Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Tour of my Room (Part One)

If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know that I love shopping for Mexican handicrafts and that I rarely come home from a trip without buying some things either for myself or as gifts for friends.  I joke that after so many journeys to Mexico my house has become a museum of Mexican handicrafts.

I should have been in Mexico right now and writing about my adventures here on this blog.  Instead I thought that I would give you a tour of some of the "stuff" in my house.  I will start with my bedroom which is filled with purchases that I have made over the years of traveling... as well as a few gifts that were given to me.

Only one of these three items on my wall is from Mexico.  At the top is a Mayan calendar which I purchased at a woodcarver's shop in Izamal, Yucatán.  The central figure is of a Mayan god (not sure which one) bearing the weight of time on his back.  The figures around him are the glyphs for the months of the Mayan calendar.

The plate to the left is from Hungary and was a gift from my cousin Gail.  The color went well with my room, and it has a slightly Latin-American look to it.

The basket to the right was also a gift from Gail from a recent trip that she and her husband took to Panama.  It was made by the Cuna tribe from that country.

I purchased these two pieces of pottery at charity auctions held by the organization "Los Amigos de las Américas" some years ago.  The one to the back is from Nicaragua and is signed by the artist.  In front is a piece which, if I remember correctly, is from Honduras.

At a handicraft exhibition at the Mexico City World Trade Center I purchased this beautiful "alebrije" (a whimsical animal figure).  It is from the village of San Martín Tilcajete in the state of Oaxaca.  The village is renowned for its master artisans who carve these animals from "copal" wood.   The intricate design work is painstakingly painted by hand.  It consider this piece to be one of my treasures.

The last time that I visited the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá I was upset by the number of vendors that have invaded the archaeological site.  Most of the stuff they sell is tourist junk, but I found this item... a piece of leather embossed with the image of a carving from the Mayan ruins of Palenque.  It caught my eye, and I thought that it was worth having it professionally framed.  (The framing cost much more that the picture!)

All of these items are from Mexico.  To either side on top are vases made from copper from the town of Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacán.  (I bought them in Mexico City, but someday I would like to visit Santa Clara.)  In the center is a wood carving of a Mayan from the state of Chiapas.

On the lower shelf is an intricately carved piece of wood with little buildings set against mountains.  Next to is a small lacquer box that comes from the town of Olinalá in the state of Guerrero.

On the bottom shelf is a vase sheathed in copper that I bought many years ago in Estes Park, Colorado.  

Above it are a couple of pre-Hispanic figures and a replica of a Mayan plate.  I believe that they were all purchased at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

On top is a figure which I bought when I visited the ruins of Texcotzinco, to the north of Mexico City.  There was a vendor at the entrance to the archaeological site that was selling clay replicas of pre-Hispanic pieces.  They were ridiculously inexpensive, and I thought that the figure of the warrior was quite nicely done.

I purchased another inexpensive clay figure from a vendor at the entrance to Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.  It represents the sun god.   To the left is a piece of Southwestern pottery that I bought on a trip out West many years ago.  To the right is a pot decorated with Mayan paintings that I bought on my very first trip to Mérida, Yucatán.  In front is a replica of a Mayan plate that I bought at a shop at the ruins of Uxmal.

There's more to show you just from my room, not to mention the rest of my house!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Walk Through Olmsted Falls

A few weeks ago I took one of my long walks.  Was it late March?  Early April?  I don't remember.  My sense of time has become blurred during this period of isolation.  Anyway, sometime in early spring I walked to the center of my homeown of Olmsted Falls.  I had my camera with me and took photos with the intention of posting them on the blog. 

Olmsted Falls is a suburb of Cleveland with a population of around 10,000.  It was founded in 1814, and is named after Aaron Olmsted, a wealthy sea captain, and one of the investors in the Connecticut Land Company.  The northeastern portion of Ohio was known as the Western Reserve.  After the American Revolution, this area was claimed by the state of Connecticut, and the Connecticut Land Company sold land for development by new settlers.  Aaron Olmsted owned a large tract of land which today encompasses the present day communities of Olmsted Falls, Olmsted Township and North Olmsted.

