Monday, December 31, 2018

Looking Back, Looking Forward

It is generally thought that the month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of transition.  Janus was depicted with two faces... one looking backward, the other looking forward.  Although there is evidence that the month was in reality named after the goddess Juno, the idea of looking backward and forward as we come to the end of another year is certainly appropriate.

Looking back... 

For me the year 2018 was marked by loss.  My January trip to Mexico coincided with the illness and passing of Alejandro's mother, María Luisa. 

María Luisa was my "Mexican mom", and I mourned her death along with Alejandro and his family.

In May my sister-in-law Barbara passed away after a brave, six-year battle with cancer.

But the year was also filled with what I love to do the most... traveling.  I continued to divide my time between Ohio and Mexico City.  The condo that I have been renting down there has been a wonderful opportunity, and, as I have mentioned before, I am not sure any more which place is home... Olmsted Falls, Ohio, or Mexico City.  

I truly enjoy playing "tour guide", and this year for the first time I had the opportunity to show the sights of Mexico City to friends.  Nancy and Fred came down for a twelve day visit during the Day of the Dead season.  I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive.  Would they find monstrous Mexico City an overwhelming assault on the senses?  When Fred told me beforehand that he was not a fan of big cities, I thought, "Oh dear, you're going to the BIGGEST city you have ever seen."   As it turned out, they both loved their trip, and even Fred said that he had changed his mind about big cities... or at least about Mexico City.

Looking forward...

Now the New Year is just around the corner, and I already have two trips reserved and another one in the planning stage.  And I am going to continue my role as "tour guide".  In a little over a week, I will return to Mexico, but this time I will fly to Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán.  Those of you have read my blog for several years, know that I have taken numerous friends and relatives down to Mérida.  This time I will be joined by Meredith, a former student of mine, and her husband Chuck.  We will spend four days there, and I will show them the sights in that lovely city.  We will also have a driver take us on a day's excursion to the Mayan ruins of Uxmal.  After they return home, I will fly (on my favorite airline, Interjet) to Mexico City.  There I will spend a little over a month at my condo.

I always go to Mexico City in April to celebrate Alejandro's birthday, and this year I will be there for Easter as well.  The week after Easter, a couple more friends of mine will be visiting me there, and I will do a reprise of the "tour guide" gig in the big city. 

The reservations have not yet been made, but this summer I plan to go to Europe.  My cousin Gail and her husband are taking a two week guided tour of Switzerland... the ancestral land of one branch of our family trees, and the home of many distant cousins.  Their tour will end in Zurich which is close to where our Swiss cousins live.  They are going to extend their stay for a couple days, and I am going to join them there.  I will introduce them to our Swiss family and take them to the little town from which our ancestors came.
After some time in Switzerland, I am thinking about doing some more sightseeing in Europe and visiting a couple countries that I have never seen.  I would like to travel by train from Zurich to Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, and then continue on to Munich, Germany.  Since Cleveland now has non-stop flights on Icelandic Air to Reykjavik, I am considering flying via Iceland and seeing a bit of that country.

To all my readers I wish you a very happy new year, and I hope that 2019 is filled with the joy of travel!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas in Columbus

Last Sunday I drove down to Columbus... a two hour drive from where I live... and spent Christmas with family.  There I spent four festive days of good company and good food.  

On my last night, my sister-in-law Phyllis, her husband Jim, and I attended a concert by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra at Nationwide Arena.  Phyllis, because of her work with the Columbus Convention Center, received free tickets for the concert.  And they weren't for just any old seats... we were in one of the loges.  It was a new experience for me, and it was really cool.  I felt like a VIP.  An array of complimentary food and beverages were set out for us.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, if you are not familiar with them, is a symphonic rock band whose holiday program includes traditional Christmas songs and even classical pieces.  The performance is quite a spectacle with visual effects and a dazzling light show.

Here are a few photos that Jim took...

Phyllis and me 


Being an old fogey, my one complaint was that the volume was way too loud!  Otherwise it was a great finale to our holiday celebration.  Thank you, Phyllis!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A White Christmas?

This morning I awoke to find that overnight there had been a light snowfall.

But will we have a white Christmas?  Tomorrow's high temperature is forecast to reach 40, so this snow will probably melt.  And there is little chance of precipitation between now and December 25th.  So, no, it is unlikely that there will be snow on the ground for Christmas.  Just as well, since tomorrow I will be driving down to Columbus to spend several days with family.

Whether your Christmas is snowy or not, have a wonderful holiday season!  

Thursday, December 20, 2018

What I Am Reading Now

I have mentioned before that I always like to have a book or two to read when I am traveling.  It helps to pass the time when I am waiting in the airport and on the plane.  A friend of mine recently gave me a stack of books that she had read.  So, I don't need to make a trip to the bookstore before my next trip to Mexico.

