Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Travel Virgin's Guide to Italy

Trevi Fountain
My travels have usually been to my home state to see the huge extended family my husband’s career ripped me from in 1987. (Not that I hold any resentment.)

Then we went to Italy.

The photos of Italy’s incredible sights prepared me for the wonders of The Trevi Fountain, the David, the Sistine Chapel, Venice canals and gondolas, etc. But some important things aren’t mentioned in guidebooks, so out of the goodness of my heart I’m sharing them with you. 

Pay to Pee

You have to pay to use public toilets in Italy. Usually half a Euro (their 50-cent piece), but in Venice we paid 1,50 Euros--and had to climb yet another flight of stairs for the pleasure. Every toilet flushes differently. Never once saw the standard American lever. I saw square cuts in ceramic toilet tops, round cuts, double cuts where you choose the water amount depending on, ahem, the contents. I saw square, rectangular, and circle shapes in the walls. The one that stymied our travel group was what looked like a hotel tissue dispenser behind the toilet. Praying no spiders lived within, I stuck my fingers inside and discovered the flusher. 

The Labyrinth
You know that Venice is all canals, but did you know there are no vehicles on the island so you have to climb stairs over all the canals to get anywhere? Walk a block, climb stairs. Another block, more stairs. Or face a barrier and go left or right, because forward is water. If you're not on the main walk, Venice is a maze of narrow lanes of shops and restaurants. People had warned me about the narrow lanes, but nothing prepared me for having to walk single file down an alley in Venice—and finding not a street gang, but a nice restaurant at the other end. And I thought the canal water would smell bad, but it doesn't. The gondola ride was a wonderful, stink-free experience. 

Key Fob

Keyed Up 
Hotels in Italy have their quirks. We stayed in lovely hotels, the kind John Norris has never sprung for in all his life. All three rooms we stayed in had twin beds. In some, the door key cards must be stuck in a wall holder in your room to turn on the electricity. When you leave you pull out the card, and the electricity—including the air conditioning—turn off. In another, a heavy metal fob (see photo, left) is attached to an actual key. You had to leave it at the front desk and ask for it by room number when you came back. Of course, anyone could ask for anyone else’s room key and get away with it, but I thought of that too late to go robbing the other guests.
A Bidet in Every Hotel Bath

Bidet to You

Hotel bathrooms in Italy have bidets. (Remember Crocodile Dundee: “It’s for washing your backside.”) I can barely bring myself to use a public bathroom--who on earth would use a bidet in a restaurant bathroom? Yet I saw one.

Bamboozled by Google

I could never figure out whether to say grazie or grazia as thank you. Italians said it both ways. Googling it only made things more confusing, so you’re on your own there. I think “Prego” must mean “You’re welcome.” They couldn’t all be expressing a preference on spaghetti sauce brands.

So, there you have it. Hints from and for the travel virgin. Happy travels!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Castle of Eternal Punishment

Pushing that boulder up that hill.
I used to be a sucker for items to address my “I hate cleaning my house/I love a clean house” quandary. An automatic sprayer that would clean my shower like an army of chubby cleaning ladies? A steam mop? A solid cake of cleanser you attach to the inside of the toilet bowl which cleans the bowl with every flush? Yeah, baby! Sign me up!

Then one day the sprayer quit. The steam mop exploded and I barely escaped being burned. The bleach scent of the toilet cleaner in the master bath reached the bedroom and made my husband’s chronic cough even more annoying chronic.

Cleaning house reminds me of (here comes a reference I learned from some of my more literary friends, so be very impressed) King Sisyphus, a wicked king whose punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a hill. then watch it roll back down each time, for eternity.

Eternity. Like keeping a house clean. 

I’ve tried cleaning a little bit each day or doing a major cleaning once a week. And I hate both. Especially cleaning shower stalls. I freaking HATE cleaning the showers. When we had this house built they gave us the option of a third bedroom up in the bonus room. I said, “No thanks. My days of cleaning three toilets are over.” But honestly, I find cleaning toilets a delight—compared to showers.

Also the stove top. I cook a lot and the stove top gets nasty so fast I can’t believe chefs aren’t sneaking in here at night and cooking for an entire restaurant. Finally found a scraper gadget that scrapes off the nasty so I’m much happier at the results when I do clean it, but cleaning it? Still hate it.

Quitting cleaning is not an option. I need my house to be clean. And hiring someone else to do it would mean going back to work to earn the money, which seems a bit drastic to me.