The center of Olmsted Falls includes an area of historic buildings which were renovated and turned into shopping district.  It is called Grand Pacific Junction, named after the Grand Pacific Hotel, the oldest building in the historic district.

The Grand Pacific Hotel was built as 1840 and functioned as a hotel until 1888 when it became Simmerer's Hardware Store.  In 1989 the building was purchased by local real estate man, Clint Williams. (Until he passed away last year, Clint was my neighbor across the street from me.)  Clint had an interest in historic renovation, and this was the beginning of a project that would transform the center of Olmsted Falls.  The old hotel is now a banquet hall.

Today Grand Pacific Junction consists of 10 buildings dating from the 1800s to the early 1900s. There are around 30 businesses in the district, and the entire area has been nicely landscaped.

This building, which was once the trolley station in the neighboring city of Berea, was moved to the site and now houses a gift shop.

A 1922 locomotive and a caboose were placed behind the shopping area.

The dedication of Clint Williams transformed the center of Olmsted Falls.  He saved the historic atmosphere of the town and kept the buildings from being torn down and another modern, nondescript strip mall being put in its place.  I just hope that the merchants will be able to recover after the pandemic is over.

Just down the street from Grand Pacific Junction is the Harding Memorial Bridge.  

It is a pedestrian bridge which crosses Plum Creek.  It was built in 1998, but it is in the style of the covered bridges that were popular in the 1800s.  It is named for Charles Harding, a local hero who died in the Battle of Normandy.

Near the bridge is a path which takes you down to the Village Park.

A paved path goes under the bridge and follows Plum Creek.

The path leads to the small waterfall which gives Olmsted Falls its name.

Heading back in the opposite direction the path takes you to where Plum Creek empties into the west branch of the Rocky River.

The aptly named Rocky River as seen from the bridge on Water Street.

On the other side of the bridge, East River Park provides a better view of where Plum Creek flows into the river.  As you can see, there were a lot of fishermen out that day.

That concludes my pleasant walk through the picturesque center of my hometown.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Operatic Trio

I have written a couple of entries here about the free performances of the Metropolitan Opera that have been streaming nightly during the pandemic.  Since then my opera viewing has been more sporadic, but last week there were three presentations on three consecutive nights that I wanted to watch... two of my favorite operas, and one light-hearted operetta.

(images taken from the web)

Last Wednesday there was Jacque Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffman".  This opera is filled with beautiful, familiar music including the famous "Barcarolle", and it also has one of the most bizarre plots in the standard repertoire.  The drunken poet Hoffman tells his tavern buddies about the three loves of his life.  In Act One he falls in love with Olympia, only to discover that she is a mechanical doll.  (Diminutive, Korean-American soprano, Kathleen Kim, gave a stellar performance, not only for her singing but for her hilarious robotic movements.)  In Act Two, Hoffman falls for the singer Antonia (played by Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in opera today).  Antonia literally sings herself to death.  Finally, the poet is infatuated with Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan in league with the devil.

The costuming of the cast was very eccentric, with everything from 18th century powdered wigs to 1920's "flapper" styles.  The scientist who created the doll Olympia was dressed like a mad scientist out of an old horror movie. I was OK with that, but some of the outfits seemed rather gratuitous and ridiculous.  In Act One, a couple of the female dancers are dressed like strippers wearing nothing but panties and pasties.  In Act Three some of Guilietta's colleagues are lounging around in lingerie like Victoria's Secret models.  It seemed as if the producer was trying to titillate the audience with semi-nudity,  Other than that small quibble, I found the production very enjoyable.

On Thursday, the Met presented Franz Lehar's most famous operetta, "The Merry Widow".  The delightfully silly plot involves a fabulously wealthy widow from the fictitious Balkan principality of Pontevedro who comes to Paris where she meets an old beaux, Count Danilo.  The operetta was performed in English, and singers came from both the worlds of opera and the Broadway stage.  Playing the role of the widow was the famous soprano Renee Fleming, but frankly her voice sounded too operatic for this light and frothy work.  However, it was a fun production filled with lovely melodies including the famous "Merry Widow Waltz".  The costumes and stage setting were lavish and recreated Paris of the "belle époque".

