Friday, December 31, 2021

The End of Another Year


We have survived and made it through another strange and crazy year.  In March of 2021, as we reached the first anniversary of the pandemic, we were filled with hope and optimism as several vaccines were becoming available to the public.  That month I received my second shot, and I felt confident enough to resume my normal travel schedule to Mexico.  I made three trips during the year, and I will return again in January.  Sadly, because the vaccine was not widely available in many parts of the world, and because too many people prefer to listen to conspiracy theories instead of science, the pandemic continued, and new variants emerged.  Through it all I continued to be cautious.  I never stopped wearing my mask even when I was one of the very few who thought it prudent.  Now the Omicron variant has exploded, and the numbers of cases are higher than ever.  The good news is that those of us who are fully vaccinated and got the booster shot seem to be unlikely to be hospitalized or die if we do become infected.  However, I am not letting down my guard.  I have started to double mask with a surgical mask over my N-95.  Maybe I am being overly cautious, but I have gone this far without getting sick, and I want to keep it that way.

The infamous "Spanish Flu" pandemic of the early 20th century lasted two years with several waves.  Perhaps after the wave of Omicron subsides, our pandemic will wind down.  We will probably always have COVID with us, just as we will always have the flu, but let's hope that 2022 will be the year when we can live our lives more normally again.

To all of my readers, my best wishes for a healthy and happy New Year! 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

A Card from Switzerland

Christmas is over, but Christmas cards are still trickling into my mailbox.  Yesterday I received a card from my Swiss cousin Vera.  She is the daughter of my cousin Walter and his wife Helen.  Vera is a delightful, young woman who speaks flawless English.  She lives in Basel, a Swiss city on the Rhine River by the borders of Germany and France. 

The card is a beautiful winter scene made from cut paper.

The art of paper cutting, or "Scherenschnitte", is a Swiss tradition that goes back to the 17th century.  It began among farmers who would pass the time during the winter months by cutting designs on scraps of paper.  It is usually done with black paper and is set against a white background.  This card was commercially mass-produced, but it is based on an original design of "Scherenschnitte" by Esther Gerber.  I looked up Esther Gerber on the internet and discovered that she is a well-known master of this art.  I found this VIDEO on YouTube.  (Esther is speaking in Swiss German, but you can see her at work creating her intricate designs.)  This ARTICLE about her is written in English.

I will save and treasure Vera's card, and the next time I travel to Switzerland, I am going to see if I can find an original piece of "Scherenschitte" to purchase and bring home.  

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Painting for Mexico

My large suitcase is nearly packed for my January trip to Mexico.  It is almost completely filled with presents to take to Alejandro's family.  We will celebrate the Day of the Kings... Epiphany, the traditional day for gift-giving... a few days late.  

I still have to make a batch of fudge to take down there, and yesterday I completed a painting which will be a gift for Alejandro's sister, Sandra.  (As far as I know, she does not look at my blog, so I can post a photo of the painting here.)

My painting is now pretty much limited to my annual Christmas card.  However, Sandra loves butterflies, and I had been thinking about painting her a picture of a monarch butterfly for some time.  I found an unpainted, oval canvas with my art supplies, and on Sunday, after returning from Columbus, I began work on it.  Yesterday was a gray, dark day, and I devoted the entire afternoon to the painting.  I was able to complete it.  The canvas stretches around the sides over the framework.  I painted the sides so that the painting does not require framing.  All I have to do is attach a wire on the back for hanging it.  

The fourth Magi King, the one from Ohio, will soon be hauling a bag full of gifts down to Mexico! 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Looking Down on a Gray Christmas

 Last year, here in northern Ohio, we had, for the first time in several years, a white Christmas.  This year, however, it was a different story.  We had unseasonably mild temperatures, gray skies and a lot of rain.

For Christmas I traveled two hours down the interstate to Columbus and spent the holiday with my sister-in-law Phyllis and her husband Jim.  A few years ago, they moved into a condo in a high-rise.  Their new place only has one bedroom, but I received a very kind offer from a friend of Phyllis.  The friend lives in the same building and was going to be away for the holiday.  She said that I was welcome to stay in her condo.  So I was just a quick elevator ride from Phyllis and Jim during the three days that I spent in Columbus.

In spite of the gray skies and rain, I had a great view of Columbus from her place.

