Posts Tagged With: vacation

It’s All Relative and Friendly

It’s Labor Day weekend, and I’m at Crystal Beach, enjoying the beach house that my sister and I rebuilt last year. One of the pleasures — even joys — of having this new place is more room — and private room — to host family and friends.

Not that I couldn’t do that in the previous one, but it was only about 650 square feet in one room with a kitchen in it and a bathroom. You know the term “open concept”? That was the layout. It had a double bed, two twin beds, and a futon. If you wanted privacy, forget it. You just had to retreat into a book and your own head.

Here, though, in 825 square feet, Kay and I have 3 bedrooms, one bath, and a kitchen/living room. With a double bed in each bedroom (and a sleeper chair in addition, in one), and a double-size sleeper sofa, we can accommodate 9, depending on sleeping arrangements.

Sometimes we are here together, as this Labor Day weekend. Sometimes, Kay comes down. Other times, I’m here. We’ve both had friends stay with us.

And this time, we have had not only a friend but relatives.

I came over on Thursday, and our cousin Barbara and her husband Herb followed me; they’d been in Lake Charles overnight. Kay arrived a couple of hours after we did. Barbara and Herb and I had lunch, then rode down the beach for miles, looking at the beach houses and observing the many flocks of brown pelicans up and down the beach. Some groups of them were on the beach with terns and cow-birds. Others swirled overhead, dive-bombing into the Gulf to snatch fish out of the schools near the surface.

We rode, we stopped, we looked. We laughed a lot. There was a running commentary about the houses, the colors, the designs.

Kay had brought homemade tamales from Zwolle, Louisiana (home of the Zwolle Tamale Festival). We feasted.

Friday morning, coffee and doughnuts from Dannay’s. More laughter, more fun. Barbara and Herb packed up and left for Houston, where they were going to see their son play with the band he’s in.

By mid-afternoon, our friend Charles drove up. I’ve known Charles for 56 years — we moved into the Egan SunOil camp on his birthday in 1957. We started first grade together; we graduated high school together. Our parents moved houses onto lots across the street from each other when the camp was broken up. Now that all our parents are dead, we still have those houses.

Lots of time for tamales and cheese dip, naps, and various adult beverages.

Saturday was very slow and lazy. We did some shopping. We visited. We sat on the deck. But mainly we just hung out together. Didn’t want to waste our energy — we knew we’d be going to Galveston. That’s because last night we had tickets for a concert in Galveston. Going over about 5:30 was perfect — no lines. The concert was at 8; Robert Earl Keen played a solid two hours. By 11 we were back at Crystal Beach — again, no lines at all at the ferry. The timing was perfect — we drove right onto the ferry with no wait.

Over the last couple of days, lots of people have crowded the beaches here, seeking the last free weekend before schools really absorb them. I’ve avoided the beach — too crowded. Many of our neighbors have also come in, pulling out their golf carts and firing up grills. Music wafts in from many streets away at times. It’s lively, to say the least.

But us? We’re pretty low-key. We talk and laugh and eat and nap.

Today, we woke up whenever we wanted, drank coffee an diet Coke, munched on breakfast stuff. There was no agenda, other than a visit from another cousin.

For lunch, my cousin Carolyn and her husband Larry drove over from League City. Again more laughter and lots of chatter. We told stories about our family, about our mothers, our grandmother. Carolyn and Larry decided not to fight the long multiple lanes of waiting lines at the ferry and left to drive back via I-10 instead.

You can roast in those lines. And spent far more times than you want. I know; I’ve done it before, and will do it again, when necessary. Obviously, there were lots of people heading over here to the beach today. Another reason I’ve stayed home today, other than going out to lunch.

By afternoon, I was sleepy. I took my iPad and lay down under a quilt, read for a while, and dozed. Periodically, I’d get up, wander to the bathroom or kitchen. By six, it was time to rise and join the world.

In between, we watched television. This afternoon, for instance, we’ve watched several Alfred Hitchcock films. At least Kay and Charles have; I’ve napped. Dinner is over.

