Smoking Hot

In the junior high cafeteria, I sat alone every lunch period.  I knew no one and no one seemed interested in getting to know me.  I had braces, no fashion sense, and a body that was all out of proportion.  I ate my lunch as fast as I could without making eye contact, then stuck my face in a book.  A few weeks later I learned we could go to the library during our lunch periods and after I ate, I’d get out of that cafeteria as fast as I could.  The next semester when the guidance counselor asked if I’d mind not having a lunch period so I could take the classes I had to take, I said that was no problem at all.  Inside, I jumped for joy.

Fast forward twenty three years.  As I walked up Merrimon Avenue yesterday, a man at a stop light leaned out his window and said, “Girl, you’re looking good today!”  I smiled.  “Thank you.” There was a time I didn’t appreciate men yelling anything to me in public.  Actually, if it was complimentary I assumed they must not be talking to me anyway.  It’s still not my preferred method of receiving compliments, but at least now I can appreciate some kind words – even if they are tossed out from a car window.  As I continued my walk, I smiled thinking back to those teenage years when I wouldn’t have dreamed anyone would ever tell me I looked good.

High school wasn’t much better than junior high – but at least I had people to sit with at lunch.  My fashion sense may have improved a little (thanks to secretly “borrowing” my little sister Liz’s clothes), but I still had braces all four years and a body I hated.

Now the braces are gone.  I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for this body I’ve been blessed with – it did, after all, get me through a 500 mile walk across Spain.  My fashion sense: well, I know what looks good on me.  That doesn’t stop me from showing up to holiday family gatherings, looking around, and thinking I should hire my three sisters to redo my wardrobe.

~~~~

I walked into a bar a few weeks ago to meet a friend.  He flooded me with compliments on my appearance and over the course of the conversation said some more wonderful things about me to some of the friends to whom he introduced me.  The next day, in a conversation with another friend, I said how this has happened quite a few times since I’ve moved here – men here seem to be pretty good at giving compliments.  (I am still learning how to be good at receiving them.)  “Is it Asheville?” I asked him, wondering if men were just more forthcoming with compliments here.  “Well, you are smoking hot,” he said.  He continued on, but I didn’t hear anything after that.  Smoking hot?  What? I know I’m not the timid, body-conscious kid I was in junior high.  But “smoking hot”?  Me?

I tell my students all the time to give themselves credit for the progress they’ve made before telling me all that they didn’t accomplish.  I often find myself giving the advice I most need to hear .

So today I’m going to give myself some credit.  After trying on seven different tops and four different pairs of jeans, I finally looked in the mirror and told myself I looked good.  But smoking hot?  I think that’s pushing it.

Changing Tastes

I scoured the shelves on the door of the refrigerator.  Dijon mustard!  Score! I smiled as I squirted it into an empty salad bowl.  I hate mustard.  But I always have some in my fridge to make this very dressing – one that I loved from the moment I tasted it sitting in my host mother’s kitchen in Domdidier, Switzerland.

I had not seen Mrs. Rimaz make the salad dressing that afternoon, so had no way of knowing one of my most detested foods was a major ingredient.  I was a notoriously picky eater, but something changed that summer in Switzerland.  I was in a land where people ate a lot of things I didn’t like, but my mother taught me to be respectful, so I ate what was placed in front of me – even if I didn’t know what it was.

My first night there, having used most of the French I knew in a conversation with Pascal, my first host-brother, I was delighted when dinner was called.  We filed out to the patio – which was completely bug-less on this June night.  I looked at the plates in the center of the table and panicked.  One held chunks of what looked like various cuts of raw bacon.  The other held at least four different kinds of cheeses. I was sixteen.  And I hated cheese.  Well, not all cheese.  Parmesan and mozzarella were fine on spaghetti and pizza respectively, but other than that this girl of half-Italian descent didn’t eat cheese.  No lasagna.  No manicotti.  No macaroni and cheese.  And raw meat?  The only raw meat I’d ever eaten was swiped from the bowl when Mom made meatcakes – ground beef mixed with onion, pepper, Worcestershire, a slice of wet bread and raw egg.  That was delicious.  But raw bacon?  Was it even bacon?  I really didn’t know.

What I did know was that I was in a foreign country, a guest at someone’s table, and I was hungry.  So I took a deep breath and did as the rest of my host family did.  I placed pieces of the raw meat and cheeses on my plate – and ate them.

The meat wasn’t so bad.  And the cheese?  It was some of the best food I’d ever eaten.  I reached for seconds.  What was this stuff?  Did we have cheese like this in the US?  If we did, I’d never had it.  Probably because I had no idea it could be this good.  My mother would be so proud of me, I thought.

A week later I left that temporary host family and moved to the little town of Domdidier. To a farm.  With 10,000 chickens.  And two host parents, a host brother and sister, none of whom spoke English.  But back to the food.

Our big meal was at lunch time.  My host father came home from his job as one of the two men in charge of this province of Switzerland.  My host brother came in from the fields, dressed and smelling like a farmer.   My host mother had the table set and the meal ready to go.  I sat quietly as they spoke in rapid-fire French, only understanding them if they spoke directly to me and five times slower than they spoke to each other.

It was at that table that I first tried Dijon mustard dressing.  Of course, I didn’t know it was made with one of the foods I most hated.  I hadn’t seen my host mother prepare it that day.  All I knew was that this was one of the best salads I’d ever had.

The next day this budding chef got to the kitchen early enough to see how my host mother made her dressing.  I brought my journal down with me, and flipped open the back cover to mark down the ingredients.  There was no packet of Good Seasons Italian dressing mix.  Instead, she squirted Dijon mustard into a salad bowl, then whisked in some red wine vinegar, then a little oil.  Mustard? I thought.  But I hate mustard!

