The Clock is Ticking…

H  ow did the holidays get here so fast?

A  few weeks ago we were eating turkey

P  retty soon the stores were filled with Christmas

P  iles of gift catalogs throughout the house

Y  esterday we hung the lights outside

 

H  ow will we ever be ready in time for Christmas?

O  n December 17th we are leaving for Germany

L  ots of things to prepare for our trip

I   f only the next few days would slow down

D  estinations: Berlin, Dresden, Weimar

A  lot of miles to travel to see people we love

Y  es, it’s the trip of a lifetime

S  ee you in 2016!

Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.

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This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.

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I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

Our Second Day in Madrid, Spain

After a leisurely first day in Spain, hanging out mostly in Barrio Atocha, we had a good night’s sleep and were ready for seeing more of Madrid. Our day began with a “panoramic sightseeing tour” of Madrid which turned out to be a five-hour comprehensive bus tour of all the neighborhoods of Madrid. We loved getting a glimpse of the entire city since there is no way we could have covered this much ground on our own in two and a half days.

A gift from Egypt to Spain for its help building the Aswan Dam.
Plaza de la Cybeles with The Palacio de la Comunicaciones in the background.
A warm welcome is extended from Madrilenos to refugees.

The bull ring in Madrid is still quite active.

A sculptural tribute to Madrid’s famous matadors.

One of Madrid’s many glorious fountains.

Our final stop was the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) shown above. By this time we were exhausted and wondered out loud to our tour guide whether we should even visit the palace. Since we were the only two passengers left on the tour, we decided to do it since it would be like having a private tour. We made the right decision because our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the palace as well as every item in the palace, or so it seemed.

I thought I’d seen enough palaces in my lifetime, but this palace is a must see. It is twice as big as Versailles and might be in some ways twice as splendid. We visited twenty rooms in all, including many exquisitely decorated, and one decorated entirely in porcelain. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos in any of the rooms.

The grand staircase at the entrance to the palace.

One of the two lions that greet visitors at the foot of the staircase. This is the French sculpture.

This is the more fearsome Spanish lion.

All this visible splendor drove home the fact that Spain was once a mighty, wealthy empire with the wealth and artifacts to prove it.

Upon leaving the palace, we lingered in the spacious courtyard for a while, then made a short visit to the armory right next to the palace where we saw many lavishly suited knights mounted on armored covered cabballos. The metal work on the armor was exquisitely detailed and most of it was made in Germany during the Hapsburg dynasty.

As you can well imagine we were quite exhausted and full of historical information and visions of splendor, so we decided to retreat to our room for…you guessed it…a siesta!

We agreed to stay in our neighborhood once again for dinner and had made a reservation for a trendy looking small restaurant, called La Veronica, on our favorite neighborhood street, Calle Moratin.

When we arrived at eight the place was still empty, but people slowly trickled in as the night wore on. We had a very trendy dinner with each course a small work of art. The best part: with wine our bill was only about 60 euros!

Another wonderful day in Madrid with beautiful weather, stimulating sightseeing and marvelous food at a reasonable price. I was falling in love with Madrid.

Madrid: First Stop On Our Vacation In Spain

First stop upon our early morning arrival in Madrid: Hotel Atocha, on Calle Atocha near the old train station.

The hotel is a beautifully restored “palace” (mini-version) that has all the amenities you could want, with beautiful architecture and white marble throughout the hotel. The staff is very pleasant and helpful. Plus, it turned out to be well situated near the Prado, one of the most renowned museums in the world; the city center, and a barrio (neighborhood) with plenty of places to eat and drink.

The day we arrived, quite fatigued from our overnight trip, we decided to stay in the Atocha barrio and just wander around. Although we were in a big city, this area of Madrid seemed more like a small city to us. The buildings were not very tall; many of the streets parallel to the main routes were very narrow and quaint, there were many small shops, cafes and bars to visit, and life seemed to be happening at a reasonable pace. This suited us just fine, as we were not yet ready for the hustle and bustle of a major urban experience.

We stopped in a local cafe for a bite to eat. The server was a young woman who spoke barely any English and did not seem interested in being helpful. We ended up with a small plate of fried dumpling-like somethings which were not very good. After some persistence, we were able to order the fried squid bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) which was more satisfying, with a tasty local beer.