Friday's presentation was one of my favorite opera's, Verdi's "La Traviata".  This was the first opera that I ever saw.  When I was a kid, back when the Metropolitan Opera would come to Cleveland for a week of performances, my mother took me to a Saturday matinee of this work.  I was probably too young to understand the plot, which was considered scandalous in its day.  It deals with Violetta, a courtesan (in other words, a high-priced "fallen woman") who is dying of consumption (tuberculosis). 

The music is beautiful, and the singers in this performance were all first rate.  However, this was one of those cases where the producer created a new "vision" of the opera that was just ludicrous, and screamed, "Oh, aren't we so avant garde!"   The stage setting for the entire work was a stark semi-circular room.  The only furnishings were an enormous clock, which I suppose represents that Violetta is living on borrowed time, and a few modern sofas.  Even in the final death-bed scene, the heroine does not have a bed in which to die.  She just staggers around the stage until she drops to the floor.   The costumes are all modern dress.  In the party scene in Act One, the entire chorus, both males and females, are all dressed as men in identical black suits.  It's as if all her clients came to visit her at once.  Throughout the opera there is an older man observing the action on the sidelines.  I thought that he must represent Death waiting for Violetta, but in the last act we find out that he is her doctor.  It was all so pretentious that it detracted from the music.  I wonder what Guiseppe Verdi  would have thought if he had seen what they had done to his opera. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

Pozole... Sort Of

A very common Mexican dish is pozole.  It is a thick soup that is named after one of its principal ingredients, "pozole blanco" (white hominy).  I wouldn't say that it is my favorite Mexican soup, although Alejandro's aunt makes a very good pozole.  I had a can of white hominy in the cupboard, and I had some ingredients left over from making enchiladas the previous day, so on Saturday I made something similar to pozole.

I threw a carton of chicken broth and a couple cans of undrained diced tomatoes into the kettle.  I added some of the home made enchilada sauce that I had left over, and, of course, the can of hominy drained.  Pozole can be made with pork or with chicken, and I have seen recipes calling for both.  So I added a ham steak that I had in the fridge which I cut into cubes and also the chicken that was left over from the enchiladas.  In a skillet I sautéed some onions, celery, bell pepper, jalapeños, and zucchini to put in the soup.  This is where my concoction differed from genuine pozole.  Alejandro told me that those vegetables are not a part of the recipe.  A Mexican would also ask, "Where are the garnishes?"  Bowls of sliced radishes, and shredded lettuce or cabbage are usually placed of the table.  There is also usually a shaker of oregano on the table, although I did season the pozole with a generous amount of that spice.

Other than the fact that it was spicier because of the jalapeños, it tasted very similar the pozole that I have had in Mexico.   A couple bowls of the soup, along with some warmed up tortillas, made a very filling dinner.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sunday Humor

Just as in the United States, many students in Mexico are participating in "virtual classes" online.  Alejandro sent me this very short video.  The caption says, "When your dad doesn't know that your are in your "virtual class"...

My cousin Gail sent me this picture...

These two editorial cartoons reflect the way I feel about the protesters who are demanding the immediate reopening of the economy...

Actually, the protests are not a laughing matter.  The protestors risk spreading the disease, putting a greater strain on our health care system, and are, ironically, possibly delaying the end of the lockdown. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

That's the Way the Enchilada Crumbles

Yesterday I went to the supermarket.  I had decided that I was going to make enchiladas for dinner.  I found all the ingredients that I wanted, including a package of corn tortillas.  (Except in northern Mexico, the idea of using flour tortillas is sacrilege.)

That afternoon I got started making my enchiladas.  This was going to be a more time consuming preparation than most of the quick and easy dinners that I make for myself.

I began by making the enchilada sauce.  I had looked at a couple of recipes online, and I improvised from there.  I put a large can of tomato sauce and a carton of chicken broth in a kettle.  I added a good splash of chipotle flavored Tabasco Sauce for heat.  Alejandro told me that I should put a chunk of onion in the kettle to lend its flavor to the sauce while cooking.  (By the time that it was done cooking, most of the onion had dissolved into the sauce.)  I let it simmer for more than an hour until it had attained a thicker consistency.  Toward the end I added spices... some cumin, some oregano, and some garlic powder.  

