The Wrong Way to the Parthenon

I always loved Greece.  To clarify, I always loved Ancient Greece, having grown up on “The Trojan War and Its Heroes” (a masterful retelling of the story old as time for elementary school age children, with delicate silhouette illustrations in which I colored in the hair of every single Achaean), “Adventures of Odysseus” (which always made me uneasy because his 20 year absence from home seemed like a little longer than a lifetime to a seven year old me), and “Legends and Myths of Ancient Greece” (a compilation so complete that I would venture to guess that it contained a story of Zeus turning into almost every creature in Greek fauna to pursue various women—and why that would be more attractive than if he simply appeared to them as a handsome guy is something that I took as Olympian Gospel).

My other source of information about Greece was, of course, my beloved childhood encyclopedia, “What is this, who is that?” It contained not only an article on Greece, but one on “Ancient Greeks” and one on the “Acropolis”.  It stated, quite inarguably, that Parthenon is one of mankind’s most marvelous creations.  But, the article grimly concluded, it exploded in 1687.  Given that this was before the internet, and in the USSR to boot, even imagining the Parthenon’s remnants was beyond the possible.

And so, when the first Big Birthday that we could afford to celebrate with a Big Trip was nigh, we went to Greece. 

These ARE the actual shoes I wore in Greece. And now think, do they look like they would work well on such trip? On any trip, except to the mailbox? I rest my case.

The year was 2007, and it was my last vacation with a non-digital camera.  Because we could afford to splurge for a milestone birthday, I took four rolls of film for a week’s vacation.  Coincidentally, this is the same number of photos I took over an entire summer in Europe almost 20 years earlier.  I also would like to have said that it was my last vacation for wearing uncomfortable shoes.  But, alas, it was not.  I am kind of known (not widely, only within my family) as someone who brings the wrong footwear on vacation.  There have been a few vacations during which a day is dedicated to looking for new shoes for me, because the ones I am wearing are literally trying to kill me.  A useful tip: if you have freakishly giant double extra wide size 42s, do not attempt to shop for ladies boots in Paris. It is an exercise in frustration, and a waste of time.

And so, armed with several useless phrases picked up from a talking parrot of a Greek guy I used to know, lousy shoes, analog camera, but strong knowledge of Greek cuisine (because we live near one of the best Greektowns in the US, if not THE best) as well as strong knowledge of Greek mythology, we arrived.

Our base was a timeshare in Marathon, which is literally marathon distance to Athens.  We never ran or even walked there, because, first, it was long before my running days, and second, it is apparently uphill for half the distance.  It is pretty much the toughest race one can run, which explains a lot about Philippides’ fate upon completing it.  We took a bus every day, which was not physically exhausting, but mentally taxing.  First, it was never quite clear when the bus left Marathon.  There was an hourly schedule, but it was not even loosely followed.  We often had to just meander along the route with the hope that the bus will overtake us as some point during the 26 mile journey, and preferably sooner than later, because Greece is hot in June.  Second, it was completely unclear what bus would take us back to Marathon from Athens.  Every evening, we would wander through the bus park, leaning into every one and yelling “Maratonas?”  Depending on the reaction of the driver, we would board the bus, which took a different route back every.single.time.  And finally, the highlight of the Athens-Marathon trip was when one fine evening, the bus was abruptly stopped in the middle of the road and boarded by heavily armed Greeks in military uniforms who roughly removed an unprotesting and guilty-looking young man.  We recognized him as an employee of the resort where we were staying and from whom we bought sunscreen the previous day.

The resort, aside from apparently employing at least one known shady character, was lovely.  June is not yet a busy time in Europe, so we had it almost entirely to ourselves.  Upon arrival, I promptly invested in a bar card so that I could enjoy local libations every evening.  But, as it was not full tourist season, the bar was sparsely stocked.  So, spouse drank Greek beer while I drank ouzo like it was my job.  Funny thing about ouzo, though—you really cannot drink too much of it.  And so it was two beers and two ouzo[s] every night.  I also bought a box (yes, you read that right) of retsina at the resort shop, along with a small fortune in sunscreen and bandaids.  I have not drank retsina since, as that box did not make much of an impression.  I am not sure I have had ouzo since.  I still sort of associate it with duty rather than pleasure.

The resort had a breakfast buffet which we enjoyed the first morning.  And the second, but less so.  By the third, we thought the scrambled eggs looked familiar, as in they seemed to look literally exactly the same as the day before.  By the fourth day, they were turning green, along with the ham.  We stopped eating there after that.

So, the first day of the vacation we, of course, decided to see the Parthenon.  We arrived at the Acropolis and entered through some gate at the foot of the hill.  From there, we had to choose to turn right or left.  The map we had (for of course this was before GPS as well) did not help with choosing the direction, and being mindful of the fact that most people would go right, we went left. 

The trip up the Acropolis hill was literally a long and winding road.  Along the way, we encountered a couple of Russians loudly arguing in the shrubbery and predictably calling each other “goat”, giant turtles crawling around in a friendly manner, an ancient amphitheater, and many other similar curiosities during a two hour trek in 100 degree heat wearing entirely unsuitable shoes.  Approaching the entrance to the Parthenon, fainting from exhaustion and practically falling on the seller of water and ice cream, we realized that had we turned right when we first arrived, we would have been right around the corner from the ticket booth…

You would think we would have learned something from this experience—and you would be wrong.  A couple of days later we went to Corinth, determined to check out where St. Paul preached to the Corinthians.  We walked and walked, but nothing in town looked like the ancient Corinth of my imagination.  Surprise—we took the wrong turn yet again, as there is New Corinth and Ancient Corinth.  We did eventually find the latter, complete with the exact spot on which St. Paul once stood.  I mean, he must have—the place is not that big.