Looking east toward the skyline of downtown Columbus


Directly across the street from the condo building is Franklin Park and the Franklin Park Conservatory.  If it had not been for the rain, it would have been a wonderful day for a walk in the park.  On Christmas Day the temperature rose to a balmy 61 degrees Fahrenheit!

The view at night

The day after Christmas was sunny and still mild.  It was a pleasant day for making the drive home to Cleveland.

Whether your Christmas was white, gray or tropical, I hope that you had a great day.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Taking the Test

The new Omicron variant of COVID has me a bit nervous since I have a number of small holiday gatherings (all with fully vaccinated friends and family) in the coming days.  Also I will return to Mexico in January.   More than a week ago I went to the pharmacy and was able to buy four at-home COVID test kits.  I was fortunate to do so because I have heard that the kits are now sold-out everywhere.

I know that these quick tests are not 100% accurate, but I figured that they would give me some additional peace of mind.  Each kit contains the materials for two tests which are to be taken between 24 and 36 hours of each other.  Tuesday evening I took the first test.  I swirled the swab in each nostril and then placed it in a small tube with a liquid in the bottom.  I let it sit in the tube for one minute before removing it.  Then I placed a test strip in the tube and let that sit there for ten minutes.

When the test strip is removed, if there is one blue stripe, it means that you are negative for the COVID virus.  If there are a blue and a pink stripe it means that you are positive.  If there is just a pink stripe it means that the test is invalid.  As you can see if you look closely, there is only a blue stripe after I took the test.

I took the test again last night, 25 hours later.  Once again the result was negative.  So, I feel a bit more confident about heading down to Columbus later today to spend Christmas with my sister-in-law and her husband.  I will take the test a couple more times, the second time before my departure for Mexico.  I will take the remaining test kit down there and test myself again after my arrival. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Using My Noodles

In Mexico a formal dinner will often include a "sopa aguada" (a "wet" soup... what we call soup) and, as a second course, a "sopa seca" (a dry soup) which is a pasta or rice dish.  One of my favorite "sopas secas", one that I often order in restaurants as a starter, is "fideos al chipotle".  I found a recipe for it on the internet.  It was in Spanish (I learned a few new cooking vocabulary words) and it was rather vague on some of the specific quantities and times.  But I tried it out, and it ended up tasting just like what I have had in Mexico.

On my last trip to the local Mexican supermarket, I bought several packages of "fideos".

"Fideos" are a type of Mexican noodles.  They are similar to vermicelli but are cut short.  "La Moderna" is perhaps the best-known brand of pasta in Mexico.  

The recipe said to fry one package of "fideos" in oil, on low heat, stirring constantly.  Meanwhile you are supposed to cook tomatoes in boiling water.  The recipe didn't say how many tomatoes, but I used four.

The recipe didn't say how long to fry the pasta, but I kept going until I thought that the tomatoes were cooked.  The "fideos" are then to be put aside on paper towels to absorb the excess oil.

The skins were falling off of the tomatoes, so I removed those.  The recipe said to cut the tomatoes in cubes.  They were too soft to do that, so I simply chopped them up a bit.

Then the tomatoes are fried in the skillet along with a half onion, chopped, two cloves of garlic, chopped, and a canned chipotle pepper along with a bit of the "adobo" sauce in which it is canned.

That mixture is then put in the blender and blended with 3/4 cup of chicken broth.

Pour that blended mixture through a strainer (reserving the liquid) and fry it in the skillet.  Add the "fideos" and cook the noodles, covered, until they are tender and have absorbed most of the mixture.  Add the reserved liquid if needed.  (I needed to add much of that liquid.)

The recipe said not to stir the noodles so as not to break them.  However, I found it necessary to gently turn them with a spatula so that they would not scorch on the bottom.

When they are done garnish them with "cotija" cheese (a crumbly cheese common in Mexico) and a dollop of Mexican "crema" (which is a bit more acidic than our sour cream).

Just as good as what I have ordered at Restaurante El Cardenal in Mexico City!


Monday, December 20, 2021

"Navidad" on the Square

Last week I was looking at webcam photos of the Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza, and it was obvious that plans were underway for an event on the square.

I read on the internet that a Christmas festival was going to take place on the Zócalo.  It was going to include a Ferris wheel, a carrousel, an ice slide and other rides.  They were also setting up a stage for concerts of Christmas music and performances of "The Nutcracker" and "pastorelas". ("Pastorelas" are the traditional Mexican Christmas comedies in which the shepherds outwit the devil in their goal to reach Bethlehem. 

