Sunday, March 6, 2011

Remind me again why I returned to Minnesota

6 January 2011, Minneapolis MN USA

I’m my usual tardy self in starting a new journal despite having composed several submissions in my head since the year began. But, here I am, still in Minnesota and planning my winter travel to visit friends and family.

Hans, a friend acquired through my late son Peter, provided my First Footing, a Scottish thing. For good luck, the first person to cross your threshold on New Year’s Day needs to be a dark-haired man, and you need to give him a wee dram of Scotch. Luckily Hans arrived first for dinner and has dark hair. I’m hopeful the good luck faeries don’t mind the substitution of red wine as I actually don’t like Scotch and generally don’t stock hard liquor. When I was a kid, my dad who had coal black hair well into his 60s, used to perform First Footings for all of my mother’s Scottish friends. Thankfully he held his liquor well and got no DWIs in the process.

Hans and the Fosters helped me repeat another annual New Year’s good luck ritual, this one from my Hungarian dad’s side-- a pork and sauerkraut dinner. Over the years this became a favorite winter meal of Peter and ‘the boys,’ as I came to call his friends. I follow my mother’s recipe and taught it to my friend John who took over gathering and feeding the boys comfort food every month or so after I left for Uganda in 2002. Those dinners morphed into a poker game with John continuing to cook until his death a couple of years ago.

We’ve had more snow plus a couple of days of melting and freezing. Ah, I have missed Minnesota winters while overseas. NOT. Much as I love snow, and I do, I hate cold. And it’s been very cold here this winter. Lots of below zero Fahrenheit temps, even before the wind chill is added, and the winds have often been fierce. (A couple of major interstate highways northwest of us were closed for several days because of the weather!) On the day of melting, I borrowed a shovel from the Fosters and cleared my decks which were piled high with wet, heavy snow. I’m on the top floor with no roof over the decks, hence lots of accumulated snow. Yesterday I bought a snow shovel of my own and broke it in by clearing off the newest snowfall. At the same time the city plows cleared the huge ice mounds along the sidewalk on our street, making it slightly easier to get out of our driveway ... parked cars are still a hazard.

I spent most of Monday visiting with my first Minnesota friend who’s now in a retirement center in Northfield, about an hour south of here. Lois was vice president of the public relations agency where I started my transition from reporter to PR professional after Bob and I moved to MN. I couldn’t get a reporting job, so I answered an ad for ‘writers.’ One of the wonders of those years was writing with Lois. We worked so well together that once we’d finish a brochure or annual report, we couldn’t tell who’d written what. I always remember the two of us preparing the agency’s first brochure -- me at the typewriter and Lois laying on the floor with her feet up on a chair. Her first husband Walt was a minister, and my son was the last baby he baptized. Walt died of a heart attack a few hours after having dinner at our house. Lois later re-married Sidney, who was president of St. Olaf College in Northfield and went on to be US Ambassador to Norway under President Carter. So she has many wonderful stories to tell.

Lois’ eyesight has deteriorated severely; she cannot read any more and using the computer for composition is impossible since she can’t proofread. That makes writing a memoir for her family and friends more difficult. So I’m going to help -- starting next Monday, Lois is going to tell me her anecdotes, and I’m going to type them into my laptop, then clean up my shorthand typing at home.

Last night, after my Pilates class, I met Sally, an old friend, for a glass of wine and surprised her by inviting another friend from the same era, Cathy. We met when our husbands (Sally’s and my late exes now) were all reporters at the Minneapolis Tribune who bonded over fishing. I ran into Sally on Sunday morning as I left my water exercise class (more on that later) and yesterday morning called Cathy to join us. We had a wonderful evening catching up and plan to get together again. I promised to host and maybe even cook.

Water exercise classes -- I believe I’ve mentioned that I started this and Pilates so that I have some kind of exercise virtually every day. I’ve been pretty good too, even swimming laps when possible while I was in Poland. Now it’s time to start watching what I eat more closely and to work on my Spanish. I have an eating plan that’s healthy and sensible that I’m starting next Monday. I want to go to my friend Linda’s birthday party on Saturday and eat pizza, something I haven’t had in a long time. And I just signed up for a Spanish class offered by the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Community Education Department. Very cheap and made cheaper because I’m now a ‘senior,’ that is, more than 62 years of age. Seniors get most classes for half price.

