Returning to Spain–Day 8–On the road and a little romance

6/25–Today was a day of travel and readjusting to a new place. After a week in Madrid, we packed up and drove to the northern coast, with a short detour to see the university town of Salamanca. The week in Madrid, filled with social gatherings, flew by, especially when I compare it to our stay before, which lasted a whole year. I wish I had more time. But we love the north, with its beautiful beaches, green mountains and wonderful cuisine, so here we are. 

We are fortunate to once again stay in a house instead of a hotel. Our Madrid house exchange family owns a second apartment here in Santander so we have a nice place to stay. It is only about a 15-minute walk to the beach and shops. Our exchange family has relatives here too so we received a nice invitation to their house for dinner tomorrow night. These relatives actually stayed in our house for a few weeks in California the year we were in Madrid. In addition, we saw this family four years ago when we were here before and together in their apartment we watched Spain win the World Cup. That was a memorable night, with dancing and fireworks in the streets until 2 am. At that time, it seemed that everyone in Santander was flying a Spanish flag in their window. The people here said they’d never seen such patriotism. 

Traveling with teenagers, ages 17 and 14, definitely has its challenges and we felt those quite intensely today. Teenagers have opinions, and lots of them. Today, for example, they both complained loudly about having to stop in Salamanca. The stop would add about two hours total to our travel time. Peter and I were interested in seeing Salamanca, which has the oldest university in Spain (established in the 13th century) and the biggest plaza. The boys, though, have little interest in historical sites, and preferred to just get to their destination. They protested and said they would just stay in the car during our stop, which of course was silly. Then, when we sat down to eat our lunch, they insisted they would just sit there while we explored the city. Of course they came with us in the end. As it turned out, we had a lovely lunch and we were able to see the main square, cathedral and university in a short time. We even found the famous astronaut everyone says you must see. It is a tiny astronaut carved into the cathedral facade by an enterprising stoneworker who helped renovate the building 20 years ago. 

Our teenagers’ desire for wifi connections also drives a big part of our agenda. No sooner had we rolled our suitcases into our new house than the boys started searching for wifi. The house had no server so they tried to get on other servers in the area. When that didn’t work they begged us to buy the $10 a day service they found. We broke down (we wanted it too) and they spent the rest of the evening chatting with friends and watching videos. Exploring Santander would have to wait, but it was late anyway. Fortunately I had packed some Top Ramen in our suitcases so we had an instant dinner and didn’t have to go out. 

We heard a little about Miguel’s party last night. He attended the school’s end-of-the-year party and saw many old friends. The funny part was that he didn’t recognize many of the kids. They have changed a lot in four years; most, though, remember him. He was the famous Californiano, the only one they’ve ever met. A lot of them last night asked him to say some things in English just so they could hear a real American accent. Evidently he was swarmed by girls, just like he was four years ago. His friend Gonzalo referred to the girls as “the mafia.” I’m sure Miguel didn’t mind the mafia too much–on the other hand it might have brought back bad memories. Four years ago a girl one grade older than Miguel became obsessed with him. She had an American stepmom and spoke some English so she could communicate with him easily. She pursued him every day on the playground, asking him to be her boyfriend. He kept saying no but got worn down. He didn’t really want a girlfriend but he did like having a friend who spoke English and she was cute. Finally he agreed to be her boyfriend. She monopolized all his time and we were worried he wasn’t making any other friends. Pretty soon we got reports from Miguel’s little brother Thomas that Miguel and his girlfriend were kissing under the stairs during lunch hour. I got more and more worried by the day about this blossoming romance of my almost 13-year-old. I’ll save the rest of the story for another day though. Now it’s late and my goal is to make it to bed before 2 am. One of these days we’ll get on the right time. 

Returning to Spain–Day 7–Rain on the plains and food cravings

6-24–Ah…today a refreshing rain came to Madrid and cooled us off. The last two days have been really hot and even with the air conditioning the house feels barely tolerable. Last night I was sweating in bed as I tried to fall asleep at 2 am. But the rain changed all that. It is much cooler tonight and the air blowing through windows of our fifth floor bedrooms feels magical.

When we came to Madrid four years ago we arrived on July 8, at the beginning of the hottest time of the year. It can get up to 100 degrees regularly in July and August and it is just about impossible to do anything in the middle of the day. We didn’t really understand this at first and packed our day full of activities. There was so much to see–the parks, the churches, the Royal Palace, the museums. Many of those first afternoons I remember just about dying from heat exhaustion as we walked through Parque Retiro or along the long boulevards of the Grand Via. After every block we would stop and rest and take a swig from our huge 2-liter bottle of water. We hadn’t learned yet the necessity of the siesta. Locals on vacation here get out for a few hours in the morning, rest or have lunch from 1 to 5 and then slowly make their way out for later afternoon/evening activities. Besides avoiding the heat, the siesta allows you to stay up later and take advantage of the long warm nights (the sun doesn’t set until 10:00). In fact the city really comes alive at night. Everyone is out taking a paseo or watching others take one. 