And finally, the one place where nothing went wrong during our trip was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.  We spent almost an entire day there.  The highlights included the famous Mask of Agamemnon (quite an ugly mug completely dissimilar from the lovely drawings in my childhood book), kouros statues about which I also learned in childhood (clearly I was a very well-informed kid), and busts of all the Roman emperors in chronological order, which I tried to identify by using my extensive knowledge thereof acquired entirely from the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davis.

As for the famous Greek Islands, we did not visit them.  We did go to one, Aegina, because it is the closest to Athens, and a fast boat gets you there from the Port of Piraeus in about 40 minutes.  Maybe next time.

Team Phantom

***Warning this post contains plot spoilers.  I do not want to discourage anyone from reading anything I write, but here it is: I will be divulging the plot of “Love Never Dies” below.  To my three loyal readers—I think you already know this, so please read on!

Last Saturday I woke up to the words “The Phantom of the Opera is here!” thundering through my house.  Being the musical lover that I am, I rolled out of bed, quite literally, and stumbled downstairs toward the source.  Spouse was watching the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On.

When I moved to New York City, “Phantom” was the hottest ticket in town.  It was not even new by then, but the wait for tickets was two years.  Two years, “Hamilton” fans!  In those pre-internet days, I literally had to call the box office and be told that I can get on the wait list.  I planned to be in NYC for three years, but I was also 21.  Needless to say, I never got on a wait list, and never saw “Phantom” on Broadway.  Instead, I continued to listen to the tape.  I loved the soundtrack, and still do.  

However, something always bothered me about “Phantom”.  Plot is important to me (unless we are talking about “G&S” (  The fact that Christine ends up with Raoul always seemed like a copout. Raoul is not that special, but he is handsome, and beautiful girls end up with handsome men and not with disfigured cavern dwellers.  I realize that that’s the original story, but I also think that Sir Andrew can do whatever he wants to do.  And guess what?  A quarter of a century later, he did.  “Love Never Dies” is a vindication of Team Phantom.

Seeing “Love Never Dies” was one of those unexpected transformative experiences that only live theater can give.  We found ourselves in London for a night’s layover, and my only goal was to sleep in a pod.  That was, by the way, absolutely terrible.  You might think it would be cute to sleep in a box where you cannot even comfortably turn, as I did before I experienced this nonsense, but trust me—it is the worst. But I digress.

We had a few evening hours in London, so of course ran to Leicester Square to buy show tickets.  “Love Never Dies”, the sequel to “Phantom”, seemed interesting.  Little did we know, it was selling terribly and was already set to close.  I am still sad about it.  This is not only one of the most beautiful stories and musical works I have seen (“Beneath the Moonless Sky” and “Devil Takes the Hindmost” quartet are alone worth the price of admission), but it has also finally reconciled me to “Phantom” by redeeming (and ultimately martyring—and what can be more redeeming than that?)  the seemingly superficial Christine.

Once I saw “Love Never Dies”, I have not been able to view “Phantom” the same way.  Once you know that Raoul will end up a drunk and a gambler and a total anchor for Christine, their whole courtship in “Phantom” looks doomed.  I kept wanting to tell Christine to just ditch him and stay with Phantom.   

When I saw “Beneath a Moonless Sky” live on stage, it was so unexpected and so heartbreaking.  Christine sang, “I loved you, I’d have followed anywhere you led”, and I just saw her in a completely different light, a woman beaten but unconquered by a bad marriage, full of regrets over a lost love, a woman who was prepared to follow her heart but who was given no choice in the matter and tried to do her best.  And Angel of Music returns too late, because life is complicated…

I understand that a lot of the fans of the original story hated the fact that Christine dies in “Love”.  But I think that no other solution would have worked.  No one would have believed if she and Phantom stayed together and lived happily ever after, and no one would have believed if she stayed with that wastrel Raoul.  Sorry, but she basically had to die—which makes the entire two-parter a great and tragic love story and ultimately elevates the original “Phantom”[*].

Now a word about the failed London production versus the revised Australian one, which was more successful.  If you see “Love Never Dies” on official video, you will see the latter one—and I am sorry.  Aside from the fact that I saw Ramin Karimloo as Phantom and Sierra Boggess in it, the West End version is superior in several subtle but key ways.  First, the set is better—one of those rare instances where computer generated set works (and anyone who knows me knows that I do not love CGI on stage).  The lights of Coney Island in Adelphi Theater were unforgettable!  The entire show is just darker and more mysterious, which is absolutely what it needs to be.

Second, starting the show with Madame Giry and the Phantasma freaks reminiscing is much more intriguing and evocative of the start of “Phantom” (“The Coney Island Waltz/That’s the Place That You Ruined, You Fool!”), while starting the show with Phantom singing “Till I Hear You Sing” [Once More] is just too much foreshadowing.  I am a firm believer that you just do not need to see Phantom in his mask until a few numbers in.  You know he is coming, unless you have never seen or heard of him.  In which case, you are in for an even bigger treat!

