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Aug. 18th, Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily

Taking time to breathe… a 3 week respite before returning to NYC… things got pretty tense by the time I left the island 10 days ago – solitude long overdue… so… I hopped a plane to Toulouse, France (yes, the upside of summer tourism is a direct flight from Mahon to Toulouse, for poco dinero), rented a car, and headed south.  Ist stop: Joy Askew’s beautiful house outside Castelnau-Magnoac in Haute-Pyrenees/Gascony (D’Artagnan country!) – lush French farmland with incredible views of the really-quite-close massive mountains.  After a couple of days’ recuperation (long sleeps in the princess bed, great vegan cooking!), I headed into the mountains proper, to the Pirineos Catalan – to Farrera, long wished for and finally achieved… 4 wondrous days deep, deep in the mountains, in this tiny hill village (permanent population 18) where Lluis and Cesca have created the Centro d’Art i Natura… a place for artists (and scientists, and philosophers) to come and create, deep in nature… the day after I arrived there was a concert in the little church of two of the Bach cello suites, preceeded by a conference on Music (Bach), Mathematics (fractals) and Philosophy – standing room only in a small meeting room in the centre (which afterwards became my studio) – all in Catalan, of course, but I understood most of it, even if I can’t speak it… great communal dinners (10 the first night, 20 the 2nd and 4 the 3rd!).  I found a great rhythm: up at 8.30, breakfast of melon and coffee, hiking by 10, ending with a ceremonial creek dip in a freezing cold mountain stream, and at work by midday.  a half hour break for lunch around 2.30, then back to work until around 6, in time for another short walk, a short siesta and then dinner, made by Lluis’s youngest son Arnaud, an incredibly imaginative chef, followed very shortly by bed!  Yes and again yes….  Two hermitages sit on outcrops of rock on opposite sides of the valley – both great destinations and great places to sing… I even lugged the mandola there one morning – hard going coming back up!

I had to leave after 4 days because a) there was someone booked into my room (the place holds about 8-10 people, I guess) and b) I needed – and wanted – to spend time with Joy, who was originally expecting me for the full 9 days.  So I rather reluctantly headed down out of the mountains, back to Cizos, where I had a further wonderful couple of days – joy was a great tour guide… highlights were a lunch with her friend the painter Richard Hoare, in a small village restaurant which turned out to be THE gourmand experience – incredible – followed by a visit to his house and studio up on a ridge with a 360 degree view to die for… and later the Abbaye de L’Escaladieu – stairway to heaven! – where there was an exhibition inspired by trees that was a total wonder – extraordinary art on the walls and outside in the grounds (see photos) – inspirational… but we also swam in a lake, and spent an afternoon in the shade of the giant tree in her garden, first at lunch and then in the deckchair, feet up on the giant slate – heaven….

And so to Sicily, Palazzolo Acreide to be precise, where I arrived at 1 a.m. last night to the biggest and loudest fireworks display directly overhead – how nice of them to welcome me so enthusiastically! In reality it was the grand finale of the festival of San Sebastian, with millions (literally) of lights in the Piazza Populo and arched down the streets, the whole town out in force including all the kids, the brass band playing furiously, following the statue as it circled the square 3 times, hefted on its pallette by 20 strong Italian men, and finally all the way up the massive stairs back into the cathedral – glad I caught at least the tail end….

How to talk of the past few months on the island? curate’s egg, good in part? All I know is that I cannot do it again, go so long without time to myself… I didn’t realise until I left exactly how totally exhausted, drained, I was… many good things, particularly the huerto and the swimming, 3-day visits from a few good friends, but genuinely impossible overall… some other solution has to be found…. but who knows what? [I know exactly what, but it is unacceptable to the other party involved, altho’ every single friend says the same… lo que es…] I have tried so hard, but we are who we are…

July – menorca

Life on the finca… how to describe it? like the curate’s egg, good in parts? I will cast a veil of forgetfulness over the bad bits and remember the good…

…a visit to Alexander’s studio in Mao – he’s a luthier who specializes in early (baroque) instruments, absolutely beautiful work. I only caught one of this year’s early music concerts that he organizes, but it was great, as always… a slowly burgeoning friendship, always nice… he and his upstairs neighbor often used to walk out to biniparrell of a spring morning, arriving unannounced but bringing pastries for breakfast – invariably I would still be in my nightgown, but it was always a lovely way to start the day…

… the opening concert in the Lithica this season, harp and galss armonica of all things – I was so excited… in the event it was a shock… two world class musicians (the harpist from the Berlin Philharmonic, a Swiss armonica player who did all the playing for the ‘Amadeus’ film, and many others) who individually played really well (tho’ I must say it was an awful lot of notes but not much music) – but when they played together I had to put my fingers in my ears – they were not in tune… whether they couldn’t tell or just thought the natives wouldnt’ notice, I don’t know, but I left at intermission…. BUT, a month later I went to another oncert there and this time was totally inspired: a 17-piece Catalan band called Coetus – 10 percussionist, 3 singers and 4 instrumentalists – wow… an incredible experience, and the perfect venue… they are mostly young, tho’ some veterans as well, and obviously a tribe – soooo great… I bought all 3 of their CDs!