One thing we did understand about the weather four years ago was the necessity to take some breaks and get out of town. We knew being in 100-degree weather week after week would be difficult, so we did what a lot of locals do, go to the coast. In our case that was the northern coast, Santander. This is where our exchange family owns a vacation home and where they escape from Madrid heat each summer. The temperatures here are much cooler, but still warm enough to swim and play at the beach. This time around, we will also go to Santander for a few days and then up to San Sebastian in the Basque Country. 

Today’s highlight of the day was going downtown for churros. We do have churros in the States but they don’t resemble the ones here at all. The churros here, especially those from one of the well-known churrerias, are made to order, and are just the right balance of crispiness on the outside and tenderness on the inside. They are served with extra thick warm chocolate for dipping. After getting our fill of churros, we walked through Plaza Mayor, a beautiful old plaza in the center of town, and then sat down for a jarra of beer and some people watching. Afterwards I attempted to buy some new alpargatas, or espadrilles, at a famous shoe store next to the plaza, but it was swarmed with a tourist group. It’s amazing how much English you hear at this time of year in central Madrid. In contrast, you hear no English in the neighborhood where our exchange family lives. 

Since arriving we’ve satisfied many of our Spanish antejos (cravings). Besides churros, we’ve had Aquarius (a fizzy lemon drink) and Kinderbuenos (chocolate bars). Still on the list are Chupachus (Spanish suckers) and Cola Cao (hot cocoa). We also look forward to going to our neighbhorhood bakery and ordering some pepitos (cream-filled pastries). It’s amazing how many things you find to enjoy when visiting a new place.

During our year abroad we also had many antejos for American treats we couldn’t find here. The top of the list was probably chocolate chip cookies. After that was American cereals (stores here only carry three or four varieties), good Chinese food and good Mexican food. Early on we found The American Store, located in a swanky part of town, which sells high-priced American products. We made several trips during the year and delighted our friends with homemade chocolate chip cookies to celebrate the kids’ birthdays and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. 

Last night friends Eduardo and Elisa came to dinner at our house and we made them a typical American meal–burritos with all the fixings (I had brought the tortillas and salsa in my suitcase). I think they liked them. We met Eduardo and Elisa because they know our house exchange family and like our exchange family, they also spent a year in Berkeley. (Eduardo is a professor here and taught at UC Berkeley in 2009.) When we arrived in Madrid in 2010, Eduardo took it upon himself to be our personal guide and showed us many things. He even ended up fixing a few things in our house. They are a family with a big heart. One of our favorite memories together is going to see a performance of Mama Mia–all the same tunes, but with Spanish words. After the show was over, we wandered down a side street and happened to pass by the stage door. We saw a group of people huddled around the sidewalk and realized that the performers were leaving. In the confusion of the crowd, several older women rushed at Peter and asked for his autograph and picture! They thought he had been in the show! He was quite flattered; he happens to be an ABBA fanatic. 

Tomorrow we are off to Santander and the northern coast. We will pack up our home exchange family’s SVU with our stuff, including our three bags of camping supplies. We’ll stay in their home in Santander and then camp for several days further north. We look forward to that. You feel like a full-fledged European when you are camping here–there are very few Americans at the camp sites. And it’s a very social activity. The camp sites are like KOA campsites back home–outfitted with pools, stores and restaurants so there are many chances to observe and interact with others. Before leaving on this trip I reread a journal I kept when we camped here 20 years ago and I laughed at my observations of the other campers, the Dutch, the Germans, the Spanish. I’m sure this experience will be just as entertaining. I just hope my older body can endure sleeping on the ground.

Returning to Spain–Day 5–Food adventures!

Spainards really know how to enjoy themselves. Today we went with friends to the famous Rastro flea market in the morning and then for lunch we went to not just one restaurant but three! Evidently each had something different to offer. It was a hot day and our first stop was to get some cold drinks on the terrace of a cafe. Peter and I order cervazas con limon, a mixture of beer and lemonade, which was very refreshing. Para picar (to taste), our group shared an order of sliced jamon and fried calamaris. While we were still finishing at that spot our friend Manu walked over to another cafe a few blocks away that serves tapas tipicas and secured us a spot in the cool air conditioned bar. We joined him and had more drinks and two plates of huevos estrelladas–fried eggs on top of potato chips, chorizo and gazpacho–quite a combination. Plus we had a salad of tuna and tomatoes. Finally we walked past the Royal Palace and found a cafe with a terrace overlooking the city. I had a horchata, a drink made with almonds, sugar and water. Miguel had the most interesting dessert, a lemon sorbet served inside of a scooped out lemon. The scooped out lemon was frozen and sat on top of a glass of hot water, the water helping to soften the sorbet inside. We were so tired from all our food we had to take a siesta, of course!