While the sauce was cooking down, I prepared a side dish of refried beans.  Alejandro always teases me about that fact that I use canned beans.  He insists that real "frijoles" must be made with dry beans cooked in a clay pot.  

Before adding the canned beans to the frying pan, I sautéed a couple of chopped jalapeño peppers, some chopped onion and some minced garlic in olive oil.  I added a couple cans of drained black beans, and proceeded to mash the mixture with a wooden spatula (which I had bought in Mexico).  I like my refried beans to have some chunkiness, so I don't put them in the blender.  After smashing them to the consistency I wanted, I added some shredded cheese and let that melt into the mixture.

The enchiladas are usually filled simply with shredded chicken, but I once again sautéed some onion, jalapeños, and garlic to flavor the canned chicken breast.  It was then time to assemble the enchiladas.  I briefly warmed the tortillas in an unoiled skillet.  I put a spoonful of the chicken mixture on each tortilla, rolled the tortilla up and placed them in a greased baking dish seam side down.  (An entire enchilada didn't fit in the corner, so a cut a tortilla in half and made a couple "mini-enchiladas".)

Once placed in the baking dish, I covered them with a layer of sour cream thinned with a bit of the enchilada sauce.  (In Mexico I would have used "crema" which isn't exactly the same as our sour cream, but it will do.)  I then covered them with a layer of the enchilada sauce.  Finally I topped it with shredded cheese.  In the supermarket they sell what they call a "Mexican blend".  (Which really isn't all that Mexican.)  On this trip to the supermarket, I had found something I had not seen before... a thick cut "Mexican blend".   I used that.

The enchiladas were now ready to go into the oven.  I put them in a 375 degree oven for a while, mainly to melt the cheese on top.

I took them out of the oven, and they looked great.  However, when I tried to put a couple on my plate, the enchiladas fell apart.  They still tasted delicious, but the presentation certainly left much to be desired.

Alejandro later told me that I should have lightly fried each tortilla in oil before rolling it up.  However, I think the problem was with the tortillas.  I had bought a package white corn tortillas, and they seemed very thin and fragile, almost like crepes.  Some recipes call for dipping the tortilla in the sauce before rolling them up.  I tried that with a couple of the tortillas and they fell apart.

So even though my cooking experiment was not a complete success, it was very tasty.  My home made enchilada sauce was excellent.  I will definitely make that again to use in other "Mexican-inspired" concoctions!  

Friday, April 24, 2020

Recommended Viewing

For quite a few years I have been receiving DVDs as a subscriber to Netflix.  I think the selection of discs is far better than what they offer on streaming, especially if you like old, classic movies.  So, I do not pay extra for the streaming service.  However, there are some newer series that are not available on discs.  On my last trip to Mexico, Alejandro put me on his account.  I connected my laptop to my TV set, and now I have the best of both worlds.  I have been watching two very good series, one available only on discs, and the other available only on streaming.

On discs I am watching a French series (with English subtitles) called "A French Village".

(image taken from the web)

It first appeared on French television between 2009 and 2017 and was a big hit there.  It takes place in a fictional village during the years of the Nazi occupation of France (1940-1945).  There is large cast of characters... including a school teacher who has fallen in love with a German soldier, a farmer's wife who is having an affair with a local businessman, a doctor who has had the position of mayor thrust upon him, and the chief of police and his Jewish mistress who are both working with the Resistance.  The entire series consists of 26 discs.  I just completed the fourth disc, so I have a long way to go.  The story lines are quite compelling, and the acting is excellent.  So far I have enjoyed it very much.

From Alejandro's Netflix account I have been streaming a series from Spain called "Gran Hotel".  It appeared on Spanish television for three seasons between 2011 and 2013.  It inspired similar series in Mexico and the U.S., but neither enjoyed the success of the original.

(image taken from the web)
Apparently this series is (or was) also available on Netflix accounts in the U.S. because it was my cousin who first recommended it to me.  It is not available on Netflix discs however.

