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Backtrack: Bratislava

12 Aug

fermor_woods_coverWhile in Europe in April and May, I began reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s fascinating travel volumes. I had heard so much about these astonishing narratives of the very young Fermor’s journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he insisted on calling it) in the 1930s.  Because we were going to be in Hungary, I started with volume 2, Between the Woods and the Water, which begins when Fermor crosses the Danube into Hungary and ends at the Iron Gates on the Danube in Romania. Fermor wrote the book some 30 years after the journey, consulting his diaries; his recall of the details of what was by the 1960s a completely lost culture of elegant aristocrats’ estates, encounters with wild gypsies on the Steppes, raucous nightlife in Budapest and elsewhere, and the magnificence of a natural world unchanged since the Middle Ages is unparalleled. Simply fascinating first-hand reminiscences of a life style that exists no more.

Now at home in Pasadena I got my hands on the first volume, A Time of Gifts, which takes the intrepid young man from Holland across Germany, into the Austrian countryside and finally to Vienna and on to Bratislava, with a side trip to Prague. His account of entering Vienna in a pouring rain in the back of a truck on the night that a revolution broke out (see for details of this famous insurrection) is a brilliant reminder that most people are unaware that momentous history is happening around them while they get on with their everyday lives.

It was Fermor’s writing about Bratislava that most caught my attention.  Formerly Pressburg in German, Poszony in Hungarian, and a historically significant center of the recently dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bratislava after World War I became the capital of Slovakia within the merged realms known as Czechoslovakia. Evidence of the wildly complex multicultural story of Central Europe, Bratislava is still the only national capital to border two other nations, both of which at one time claimed the city as part of their own territory.  Fermor’s descriptions of places I know (and had only recently visited) as he experienced them in the 1930s made me realize that in these blog entries, I had given short shrift to our visit to Bratislava and the surrounding region along the Danube.  So let me add a few reminiscences about our very pleasant stay in what is now the capital of the independent nation of Slovakia. So many changes in the world since Fermor stayed here with an aristocratic Austrian family who were still coming to grips with the loss of Empire!



Our first surprise came when we reached the border between Austria and Slovakia–at one time, a strictly controlled crossing point, with stern guards, formidable gates and elaborate passport checks. Now it’s like driving from New York into Connecticut. Slovaks now regularly come into Hainburg–the first Austrian town–to go shopping in the town’s mall. Vienna is only an hour away from Bratislava, so some people even live in one place and work in the other.  Still, we were entering into a land where the language, and therefore many of the signs, would now be indecipherable, so we were relying on our phone’s map and Google Lady to get us to our AirBnB apartment.  We arrived by car in the city just as an absolute downpour erupted and the GPS stopped working because we had entered a new country!  Somehow, after following a tiny map we had and after getting soaked stopping to ask a parking lot attendant how to get to the right street, we made it. Our landlady was absolutely delightful–only spoke German,  no English–and provided us with freshly baked cookies. We were in the hills above the town, a very quiet neighborhood near to the forests which surround the city.



The town has recently become a thriving headquarters for international corporations, with big high rise buildings going up everywhere on the outskirts to accommodate them. The good thing about this is that Bratislava’s internet is absolutely first-rate, faster than anything I’ve experienced anywhere!  The bad thing, of course, is a destruction of old buildings and a boringly sanitized architectural streetscape. Still, the center of the Old Town includes some interesting old buildings, as well as evidence of hipster art and culture: to wit, a fantastic bookshop, Martinus, comprised of 3 floors of books, cafes, reading nooks, and international periodicals. We could have stayed there all day, and returned often; they had a huge section in English, and almost every young person we met spoke decent English. Graphic displays throughout town were also beautifully edgy and fun, such as this poster for an upcoming book fair.



Remnants of the past, especially the city’s ancient Jewish culture, offered us glimpses of a time when Pressburg was an important meeting place for Central European societies. The small but poignant Jewish Museum, as well as the full array of Catholic churches and a Renaissance town hall now serving as the history museum gave some idea of Bratislava’s prominence within the Empire.  A sweet little clock museum is housed in an exquisite Baroque building at the edge of what was the Jewish Quarter at the foot of the Castle walk.

