I’ve Been Hiding in Italy on Vacation

My poor blog. It has lost the fight against ancient relics and priceless cuisine. I’ve been on the most amazing tour of Italy the last week plus that I forgot there was a world out there I used to know. Way to much to show and tell on this one little post, but I thought I’d drop a few photos to show what I did just yesterday. Lots more to come. Consider this the primo.

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Magic Square in Pisa. Okay. Too many people diss Pisa. I’ve heard them say there are so many other places to go. Skip Pisa. Well, no. Magic Square as they call it is rather magical. Of course the leaning tower gets all the glory, but the cathedral and baptistry (foreground) are stunning. Absolutely gorgeous. Well worth a trip from Florence.

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Look at this. Stunning, isn’t it? This is the library ceiling from the Siena Cathedral. This is just the ceiling. Original fresco never restored. You are looking at the colors as they were applied back in the 13th century. Stunning. My old church had a library, but I think it had a matte-white Sherwin-Williams finish. Not quite the same thing.

2018-08-02 12.35.06Tuscan country side. So beautiful. This is actually a view from a restaurant where we had lunch. If you look way in the distance, you can see San Gimignano – the so-called “Manhattan of the Middle Ages.” See below.

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Here’s the square in San Gimignano. There are many of these towers which are visible from far off – making a stunning medieval city on a hill. This town was one of my absolute favorites. A must see surrounded by the incredible Tuscan countryside – grapes, olive trees, lavender, etc…

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That’s what I’ve been up to. Oh, and tomorrow I go to Venice. Last week I was in Rome. Yes, I am spoiled beyond belief. I’ll get back to writing one of these days.  I hope you are enjoying your summer as much as I’m enjoying mine.

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Checking in from Ireland

I’ve been in Killeagh, Ireland at Greywood Arts for a little more than two days now so I wanted to check in with everyone concerning how’s everything going. Well, in a word, great!

Greywood is a terrific venue for the arts. A renovated (and still being renovated) 18th century Georgian house specifically for promoting the arts. Here’s my amazing writing room.

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It overlooks the Dissour River, more of a stream in my mind, but has a beautiful view of  a small cascade right from the desk. I even saw a river otter! It is bright, cheery, and quiet. A perfect combination for creativity. How’s it been working? Amazingly well. On day one, I completed a play called “Embrace” which I started nearly five years ago and wondered if I would ever finish it. Well, I did. Seven hours of hard labor on that script completely revitalized it and I’m very happy with it. Unlike anything I have ever written.

Today, day two,  was spent working on a play called “For the Glory of Nat Turner.” I had started it last year with a mere 2000+ words and I hammered out the entire first act, clocking the whole thing in at around 7000 words now. Tomorrow, I’d love to finish this one too! Amazing productivity.

The village of Killeagh is small and quaint. No more than 500 souls live here. Here are a few shots.

The weather today turned toward the nasty. Really cold and rainy. No walks and very little out and about. The forecast isn’t great, but I hope it clears a little tomorrow cause I was going to take the bus over to the seaside town of Youghal only 10 minutes away. We shall see how it looks in the morning.

I’m also hoping to take a trip into Cork for a day and check out the city. That will likely be the extent of my touring since my main focus is on writing, writing, and writing.

This is such a terrific opportunity. So relaxing and rewarding and I can’t think Greywood enough for their hospitality.

Let’s get back at it!

Out of the Bubble

I currently live in Saudi Arabia, and as an expat, it’s easy to find yourself living in comfortable bubble. My life in Jeddah feels that way in many respects. My main existence is a combination of apartment living on a compound, busing to school and back, all day at an American school that looks and feels like an American school, and then excursions to restaurants where most of the wait staff is from the Philippines. It’s not difficult to forget where it is I live.

Just for an evening, we decided to stroll the new corniche area of Jeddah, which buttresses up against the Red Sea. It was a Friday evening, and people were out and about EVERYWHERE! This is a beautiful and large new water front development complete with public beaches in the pristine water, children’s play parks, outdoor sculptures, and a terrific bike and walking path right in between the Corniche Road. But while here, I was unmistakably reminded of where I live.  Uncountable Saudi families brought their carpets and spread them out on the grassy areas to enjoy the evening air. Boys played soccer, while ladies in abayas and hijabs chatted in groups and strolled slowly through plethora of sidewalks. Children and a few men splashed in the water.

It’s good to get out of one’s bubble from time to time. You get to feel the flow of the culture. You get to question things you thought you understood, and you get a feel for the local people whom you don’t actually meet too often.

It was a pleasant evening strolling by the Red Sea. Here are a few photos.

Bethany Beyond Jordan: A Pilgrimage

Last weekend I took my first trip to Jordan. I surely hope it’s not my last. Jordan was inviting and laid-back. A perfect destination for a weekend of relaxation and reflection.