I love my house. I just wish it had a self-cleaning button. Like a dishwasher, just throw in a cleaning tablet, shut the door, and push a button. The world would get along fine without even smaller, smarter cell phones and bigger, smarter TVs. You entrepreneurs, get on that, would you?

Meanwhile, until I win the lottery and hire a cleaning lady you can find me with a Miracle Cloth in one hand, homemade cleaner spray in the other, gagging on vinegar fumes barely beaten back by essential oil scents, pushing that boulder up the hill again and again. 

King Sisyphus of my castle.

Monday, July 11, 2016

My Eighty-Year-Old Stalker

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I ended up my working career by working in a church office. Sounds simple, right? Answer the phone, type up the bulletin, a cinch. 

Unless you’ve worked in the office of a growing church (500 members when I started, 1200 when I left), let me just tell you: You have no clue what goes on there. The pastors weren’t always in the office, so as the only other full-time employee, I often handled crisis situations. I prayed with people, listened to their sad stories and tragedies, and sometimes gave them money if they didn’t smell like cigarette smoke. (Hey, if you can afford to smoke you can afford to pay your bills.)

But nothing in the job description prepared me for the eighty-year-old man who mistook my sympathy at his wife’s death for something else. I first met him in the grocery parking lot where he was looking lost. I stopped to help; turned out he was furious that someone had stolen his white truck. I hesitantly pointed out a white truck parked in the next row. He completely fell apart—his wife was on her deathbed and he just didn’t know what he was going to do without her. I listened to him talk and cry for an hour, then told him where I worked and that he should come by and talk to a pastor. Instead, he came by a couple weeks later to see me—his wife had died and he was very sad.

He lived on my route home, so twice when I saw him on the front porch I stopped and chatted with him for a few minutes. The second time as I got up to leave, he jumped to his feet and shoved his walker out of the way. He grabbed my upper arms with shockingly strong hands and kissed me on the lips. “God sent me a woman!” he shouted. 

Unfortunately, I seem to have the same self-protective reflexes as a cabbage. I just stood there with my mouth hanging wide open in shock. Which left me wide open for the second kiss. Bleah! Gross! Ick!

I ran to my car. All the way home I shuddered, let out short screams and tried to get someone—anyone—on the car’s On-Star phone. No one was available in my time of need. Not even youth minister Craig, who later laughed his behind off saying, “Oh man I wish I’d been there! Oh man I wish I’d been there!” He's probably still laughing.

The old molester could not remember which house we’d moved the office to when the church outgrew itself, and he went door-to-door knocking and yelling, “I know Valerie’s in there! You send her out!” An eighty-year-old stalker. Someone asked my husband what he was going to do about it. John said, “I’m not going to punch an eighty-year-old!”

Which begs the question, exactly how young do my molesters have to be before John will defend my honor?

The church office manager held a meeting at which we were reminded to keep boundaries when doing ministry. She said, “If he wasn’t eighty, we’d be calling the police about the situation.” Instead, we called Jim, a member of the church who knew the old guy, and asked him to go explain that I was married and not interested, and the whole thing was inappropriate. 

Since I know you're wondering, yes, when I got home from the disgusting kissing incident, I brushed my teeth, rinsed my mouth with Listerine, eyed the bleach bottle in the laundry room for a minute and then took another shot of Listerine. 

But I still shudder at the memory.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Literary Confessions

I have bookshelves in nearly every room.
Sometimes I feel the need to fill the gaps in my education by reading some of the classics of literature. In one of these self-improvement fits I bullied myself through "Pride and Prejudice," and then Dickens’ "Bleak House." I really hated "Pride and Prejudice" (stop gasping. You probably just watched the movie), but "Bleak House" was okay. The main problem I had with BH was that it was so dang long—I had other, probably far more entertaining, books waiting for my attention. Also, as I read new scenes which introduced yet more characters I wondered if I should pay close attention. Were these people important? Were we going to continue with them, or were they once-n-dones?

I’ve always heard that Dickens’ stories are more entertaining than a lot of other old literature. Apparently a
uthors were afforded much mercy at that time. In BH you have to get past the first two dreadful chapters of the book. Readers now haven’t the patience to wade through page after page of a never-ending lawsuit, so writers are expected to jump into a scene and explain—if needed—later.

At a writer’s conference a few years back, agent extraordinaire Janet Reid, a/k/a Query Shark, yanked the first five pages of my manuscript from my novel’s opening and said, “One, two, three, four, five pages about three people we really don’t much care about. Start here where the story gets interesting and we love the characters.” Too bad she wasn’t around in 1853 to tell Dickens to leave off those first boring sections and jump right in with Esther.