And Psycho is now on. Can’t stand the shower scene. But I watch nonetheless.

Tomorrow we’ll pack up, clean the house, and leave for now. Others will be doing the same. I know I’ll be back next weekend.

This house was built for such times. Not only for Kay and me. It’s a place where we relax completely. And we entertain.

Our house doesn’t compare to some others — even on our street. It’s modest. Others are much larger, more ornate, more expensive. But it suits us. Not too much to maintain.
One of the reasons I bought the original place in 1997 was that I could sit on the street in my car and hear the surf. I could see the beach. Once I saw the place from inside and the deck, I could seek the potential. True, there was no insulation. The plywood walls were dark. But it was close enough to the beach. And I could paint.

And so the place came to be mine. The furniture came with it. I painted. I bought some new dishes and brought things to make it mine. I bought sheets and bedspreads. With a television, a DVR, and a CD player/radio, it offered entertainment too.

I spent New Years 1999/2000 here with friends, watching fireworks and drinking champagne. Dad spent time here with me, with Kay. I have wonderful memories of our family here.

When Hurricane Ike hit here and left me with what I called “the lovely slab,” I didn’t really want to rebuild. Not then. But I didn’t sell the lot, either. I couldn’t afford to, and I didn’t really want to. I loved coming here; I always had. So I kept the lot, eventually bought a used camper trailer, moved it here, and enjoyed more beach time with Dad and Kay.

Many times Kay and I talked about rebuilding, and though we didn’t we knew that one day that would happen. Dad knew too.

So last year, we did. And we spent our first Christmas without Dad here, beginning a new family tradition.

This place is new, but it’s filled with old memories — from summers with my grandmother who used to rent down here, from the times spent here until Ike wiped it out. The furniture is a mixture of old, new, and repurposed from flea markets and estate sales and antique stores. When Kay asks about moving something here that one of us already owns, I ask here whether she can stand to watch it wash away or disappear (after all, another hurricane is always a possibility). Usually, she decides not to move it here if it’s really something sentimental.

Now, though– we continue to put our touches on this place. Today, for example, we got a wrench — didn’t have one, but we didn’t need one either. We’ve got a drill, but I know we need a set of tools here. That’s on the list of “things to get,” which grows.

But we fill the place with new memories too. Every time we visit, together or alone. With friends. With relatives.

Whether the houses around us are large or small, ornate or plain, this area has rebuilt. It’s living again. It’s got its groove back.

Tomorrow I’ll head back to Lake Charles.

It’s only a two-hour drive, and the road runs both ways. There’s always more time, more time for visits with family and friends.

Barbara and I are already planning on a visit when she and Herb will come down to meet me here — with their daughter, her husband, and their two babies. We’ll hope to get her brother Jim here too since he lives on the island.

Time to savor those family ties, those friendships.


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The Wine Roads of Macedonia

On Wednesday I arrived with friends, landing in Thessaloniki, after an overnight flight from Houston to Frankfurt (delayed by thunderstorms in Houston).  Once I stepped off the plane, I felt immediately at home and relaxed.

Even though I’ve never been to the north of Greece before, the landscape looks so familiar – Thessaloniki is on the water, yet within a few miles, you’re in the mountains.  The scenery is very mixed, with some agricultural development and small towns.

There are eight of us here for a wedding, for the niece of a friend of mine.  She’s marrying a young man from the town of Naoussa, in the area of Ematha, not to be confused with the Naoussa on the island of Paros.  This is a small mountainous town of about 20,000 people.  Nikos and Sara met us at the airport and we rode to Naoussa on a spacious bus, with lots of room to spread out.  Some fell asleep.  Some of us sat up and talked.  I enjoyed the ride, looking out at the countryside, green and flowering.  Nikos said it had rained a lot recently, and the lush green growth certainly was evidence of that.

The bus couldn’t negotiate the small street to our hotel, though, so someone loaded the heavy bags in a car and drove those to the hotel.  We walked with our small bags, and as we walked, at least one person stopped Nikos to say hello.  It is his hometown, after all, and he lives in the San Francisco area now.