~~~

Today finds me in a mountaintop home pet-sitting five animals – two of whom require twice daily insulin shots, one of whom also requires thrice daily eye drops.  “Eat whatever you’d like,” my friends told me before they left.  “There are two vines of grape tomatoes, and plenty of green beans in the garden.”

 

Ripe for the pickin’

This afternoon I harvested just enough of both, delighted when I came in and found Dijon in their fridge.  I whisked it together in a salad bowl with some red wine vinegar and a little olive oil, sprinkled in some fresh ground salt and pepper. I chopped up the beans, halved the grape tomatoes, and dumped them into the bowl. I still hate mustard.  But Mrs. Rimaz’s dijon dressing?  Absolutely delicious.

I ate it all before I remembered to take a picture… (Camino friends – note the shape of this bowl)

Epilogue:

Five months ago I became a vegetarian, so raw meat is not something I’m into.  But cheese?  Love it.  Goat cheese.  Camembert.  Gruyere.  Manchego.  And my Italian ancestors are smiling down on me: I now eat (vegetarian) lasagna and manicotti:)

The First of the Month

The air was too cold. The pillows were too fluffy. Really Rebecca? I just spent forty days sleeping in a different bed each night – each with a different pillow. Some with no pillow. And now here I was in a huge house overlooking the Western North Carolina mountains, sleeping in the Master Bedroom which has a bathroom bigger than most apartments I’ve lived in – and I’m complaining? Did I mention that my room has views of the mountains? And that it has not one, but two doors out onto the deck (one from the bathroom, no less)? Oh – and what about the Jacuzzi tub?

Writing – with a view

I climbed out of the bed that seemed big enough for three people, and wandered out into the living room in search of a throw pillow that would suffice. As I settled back into bed, I realized it was September first. I reflected back on the different beds I’d been in on the first day of each of the past few months.

On May 1st I was at my parent’s house. Four days earlier, I had returned to New York from a three week trip to Italy. In eight more days I would leave for Spain. Why come home in between? Because one of my favorite cousins was getting married. And I had the honor of doing one of the readings during the ceremony. (Which I SO MUCH prefer to actually being in the wedding.)