But Bratislava’s greatest attraction, at least for us, is an utter anomaly: a flyer at our apartment alerted us to the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, some 20 km south of the city. We learned from the slick, glossy brochure that the museum was founded by a Dutch collector Gerard Meulensteen and a Slovak gallerist Vincent Polakovič, and opened in 2000. A Dutch entrepreneur funding a Slovak museum?  What’s more, the brochure said, the museum was located on an island in the middle of the Danube! We had to go and check it out.  By this time, our GPS was working splendidly–hilarious to hear the Google Lady trying to pronounce Slovak street names!–so we headed out across the river and down the south bank as we were directed.

And there it was: driving across the river locks spanning the massive expanse of the free-flowing, unrestrained Danube, we saw on this island in the middle an ultra-modern building surrounded by carefully tended landscapes in which sat impressively monumental modern sculptures. The setting was absolutely brilliant.

As soon as we went inside, one look at the bright white walls filled with large colorful abstractions told me what I needed to know of how this odd cooperative venture came about. Meulensteen had begun his own collecting of strictly abstract art, mostly but not exclusively European, and somehow–probably through his businesses–came into contact with Polakovič, who was looking for a benefactor to help finance a modern museum to highlight contemporary Slovak artists. Meulensteen forked over a substantial sum, with the proviso that his name appear on the building and that his collection be housed there as well, and that the artistic focus would be the kind of abstraction that he favored. The Slovak artists engaged in this kind of aesthetic would then gain a significant and internationally recognized venue in which to highlight their relatively unknown artworks. It’s an impressive institution, with slick exhibition methods.

The real give on how corporate this undertaking is, however, was the wholly inappropriate Muzak-style music piped through the galleries! Here were all these extremely hip 1980s canvasses, splashing color all over the walls, and the music made it feel like you were in the handbag department of Macy’s. That’s my only complaint; I really was struck by how professional the enterprise was, and what high quality works–within a certain CoBrA kind of aesthetic (See–have been highlighted. When we were there, a second gallery had a visiting exhibition called “Crossing Borders”, displaying Hungarian abstract artists. Along with all of the very good Slovak artists I learned about, I also saw some impressive examples of how modernism survived and grew in Hungary despite Soviet suppression and intellectual isolation. These kind of discoveries, of accomplished artists working under restrictive circumstances and yet creating innovative art, just make my day. (For more on the Museum, see

As wonderful as the museum and grounds of Danubiana are, our most joyous discovery here was the landscape itself: magnificent birdlife among the reeds and swimming in the river, little inlets and islets visible across the open waters, and barges floating by toward Budapest and the Black Sea as we sat having coffee on the terrace.

As we left the Museum’s island, we saw a sign for a restaurant at a marina. Here we found a delightfully makeshift little cafe with good fish and a fantastic view sitting on the river. In one of those wonderfully serendipitous occurrences that happen when you least expect it while travelling, a yacht with a young couple came into the marina. George offered to help with their mooring, for which they thanked him when they got to the cafe.  They both spoke perfect English, and were a couple who had just boated up from the city for an afternoon coffee before picking up the kids from school! He was a corporate jet pilot for one of the international corporations, and she was a translator for one of the businesses in town. They were perfect examples of the 21st-century face of Slovakia: educated, and taking advantage of the opportunities now made available to them by EU membership and the country’s investment in internet industries. They loved living in Bratislava for its safety and its closeness to the rest of Europe. Not a sign of Soviet domination, oppression, or demoralization–a very distant memory. After this thoroughly enjoyable conversation, they got back on their yacht and went home to pick up their children after school.

So our week in Slovakia came to an end, and we went on to Portugal, flying out of the Vienna Airport only half an hour’s drive from Bratislava. If there were any chance we could learn Slovak, I wouldn’t mind living here for a while.

And as is my custom, I will end this backtrack with some Slovak cats: a real one, our landlady’s quite haughty girl, and a stenciled one, on a building near the Jewish Museum.