OMG, as the kids text. I just got a phone call out of the past -- from a friend that I haven’t seen since I was at Northwestern University 40+ years ago! Fred was my first real male friend, an unlikely yet perfect candidate for that role in the mid 1960s: a ‘townie’ (resident of Evanston but not a student) with living with his grandmother, no visible means of support, African American and 10 years older than I, opinionated, articulate and very, very funny. He introduced me to jazz, and he had an amazing singing voice. I’ve never heard a rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story that comes near to his. Eventually Fred dated my roommate and I dated his best friend.

We met because he and his buddies hung out at the same deli, The Hut, as my friends and I. It was the first eatery off the NU campus, convenient but also off beat, an antidote to college life, an eclectic mix of townies and students from various nearby colleges and unlike the colleges, very integrated. It became my second home, and I spent many a night after a party sitting in The Hut drinking coffee and listening to jazz on the juke box while I waited for the sorority house door to be unlocked at 6 am. There I consumed muffin burgers New York style (hamburger with cole slaw on an English muffin) and ‘male’ caramel apples (rolled in crushed peanuts).

Fred and I debated the friend thing many times before he accepted that I was not emasculating him by making him a non-sexual male friend. We gave him his first birthday party ever for his 29th, complete with chocolate and white layer cake frosted in chocolate and decorated in white. When Fred cut the first piece, he noticed the white layer was on top and proceeded to serve all pieces upside down.

During my senior year Fred left Evanston for a job with now-defunct Pan American World Airways in New York City and later worked in upstate New York where I lost track of, but never forgot, him. So when I got a spam email from some people-finder service while in Uganda in 2003, I added $9.95 to my credit card and looked up Fred among others. For him, I got several Chicago addresses, and I wrote to the most recent two. When I didn’t hear from him, I figured he must’ve died. Today I learned that he did receive the letters; he and his wife returned to Chicago in 1985; they have a 30-year-old daughter. And he tried to call me a few times. Unfortunately he was calling when my niece was living in my condo and had unplugged the phone. Cleaning off his desk in preparation for winter in Miami, he saw my letter and decided to try again. I’m so glad he did.

8 January, Minneapolis

I’ve been shredding my past. Remember that I said I cleaned 20+ years of storage in August. Well, a lot of that was paper -- from check carbons to tax forms, bank statements and medical reports. My friend Sue who will soon retire has maintained a condo in Madison WI (where the company she’s worked for is located) but she lives outside St. Paul. When I mentioned needing a shredder, Sue told me not to buy one; she’d bring me the one from Madison. And as promised, she brought it with her to dinner on New Year’s Eve. So Thursday and Friday this week, I shredded my divorce, Peter’s medical records, hundreds of his and my check duplicates and old checkbooks, almost as many address labels I’d torn from mail, and lots, lots more. Eventually eight bags. Four are in the dumpster; four are waiting for me to dump them. I now have room on the floor of my spare closet where the box of to-be-shredded papers had been. Hurray.

This is a good time for such mundane indoor tasks as the temps have fallen and the winds have risen. Last week Minnesota had the lowest temp in the US four times, and it’s only getting colder and windier, something that is predicted to continue. Ah, Minnesota in winter.

13 January, Minneapolis

More snow today so tomorrow I’ll need to shovel off the deck. I understand it’s going to get colder this weekend. Oh, joy. Well, I made airline reservations to escape. A week in south Florida at Jane’s, a high school friend, and two weeks in California starting in mid March. I’ll fly to San Francisco and stay with Jean, grad school friend, visit other friends and family there, then connect with my college roommate Marilyn and drive with her southward toward the desert. We’ll stop overnight in Santa Barbara en route to Palm Desert where Mar used to live, and I’ll go from there to my brother’s for a few days. I am psyched!

