Sunday, October 21, 2018

Striding up That Hill

Out of countless quips that had me doubled over in laughter, surely this was the best line of the weekend: "Roundabout. Dig it!"

Commentary followed by directive, Yes, sir.

Since I last blogged Thursday, I've been to six restaurants - Metzger, Dinamo, Lee's, Adrift, The Walkabout and Willaby's Cafe - not including the one that shall remain nameless because I was reviewing it.

Of note was the brisket at Metzger, our kickoff to soup season at Dinamo (fish soup and matzoh ball soup) with a side of travel planning, a server named Karen at Lee's ("Open since 1939!") who referred to me as "this lovely lady," the mystery man taking notes at Adrift who wouldn't tell us why he'd come to Irvington 29 years ago or what's kept him there so long (and I asked), tequila and dancing at a dimly-lit Australian Outback-themed pub to the classic rock ramblings of Right Turn Clyde and a waterfront seat for what is still one of the best crabcakes on the Northern Neck at Willaby's Cafe.

Our only food miscalculation was in not having a slice of pie after lunch at Lee's, but I'd foolishly followed the lead of the large man in the booth next to us who, when asked about pie, patted his ample girth and declined by saying, "Nah, I think I'll save today's dessert for after dinner."

That's all well and good until an hour later when you want to kick yourself for not just going ahead and scarfing two desserts in one day.

I was supposed to have seen two movies, but "Psycho" in Chimborazo Park never happened because the organizers opted to show "Monsters, Inc." instead. Why, you wonder, especially after I'd donned fleece leggings jeans, two shirts, a sweater, gloves and a jacket had they let us down? Because "Monsters, Inc." had been the scheduled film a week earlier when Hurricane Michael blew through and they'd had to cancel. 

Judging by the crowd of couples, not families, around us, I'm going to go out on a limb and say we weren't the only ones looking forward to Hitchcock, although we were the only ones who packed up our chairs, blankets, wine, bourbon-laced coffee and took the party to Pru's porch a block away instead.

In addition to bow tie-tying lessons, it was there that Beau decided to delve into the origins of When Mr. Wright Met Karen and Pru repeatedly insisted to him, "You broke her!" when she wasn't giving a Power Point presentation about my past and my proclivities ("She would never!"). Meanwhile, the menfolk sipped single malt Scotch and those of us with no circulation mainlined Grillo while availing ourselves of the porch's heat lamps.

Beau and I weren't shy about saying yes to slices of Pru's freshly-made peach clafoutis, even if I am allergic to peaches. Moaning with pleasure as he ate, Beau also insisted it would make an ideal breakfast food when warmed, not that everyone is as dedicated to that meal as he and I are.

They must not wake up hungry every single day like I do.

What Mr. Wright and I did manage to see was "The Old Man and the Gun," purportedly Robert Redford's final acting role and a fine (and true) yarn that highlighted the excellent chemistry between Redford and Sissy Spacek while telling the story of a string of '80s bank robberies perpetrated by what became known as the "Over the Hill Gang."

The film opens with a caveat: "This movie is, also, mostly true." So while it wasn't a documentary, it at least came out of real life and we all know how much that appeals to me.

Exactly once I was mistaken for a Cubs' fan, mainly due to the over-sized sweatshirt I had on for warmth on my morning walk through Irvington. The thing is, I've learned that that logo is also an excellent tool for identifying guys from the south side of Chicago since it seems to get a sure-fire reaction in Virginia. 

At least three or four times, there was protracted discussion of indulgence and specifically, why, at this stage of life, it's perfectly fine to operate in such a mode. In other words, if you're going to mention interest in a piece of art located in a place you've never been, chances are someone is going to think it's a splendid idea to make plans to see it.

A file folder naturally follows and next thing you know, a plan is in place,

The past two weeks since we returned from Athens have been a sort of no man's land, not quite back to pre-travel status quo - witness I only walked once last week - with three road trips this week alone. I keep expecting life to settle down to something approximating normal, except I'm not exactly sure what that is anymore.

Hence the lapse in blogging.

But given how wildly happy I am, I'm not sure that I need to. It's enough to wallow in it, play catch-up with work and reading my stack of Washington Posts in between and look forward to whatever's next. Dig it?

This blog post is, also, mostly true.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Date Redux

It was kind of Groundhog Day-esque, except with completion.

Last Thursday, Mr. Wright and I had set out for dinner at Aloi before seeing "The Laramie Project" at Richmond Triangle Players. Both had been closed because of Hurricane Michael, so we'd punted.

Tonight was our do-over.

Aloi welcomed us in with dim lighting, multiple community tables and the end two seats at the bar. He had his prospect and refuge and I had my seclusion, so everyone was happy. Although a few tables were occupied, the overall vibe was underpopulated and low-key, which is to say, very un-Scott's Addition-like.

So we liked it, contrarians that we are.

And the food was even better. Intrigued when I saw mushroom pate on the menu, I was unprepared for how fabulous a non-animal version could be. The creamy pate of local mushrooms was given a crown of crushed hazelnuts and smoked cherry gelee with a sprinkle of cocoa and had fat slices of crusty brown bread for spreading it on.

It was an umami bomb in the best possible way and I can all but guarantee that I'll order it again the next time I go. It was that unique and that memorable.

A warm Fall salad dubbed the Edible Garden got major points for the toothsome cannellini beans, Brussels sprouts, savory roasted squash, baby rutabagas and turnips dressed with celery root puree and horseradish ricotta, albeit a tad too much of the latter. Still, a warm salad on a cold night is one of the very few benefits of this suddenly cooler weather (I really can't think of any others).

Every bit as impressive was steelhead trout tartare bound with grapefruit aioli and mustard seed layered over beets and crowned with strips of sweet shishito peppers and dill. The sweetness of the beets complemented the trout in ways I couldn't have imagined, so when our water cracker supply ran low, we asked for more.

Honestly, I'm here to say that it's a rare restaurant kitchen that can determine the correct bread/cracker to dip/spread ratio. Can we get a TED talk on this? I can't be the only person who always needs more carbs on which to spread whatever yummy topping I've ordered.

Quelle horror, once the second batch of crackers were history, I resorted to finishing the tartare via fork to mouth. I mean, come on.

At half an hour before curtain time, we took a chance on ordering dessert, confident that we could scarf it and still stroll over to RTP with time to spare. A citrus upside down cake with chocolate ganache caught my eye and the dense and delicately flavored cake - not to mention the dumpling-size dollop of ganache - with candied orange on top was refreshingly different from the usual dessert menu standards.

My only complaint was bathroom lighting so dim I couldn't be sure I was putting my lipstick on properly, but perhaps that's not a thing in Scott's Addition.

Too catty?

Walking over to RTP, we tried to mentally prepare ourselves for the difficult subject we were about to see. If most of us learned about Laramie, Wyoming because of Matthew Shepard's brutal death, most of us hadn't thought much about it since.

But watching eight actors play over 60 roles - effortlessly shape-shifting before our eyes from one character to another -  was enough to bring many of the details back, causing me to realize how much I must have read about the horrific crime back when it happened in 1998.

Turns out I'd absorbed far more than I thought, yet hadn't allowed myself to think about it for years.

What was perhaps most striking about the script was that all the dialog was taken from interviews that the Tectonic Theatre Project had done in the year and a half after Matthew died. The reactions go from self-defensive to more open-minded and some of the evolving that the Laramie townspeople do is nothing short of extraordinary. For a small town to have so much international media attention focused on them for so long naturally resulted in some soul-searching.

I was most struck by a character Annella Kaine (yes, Tim's daughter) played, where she ruminated on how what happened wasn't who Laramie was as a community. Except that, she concluded, it had happened so it was who Laramie was, sadly. That's a powerful acknowledgement of something many others hadn't yet grasped.

With two intermissions, the play was technically long, even as it felt like it unfolded in real time. Hurrying the story would have been a disservice to the memory of Matthew Shepard, whose parents attended a performance of the RTP production a few weeks ago.

Walking out of the theater, my head was going in multiple directions. I'd been gobsmacked by what director Lucian Restivo and RTP had done with this incredibly well-acted production and the ensemble work demonstrated just how much talent is in this town for any given play.

But I also couldn't help but think about hate crimes and the state of the country today. When Mr. Wright mentioned that Wyoming still doesn't have a law against hate crimes based on sexual orientation (although 31 states and D.C. do) 20 years after Matthew Shepard was murdered, I couldn't believe my ears.

Theater that becomes a rallying point for change is theater for the greater good. We should all be grateful to Richmond Triangle Players for being part of the solution rather than the problem.

Not to mention how good they look doing it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

This Note's for You

The disadvantage of being a hired mouth is the intersection with my social life.

So after a road trip to Norfolk and a so-so meal in service of a review I haven't yet written, I said yes to dinner with Holmes and Beloved at Acacia even though I wasn't particularly hungry. That was mainly because the review meal hadn't satisfied my taste for something I wanted to eat and I knew Acacia would.

Beloved greeted me at Holmes' digs with an excited look and five pages of art history nerdiness. Seems that a Courbet painting entitled "The Origin of the World" that depicts the lower torso and girl parts of a mystery woman, a painting that was hidden from the public for years because of its scandalous subject, is big again. The painting is making news now because they have finally identified the subject: Constance Queniaux, a Paris Opera dancer, courtesan, mistress to rich men and companion to a celebrity composer.

Beloved had been amazed to learn of the piece and, wanting to share the information with a fellow art history nerd, immediately thought of me. That it now resides in the Musee d'Orsay, tragically the only major museum I did not visit when in Paris two years ago, makes it doubly intriguing for me.

Life goal?

Holmes quickly tired of our art geeking and suggested it was time to make our way to Acacia, where we took the center three stools at the bar and a smiling bartender introduced himself. Before the evening was over, we learned that he doesn't like to use his dishwasher at home, used to call a pair of twins by the same name in hopes of scoring points with the twin he liked and absolutely can not drink gin.

See: bar as confessional.