Ernst and Marchegg

16 Jul


One of the saddest bits of news I uncovered while in Austria was that my first boyfriend, my Austrian love Ernst Schreiner, had died at the age of 68.  Of my five serious boyfriends, then, three of them are now gone. (Ironically, my “old man” boyfriend–he was 40, I was 25–is the only one other than George who is, at 83,  still alive!) I learned this after we had made a nostalgic trip back to the small border town of Marchegg where his family had lived, and where the photo above was made in 1970. The photo, taken by Ernst’s sister Erna, always reminds me of an art film from Czechoslovakia (as it was known at that time!). We look like spies or something (that’s Ernst’s mother in the photo with us), when in reality I have asked Ernst why my camera isn’t working.

Before I get into that trip to Marchegg, let me reminisce about young love and memories of romantic days that all too soon faded in the light of the realities of life in one’s early 20s.


We met at my first Viennese ball during Fasching season. This was the ball of the Hochschule für Bodenkultur, or the Boku-Ball, as it was endearingly called by the students. Boku is the Agricultural University, where Ernst was then studying brewing and oenology. You can actually see him in the background of this photo, behind the woman–Eva, his girlfriend of the time–in the white gloves seen between me and my partner (a very nice man who is now a high functionary in an African country). He was charmed by my demure way of hiding my cleavage when I bent over in my ball gown to shake his hand at his table of mutual friends. “No Austrian girl would do that, she would show as much as she could,” he told me later. I can’t now remember how things proceeded after that night, but I think our first date was to another ball, after which we were together as much as possible for the months remaining of my Viennese year.


Ernst was, at least to this 20-year-old Californian, darkly handsome, cultured (he played Schubert on the piano and spoke French!), and just about everything a young American girl could want for her first real romantic adventure. Almost every one of us in my Vienna group got an Austrian boyfriend that year, which seemed a requisite part of the international experience! A lot of my friends, and especially the Austrian ones, never really liked him for whatever reason, but I really didn’t care. We went out to his family in Marchegg quite often, we spent lovely weekends together there when his family was out of town, and took trips to Graz (where he had studied in boarding school) and to Paris, where he had spent a semester with a French family.


I still remember, as one of the most memorable times of my life, an absolutely perfect day spent in Marchegg and back in Vienna when my friends Marbie and Ron came to visit. We picked strawberries with Ernst’s mother and cherries off of Marchegg’s trees, Ernst and I showed them how we could dance the Viennese waltz, and then took the train back to town and played in the Prater. It was just a glorious template day, as you can only have when you’re very young, carefree, and in love.


Then the summer had to end, and we had to get on with our lives. I had to come back to the States, and Ernst went off to Germany to do his apprenticeship in a brewery there. We had the most picture-perfect of farewells, out of a European film, with me standing on the train platform while he waved his handkerchief out the window until I couldn’t see it anymore.  We wrote volumes of love letters, most of which I still have and have schlepped around the world. He planned to visit me in California at Christmas time. I couldn’t wait, I was so excited.


Then he was there, in Santa Barbara, under the scrutiny of my parents. I wasn’t used to being home myself, and Ernst felt uncomfortable from the very start; it was an awkward visit at a home that wasn’t mine anymore. We met up with friends and began a trek around California and over to Colorado. I still remember with complete clarity–again, as one can only do with those “first times”–when I discovered that he had slept with someone else back home. He had actually made a note of the occasion in his notebook! From then on, nothing quite clicked anymore. I was heartbroken. He went home to Vienna, and I only saw him one more time, in 1974, when I was on my Fulbright year, right before George and I got hitched. We never stayed in touch after that.

Many years later, I learned that Ernst had become the master brewer at Stiegl-Brau, one of Austria’s oldest breweries! I had to laugh: by the time I learned this, I had already quit drinking, so the discovery of an old boyfriend whose life revolved around beer seemed amusing. Good thing that one didn’t work out, eh? I always had the idea that I would try to contact him again some day. Once the internet got going, I was able to find out about his work there, and to discover photos of him:


Oh, my!  I could hardly believe this was the same Ernst Schreiner! But the dates matched, and he was obviously the same man. All those years of beer had changed him indeed! He was apparently instrumental in bringing the brewery into the new technological age, but that is all the information I could find about him. He retired in 2009, that’s all I knew, until I found the death announcement online. I have no idea if he had family, if he married, or had any children. This makes me sad.