I signed up for beginning Spanish classes through the public school district’s community education department. It’ll be two hours a week for about eight weeks; I’ll only miss one class while in Florida.

19 January, Minneapolis

Not a lot to add since I haven’t been traveling and I haven’t heard from Peace Corps yet. Still trying to figure out what retirement means.

Over the weekend, I went to a lovely boutique in the warehouse district where my sister bought me a funky coat scarf that I had to learn how to wear properly. It was designed by a Polish designer that the store owner met in Paris. The shop is the owner’s retirement exit strategy, she told me. She does international strategy consulting, so of course we got to talking about retirement and international work. She referred me to a local nonprofit that’s always looking for volunteers, Books for Africa. Long story short, the head of the organization knows my friend Hala in Poland! I’m going to see him in early February.

As I write this, the house cleaner is finishing her monthly run-through. Clean toilets and floors that aren’t carpeted. For some reason the vacuum cleaner died just as she was getting started with the rugs. Argh.

21 January, Minneapolis

Well, the vacuum cleaner still doesn’t work. My sister said the new carpet’s pile may have clogged the hose and caused it to turn off so the motor wouldn’t burn out. But I cleaned out the hose yesterday and still no action. Double argh. My friend, painter and all-purpose handyman Wade is coming over tomorrow to assemble a TV table that I bought at IKEA yesterday. I’ll have him take a look before I take it to the repair shop.

Today’s temp is minus10F in my neck of the woods. At least today we haven’t much wind. Last night I walked up to Nicollet Mall to meet my niece Michelle for dinner. It was bitter cold compounded by a brisk wind -- not the best night for a 10 or so block walk. The company, food and service at my favorite downtown restaurants Zelo more than compensated for the icy nose and face. But I am still counting the minutes until 9 February when I leave for south Florida for a week!

After dinner, Michelle, who lives downtown and also walked to dinner, went in search of a Skyway entrance so she could go home out of the wind. I walked a couple more blocks to Orchestra Hall to meet my friend Jan and see an orchestral version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It was an unusual performance that included puppets from The Heart of the Beast puppet theatre and the Minnesota Chorale.

24 January, Minneapolis

The waiting is over. Got home from a day in Northfield today and had an email from Peace Corps -- somehow a form email seems even less personal than a form letter, especially when it’s a rejection: "no match for my skills and experience."

Because I always prepare for the worst, I myself prepared for this. I am feeling dejected but not like I've failed. I am too ecstatic that the process is over, and I can truly get on with whatever retirement is supposed to mean for me. I start Spanish class tomorrow and will look seriously at how to use my skills and experience as a volunteer in the Twin Cities and perhaps some short-term work overseas. Come May when I return to Poland for the semi-annual board meeting, I'll probably stay on that side of the Atlantic for a couple of months and visit friends there.

For now, I’m going to bed, even though it’s 5:30 pm. For some reason, I awoke at 2:30 am today and couldn’t fall back to sleep, even though my brain wasn’t obsessing on anything. I went for an early walk with Linda and her dog, then spent the rest of the day in Northfield helping Lois with her memoir. For a while in mid afternoon, I thought I was going to have to ask for a nap break. Driving back, I just felt miserable and headachy and decided that hungry or not, I was taking a nap. So, I’m off.

26 January, Minneapolis

I slept for 13 hours with a brief break to answer a phone call from my sister (no, I was not going to Pilates) and at midnight (time to change into my nightgown and get under the covers. I had fallen asleep fully dressed on top of the bed). The one task I did complete before zonking out was a quick email to family and friends about the Peace Corps decision. And yesterday and today I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the kind words and support I’ve continued to get via their emails and calls. I am truly blessed.