The Rastro was just as we remembered. It is a huge flea market spread out over many city blocks. You can find everything from new and old clothing to typewriters, LPs, comic books and just about anything else you can think of. It takes place every Sunday in an old neighborhood called La Latina. We learned four years ago that rastro means “trail.” In this case it was the trail of blood of butchered animals. Many years ago butchers worked in this neighbhorhood and blood would run down the main street. There aren’t any butchers these days but they’ve been replaced by pickpockets. We were told to be careful not to carry anything in our pockets and watch our purses. Unfortunately I have experience with this topic. Four years ago not far from this spot my wallet was taken from my purse by some stealthy ladron. I lost some cash, my California driver’s licence and all my credit cards. I made a report at the nearest police station and just in the short time while I was there five other people came in to report robberies! Then I had the hassle of having to cancel all my cards. I couldn’t get another driver’s license for a year, until I returned to California. Sadly, though the rate of street violence is pretty low here, this type of robbery happens all the time. Even today we saw a man running down the street yelling “ladron.”

Back at our apartment after our many lunch stops, we turned up the AC a bit and enjoyed a nice siesta. Somehow the hours flew by and it was already 9:30, time for a light snack, so we ventured out to the neighborhood bar that serves raciones, large platters of tapas. About a third of the raciones were things we recognized and like (such as ham and shrimp), a third were things we don’t like (like octopus and pig’s ears) and a third were things we didn’t reognize at all. Feeling a little brave, we ordered one racion we knew (patatas bravas–potatoes with red sauce) and one that we didn’t know but was suggested by the waiter–torreznos. It turned out that torreznos are basically pork rinds. They were terrible–chewy, super salty and fatty. Most of the plate went untouched. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes not. 

Our Spanish is coming back poco a poco, little by little. Four years ago we reached a pretty good level of fluency by the end of the year. We have retained much of that but it’s still difficult to convey more complicated thoughts. I find myself often wanting to say certain things but pausing and choosing another topic because I don’t know how to express it. Fortunately all our friends here are very gracious and often finish sentences for us! I also find that words are only half of communication. How you say things and your actions and body language speak volumes. Thus, despite the language barrier we have a very sweet relationship with many people here. We can see they have been geniunely excited to see us again after four years. There is almost nothing quite as satisfying as rekindling friendships with people across the globe. You realize that people everyone are really very similar and that there is much more good in the world than watching the news might led you to believe. 

Returning to Spain–Day 4–La ley de Murphy, American stores and bulls

6/21–It’s 1:15 am and we’ve just said goodbye to friends Paloma and Manu after another late-night Spanish-style dinner. Tonight we went to our favorite restaurant here, which, ironically, isn’t even Spanish–they serve Italian food. Sadly though, four years later the staff has totally changed, including the manager we liked so much, Pablo, who was from Uruguay but had trained in restaurants around the world. The food is still good, but not the same outstandinng quality as before. Oh well, the experience will live on in our memories. 

We still didn’t make it to the city center today. Our time was spent running errands. First we went to the packaging store (it was open this time) and got a box for our two chairs. That was a pretty easy process. Next we had to go to the local shopping center to buy new clothes for Peter. His suitcase still hadn’t shown up after three days and he was getting pretty tired of wearing the same clothes. So we went to a store called Carrefour that is much like an American Target, with stylish, economical clothes, and we bought him a whole new wardrobe, plus a new suitcase. It’s funny but the first time I went to Carrefour four years ago I was so disappointed. It felt so American–big, modern, impersonal. In my mind Europe still operated only small family-run business in quaint little shops. Going to Carrefour felt like I could be shopping anywhere in the world. This time around, though, I knew what I was getting and was actually thankful for the convenience of a store that had all we needed in one place for a good price. It’s funny how your perspective changes. I also remember feeling disappointed four years ago on realizing that many people in Spain now shop at large grocery stores, much like our Safeways. I thought people here still went to a separate butcher, baker, fruit store, fish market, etc. While that can be the case for some people here, large America-style stores are everywhere. 

Back at home after our shopping excursion we finally got a call from the airlines. They had found Peter’s suitcase and would deliver it tomorrow! La ley de Murphy! Murphy’s law. (They really do say “La ley de Murphy” here!) Now Peter will have the most extensive wardrobe of any of us, thanks to a claim with Iberia Airlines. We’ll keep the new clothes but give the suitcase to a friend. When we told our friend about the suitcase it reminded Peter of our English expression, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It turns out that the Spanish have the same expression: “A caballo regalado, no le mires el diente.” We never really understood where this saying came from but our friend explained that when you buy a horse you should look at its teeth to determine if it’s healthy or not. Thus, when you are receiving a gift, you shouldn’t look too closely and should just be grateful for whatever you get.

We invited our friends back to our house for some American chocolate chip cookies, which they loved, and we picked up Miguel, who had gone out with his friends. It turned out they had gone to the local “Burger” (Burger King) to hang out. Many friends from his old class came by to say hello. Some he remembered; others not. Four years is a long time in the life of a young person. 