When we tried to order a bottle of Cremant de Loire, the sommelier steered us to Charles Bove Touraine Sparkling Rose instead, praising its fresh taste of berries. And when Holmes hears the word "berry," he's sold.

So sold, in fact, that he immediately made certain they had a second bottle on ice.

One of my favorite reasons to go to Acacia (besides reliably stellar food and top-notch service) is to watch the excitement on Beloved's face every time she verifies that they still have white anchovies over grilled Romaine and Forme d'Ambert on the menu. Then once they arrive, she always begins making the classic when-Harry-met-Sally noises until the last little fish is history.

It never gets old, at least for me.

Good as the escargot in garlic butter sauce was, it was the mushroom pancake underneath that rocked my world. An iceberg wedge with cubes of bacon, avocado, cherry tomatoes and red onion lost a bit in translation from a classic bleu cheese to a southwest ranch dressing, but maybe that's just me.

Although we talked about the pork cheeks, we also agreed that with a chef who is one with the sea, we needed to stay water-based.

Tempura flounder - the crust light and delicately fried - was everything fried fish should be and more and the two generous fillets over fried Brussels sprouts, shiitake mushrooms and crispy shallots in a Thai cilantro sauce was near perfection. Ditto the thick piece of mahi with roasted cauliflower, crispy potatoes and smoked paprika caramelized onion chutney under a Romesco sauce that tasted like it came out of the water this afternoon.

Whilst discussing how easy tempura frying is with our bartender, we finished with chocolate cremeux with caramel sea salt ice cream and chocolate crumbles bolstered by the last of the bubbles. By the time we said our farewells, the barkeep was lining up a row of Tecates to take to the kitchen staff. Night over.

For us, the record listening part of the night was just beginning. Holmes popped a bottle of Le Saint Andre Figuiere Rose and surprised us by starting, not with a record, but with a cassette tape that included Neil Young's 1988 big band record, "This Note's for You," his repudiation of the commercialism of rock and roll.

Oh, Neil, if you thought it was bad 30 years ago, you must be apoplectic these days.

But for Beloved and me, it was all those horns and woodwinds that spoke to us. Looking at what Holmes had written on the cassette box label dated June 19, 1988, there was the song listing, but also - and this is so Holmes - liner notes. On the back of the label he'd indicated where he'd pulled the songs from since they didn't all come from that album.

*BBC broadcast (1970)
Buffalo Springfield (1966)
Come a Time (1970) by Ian Tyson
Journey from the Past
Buffalo Springfield (again)

I especially enjoyed his editorializing - that "again" on the last notation - as if he was aware that he was indulging his own taste in sequencing the recording of the tape.

Our next musical selections came courtesy of me, or at least from a stack I had chosen from a crate of 45s last time I'd been over. Putting on Elvis' "Return to Sender," he explained that he'd chosen that because of a mail problem he's been having where mail that's not his continues to be delivered to his home.

"I'm just gonna write 'Return to sender' and be done with it," he said. "Just like Elvis." We're the kind of trio where there's always a story.

Reminding me that he's always insisted that Matthew Southern Comfort's version of "Woodstock" was the pinnacle, tonight he backed off that. Putting on a live 1974 jazz version of the song by the songwriter, he said, "Joni Mitchell crushes it. She reclaims her song with this version."

Granted, the L.A. Express can put their spin on anything they attempt and this version had all eh passion and energy her original did not. That said, what struck me as interesting was hearing Joni announce a 15-minute intermission after she finished the song. Somehow I never imagined that Joni had to announce her own intermissions, even back in the '70s.

There aren't enough words to describe Holmes' man cave, but the bar where we listen to music is the command central of it all.She and I sit on the outside of the bar. He sits behind it, with access to the records underneath and a complete understanding of where any particular CD and tape atop the bar can be found. It's eerie how he has the chaos organized in his mind so that he can put his hands on anything he wants in 15 seconds or less.

I know, because I heard Beloved count down until he located the Brass Ring last night. He came in somewhere between 13 and 14 seconds and it was in another room. Impressive.

Determined to further dazzle me, he called me into the library, a room overflowing with shelves of records and, as I was shown, drawers of cassette tapes. And while it's only two drawers, each one holds 140 tapes. I know because I counted one row and multiplied.

"These are a few of my favorites!" he said proudly, opening both drawers. I'm not sure 280 counts as "favorite," but I'm not here to judge.

While he and Beloved were busy dancing to some romantic song that he announced will be played at their wedding, I used the free time to apply a temporary tattoo on my thigh. You could ask why I'd do such a thing but I'd counter with why was there a tiny booklet labeled "Celebrate Your Holiday Week" with seven tiny presents in it on a stack of CDs?

Fair question, no?

After the smooching and romantic stuff, Holmes went back to playing 45s and we heard Bryan Ferry, Paul Carrick and Charlie Byrd.

I knew it must be getting late when Holmes exited the bathroom, asking Beloved what had happened to the second hand towel on the rack. "Karen had to use it for her tattoo," she explained nonchalantly, turning back to our discussion of whether the woman on the album cover was wearing a '50s or '60s jumpsuit.

And, always, there is the three way shared appreciation every time we hear a Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument we all love for its ability to place us in another part of our lifetime.

Back in the days before I would eat a full meal and then go out for a second one simply for the pleasure of  friends and music.

You know, my pre-tattoo period.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny

The best time to watch a depressing movie is after a day spent with my parents.

Ostensibly, I was there to help Mom clean out a closet that she felt had gotten out of control. In reality, that meant digging through decades of her stuff. We must have come across 15 purses, including several I suggested she could live without. "But I've had that purse since the year I started working at the Fund!" she says, affronted, clutching a navy blue bag.

P.S. Mom began working at the International Monetary Fund in 1967.

And bags, so many bags. Grocery shopping bags, a  tapestry knitting bag (no, she doesn't knit or do needlework), tiny, stylish bags that belong to another era when she didn't carry so much "just in case" in her purse.

But it also meant digging through boxes and boxes of unorganized photos and as I glanced through them, I found a handful depicting me and my five sisters posed in bikinis in front of the ocean. In the '70s pictures when we're pre-teens and teens, we're all sporting long, straight hair parted in the middle, but in the '80s version, everyone's hair is shorter and, for the most part, permed.

There's not a pair of sunglasses in sight in either photo, despite the bright summer sun.

By the time I found a group shot from 2004 aboard a boat (although the where and why escapes me), we are all grown women looking far more comfortable in our own skin. Only one sister wears a hat and, surprisingly, it's not me. And everyone except me has sunglasses on.

What a difference 30 years make.

Mom also enjoyed the stroll down Memory Lane, never more than when we came across the sole photograph of her as a child. During the Depression, snapping pictures of your first born was clearly not a priority.

Because it was such a beautiful day to be on the river - sunny, breezy and near 80 - we spent a lot of time, including lunch, on the screened porch. Mom and Dad were just coming off two days without power after Hurricane Michael and one of my nephews was there doing yard clean-up after so many branches fell.

For lunch, I reverted to childhood, making everyone fried bologna and cheese or grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, a big bowl of potato chips in the center of the table. Everyone was delighted with the menu. Afterward, I baked a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and served them up warm because I like to eat the dough my family is big on cookies fresh from the oven.

I shared with Dad what Mr. Wright had said about his spot-on baseball play-off picks - that it's rare to find an athletic man who's also analytical - to which he responded, "That's undoubtedly because so many athletes think they can coast solely on that." Not my Dad.

Closet and yard work finished, we lingered most of the afternoon chatting about family and trips.

"I could take an entire season of this weather," my Mom commented to no one in particular as a breeze ruffled the ferns on the porch. Me, I was just happy to be in shorts and not feel cold like I had most of the weekend.

And solely because I'd just come off such a sweetly pleasant day with the 'rents, I took a deep breath and headed to the Byrd Theater to see "The Hours." Now, I read the book when it came out and I saw the movie but my collective memory of both was a depressing one, so I knew that going in.

Instead of staying there, though, I focused on what a large and stellar cast the film had. Oh, sure there were the leads (Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman in a prosthetic nose), but also a terrific Ed Harris. And Claire Danes as the daughter, Miranda Richardson as her sister, Allison Janney as Meryl's lover, plus John C. Reilly and Jeff Daniels.

Do we make movies with that much star power any more or is it too cost-prohibitive?

The Byrd crowd was small. I suppose not everyone is up to being depressed on a Monday evening. For me, the low point was when a toddler went running across the lobby, her mother in chase, before the film even began.

"If you don't stop when I say 3, no computer for a week!" the mother yelled at the back of the four-year old, who did indeed slow down. Not "no bike" or "no going outside to play." No computer. Children can now be disciplined with the threat of no device usage.

Oh, for the sweet days of bikinis and no sunglasses...

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Dark of the Matinee

There is a certain charm to an afternoon performance.

Unlike an evening play where you have to eat at a ridiculously early hour to be in your seat before the curtain rises at 7:30 or 8, a matinee allows for a leisurely morning and, after the production is over, a leisurely dinner.

It's all so civilized.

Mr. Wright and I met Pru and Beau to see "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" in front of Virginia Repertory Theatre, where they were hanging about like a bad smell anticipating our arrival. Since our seats weren't together, we used the time to discuss the fact that no one except Pru had read the best-selling book that had spawned the play.

She was not impressed when she found us lacking. On the other hand, she already knew what was going to happen, while for the rest of us, everything that unfolded would be a surprise.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" managed to take the audience into the mind of a 15-year old boy who was both autistic and a savant when it came to numbers, a boy who couldn't bear being touched but was determined to accomplish something on his own.

The boy's determination to do some detecting to figure out who killed the neighbor's dog made for a sweet story, even as his father tried to shut his investigation down, while the discoveries he makes about his own family turned the simple detective story into something much heavier and darker.

Still, I found the production curiously satisfying since I never for a moment had any sense where the story would end up.

Leaving Virginia Rep, we made the easiest possible choice for dinner, heading directly across the street to Bar Solita, the latest offering from the Tarrant's team.