30 January, Minneapolis

A busy week catching up with friends I haven’t talked with or seen in a long time. Thursday afternoon I came down with a really bad case of the chills. Donned long johns, sweats and a fleece jacket, cancelled my afternoon movie plans and read for a while, then as dressed, went to bed under my down comforter for 9 hours. Felt better but not fantastic on Friday, so I skipped my water exercise class for the first time in ages. Friday’s class is one of my favorites -- Pilates and yoga in the water. Saturday I met Sabrina, Mark and Christopher for breakfast a cafe new to me in St. Paul, then went with them briefly to a toy store that focuses on trains -- a veritable playground of toy trains for kids of all ages. Christopher and Mark both were having a good time. The rest of the day was running errands -- took the ‘dead’ vacuum for a diagnosis. Needs a new cord and brushes, will be ready Tuesday. In the meantime, I ignore the carpets.

Snowing again today and getting colder as the week passes. Yes, winter in Minnesota. Aren’t you glad you’re anywhere else? Some days I miss I were!

10 February, Naples FL USA

Since I’ve been busy doing nothing, I haven’t posted January’s blog so decided I’d combine it with February. There is a limit to how much you want to hear about the unusually cold, snowy, windy weather we’ve had in MN ... and in almost every other place in the US. When I made my reservation for this trip, I booked a nonstop flight even though it was slightly more expensive; I didn’t want to get stuck in some connecting southern city that got hit with snow and didn’t know how to deal with it.

The temperature was minus 15F when I left yesterday. We took off 30 minutes late as some water lines on the plane had frozen and needed to be thawed before we could take off. When I used the airplane’s only working toilet in economy, I wondered if the frozen lines were related to the out-of-order second toilet. At least the line wasn’t too long -- only three men ahead of me.

Dinner outdoors last night was a wonderful treat, and walking around today in a tee shirt and linen peddle-pushers ... well, it’s been a long time since I was dressed in so few layers while outdoors. Ironically, there is a thick fog around the area of Jane and her husband JIm’s condo, which is on a small islet. (Jim is back in CT and likely wishing he were still in FL; they’ve had a lot of snow as well.) But once we cross the bridge and go inland, the fog disappears. It was sunny when we hit the salon for pedicures and manicures. Red toes abound. (We both had our fingers done in pale pink polish.)

While our pedicures were getting underway, Jane asked about movies I’d seen lately, and I wracked my brain to recall them. She commented that she hadn’t gone to the movies much as a kid, and I told her about our friend Marsha and me going to the large, stately Memorial Theater to buy good popcorn, stopping at Cox’s women’s store to buy something to get a bag in which to hide the popcorn, then going to the downscale more Capitol to see a movie -- double feature plus cartoon or two and newsreel, all for a quarter. A woman across the way having a manicure turned around and looked at me. I said that I knew I was dating myself. And she asked, “Are you from McKeesport?” Not Pittsburgh, but McKeesport! I replied that both Jane and I were from there, though actually we went to Elizabeth-Forward High School and lived in the township. Well, she was from the city itself; her family owned Johnson’s Florists, stores where I bought flowers for Mother’s Day, my wedding, any number of funerals, etc. over the years. She has a place not far from Jane’s.

What to report about February to date? Don’t want you to miss anything of my exciting life! Well, let’s see. I’ve been pretty faithful to my “Flat Belly Diet” and lost a few pounds, and more importantly, seem to have lost some inches and kept my blood sugar nicely in balance. I continue to do water exercise four or five mornings a week. I feel like I’m becoming as addicted to this exercise program as I used to be at running, which I miss less and less these days. I know it’s dumb; I haven’t run at all since I lived in Macedonia (2003-06) and not at any distance or intensity since I lived in Warsaw in ’95-98. But my head still misses it. I actually liked to run and would even do it alone (and doing anything alone is a rarity for me).

11 February

Still foggy, rainy and a bit on the chilly side but still got away with wearing a tee-shirt and cotton shirt-jacket. After a lovely, relaxing brunch at a local cafe, we went shopping in both old and new Naples, both lovely areas full of interesting shops from Oh! Oh! Shoes to Tommy Bahama’s, Chico’s, Eileen Fisher and more, jewelry stores and real estate offices galore as well as cafes and restaurants, ice cream stores and coffee shops. We put on our rain jackets and wandered, mostly window shopping. I did cheat on my diet and savored a toasted coconut ice cream cone in a dark chocolate covered cone. Well worth every calorie.