One thing that hasn’t changed here is the summer bullfights on TV. We flipped on the TV today and were mesmerized (for a while, until it got bloody) by a bullfight. Despite the violence, there is a certain grace to the way the matador swings his colorful cape and dances around the bull. At one point the matador was tossed up into the air and crashed to the ground. He got up right away and continued pursuing the bull. It’s true that bullfighting is controversial here in Spain and has even been prohibited in Barcelona. However, there are still many afficionados. The most famous event, the San Fermines running of the bulls in Pamplona, will be taking place during our last days here in Spain and we are thinking about going. Our friend Joaquin, who owns the house where we are staying, said this would be a big mistake. It’s crowded, people are drunk, many are sleeping and peeing in the streets, etc. It’s much better to watch on TV, he said. Probably for us it would be like someone going to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. It’s crowded and uncomfortable. Why not watch it on TV? Still, there’s a certain thrill in being part of these national events. At the very least, it makes for a good story. How many people can say they’ve been to the San Fermines? Vamos a ver…we have a few weeks to decide for sure.  

Return to Spain–Day 3–mucho papeleo!

6/20-If there’s one thing I learned from my year in Spain it’s not to expect to accomplish too much in any one day. This was a hard lesson to learn as an American; it’s in my blood to expect things to work smoothly and quickly. Here, though, relationships are valued more than getting things done. Thus, many businesses close for the siesta, meals are longer and more leisurely, and day-to-day tasks take a little longer. 

Our family learned this lesson soon after we came as we tried to obtain our one-year residence cards. In order to live in Spain legally for more than three months, we were required to obtain residence cards. In the months leading up to our departure we filled out countless forms, got notarized copies of birth and marriage certificates, and got proof of our bank accounts and jobs. This all culminated in an official interview with the Spanish embassy in San Francisco. We did so much paperwork in California that we thought that once we arrived in Spain it would be a simple matter of visiting a government office in Madrid and completing the process. If it were only that simple. As it turned out we had to visit seven separate offices around Madrid in order to receive our cards. We arrived in July and finally got the cards in October! As they say here, there is much papeleo (paperwork). Throughout our year we had more experiences like this when we went to the post office, tried to pay a traffic fine or attempted to upgrade our internet service.

I kept all this in mind today as we planned our day. We put only one item on the agenda: find a way to ship two chairs we purchased four years ago back to the U.S. The chairs are simple wooden cafe-style chairs covered with maps of Spain. They are unique momentos of our time here. Four years ago we ran out of time to figure out how to ship them but this time we decided make the effort. One difference that helps us now is the growth of the internet. There is more information online. In the morning we were able to surf several web sites to research the costs of sending things to the U.S. and we discovered that FedEx and other international companies charged a premium, several hundered dollars for packages our size. It would cost as much to ship the chairs as we spent to buy them. We decided to go to the local post office and ask there. Maybe shipping them by slow boat would be cheaper. Of course, first we had to get to the post office. That sounds like a simple task but when you are in a big city and the roads are like a maze, some one-way, some dead-end, it’s a challenge even to find the local post office. Luckily we had walked there several times four years ago. This time we took the car and after a few attempts winding through the narrow streets, we made it there. We discovered, as expected, that the post office was a lot cheaper (and slower) than FedEx, and fortunately our chairs were under the maximum weight limit of 20 kilos. Next on the agenda was to find a big box in which to ship the chairs. Peter had found a packaging store not far from our house and we found it without much difficulty, thanks to the GPS in our car. The only problem was that the store was all boarded up. We called their number and got good news–the company still existed–the problem was that they had moved locations to a few miles away and they were closed for another hour due to the siesta. We could wait for an hour or just come back tomorrow. We decided to come back tomorrow–but I wasn’t disappointed. I felt like we had accomplished a lot for the day. 

By this time it was 5 o’clock, the ideal time to pass by our kids’ old school and look for old friends. School here begins at 9, breaks for two hours for lunch, and then continues until 5. We got lucky and found one of the teachers, Vanessa, exiting the school at 5. She was so surprised and excited to see us! We agreed to come back Monday with the kids. Next door to the school is a bar/cafe which is owned by the parents of one of our son’s friends, Pedro. We strolled over to the bar and found Pedro there, helping his parents at the bar, just like he was doing four years ago. He was also pleasantly surprised to see us and asked us to come back Monday with the boys.  

Our day ended with a typical Spanish dinner that started at 10:30 and ended at 12:30. Our exchange family brought wonderful Rioja wine, a special rosemary cheese, high-quality jamon serrano and a roscon, a bread and cheese sandwich that you heat in the oven. We supplied tortilla chips and guacamole, olives and salad. We ate on their large terrace overlooking the city. Even at 12:30 it was still pleasant enough to sit outside, something that would never happen in our foggy climate of San Francisco. Since it was Friday, people were still playing in the park below us when we packed up our dishes and headed inside. 

It’s strange to me that after two days we still haven’t made it to the old city center of Madrid. This is the only area that most Americans ever see. There are so many beautiful things there–the Parque Retiro, the Prado museum, the Plaza Mayor…I’m eager to visit the sights again but friends are definitely the priority on this return trip. 

Returning to Spain–Day 2–Los amigos!

6/18–Our first full day in Espana! Our sleep schedules are definitely mixed up. After our full day of travel, Thomas went to bed last night at 6 pm and woke up at 5 am. The rest of us were too excited to sleep so we didn’t get to bed until past 1 am and got up at 1 pm! I can’t remember the last time I slept so much. I woke up refreshed and ready to experience Madrid.