Right off the bat, they got major points for having taken the space conceived of by New Jersey bad boy chef (and #MeToo accused) Mike Isabella - a black, industrial, ornament-free cavern of a restaurant - and turning it into something softer with shades of green and yellow, curves and plants, all of which translated to Pru and I as having been accomplished with the obvious eye of a woman.

We especially liked the deep windowsills along the wall that provided room for multiple bottles of wine, purses, programs and anything else we wanted to stow.

Since Bar Solita is so new, it was a bit of a surprise that they were already out of the Sancerre Pru coveted, and for a moment, they thought they were out of our choice - Laurent Miguel Grenache Blanc - too, before managing to find a bottle of the easy-drinking wine. Meanwhile Pru and Beau made do with a Pinot Noir.

Everyone at the table was intrigued when we saw that they made a fig lemonade, so we each got one to satisfy our fig lust. Delicious, it was a tad light on fig for a true figophile.

Our server's first question had been if we'd come from the theater. Affirmative. With a bit of digging, I ascertained that the big news was that she had also read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time." Praise be, Pru was no longer alone in her literary leanings. The only problem was, our server explained that she had little memory of the story, so she wouldn't be good for discussing anything.

Pru may have thrown up her hands and given up at that point. We simply turned to food.

Mushrooms and sherry - garlic and olive oil-infused mushrooms roasted and lazing in a bath of sherry - were every bit as seductive as they sound. Next came shrimp swimming in garlic-infused olive oil with wedges of focaccia to soak up all that goodness with.

We were all so busy eating, sipping and talking that I regret to report that I have no clue what tapas Pru and Beau devoured. Tacos? Croquettes? I really can't say and they were less than two feet away.

Wisely, the Bar Solita folks had kept Isabella's wood-fired pizza oven. We made an excellent choice with the basil pesto pizza, notable for the roasted winter squash, housemade ricotta, red onion and shaved Brussels sprouts sprinkled with roasted and spiced squash seeds. Those seeds led to a discussion of toasting pumpkin seeds, something Mr. Wright is apparently fond of doing.

That he chooses not to salt them caused a mild conversational ruckus, but to each his own.

On the other side of the table was a breakfast pizza loaded with bacon, breakfast sausage, ricotta, mozzarella, red onions, sliced garlic and two eggs, which they claimed was delicious although unlike us, they couldn't finish it all. Amateurs.

As we dined, we covered all the important bases: bowtie-tying lessons, single malt Scotch, watching movies in the park and what we'd liked about Dubrovnik and Athens. We shared our new-found affinity for Mastika and our server, overhearing, texted a friend to find out if that was the same digestif she'd also fallen in love with. When she returned with a scrap of paper reading, "Mastica," we knew we were taken with the same Greek spirit.

Now, if only the Virginia ABC carried it. But they don't. A liquor run to Washington as part of my next museum trip now assumes greater urgency.

Dessert choices were a bit slim since, perish the thought, I wasn't about to eat baklava a week after returning from Athens. With no such issues, Pru and Beau couldn't resist the phylo-wrapped custard galaktoboureko, which also hails from Greece.

In fact, the only topic not nailed down as the sun set and we stayed put was when Pru is having her champagne and fried chicken party, although she claims the date is up to Beau. Inquiring minds are also curious about whether or not the absinthe fountain will come out for the big event, so stay tuned.

Because the beauty of a matinee is that you can have hours of these kind of discussions in between courses and bottles. The only end point is when the restaurant closes.

Gives a whole new meaning to afternoon delight.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Living Witness

The concessions are falling like dominoes.

First, there were the many layers of clothing worn to the festival Friday evening night. Afterward, I partially lowered the two windows in the living room before bed because I knew it was going to dip down to 50 that night. But when I awoke to find my apartment was 67 degrees - when a mere two days ago it was still peaking around 82-83 most afternoons - I find myself shutting all the windows before it gets any colder. Bad as it was when the cotton blanket went back on the bed two weeks ago, now I'm adding the lightweight bed spread on top of it.

And then, horror of horrors, I not only considered wearing jeans to the Folk Fest Saturday afternoon, I actually did wear jeans. Summer, I pine for you.

How did things degenerate so quickly?

At least the sun was shining when Mr. Wright and I set out to walk to the Folk Festival Saturday, although I knew standing on wet grass in the dark, shivering and cold, was in my future.

What I do for music.

Our first stop was the Dominion Dance Pavilion, except that for some reason, there's no pavilion this year. What's odd about that is that there was a pavilion, at least up through Thursday, a fact I know because Mac and I walked by it several times last week on our way to the Pipeline. But by Friday evening, it was just a dance floor and chairs with no raised stage and no covering. We'd tried to see Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus there Friday, but with zero view of the band and a whole lot of drunk bros on the dance floor, we'd walked away.

Things were marginally better in daylight - at least we could spot Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis' baby sister, if we squinted - in the distance, so we found chairs and sat down for some boogie-woogie piano classics: Hound Dog, Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, you know the genre.

The dance floor was crowded with people getting their groove thang on, including not a few swing dancers who actually knew what they were doing. One woman in a red top had her choice of partners, cycling through one man after another, but dancing every song.

Before heading up the hill, we made a pilgrimage to admire the James running fast and hard, a churning brown froth that guaranteed I won't be getting on the pipeline anytime soon. The architect focused less on the mighty river and more on structural issues, commenting about how strong bridge supports have to be to take the kinds of stress a swollen river places on them.

The climb to Second Street was worth it for the energetic sounds of New Orleans bounce, thanks to Ricky B and his band (which included a tuba, as all good NOLA bands should) whipping the crowd up.

"We're gonna keep it up until the sweat drops down your draws!"  Ricky B. yelled, pronouncing "drawers" exactly like my Richmond-born father does. Later, at another stage, I overheard an older woman tell a stranger that she'd just seen a musician tell the crowd, "He told us to perspire in our underpants!"

Let's just say it lost a lot in her translation.

The distinctive beat, the call and response and the sheer stage charisma of Ricky B. made for an outstanding set that managed to get old and young involved waving hands and pointing with one finger to signify that we are all one race. If only.

After snagging chicken empanadas from La Milpa, we ate them standing on the hill watching Vishten, an Acadian duo singing songs of great beauty. At one point, the male of the duo asked the crowd, "Will you sing along with us?" and the crowd roared its affirmation. "In French?" he asked and got mostly laughter.

Near the end of their set, just as the sun was about to slide behind the Lee bridge, a two-car train passed slowly along the overhead track behind the stage and the man in the passenger seat waved enthusiastically at the crowd, causing thousands of people to wave back. A few minutes later, the train returned in the opposite direction and this time the driver waved at us and got the same reaction.

Given the scarcity of two-car CSX trains, we had to assume it was a Folk Fest special.

Right on time, Mavis Staples came out, a fireplug of a woman in a black dress with a hot pink wrap jacket, ready to dazzle the crowd, some of whom had been waiting in place through one or two previous bands to ensure they got to see her.

We had a fine perch at a crest on the hill and when the couple in front of us decided to pull up stakes, they invited us to take over their prime real estate, although how anyone can walk away when Mavis is singing is beyond me.

Besides singing every song from the depths of her soul, Mavis took on the very festival that had incited her. "This is your 14th festival, and our first time here! What took you so long to invite me?" She also had family in the audience, so she told us all the food they'd brought her - spoonbread, collard greens and black-eyed peas - and called out to each one by name. She was none too happy when she heard cousin George had stayed at home, but assumed he must be in bad shape to pass up hearing her sing.

After talking about her years spent marching with Martin Luther King (and being thrown in jail for it), she sang "Freedom Highway," the song her father Pops Staples had written for the cause. If she'd come out and only sung one song, that would have been the one. I don't think I'll ever forget hearing that voice belt out the anthem of the civil rights movement.

At the song's end, she must have sung, "I won't turn around" 12 or 15 times before stopping the band and yelling, "Because I have come too far!" and I felt goosebumps.

But it got better. "Pops wrote that song in 1962. I was there and I'm still here. I'm a living witness!" Mavis hollered and the mostly older crowd testified along with her.

Hearing the first instantly recognizable funky notes of "Respect Yourself" - mind you, I had the song on a 45 - was like flashing back to my young self when I first heard it. As much as the lyrics had resonated then, hearing Mavis sing, "Take the sheet off your face, boy, it's a brand new day!" in 2018 (when white men just last year marched with tiki torches) all but ensured that the crowd would respond with cheers, applause and raised fists.

And, hopefully, by voting next month.

Add in a line such as, "Keep talkin' bout the President, won't stop air pollution," and we got yet another sad reminder of the current state of affairs.

Then it was back to 1967 and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," which caused the middle-aged crowd to sing their hearts out, not that any of us could compare to Mavis' voice.

As the coolness of the evening set in, a stagehand brought Mavis a black scarf and she wrapped it around her neck to warm those golden vocal chords. It also looked quite stylish with her pink-accented dress.

When she promised to take us down Memory Lane, my '70s self knew at once what was next. As the strains of "I'll Take You There," another 45 in my collection, filled the dusk air, I didn't even need to watch Mavis sing. It was enough to take in that song as the sun sank in the west and know that I got to hear Mavis Staples before I died.

Which, given the cold and damp of the Folk Festival, could be any moment now. Oy, is it Spring yet?

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Facing Fall

You don't go to 13 out of 14 Folk Festivals without learning that Friday's where it's at.

There's a low-key vibe to opening night that is unlike any other point during the festival. Mac, Mr. Wright and I walked down to the river from J-Ward, arriving not long after 6 and heading straight to Gregory's Grill for crabcake sandwiches and eastern Carolina barbecue.

Overheard along the way was, "I didn't expect anyone to be here yet!" although the speaker looked to be about 17, so I'm not sure her frame of reference for past festivals was wide or particularly deep. Then with sandwiches in hand, we made our way to the Altria stage where Cora Harvey Armstrong was already taking people to church with her gospel singing and piano playing backed by a singing quintet of sisters and nieces.