As we wandered, I couldn’t at first put my finger on what was different here .. beyond the obvious array of assorted palm trees, mild though wet weather, Florida-style buildings. Then it struck me. Here we were in a major shopping area and there was not a single “sale” sign in sight ... not when we were in ‘new’ Naples nor in Old Naples. Whereas back home, you cannot pass a shop without finding signs announcing sales, additional discounts, season close outs, any of a dozen ways to say ‘come in and buy now.’ And we went into several shops to browse and only found modest sale racks in two. Have no idea why but it certainly was weird to think of paying full price for things!

Other than these charming ‘downtowns,’ the stores in southwestern Florida all seem to be in well tended strip malls of mostly sunset-colors on stucco buildings, often with tile roofs and Spanish-style architecture, along wide palm lined boulevards. I don’t recall seeing such a big variety of palm trees when I was in California, but then maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.

13 February

Jane has been collecting assorted “leaves,” from pines to palms, for a design she’ll submit to a garden club show when she returns to CT. We picked up some lovely fresh pine bows while on Sanibel Island on Saturday. Today she carried those into the condo ... along with an unexpected guest. As she took the bows from a plastic bag, she shrieked; a young gecko had started to climb her arm. Seeing it at the same time, I called out, “A gecko.” He turned around toward the bag. We forgot to ask him about a discount on car insurance, but we did take the bag outside. Jane emptied the pine bows and no gecko ...

The trip to Sanibel was a nice outing, about an hour’s drive, including going over a long and occasionally very high causeway (I, ever the acrophobe, was glad Jane was driving). The weather was pleasant, sunny and warmer than yesterday. We went to see Sally, our friend who used to organize the wonderful Acapulco house where we’d go for a week every winter. She’s doing the same thing on Sanibel now. She and her guest, Pat, another Minneapolis expat, joined us for lunch at Gramma Dot’s, a seafood-lovers paradise, and chowed down on clam chowder, grilled shrimp caesar salad, grouper sandwich, sampler plate of fried oysters, coconut shrimp and crab balls. I would definitely return here.

Valentine’s Day

Tonight we took part in a wine tasting held by the condo association. Everyone attending was to bring his or her favorite wine which was put into a paper bag. We all got to taste each, then had to pick our favorite white and favorite red. Jane’s un-oaked chardonnay tied for favorite white. The wine was recommended by an Italian fellow who had completed a tasting of Italian wines at the Fresh Market, an upscale supermarket.

Dave, who lives in the condo building and works at a large wine store, voted for Jane’s chardonnay ... but alas, in the run-off, a slightly sweet riesling won. I talked with Dave about wine afterwards, and he said his store had a boxed wine from Macedonia (I wondered if that was from Greek Macedonia or “my” Macedonia but didn’t ask). I promised to bring Dave a bottle of Macedonian vranac to try.

20 February, Minneapolis MN

I know I’m back in MN -- it’s snowing outside. The snowfall started at about 10:15 am, just as I was leaving for water exercise, and has continued all day. Predictions are for 4 to 17 inches ... and I’m sure we’re at more than 4 inches already by the looks of my decks. Tomorrow morning’s chore, after my early walk around Lake Harriet, will be shoveling snow from both decks. Not sure if I’ll get to Northfield; will depend on the roads. If I don’t go, I can work more on my talk. I’m the educational entertainment at my friend Lois’ retirement center on 3 March. I’ll talk about learning to work in a totally foreign, literally, environment at the age of 46.

When I returned from FL on Wednesday, much of the snow had melted. And weather since has been ‘warmer’ than when I left although very windy.

Yesterday I took my niece Tomery for lunch at a well-known local Asian fast food restaurant, her choice as I’d already eaten by the time she called me. She had lunch and we both had frozen yoghurt ... and got sick later. I need to call the restaurant and let them know that something may have been wrong with their yoghurt machine.

After lunch, we went to the ATT shop that was nearby and added me to her family plan, which saves money. I now have an operational iPhone ... it just has a new number. Tomorrow I’ll get my current number transferred and make an appointment at the Apple Store for iPhone lessons. I have no idea how to use the thing. Wish me luck!