The big highlight today was seeing old friends. We had lunch with our friends Paloma and Manu and their three kids. We were supposed to meet at 1 but due to our sleep we didn’t meet them until 3. For them, that is only a slightly late lunch. Lunch here doesn’t begin until 1 at the earliest and is usually the biggest meal of the day. We all had the menu del dia, which consists of a primer (first) plate, a segundo (second) and a postre (dessert). I had a delicious risotto, chicken and watermelon for dessert. And of course we all had a Spanish beer. 

Paloma and Manu are just the same. So warm and friendly. I was impressed by their focus. Unlike many Americans I know (including me), they never checked their phones or their schedules but were fully immersed in our conversation. We talked about many things. It seems the economy here is still bad. The unemployment rate is nearly 25 percent. Many families at the private school (where we both had kids enrolled and where we met them) have had to pull their kids out of the school and send them to the public school. Manu and Paloma’s computer software business, which was slowing down four years ago, has not yet picked up. Maybe as a sign of the times, a new mayor was elected in Madrid just last week, and she is on the edge of being a communist.

After a 2-plus hour lunch, we strolled up the street to visit another family who we met through our kids four years ago. They also have three kids. In both cases the kids looked so different but the parents look just the same. We are still jovenes (young), we joked. Although it was 5 in the afternoon the parents were already home from work. Their workday is something Americans would envy. It starts early–at 8 am–but ends by 3. But Javier and Angeles are both government workers; not everyone enjoys this kind of schedule.    

As we both have kids nearing or in college, we talked a lot about the costs of college. The costs here are amazingly low. If you attend a public university in your “zone,” it is free. (I think we understood this correctly.) If you attend another public university outside your zone it is about $2,000 a year. The most exclusive private schools are at the most $20,000 a year. We couldn’t help but be jealous as we anticipate sending our son to college in a year at double or triple the cost. Another difference is that most college students here continue to live with their family until after college is over. So their 20-year-old daughter is still living at home.

After a nice visit, we went home to rest for a while and then joined Javier and Angeles and their kids for dinner at 9:30. Summertime dinners are bit magical here as it’s still quite light out at 9 or 10 and it’s always warm enough to sit outside. We ate on the terrace of the local pizzeria and ordered a pizza Spanish-style–with chorizo. Both here and at the lunch place our hosts knew plenty of people passing by. Although we are in a big city, this little neighborhood is like a small town. It’s not fancy and lacks the charm of the old parts of the city (everything here was built in the ’50s and ’60s as the city expanded), but the people are quite down-to-earth and gregarious.

Yesterday we discovered a great surprise–the chairs we bought at the famous Rastro flea market are still in our apartment! The chairs are simple wooden cafe-style chairs covered with colorful maps of Spain and then coated with shellac. We never got organized enough before to figure out a way to ship our chairs back home so we left them in the apartment. Fortunately our exchange family kept them and now we can make an attempt to find out a way to get them home.

Probably one of the biggest changes we’ve noticed from four years ago has to do with technology. At that time people were just starting to use smartphones. Now they are ubiquitous. Here in España, companies charge for texts so everyone uses an app called whatsapp to send texts. In general the same kinds of things are popular here as in the U.S., Facebook and Twitter for adults and Snapchat and Instagram for kids.

Tomorrow our only agenda is sending the chairs, a process that may be quite involved here. Our luck may be that we arrive at the shipping company during siesta time. We may also see some teachers at our kids’ old school and then have dinner with our exchange family. They promise to bring good wine–cheers to la vida española!

From Miró to Hawking: Finding inspiration all around

What inspires you? We all have things that inspire us to create, dream, acheive and hope. Have you thought much about what brings you inspiration? Do you take the time to cultivate doing these things? This is a subject I think about from time to time as I seek inspiration as a writer and human being. In fact, as I write this I realize that just thinking about inspiring times brings me inspiration. It is a powerful emotion.

For many of us, great works of art inspire. There is something about seeing a beautiful painting or reading a well-constructed novel or listening to music that gives us the desire to craft our own art or at least feel a sense of well-being and hope. It is certainly very individual. I remember 20 years ago, on a trip to Barcelona, standing in the Miró museum and feeling an incredible sense of both peace and excitement. Here in this beautiful city was a museum filled with striking modernist paintings of bright blues, yellow and reds. The subjects were simple. “Woman and bird.” The canvases were large and filled with color and the museum itself was bright and cheerful. To someone else, Miró’s works might seem too abstract and simple or even silly, but for me the paintings were both elegant and whimsical. I felt buoyant as I passed through the halls and wondered if I could ever achieve such beauty. Sometimes I remember those paintings when I need a boost of creativity.