After a short while we found ourselves on what seemed to be a major pedestrian shopping street, filled with Spaniards and tourists. It was starting to get warm and we were low on energy so we found a place to have a bowl of gazpacho (cold spicy tomato soup) to help us cool off. We enjoyed people watching for about half an hour, then resumed our walk and encountered a very old church right smack in the middle of the shopping area. They are just part of daily life here.

We stumbled upon a tiny handcrafted-jewelry store and found a sweet handmade ceramic necklace to bring home to our daughter. I love finding gifts that will remind me or the person I am gifting of the places I visit. By the way, she loves the necklace!

Our promenade ended at the Botanical Gardens, right next to the Prado. We sought the shade and meandered through the garden. In my opinion, it was nice but does not compare to many of the same here in the New York area.

We ended up having dinner on Calle Moratin, a quaint street just around the corner from where we were staying at what looked like an authentically Spanish bar/restaurant called Taberna Meson, which advertised a very affordable “menu del dia” ( menu of the day) for a reasonable 2 euros, including 3 courses.

It turned out to be a real local hangout. Some local patrons sat in an adjacent room at the bar watching a bullfight (a favorite pasttime for many men in Madrid), while we dined in a cute dining room with red and white checkered tablecloths and pictures of Matadors on all the walls.

Our waiter spoke very rapid, local Spanish, but it was fun to engage with him using my very limited Spanish. He was clearly pleased at my attempts.

We chatted amiably with a woman sitting alone at a nearby table, who complimented me on my ridiculously limited Spanish. This would never happen in France! I was beginning to fall in love with Madrid. The gazpacho was delicious, the grilled fish perfectly done, the cava (bubbly wine )was tasty and the flan was perfect.

Before leaving the restaurant, we stopped at the bar to watch the bullfight for about ten minutes because we were curious.


When the final, handsome matador entered the ring to kill the bull we didn’t care to watch the inevitable ending so we left.

We felt very satisfied with our first day in Spain, and went to bed exhausted and earlier than usual to be ready for our city bus tour the next morning. One of the best features of the vacation package we bought turned out to be the tour of each of the three cities we visited.

More about Madrid next week.

A Poetry Immersion Weekend: The Joy of Connecting Through Words

(Jan Heller Levi, who sounds pretty important, said this about Marilyn Hacker (shown above) which is better than what I might say: “I think of her magnificent virtuosity in the face of all the strictures to be silent, to name her fears and her desires, and in the process, to name ours. Let’s face it, no one writes about lust and lunch like Marilyn Hacker. No one can jump around in two, sometimes even three, languages and come up with poems that speak for those of us who sometimes barely think we can even communicate in one.”)

I promised a post today about Madrid, the first stop on my recent three-city tour of Spain. However, since the photos are not yet accessible to me, I ask your patience and will instead write today about my poetry immersion weekend.

This weekend two events took place in my poetry world, unexpectedly back to back. The first event was part of a weekend celebration of the 198th birthday of Walt Whitman, held at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Huntington, Long Island. Since my retirement, I avail myself of the wonderful programs and events that are held there.

I had signed up to audit a Master Class on Saturday given by the newly designated poet-in-residence, Marilyn Hacker, a poet unknown to me. I have been a poetry groupie since grad school at SUNY Buffalo when I had the opportunity to attend the poetry readings of many of today’s widely recognized poets including Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsburg, Richard Brautigan, Robert Bly, Bob Hass and many, many others. (I now notice the absence of women on the list!) To me, a great poet is the equivalent of a rock star. Walt Whitman is my current rock star because he hails from my hood and is the source of most of my recent poetic inspiration.

The Master Class offered me the chance to meet a critically acclaimed poet and to attend her reading. I chose to “audit” the class because it was less expensive than full participation, and because I still think of myself as a fledgling poet. I hoped that by auditing the class I would learn from more experienced writers than myself.

Big mistake! Most of the group was comprised of closet poets, like me, who were looking for feedback on improving their own writing. Ms. Hacker began the Master Class with a prompt: a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks entitled “the rites for Cousin Vit” which she asked the participants to respond to in writing.

