Kentucky Christmas

Rolling green acres stitched with white fence rows; mellow casks of aging golden liquor; great slatted barns of curing tobacco… Home to many worthwhile attractions from horse racing to Bluegrass, Kentucky is always a worthy destination.

But let’s face it, whatever you come for, you leave with bourbon–and that almost makes up for the lack of snow.

My brother moved to the Lexington area a number of years ago, and my parents followed in 2010. About once in three years, therefore, I make the trek to Kentucky for Christmas. I’m not sure I will ever get used to the warmth (two days before my arrival, they were sitting around the backyard fire pit in 60-degree weather), and I confess (as a northerner of the not-my-business-variety) the bubbly close-talking friendliness was almost overwhelming at first. However, making the adjustment is very well worth it. Let me give you an example:

Today, Mark and I went with Joe and his wife Kari to a local shop for spiced rum (the main ingredient for my Christmas pudding). The proprietor shadowed us in the aisles, offering friendly suggestions that would likely frighten off, say, the average New Englander. It was, however, very useful advice (recommendation: a spiced concoction half the price and twice as good as the one I had chosen). But there was more. The gentleman asked “would we like to try a bourbon cream?” On the house, a sample. We went into the back room, a tasting area, and the four–make that five of us–shared a toast.”Given the season, o’ course,” said our fine host, “I may as well join you.”

To Christmas! To friendship! To the kindness of strangers–and to the strangeness of kindness in these often unfriendly times!

We bought a bottle…Of course we did. And the bourbon caramel, bourbon bon-bon, bourbon honey, bourbon BBQ–it is amazing what you can make with the stuff.

So take it from Kentucky: slow down, sip and enjoy, and may you experience the warmth of the season even as I have, here among friends.

Montreal

You know, the first time I went to Paris–in 2008–I did not actually enjoy myself quite as much as I’d hoped.

This was not due to excessive rudeness (which is what people always guess). Rather, I was unsure of myself as a traveler, and it was my first overseas trip.I did not speak the language, and I knew almost nothing about the culture. I did not know where to eat, where to stay, or how to ask where to eat or where to stay.

Such cultural immersion can be a very disruptive experience.

Now, I have since come to love Paris, but I have not lost the memory of what made travel though so difficult for the novice. As with New York City, Paris is thick with an expectation that you will know what you are doing when you get there–or that you will learn in a hurry. I didn’t know. I did learn. And it was well worth it.

But my post today is actually about a recent sojourn to Montreal, Quebec. I begin with Paris because I often hear somewhat disparaging remarks made between the two cities–actually the same remark. Each is accused of not being “really” French (either for failing to be IN France, or failing to REPRESENT France properly). However, I find many similarities between the two cities–beautiful similitude! The architecture is outstanding…the food is remarkable…the attitude and the culture and even the shopping very euro chic. And there is the French language, of course–though not with the same pronunciation. Montreal, with its old world charm and rich cultural heritage, is a little breath of European vacation (without the nine hour flight).

There are some striking differences, too, however–and that returns me to the immersion experience. In college, several of my friends (who majored in French) took their first cross-language trek to Canada instead of France. I begin to see why. While I will never accuse Parisians of rudeness (I think that is a mistaken notion, a misreading of efficiency and varying social cues), I can say this for Canadians: they out-nice the rest of the world.

From the moment I arrived, people seemed genuinely eager to help situate the hapless traveler. They have an uncanny ability to switch between French and English without missing a beat–and without dropping either the French or the (very) Canadian accent. They are so willing to re-translate that I had to ask for French (hard to practice when we’re all speaking English). This way to the bus tickets–this way to the hotel–shall I find a map for you?–shall I look up the bus schedule? It was a little like having Concierge service, but everywhere.

Lest you think my story remarkable, however, I will quote a friend who was also in Montreal for the conference weekend. She arrived by train, and someone from the station went through the trouble to check her departure time–and to recommend the number of a taxi service, since the buses wouldn’t be running so late. “It’s really true,” she told me on our way to lunch. “Canadians are just plain nice.” (Perhaps that is where the Minnesotans get it from. It has trickled down from the headwaters.)

And so, in addition to being a fabulous place to visit, sight-see, eat and shop–Montreal may be the best place for budding language-learners to try their wings. It is close enough physically to bring a traveling companion, and close enough culturally that this companion won’t feel nonplussed by the the menus or confused by the road signs (most things are in both English and French anyway).

I still love France. And as Bogart reminds us, we’ll always have Paris.

But in the meantime, visit the great city of nice people: Montreal.

There is, happily, plenty of brioche.

Don’t forget Winona–Minnesota

“Route 66 in Arizona: Don’t Forget Winona!”

My geography is perhaps not the best…But I do know the difference between Arizona and Minnesota, having lived in both places. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Route 66, and so until I dug up the first half of that line, I assumed it was talking about the island city. Apparently, Winona AZ is just a gas station and trading post–you can read more about it in the Arizona Daily Sun. Our Winona is a bit bigger than that–and greener, too, I would guess.

I have been back in the US for about three days, and I was never so happy to see my own bed. Traveling is dear to me–but a month of traveling (to four countries) was perhaps a bit much at one crack. It certainly seems to have played havoc with my immune system: fatigue, multiplied by canned air on an eight-hour flight–next to a man with croup–equals viral catastrophe. I have emerged victorious, but the battle was not without its critical moments, some of which involved eating strange frozen foods because they could be prepared within the ten-foot radius I traveled over 72 hours. And speaking of frozen food… Exactly how does one measure the portion size for pizza rolls? Pizza in a mini-egg-roll is not really food, I’ve decided. When you eat a pizza, you have a slice. What do you do with a bowl full of faux-sausage-sauce nuggets? (Besides, perhaps, pitching them out a window). Well I’ll tell you what I did. I am pretty sure I just ate all of them. Kind of sickening, in retrospect, but even a foodie gets foggy under the influence of plague. I was not, however, alone in my trials. Our two cats, Bartholomew and Oliver, have become very attached since my return. I mean this literally. Bart is managing to make it very difficult to type just this moment, as he is lying across the desktop and attempting to use one of my hands as a pillow. There is just not enough love in the world–they’ll tell you so. They tell me–and Mark–all the time.

 But now that I have returned and am no longer near death, I am suffering from the second of the summer plagues: what to do with my time. Heaven knows I am not used to whole mornings without six different engagements. My only refuge is to begin working on next semester’s courses, and revising my novel. I suppose compiling research notes and writing a paper will help fill up the time for the future. Thank  goodness for Andrea and our screen-play; I might accidentally end up with an afternoon free and–who knows? I fear inciting some sort of existential crisis–after all, Amazon Women do not have free time. It is against the natural order of things, and I wouldn’t want to tip the delicate balance.

In the meantime, I do at least intend to make my time as full of enjoyable things as possible. We might not be on Route 66, but Winona, MN has a lake, a river, bike trails, an old-fashioned drive-in, numerous ice-cream parlors of various stripes and free kayak rental for residents (not to mention the ongoing Shakespeare Festival). It might not be Paris, but its home!