Often times we are inspired by someone’s personal story, especially if it is a story of overcoming the odds. Last year I read the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and it’s no surprise it was on bestseller list. In the book, Sotomayor, the first Latina to join the court, recounts her journey from living in the projects in New York city with an alcoholic father and absent mother to attending Ivy League schools and eventually reaching the nation’s highest court. What helped Sotomayor succeed? Partly her success can be attributed to her natural intelligence and being in the right place at the right time, but what is really inspiring is her determination to follow her dream from a young age. She talks about first being inspired to be a lawyer while watching Perry Mason shows on TV and reading Nancy Drew. She worked hard in high school, joined the debate team and asked for help to learn to study better. She made it to Princeton and when that turned out to be tougher than she thought, she buckled down and spent summers with a professor improving her writing, learning new words and reading classics that she hadn’t read as a child. In short, she kept focused on her goals and never gave up. This is a story I remember as I work on my goal of speaking Spanish fluently. I’ve worked at it steadily for many years now and although I still have a lot to learn, I don’t get discouraged.

Like Sotomayor, it’s also no surprise that Stephen Hawking’s life made for such an engaging story in the recent film “The Theory of Everything.” In it we see him succeed despite his progressing disease. The most inspiring part of the film for me was towards the end, when Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and must use a computer to communicate. Despite his limitations, he doesn’t give up and continues to pursue his dream of finding one theory that can explain everything in the universe. In one key speech toward the end of the movie, he tells the audience that everyone has a special talent they can give the world. I thought about that scene a lot and what my special talent might be.

Stories that inspire don’t have to be from famous people, of course. I remember once being in a writing class that included a 40-year-old African-American man whose story was striking. Every week he came to class dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, coming from his marketing job. He spoke with authority and conviction about many topics. As the class progressed, we learned that he had grown up poor, oftentimes homeless, moving with his mother and sister from relative’s homes to apartments to homeless shelters in innercity Los Angeles. One week he told us the story of how he had dreamed of going to Pepperdine University in Malibu. Pepperdine was about the farthest thing from his experience, being located on the hills facing the ocean in swanky Malibu. He applied to Pepperdine but didn’t get in. Undaunted, he made an appointment with the admissions department and he and his mother traveled to the school. Within an hour in the appointment he had convinced the admissions officer that he should get a place in the school and the school admitted him. It was a great story and made me realize that i would never have thought to argue my case with an admissions department. It was a bold move. I often remember it when I am faced with barriers in my own life.

Perhaps one of the best ways to be inspired is traveling. We get a chance to see, feel and taste how others live and even subtle differences in lifestyles can make an impression. J recently spent a week on the East Coast visiting colleges with my son. In Boston we stayed with friends who have a teenage daughter. They live in a old Colonial-style house with two tortoises and an iguana (they are allergic to cats and dogs). I’ve known this family for 25 years but have never stayed in their house before. For the first time, I got to see their habits (what time they got up in the morning, when they went to sleep), what they liked to do in their free time and the food they ate. I was impressed that both days we stayed with them, the couple made a point to go to the gym. It seems to be an activity they enjoy together. They came back from the gym looking refreshed instead of tired and it made me think maybe I should give going to the gym another try–or at least exercise more. One morning when they went to the gym their daughter Anna made beignets, donut-like fried pastries. She said she had learned about beignets on a trip to New Orleans and has made them ever since. I watched her carefully as she mixed the dough, rolled it out on a board and dropped each piece in sizzling oil. Meanwhile one of the tortoises walked by and found a warm spot to rest in the kitchen. Outside, the day was sunny but cold, with snow still covering the yard. Soon we had a big plate of steaming beignets sprinkled with powdered sugar and we had a wonderful conversation about her school, activities and family. At that moment I hoped I could demonstrate that kind of hospitality to my future guests.

The great thing about inspiring moments is that you can savor the memories and retell them. In sharing them their power expands to more people and to yourself. These stories can become like legends, shaping your worldview. The more we share, the more we can combat the negative stories in the world and the modern sense of malaise we sometimes feel as cogs in a big wheel. Personally, I need lots of inspiration to live well and I’m glad I live in a time when I have access to so many books, movies, news, museums and people. The next source of inspiration is just around the corner.

And now we interrupt this program to bring you Lent….


My favorite part of Lent is by far the beginning, Ash Wednesday, which we celebrated a week ago. I love the rituals, the sounds, the textures. As our pastor traces the shape of a cross on our foreheads with ashes he tells us, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return, but for God, who creates eternal life.” Afterwards we kneel and pray and sing and contemplate the brevity of our life on earth. Somehow thinking of life’s swift passage and the fact that it is already February of another new year makes me want to live more passionately and make each moment count.

The best part about our church’s Ash Wednesday service is that it takes place at night. Perhaps because I am used to coming to church in the morning, night at church feels special. Instead of a sunlit sanctuary, with beams of light streaming through the tall West-facing windows, the church is dark, save for a few lights and candles. The only other time I am at church at night is Christmas Eve. But this feels different than Christmas Eve. There is more mystery for me in Lent. Christmas is familiar territory with the carols, the story of Jesus’ birth, the tree. Lent marks Jesus’ forty days in the desert when he prepared for his public ministry and faced various temptations. These events raise all kinds of questions: Why did Jesus’ need to be tempted? Why did he have to suffer and die? Why must we all suffer and die? These are questions that demand much thought and a submission to the mysteries of God. It’s good to consider these questions at least once a year.