Although it was interesting to hear everyone’s “take” on the poem, I felt disappointed that the class was run more on a shared-participation model than as an opportunity to learn from the poet’s comments on each individual’s writing. When the class ended, three hours later, I felt I still knew nothing about the poet or her writing or why she was chosen poet-in-residence for 2017.

In the two-hour interval between the class and the reading that followed, I found myself outside in the lovely garden with a poet, Pramila Venkateswaran, I’d heard read at a previous event at this same venue. We had a leisurely, collaborative conversation about learning multiple languages, native tongues, losing fluency in a second language for lack of another native speaker to converse with (in her case, German; in my case, French). Many of her poems are focused on the role of women in society, with emphasis on some of the more mundane and tedious roles they are reduced to playing. She offers gentle, and even loving depictions of these women trapped in their daily lives.

The late-afternoon reading had a light turn-out which I actually appreciate because for me this makes the event more private and personal, as though the poet is engaging in conversation with close friends. Ms. Hacker’s poems have a far-flung reach, referring often to friends dispersed throughout many countries, including France and the Middle East. In her newest poems she intersperses English with bits of Arabic or French which immediately gives her poetry a cache not present in most American poetry. Having lived in different cultures she is able to throw a broad net and come up with a catch that forms the basis of a poem, rich in cultural details and exotic language.

I sat up late in bed last night, reading poems from her newest collection: in some she is reminiscing about a long bygone relationship; she writes of friends who’ve suffered incredible personal loss through the hardship of wartimes; she reflects on her own physical scars and psychological wounds. But above all, hers is a voice that notices, analyzes and then bursts forth in poetry that is life-affirming. Needless to say, the reading more than made up for what I felt was missing in her earlier class.

Sunday, I was invited to read a poem I had recently written and submitted to a local poetry contest. The awards were kept a secret. I was finally called to the podium to read my poem which was awarded Honorable Mention. I felt honored to be in the company of so many devoted and talented Long Island poets, young and old. The poet who organized the event, Gayl Teller, ended the evening by saying that “we are all richer for having shared each other’s poems tonight.” Her point is well taken; I certainly did feel the connection to others with whom I’d shared a weekend of poetry.

I’ll close this post with the poem I read. The inspiration for it was a talk I heard given recently by Neil Degrasse Tyson, our beloved astrophysicist. In it, I refer to something that changed my life about two and a half years ago.

If Only…

If only the grownups
had told the truth
all those dreary Sundays
rising early to go to church
to learn about the mysteries
of water changed to wine
feeding the multitudes with
a basket of fish and loaves of bread
and as if that were not enough
how He walked on water
and rolled away the stone from the tomb
invoking lightning and thunder
then rose from the dead

When, in truth, it really
comes down to a few molecules
or a rogue cell that has decided
to take your life away from you
no miracles, no lightning or thunder
nothing to do with sinners or saints
just the Big Bang, on a smaller scale,
cells put in motion,
chaos, then order,
life, then death

We know that
one cell can create a life
but did you know
that one cell can take your life?

Barbara Suter
Spring 2017

Back from Spain and Eager to Share!

“What took me so long?”is the question I kept asking myself as I traveled with my husband through three cities in Spain…Madrid, Seville and Barcelona. I was so pleased by the scenery, the city life, the art, the food, the cleanliness, and the genuine warmth of the Spanish people that I was eager to come home to share my impressions with you.

I have always been a francophile, having lived and worked in Parish for a year in my mid-twenties, fallen in and out of love there, and having returned to visit on many occasions. Although I have gone to quite a few European countries over the past several decades, I always felt the beauty and “je ne sais quoi” of Paris outshone them all. Since traveling to Spain, I no longer feel that way.

Eager to share my love of Paris with my daughter about 7 or 8 years ago, we made the trip there together. Unfortunately, our week-long experience was marred by two very unpleasant encounters with two locals: one a waiter in a cafe, the other a civil servant in a ticket booth at a major train station. Both were extremely rude, completely intolerant of us as Americans (though I speak nearly-fluent French), and both actually yelled at us for no reason I can think of. My daughter will never get over that first impression, and now, neither will I.