The ground was too soggy after Hurricane Micahel's wind-swept rains to sit on the hill facing the river, though it didn't stop a woman in shorts and flip-flops. Mac stated the obvious - "Why would anyone wear shorts and flip-flops on a night when it's going down to 49 degrees?" - as the sounds of testifying filled the air.

To make things even more spiritual, the sun was setting behind the Lee bridge and the pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle, filling the sky with streaks of red and purple framed like tableaux between sections of the bridges' supports. Overhead, a sliver of a moon hung in the evening sky and the light posts on the bridge stood in for low-hanging stars.

After a few songs, Cora told her back-up singers to take a break and asked the crowd to call out their requests. "And if I know 'em, I'll sing 'em and if I don't you can go home and sing them to yourself," she laughed.

Launching into "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," I was reminded how that it had been in the song books of my elementary school music classes - with a notation that it was a "Negro spiritual" - that we used to sing.

I'd bet my bottom dollar that children in elementary schools today no longer are taught Negro spirituals.

After singing five requests and trying to control the crowd's enthusiasm for suggesting more - "I'm gonna get to that one, just let me sing this one first" - she told the adoring audience that we should donate generously to the bucket brigade and she'd come back again and "play more of your songs."

"Come on, ladies!" she called to her backup singers and went back to her set list after introducing her band and singers and explaining how each one was related to her. Like me, Cora was from a family of all girls and shared a story she said her sisters tell her not to. "Daddy said he turned that bed every which way but he never did get a boy."

I have no doubt my Dad could relate to that.

By the time she got to the closer, a song about loving Jesus, the guy behind me was saying, "She's like going to church two days early!" Obviously he'd missed the part where Cora had told us that she's an ordained Baptist minister.

After scoring some sticky toffee pudding from the fish and chips truck, we slogged through mud behind Tredegar to get to the Community Foundation stage to see the first female kora virtuoso in the history of Gambia.

A friend had warned the Facebook world, "Don't sleep on this one," and he's someone whose musical advice I take. Thanks, Michael, for the best advice of the day.

Sona Jobateh came out in a spectacular Gambian full-length dress of deep reds, greens, gold and black, strapped on the 21-stringed instrument and proceeded to blow the mind of everyone under the tent and probably standing outside it, too.

She immediately became my spirit animal when she announced, "It's good to be here, but it's cold!" Amen, honey, I'm suffering every second with this abrupt switch to fall post-Michael. When Mac showed up in jeans and a top with jacket in hand, I'd detailed my many layers - slip, dress, sweater, scarf, jacket, shawl - and she'd scoffed. "Really, Karen? Really"

Yes, really. By the end of the evening, I was grateful for every single layer.

But Sona made me forget my cold hands and feet with a robust performance of Gambian music, new and traditional, and a fluidity on all those strings that no doubt belied how challenging it was to play. At one point, she brought out her son to play a vibes-like native instrument to accompany the band.

Her guitar player was stellar and his Carlos Santana-like guitar face was every bit as good. During one song, she faced off with each of her musicians - bass, guitar, drums and percussion - matching their rhythms note for note. Other songs, she taught the crowd the words and encouraged us to sing along.

But is was seeing and hearing this beautiful, talented woman play an instrument that for centuries has only been played by men that blew our minds. Mac suggested that it was the phallic nature of how the instrument is worn - it juts out from the pelvis, attached to a heavy leather strap - that had made it off limits to women for so long.

Regardless, sitting under the tent atop that hill, listening to Sona and her band play epitomized everything that is magical and wondrous about the Folk Festival. If not for the organizers, I could have gone my whole life without ever hearing griot played by a master. A female master, so even better.

Oh, and that one out of fourteen festivals that I missed? I was in Italy that year and if anything excuses a Folk Fest absence, it's world travel.

Still, Richmond was where I wanted to be last night.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Soggy but Stimulated

I am not a weather wimp, nor can I abide time spent obsessing over the Weather Channel.

Of course I knew the wind and rains of Hurricane Michael were headed this way. And, yes, I noticed that schools were closing early and some restaurants weren't opening at all for the evening. But did I assume that meant it was going to affect me?

Of course not.

So when Mr. Wright showed up saying, "The apocalypse is coming!" I suggested we go directly to the balcony to watch it roll in, Anton Bauer Rose in hand. We lasted maybe ten minutes before the rain began pelting us from the north and east. And mind you, the balcony is only a yard or so from the house next door, yet somehow, the rain was managing to fall and turn toward us in that small space.

Leaving the lights off, we took up places in the living room, which faces south, to watch Michael's fury from the front two windows, both open. I've watched many a hurricane and tropical storm from that perch, although the company wasn't always as good. The trees out front whipped in the wind, rain came in from the west-facing bathroom window - but not the front windows - and we talked for a couple of hours about all kinds of things except the weather.

Eventually, we both realized we needed to go eat dinner so we could make an 8:00 curtain at Richmond Triangle Players for "The Laramie Project." We got as far as the front door downstairs before realizing that the reality of being outside in Michael was, to put it mildly, wildly different from observing it from the couch.

Oh, we weren't deterred, just willing to get wet.

Driving toward Scott's Addition, I did notice how few cars were on the road, but that I attributed to the fact that most people are weather wimps. We soldiered on. When we got to Aloi, I bounded out of the car, stepping into a 6" puddle of water at the curb (it was for this reason I'd worn my stylish Croc platform shoes, because no hurricane rain can defeat foam resin), only to discover that Aloi was closed up tight.

A Weather Channel aficionado would have known that, in all likelihood.

Sensing a trend, Mr. Wright called Richmond Triangle Players, where a recording told us the obvious: no performance tonight. On the plus side, I hadn't had to wade through another massive puddle to find that out.

Giving up on all the evening's plans, we headed down Summit Avenue only to see the best of all possible neon signs glowing through Michael's torrents: an "open" sign at Supper.

Hallelujah and pass the towels.

Every table at Supper was occupied and there was a 20-minute wait, but the bar was almost empty, so we had no hesitation about claiming a couple of bar stools for dinner. That said, within 15 minutes, a guy was asking if we'd mind moving down a stool so his companion could sit next to him ("Do you really like her?" Mr. Wright inquired to determine whether we should move) because the bar was full otherwise.

Timing is everything.

When he asked of the bartender what today's soup was ("Seems like a soup evening," he claimed), her response of "pumpkin bisque" was enough to order a bowl and two spoons. Except that what arrived was decidedly un-bisque-like, albeit completely delicious. Only then did the bartender come over to explain that, unbeknownst to her, the bisque had been replaced with a pumpkin/black bean/spinach soup that was fabulous and far more to my taste than any bisque might have been.

Or maybe that was the Prosecco talking.

Eating through my wedge salad with chicken salad and his special of fried shrimp and fried eggplant salad in our damp clothes was as close to a hurricane party as we were going to get tonight. Everyone around us seemed to be of the same mind, eating, drinking and gabbing merrily because we'd all been fortunate enough to find a place open on such a soggy night.

The party came crashing down, though, when the lights began flickering and the manager started explaining to people that they expected the power to go any second now. Pay your checks now, he said, and you can linger until we go dark.

Or we could pay our check, brave Michael one more time and return to Jackson Ward, where I've only lost power once in 9 years and that was for 20 minutes. Talk about your easy decision.

True, we could have checked the Weather Channel before leaving for the evening, but where's the fun in that? The mad dashes through 40 mph winds and the complete uselessness of my giant golf umbrella against Michael's sideways rain led to an exhilaration that only comes when you're out in the elements when you shouldn't be.

Playing it safe is for weather wimps.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thursday in the Park with Michael

A day after I left the country, Monroe Park finally reopened.

This morning was my first opportunity to see what the city and VCU had wrought after nearly two years of endless renovation inconveniencing me. Yes, me.

While everyone was (deservedly) harping on all the big, old trees that were cut down and bemoaning the displacement of the homeless in the park (also justified), absolutely no one was talking about how having the park closed affected my walking life.

When I want to go to Dinamo or 821 Cafe, I cut through the park. Or, more accurately, I used to. When I'm coming back from Texas Beach, hot, tired and sweaty, the park offered a short cut for the last half mile stretch. When I wanted to stop at my favorite thrift store to score a $3 dress, cutting through the park shaved off some time. I've seen art exhibits, been to festivals and taken in InLight installations in that park.

But then you add in the overlapping ICA construction (finally finished) on the nearby corner and that whole area has been off-limits to locals like me for what felt like forever.

So when I set out for the Boulevard this morning, I intended to see what the new and improved Monroe Park was all about because driving by is no substitute for determining the quality of a renovated park.

Immediate conclusion? I miss the tree cover of those old growth trees that were uprooted, but I can accept that the sight lines are cleaner and more open now. The extensive flower plantings along Belvidere are well-intentioned, but could they have picked more ubiquitous or uninspiring flowers? No, they couldn't have. And where the hell are the array of park benches that would provide momentary respite to a weary walker?

But then, under a canopy on the Laurel Street side, I saw the brightly-painted piano and heard the sound of ivories being tickled as I got closer. A student, his black backpack tossed atop the piano, was dazzling my ears with something classical I didn't recognize as I walked toward Floyd Avenue.

It was the most beautifully unexpected addition to my walk and I'm not too proud to say I noticeably slowed my pace so I could hear it for a while longer.

And although I don't usually take the same route coming and going on my daily constitutional, you can be sure I returned along Floyd in hopes someone would serenade me again. Sure enough, I spotted a man in a cap, his bike lying on the ground next to the piano, plucking away. Again, I slowed my roll to get maximum ear time.

Just as I came abreast of the piano, the pianist looked up and smiled. "Hi, Karen," he called. Sure enough, it was someone I knew, an author and DJ, a teacher and musicologist with a social justice bent and a killer smile.

Hi, Michael. I only hope my face conveyed my pleasure at his music-making.