Ash Wednesday has the feel of new beginnings, much like New Year’s. For me there is hope and excitement in contemplating a new beginning, and, like many people, I often make resolutions that don’t last. But these are always worthwhile experiments. This year for New Year’s I decided to try a new method of prayer every morning called Centering Prayer. It involves choosing a sacred word and meditating for about 20 minutes. I had some very peaceful sessions of meditation, but in the end I didn’t stick with it every day like I had hoped. Lent gave me another chance to try something new. Many people give up something but I never do that; perhaps I don’t want to fail. Instead, I try to add some new habit. This year I have decided to read a passage each morning from a book called “Finding Faith.” It is a collection of accounts of people who converted to Christianity. So far I’ve read about a drug addict who became a Christian and about Chuck Colson, the famous politician who worked in the Nixon administration and was sent to prison for his involvement in Watergate. He became a Christian and founded a well-known ministry to prisoners around the country that is still very vital today. This book seems an appropriate read as traditionally Lent is the time when new members of the church prepare for membership and/or baptism.

Living in California brings a special dimension to Lent. That’s because our spring has already arrived by the time Ash Wednesday is here. So, although Lent might encourage quiet reflection as we consider Jesus’ time in the desert and his ultimate sacrifice on Good Friday, it’s hard to be too somber with everything blooming outside. Cherry blossoms line the streets with their pink bursts of color and daffodils peek out in gardens. While the rest of the country lies buried under snow and ice, we are enjoying warm sunny days. Maybe it would be better if we celebrated Lent right after Christmas, when the days are shorter and spring has not yet sprung.

In any case, when I go to church next Sunday and the following Sundays before Easter, there won’t be flowers in the sanctuary and the gold cross on the altar will be covered in a black cloth. The black cloth will remind me of how I started this season, in the dark sanctuary on Ash Wednesday. The dark sanctuary, in turn, will remind me of the story of Nicodemus, one of the few, if only, accounts we have of someone coming to see Jesus at night. Why did Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night? Perhaps he wanted more privacy. He did not want to contend with the crowds that surrounded Jesus during the day. Or maybe he was self-conscious because he was a member of the very group of people who Jesus condemned and he didn’t want to look bad in front of his fellow Pharisees. In that famous meeting, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born from above.” Nicodemus doesn’t understand this and wonders how he can be born a second time. Jesus explains that this means being born from water and the Spirit, in other words, involving baptism and the Holy Spirit. Jesus goes onto explain the most well-known verse of the New Testament, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” There is no tidy conclusion at the end of the night to indicate whether Nicodemus believed in Jesus. But Jesus’ words evidently had a strong impact on Nicodemus because later in the Bible we see Nicodemus defending Jesus in front of the Pharisees and later, after Jesus’ death he brings 100 pounds of spices with which to bury his body. I can’t imagine transporting 100 pounds of spices!

Maybe we should celebrate all services during Lent at night. Then the contrast with our service Easter morning would be even more extreme. Our joyful singing and celebration would seem even more exuberent after having celebrated for six weeks in the dark. In the end, I think Lent really is about contrasts, about dark and light, about belief versus unbelief, about winter and spring. In this sense, Lent is challenging because we have to hold opposite things together—the suffering of Jesus and the world, for example, with the promise of God’s love. Unlike Nicodemus in the night, however, Christians today know the end of the story. We know what happened after the cross and we have the accounts of faithful men and women through the centuries who have believed and lived exemplary lives. We also know that today, in our age of violence, terrorism and environmental disaster, we need God’s love, hope and beauty more than ever.






Some thoughts on two friends who have gone to heaven

Heaven must be a little more crowded these days. Two saints passed from this life to the next in the space of the last month. Both were friends and both remarkable people, beloved by many and respected by all. Both were born 80-plus years ago, so they lived long, fruitful lives—but still taken too soon. I wish I’d had more time with both of them.


John Kroeker was a member of my church. He had a warm smile, a lovely baritone voice and a crown of thick white hair. One Sundays he wore bolo ties and a blue suit jacket. John was always there. He had been a member of the church for more than 50 years and knew everyone and everything. He was as confortable talking about the day’s sermon as he was fixing a leaky pipe in the church basement. For years he and his wife Evelyn served as unofficial caretakers both of the church building and the congregation. He would keep tabs on people and forward their prayer requests, even years after they had moved away.


John had been a schoolteacher before I met him and I’m sure he was quite good. Retirement didn’t slow him down. Into his 80s John and Evelyn still walked to church on Sundays and John liked to ride his bike. The day before he died John came to church, like always, and since he sat on the same side of the church as I do, he turned around after the service and asked me about my family (they weren’t there that day). “Where are the boys?,” he said, always interested in the lives of other people. Later, I would learn, he had complimented both the pastor and the musicians for their efforts, something he did regularly. In fact, he told the pastor that day that the sermon was one of his top ten favorites. I liked it a lot too. (You can listen to it at Don’t be put off by the long scripture reading at the beginning.) It had to do with the grace of God and his inclusion of seemingly wayward people into the family of God. John had a real heart for including everyone in his world too, from the recovering alcoholic who had been beaten up by life to the pastor’s eight-year-old son who enjoyed John’s corny jokes. As one friend put it, John had the kind of character we all aspire to, the kind Paul writes about in Corinthians: love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful. Additionally, John was curious and I’m sure that kept his mind sharp. A man in our church who teaches classes about the intersection of science and religion shared that John never missed one of his classes. In fact, John studied at Cal and at seminary, but he rarely mentioned this. He was humble, yet always had a wise word.