[*] Honorary mention goes to the amazing music box monkey that steals the show, according to my youngest son.

It Is a Glorious Thing

If you do not know that “Chariots of Fire” is my favorite movie, you do not know me. Once I saw it, I became obsessed with everything mentioned in the film, such as

  • Watching PBS, in the hopes of running into any of the actors who appeared in “Chariots”.  This was before BBC America, friends!
  • Watching the Olympics.  OK, I loved the Olympics since Moscow ’80.  “Chariots” didn’t do it singlehandedly, but still.
  • Wanting to go to England.  We had no resources to do that for a very long time.  Eventually I went to London for spring break of my senior year in college.  With my grandmother.  I repeat—with my grandmother.  If you do not know how fraught our relationship is, you do not know me.  But there is a happy end to this particular story—I have visited London many times since then, sans Grandma, and each trip has been an improvement.
  • Wanting to take “Sybil” for my middle name.  Sybil is NOT my middle name, because by the time I could acquire one, I had fallen in love with The Monkees.
  • Wanting to see all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
  • Wanting to have “Jerusalem” sung at my funeral.  I am saving this one for last.  Literally and obviously.

So, one of the many unexpectedly wonderful benefits of this great film is that it introduced me to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan.  And unlike my belated foray into running, this was instant.  In the movie, Harold Abrahams joins Cambridge’s Gilbert and Sullivan society.  Apparently, this is factual.  So snippets of the operettas are part of the soundrack—it is not all Vangelis.  I must confess, although of course—of course!—I bought the record, I am not a huge Vangelis fan.  I am generally not a fan of instrumental music.  Not going to classical music concerts is one of my small rebellions against my upbringing.  But I love musical theater.  I need words and a plot.

Over the past 40 years, I have only seen four of their operettas—the three BIG ones, and “Ruddigore”.[1]  It started with “HMS Pinafore”.  My high school, during a woefully depressed year when our millage did not pass, the school day was cut to five hours, and buses were cancelled (a disaster in rural Midwest), put “Pinafore” on in the choir room.  The set was minimal, if any, but the costumes were great, because all guys were dressed like sailors.  I recognized “He is an Englishman” from “Chariots of Fire” and was pretty excited.  I was also amazed at the vocal and acting talents of my peers.  The fact that I was generally unfazed by the immense inanity of the plot is a commentary on how limited my command of the English language was at the time. 

Literally no idea what’s going on

In short succession, my mother and I managed to see professional touring productions of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado”.  I had high hopes for the latter because of its special part in “Chariots”—but either my English regressed or the plot is even more bizarre than that of “Pinafore”, because I did not understand it.  I have never seen it again. 

Not necessary

“Pirates”, however, was great!  “Pirates” is (or should it be “are”?) great!  The production we saw in Detroit in the early ‘80s was perfect.  I remember nothing about it except the lead.[2]   I think “Pirates” stands wonderfully well on its own merits.  It is a fun, light, colorful bit of cheery entertainment.  I am generally very open and even eager to see variations on the classical traditions—with certain exceptions.  Directors, please, do not mess with “Pirates”!

“The Pirates of Penzance” also happens to be my husband’s favorite musical.  Strangely, he does not care about the rest of the G&S body of work.  He just loves “Pirates”.  Specifically, he is obsessed with the Major General character. Even more narrowly, the “Modern Major General” song, and how quickly the actor can do it.  Fast-talking Major General equals great “Pirates”.  The Major General who is not fast enough just ruins everything for spouse. 

He also claims that he saw that touring production in Detroit and remembers the young blond lead.  To think that we could have met a decade before we did, at a Gilbert and Sullivan show!  It would have led nowhere, for a whole host of reasons, but it is kind of romantic to think that we might have been at the same theater event.  Happy World Theatre Day! 

[1] This is kind of shameful.  I know I had many other opportunities.  Once the plague is over, I should focus more on G&S…

[2] The actor who played Frederick in the touring production of “The Pirates of Penzance” subsequently returned as the lead in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I like to pretend that I saw Andy Gibb in “Joseph”, but I did not. I saw this guy.  I wish I knew who he was, because he was great.  If anyone knows—please tell me.  This was before I started keeping show programs, unfortunately.

Pont du Gard and the Plague

In my adult life, I developed a fear of the plague.  I blame two fictional sources for this:

  • The film “Horseman on the Roof”.  Apparently it is based on a novel, which I have not read, and is set during the 1832 cholera epidemic in Provence.  Something must have gotten lost in translation and/or in my memory, as the latter is absolutely convinced that the story is about The Plague.  In all fairness, cholera is pretty nasty, too.  The film was made in 1995, and I would have seen it on video some few years later, so I have been frightened for 20+ years now. 
  • The book “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. I read it in 2004, and have been *legitimately* frightened for almost 16 years.  It actually is about the plague, though the one from the 1600s, not the Black Death of the 14th century.  Which just goes to show that whatever century or whatever contagion, they are all awful[1]

Until literally three days ago, I assumed that the fear of the plague was the same as some of my other phobias, such as the irrational dread of large statues. (Yes, the Statue of Liberty is pretty much my worst nightmare.  I choose not to read too much into that…)  Turns out, the plague is back. 

Actual toilet paper purchased by me in France for no other reason that it was needed at the time. ‘What an auspicious purchase!