I didn’t know about his death when we decided to go visit Marchegg again. We were staying in Bratislava at the time, and realized that this tiny Austrian town, which was on the border, was only half an hour away, now that the Iron Curtain countries were as easy to access as a neighboring state. That was not the case when we visited Ernst’s family in 1970. His father actually worked for the railroad customs office, the Austrian border patrol in those days. We used to stand at the river in Marchegg and look across to Slovaks looking at us over the border, which was still rigorously patrolled. It seemed a foreign place, with barriers that were larger than Soviet-enforced political ones.


And the river? What had seemed such an insurmountable barrier back then now appears as a rather inconsequential but beautiful stream, along which an historic bike trail, with informative markers lining the path, now winds for many gorgeous miles. We were there on a beautiful spring day, and although I tried hard to find Ernst’s family’s home, Marchegg is now as prosperous and upgraded as all Austrian towns are; I couldn’t find it. But the train station is still there, looking nearly as grim as it did 47 years ago.


The Schloss, which then was a rather forbidding remnant of Maria Teresia’s time, is now a WWF-funded refuge for storks! We saw many of them flying above us, and thrilled to see that such good use is being made of this historic place.


The fields around Marchegg, where Ernst and I used to go collecting poppies and lilies of the valley, were on the day we were there absolutely bursting with blossoms.


People pass away, borders change, ambitions and institutions alter. Thankfully, at least in this case, nature remains. I’m so glad we decided to make this little journey. It was a beautiful day, just like that one I remember so fondly so many years ago.


29 Jun

Dorothea Lange, “Mr. and Mrs. Wardlaw at entrance to their dugout basement home. Dead Ox Flat, Malheur County, Oregon.”


As many of  you who have been following our most recent travels know, we embarked on these latest peregrinations because 1) Trump was elected; and 2) we cannot afford to live in our Pasadena home anymore, so thought we had better start scoping out possibilities elsewhere.  Now we are back home in Pasadena, after being in seven countries in six months. While we did accomplish one goal–to be out of the U.S.A. for DT’s first 100 days–we are far from making a decision about where we might be able to settle. But after a brief respite here at home, we will weigh up all of our options, based on a hierarchy of criteria. Mind you, all of this supposedly quantifiable data may be thrown out the window, subject to totally emotional decisions on our part. But at least we will have some relevant information to guide us.

I’m choosing, therefore, to use this blog as a place to formulate our criteria. Here’s the list, in some kind of hierarchical order, from most important to least:

1) Financial:  can we afford to live there on our retirement income? Price of accommodation is the leading issue–being able to buy something outright would be a major plus (housing preferences: NO HOA, older home preferred)

2) Access to the family:  how quickly can we get to the kiddos, e.g. access to a major            airport in the near vicinity.

3) Weather: no, or very little snow, and lots of sunshine for at least most of the year

4) Culture: we need bookstores, museums, libraries, art, music, or some mixture                thereof–SOME cultural scene!

5) Transportation:  any possibilities of mass transit/public transportation?                        We really don’t want to be having to drive everywhere when we’re 80

6) Healthcare: access to facilities nearby for old folks; decent insurance                      rates/affordable medical care

7) Ambiance:  no barking dogs, decent political environment, pleasant streetscapes, good restaurants, walkability

8) Trader Joe’s: if in the States, how far is a Trader Joe’s (or comparable store with            decent bread, reasonably priced veggies, organic meat)? Farmer’s markets/open air         markets would be another major plus.

9) Ease of moving there:  if foreign country, how complicated to emigrate/gain                      permanent residency?

That about covers it, I think.  In our attempt to be scientific about it, we will weigh all of these factors for each place numerically, plus or minus.  Then we will probably ignore all of it and go with our gut feeling!  If anyone can think of other aspects we need to keep in mind, by all means let us know!




A fledgling

24 Jun

[George likes to make these little anecdotal moral offerings….ee]

As we travel Erika and I have shared and have had individual experiences.  Erika stayed in Denver while I  motored north from Denver to Greeley to see my father.  After a long, slow bit coping with someone’s minor accident, I needed to pee.   Eventually, after a patient wait, I exited to a gas station.  The station’s men’s toilet was occupied, as was the women’s (“That’s the ladies’!”).  Around the side and then the back was a fenced-in area protecting the air conditioning fans.  Just inside the gate was a fledgling robin, perched on a bit of metal wire.  I carefully slipped by.  I relieved myself into the grass  without attracting the attention of nutters, and again slipped by the young robin.