I started reading one of those books, a novel written by an author with whom I was not familiar... "The Muse" by British writer Jessie Burton.  

(image taken from the web)

The novel's plot alternates between two settings... London in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s just before the Spanish Civil War.  A mysterious painting has been brought to a London art gallery.  It appears to be a long-lost masterpiece by (fictitious) painter Isaac Robles, who disappeared during the war.  

I took the book with me on my weekend trip to Chicago, and I finished it before I returned home.  It is quite an intriguing tale which I enjoyed.  

I was left without anything to read on my flight home.  I had time to kill at O'Hare Airport, so I went into a bookstore there.  I came upon a recent novel by one of my favorite authors, Chilean writer Isabel Allende.   It is called "In the Midst of Winter".

(Image taken from the web)

The novel is very timely; it deals with the topic of immigration.  I will quote from the book's introduction...

"A blizzard in New York City brings together three strikingly different people, each burdened with a difficult past.  Lucía, an aging Chilean writer who has survived political exile, disease, and betrayal, is marooned with her dog in a basement apartment in Brooklyn.  Richard, chairman at NYU of an academic department, is a broken man haunted by guilt for his failures as a husband and father.  And Evelyn, a young Guatemalan woman, is an undocumented home health aide who fled her native country due to gang violence.  Over the course of several days, these three - each a misfit in a different way - are forced by circumstances into a rare level of intimacy.  As the result of a shocking crime, they embark on a journey that will enable them to forge a tentative peace with the demons of their pasts."

I would love to make this book required reading for any smug, comfortable "gringos" who demonize Latin Americans attempting to escape the horrors of their homelands and find haven in the United States.  It is an engrossing novel.  I am already more than half way through the book.  I guess I will have to start another book from my stack before I embark on my next trip.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Sunrise in Chicago

Each December I take a weekend trip to Chicago to visit friends who have an annual Christmas party.  Their condo is on the fifteenth floor of a high-rise building overlooking Lake Michigan.  Here are a couple photos I took of sunrise as seen from their place.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Aztec Coins

No, the Aztecs did not have coinage (their main form of currency was the cacao bean), but the coins of modern Mexico are replete with symbolism taken from the famous Aztec Sun Stone.  

Alejandro sent me a video detailing the use of Aztec motifs on their coins.  The video is in Spanish, so I will give you the information here in English, along with pictures that I found of the Mexican coins.

We will start with the 10 peso coin...

On the back of the coin you see the circle of the sun which appears in the center of the Aztec Sun Stone.  There you see the sun god, Tonatiuh.  His tongue is in the form of a sacrificial knife because he is thirsty for the human blood which gives him the strength to be reborn each morning.

Next, the 5 peso coin...

Along the outer edge of the back of the coin is the 'Xiuhcóatl", the serpent ring, which also appears on the Sun Stone.

The 2 peso coin...

Along the edge of this coin are 10 of the 20 symbols used for the days which make up an Aztec month.  (There were 18 months.  18 x 20 = 360 + 5 unlucky days at the end of the year = 365)  The twenty symbols appear in a ring on the Sun Stone, and for this reason the sculpture is mistakenly referred to as the Aztec Calendar Stone.

The day symbols which are shown on the coin are (beginning at the top)…
Xochitl - flower
Tecpatl - flint
Ollin - movement
Cuauhtli - eagle
Océlotl - jaguar
Atl - water
Acatl - reed
Miquiztli - death
Cóatl - serpent
Calli - house

Finally, the 1 peso coin...

Around the edge is the "quincunce", the ring of shining, which represents the rays of the sun.  It also represents the cardinal points of the compass, and those points also represent the thorns with which Aztec priests would perform bloodletting ceremonies upon themselves.

So, if you have some Mexican coins, take a close look and observe the symbolism of the Aztecs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Choo Choo

Near the center of my hometown of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, is the old train station.  It was built in 1877 and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the Amtrak trains between New York and Chicago still pass by, little Olmsted Falls no longer has passenger train service.  For many years the property has belonged to a local model train club.

Each year the club holds an open house, and the public gets to see their collection of model train displays.  Last weekend I went to the open house.

The little station is crammed with displays, with scores of trains of different gauges.  The locomotives run through recreations of cities, towns and countryside.  I find these highly detailed settings as fascinating as the trains themselves.

It was a fun visit, and it made me think about the old Lionel train set I got from my grandfather for Christmas when I was a kid.  It's still up in the attic.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

More from the Zócalo

In my last entry, I posted an aerial picture of Mexico City's main plaza, the Zócalo, decorated with poinsettias for the holiday season.  My friend Alejandro found a couple Instagram photos from a fellow by the name of Joe Ochoa.  These were taken at ground level.  Although you cannot see the design which the flowers form, the thousands of poinsettias create an impressive Christmas display.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Floral Display

Alejandro sent me a photo which was sent to him by someone else.  It is an aerial view of Mexico City's main plaza, the Zócalo, as it appears during this holiday season.