The story takes place in a luxury hotel in Spain in the early years of the 20th century.  It revolves around the dirty secrets of the family that owns the hotel and the servants.   You might say that it's a bit like a Spanish "Downton Abbey" except that the majority of these characters are nasty, conniving people.  Two of the likeable characters are Alicia, the daughter of the hotel owner, and Julio, a waiter who is in love with her. (Shown at the top of the picture above.)   The police inspector who is investigating a number of murders is clearly inspired by Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.  In fact, in the episode I was recently watching, a minor character was introduced... an young English woman named Agatha who is fascinated with the goings-on at the hotel.  She is obviously supposed to be Agatha Christie before she gained fame as a mystery writer.

The series is most definitely a soap opera with a convoluted plot.  And you can always count on the fact that when a couple of the characters are plotting a scheme, or discussing the family's dirty laundry, there is always someone who just happens to overhear them.  It is, however, a well acted and enjoyable series.  I am currently about half-way through the second season.  I am looking forward to seeing some of the nasty people get their comeuppance and for Alicia to somehow extricate herself from her treacherous husband and find true love with Julio.

While doing some research on the series, I learned that the building that serves as the "gran hotel" is a former royal palace, the Palacio de la Magdalena, located in the city of Santander in northern Spain.

(Image taken from the web)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Recommended Reading

Before the coronavirus crisis began, fortuitously I had made a trip to the bookstore and stocked up on reading material.  As I have said numerous times before, I am a dinosaur.  That extends to Kindle also.  I much prefer having an actual book in my hands.

Here are a few of the books that I recommend.  Bookstores are not open at the present time, but you could order them online.

"Cooking for Picasso" by Camille Aubray was a very pleasant read.  It deals with a young American woman who finds out that her maternal grandmother, growing up in the south of France prior to World War II, cooked for Picasso.  She travels to France to uncover the family secrets, and to find out if the artist had indeed painted a portrait of her grandmother.  If you have an interest in France, French cuisine, or art, you will probably enjoy this book.

"The Huntress" by Kate Quinn is a much darker book, but I found it gripping.  The murderous mistress of a Nazi commander had a reputation for making a sport out of hunting and killing her victims.  But after the war, she seems to have vanished into thin air.  The hunt to bring the war criminal to justice brings together four unlikely people...  a female Russian aviator, a British war correspondent, a former GI, and a 17 year old girl from Boston who dreams of becoming a photographer.  It is a real page turner.

 At the moment I am reading "Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood, who is well known as the author of "The Handmaid's Tale".   This novel is not about a dystopian future, but is based on a true incident from the 1840s.  Grace Marks is convicted and imprisoned for the murder of her employer and his mistress.  Many believe that she was innocent, and they hire a young doctor who specializes in mental illness to probe her memories of the crime.  Don't be put off by the unconventional beginning with newspaper quotations and a poem about the murder.  As you get into it, the novel becomes quite engrossing.  It has been made into a Netflix series which I intend to watch after finishing the book.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Small Triumphs

It is a rather pathetic indication of how much our lives changed in such a short time.  It is now a source of excitement when we can find certain products in the supermarket... products such as toilet paper, paper towels or disinfectant cleaning products.

Judging by my latest trip to the store this past Sunday, I am cautiously optimistic that some of those shortages are easing.  Admittedly, I was at the store shortly after it opened, so I don't know if they were able to restock as the day progressed.  However I found products that I have not seen for the last several weeks.

There was a decent stock of toilet paper, and not just the off-brands that I have occasionally seen, but brand names such as Charmin.  Fortunately, I have not been in need of TP.   I already had a good supply, but shortly before the hording frenzy began, I made a routine trip to Sam's Club.  Whenever I go there, a large package of toilet paper is always on my list.  So I probably have enough to last me through most of the year.

I had also bought a large package of paper towels at Sam's, but I was fearful of running out of that long before TP.  The supermarket also had a fair amount of paper towels, and again they had some brand-name products.  I usually buy Bounty, but they had six packs of Scott Paper Towels.  They even had the towels that are perforated so that you can tear off a smaller sheet.  That is what I prefer.  