Here’s the problem.  Not until some time on the highway did I wonder how would the fledgling’s minders find it to feed it?  Shouldn’t I have shepherded it out of the enclosure?  Was it only alive because it was protected?

That’s what happens when you vary from the protected forms of the norms.  All up, if you worry about worrying about unexpected situations stop sooner and pee where you are supposed to.


Immigration to European countries

7 Jun



As we are sitting in London, one day away from flying back to the U.S., I realized that I have not fulfilled my promise of finding out about immigration procedures to European countries as I did do for Australia and Mexico. I will try to do a brief run-through of procedures and possibilities for some of the countries we visited, although individual procedures vary greatly depending on the country. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that in most countries, stipulations come down to the same things:  1) how much money you can bring with you; 2) whether you want to work in the country or are retired; 3) how and where one can apply; 4) access or not to healthcare; and 5) in some cases, evidence of language proficiency.

First tip, before I consider a sampling of individual countries: if you have any way of acquiring an EU passport–e.g., if your grandparents or parents came from a country in the current EU–GET ONE! It makes life much easier if you want to live, work, or just visit Europe often.

For Britain, according to online sites :

“Americans can visit the U.K. as a tourist and stay for up to six months – no visa required. To stay longer, you’ll need to qualify for a visa – family links, established business connections to the U.K. or dual citizenship with a Commonwealth country like Canada may help. Owning property, however, does not guarantee a longer term visa. The British government used to have a special entrance category for “retired persons of independent means” (defined as those having a minimum yearly disposable income of £25,000), but that was discontinued.”
Read more: How to Retire in the U.K. as an American | InvestopediaHow to Retire in the U.K. as an American | Investopedia
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And here’s the next bit from this same site:

“And now there’s Brexit: As the U.K. prepares to exit the European Union, much is up in the air.”  Who knows? The government certainly doesn’t. But if you have money/income, there will be ways to do it–IF you can deal with British weather!

Application: you will need to apply through a British consulate or embassy at home

Healthcare: non-citizens, even those who are granted permanent residence status, will not have access to national health, but will be required to purchase private insurance and to verify that they have full coverage before an application can be approved. Medicare is not recognized as coverage in Britain.

In Austria:

This one we know a little bit about, because we have already applied for a 6-month visa, and had hoped to apply for a permanent resident visa last year, but missed the deadline.

Here are some of the official sources as sent to us by our friends at the Austrian Consular offices in Los Angeles:

“In addition to the general requirements that are listed on our website ( this type of residence permit requires proof of Proof of basic language proficiency in German (presented in the form of a publicly recognized language diploma “A1”) and a secured income (rent, savings or other) that is twice the minimum income of the reference rate according to § 293 ASVG (currently 2x € 1.189,56 €,for a couple living in the same household.  

If you hold a University Degree, the Proof of basic language proficiency in German is not required.”

Application: for permanent residence visas, application can be made in Austria, or, after a certain date in November, from an Austrian consular office in the U.S.. There are quotas, and one must apply immediately once the official date of application is announced to be able to be considered before the quota is filled. The application process is elaborate and tedious, and the forms are entirely in German. (One can find services that will help with the application forms.) They also require that one submit birth certificates with an Apostille from the state office where you were born.

Healthcare: a retiree applying for resident status is not eligible for Austrian healthcare services, and must obtain and show proof of private healthcare insurance as part of the application process. Medicare is not recognized in Austria.

There are other kinds of visas for working and for students, and the requirements for these visas change from year to year.

Bottom line: it takes some patience, but if you are bringing along enough money, and are not going to be a burden on the Austrian state, permanent residency is possible.