Spain on the other hand, welcomed us with open arms. Their economy has suffered greatly since the worldwide economic collapse of 2008, so I am guessing that they are now largely dependent on the tourist economy and thus have a reason to be so welcoming. But I also suspect that the Spanish people are just more kind and welcoming by nature. My attempts at speaking very limited “baby Spanish,” which I’ve picked up over the years through conversations with my immigrant students, were met with smiles, gentle corrections and an eagerness to help. That made me want to come home and apply myself to learning better Spanish for a possible return trip. I should mention that almost everyone spoke enough English to briefly converse with us and pleasantly answer our questions.

Although I haven’t yet had a chance to go through my many photos of the three cities we visited to sort them out and share them with you, I did want to let you know that I’m back, very happy to return to this unique writing community, and eager to share more of my impressions in my next post.

This picture was taken in my kitchen door, before our Spain adventure, with our new straw hats to protect us from the sun.

Buenas dias!

Spain Is Just Around the Corner

“Las camisas no son rojas.” Translation: The shirts are not red.

I am up to Level 4 in a Duolingo online Spanish language program. This is a very precisely programmed course of instruction which only allows me to proceed sequentially. I am still using present tense verbs and I am learning a lot of new vocabulary. Aside from the fact that in my past two attempts at using the program, the screen has suddenly disappeared and I can’t figure out why, I have been having fun learning Spanish.

But here’s the problem…
Knowing how to say “las cebollas no son animales” (onions are not animals) is not going to help me get around Spain which I will be visiting this Sunday for 11 days. I also think it will not make for very exciting casual bar talk over tapas and sangria.

I need to pick up some conversational tidbits such as “Where is restaurant such and such….? “Where do I find the bus stop to go to Parc Guell?” “How much is that bottle of wine?” “I’d like steak and potatoes, please.”

I love languages and learning them. For me, it’s fun…kinda’ like solving a puzzle, piece by piece. Being fairly fluent in French (I lived there for a year a long time ago) has enabled me to pick up other Romance languages with some ease. If I run into a problem with, say, Spanish…I’ve learned to just say the word in French with a Spanish accent and add an “e” or an “o,” or an “a” at the end of the word to make it sound more like Spanish. By doing so I can usually make myself understood to a savvy native speaker.

With the deadline for departure less than a week away, I know I’ll have to resort to Plan B, which is to just dive into the language and hope for the best. Doing so used to be easier when I was younger and less daunted by the need for perfection. Now, when I am in a situation where I feel language-challenged, I sometimes freeze up and can’t remember any word that sounds even close to what I want. I have seen this happen so often with my own students. Other times I just can’t remember the word…a sign of a brain that’s getting older, more saturated, and a lot less quick on recall.

What I need to remember is that most people (except in France, which I love dearly in spite of their language haughtiness) are very forgiving if you make a sincere attempt to speak in their native language. They will help you if they can. And sometimes being language challenged can lead to making new friends, or at least a good tip from a native on where to go to eat or drink.

So, dear friends, next week I’ll be spending a few days each in Madrid, Seville and Barcelona (in that order) where I hope to be improving my Castilian Spanish. In Barcelona, where Catalan is predominant, I know I will be at a distinct disadvantage.

Most of the Spanish I know I picked up from working as an English as a New Language teacher for 25 years with students mostly from Central and South America where Spanish is spoken quite differently. Nonetheless, I learned enough Spanish to converse in a limited way with my former students and their parents, when the need arose.

Baby steps….

Lost and Found

About a month or two ago, I wrote about two objects I love dearly, which I lost. One was a red knit hat which I always wore when out walking in the cold weather. It made me feel happy to put it on because it was such a colorful contrast to the grayness of winter.

I keep waiting for it to show up, but now I believe…the hat is gone for good 😦

The other object I lost was a beautiful handmade writing folio, given to me by one of my oldest and dearest friends about three decades ago. I cherished it because of the skill that went into making this binder, crafted by a young woman I once knew in California, and because it was such a special kind of gift to receive: A gift that said, “You are worthy of this special item.”

I searched for the portfolio diligently for several weeks, but then began to realize I would have to get used to the idea of having lost it, since it was nowhere to be found. I tried to tell myself to “detach,” in the Buddhist sense of the word. After all, things do come and go in our lives, so we can’t stay too attached to them. I have become better at embracing this philosophy, but this particular loss still deeply saddened me because of its connection to my now deceased friend who gave it to me.