Going down the aisle of household cleaning products, I saw for the first time some disinfectant items that I had not seen for awhile.  The previous week they had a stack of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.  That is not something that I usually buy, but I picked up a container.  I have been using them to wipe down the door knobs and cupboard handles after going to the store.  This time they had Soft Scrub with bleach, a product I use for cleaning the toilet, shower, and sinks.  I still could not find the Windex multi-purpose disinfectant spray that I use on the counters.  I still have an unused bottle of that, so perhaps that will reappear on the shelves before I run out.  

I suppose that the real indication that the shortages are over will be when we can find hand sanitizer again!

Pathetic, right?  I have just written an entire blog entry about things that we always took for granted!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A New Puppy

After I had returned from my most recent trip to Mexico, but before the pandemic crisis had begun in earnest, Alejandro's family got a new puppy.   A neighbor's dog had a litter, and he gave one of the puppies to them.  I was rather taken aback when Alejandro told me that it was a pitbull.  But I guess the breed's dangerous reputation is more a matter of how it is raised rather than its inherent nature.  He said that the puppy is very affectionate and playful, but very mischievous.  Her name is Iztac… short for Iztaccíhuatl, one of the volcanic peaks near Mexico City.  It's an appropriate name since in the Aztec language "Iztaccíhuatl" means "white woman".  

Here are some photos that Alejandro sent me...

Iztac loves to chew on things, including one of Alejandro's sandals.

This cardboard box is her favorite hide-away.  In the background is Luna, one of the family's other dogs.

Iztac on top of Olinka, the family's golden retriever 

You can hardly tell that the bundle of white tucked under Alejandro's arm is Iztac, fast asleep. 

By the time I make it back to Mexico again, Iztac will be older and bigger, and I will be a bit leery of her.  Perhaps if I scratch Luna's ears (Luna loves to have me pet her), Iztac will see that I am a friend and not a foe.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Some More Humor

Here is some more humor courtesy of Alejandro...

A meteorite, buddy.
Let's run and get toilet paper.

I wouldn't classify this one as humor, but it does put things in perspective...

Anne Frank seeing how you complain about being shut in at home for a few days with food, internet and cable television.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Humor for a Sunday Morning

Alejandro sent me this video... a bit of humor for our stressful times.  No translation is necessary!

I also like this photo which I found on the web...

(Just in case you are too young to remember these classic movies, the titles on the marquee refer to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington".)

Saturday, April 18, 2020

An Encore to the Encore

A couple posts ago I showed you a picture of the snow that we had when I awoke on Thursday morning.  That snow was gone by the afternoon.  Although the day remained chilly, the bright sunshine quickly melted the white stuff.

Yesterday was a cold, cloudy day.  Once again it began to snow, and, although there was not as much as the previous day, there was enough to lightly cover the ground with a white layer.  From the snow on the table on the patio, I would say that we had around an inch.

This time, the snow did not quickly melt.  Some remains this morning.  Later today however the temperature is supposed to go up to 50 F.  

Here in northern Ohio it is not unusual for us to experience a bit of snow in April.  But it is unusual for us to have two consecutive days of it.  Hopefully this will be winter's final encore.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Your Healthy Distance

Now that the Mexican government is finally recognizing the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, it has trotted out a public service campaign featuring a cartoon character that looks much like Wonder Woman.  She is called "Susana Distancia", which is a play on words for "su sana distancia" (your healthy distance).  

(image taken from the web)

Susana advises people to keep a distance of 1.5 meters away from others.  (That is just under five feet... a bit less than the six feet of distancing recommended here.)

Until recently, Mexican President López Obrador has completely ignored the concept of social distancing, and he was constantly shown in the news hugging and kissing his supporters.  He even filmed a TV spot encouraging Mexican families to go out to eat at restaurants to help the local economy. 

(image taken from the web)

Regardless of the contradictory messages, practicing social distancing is often impossible in a city with a metropolitan population of more than 21 million people.  Although the streets of downtown appear strangely empty on the webcams I see, passengers on public transportation are still often crammed like sardines in the subway and busses. Even though more people are staying at home, the frequency of the busses and subways has been reduced.  Yesterday Alejandro told me that passengers will not be allowed on public transportation without a mask.