Countries like Portugal and Spain are actively seeking foreign investment, and in exchange offer generous privileges in terms of residency:

“Non-EU residents looking to retire in Portugal can also take advantage of the Golden Visa scheme, which was introduced to attract investors from non-EU countries. This option is only open to third-country nationals who are able to fulfill at least one of these requirements:

  • purchase real estate with the value of at least EUR 500,000 or above
  • purchase of real estate property with a minimum value of EUR 350,000 for the purpose of refurbishing (properties must either have construction dating back more than 30 years or be located in urban regeneration areas)
  • make a capital transfer equating to EUR 1 million or greater towards the country
  • create at least 10 job positions
  • make a capital investment of EUR 350,000 or more towards research activities conducted by public or private scientific research institutions involved in Portugal’s scientific or tech systems
  • transfer a capital investment of at least EUR 250,000 to support Portugal’s local arts or the country’s national heritage sector
  • make a capital investment of EUR 500,000 or more for purchasing shares in investment funds or in venture capital geared to capitalise small and medium companies in Portugal.

Expats who acquire the Golden Visa are granted rights to the following:

  • a residence visa waiver for entering Portugal
  • permit for living and working in Portugal under the condition that they stay in Portugal for a period of seven or more days in the first year, and 14 or more days in the subsequent years
  • visa exemption for travelling within the Schengen Area
  • family reunification
  • application for permanent residence and Portuguese citizenship by naturalisation provided they fulfill all the requirements.”

Once again, if you have the bucks, everyone is happy to see you!  In Portugal, you will have access to national healthcare if you meet the requirements for residency, BUT you will also be taxed on your overseas retirement income.

Spain, Italy, and France also have comparable programs, requiring investment.

In summary, if you want to retire to Europe, and have sufficient funds to support yourself, you can do it.  If you are broke or have limited means, it’s a little bit harder, but it can still be done.  In every case, you should contact the local consular offices or embassy to get more detailed information on the processes and requirements.

I’ll be happy to do more research on these questions, but right now I have to pack up to return home!




Porto: Food and Street Art

2 Jun

As I went through the photos I’ve taken so far of our week in Porto, two themes seem to have especially captured my attention: food and street art.  So before I write about the travelogue sites, I thought I’d concentrate on these topics, which are always my favorite pleasures while travelling.

That Porto has such magnificent opportunities for good, cheap, unpretentious eating was not such a surprise, since we remembered how well we ate in Lisbon last year.  What we were not prepared for was the sheer number of inexpensive places and the discovery of new cuisines. On our first culinary outing, after a number of false starts (places too crowded, too many tourists, didn’t look quite right), we found a little restaurant right around the corner from our house. Since it was filled with locals, we figured it would be a decent bet–Portuenses, as citizens of Porto are called, take their eating very seriously. (Porto citizens are also known as tripeiros, tripe eaters, because during the 15th century they sacrificed meat which was shipped to battling sailors, while the people in town settled for offal. They wear the label with pride, even when they don’t eat tripe themselves).

lunch&rice_dongriffon_porto_may26 The restaurant, Don Grilon on Rua de Passos Manuel, was hopping; everyone seemed to know everyone, and the owner lightheartedly chided the waiter to take the orders more quickly. The man who sat down at the table next to us was obviously a regular, since everyone bopped him on the shoulder as they walked by, and brought him his meal without even asking what he wanted.  A little hand-written daily menu offered several choices, and since it was written in Portuguese, we just kind of  guessed, and then took the owner’s suggestions. When we asked if we should get a full or half meal of the Costeletas, pork cutlets, he laughingly made it clear that a full order would feed a stevedore.  So here’s what we got: a traditional side dish of rice and beans, along with our two pork chops and a whole plate of grilled fish, plus bread, salad and coffee. The price for this feast?  12 Euros. The atmosphere was cozy, too; we felt like members of the neighborhood.

We found our next day’s lunch venue again by chance. I was looking at Google Maps of our neighborhood, and found this oddly named restaurant on the other side of the Biblioteca Municipal, again just up the street from our place. I had no idea what kind of food they had or what the name, Tabafeira, meant, but it looked a bit foodie and interesting.

This one was, for me, a real find. The entire menu of Tabafeira centers on alheira, a traditional rural sausage mix with a fascinating history. Here’s what Wikipedia says about its origins:

The type of sausage that became known as “alheira” was invented by the Jews of Portugal, who were given the choice of either being expelled from the country in 1497 unless they converted to Christianity. Those who converted but secretly retained their beliefs avoided eating pork, forbidden in Judaism; this put them at risk of being noticed not to hang sausages, traditionally made of pork, in their fumeiros (smokehouses).[1] As a way to avoid attracting the attention of the Portuguese Inquisition or in rural areas the Portuguese Christians, they did make sausages, but with other meats, such as poultry and game, mixed with bread for texture.