You guessed it…the portfolio reappeared in my life just a few days ago. I was going through some boxes of papers in my bedroom and suddenly there it was at the bottom of a pile of mail, and notebooks, and other detritus. I could hardly believe my eyes. I lifted it from the box and immediately felt someone in the universe was taking care of me. I felt that my dear friend was sending me a message. It was a a very amazing, completely unexpected outcome.

There’s one more piece of good news in the Department of Lost and Found. After nearly six weeks of attending Weight Watcher’s meetings, watching myself gain and lose the same 2-3 pounds, I finally achieved the 5 pound mark (plus almost another half pound)!

This probably seems silly, but even though I lost only a few pounds, I found new confidence. It has been very difficult to start this weight-loss journey. I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to stick with it, but today I feel like I can keep going. One day at a time….

Oh, and one last discovery…an object I “found” on a walk today with my daughter. Another positive message from the universe…to Ed.

I hope Ed, whoever he is, found it, too!

Lost and found, lost and found…. The dance of life!

Hope Springs Eternal…for a Young Syrian in a Greek Refugee Camp

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man


Today many Christians are celebrating Easter, a holiday that honors the rebirth of Jesus Christ who was crucified on the cross two days earlier on Good Friday. Many other religions are also celebrating their annual Spring rites. Although I no longer espouse a particular religion (I was raised as a Lutheran), I did take a few moments this morning after brunch to reflect on the meaning of this holiday. To me, Spring rituals are all about hope.

The essay about the Refugee King of Greece in the New York Times Sunday Review section on April 16, 2017, reinforced for me how important it is to have hope, even when there doesn’t seem to be any. It is the story of a young Syrian refugee, Bassem Omar, who introduces himself to the Times reporter (Ashley Gilbertson) as the King of Ritsona. She goes on to say, “His Majesty, a 20-year-old refugee from Qamishli, Syria, offers a tour of his realm, and as we walk he’s greeted by friends of all ages.” As he moves amongst his “subjects” he reminds them that “I want to make Ritsona great again, and the people agreed.”

I am immediately struck by the ironic title he has given himself, and especially by his personal version of the now-famous Trump slogan, Make America Great Again, which Omar has now adapted to his own crusade to improve life for himself and his fellow refugees in the small village of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens. This is a young man who is well informed about global politics, and who has been able to give an ironic twist to his own circumstances using the words of the Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump. He is clearly a rebel with a cause and that is why I am so drawn to him.

After 13 attempts at escaping by using fake IDs and passports, only to be turned back by police at the airport and sent back to Ritsona, he has decided he can no longer make an effort to escape because if “I fail at this again, I will kill myself. I have to stop trying. So now I await the decision of relocation.” I read his words as meaning he no longer has hope he can escape, so he is readjusting his circumstances in order to continue to hold hope in his heart.

His story leads me to reflect on my own two grown children, now 33 and 35, for whom hope is also an essential part of their lives. My 35-year-old son was able to go to a wonderful college, travel abroad to Germany, and fashion himself a career in filmmaking over the past decade. He is filled with hope for his future endeavors; in the “indie” film business, hope is the staff of his life.

My daughter, about to turn 34, has had many setbacks in her life due to a series of five open-heart surgeries, but she remains hopeful that with a good deal of patience and perseverance, she, too, can have a fulfilling life. She is working hard toward that goal. Without hope, she would find it hard to go on. Even though their circumstances are challenging in different ways, both have had our support, financially, emotionally and intellectually, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. But what about those who don’t have any support?

As I turn my thoughts back to Bassem Oman, I am deeply touched by the poignancy of his young life and his ambitions.

As he surveys his kingdom of 700 refugees living within a barbed wire refugee camp, he remains satirically confident. He tells the reporter that in two days he will be celebrating his one-year anniversary in this camp. “‘We will host a royal party at Cafe Ritz to celebrate,” he says, referring to the distribution center. ‘You are welcome to come.'” These words represent the bravado of a young man who refuses to give up hope in the face of all odds.

I would like to put my arm around Bessem Omar’s shoulders, as I do with my own grown children, and tell him that I believe in him and his hope more than anything else I can think of. I will try to send a message of hope to him through the New York Times. If he cannot fulfill his dreams, what hope is there for humanity?