On June 1 I went to sleep in Mansilla de las Mulas, Spain. It was my twenty-second day walking the Camino to Santiago. It had been nearly 100 degrees that day. I had walked 26.4 km (almost 16 miles). There were no beds left in the town when I arrived around 5 pm, so Vincent – who’d walked all morning with me and also had no place to rest his head – offered to join me on a walk to the next town – 5.7 km (3.5 miles) away. The short version of the story is this: a woman in charge of a hostel found us in the street and told us it was too hot to continue walking. We found ourselves the recipients of two spare mattresses she had, which she laid out in a hallway lined with windows overlooking a courtyard below. While all the others in the hostel (who had arrived in town hours before us) shared rooms with that housed a dozen people each, Vincent and I had a space to ourselves – quiet and with a great view. Having had long discussions with young Vincent all morning on fate and everything-happening-for-a-reason, the irony of our situation was not lost on us.

On July 1, I was in a hotel room – all to myself – in Southwestern Virginia. I had just spent the previous six hours driving five high school students from Staten Island toward our destination: A Habitat for Humanity trip in Eastern Tennessee. By the time we got in and had dinner, I had a mere hour to enjoy my room before I had to go to bed – I needed my sleep in order to be ready to get on the road the next morning by 7AM. This trip, I later learned, was to remind me why I’d never want to teach in a high school.

August first found me in Asheville, NC – my new home. Once again I found myself appreciating a room to myself. And a bathroom that was pretty much mine as well. Not to mention that all this was being offered to me rent-free by folks I had met five months earlier on couchsurfing.org. Whose life is this? Who tells people she just met a few hours earlier that her next mission is to move to Asheville and start an organizing business only to have them say, “We’d love to help you with that – you can live with us while you get yourself settled in here. Oh – and they’ll always be food on the table.” What? Really? Is this my life?

So here I was, on September first, up on a mountain in Franklin, NC with four fellow writers. We rent a home every year and come just to write. Well, it used to be every year. At our February gathering on Kiawah Island, Lois decreed we should do this twice a year. So here I am.

View from the deck

Normally, I’m low man on the totem pole when it comes to rooms. I’m the youngest. I can sleep anywhere – and have. But this time, the ladies thought we should pick rooms “out of a hat.” When I opened up my little paper and read the word “Master,” I thought, no way.  There was no way I was going to end up with the Master Bedroom. I was ready to trade it with someone who really needed it. But Pat (the oldest of our crew) declared that her room on the lower level would be good for her – she needed the exercise of walking up the stairs. Lynne took her pick of the lower level “toy room” in good stride. Stacey traded for the lower level room with the desk in it. The Master Bedroom was mine.

Lois also decreed that we should stay for two weeks if we could. I can’t, so my suite will be given to someone else on Saturday. That made me feel a little better about being the youngest and being in the best room.

As I settled back into my bed that night, I had to laugh at myself. If it’s true you get what you put out to the universe, I must be putting out some really good stuff. Hopefully, I can continue to pay it forward.

The next morning, as I tossed towels over each of the three A/C vents in my room (I’m spending the week with three post-menopausal women and wouldn’t dream of asking them to adjust the A/C), I thought “Would I rather be back on the Camino on a top bunk in a room with 11 other people?” Well, I’d give anything to be back on the Camino honestly. But am happy to not be sharing rooms anymore.  Been there, done that.

So the next day, I filled myJacuzzi tub and dropped in some bubble bath. I sank down into the warm water and turned on the jets, determined to enjoy every minute of this life I’ve been given.

The Community Cup

I wandered over to the demonstration area just in time to see a woman slicing up a chocolate tart.  This being a Wine and Food Festival, I figured she was giving out slices.  Before I could ask for one, however, another woman slid in beside me and reached for a plate.  She was immediately, but gently (this is the South), chastised.  “We’re only serving this to the people sitting at the tables,” said the server, indicating the tables and chairs set up to face the demonstration kitchen.

Think fast, Rebecca!  Off I went to find myself an empty seat.  I turned on my smile and my best southern charm and secured a seat next to a lovely woman visiting from Virginia. A man came down the aisle to dish out the goods, looking for someone over our heads.  “You can leave it here if you’d like,” I told him.