Eventually, this very creative way to extend meats was adopted by Christian Portuguese as well, and remains a beloved reminder of old country cooking for most natives. The very earnest chef and staff of Tabafeira have adapted this peasant fare for contemporary diners’s tastes, and offer a delicious, if limited, array of variations of alheira dishes. They even make a vegetarian one!  We loved our versions so much that we went back again. 

Finally, our big splurge of a meal–at a grand total of about $28–came at a place recommended online by every travel site talking about Porto. A Grade restaurant is on a little side street near the River quay. It is so small and so smack dab in the middle of touristy Porto that we did have to wait a little while to get a seat (mostly because we didn’t want to sit with the smokers in the outdoors section). But oh, my, well worth the wait! George had rabbit, I had octopus–both of which were as tender as they could possibly be. Mariza, the great fado singer, played on the sound system, the smiling owner was elated that I recognized who she was, and the food tasted like something your very skilled Portuguese grandmother would make. At the end of the meal, the owner offered George a shot of what he says was the best port he has ever tasted. On the house!  If you are ever in Porto, EAT HERE!

As we always do, we do most of our own cooking while travelling, so trips to the markets and bakeries are always enjoyable expeditions. Porto has superb open market places, none more classic than the Mercado de Bolhão–an enormous covered block, where the farmers used to come in from the country with their wares. It now is only half full, but has a selection of everything from fish to flowers to herbs and ceramic tiles.

And pastries!  Unfortunately, I can no longer eat those delightful Portuguese delicacies, Pasteles de Nata, but there are plenty of other offerings to satisfy a sweet tooth. The beautiful Majestic Cafe is always crowded with tourists, but worth a visit if you can get in; if not, the same goodies are available all over town.

We have yet to get to Afurada, the little fishing village across the river that offers by all accounts the very best grilled fish imaginable, so we will have to report on that culinary experience once we get there. In any case, as far as we can tell, it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Porto.

Perhaps because our place in Porto is right across the street from the city’s School of Fine Arts, we have been impressed by the great amount of high-quality street art found on walls and doors throughout the neighborhood. (And as you can see above in that third image, DT’s effect is felt as disastrously here as everywhere.)

The first street art I noticed I can only describe as truly clever student Dada, photomontages and collages made on paper and pasted to the walls.

Then there were the posters for Carnaval, just past, that seem to have been put up as empty-centered silkscreens, to be filled in by others. These showed up all over the city, so the urge to street art is not confined to the art school district.

We love the flippancy, the irreverence, and at times, the radical political statements expressed. My favorites: a recurring image of the Madonna with flaming cow, and a single poster I found indicating that Porto women also marched in January in solidarity with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

Finally, we discover in the unlikeliest locations ceramic tiles with some kind of artistic message. The tile with the head of Portugal’s most revered modern poet, Fernando Pessoa, appears all over the city, usually alongside other street art. The other photo is a tile we found outside the entrance to our neighborhood park, Jardim de São Lázaro. We fussed over what it could possibly mean, until our scientist son enlightened us: the chemical formula represents chlorophyll!  A fitting symbol when entering Porto’s oldest municipal park, opened in 1834.

As I knew we would, we like this city a lot:  great food, and signs everywhere of a creative spirit.

And cats, too!


Some thoughts before leaving Europe, perhaps for a long time

31 May


Before I begin this rather self-indulgent little essay, let me mention the photo above. This shows George standing in the middle of the medieval streets of the wonderful town of Porto, Portugal. These houses are still lived in, and most of them have been thoroughly modernized to contain electricity, refrigerators, and the internet. They are steps away from some of the best restaurants, and the cheapest, that we have experienced in a long time. I hope this gives a pretty evident indication of why we would, if we could, choose to live here than amid Los Angeles mini-malls in a country that is self-destructing.

That being said, we are one week away from returning to Trumpland, and are at this point still uncertain of what we are going to do when we return, and even precisely why and how we began this particular journey at the beginning of the year. In hopes of gaining some clarity of where we are now, I want to lay out a bit of our recent thinking about events and our own situation.  This is as much a way to organize my own thinking as it is a defense of what must seem to many as an extravagant waste of energy and money.