… a great hike with June, who came for brief 4-day visit from seeing Annie in Torino… Christian had told me about this stretch of the north coast, just west of Fornells, that is supposedly the oldest rock in Europe – muy impresionante, and great to get in a hike with June, who has such a good eye for these things…

… and then of course the huerto, which has been incredibly fruitful, both literally and for my peace of mind, and the big blue bath tub, which is always the saving grace… thank you thank you thank you…

Summer Solstice, menorca

What a difference 10 days can make… a renewed appreciation of my various lives, resolving to do better this time… hope springs eternal…

I left in mid-spring, and have returned to high summer – 30 degrees and rising, the garden bone dry… but still so beautiful, and swimming in the big blue bathtub is ecstatic (as long as the wind holds to the north!).  The bougainvillea were barely starting to flower when I left, 10 days later they are in full white-throated bloom, what an explosion… wildflowers are over but now I can clear and let the beautiful red earth return to being the basic landscape… except for the morning glories, which have finally really taken hold and are absolutely loving the morning sun created by the big prune this past winter. And speaking of which, the ullastres podados have also exploded with new growth since I’ve been gone, quite astonishing!

The day after I got back saw a huge harvest of green beans, and the 2nd half of the potatoes dug up, plus the first aubergine and a ton of green peppers – even a few tomatoes, brave souls!  We feasted al fresco on the solstice, my first evening meal outside, hard to believe – garden-to-table potatoes and green beans, the best ever… bon profit!

I’ve been gone from New York 3 months now, and I can feel it – part of me yearns for it, part of me finds it hard to remember it clearly anymore… this triangulated living takes its toll, in spite of its wealth of advantages… rootless cosmopolitan indeed… but I’m a lucky so-and-so – even if I don’t have the career I might have had, had I stayed put and put my nose to the grindstone… but I guess that ain’t me, babe…

June 16th – Cotherstone

So strange to be back here… it’s been 7 months since I was last here, and now over 5 years since mum died and we sold the house – hard to believe, it feels both very far away and only yesterday…. for the first time, I start to feel like a stranger here… and yet the cottage, and the landscape, offer me both succour and a sense of security – as I type that, I look out the window in front of me and see the sickle of the new moon – what is it they say, never look at the new moon through glass?  I will try not to be superstitious….  I love this place, and find myself dreaming of making it more comfortable – a glassed-in back porch as a utility room, to give storage space (now that the potting shed is a bedroom) and a small place to sit in the sun, when it comes out… a bathtub, something I miss more than anything, to ease my aching bones… even, luxury of luxuries, underfloor heating downstairs, in the hall and bathroom, to take the chill off – in the winter it is ice-bound down there, especially since Jeff tore down his workshop and I am now totally open to the north… but there is no point in spending money I don’t have on upgrading the place if I’m not going to live here, and in all honesty, could I?  It’s lovely to visit, but… two things continue to draw me back – the sense of family, continuity, which, without kids of my own, is very important; and the love of the landscape, and walking in it. But my bum knee makes me realise that if I cannot take advantage of the wilderness, the idea of being here is a lot less attractive… and at a certain point, a bathtub is a younger woman’s game … what am I thinking of?  I managed two walks before admitting defeat – from Wynch Bridge to High Force and back, and Abbey Bridge to the Meeting Of The Waters and back –  by the end of the second one, my knee was killing me, and I was done… ice pack and paracetamol…

In lieu of long walks, I have once again been trying to purge, this time box files from the attic, full of old financial records of mum and dad’s, plus the unsold shoes from the Great Collection that came back from Tennant’s, and that lay in Moppet’s barn for 4 years until Diana brought them back here.  I had already pulled all the real beauties of the collection, so was not surprised to find almost nothing worth keeping in all the bags of returns.  I tried to take them to a 2nd-hand shop in Barnard Castle who had said last year that they would take them on consignment, only to find they have since gone out of business – naturally… a shop in Darlington that Moppet told me about said they only dealt with current fashion, not vintage… so I was about to consign them to the charity shops when Moppet called to say she had a size 5 friend who woud take the lot – hallelujah…. the furniture in David’s storage in Winston also has to go – I took photos, and hope I can interest Luke Jordan (whose father owned my mandola), altho’ so far he has not been answering the phone and the shop says “closed” – et tu, Brute…

I had drinks with the Royles in Saltoun House this evening – they continue to slowly renovate, and the place looks and feels great… I have no problems living next to the old house, it feels good… but it’s a tug of war… part of me wants to divest completely and move on, part of me is still deeply attached…  I haven’t been here at this time of year since I left after selling the house… it is such a beautiful time of year, everything so lush, and such beautifully long evenings – sun doesn’t set til 10pm, still light in the sky at 11… it’s the Cotherstone Fun Weekend (village fete) and I watched the duck race this afternoon with great glee – such a fabulous event… but I truly felt like an outsider, for the first time… [later: that said, the following day I bumped into 4 or 5 people during the course of the day, who were all very welcoming and seemingly very happy to see me – go figure…]