I am not making light of it.  Like everyone else, I am trying to adjust to the ever-changing environment in which the toilet paper is scarce like it was back in the USSR, borders are closing (like they were back in the USSR), and no one trusts the government as a source of correct information (I think I see a pattern…) Unlike many other folks, I spent the last week in France, and gained some unexpected perspective.  Spoiler alert:  I think that cancer or work-stress-induced-heart-attack are still my more realistic foes in this lifetime.

I had three modest goals for this past week in the South of France:

  1. To see the newest D’Artagnan statues.  Until the last decade, there were three in the world; now there are five.  If I had to drive for several hours to a couple of French villages to complete this quest, well, I did.  Of course I did.
  2. To see the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and hopefully locate the mural of Gerard Philippe nearby.  Done.undefined
  3. To stop by my old stomping grounds in Nîmes.  This did not happen.  We woke up on the day for which we scheduled this visit to the announcement that the US borders were closing the next day.  Supposedly US citizens would still be allowed to enter the country, but tell this to someone with a different family history.  This refugee rallied, got on a train from Perpignan to Paris, and flew out of Paris as soon as Delta would let her on a plane.  Home is where the dogs are.  And a paycheck.

The last official day of vacation, on the way back from Avignon to our timeshare, we stopped at Pont du Gard.  I did not intend to stop there, because I had the most vivid memory of my previous visit there. Yes, it was during “that summer that I spent studying in France”  It was such a good day!  I mean, I acutely remember it as a *Good Day*.  It was June of ’88[2], the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by friends.  Our summer program included an art class, so some were drawing the bridge.  I took two photos, which in the day of pre-digital cameras was the rough equivalent of the 19 I took this second time.

Pont du Gard then

We went to Pont du Gard this past week because it was on the way, and we had time.  We waffled a little, because it costs $10+ per person to get into the surrounding area.  But if I have learned anything in this life it is that you cannot put a price on regret.  So we paid and started walking.  And there it was, standing since shortly after the death of Christ, towering through millennia over The Plague, my friends and me, my spouse and me, impassively watching people come and go, sun shining, river flowing, and the aqueduct still standing.

Pont du Gard now

It has been almost 32 years.  I have lost touch with all but three of the people in that group.  Yet on the last day of my “Feast During the Plague”, I felt surrounded by their ghosts.  I have never missed KIES Group ’88[3] as much as I did during that time and in that place! 

So, the ghosts of my friends from 1988.  The majestic mass of that huge ancient Roman aqueduct from the first century A.D.  Spouse and I, having a *Good Day*.  And I kept thinking, I’ve had an interesting life.  I was fortunate enough to see and be seen at this site twice in the past two centuries.  And I am still in touch with three of the people who shared that incredible summer with me, and share the memories of that day.  If the plague gets me, I have lived[4].  If the plague gets me, the bridge still stands.  Lalalalala….life goes on!  And that is how Pont du Gard helped me to deal with my fear of the plague. 

[1] Unrelated to this topic, I love Geraldine Brooks’ books except one.  I cannot recommend “The Secret Chord”.  It is shockingly violent.  I would rather read about the plague of any kind.  As of this writing, she has five novels out.  Read four of them in this order: “Year of Wonders”, “People of the Book”, “Caleb’s Crossing”, “March”. 

[2] June 28, 1988, to be precise. I know this, because I had to keep a diary in French for class.  Apparently I did not swim, because I felt fat in a bathing suit.  But it was still a great day!

[3] KIES—Kentucky Institute for European Studies.  Now it’s the Kentucky Institute for International Studies or KIIS (pronounced like “keys”), a consortium of public and private Kentucky colleges and universities which administers a variety of international studies programs in Central America, Europe, South America, and China. It was founded by Murray State University in 1975.  Back then, it was just Europe.  And it was incredible.  That summer changed my life, and unlike many other life-changing events, it changed it for the *better*! 

[4] But I am still betting on cancer or death-by-stressful-job.  Not morbid, just realistic.


That summer that I spent studying in France , I decided to visit every country in Europe.  The Eurail Pass made it seem like an actual possibility, if not a likelihood.  So how did I do it?  Well, I did not, because a couple of caveats were built into this very vague plan, including:

  • British Isles did not count, because the Eurail Pass did not include them
  • Soviet Bloc did not count, for obvious reasons (it was the ‘80s, friends)
  • Germany and Austria did not count, also for obvious reasons

What did count were the “dwarf states”[1].  I first read about them in my beloved childhood encyclopedia, “What Is This, Who Is That?”  My mom bought it the year I was born, so as of this writing, pretty much all the information in it that does not pertain to fish or ancient history is outdated.  Even the fact that Malta is not included in the article on microstates is pretty telling—it was still part of the United Kingdom.  Yes, I date back to Malta’s pre-independence days!  Plus, it was published in the USSR, so literally, all the post-Renaissance history articles are pretty skewed. 

Liechtenstein is the one with the stamps and teeth. There is a stamp museum there, which we did not visit. I am not sure about the teeth. Unless they are just signifying a welcoming smile?

The original article listed, as anyone who can read Russian can plainly see on the attached, but I will translate for the rest, Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and San-Marino.  Currently in Wikipedia, we currently also have Malta and Vatican, but not Luxembourg.  What happened to Luxembourg?  I suppose since it is bigger by area and population than all the others combined, by all means let’s exclude it.  I *have* been there, and survived a traumatic experience of being [almost] attacked by a knife-wielding maniac at a cemetery—but that is another story for another time! (I might be saving it for my memoirs)  And as for Vatican, it goes without saying that the Soviet version would make no mention of it under any circumstances, because “religion is an opiate of the people” (Karl Marx said this, not I).