The festival began this past weekend, and from these photos, it appears to be attracting an enormous crowd.

In the night photo, the glare of the lights makes it hard to see, but look at the throngs of people all around the Zócalo.  Are they all waiting to get into the festival?  I am sure that the majority of them are wearing facemasks.  (It has been my experience that the Mexicans are much better about wearing masks than the people up here.)  Nevertheless, I would not feel comfortable or safe being amid such a mass of humanity.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

It Wouldn't Be Christmas Without...

Those of you who have read my blog over the years, know that every Christmas I make numerous batches of fudge.  For some friends and neighbors my home-made fudge is every bit as expected as my original Christmas cards.  

Many years ago, my father found a recipe for "Soldier's Fudge", and he would make it each year at Christmas.  I started making some to take to my teaching colleagues in the foreign language department. Since retirement I have continued the tradition, although I have modified the recipe, making it smoother with a bit more sweetened condensed milk and substituting dried cherries for the chopped walnuts. (I will have to make one batch with walnuts however.  My sister-in-law Phyllis does not like fruit in her fudge!) 

This year is no different than Christmas seasons in the past.  I have already made seven pans of fudge and I have three more to make.  I don't make any for myself, although, of course, I need to taste-taste a few pieces from each pan just to make sure it came out right!

My fudge-making will continue beyond Christmas because I need to make a batch to take down to Mexico in January for Alejandro and his family.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Climbing the Steps

In an earlier post, I mentioned Fort Hill, a shale cliff rising ninety feet above the Rocky River in the Cleveland Metroparks.  A wooden staircase ascending the hill was built in 1982.  In 2016 that staircase was replaced with a sturdier and wider set of steps.  

I have climbed to the top of Fort Hill a couple of times (and have probably written about it somewhere in this blog in the past).  One mild, sunny afternoon earlier this week, I decided to go up the steps again.  I parked my car at the Rocky River Nature Center which is located near the hill. 

I was a Monday, so I was surprised to see how many cars were in the parking lot and surprised that the small museum was open.  I put on my facemask and popped inside for a few minutes.  There is also a small gift shop inside.  I thought that I had finished my holiday shopping, but I found several items to take down to Mexico in January.

I took my purchases back to the car, and then I tackled the ascent of the hill.  

From the top there is a nice view of the Rocky River Valley.

The small island in the middle of the river is called Arrowhead Island.

Just beyond the bridge is the confluence of the West Branch and the East Branch of the Rocky River.  (The West Branch flows through my hometown of Olmsted Falls, and the East Branch goes through the neighboring city of Berea.)
From here the merged river continues its way northward to Lake Erie.

One of the reasons I made the climb up the steps again (besides getting some exercise) is to try to find the ancient earthworks atop the hill.  There are three earthen walls and ditches that were built by Native Americans around 2000 years ago.  The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the Metroparks website, "Despite erosion by wind and water, the two-thousand- year-old trenches and embankments still remain visible today."   I looked and looked, and once again I was unable to see the earthworks.

I continued hiking along the loop trail which circles the top of the cliff.

After descending the staircase, I hiked along some of the trails by the ponds and marshes at the foot of the hill.

It was good to take advantage of the unseasonably pleasant day our Metroparks.  It may be springtime before I have a chance to return.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

December Morn

Although this morning is gray and dreary, here in Ohio, we have been enjoying above average temperatures and a number of brilliantly sunny days.  I took this picture from my bedroom window just before dawn when I woke up yesterday.


Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Christmas Card

Earlier this week I chatted on Skype with some relatives in Switzerland, and they reported that they had received my Christmas card.  I always do an original painting for the card, and the subject of the painting is always a secret until they have been received.  I think it is safe to assume that the cards have all been delivered, and I can now share the painting with you here on the blog.  

The paintings that I create for my Christmas cards are usually based on photographs I have taken while on my travels.  However, with the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, I went for thirteen months without traveling.  My painting reflects that reality with a scene from only a few miles away from home.

Many times, I have taken a photo during a summer trip, and then used my imagination to convert the scene into a winter landscape.  Although I have never been to Europe in the winter, I have done paintings of a snowy Norwegian fjord, a Swiss lake and a French village.  For this painting, however, I did not need to use my imagination. 