A few minutes ago, I saw he'd posted video of a snippet of his playing, saying that he was back in Monroe Park, "Blazing that chronic like it's 2001," and I couldn't resist commenting on how much I'd enjoyed hearing him play earlier.

"Ha! You caught me in the act! Good to see you..." he wrote back.

Okay, maybe I am okay with this whole Monroe Park renovation thing. All it took was a colorful public piano in a city full of musicians and artists to make me realize how wonderful it is to have the park open and available to all again.

Here's to catching anyone I can - friend or stranger - in the act.

Off With Their Heads

When things don't go as planned, there's always cake.

Mac and I had a date to eat dinner in service of my hired mouth and then get our culture fix with a play. Simple enough.

Except that when we got to the restaurant I was supposed to be reviewing, it wasn't open. Oh, sure, the sign on the door said they were open daily until 10 but it was only 6:30 and the place was locked, closed up tight. The open sign hung dark and unlighted.

Could it have come and gone already?

Rather than ponder what was up, we got right back in the car and made a beeline for old faithful, My Noodle & Bar, and the front treehouse booth, where we both pretended to look at the menu when really, we both knew we'd be ordering the exact same thing we get every time we go. My same old broccoli and chicken and her same old chicken noodle soup.

Mind you, we do it only to make ourselves feel like we're not the creatures of habit that we clearly are. But then, didn't I read somewhere that most people order the exact same thing from their neighborhood Asian restaurant every single time they go?

Perhaps we are not so pathetic as I thought.

When my food arrived, it seemed somehow more meager a portion than it typically is, a fact confirmed when Mac looked across the table and asked, "Isn't that a smaller serving than usual?"

I know, I know, size shouldn't matter, but when you're hungry, it does. And it wasn't just me because once Mac got busy with her meal, she looked up with disappointment. "There's only one fish ball instead of two," she complained and as the resident chicken noodle soup expert, I didn't doubt she was correct.

Rather than focus on the failings of our favorite dishes, I suggested we adjourn to Garnett's to share a piece of cake and make everything better again, an easy sell considering even my sweet tooth takes a backseat to Mac's.

The funny part was, after that she told me that in one of the blogs she follows (besides mine, of course), the woman shared that she she avoids sweets. "And she has the most beautiful skin, I guess from not eating sugar," Mac concluded.

Well, we'll just have to make peace with the skin we have because there's no way either of us could be that disciplined. Or even want to, no matter how magnificent our complexions might get. Next topic.

Naming the dessert choices once we got to Garnett's, our server got only as far as "coconut cake with caramel and chocolate ganache" before we both gave her the look and she asked if she should stop right there. Ladies and germs, we have a winner.

Sharing a massive slice, I told Mac that the only way it could have been better was if it had been chocolate coconut cake with caramel and chocolate ganache. She rolled her eyes, so I'm not sure she agreed with me.

From there, it was back to J-Ward to leave the car and hoof it over to the Basement to see 5th Wall's production of "Lizzie, the Musical." Because nothing makes for good show tunes like the tale of a 19th century axe murderer.

Conceived of as a punk rock opera, the play got high marks from both of us for its all female cast (well, if you don't count the band led by the fabulous Starlet Knight, which allowed a couple of men in) and a lesbian love story subplot.

So. Much. Girlpower.

As for what drives Lizzie, that would be Daddy who visits her bedroom and takes what she shouldn't have to give. As if that isn't awful enough, he also kills her beloved birds and leaves them in a bloody sack. Meanwhile her sister is all riled up by their stepmother who has replaced the daughters in her new husband's will.

Knowing all that helps explain a lot when both parents wind up bloodied and dead like the pigeons.

Using mic stands as props they could throw, kick, flip and, yes, even sing into, the four characters - Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, her lover Alice and the show's highlight, Bridget the Irish maid - pump their fists, flip their hair and generally convey full-on '80s riot grrrl style.

In fact, when Lizzie comes onstage in a red satin bustier and skirt after wielding her axe, intending to destroy evidence by burning her bloody clothes, the feeling is just this side of a #MeToo moment. Here is a woman who has zero shits to give.

That she's ultimately acquitted of the crime felt particularly satisfying given the years she'd had to suffer in silence. Because the more things change, the more they stay the same. Kudos, 5th Wall, for choosing such a timely topic.

Murder, girls kissing and coconut cake. What more can you ask of a Wednesday night girl date?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Age is What You Make It

When I'm 94, I want to be as cool as Willie Anne Wright.

Back before I left for Dubrovnik, I'd been invited to a Candela Gallery luncheon for the painter-turned-photographer and even though I knew this week would be crazy busy getting back into the work flow, I'd accepted for fear I may not get another invitation to meet a talented, working nonagenarian.

I'd seen her new exhibit as part of the group show "Channels" at September's First Friday opening and been wildly impressed with her photograms combining a vintage set of tarot cards (it didn't hurt that I'd been to a tarot card reading in May) and Brugmansia flowers from her garden.

Although I was among the first to arrive, a fact attributable to Candela being a five-block walk while most people had to find parking, the galleries soon filled up with a who's who of local gallerists and curators, including Seth Feman, curator of exhibitions at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.

When I spotted the manager of Quirk Gallery, my first question was where he'd been at the Artsies, since I hadn't seen him but knew he had to be there since his actress wife was not only up for an award, but a presenter. "Up in the balcony, away from it all," he joked before we began reminiscing about how much saner the awards program has become compared to its early years as an alcohol-fueled four-hour extravaganza.

Where gallery people gather, there's always talk of installing and de-installing shows.The director of 1708 was lamenting how short she and her staff are - all under 5'5" - when it comes to mounting and taking down exhibits, leading to a discussion of how short people manage at music shows. I shared that my favorite place at the National is at the apex of the floor, directly in front of the sound board.

"I'm so short, I just find a tall person and stand directly in front of them," one woman said. Another admitted to passive-aggressively giving tall people who stood in front of her "the look" until they got the hint and moved.

Eventually, Candela's owner Gordon herded us to the tables for lunch - sandwiches, a green salad and fruit salad from Lift Cafe next door - so we could hear what Willie Anne had to share about her latest work. I made sure to take a seat facing where she sat, eager to learn from my elder.

"Willie Anne and I have known each other for 25 or 30 years," Gordon began before Willie Anne piped up, saying, "I'm only 35!" And while it was a joke, everyone agreed she looked and acted far younger than her years.

He told us how she'd begun as a painter and only taken a photography class so she could document her paintings. "She's going to talk as long as she likes and I'll sit here happily," Gordon concluded. He wasn't the only one.

Explaining that she'd been given the deck of Pamela Coleman Smith-designed tarot cards in 1970, she gestured to the man on her right, saying that he'd been the one to give them to her. "1966," he corrected her and she smiled, looking surprised.

"My kids were into being hippies and I rolled my eyes and said, far out!" she recalled, before admitting that it wasn't until she was given Brugmansia plants, which are known for their mystic qualities, that the mystic Art Deco-inspired tarot cards from 1909 inspired her to combine the 22 major arcana of the deck with the blooms.

Holding up several plastic sleeves of pressed Brugmansia flowers, she explained that she exposed them directly to the sun using conventional darkroom paper. "So they should be black and white images," Gordon interjected, but as anyone could see by the images on the wall, they were instead rendered in shades of pumpkin and raisin.

"Okay, that's the way I did it!" she announced cheerfully, before going on to explain that she intentionally arranged the pendulous flowers the way they grew, trumpets down. This she pointed out on one of the prints where a figure with a horn mirrored the angle of the flower next to it, pointing down.

Looking around at her finished pieces framed and hanging on the walls, Willie Anne observed, "I'd never seen these arranged in sequence. Looking at them I saw that it works. Maybe I got something here!"

Never was self-deprecation so charming.

Someone asked her how long it took to get the images and she said it ranged from half an hour to three hours, depending on how strong and constant the sun was, admitting that she often went on to do something else while they sat on her front porch. "It's not the most efficient way to work, but it works for me."

Who doesn't have their own peculiar way of doing things?

Her enthusiasm for her work was evident and her self-effacing demeanor made her even more of an artistic champion. "I wish you could all come to my backyard and see my Brugmansia. They're all in bloom!"

You better believe I'll still be crowing about my moonflowers when I'm 94. Now whether or not I'll still be cranking out blog posts remains to be seen, but I expect I'll still have plenty to say.

The challenge may be finding people who'll sit happily while I talk as long as I want. Willie Anne is my hero.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Go away for 16 of the past 21 days and it apparently gets noticed.

When I walked into the Byrd Theatre last night to see "Out of Africa," I only got as far as the concession stand before I heard a voice from above call out, "Hey, stranger, nice to see you!" Looking up to the balcony concourse, I saw it was manager Todd giving me a hard time with a smile.

And while I allowed that it had been a solid three weeks since I'd last seen a movie there - "Smokey and the Bandit" as part of a RIP tribute to Burt - the fact is, it had only been two weeks since he'd seen my smiling face when I mistakenly showed up only to find that "L'Avventura" had screened two days earlier.

Either way, it hadn't been all that long.

Tonight, I was in my usual seat at the Grace Street Theatre for VCU Cinematheque's screening of "La Notte" promptly at 6:50, when, as usual, right at 6:59 the Frenchman slid into his usual seat one away from mine, immediately launching into chatter. "Haven't seen you in a while here. Supposed to rain for the Folk Fest this weekend. How're you doing?"

Just fine. Eager to get my Italian film fix on. Now be quiet so we can hear Dr. T. talk about the film. And please don't snore once you fall asleep like you always do.

One person who didn't give me a hard time was Mac when we got together this morning  to walk for the first time in two weeks, but since she's the one who'd taken me to Dulles when I flew out, she'd known exactly where I was. Seems she'd been avidly following the blog in the interim, since she mentioned how much she'd laughed reading about the lunch at Lady Pipi's and the food tour with the mildly crazy guide.