And so, during that summer, I already had Vatican under my belt, having lived as a refugee in and around Rome some years before then, and then proceeded to have that encounter in Luxembourg[2].  In the past decade, I travelled to Malta (which is literally the most perfect place in terms of weather, history, food, ease of getting around, and the fact that all the signs are in English even if no one actually speaks it), and Monaco (which is also cool in many ways but is the opposite of easy to get around.  I mean, when there are elevators to get you from one street to another—take them!  Do not, I repeat, do not brave the stairs!)  I still have not been to Andorra or San-Marino, and frankly, they are a bit off the radar for me.  Someday—but not today, as I say. 

So when I planned the vacation to Munich for Oktoberfest this year[3], I noted how close Liechtenstein is.  Driving there was one of my motivating factors for renting a car, because I already learned from that European summer that the train does not stop in Liechtenstein.  It literally does not have an international train station!

I could not find a tour book on Liechtenstein, so spouse and I decided to improvise.  We pretty much just drove into the country and looked for parking.  Everything is right there: a beautiful cathedral, an interesting history museum, and a town square with souvenir shops and cafes.  There is also a medieval castle within a short drive—it is apparently in a different town from the capital, Vaduz, which is basically one street over[4].  The views are breathtaking, since Liechtenstein is ¾ Alps.  The beer is not bad, though not as good as three countries over in Germany.

In short, I would highly recommend a visit to Liechtenstein, if you happen to be in the Alpine neighborhood, and like picturesque towns.  Do I feel like I visited a different country?  Well, not necessarily, but I do have another flag to prove that I did[5]!

[1] I apologize for the use of the term “dwarf” to anyone who might be offended by it.  This is, again, a direct translation from the Russian language, as again can be seen from the attached illustration.

[2] Faux-dwarf!

[3] I travel to Germany now.  My, how the world has changed!…

[4] I did not realize it was a different town until I looked it up just now.

[5] Fun fact—I collect flags from the countries I visit.  Soviet Union and Russia merit their own separate flags, as does the Republic of Texas.

Sorrow Floats

My former business partner used to say this—“August is a heavy month”.  His father died in August, and he was not able to make it to the funeral.  August also used to be a slow month in our practice, during which we usually made less money than we wanted (and often needed), so it was logically explained away by this “heaviness”.

Other than those five crazy years with him, during which we had a saying, if not an actual solution, for every eventuality, I am not sure I noticed a particular problem with August.  I got married in August—not because of any particular significance, but simply because a hall was available, and friends who introduced me to my husband also got married in August, in the early part of the month, and returned from their honeymoon in the later part of it.  And so there is something to celebrate during this heavy month—as of this writing, I am still married to my first husband.

Translated from the original Russian, though, the word can mean anything from the physical or emotional heaviness to heaviness of sorrow, pain, grief.  August is a sorrowful month.  I am not sure if there are any statistics on what month is the deadliest.  I am not sure I want to know.  If I just search my memory, the only person I can think of who died in August is Joe Dassin, the beautiful French singer of my childhood.  He was 41 in the August of 1980.  Fun fact: when I was in labor with my second child, I, for reasons passing understanding, needed to listen to Joe Dassin’s song “À toi”.[1]  We brought the CD to the hospital, and my husband had to continuously replay it.  Joe’s voice—and that specific song, no other, not “Les Champs-Élysées”, not “Siffler sur la colline”, not “Et si tu n’existais pas”—soothed labor pains. True story![2]

But this past August has been a tough one.  I am glad to see the backside of it.  I suffered three losses, two actual deaths and an emptying of my nest—neither of which I have been able to process yet; a couple of physical injuries—I am going to lose that nail after all ( the real one), plus a fall that can only be called good because there is only a flesh wound, but still, I missed a couple of weeks of running at the height of training season; and of course, there is that ever present, ever looming, ever unendurable—work stress.

Another phrase difficult to translate from Russian is one my mother used to describe this state of being.  It is literally translated as “loss of strength”.  I used Google translate, and it came up as “prostration”.  Prostration?  We do that in church! “Collapse” seems slightly more accurate, but way too dramatic.  I would say there is a certain loss of strength, to be sure, but more of a loss of the mind-heart-body connection.  The mind is going through the motions (especially during the work day).  The heart is hurting.  The body is parked on the couch.  The body is fairly useless when not motivated by the heart. 

But finally, as we also say back in the Old Country, “hope dies last”.  I hear it in the voice of one of our dearly departed from this August.  I heard him say it at a family gathering quite some many years ago, and whenever I say it to myself, I hear him and see him in my mind’s eye.  And that memory-to-mind-to-heart connection is something, is it not?  Yes, Sorrow floats[3] and is a short distance away; and wisdom comes in unexpected ways…

[1] It came out in 1976.  My son was born 25 years later. 