We settled into our rooms in a lovely small hotel, The Palia Poli (.  My room overlooks the patio.  I turned on the air conditioning and unpacked, discovering along the way that I had somehow not packed my new camera.  One of many small problems that, I am sure, I will deal with.  I have a camera on my iPhone, so that will do for now.

After drinks, we walked to a tavern by the city park, sat and had a great evening.  Nikos’s parents and sister joined us, and we ate lots of mezedes.  By the time we walked back to the hotel, we were full and ready for bed.

I slept Thursday away, I must confess.  I was exhausted after weeks of dealing with business, and I guess my body just decided it needed the rest.

After I awoke, though, I found a local guidebook and read about the area.  Naoussa has an interesting history, and I look forward to seeing more of it.  I’ve been so indulgent about laziness today, and sitting here writing this is making me sharpen and really wake up.

The internet password didn’t seem to work for me, so I just began typing a word document and asked later about the problem when I went downstairs.  I got the message that “the server has timed out” or  something like that.  Oh well.  There is an internet café that Carolyn and I saw last night when we wandered down to find our diet Cokes for this morning.  (Later I discovered that because my room is a corner room and because the walls are such thick stone, I can get reception for the internet by sitting on the loveseat near the window. Problem solved.)

We all took taxis up to Agios Nicholaos Park, about 2 kilometers from town.  What a change – in such a brief time we were up in a mountainous area, walking under enormous plane trees, and headed to the Arapitsa River, which runs through the park.  The river was clear, inviting, and icy cold – it’s fed by springs and by snow melt.  Even now in June the icy water was a shock.

There was plenty of time for walking and taking in the scenery.  Birds chirped around us, the sound of the water rippling over stones in the river soothed us, and we wandered around.  First we stopped at the small church in the park, and then continued on.  I stopped and went back to write; others kept walking a bit more.

Such a refreshing and peaceful area was just perfect – so much so that we decided to come back on Friday night for dinner and eat on the veranda of the hotel at the entrance to the park.

Then it was time to go back to our rooms, change, and take off for the rehearsal dinner.  This was held at a local vineyard, Damaras Winery. The family have owned it for six generations now, and are friends of the groom’s family.  We were treated to a tour of the winery and the distillery, listening as the young vintner whose great-grandfather started this place explained to us that now the wine was organic and that they used no additives other than a little bit of sulfite.  Everything else – from manure to leftovers – went into a compost heap that in turn went to the vineyards, where chickens help to distribute it.

The setting outside, where the tables rested, overlooked the vineyards but also offered a view of the mountains and of the town.  That unbelievable light which is peculiar to Greece once more performed its magic on everyone, newcomers and seasoned travelers alike.  The sunset colors melted into evening as we took our places at the simple but elegant tables.

We ate as the Greeks eat, with many plates of lots of things, with wine and water.  And tsipouro, another product of this family business.  Powerful, even more so than ouzo, it is to be sipped slowly, not slammed back like a shot of tequila.

Eggplants in several different recipes, taramasalata, Florina peppers, bread, feta cheese, tiny fried fish, fried eggplant known locally as “blind fish,” a local type of fried cheese called boutsa”– and just when we all thought it was over, plates of grilled seafood and then a heaping plate of pasta (one for each of us) left us speechless.  And incredibly full.  A true feast.  Cool breezes, clear skies, and music in the background.  The voices of Greek and English speakers mingled as non-speakers (of Greek) managed to communicate with non-speakers (of English).  Laughter rang out often, denoting the kefi  (good feelings, rather embracing all) so important to Greeks.

Then it was time for taxis back to our hotel, where we all sank into our beds, fully sated and feeling happy.  Of course, the young bridal party contingent didn’t make it back home until several hours later, as we older ones found out this morning at breakfast.

