relative to the overly made-up, apparently anesthetized face. Sheesh! Courtesy of my friend Carolyn, it's from Morocco, where many, many odd postcards once could be found.

As some of you know, I was a huge fan of the old TV show "Thirtysomething." Hence this card from my friend Liz, mailed in 1995.

Another old Morocco postcard, also from Carolyn. Sultry, and yet...not.

My friends Kevin and John sent this to me in May 1984, my senior year of high school, when they went to Daytona Beach while I was stuck at home for four weeks with mononucleosis. Knowing my enthusiasm for tree sloths they chose a card featuring the skeleton of a giant ground sloth, on display at a local museum. "I wonder if he died of mono?" Kevin wrote helpfully.

Sent by my friend Suzanne in 1989. Inside message: "I can't run again."

Back then, we thought Ronald Reagan was as bad as it could get. Boy, were we wrong!

My friend Liz sent me this card from Marrakech in August 1993. (It was printed in Spain, so we can't pin this one on the Moroccans.) "You are the one person I thought would really like this card," she wrote. Very retro, even then!

This might be my favorite -- mailed from Key West by my friends Arthur and Cherie in 1989. "I couldn't think of anyone who would appreciate this card more than you," Arthur wrote. I'm not sure what that says about me. But he's probably right.

*Unlike the old valentines, I saved all these!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Took a photo walk yesterday in Rotherhithe, on the south bank of the Thames where the river bends around Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, east of Central London. This is a neighborhood I've never explored much, and it's an interesting mix of old historic structures and new housing. I started at the Canada Water tube station, where most of the buildings are characterless and modern, and wound through the densely packed maze of streets to the waterfront.

It was windy and freezing cold on the river -- my hands got numb! I had a great view back toward the city, though, across mud flats exposed by the low tide. And we had sunshine!

There was an old metal bridge across a lock that led to an inland lake called Surrey Water. I think that rounded piece rolls back to lift up the bridge -- which definitely seems like a public hazard -- but I'm not sure it functions now.

In someone's garden I spied this bird bath so packed with fake birds a real one couldn't find space!

Across from Canary Wharf I descended some worryingly dilapidated stairs to a beach. There were rotted pilings for a long-gone dock extending into the water. (This river must be full of navigational hazards, particularly near the shores.) I walked on the sand and found a nice chip of old blue-glazed pottery.

Afterwards I ran an errand. Dave has a Tag Heuer watch that he never wears -- a gift from a former partner -- and since he's not a wristwatch guy he's interested in selling it. So I did some Internet research and took it to a jeweler near Bond Street, who referred me to another jeweler, who referred me to yet another jeweler. (Apparently my research was lousy.) Eventually I spoke to someone who told me it would be worth up to £200 except that it's engraved, which makes resale difficult. (I figured they could just buff out the engraving or replace the backplate, but apparently it's not that easy.) So we may be stuck with it.

These are the sorts of tasks you work on while on vacation, right? Those bottom-of-the-list tasks.

The other day I talked about being out of TV shows to watch, and Sabine suggested "Deutschland 83." By coincidence Dave and I had already been watching it -- I simply forgot to say so. Have any of you seen it? I'm not sure it's available in the States, and it is subtitled, but it's an excellent show -- a mini-series, really, with about eight episodes. It's about the Cold War in Germany in the early 1980s. Check it out if it comes your way.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Steeplechase Olga

Another Monday, another picture of the dog. We were in Hampstead Heath yesterday when we found this interesting stand of trees. I really wanted a photo of Olga jumping over that log, so I threw her Kong into the patch of leaves at the base of the trees, and she dutifully brought it back to me. We did it several times to get the right shot.

Fortunately, to her it was just a game. She's the most cooperative, enthusiastic photo subject I could ask for.

In fact, here's the close-up, just so you can see her joyful expression.

Otherwise, yesterday was very domestic. I continued working on two of my projects, cleaning out some old letters and transcribing old journals into blog form. I've done all my journals from 1988 to mid-March 1993, which isn't bad! Only 15 more years to go! (Ugh)

I wrestled with what to do with the bundles of letters I sent my family while I was in the Peace Corps. When my mom moved recently, she asked me if I wanted them -- and I took them, reluctantly. I was a prolific letter-writer -- in fact, I don't know how they read all those letters! But in skimming them I see that they basically repeat incidents that are already in my journals. So the verdict is: Out they go. Realistically, I'm never going to sit down and read them, nor should I. There's life to be lived now, right?

Dave spent yesterday in the garden, cleaning up the winterkill and pruning the roses. He cut down the cardoon, the asters, the loosestrife and some other stuff, and it looks much better out there. We need to prune the rambling roses above the day lilies, because they've become so dense and huge they're blocking the light from the plants beneath.

Today I'm off on a photo-walk, if the weather cooperates!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Vintage Valentines

So, as I've mentioned, I've been cleaning things out lately. In the middle of a cache of old letters I came across this little stack of old valentines from the mid-'70s. I have no idea why I saved these and not others -- they aren't even from particularly close friends, just classmates.

This one is very space-age, isn't it? Just a few years after the moon landing!

Do they still make little paper valentines like this, to be handed out in classrooms and such? Are they still free from product and movie tie-ins or are they all based on Disney characters now?

I suppose this one could be Dumbo.

Definitely a circus theme, here. I think I saved all these because they feature animals.

But then there's this one. I have no idea why it merited saving.

They're very pink, aren't they?

Anyway, I hope all of you have a happy Valentine's Day, for what it's worth. Dave and I are pretty much ignoring it. We might go to dinner later this week, but we're treating today like any other.

I'm just waking up to the news about Justice Scalia. Not one of my favorite people, needless to say. So in addition to a presidential election cycle we now get to witness the drama surrounding a Supreme Court nomination. When it rains, it pours!