On a lighter note, my cultural weekend down south was an astonishing feat… I flew into Gatwick Friday midday, trained up to Tufnell Park where Jan met me and whisked me straight up to the opening of the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk… a 6pm critics’ dinner in the big house with the bigwigs, a 7 pm concert followed by a 9.30 opera – and that was just day one… this year’s festival is celebrating Britten in America, coinciding with Bernstein’s centenary, so the concert, with the astonishing BBC Scottish Symphony, included Britten’s Simfonia da Requiem, which I LOVE, and the Michelangelo songs which, orchestrated by Colin Matthews, made so much sense; then Copland’s Quiet City and Bernstein’s 2nd symphony, the Age of Anxiety – a truly great concert.  The opera, a commission and world premiere, was disappointing – or maybe just not my cup of tea – Emily Howard’s To see The Invisible – I don’t think it was just jealousy that made it feel unsuccessful – but a brave attempt…

Day Two included a morning spent on Aldeburgh beach (replete with old fishing boats drawn up on the shingle, very Peter Grimes) while Jan interviewed the head of the festival, then off for coffee with friends of hers about 20 minutes into the countryside, from whence we went to an art gallery cum clothing sale even deeper into the countryside (I fell in love with Suffolk), and then to a concert in Blythburgh church – guitar and consort of viols, all Bach, including a bunch of the Art of Fugue – heaven… back to London in time for a late supper, including a visit with the newest member of the Dalley family, Marlow, aged about 6 weeks.  Sunday saw us in our glad rags down to Glyndebourne for Handel’s Julio Cesare – a really memorable production, flawless cast, absolutely fabulous – and a glorious day, so the picnic in the gardens was everything it should be… what’s not to love about Jan’s job?  A LOT of driving over the 3 days, but totally worth it.  Up at sparrow fart to catch the 7.30am train north, but it gained me a whole day, so no complaints.  The cottage was remarkably dry and not cold upon arrival – they’ve had lots of sunshine over the past couple of months, what a difference it makes…

The job in Houston with Moscone is set, and I have bought flights to Toulouse and Sicily for my August vacation – reckless, but hey ho the wind and the rain, one mustn’t forget to carp the diem… life is short…

June 7, menorca

Christian and Miriam have been visiting from Marseille – 10 days camping at Son Bou, hardy souls, then 4 days with us.  They hiked almost all of the Cami de Cavalls.  I joined them on 4 days, with the aid of my newest friends, 2 walking poles.  I’ve always pooh-poohed them – “what do you think you’re doing, skiing??” – but in actual fact they are a wonderful invention, taking a lot of weight off your knees and turning it into a full-body workout instead of just the legs – I’m a convert.  The two best excursions were one north coast (Cavalleria to Pregonda and back) and one south coast (Son Saura to Galdana), the second of which we did as a 2-car expedition, involving enormous amounts of driving, but well worth it – I had dipped for short swims at Pregonda and Cavalleria, but I got my first real swam in the turquoise water of Torqueta and Macaralleta, the first time in 20 years, probably  – heaven…

Having visitors also means doing things you otherwise never get around to…  I finally went to Ca’n Oliver, the museum in Mao dedicated to 18th and 19th century Menorca, situated in a glorious old town house, complete with double staricase 3 stories high, and murals on all the ceilings.  Stunningly beautiful, and full of period detail of the everyday lives of ordinary people (as well as the rich and famous).  I learned an interesting fact, that under the British occupation the Menorcans continued to speak Menorquin and Catalan, languages that were banned throughout the rest of Spain – an example of the Brtain’s “benevolent” colonialism, and why the Menorcans have a soft spot for them, historically….

We’re having another morning of heavy rain – there have been several recently – for which I should be very grateful, as it saves me having to water the garden and huerto, but in fact it’s been so damp that the tomato plants all have the blight from lack of sun and too much water – a first, that has NEVER happened before.  We took off all the blighted branches and leaves, and applied an eco anti-fungal but I don’t know if they’ll survive.  And we dug up about two thirds of the potato crop, in case they got the blight, too, while I”m gone… lovely harvest, very proud… also calabacin coming out of our ears, as always (been doing tempura flowers, yum), some lovely green beans and strawberries, and a few fava beans… plus lettuce, of course… the nasturtiums are still in full bloom, so we are eating gorgeous salads…

I head to London tomorrow for a weekend of culture with Jan, then up to Cotherstone for a week to check in up there – hate to leave the island in June, but needs must… hope everything survives in my absence – perhaps when I come back the rains will have stopped, the aubergine and peppers and tomatoes will be bearing fruit, and the wind will have shifted to the north (it’s been southerly for weeks and weeks) and cleared the big blue bath tub for the return of morning swims…
Que vaya bien, todos…

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