[2] You should have heard me humming Joe’s “Il faut naître à Monaco” when I visited Monaco almost two years ago.  The reference was lost on everyone around me, especially all the poor unfortunate souls that heard me sing, but I enjoyed it! Ah, Joe, you left your mark on this world…

[3] John Irving, “Hotel New Hampshire”

There are almost no images of Sorrow out there. That’s a bummer, because he made the biggest impression on me from this book. THE.BIGGEST

Father’s Day Part II

I meant to add this as a follow up to Part I.  Like for Rose Tyler, it is certainly an unexamined subject for me.  I never had a father.  Well, strictly, it is not true.  He has always existed in the ether, and walks the Earth today. 

Here is how we first met.  Back in the pre-Afghan invasion days, before the Soviet Union reinstituted the draft, young men were only conscripted if they were not in college.  Those pursuing a higher education were exempt from the brute service.  My father failed out of college and was immediately snapped up.    One fine day during my fifth summer, I was told that my father was coming home.  I was made to wear a hideous sleeveless blue dress with pink trim, and have not forgiven my mother for it to this day.  It was made in Egypt, and had a head of Nefertiti on the inside tag.  It freaked me out, and I hated the dress because of it.  I also hated how my bangs were pulled back in a bow.  It seemed a lousy first impression to make on my father.

He arrived with a bouquet of flowers for my mother, and I recall turning away from a hug.  He was a stranger, and it was all completely embarrassing.  I lived with my grandparents, and young men were scarce in my world.  He was probably about 25 at the time.

I think my parents were only together for that one summer.  Several memories I have of that time are as follows:

Living with my other grandparents.  They had a two bedroom apartment. It was a standard and familiar layout of the times. I remember they had a vase on the floor with cattails. I must have had the urge to pick at them.  I probably did.  My other grandmother, who, as my father later confirmed, disliked my mother and her family (and me, I certainly felt so), was ironing a beige dress with white lace that I had and ironed out a crease on the front.  It was the design of the dress, and I protested, because “my” grandmother would not do such a thing.  She responded that she was also a grandmother of mine.  Whatevs, lady.  I never believed her, and she never really was.  I addressed her with the polite “vy” instead of the familiar “ty”, which irritated her.  I do not even have a photo of her. I would not know her in this life or the next.  She died just a few years ago. 

Toys. My other grandparents presented me with some cool toys.  There was a set of amazing dollhouse furniture, which I regrettably did not treasure.  Of course, it would have never made it to America anyway.  What did was an old Viewmaster which my father must have had as a child when his parents lived in India.  It had some amazing Western shows, such as a three-disk set of “Bambi”, “Three Little Pigs”, “Little Black Sambo” (it was a long time ago…), coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, lots of brightly colored parrots and one monkey (there is always one monkey), and incredible views of faraway Asian lands, particularly Mount Fuji and the Taj Mahal.  I brought it frequently to show and tell in my Russian school.  The collection made it to America but not past high school. When I went away to college, I neglected to supervise, and my mother, predictably, lost it.  It is a damn shame.  Damn shame.

Aunt.  My mother is an only child.  My father has a younger sister.  They seems to have retained a close relationship to this day.  She was a college student at the time, and he encouraged me to shake a fist at her and yell, “We will show you, students!”  Only recently did I learn that this was because of the famous Shurik the Student movie, “Operation Y”.  My father must have been a fan.  My aunt Tanya seemed a benign, but nondescript, presence.  I remember almost nothing about her.  My father was allowed to name his newborn baby sister Tatiana, which is apparently his favorite name.  He suggested it as a name for me, but of course my mother had to step in without something less “common”.  It appears that my father did not get a vote.  He managed to prevail with my sister, who has a different mother. 

Car.  My other grandfather had a car.  It was huge and green and white, but maybe it wasn’t either.  My father must have known how to drive, because I recall sitting in the front, which is quite illegal for very young children, Soviet Union being no exception, and he admonished me to slide under the dashboard if we saw the road patrol out in the country.  Great parenting right there! 

Not my other grandparents’ actual dacha

Dacha.  My family never had a dacha, a “beyond the Volga” country home, because my grandfather worked all the time.  It was not that my grandparents could not afford it, but more that they did not want to be bothered with working the land.  Besides, pretty much everyone we knew had a dacha.  My other grandparents’ dacha was a two story construction, which was very exciting.  The second story was some kind of a loft where my parents slept.  I wonder if that is what caused my affinity and longing for lofts.  I have never lived in one.  My father’s paternal grandmother was still alive at the time.  She seemed ancient.  She was dressed all in black and sat on the steps of the dacha and yelled at me whenever I ran in or out of the house.  I have no recollection of her being elsewhere, just on the steps of the dacha. 

And then there were the pranks.  Tall, handsome, fair, young, my father was not really a parent, but a fun older brother type.  One time we came to pick my mother up from work (he was not working—not then, not later).  My mother worked at the Synthetic Rubber Plant.  There was a mean old Soviet woman guarding the exit.  It was a secure facility, and those without authorization could not enter.  I saw my mother walk toward us down a long hallway.  Father urged me to run to her, past the mean woman—and I did.  It was, of course, unimaginable, but it was fun!

Another time we were waiting for my mother to come home.  My father came up with a basic, but ballsy, plan of cutting out eyes in a sheet, putting me on his shoulders, and scaring my mother as soon as she entered the apartment.  It was hilarious.  He was so much fun!