"Out of Africa" turned out to be an ideal movie to ease me back into the Richmond scene with its unhurried pacing, spectacular photography and unconventional love story. Since I hadn't seen it since it came out in 1985, I'd forgotten how long it was (2 hours, 50 minutes), not that it mattered because I reveled in the sheer eye candy of it, never mind Meryl Streep's superb performance and how much poetry was recited by the lovers.

And what woman of my age doesn't swoon seeing Robert Redford wash her hair or hear him pitching woo?
You ruined it for me.
Being alone.

Oh, sure, there was also humor - "I'd curtsy, but I'm drunk" - and I was caught up enough that by the final scenes, my eyes were welling up and as the lights came up, people all around me were wiping their eyes or sniffling from crying. That includes the guy sitting alone two seats down in my row.

Tonight's piece of classic Italian cinema from 1961 was introduced when Dr. T. said, "Welcome once again to an event of your life: seeing a Michelangelo Antonioni film on 35 mm!" For years now, I've admired his passion for whatever film he's chosen to show his film students and the rest of us film lovers.

Of course, attending a Cinematheque event also means having to listen to the blather of today's youth before the movie begins. Sample: "I think Jim Carrey is a colossal asshole because he thinks he's talented." And don't get me started on some kid's cellphone ringing loudly during Dr. T's introduction.

Seriously? You're a digital native, you should know how to control your devices, son.

"La Notte" was the polar opposite of "Out of Africa:" shot in black and white, the antithesis of Hollywood and full of underlying commentary about the ennui and dissatisfaction of Italy's upper classes as Italy modernized in the post-war era. The film doesn't start in the elevator of a skyscraper for nothing, you know.

What's always weird at these Cinematheque screenings is how kids today react to certain scenes. When a clearly mentally challenged woman in a hospital tries to seduce Marcello Mastroianni, several nurses rush in to restrain her and begin slapping her face. Students tittered and then giggled at that. A brutal street fight between young men in an empty lot also elicited laughter, as did a love scene.

Then there was the student behind me who during a dramatically composed scene said overly loudly to her companion, "I don't understand what's going on, but that's a beautiful shot." So while human interaction may baffle them, at least they get some of the finer points of filmmaking.

Walking home from Grace Street, there was no question that the nights have gotten cooler in my absence, with the only consolation being that out on my balcony, I had eleven moonflowers blooming tonight. That's a record so far this year, so I'm consoling myself with that.

Well, that and the fact that I saw that my neighborhood crab guys still have crustaceans available.

Don't mind me, I'm just over here trying to hang on to Summer with every fiber of my being. The only downside of being away is finding out that time marches on, even in my absence.

Drat the luck.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Gratitude and Tequila

The sole reason I'm back in the U.S. today is the Artsies.

So if our return from Athens was decided based on the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards, it damn sure better be an entertaining evening. That's all I'm saying. After all, as a member of the Theatre Alliance Panel, I helped decide who would win what awards, so it's not like I was attending for the surprise of the winners.

Although, if I'm honest, I really didn't recall at least half of the winners until they were announced onstage. Fortunately for my self-esteem, it wasn't just me, either. Two other panelists and one theater critic admitted the same thing before the night was over.

After a day spent trying to get my Richmond groove back, I cleaned up, put on a new thrift store cocktail dress and set out on foot (and in cute, black platform shoes) to cover the five blocks to the November Theater. Before I'd even gone a half a block, a car approaching me slowed down and the window was rolled down.

"You sure do look beautiful," my next door neighbor observed from his car. "You sure do." Imagine how impressed he'd have been if I'd told him the dress cost me $7.50.

This year's Artsie's theme was "Location, Location, Location," incidentally, a name yours truly had come up with when the critics and panelists were trying to come up with a way to pay tribute to all the unique locations of Richmond theaters: a fire house, a tavern and gristmill, a Tudor mansion, a former radiator shop.

Even a building actually built to be a theater, namely the one we were sitting in tonight.

And if anyone knows how to dress up for an awards show, it's the theater crowd. So many sequins of every color, and then there were the women. Strapless, backless, low-cut and skin-tight, there were a whole lot of bodies on display.

As is always the case, there was a lot of poking fun at every part of the theater scene, from old queens to boring plays and everything in between. There was also much commentary, both political and personal, from the winners.

When Lee Meerovich won Best supporting actor in a musical for "Preludes," he concluded his thanks with, "Believe women! Believe survivors!" and got a roaring applause for it in these bruised post-Kavanaugh days.

Frequently, it was the winner's partner who got the grateful words, as when Happy Mahaney won best supporting actor in a play for "Appropriate" and immediately thanked his boyfriend. "You met me in a time of transition." Very sweet.

Humor abounded, sometimes intentional and sometimes not. When the cast of "Alice, A New Musical" did a couple of numbers, the screen over their heads read, "Alice, A New Musical" presents "Sweet Child o' Mine." Somewhere, Axl Rose was smiling.

Another time, presenter and perpetual wisecracker Maggie Bavolack cracked wise about Deborah Wagoner breaking her foot during the run of "Mary Poppins," quipping, "But I'm pretty sure she broke it carrying that whole show." Ouch.

When it was John Mincks and Jamar Jones' turn to present, they began by doing a dance to a Jamiroquai song, to hilarious results.

After an earlier joke about how Virginia Rep can afford to bring in expensive, out of town talent, when Nathaniel Shaw, Va Rep's artistic director accepted the award for special achievement in dance for Matthew Couvillon's work adhering to Jerome Robbins's choreography in"West Side Story," he acknowledged that Matthew was "one of those expensive, out of town people we got."

Fair enough because the dancing had been superb.

The evening's first full-on cryer was Donna Marie Miller when she won best actress in a supporting role for a play in "Food, Clothing and Shelter." Still wiping away mascara, she soldiered on. "Holy crap!" she exclaimed. "I wanna be funny and cute, but I can't."

It was a genuinely touching moment when Elizabeth Wyld won best supporting actress in a musical for "Fun Home," as she said, "Thank you for casting me because I'm an openly gay women." Now you know the crowd screamed and clapped for that.

Intermission was long, allowing more time to get drinks (the evening is a fundraiser, after all, for the Theatre Artists Fund of Greater Richmond, a noble cause) and mingle. I ran into a woman I knew from years ago who was kind enough to share that every time she reads one of my articles in Style Weekly, she's struck by my take on the subject.

Music to a writer's ears, in other words.

Sometimes, it was when the presenters went off script that the applause was loudest, as when Maggie Roop pointed out that Tennessee Dixon was the sole woman nominated for Outstanding Achievement in set design for a musical. She didn't win, but the crowd exploded at the observation.

It was almost as good as when she praised friend and co-presenter Audra Honaker by saying how impressed she was that Audra had put on a bra and left her house. Hey, don't judge.

Taking the stage to accept best actress in a leading role in a musical for "Wings," Bianca Bryan joked, "Sixth time is the charm!" and thanked her parents for paying for singing lessons. Susan Sanford, accepting her best actress in a leading role in a play for "Appropriate," announced, "All I can think of is the title of my future autobiography: Gratitude and Bourbon," before reminding those in the crowd who had sons that they "had to be raised to be amazing men."

As women, we will remind until it's standard operating procedure and probably even for a while after that. You got a problem with that?

Boisterous snapping and clapping were the order of the evening as the audience got rowdier with more drinks and fewer reasons to hold back. The Artsies are meant to be a celebration and this crowd knows something about celebrating itself.

Oh, sure, the critics and panelists were forced to stand and identify ourselves when our names were called, but no one was there to look at us.

Fact is, we put on bras and left the house to celebrate what a stellar theater town this is. I don't want to gush about how lucky we audience members are, but I just can't help it.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Day in the Clouds

We said goodbye to Athens under a sliver of (ungodly) early morning moon.

The only compensation once we got to the airport was having a final wedge of spanikopita with my morning cereal because if not here, where?

Before officially leaving Greece, I got interrogated by an airport employee at the Aegean Airlines line, an encounter that began innocently enough. Where had I been? Athens, Dubrovnik and the U.S. before that. Who was I traveling with? I pointed to Mr. Wright in the ticket line, answering his own set of questions.

What's your relationship with him? Um, boyfriend? For how long? Sharing the date of our first date, that's when things got seriously personal.

Has he proposed, he wants to know. What the...? No (and what business is it of yours?).

What do you do? I'm a writer. What do you write? Restaurant reviews, art pieces, feature stories. He says this is interesting,  then tells me to have a good trip. Leaning in as he hands back my passport and boarding pass, this man I've never laid eyes on before assures me that he will propose and points at his own wedding ring.

Since when do airport employees forecast the relationship future of travelers? All I can think is, it's way too early for this kind of stranger interaction.

The flight from Athens to Geneva allowed me to finish my second book of this trip, Anais Nin's "Delta of Venus" (because where better to read '40s erotica than Greece?) and leave it at the airport for another reader to discover (Inscribed with my name, Richmond, Virginia and the date I finished it, natch) and enjoy.

Members of the international reading community unite.

Coming into Geneva provided a gorgeous view of Lake Geneva, a blue-green beauty so still that the trees ringing it were reflected all around the shore and a white boat cutting through the water left a picture-perfect V-shaped trail behind it.

The 8-hour flight from Geneva to Dulles afforded me the opportunity to read Jerzy Kosinski's 1977 semi-autobiographical "Blind Date." Imagine my surprise when I was only on page 10 before discovering that it was set in Switzerland, the country I'd just set foot in for the first time.

I ask you, what are the chances?

Mind you, because I was reading a 1978 paperback copy that's been on my bookshelf for goodness knows how long, the pages were yellowed and brittle and by page 8, the front cover came off, although it took all the way until page 50 for the back cover to disassociate itself from the book.

But what could I expect from a 40-year old paperback, after all?

The book was full of references that could only have come out of the '70s - a woman in a Foxy Lady t-shirt and  a man described as stylish "in a well-cut suit with a wide tie." You couldn't very well live through that era and not recall how wide the ties were.