In past years, much of the vast plaza has been filled with a large ice-skating rink.  It was free to the public, and certainly a cool experience for the capital's residents.  However it was an ugly structure which detracted from the vistas in Mexico's City's historic center.  This year the skating rink has been placed in a different location near the Monument to the Revolution, and a floral display with thousands of poinsettias has been placed on the Zócalo.   (The poinsettia, a flower native to Mexico, is called the "flor de Nochebuena" in Spanish... the Christmas Eve flower.  It was introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. diplomat to Mexico.)

It appears that the design is an Aztec motif of an eagle, a bird which was sacred to the Aztecs, and which is today on the coat of arms and the flag of Mexico.  I suspect that when you are standing on the plaza, you cannot appreciate the image that has been created with the flowers.  However, the enormous quantity of poinsettias is surely an impressive sight and a big improvement over the unsightly skating rink that used to be there.  

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Looking a Lot Like Christmas

I live in the Cleveland suburb of Olmsted Falls, but just down the street from me is the border of the neighboring town of Berea.  I consider myself a resident of Berea as much as Olmsted Falls.  My parents and grandparents lived in Berea, I do most of my shopping in Berea, and I graduated from Berea High School and from Baldwin Wallace College which is in Berea.

Being a college town and a place with a long history, Berea has a much different atmosphere than the typical "cookie cutter" suburb.  Unfortunately, back in the 1970s when "urban renewal" was the big thing, much of its old downtown was torn down for newer buildings.  But instead of a "town square", Berea still has the distinctive "Triangle" that it has had since the 1800s.

During the Christmas season, the "Triangle" is always nicely decorated with lights.  Last night I drove over there to take a few pictures.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Revealing the Christmas Card

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that each year I paint a picture which I use as my Christmas card.  The painting is usually based on a photo which I have taken during the course of the year on one of my trips.  I sent my cards out the day after Thanksgiving.  By now I believe that everyone has received theirs (even my cousins and friends in Europe), so I will present to you now the holiday card for 2018 ...

Last August Alejandro and I took an excursion from Mexico City to Jalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz.  We visited the nearby town of Coatepec, which is the center of one of Mexico's major coffee growing regions.  The painting shows the Church of San Jerónimo which faces the town square of Coatepec.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Rare Sight

Today Alejandro sent me a couple photos and a video which he took from the roof of his house.  I have NEVER seen this from his house... the two snow-covered volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.  If you speak Spanish you will understand Alejandro's brief commentary on the video.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018


The first few days after my return to Ohio were fairly mild.  But yesterday afternoon the rain began to change to snow.  By evening, the snow was sticking to the ground, and this was what I saw looking out my bedroom window this morning...

It was a wet snow that clung to the branches of the trees and bushes.  Tonight we are supposed to get more snow, and even more tomorrow.  I guess that winter is here.

Looking down at the Rocky River from East River Park in my hometown of Olmsted Falls.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Legend of the "China Poblana"

One of the traditional female costumes of Mexico is called the "china poblana".  It consists of an embroidered blouse, a sash, and a wide skirt usually decorated with sequins.

The costume supposedly originated with and is named after a legendary figure from the 17th century who was known as "La china poblana"... the Chinese woman from Puebla.

There are contradictory versions of her life, but all agree that she was a young woman from India.  (I guess anyone from Asia was designated as Chinese??)  She was kidnapped by pirates.  According to some accounts she managed to escape, took refuge in a Jesuit monastery in southern India, and converted to Christianity.  In other versions was taken to the Philippines (then a Spanish colony), and it was there that she was baptized.  She took the name of Catarina de San Juan.  She ended up enslaved again, and was taken to Acapulco on one of the "Manilla galleons" that crossed the Pacific.  In Acapulco she was bought by a merchant from Puebla, and it was there that she spent the rest of her life.

In some versions of the story, her master died and provided for her manumission in his will.  She then entered a convent.  Others say that she remained a slave until her death, and that she died in this house, "La Casona de la China Poblana", which is today a hotel and restaurant.

She was buried in the Jesuit church "La Companía", which is just down the street from the "Casona".  (When we entered the church, mass was being said, so we couldn't search for the plaque marking her burial place.)

Caterina was a very devout woman and supposedly had visions of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus.  After her death she was venerated as a saint until the Inquisition prohibited devotion to her.

Whether she actually originated the costume named after her is in doubt, since some accounts of her life state that she continued to wear the sari of her native land.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Tale of Two Restaurants

The two nights that Alejandro and I spent in Puebla, we dined at two different restaurants and had two very different experiences.