We arrived in Amman’s airport about fifteen miles south of the city and directly started our descent into the Jordan River Valley. The descent did a number on my ears as we slipped below sea level and bottomed-out at the lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea. I’ll get to the Dead Sea in another post, but I wanted to focus on one of the reasons I was drawn to the area – Bethany Beyond Jordan, the Baptismal Site of Jesus.

When I first saw this tourist site on the map, I immediately thought how can anyone know for sure where John the Baptist baptized Jesus? Well, there are clues. Strong ones, actually, including historical references to the site being several miles north of the Dead Sea. In addition, history favored this site by having a Byzantine Church built there in commemoration of the baptism as early at the 5th century AD. Excavated remains are right above the baptismal location.

So on our second morning at the Dead Sea, we boarded a tourist bus around nine A.M., and after the should-have-been-expected stop at a tourist trap full of Dead Sea items, we arrived at the baptismal site at 9:50 only to be told that the 10 A.M. shuttle to the site had already left. We would have to wait until 10:30 for the next shuttle. Since when does anything around here run early? Oh well.

We battled the flies waiting for the shuttles while reading the pamphlets about the history of Bethany-Beyond-Jordan. When the shuttles arrived, a tour guide herded us onto the bus and took us to the site. Guides are required because it is literally on the border between Jordan and Israel – certainly a security region – so no wandering tourists allowed without being on an official tour.

During the five minute shuttle ride, we passed Elijah’s Hill – yes, that Elijah, and that was the hill, which according to Biblical history, where Elijah was caught up into heaven on a chariot of fire. It started to feel surreal being in this setting, tucked between the rugged cliffs of the Jordan Valley, with Jericho, the world’s oldest city in the foreground to the northwest and Jerusalem, the City on a Hill in the distance to the southwest, and Mt. Nebo, the place where Moses glimpsed the Promise Land to our back. The Holy Land, a place for pilgrimage and reflection, walking in the footsteps of larger-than-life characters which were such a large part of my childhood. It was enough to make one pause and reflect upon this land full of untold significance.

We exited the shuttle into a beautiful, scraggy, arid landscape with picturesque churches on the hillside. We walked the opposite way along a covered walkway until we saw the first glimpse of the Jordan. The poor river is a mere shadow of its previous self. You would not need an Old Testament Prophet to part the waters to cross. A mere hop and dash would do the trick. The mighty Jordan has had its water siphoned off by all of the surrounding countries, making it a trickle while at the same time lowering the Dead Sea water by significant amounts each year.

Our guide mentioned how Jordan, in Arabic, means meandering because that’s what the river does – it meanders in curved, snake-like fashion. This picture below proves it. I’m standing in Jordan taking this picture. The water in the foreground is the Jordan River. On the other side of the water is Israel. However, you see that church in the background? That church is in Jordan. Weird, isn’t it?

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We arrived at the site of the baptismal, the place where people of faith believe that Jesus received his anointing, baptized by John, as the Holy Spirit in the form of dove descended from heaven. It’s a site of foreshadowing – descent into death and resurrection to life. The type of site a faith pilgrim could ponder for days. But we had to keep moving.

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The Baptismal Site of Jesus. The 5th Century Byzantine Church in the Background.

We arrived at a Greek Orthodox church built recently on the banks of the Jordan. At this site, we came face-to-face with pilgrims from Israel. Many donned white bath robes and dunked themselves into the water. A small church service on the Israeli side with a fiery preacher, beautiful singing, and baptisms in the river filled out the scene.

Before we knew it, we were being crammed on the shuttle back to our awaiting bus. It was only later that I was able to reflect upon what it was that I actually saw that day.

Bethany-Beyond-Jordan was only opened to the public within the last two decades. This is a site of beauty and reflection for all, even if you do not have a particular religious persuasion. Just to stand in the land which gave birth and life to so much of the world’s history and influence is an awe-inspiring experience in itself.

Put Bethany-Beyond-Jordan – the Baptismal Site of Jesus – on your must visit list. After all, it’s in Jordan, and Jordan’s awesome.

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Perception

What is your perception of Saudi Arabia? (assuming you have never visited)

I’m sure there are certain images or preconceived notions which naturally bubble to the forefront of your mind. Where did your perception come from? Media? Friends?

Perception of a particular culture almost never turns out to true when one finally comes in contact with that culture. It’s been true in every country where I have spent a significant amount of time.

I remember when I first moved to Vietnam, I had all kinds of images in my head: Vietnam War, communism, oppressive heat and rain, etc… All of the stereotypes one by one came crashing to the ground once I arrived in the country, started talking to the people, and started learning for myself what the Vietnamese culture was all about. (I’m not going to go into the details of how my perceptions were wrong except to note that the coldest Christmas I have ever spent was in Vietnam, huddled under the thickest quilt I have ever seen in my life, shivering cold at a level I have never experienced again.)