21 February

Yes, definitely Minnesota. Before I even had my coffee this morning, I shoveled both decks of about 12 inches of “spring” snow, the heavy, wet kind. I knew that if I sat down to have coffee, I might never hit the decks.

Lesson learned: If you have sliding glass doors with screens, push the screens into an open position before the snow falls, then melts, then the run off freezes in the door’s gutter. I had to figure out how to take the screen off this morning before I could exit to the deck and shovel.

Needless to say, I didn’t go to Northfield. Our driveway hadn’t been plowed plus even the highways weren’t in the most winter drive-ready state this morning. Minneapolis’ one tunnel had an early accident, someone hit a bus. I suspect the driver was trying to pass the bus in the tunnel and slid. Drivers here don’t seem to understand that you don’t change lanes in a tunnel -- that’s what the solid stripe between lanes means. Guess it’s because they have’t had to sit in traffic for hours while an in-tunnel accident is cleared away. A lesson I learned when growing up in western Pennsylvania where tunnels are the norm.

Checked with Janet and Ed to see if they were snowbound in Minneapolis or in Columbus, Ohio, where they’d gone for a family event over the weekend. Luckily when Janet made their reservations, she misread the return flight information and booked a 6:40 am flight, not one at 6:40 pm. They got the last Delta flight out of Columbus and arrived here before the snow started. My friend Susan who has been in Texas on business was snowed in there for an extra couple of days.

22 February

Arrgh! More snow to shovel ... and I’ve lost a library book. Went on line and it hasn’t been returned. So after I shovel the decks, I’ll walk downtown and re-trace my steps (Schwab, ATT, Target).

23 February

At last, some good news. The sun is shining, the snow is melting ... and I found the missing library book. It was buried under the one small toss pillow on the love seat in the living room. I still have to finish reading it, but I returned the other books to the library yesterday and picked up more. I’ve been getting the large print versions for a couple of reasons. First, the library is a large section with large print books in low stacks very near the entrance. So the first time I went to the new Minneapolis Public Library, I saw this area first. It’s easy to navigate. And second, after reading a couple, I like the easier-on-the-eyes larger print. What I don’t like is how thick and heavy the books are since I am almost always carrying a book with me. That’s an old Peace Corps thing -- never leave home without something to eat, something to drink, something to read, tissue and your Swiss Army Knife. I generally leave the knife at home (I’ve lost a few due to new airline security) and don’t always carry food but if I’m carrying a tote anywhere, you’ll find a bottle of water, tissue and a book inside. And I have a case of water bottles in my car.

Later ... Spent most of the afternoon getting my mobile phone service finalized. I needed to transfer my existing phone number to the iPhone which has a different service provider. What a nightmare. But it’s finally done. And had lunch with Fern, a friend from my early days in Minneapolis. It was good to see her and catch up. I can’t believe I’ve known her 40 years. She hosted a baby shower for me when I was pregnant with Peter.

Well, off to Pilates ... the first time in several weeks.

25 February

I can’t think of anything more satisfying that feeling like you’ve accomplished something, anything, big or small. And that was me last night as I got dressed for dinner and a seminar with my friend Marilyn. It was very cold outside again, so I decided to wear lined woolen trousers ... only to find my favorite pair was seriously TOO BIG. I got out my one other pair; I’d bought these in Zurich a few years ago when I was visiting my friends Maura, Fed and Oscar and was considerably thinner. The pants fit perfectly then but in the intervening years, had grown snuggly unwearable. Then a month or so ago I tried them on and they were okay, albeit better with a long sweater that hid their body clinginess. But last night, they fit beautifully and I could have tucked in a shirt comfortably! All the water exercise and careful eating is beginning to pay off. Hurray. Good news at last.

28 February

Our shortest month in over ... but not what must be our longest winter season yet. It was 2 degrees Fahrenheit when I walked around Lake Harriet this morning. While it got up to about 40 later in the day, colder weather is predicted ... plus more snow. Shakespeare obviously had never heard of Minnesota when he penned, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

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