A couple weeks previously, we had taken my friends Nancy and Fred on a day trip to Cholula.  For dinner we had driven the short distance to Puebla and ate at one of the branches of "La Fonda de Santa Clara".  It is a chain of restaurants that specializes in the cuisine of Puebla.  All four of us were pleased with our meals, the service and ambiance.

On our first night in Puebla, Alejandro and I went to the downtown branch of "La Fonda de Santa Clara".  We arrived shortly after seven.  The place was dead with only a couple tables occupied, and we were informed that the kitchen would be closing at 7:45.  We thought it odd that they were closing so early on a Saturday night.

We ordered our meals.  I had the same dish that Fred had ordered a couple weeks ago at the other "Fonda"... "manchamantel", a type of "mole" whose name means "tablecloth stainer".  Fred had really liked the dish, and it was very good here also.

Alejandro ordered the traditional "mole poblano".  His "mole" was OK, but the chicken breast was very dry.

Before we were done with our main courses, the waiter came to ask if we wanted to order dessert before the kitchen closed.  We ordered crepes with "cajeta" (Mexican goats' milk caramel) to share.  A Frenchman would have been incensed by the rubbery texture of the crepes that they served us.  I was going to pay with my credit card.  However, the waiter said that the credit card terminal wasn't working and asked if we could pay in cash.  I don't know what he would have done if we had not brought cash with us.

The whole experience just seemed very different from the other "Fonda", and we left the place rather dissatisfied.

The next night we dined at a different place... a boutique hotel and restaurant located in an historic, colonial mansion called "La Casona de la China Poblana".  (In a future post I will tell you the legend of the woman who was known as the "China Poblana".)  The setting is very pleasant in the courtyard of the mansion.

As a starter, Alejandro ordered rice with "mole poblano".  Alejandro is something of a "mole" connoisseur, and he said that the "mole" was one of the best he has ever had.

I started with "fideo seco" (a noodle dish) which was topped with shredded chicken and served with various garnishes.  It was very good.  Even the "chicharrón" (pork rind - not my favorite) was crispy and tasty.

For my main course I had chicken served with a "mole" I had never had before.  It was made with cashew nuts.  Excellent.

Alejandro had red snapper in a tamarind sauce.  The ring is made of pastry and reminded me of Yorkshire pudding.  He said that it was very good.

So, for our two night stay in Puebla, "La Casona de la China Poblano" was definitely the winning dining experience.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Tale of Three Markets

During our wanderings through the center of Puebla last Sunday we came upon three outdoor markets or "tianguis", although these were not the typical "tianguis" selling produce and household goods.

First we came upon the "Plazuela de los Sapos" (The Little Plaza of the Toads).  The plaza gets its name from a fountain with a statue of a toad.  However on market day the fountain is hidden behind the many vendors' stalls.  Every Sunday the plaza is the scene of what the guide books call an "antiques bazaar".  Although there were plenty of antiques and collectibles for sale, I would call it a "flea market".  I didn't buy anything, but it was a very interesting place to look around.

I rather doubt that these pieces of Talavera pottery are antiques.

The glazed, ceramic pottery is one of Puebla's best known handicrafts and is found in shops all over the city.  Some pieces are beautiful works of art; others are tourist kitsch.

The message on this plaque is quite popular...
House of the Grandparents,
Hotel of the Children,
Day Care of the Grandchildren.

We walked a few blocks from the antique market, and crossed Boulevard 5 de Mayo, which follows what was once the course of the San Francisco River.  On the other side of the boulevard is the neighborhood of Analco, one of the oldest parts of the city.  It was settled by Tlaxcalan Indians who had allied themselves with the Spanish against their enemies, the Aztecs.  It was they who did the construction work of the Spanish city on the other side of the river.  

A sizeable park at the entrance to the neighborhood has been the site of an outdoor market since the 1970s.

It is classified as a handicrafts market.  There were some nice things here, and I did buy one small item, but for the most part I would classify the merchandise as cheap knick-knacks and trinkets rather than fine artesanal products.  Now that Day of the Dead is over, there were a lot of Christmas decorations for sale.

Again, it was a fun place to wander through.

Finally, back in the center of the city, we saw a Christmas market advertised.  It was held in the open courtyard of a cultural center.

Except for one vendor who was selling Nativity figures, the merchandise really wasn't related to Christmas.

However, generally speaking, the products for sale were good quality handicrafts.

Surprisingly, I was in a handicraft market and I refrained from buying anything.  (I was worried that what I had already bought on this trip would not fit in my suitcase!)  Alejandro, however, found a wooden carving of a dog that reminded him of one of the family pets.  He bought it for his sister.