He smiled and said, “I was looking for the couple I promised this to.”

“Well, if you can’t find them, just know that those plates can have a home right here.”  He took one more look around.  “I guess they left.” And with that, he plopped the plates of chocolate perfection on our table.

“Aren’t you glad I sat with you?” I asked my new Virginian friend.  She heartily agreed, digging her fork into the chocolate decadence.

I lucked into the chocolate in more ways that one.  I had come to check out the mixology contest, but apparently things were running a little late thus making my timing quite perfect for a little snack before what I hoped would be some yummy mixed drinks.

I’d only lived in Asheville one month – long enough for this wine girl to realize I’d moved to the unofficial brewing capital of the US.  I tried to fit in, but if you know me you know how well that usually goes.  So lately I’ve started telling people that though the local brews here are plentiful, I will stick to my wine.  And, of course, creative concoctions of sweetness and liquor.  Which is where this mixology contest comes in.  Well, that and the fact the guy who gave me a free entry to the Festival introduced me to one of the competitors the night before, but that’s another story.

So the first spirit up is gin – locally made, of course.  My seat didn’t allow me to see the details of shaking and stirring and such, but I had a good line of sight toward the judges table.  Each bartender presented his drinks to the judges then stepped up to the mic to tell everyone about them.  A full one-fifth of their score came from the eco-friendliness of the drinks.  Local ingredients? Check.  Garnish picked right from the bartenders garden? Check. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used the phrase, “Well, we are in Asheville.”

By this time my tablemate from Virginia had headed back to her hotel.  I was now joined by another lovely couple.  The husband had managed to find one of the few places serving beer at this Wine festival, so he was happy.  The wife eyed a drink on the judges table with a few cucumbers floating in it.  “What are they going to do with those drinks?” she asked me.  “Do you think we’ll get any?”

As the judges table filled with drinks I, too, wondered where they would head after the judges got their tastes. If my calculations were correct (I’m a math tutor…so I’m thinking I’m right here) each judge would have to try five drinks with gin in them, then another five with – you guessed it – locally made moonshine, then another five with apple brandy, and another five with vodka.  Twenty drinks.  Per judge.  Obviously they’d be sipping.  But what to do with the rest?

One of the MC’s decided to bring the mic out to the crowd to ask their opinions on what they were seeing.  He approached my table and the wife right off addressed the issue of where the drinks were going next.  She said she’d love to try that cucumber drink.  “Where are you from?” he asked.  “Las Vegas,” she said.  The MC took a quick poll – no one in the audience could beat that distance.  So with that, she won herself her favorite drink.

At the judges table, drinks were piling up.  The coordinators looked around for places to put them all.  It was clear no one had really thought about what to do with all of them.

Then, in classic “only in Asheville” style, the drinks started making their way out to our tables.  Take a sip and pass it on of course – like communion, but so much more fun.  Take a sip and pass it on.  Seriously?  I loved the idea, but my first thought was, “This would never fly in New York – the Board of Health would be on this in no time.”  Thankfully, things are a little more lax here.

After a couple drinks made their way around my table, I turned around to pass them on to the next table.  The women behind me apparantly had not seen this coming.  “Here you go.” I said.

“Is this for us?” she asked.

“It’s for everyone – take a sip and pass it on.”

“Really?” She looked a little surprised, but in no time realized there was no reason to pass up drinks made by some of the best bartenders in town.  “It’s alcohol – it kills all the germs,” she said as she passed it on to the next table.

Over the course of the next two hours, sixty drinks made their way around our eight tables and out into the crowd gathered.    Some I sipped.  Some I held onto – like the one hand-delivered by the bartender I’d met the night before…and the warm apple brandy one.

Thankfully, I sipped slowly over the course of a few hours so had no ill effects that afternoon or the next day – neither from the volume of drinks that passed over my lips nor from the germs of the numerous people who sipped my drinks before me.