Today, Friday, began with a leisurely breakfast on the patio.  Cheese pies, croissants and bread, butter and jam, fresh peaches from the owner’s father’s trees, eggs and sausages, fresh yogurt and honey, freshly squeezed orange juice, cheese and cold cuts – again, facing a Greek table is like facing a mini-cafeteria.  We just kept passing around food, grazing, and drinking water and juice.  Coffee and tea (a mountain herbal tea) also were available.

By 10:30 or so, we were off in three cars, headed toward Vergina.  The discovery of royal tombs there in the 1970s has led to a new, beautifully organized museum situated under the tumulus of the tombs themselves.  There we saw the finds from the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great.

I  expected to see the bronze tools and implements of war, but not quite such magnificent examples of greaves and helmets and so on.  Silverwork surprised me:  the delicate, masterful decorative creations of cups and plates, serving dishes of all kinds – so beautiful even now that I wouldn’t hesitate to use them.

We could see the remnants of the couches and chairs that were placed in the tomb – even the still-sharply colored designs of the cloth that the royal bones were wrapped in.  Delicate fronds of gold leaves and flowers were braided and wound into diadems and crowns.

Everywhere the signs offered us clear explanations both in Greek and English.  I was most taken with the small replica of Philip II’s tomb – complete with miniature shields and greaves and cups and saucers, placed as they were when the tomb was first discovered.  This was a work of art in itself, I think.

And at the beginning (or the end, as I managed it), was a film about the tombs and the site, in Greek with English subtitles.  Dedicated to the Greek archaeologist who discovered and excavated the site and who has since died, the film included photography of the site and of the tombs and its contents as well as information about Philip II and his death at the Theatre of Vergina, near the tomb itself.

After a short break for cold water and time to hit the museum store, we were back in the cars headed away from Vergina and toward Naoussa.  We took a left rather than a right at one point and headed upwards again, past the river, into the Pierian mountains to the monastery of Timios Prodromos.  A simple monastery, it offers its visitors a glimpse into the workings of a monastery whose exact beginnings are, as its guidebook says, “lost in time.”  Evidence of monks living in caves goes back many centuries, and history recounts a number of saints who visited the area.  All the local monasteries were burned by the Pasha about 1822 after the Naoussa revolution in the 19th century (the occupation of Greeks by the Turks ended only with the War of Independence, 1821-1828).

Pots of flowers and herbs bordered the steps and looked useful as well as decorative.  A young priest was working as we entered the doorway into a kind of open area.  At first I thought he was watering plants or planting, but I later found out his task was quite different – he was carefully washing the bones of earlier monks.  His head bowed reverently as he worked slowly and with great attention, he obviously saw his work as sacred.  Again, I had an insight into the life inside such a place.

One small chapel held our interest simply because it was inside the hollowed area of an enormous petrified tree.  Surely, I thought at first, this was not true.  However, as I looked carefully around me, I could clearly see that this was, indeed, wood.  Hollows and twists and bands of striated wood curled overhead.  Such an amazing use of nature, a practical use of what one has at hand.

The modern church is not much larger, but it is decorated from floor to ceiling – indeed all the ceiling itself it decorated – with scenes from Biblical stories as well as pictures of various saints.  Here is the story of the monastery, of Orthodoxy, of Christianity – played out in paint.  A simple row of chairs lined the back wall.

As we entered that small church, one of the many cats followed us in, obviously at home.

After our stop there, it was back to the hotel here in Naoussa.  Once back, we hit the local supermarket and ate a simple picnic lunch in the patio.  Cheeses, olives, crackers/toast, tzatziki, lettuce and tomatoes – a perfect light lunch.

I came back to my room about 5.  It’s almost 7 now.  In a few minutes, we will meet downstairs on the patio to head back to the park and the hotel by the river.  It’s almost time to eat again.

Maybe I’d better get ready.

10:17 p.m.

We just returned from dinner – early Americans that we are, we managed to eat early tonight.  After all, tomorrow morning some of us are planning a little shopping and some wandering around town.  Personally, I plan to sit and observe from cafes.  And get some rest in the afternoon.  Tomorrow night is the big night – the wedding we’ve all come here to celebrate.

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