I never had any grievances against my father.  He was—and, I am afraid, remains—a stranger, but the memories are mine and lovely…

A Few of [Whose] Favorite Things

I used to read self-help books.  I am not entirely sure if they really did help, but there is no real way to know, is there?  We never stop learning and growing, and all that.  Even as I write this, I am waiting for the library to deliver to me a copy of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”.  I am #110 on 6 EBook copies, and #223 on 20 audiobook copies, with wait time of at least six months, according to the library website.  I am expecting that half a year from today (at least), I will be so much cooler and calmer and more collected.  Until then, I have to keep relying on old coping skills. 

One of those is a list of 100 things that bring me joy.  I made this list almost a quarter of a century ago, and I still have it.  I have never revised it.  Looking at it now, I am generally in agreement with my younger self.  However, there are some items that are genuinely puzzling:

#15:     Playing badminton.  Not that it is not fun, but seriously—when did I play so much badminton in this lifetime that it merited its own entry on the list?  I mean, badminton got into Top 100, and even Top 15?  OK, the list is not in order of priority, but to have thought of badminton so early on?  A head-scratcher…

#19:     Lilliput Lane houses.  Again, Top 20 in the Spirit of Acquisition?  I have a few of those cute miniatures, but since I have been focused more on unloading than acquiring crap, I mean, stuff, in recent years, I have to say that this one is decidedly off the list.

#41:     Trivial Pursuit.  Is it even a thing these days?  I think it might have been replaced by Cards Against Humanity in my life.  Maybe less intellectual, but a lot more laughs!

#51.     Jelly Bellies.  Whoa, really?  I used to love Jelly Bellies, but that much?  Glad they are not in the Top 50—that would be embarrassing.  Bottom 50 is OK.

#61.     TV Guide.  That’s a heartbreaking one. I used to love TV Guide so much, when it was in that little compact format.  In high school, I used to trek to Meijer’s Thrifty Acres weekly to buy TV Guide as soon as it was out on the stands.  It was so important in the pre-internet days, my main source of information that counted (don’t judge!).  Then they changed the format, which made me super-mad, because then it looked like any other magazine.  And I just could not keep up with the thousands of new channels anyway.  And then technology got so ahead of me that these days I can only turn the TV on with express instructions from my spouse and children. Oh, but I still miss TV Guide!  I wish I had kept that issue with Richard Chamberlain as Father Ralph from “The Thorn Birds” on the cover…

#89.  Fashion magazines.  I have no idea who actually made this entry, although the handwriting seems to be mine.  It must have been a minor case of possession, as I do not recollect ever purchasing or even looking through a fashion magazine.  I must have been running out of things that brought me joy…

Then there is a handful of items that are largely gone from the world:

#17.  Bookstores.  Oh, what a joy it was to browse at Borders or even Barnes & Noble (but Borders was the ultimate)!  But who am I to complain, when I so utterly and completely, albeit somewhat belatedly, jumped on the Kindle/Audible/OverDrive wagon and have not physically set foot in a bookstore in years?  If Borders was still around, I would still be buying books there.  I can safely tell myself this.

And finally, something that was not on the list decades ago, but would be #1 today:

Dogs.  I love dogs.  But I did not even like them when the list was initially written. Which just goes to show how much things can change in one lifetime, as I write this while wearing my “Home is where the dog is” T-shirt, given to me by my mom. [Who also did not make the Top 100 list then, but definitely would now!] 

The Merry Wives of Stratford

Some years ago, I decided that I needed to complete the Shakespeare canon.  For a spectator like me, that means only seeing the shows, not acting in them or directing them (I laugh because this is true).  As I see several Shakespeare stagings every year, I am ever surprised by the universality as well as timelessness of his works.  I mean, after a few centuries, they are not dated (unless the director allows them to be, which is decidedly NOT the goal).  I am also occasionally surprised by how my relation to the various plays has changed over the years—the ones I thought I loved I occasionally outgrew, the ones I either did not know or did not much like I grew to appreciate more, and so forth.  As of this writing, I have five plays left to see, which seems like a shockingly large number considering how long I have been at it—so, if anyone hears of Henry VI being done anywhere, please let me know.  I do mean anywhere, I will travel for this!

I have deliberately been avoiding The Merry Wives of Windsor for years.  I glimpsed it once on TV, must have been on Masterpiece Theater, and I hated it.  It seemed like a lot of commotion of people running around in bonnets and pumpkin pants, laughing at jokes that made no sense, and the language itself was unintelligible to me.  It also had Falstaff, a character many like, but I kind of hate.  I just do not find him funny or endearing or charismatic in any way.  I just find him annoying. 

But, with so few plays left to complete the canon, and with Stratford Festival—the greatest theater in North America, if not the world—staging Merry Wives this season, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet.  Spoiler alert:  I am glad I did, but I am still not crazy about this play. 

Antoni Cimolino, the Artistic Director of the Festival who directed the play, set it in 1953.  It was the year the festival was founded by Tom Patterson.  Is it weird that I immediately thought that it was the year that Stalin died?  Seems like it was a much more carefree year in Canada than in the USSR, but maybe not so much when it came to women’s rights.  Frankly, though, I did not find the story to be too offensive in the #MeToo era.  Falstaff is lecherous and pushy, but easily confounded and disarmed.  Mr. Ford is jealous not like Othello, but like Moliere’s clueless and pompous husband characters.  The women outsmart and outplay the men with ease, plus great humor and spirit.  So, I am inclined to just view this story as a harmless farce rather than a statement on gender relations.