On Christmas morning of last year, I woke up to find that we had a heavy snow during the night.  It was the first white Christmas that we had had in a number of years.  I got dressed, grabbed my camera, and went out in the car.  Driving the short distance was a bit tricky on the snowy roads, but I made it to a park in the center of my hometown of Olmsted Falls.  There is a pedestrian covered bridge which crosses Plum Creek.  From that bridge I took the photo which is the basis for this painting.  When I looked at the photo, I said to myself, "Even if I am able to travel in 2021, this will be my Christmas card for next year."


Best wishes to all of my readers for a very happy holiday season!

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Death of a KIng

 Yesterday, one of Mexico's musical icons, Vicente Fernández, passed away at the age of 81.

(image taken from the web)

Fernández was known as "The King of Ranchera Music".  ("Ranchera" is a genre of traditional Mexican music that is associated with mariachi musicians.  He usually appeared on stage in the "charro" outfit of the mariachis.)  He sold more than 50 million records during his lifetime, won three Grammy Awards and nine Latin Grammy Awards.  He is survived by his wife and four children.  One of his sons, Alejandro, is one of Mexico's most popular recording artists.

Here is a video I found on YouTube of him performing in concert in 2013.  You will probably recognize the song... GUADALAJARA... a musical tribute to his hometown.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Irma's Collection

I have written a number of times about my friend Irma.  She was the wife of one of my college Spanish professors.  Born and raised in Mexico, she has lived here in Ohio, within walking distance of my house, for more than fifty years.  Last September she celebrated her 90th birthday.

Irma collects Nativity scenes, and over the years has amassed a large number of them.  Of course, she has a traditional Mexican "nacimiento", similar to what I wrote about in my last post.  The handmade, clay figurines, in addition to the the Holy Family, the shepherds and wise men, include an array of Mexican villagers transplanted to Bethlehem.


Most of her dozens of Nativity scenes are miniatures.

I have contributed a number of pieces.  Every time that I travel, I try to find something different to add to her collection.  When I was in Mexico last August I bought a Nativity scene done by the Huichol tribe as a gift for her 90th birthday party.

The Huichol people are famous for making handicrafts that are covered in colored beads.  You can see in this close-up the intricate work that they do.

On my latest trip to Mexico City, I found this pottery piece in one of the government-sponsored handicraft stores.  This past week, I went over to her apartment to give it to her.  She was delighted and immediately placed it on the shelf with her other "nacimientos".


Thursday, December 9, 2021

Decorating for Christmas

I have not decorated the house for Christmas in years.  No, I am not a Scrooge.  It has just seemed pointless since I am in Columbus visiting relatives for several days at Christmas, and then I have to get ready for a trip to Mexico in early January.  I might put out a big, ceramic Santa by the fireplace, and the tables and shelves are filled with Christmas cards that I receive, but that's it.  

Perhaps I was inspired by seeing the Nativity figures on sale at Mexico City's Jamaica Market, but last weekend I pulled out a few boxes and set up my Mexican "nacimiento" (Nativity scene).

I bought this set many years ago, probably in the early 1980s.  I had taken a group of teachers from my school to Mexico City during Christmas vacation.  It was right after a devaluation of the peso.  Inflation had not yet caught up with the devaluation, and everything was ridiculously inexpensive for us.  I found these lovely Nativity figures at Sanborns, a restaurant / gift shop chain, for only $10 USD.  A few years ago my friend Frank made the "portal" or gateway under which which Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus are standing. 

I set the scene up on the mantel above the fireplace.

If you remember my post about the Jamaica Market, you may recall the photos of the clay figurines used in the "nacimientos".  Many Mexican families put up an enormous Nativity scene with an elaborate landscape and all the villagers of Bethlehem (who all look like Mexican villagers) coming to see the Baby Jesus.  These figures are sold in the marketplaces in the weeks before Christmas.  On another trip that I made to Mexico during Christmas, I bought a bunch of these figures.  Since they do not match my Nativity, I set them up on a separate table.

In addition to the people, I have a well, a bridge (which I place over a mirror), a thatched hut, a donkey, a horse, a couple of cacti and some turkeys.  (Yes, I know there were no turkeys in ancient Palestine, but this is a Mexican version of the first Christmas.)  I still had a bag of moss and stones from the last time I set this up, so I created some landscaping.

I should have bought some more figures when I was at the Jamaica Market last month, but my suitcase was already filled with gifts to take home.  The other day I asked Alejandro if he would find a couple more pieces at his local market and buy them for me as a Christmas present.  Perhaps this scene will eventually get so big that I will have to set it up on the floor in front of the fireplace!