My classics-jones is tempered for the time being, and I’m back to new stuff. Well, newish stuff. My reading schedule is similar to my fashion schedule. I don’t reach for the buzz books anymore than I search the mall for the latest style of dress. The dresses I have in my closet are fine.

Books sort of come to me whenever, through the library, friends, gift cards for book stores, and used book sales. I read The Da Vinci Code in about 2010, although it was published in 2003. A little late to that party, eh? And to carry through with the comparison, no, not all my dresses are that old. 

Wait. What year was my nephew married?

I have a blue file folder on my desk jammed full of names of books I plan to read someday, names of authors whose work I've enjoyed. It's not an actual list; There are many lists, print-outs, scraps of notebook paper, whatever. If I read a book a day for the rest of my life I'd never get through the list. But I'm not worried. In my life, plans are very fluid. Which is one of the things that drives my always-planning husband craziest. Opposites, and all that.

How about you? Do you scout the best seller lists? Sign up on library waiting lists for just-published books? Wait for word-of-mouth reviews? 

How do you acquire the books you read? Tell me--because God forbid I should miss a book.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cavewomen and Dinosaurs

Some of you know that I hosted “Sewing Camp” for two granddaughters, ages 10 and 11, this summer. Each of them brought a sewing machine, one still new in the box. We bought fabric, cut out pattern pieces, and threaded bobbins and needles.

A little aside here: Sewing needles are my nemeses—trying to shove thread through a tiny, invisible hole brings out the Yankee in me; it fills my head with cuss words that battle to escape through my mouth. The only way I can see the hole in the needle is to hold a piece of white cardboard behind the hole—and then it’s still really hard to get the thread through. Each time, I wonder if this is the day sewing will join the lengthy list of items I used to do: “I used to be able to digest dairy,” and “I used to wear bikinis,” and “I used to get up off the floor without holding onto something.”

Ella’s machine needs about a foot of thread trailing off the needle to start or the thread disappears right back into the machine at the first stitch. Took us way too long, and way too many rethreadings, to figure out that little peculiarity. New to sewing, the girls alternately revved the foot pedals like Dale Earnhardt, then stopped abruptly like an old lady at a yellow light. RRRRRRn. RRRRRRn. Finally realized I sew with my entire foot on the pedal, and they were using their toes.

Ella had chosen a fabric I’ll call “Devilour,” since it was hell to work with. Fuzz everywhere, sliding seams, jamming thread. She fought the fabric for all four leg seams, but when her machine broke a needle, I took pity and told her I’d finish the garment on my trusty Husqvarna. Those chainsaw folks invented a sewing machine that can sew a hem in denim, right through two overlapping seams. I loooove my Husqvarna.

But it proved no match for Devilour.

Jammed again and again, bent two needles, and just as I finished, the machine threw a Hail Mary wad of thread in the bottom side of the fabric and jammed for its last time. It’s at the sewing machine doctor’s now, undergoing expensive tests.

Molly, who had chosen regular, wonderful, no-fuss fleece, came down with strep throat after the first day and missed days two and three. Meanwhile, Ella tried her hand at a pair of pull-on cotton shorts, this time with a cooperative fabric. She was perhaps halfway through when she stopped and said, “This is really hard. I thought you just put the fabric in there and the machine did all the work.”

She’s got a point. You load up the washer, the dryer, the dishwasher, push a few buttons, and walk away. The sewing machine is the complete opposite of that. Home appliances were invented to make a homemaker’s life easier. And they did—except for the sewing machine. It’s kind of the dinosaur of the appliance world, balky and slow and hopelessly out of step with the times. You can walk into department stores and find any number of factory-made clothing.

So why sew?

I’ll bet you expected me to wax nostalgic for sewing, mention how economical, how satisfying it is to create your own clothing, make crafts, etc.

Nope. It used to be economical. I could dress the girls in homemade clothes for far less than I would have spent on ready-made. Nowadays fabric is costly and pattern prices are ridiculous. I mainly use my sewing machine to mend seams and shorten hems. Utility sewing.

But then one day I’ll realize that all my flannel pajama bottoms are ratty and old, and rather than limit myself to the stupid cartoon character prints at the stores I’ll sew in fabrics of my own choosing. And there I am again. A cavewoman with her dinosaur. Which I pray survives the Devilour.