Shirley Bechelli started off as a client of my husband’s tax practice. Over the years, however, she became a treasured friend. She already had four grown sons of her own, but for some reason she and her husband Joe loved my husband and adopted him into the family. They joked that he was their “fifth son.” We attended their family weddings, Christmas parties and birthday parties, along with their sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Family was central to Shirley and even into her 80s she hosted parties in the garden at her and Joe’s second house in Sonoma.


One of the most striking things about Shirley was her keen interest in the lives of other people, not unlike John. Shirley was a tiny woman, with short-cropped grey hair, snazzy brightly-colored glasses and a calm smile. As soon as she saw you, she motioned for you to sit beside her, and her body language told you she was completely focused on you. She wanted to know everything that was going on in your life, as if you were the most important person in the world. Even the last time I saw her, in her hospital bed at UCSF, the last day of her life, she brightened up when she saw me and she asked how the boys were.


Like John and Evelyn, Shirley and Joe had been married for more than 60 years. Shirley and Joe did everything together, from host parties, to play with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to enjoy annual trips to Hawaii. Every spring they both came from San Francisco to my husband’s tax practice for their yearly tax meeting and then lunch. Every summer we would take them to a Giants game, which they loved. They would take the bus from their home in Marina and meet us at Amici’s pizza across the street from the ballpark. They preferred that to the ballpark food. We always had a good time.


Neither John nor Shirley were attention seekers. They were attention givers. And they loved life and loved God. They were grateful for the good things they had and sought to share it with others. I will remember them both a long time and the example they set as people true to themselves and faithful to God and others.


At Shirley’s funeral, my husband read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi’s. It was a fitting poem for such an active life of compassion. (Incidentally, the name of this blog, “La Clochette,” came about when I saw some of the words from this prayer tatooed on the arm of a waiter in San Francisco. Going home to look up the prayer, I discovered it had originally been published in a French magazine called “La Clochette,” which means the little bell. I liked the name. And I really like the prayer, which follows.)


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

The Wonder(ful) Years

The photo on my desk is about 13 years old. In the photo my smiling husband holds my two smiling sons, ages 1 and 4. They are all wearing pajamas. The boys have on their one-piece footie pajamas and I remember the fuzzy texture of those pajamas well. I remember holding them in those pajamas as I read books at bedtime, as I helped them brush their teeth, as we cuddled on the sofa.

The photo was taken in our kitchen, probably on a Saturday morning. When the boys were little we always had pancakes on Saturdays. They loved our ritual. Pancakes rolled up with sugar and butter inside. Some with blueberries and syrup. Others with chocolate chips. It was Daddy’s specialty.

Saturdays then were filled with family activities. In those days before any of us had smartphones and Facebook we spent the days playing at the park down the street, visiting the Little Farm up the hill or going to Grammie’s house. The boys were happy, everything was new and although there was the occasional tantrum or timeout, the problems were relatively small and manageable, like spilt milk or bruised knees.

Now my sons are teenagers and some nights they tuck me into bed. One stays up late texting friends and the other stays up late playing games online. Most Saturdays they no longer request pancakes. One would rather get to the golf course early and the other wants to be with friends. When we do spend time together we don’t go to the park. If we’re lucky they’ll agree to see a movie with us or go out to eat. For Christmas they request money instead of toys.

A lot has changed in 13 years and sometimes I wish I could go back in time. I would love to cuddle up to that 4-year-old in the red-footed pajamas for just five minutes. I would love to see the look of delight on the toddler’s face when he learns to jump for the first time or draws a picture.

Still, I tell myself, every age has the potential to be filled with wonder. Maybe it’s not so dramatic now, but my kids are still impressionable, curious and tender. Late at night, when I manage to stay up with them and they’ve disengaged from their screens, they ask for backrubs. I sit in their dark room, scratching their backs, and we talk about things of no consequence, like what exactly “swag” means or what would happen if you put dry ice in a hot tub.

And if I doubted their ability to show affection, I would look no further than the family dog. Two years ago we got a puppy and he’s become a focus of attention. When the boys come home from school the first thing they do is shower him with kisses and hugs. “Isn’t he the cutest dog in the world?” we ask each other day after day.

I don’t know what life will be like in another 13 years. My mother tells me you never stop being a mother. I wonder what the boys will be like as adults. What will we talk about? Will they have jobs they like? Will they have girlfriends or spouses? What will grab their attention? I could guess at these things but I really have no idea.

Maybe knowing them another 13 years will bring us both closer to the core of who they are, who they’ve become as adults. Maybe it’s like opening a present that contains another smaller present that contains yet another smaller present. As I get to know them more I uncover the essence of who they are and how we relate to one another. And the whole thing is something I knew was coming but is still a surprise.