Although I really had no memory of the book or author, it was clear from the pages of accolades about him and his other books (he also wrote "The Painted Bird" and "Being There," another important film I've never seen) that Kosinski - a Russian/Polish Jew whose family had survived the Holocaust before he immigrated to the U.S. in 1957 - had been a very big deal back then

One of the most surprising anecdotes involved an invitation for the author to visit his friend in Los Angeles, but his luggage was mistakenly sent to New York City, so his trip got delayed by a day. Praise be to the inefficiency of airlines because he was headed to Sharon Tate's house and that night was the one when Charles Manson's "family" showed up and slaughtered everyone there.

With an 8-hour flight, finishing the book between meals was a snap and I still had time on my hands. Determined to get my body back on local time, I refused to take a nap and at one point, I was the only person in the front cabin awake.

I might have started to flag a little on the quickie flight from Dulles to Richmond, but the angle of the sun made the reflection on the clouds so brilliant inside the tiny plane that shutting my eyes was more a matter of self-preservation than anything.

And, just like that, we were back in my adopted home town and I could escape the overly cold air-conditioned air of three planes and three airports. Greece was lovely for many reasons, not the least of which was the temperate climate.

The Moroccan taxi driver ("Nine years here and we can't find a reason to leave!" he crowed) taking me home to J-Ward was none too happy to get off I-64 and find streets closed due to the Second Street Festival. Worse still were the hordes of people trying to cross streets everywhere but at the corners and the inevitable Broad Street accidents slowing down traffic at every turn.

Listening to him go from pleasant and chatty to cursing and furious at the delays would not have been my first choice for re-entering the 'hood, but I've learned that not everyone has the equilibrium I do.

Back in my apartment, the plants were well watered, the windows still open and  ten days of Washington Posts neatly stacked on my desk for perusal once life settles down. The only unfortunate event greeting me was that I had no internet or phone service and goodness only knows how long it had been out.

I can leave the country without a second thought, but I do not want to return and feel cut off from the world, which is exactly what happened. How's a girl supposed to earn a living, much less make plans and respond to correspondence if she's got no internet connection? I was way too tired to deal with such a dilemma after traveling for 16 hours.

The phone I can live without, but even after 12 hours of sleep last night, I'm at a loss without being connected to the virtual world. How desperate am I? I took my iPod with me en route to the pipeline so I could avail myself of the internet (to summon help) while on Brown's Island, that's how desperate. So desperate I'm at Lift Coffee Shop, a few blocks from home, eating lunch and answering emails, invoicing my editor and writing this post.

And, if I'm honest, missing the carefree time I was having with Mr. Right before reality settled back in. Ah, but the memories...

Friday, October 5, 2018

Know Thyself

Happiness depends on ourselves. -Aristotle

The beauty of not making a plan in Athens is what you discover along the way. Starting out in the evening to find a cozy spot to have dinner, we made turn after turn, winding our way past shops and eateries - the creamery adjacent to the pie shop was an especially appealing duo - crowded with humanity.

All my needs in one convenient location.

Like Goldilocks, it was a matter of finding just the right place to dine, but the pleasure was in what we found along the way. Passing a dancewear store, I glanced in to see a strapping man in jeans and t-shirt trying on a stiff, white tutu, the kind that comes straight out from the body at the waist. A solicitous-looking saleswoman was checking the fit and speaking to him.

Let's put it this way, he did not have a dancer's body, yet he appeared intent on making sure he had the right tutu. Random, yes, but oddly satisfying also.

Further on, we came upon what looked like a small stone church in the middle of a square surrounded by retail and construction and vowed to return in daylight to learn its story.

After checking out menus at several different places and rejecting each one for various reasons - too American, too loud, too similar to places we'd been - our "this one is just right" moment arrived when we came to Kouzina Kouzina, as much for its modern Greek cuisine as for the look of the place. Located next to a hair salon complete with barber pole, it had tables framed by wide doors open to the night and tables out front on the sidewalk. Inside, a curved staircase went up and down while pots and pans hung over a small counter inside.

Our first thought was that the feel of the place was a decidedly family vibe.

After moving from an outside table dramatically slanted because of the uneven street it was resting on, we settled in at the adjacent table just inside the open door with a picaresque view of the arches of a pale yellow church across the way. Before long, an Asian couple sat down at that same table, looked at each other, got up to find another and became our new best friends upon learning we'd done the same.

It was easy to decide on Vogiatzi Winery's PGI Velvento, a well-balanced blend of Chardonnay, Malvasi and  Asyrtiko, as we talked through the many-paged menu with our handsome young server.

Little did we realize just how much cheese was in our future.

His recommendations and our appetites combined to bring plate after plate to the table, beginning with a winning salad of spinach and arugula,, sun-dried tomatoes, dried figs and Galomizithra cheese in a grape molasses dressing. The round of the soft, fresh sheep's milk cheese, which tasted like a second cousin to Ricotta, was almost as wide as the plate and a good half inch thick. Obscene.

Sweet peppers stuffed with Cretan goat cheese were an interesting combination of spicy and sweet, leaving me to wonder why only sweet got billing on the menu. The six little peppers were not only stuffed with cheese, but resting on a bed of, you guessed it, a half inch of goat cheese.

The handmade pie of the day turned out to be chicken and as I worked it down to mere shards of flaky, buttery crust, it occurred to me what a (savory) pie hound I've been this week. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Mr. Wright was all about Manti, traditional Greek ravioli stuffed with spiced beef and served with yogurt sauce (but then again, what isn't served with some form of yogurt here?) that our server had assured us were lighter than the Cyprian meatballs. Considering there were 15 ravioli, light is a relative term.

But to give the manti credit, there was no cheese involved, so there was that. With notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary and the usual savory spices, they were so good that even Mr. Wright couldn't resist an observation. "This tastes like Greece." And this from the man who considers food fuel.

The French women nearest to us (at the lopsided table twice rejected) had also ordered manti and we watched as they swooned over the aromas of what we knew was fabulous.

Love is a serious mental disease. - Plato

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't done my duty sampling Greek desserts, but not being a fan of honey severely restricts the Venn diagram of what they do and what I like. At least, that was my rationalization for ordering a dark chocolate mousse with a blackberry jam topping to accompany a small bottle of Matapeaah Ouzo from the menu of six Ouzo choices.

Made on the island of Lesbos, it was our server's favorite and who am I to override a local?

Besides, everyone knows that ouzo is just absinthe without the wormwood and it's no secret that I love my absinthe. With the bottle and two slender liqueur glasses came a small silver ice bucket and tongues because who wants to drink Ouzo without making it louche?

Absinthe (and Ouzo) pros know it's all about the cloudiness setting in because that's when the green fairy arrives. And let me assure you, the Ouzo fairy showed up with bells on.

All I know is that I know nothing. - Socrates

Today was devoted to retracing our steps to last night's architectural discoveries, taking us past the dancewear store (tutus still hanging, but closed, so no men trying them on inside) where the little stone church stood in the middle of the square, uncomfortably close (for me, anyway) to the mercantile madness of the nearby H & M.

The Holy Church of  Kapnikarea had been built in the 11th century on the site of an ancient temple to Athena and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It's always about worshiping women, isn't it? What was fascinating to me was that the murals inside hadn't been painted until the early 20th century and then touched up in 1955 by a famous Greek artist.

Standing outside next to a Brit reading the signage about the church, I was captured by the poetic explanation of the deterioration of the murals: "When decay is unavoidable, melancholy is drifted into oblivion," only to hear him turn to his wife seated a few feet away on the low stone wall and read her the same line.

Never have I read such poetry on American signage.

Walking toward the Tower of the Winds, a clocktower in the Roman Agora, a man greeted us, saying, "Hello, Romeo and Juliet!" and smiling broadly before pointing to a nearby place and saying there would be a reggae dance party there tonight and we should come if we liked to dance.

Busting a quick move, he concluded I liked to dance. "Come!" he implored. "African music!"

We'll see. For now, it was on to admire what can only be called the first weather station- constructed in the second century - with sundials, a wind vane and a water clock inside that used water coming down from the Acropolis.

Okay, okay, enough with the science.

What captured me was not only the eight friezes showing various wind deities such as the north wind (an old man blowing a conch shell) and the east wind (holding a basket filled with fruit), but the various states of decay caused by the weather coming from those directions. Who wouldn't expect that the northeasterly wind frieze is in far worse shape than the southeasterly?

C'mon, any daily walker could have guessed that.

The other antiquities taking up the large, irregular area - the Gate of Athena, a line of ancient columns where people posed for selfies - gave a sense of what a bustling place the Agora had been in its time.

After walking the perimeter from outside the fence as well so I could see all the friezes from an elevated point, we moseyed down to Hadrian's Library, which after the Agora seemed fairly simple. Most impressive was a mostly complete wall with Corinthian columns that somehow still stood intact.

Walking about today, we couldn't help but notice that the streets were a bit less crowded than they've been all week, which seems strange for a Friday but suited us just fine. Coming on a whitewashed restaurant patio on a prime corner not all that far from our apartment, we scored a table next to an Aussie family with a toddler eagerly digging into a platter of fries.

Kosmikoni had been on that spot since 1966 when the owners had opened using the wife's recipes and was now in the hands of their children, although the older gentleman walking around the patio checking on every table could have easily been Pops. If a customer needed an answer, he was right there. If they were ready to order, he took it without writing anything down.

A quartet - tambourine, accordion, upright bass and sax - showed up to provide lunching music before passing the tambourine for contributions. People stopped mid-bite to pull out phones and watch through tiny screens. No comment.

My gyro arrived deconstructed and enormous, half the platter covered in shaved meat and the rest offering up wedges of tomato, piles of sliced onions, tzatziki and pita bread. Mr. Wright's kebabs had all the same accouterments minus the tzatziki. It was enough food for an army and we were just two hungry mouths, but we did our best.

All I know is how dubiously our server looked at the mound of chicken still left on my plate when he came to clear, probably thinking that there were starving children in the Agora or something like that.