It happened again (losing my perception, that is) when I moved to Malaysia.

Well, this week I moved to Saudi Arabia and guess what? Yes. The walls come crashing down.

I had a lot of strange and astonished looks when I told friends and family that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, which means to me that everyone had certain images of what to expect. Here a few items I’ve experienced this past week that just felt different from what I had anticipated:

Food. What terrific western food! Now, Malaysia is a food paradise for it’s blend of various cuisines, but, honestly, they’re western food was seriously lacking. Not here, I’ve been to incredible, immaculately decorated restaurants which serve terrific western dishes whether pasta, fish, burgers, mexican or whatever. I’m sitting in these places thinking “where am I?” The answer is Saudi Arabia.

Space. Jeddah is a sprawling metropolis which alternates between sandy open lots and immaculate malls and gigantic modern complexes. I was standing in a parking lot after dinner the other night and I commented to a friend that anyone standing here could have mistaken this place for any modern plaza in North America. I again was wondering where I was. The answer was the same.

Add in the spectacular views and promenades of the “Corniche” along the Red Sea with the terrific service everywhere and the wonderful friendly smiles of the Saudi people and I’m in the position to have a lot of my perceptions blown out of the water.

And that’s a good thing.

The next time you go some place, check your perceptions at the door and arrive with the attitude of a learner. You’ll be surprised. And while your at it, whatever you think of another’s culture right now, you very well may be dreadfully wrong. And that’s a great thing to discover.

 

Visiting Arlington Makes One Remember

Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and sobering place. There are many picturesque sites, and I spent the morning yesterday wandering around on a terrifically sunny and blue-sky-day to enjoy the scenery. Enjoy, perhaps, isn’t the correct word. One can enjoy a walk in the sun, but how does one enjoy a walk through a cemetery like Arlington. So many thoughts, both past and present. So much gravitas.

Think about the number of prayers represented by the thousands of graves neatly aligned throughout the rolling hillside. How many women stood with their aprons on, washing dishing, looking out their kitchen windows, trying to get a mental glimpse of husbands and sons, neighbors and cousins, who were fighting over there. How many sleepless nights, how many wiped tears, how many mental breakdowns are represented by each of those white stone markers? The fortitude needed to carry-on on the homefront is represented well here. The amount is tremendous.

Most of the gravesites in Arlington are the same. This is a terrible injustice, not the commemoration, though, that is done well. It’s only an injustice because there simply was no tangible way to make the young men and women who sacrificed their lives or gave their time a monument to show their differences. You cannot clad a personality on a gravestone. Not in Arlington. And so in death, they rest peacefully in uniformity, and that is perhaps how they would most like it, buried with their comrades, shoulder to shoulder, bound together with a common purpose, a mutual goal, an understanding of what must take place to preserve the country back home they hold so dear.

Your sacrifices are not forgotten. This cemetery stands as a national remembrance of what it is that we collectively stand for. Each white-washed stone adds to the chorus of the past which pleads with us today to not forget the battles fought, the lessons learned, the courage expended, the freedom preserved. Each one beseeches the powers that be and the people on main street to look past what divides us and remember the heart of Arlington which unites us all. The commonality must be stronger than the division or we as a nation will waft in whatever prevailing political wind happens to be in town across the Potomac. We’ll be left adrift without a moral compass to guide us and not a soul to pity us.

Goodbye, Malaysia. A Memoir in Food Photos

I’m leaving Malaysia for good after eleven wonderful years living in Penang. Though there are people and customs and culture and other things I’ll miss about Malaysia, I thought my Goodbye Post should highlight some of the food items I ate in my last week. I will miss all of this tremendously.

Imagine the fragrance and flavor as you look at these beauties:

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Beef Rendang – Indonesian, coconuty, Amazing!

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Nyonya – Roti Babi – fried pork sandwich. Yum. Oh, and some greens.

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Nyonya Pork Rendang. So different from the beef, but equally delicious.

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Sambal Goreng – so unique, prawn, coconut, eggplant, sambal

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Thai Long Bean & Pork – tremendous curry sauce on it

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Indian! The best butter chicken masala with garlic butter naan.

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Dry Curry Mee Noodles. Oh. My. Goodness.

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Manchurian Califlower – fried, spicy, crunchy

The terrible thing about these photos (besides I’m not going to be able to eat these foods daily) is that it truly only scratches the surface of Malaysian fare. It’s diverse, flavorful, and dare I some, some of the best food in the world.

Goodbye Penang. Goodbye Malaysia.