And what a farce it is—but I am not against farces.  I am an easy laugh, but what of it?  A peculiar mix of Monty Python and I Love Lucy is not the worst to which a comedy can aspire—and achieve.  In this particular production, the stars of Stratford are out in full force.  Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page is just the most luminous wide-eyed Lucille Ball impersonation ever, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The incomparable Geraint Wyn Davies is possibly the only Falstaff I can stomach, and he actually made me feel sorry for the fat buffoon at the end.  Aww, Geraint with that sparkle in his eyes, his Falstaff exuding the benign mirth that reduces the creep factor almost to zero!  And Lucy Peacock as Miss Quickly is channeling the comic relief housekeepers straight out of the Soviet comedies of the death-of-Stalin era, whose kerchief, ankle boots like my grandmother would wear, and intermittent snacking made me feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic.  Ben Carlson, as the Welsh parson, is the funniest I have ever seen him be–and Ben is usually witty funny, not ha-ha funny, so this was a joy to behold.  When he agrees with Mr. Ford that Falstaff in drag as the old woman of Brentford must be a witch because she has whiskers and a beard, I died laughing!  (I use this phrase to excess; I guarantee you will see it again.)  Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford, while very funny as well, is basically Tartuffe’s Orgon, whom he played on the same stage two years ago. It is not his fault that this part is so similar—after all, I have seen Geraint Wyn Davies play Falstaff before, which is literally the same character.  I am just saying it was not a surprise, that’s all.

The Monty Python theme plows through the play in the character of Dr. Caius.  Gordon Miller plays him essentially as the French Taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with pronouncing every letter in “knight”.  When you hear it, you just can’t unhear it.  He even throws in John Cleese’s silly walk.  It’s all very funny, but a bit much, including the exaggerated French accent that is at times utterly unintelligible, although every second word is “bugger”. 

So, I walked out of the theater not feeling that I saw a Shakespearean play.  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  I do not think so.  I laughed a lot, I had a good time, and that is a value in itself.  The fact that a comedy written 400 years ago still retains the humor of a much more modern piece is astonishing.  When Antoni Cimolino mentioned that Merry Wives has funnier jokes than Neil Simon he was not kidding (see what I did there?).  If there was a deeper message, I might not have gotten it.  But, in the words of John Cleese’s Pope in the Penultimate Supper sketch, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!”  

P.S.  E.B. Smith needs to have a bigger part in this play, and really in every play.

Extroverted Introvert or Introverted Extrovert

Introverts seem to have come into vogue lately.  In my youth, the terms ranged from the mild “shy” to less-than-kind “loner”.  In my culture, being solitary in any form was not a value, because after all, we lived in a collective.  In my language, there is no word for “privacy”.  No, there really isn’t!  I tried to find a translation, and the closest English word I could find was “confidentiality”, which is clearly not the same thing. 

My spouse and children laugh at the notion that I am an introvert.  I am appalled at the notion that they think I am anything but.  Have they not met me?  I love all sorts of solitary activities, I have no concerns with seeing movies and eating out and traveling alone, I have a very small circle of friends, and I hate talking on the phone.  I do enjoy social gatherings, but am never disappointed (and often not-so-secretly thrilled) when they are cancelled.  I have to give myself a substantial pep talk when I go to networking events, and have been seized by panic when I show up and do not know anyone.  I am also not great at small talk.  I thought I fit the memes quite well, until I really started to think about this.  I decided that I really need to understand the terms before I start labeling myself.

I am literally all of these things!

As a child, I was regarded as fairly unfriendly, and I accepted that view of me for the longest time.  I lived with a grandmother who so completely lacked in introspection and ability to derive any joy out of her own company and inner gifts that spending time in solitary pursuits was to her not just unattractive, but unnatural. I loved playing with other kids, I had neighborhood friends, I loved adventures, but I also loved reading and drawing.  I remember being allowed to read only to a certain chapter before being made to go outside to play, and pretending to read slower than I actually did in order to prolong the pleasure.  I just cannot imagine stopping anyone from reading, regardless of their personality type—reading is fundamental!  I was labeled unsociable by my family not because I had a shortage of social activities, but because I did not constantly crave them.  Looking back now, I see that I had a pretty healthy balance in my life, but was persistently pushed off balance.  I was relentlessly driven to one side of the continuum.  Resistance was futile!

Hanging out with people one knows and likes and walking cold into a gathering of strangers are completely different experiences.  One does not have to be an extrovert to love the former, and an introvert to hate the latter.  I am often that last person to leave the party—but only if I am having a good time.  Oh, and I am also a huge talker.  Huge!  Privately, I chastise myself a lot for not listening well, and yet still I cannot shut up once I get going.  But, I have also been known to make my excuses and beat a hasty retreat—if I am having a lousy time.  I have participated, reluctantly, in many a stilted and awkward conversation, and was once asked if I had a disability because I was so quiet.  Does that just make me a person who knows what she likes and does not want to waste time on things she does not?  Aha, what a concept! 

 I learned a new term today—yes, literally today. I am an “ambivert”.  According to Merriam-Webster, that is the person who has both extrovert and introvert characteristics.  It is a social adaptation—the person behaves according to the situation.  On the spectrum, I am in the middle.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Does freedom come too late?  Well, not necessarily.  All of us are works in progress until the end, and self-understanding is never wasted.  Being armed with this new-to-me term, I shall boldly go, both to parties and on my solitary runs.  Allons-y!