Life must be lived as a play. - Plato

And Juliet's play is currently running in Athens. Like Aristotle said, it's up to me.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Athens Happy Train

Poseidon was the god of earthquakes...and other things I learned over the past two days.

Riding the hop on/hop off bus, we were apprised of the fact that the god of the sea and his trident had other responsibilities beyond water. Disney doesn't tell you that. Also news to me: that New York College has an Athens campus, a fact I can confirm because I saw it with my own two eyes.

Not particularly impressive by Athens standards, I have to say.

Fortunately, we also saw the University of Athens, a far handsomer building, even if it was designed in the neo-classical  style and built in the 1830s. I'm realizing that there are far more grand 19th century buildings that I'd expected in such an ancient city.

One thing that makes me smile every time we see it is the Athens Happy Train, which, despite the name, drives on the narrow roads but resembles nothing so much as a bright red locomotive straight out of "Thomas, the Tank Engine." Pulling a string of open-air carts behind it, the train provides entertainment doing nothing more than navigating hairpin turns on busy streets, somehow without swiping pedestrians or cars.

Also gleaned: traipsing around Athens, even when it's only 80 degrees, sometimes necessitates a heat nap. The noises and voices below may not stop, but we do.

It was dark and the Plaka was alive with lights, people strolling and vendors calling to passersby when we finally hit the streets in search of dinner. After considering a variety of menus, we chose a corner table on the shrub-lined patio of a modern-looking restaurant, close to the hustle and bustle of the street, but secluded enough for easy conversation.

Samaropetra Sauvignon Blanc eased us into the night post-nap and a plate of fried pita chips riding shotgun with hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip) and fish dip made up for the hours since lunch.

Dipping and sipping, I regaled Himself with news from home: Beau thinks "Himself" is not nearly descriptive enough a name for my main squeeze, coincidentally, a name he and Pru embraced. When I pointed out it was a bit cumbersome, they shortened it to MS. Meh.

Beau liked "the architect," but it came across a tad dry to me, so Pru came up with Lovin' Spoonful. Please. Finally, one or both of them suggested Mr. Right, which, when presented to Himself, was immediately reworked into Mr. Wright, thus covering two bases and hopefully satisfying everyone, reader and participant alike.

Could it be the blog needs a suggestion box?

My sea bass with tagliatelle, celery veloute and caviar not only spoke to my unladylike appetite but also to how fresh tasting fish is here. Mr. Wright tried to convince me that his grilled salmon over vegetable ratatouille surpassed mine, but it was a hard sell.

Tables around us filled and emptied as we took our time with our meal and watched as the middle-aged tourists milling the street were replaced by younger people and bands playing a block or street away. Our server had assessed us early on as not the dine and dash types and encouraged our lingering, taking her cues from us as she refreshed water and wine.

Big topics were on the table, namely future trips and how to best negotiate them without losing our shared love of new experiences in new places. No formal resolutions were reached by the time dessert arrived, so the conversation was tabled.

After sharing a lidded mason jar full of dark chocolate pudding with sea salt caramel, a crown of heavy cream and croutons (I loved how un-American that was), we were fuller than we'd been since coming to Athens and our brilliant server noticed and reacted. Delivering two glasses of Mastika, a Greek liqueur made from an evergreen called the Mastic tree, she observed that we might need a digestif.

Unlike Underberg with its heavier, more alcoholic taste, Mastika was a breath of fresh air after a lot of food and hours sitting talking. The kind of spirit that, we decided, needs to find its way home with us.

See: dinner as learning experience.

Today's ruins were Hadrian's Gate, built so long ago that it was part of a wall meant to separate the old and new city, complete with inscriptions making sure everyone knew which was which. Behind it stood the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, or at least the remaining fluted columns and their Corinthian capitals. One of the columns came down in a long ago storm and continues to lay where it fell in  pieces, offering a unique look at column construction.

All around the perimeter of the site are roped off areas of - surprise! - bits and pieces of antiquity, although none of them are labeled or given any context for the archeologically curious. The little signage that existed was for the Roman baths (and latrine), which was enough to get the attention of an American group of three bros and one babe.

Walking by the ruins, clearly intent on leaving, one of the guys noticed the sign and called out to the others, "Hey, this is where the Romans took a bath!" That was enough for the other three to halt and make a U-turn to admire something they could identify with.

After a cursory look, they continued toward the exit, one of them with his thinking cap on. "What if this is what Cleveland is like in 100 years?"

Safe to say that Athens affects each of us in different ways.

What if Richmond had leek hand pies as good as the ones we snagged on the way home from Zeus' temple? It boggles the mind.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Gyros and Grape Leaves

Athens is big, way bigger than I realized.

The genial Greek man holding the sign with Himself's name who picked us up from the airport Monday morning assured us that the rain and storms that had dominated the weather for days had finally moved on and there was nothing but blue skies ahead.

Exactly what you want to hear when you set foot in Athens for the first time.

And blue skies here means seriously blue, intensely blue, a blue meant to blur the line between sea and sky and provide the backdrop for the wispiest of clouds. A blue that makes all these whitewashed buildings stand out in high relief against it.

The apartment we're staying in is on the main drag of the Plaka, the old historical neighborhood emanating from northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. Around here, it's called the "neighborhood of the gods," with ancient, crooked, narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants and, seemingly at every corner, a fence surrounding a ruin, column or cluster of capitals.

It took exactly one afternoon to realize that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an antiquity. And not to disparage cats, but this place is positively lousy with them, lounging on window ledges, curled up by tavern doors and strolling down cobblestone streets like they own them.

Which is, according to Himself, a good thing because when you don't se them (say, in China), that means they're being served up somewhere. Already, pigeon is showing up on an awful lot of menus we've seen, if you know what I'm saying.

After getting acquainted with the apartment, we headed out to see what the 'hood was about. Earlier, when our driver had motioned and stopped the car to unload us on the one car-wide street, I'd been amazed that the line of cars and motorbikes behind us had waited patiently as we gathered our belongings. Not a honk was heard or angry face seen.

Civility reigns in Athens.

When we set out on foot a couple of hours later, inching along the foot-wide sidewalk (curb was more like it), next to a line of stopped/slow-moving traffic, we paused to look at the map. Like tourists do. An older Greek man in a Mercedes glanced over a time or two as he sat waiting in traffic and when his car had inched forward so he was a foot from where we stood, he smiled and asked if he could assist.

Considering we'd just barely arrived in his country, I felt no shame in handing over the map and asking the way to the market. After turning the map right side up, he graciously explained that it was barely two turns away before handing it back and inching forward, perhaps to aid more wayward souls.

Our driver had been correct: Greek people are friendly.

After leisurely sipping wine at a bar in the tree-covered square, we decided to have dinner on the apartment balcony and set out in search of grub. Although Himself took issue with Eat at Milton (whether for the directive-sounding name or because Milton sounds so decidedly un-Greek, I really can't say), the Greek salad and gyros were solid and probably extra tasty for being enjoyed next to window boxes of geraniums while looking down on the evening promenade below.

I'm not going to lie, yesterday's sightseeing didn't exactly get off to an early start, but nevertheless we were in line to get tickets to view the wonder of the Acropolis by early afternoon anyway.

Hey, this is vacation, so no schedule police, please.

While I don't recall exactly when I first became aware of the Acropolis, it may have been in an architectural history class my second year of college. Translation: a loooong time ago. What I learned yesterday, besides how pushy and bossy a tour guide can be when she wants to get a photo of her group, was that the renovations of the Acropolis began right around that time, after centuries of misguided restoration attempts.

The sheer height of the columns, the few remaining figures of the pediment and the exquisite beauty of the stone against those blue skies was breathtaking. I had no issue with the extended climb up the hill, the rocky, uneven terrain or the slipperiness of the pavers worn down by time, but man, the humanity you see as part of that is eye-opening.

Selfie sticks should be outlawed, that's all I'm saying. Meanwhile, the staff was kept busy blowing their whistles like lifeguards at a pool every time some idiot sat on a wall or ducked under a rope they weren't supposed to. I overheard an American tourist looking down at the grand amphitheater nearby say with surprise, "Look, they're playing music in the stadium!" and bit my tongue to keep from correcting him. That's a theater, son.

As they used to say at the Byrd Theater, some people need parental guidance.

Afterward, we climbed up to where an enormous Greek flag was planted to admire the view of Athens below and the sea beyond, both the flag and panorama a visual symphony of blue and white.

We found seats on the stone wall and watched as people came up long enough to snap a photo and head back down rather than take in the view. Neither of us would have been at all surprised if someone had demanded our spot (as the tour guide had done to a  British couple with the audacity to sit down on a bench to contemplate the surrounding history) but I'd been ready to tell anyone who tried to get lost.

Since arriving in Athens, I've been called a confident contrarian, but that could be amended to cocky, confident contrarian, too.

Walking back toward the apartment, we stopped at a  crosswalk where a small, paper sign warned pedestrians to pause after the light change because, "Drivers often violate the red light," and then went on to editorialize, "Probably because they're on their cellphones."

You think? I only wish the signs were larger and permanent, not that it would likely make a difference.

Moments after the light changed, we heard a Scottish voice behind us say it was okay to go. "We've been here a week, so we know," said the smiling man as we started across. "Not like in Rome, where you had to protect yourself," said the woman, holding up her scraped elbow. "Rome was tough."

A late lunch was taken at a tree and umbrella-shaded outdoor restaurant where we lingered over two kinds of crusty bread, whipped olive oil with herbs, tzatziki and olives, followed by a house-smoked salmon plate and something labeled "Variety of hot appetizers" that included such things as dolmades, spanakopita, falafel and who knows what else I couldn't identify.

Looking around at the other diners, I spotted the woman behind whom we'd stood in line to get tickets many hours earlier.

How about that? Even in a  city of five million people, it's still a small world here. Even smaller when you want it to be.

The right balcony company, it seems, works wherever you go. And, I might add, never more so than in the neighborhood of the gods,