Last year, when we spent ten months in Europe, we really felt liberated and as if the whole journey was a lark, our last adventure before some kind of settling down to a “normal” retirement. We found it was easy to rent our house in Pasadena, to cover all the mortgage, property tax and utilities expenses, and then, because of the kindnesses of many European friends and the fantastic resources available through AirBnB,, and HomeAway, we were able to live more cheaply in Europe than at home.  I know most of our American and Australian friends still don’t believe this, but it’s true:  as long as our housing costs were covered in the U.S., our time in Europe was much cheaper, even with flights included. We didn’t stay in hotels, we ate out very rarely, we bought no clothes and very few souvenirs, and many times were able to stay places for free. We had a bit of a bequest that helped with the expenses, so that gave us some breathing room. We returned to Pasadena in June of last year.

So then what?  We still faced this overriding dilemma: WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LIVE IN OUR PASADENA HOUSE ON OUR RETIREMENT INCOME. That’s the situation which we have yet to resolve.  I don’t think any of our friends have any understanding of how limited our resources are. So while we were still unsure of our future plans, we kept our house on the rental websites, and soon had someone, a Huntington scholar, signed up to be in the house for four months, February-June 2017. AND he wouldn’t mind looking after the cats! Oh, I forgot to mention the cats: one of our biggest vexations about travels and moving around involves what to do about our aging kitties. That circumstance caused major trauma last year, when we had to take them to my sister’s house and pay her to look after them.  So finding someone to stay in the house with cats in situ seemed too good a deal to pass up. We still were unsure of where we would go for those four months, but hoped that we would take that time to find a less expensive place to live to see out our Golden Years. While we had returned in the chaotic atmosphere of the election campaign, we really didn’t imagine that the unthinkable could happen.

And then the unthinkable happened: the election. The next day, while reeling in grief at the prospect, our neighbor walked by our house, and called to me: “have you thought about Mexico?”  I hadn’t, but at that moment began organizing a stay in Ajijic, where we knew people.  I also determined, perhaps precipitously, that there was no way in Hell I was going to be in the country when the inauguration happened, so I arranged with friends to have them rent our place in January, and we went to Australia for that month. Since we are dual citizens, it only seemed logical to check out the possibilities of repatriating there. I was so in shock by the election outcome, and so afraid of what this meant for our family and friends (and the country in general), that I really did want to find out about the possibilities of living abroad. Being away from the U.S. for the first one hundred days of what I knew was going to be a disastrous non-presidency seemed at the time a very good idea. Finally, being the Europhiles that we are, we really had to spend some time on the Continent, and in our favorite places, to see if there was any chance of settling down here.

So as we end our stay in Europe, and before I write my travelogue entry about this beautiful town, here is what we have learned:

1) There is no escaping the frightening consequences of America’s catastrophic political decision. The effects can be seen and felt everywhere, and it’s just as depressing to contemplate perhaps the end of American democracy and certainly the end of America’s reigning international influence while out of the country as it is to contemplate that demise at home. We might as well try to resist and fight the good fight on native soil.

2) We can’t continue country-hopping forever; this is getting tiring. We need to find SOME place to settle, to deal with our stuff, our cats, and to feel that we have some space to call home.

3) We have familial responsibilities that we have to acknowledge. I really do want to be a part of my grandson’s life on a more regular basis than once or twice  year. And George still has a father to care for, if only at a relative distance. So we need to be somewhere that allows us quick access to Colorado, and that, alas, is probably not in Europe or Australia.

So there you have it!  We will still tot up all of our criteria, giving the pros and cons of each place we have visited. But in the long run, we just have to figure out some way to live on our very limited means for the rest of our lives, while being relatively near our family. Family and finances trump (now there’s a good word gone to waste!) all. I hope this hasn’t been too boring and self-reflective, but it has helped me sort through some confusions. And if any of you know a place in a blue state that has relatively decent weather (no snow?) and some cultural events and institutions, is near a major airport, and where we can find cheap rent or, even better, cheap houses to buy, please let us know!

And now I will close with my requisite photo of cats: this time next to cars on a neighborhood street in Porto. I will write of the delights of Porto (FOOD!) in a little while.