Tuesday, October 20, 2015

World Piece: Budapest (And a few other thoughts)


It is ironic that I was traveling around the world with the goal of spreading peace, love, comfort and community building through pie, yet in my wake so many troubling events unfolded.

 A month after I was in Bangkok, Thailand, a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people and injuring 125. It detonated at exactly the spot and time I walked past each evening after making pies at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

 Then, in Lebanon, I watched as the little cabana that held the neighborhood’s handful of garbage cans filled. It filled some more, and then more, and as the days ticked by the garbage eventually began spilling out in a heap onto the street. And that was just the garbage for one building. Beirut was facing a new war—a battle with garbage and where to put it as the old landfill had reached capacity and was closed before a new one was designated. It didn't take long for this to turn into a crisis. The garbage piled up so high around the city center that restaurants closed. The country has been without a president for over a year and the parliament members couldn’t—or wouldn’t—make a decision to create a solution. So citizens took to Beirut’s stench-filled streets protesting the situation. Several months on, the temporary solution was to reopen the old overflowing landfill.

I was in Athens, Greece during the height of their financial crisis. The fear-mongering media reported that tourists shouldn’t go there or they might get robbed, that cash-needy Greeks might see tourists as their personal bank tellers and mug them. (I went anyway. I did not get mugged. And I found the people—cash-needy Greeks and all—to be some of the nicest of my entire trip.)

And then, Hungary. I spent four days in Budapest—eating, making and sharing pie—and just two days after I left they closed the train stations, halting transportation to Germany so as to keep the migrants from, well, migrating. Luckily I had booked a flight instead of the train. After I left, the news was—and still is—dominated with the growing refugee crisis and Hungary’s refusal to let them pass or even enter the country.

So much for pie and world peace. Sigh.

Ah, but this post is supposed to be about Budapest and my time there. And the point—not just of my blog but of life—is to focus on the positive, to be the change you want to see in the world, even in the face of disappointments and discouraging events.

Keep calm and bake on, I say!

Budapest was a good surprise. It is an impressive city with its old architecture, grand and stoic buildings. Although Hungary is a landscape of rolling green beauty, Budapest isn’t known for ample parks or green space. The apartments and hotels are towering blocks, creating a claustrophobic dark alley feeling, made darker still when you see how much of the still city bears the pockmarks of war and the neglect of its communist years. But to walk along the banks of the Danube River is to find relief, open space along with Old World European postcard views.

With Ryan (L) and Ron (R) enjoying
some breathing space along the Danube
My hosts were Ron and Ryan. Ron is an old family friend from Southeast Iowa. Ron used to be a priest. He left the priesthood to get married. To a woman. He eventually left that marriage and got remarried. To a man.

When Ron learned I was setting off on this round-the-world trip he extended an invitation to Budapest where he and his husband run a bed and breakfast, called Budabab, out of their charming apartment. I could stay there, he said, and teach a pie class in their kitchen.

I had never been to Hungary and I admit it wasn’t high on my priority list of places I wanted to go, but I had said from the beginning: World Piece is about the people, not the places. I liked that Ron and Ryan’s story fit with my cultural tolerance mission, particularly as in late June the US Supreme Court had just approved gay marriage as a civil right. I also liked the thread of Ron being connected to Iowa, to my family and to my childhood, as this rooting into my past seemed to emerge as a secondary theme to my journey. That Budapest was an effing cool place was a bonus.

The days there were a blur—we packed in sight seeing, always taking public transportation around the thousand-year-old city. I loved hearing the female voice over the intercom as she announced each tram stop, coating the hard Hungarian words with flannel sheets and making the “sh” endings sound softer and more slurred than what one hears on the streets.

I arrived when the country was celebrating its biggest, most important holiday: Saint Stephen’s Day. There were festivals taking place all over the city, including a food festival where we grazed on local fare like potato pancakes fried in a pool of oil then covered in sour cream. Take note, health-conscious travelers: Hungary is not good for your cholesterol!
A pig roast! Just like Iowa. Only this is on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.
Potato pancakes. With a little grease on the side.
We walked across the Chain Bridge, a Budapest landmark connecting the towns of Buda and Pest. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube, opened in 1849. The bridge is flanked by lions, two on each end. Every sign and symbol of courage I could get was appreciated. And anyway, I was glad I was seeing lions instead of my previous animal token of snakes—live ones, as some of you will recall from my days in the American Gothic House.

We popped into the Four Seasons Hotel, the old Gresham Palace of Art Nouveau design. Ron insisted we walk through the lobby and I was so glad we did. It is restored to perfection, with polished marble floors, wrought iron gates, velvet sofas, and as a somewhat incongruous touchstone to Seattle, a Dale Chihuly glass chandelier, which is one of his most beautiful works I’ve seen. I stayed at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, getting a room in exchange for teaching pie classes. Had I known about the elegance of the Four Seasons Budapest, I would have volunteered to teach classes there. Ah, next time!
The Four Seasons lobby with the Chihuly chandelier. A dreamy place.
Ron took me to the healing waters of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, another must-see landmark in Budapest. We spent several hours soaking in the outdoor pool and, wow, talk about a veritable melting pot. I floated around trying to count how many different languages I heard spoken and came up with more than 10—French, German, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and a few I couldn’t identify.

World peace in a pool—it seems warm medicinal water is the answer to cultural tolerance!

The thermal baths of Budapest. Healing the world one dip at a time.
Because I was teaching a pie class at Budabab, Ron took me to the Great Market Hall to shop for ingredients. This is the place to come for souvenirs, especially if paprika is on your wish list.
We bought apples, peaches, and a few slices of strudel—called rétes in Hungarian and pronounced “ray-tesh.” It was “WTC,” as my friend Jane would say. Worth the calories.



Hungary isn’t just known for its strudel (er, rétes). The streets of Budapest are lined with pastry shops, the fancy, cream-filled kind of cakes. We sampled some on a Saturday afternoon, sharing bites of Dobos, Eszterhazy, and some other delicious poppy seed, almond-paste filled things, while sipping coffee at an elegant outdoor cafe. Talk about the quintessential European experience.
European grandeur. Felt like a step back in time.

Too many good choices.

Yes, there was pie! A fancy kind.

Come on, you know you want some....

Another outing took us through the streets of the Jewish quarter, taking in memorial sites and artistically rendered reminders of the atrocities of WWII. “People used to live here,” a plaque on a building declares in a tone just short of shouting a reprimand. Plaques embedded in the sidewalks spell it out more specifically with the names of individuals killed by Nazis. These are for people who had no relatives to keep their memories alive, but were later immortalized by the donations of these name tags.



Behind the peepholes in this wall are old photos of people who used to live here.
There is a heaviness about this city. And if the Jewish district memorials are not enough to make your your chest seize up with a chokehold on your heart, just go down to the river to see “The Shoes of the Danube,” a “sculpture” of cast iron shoes—60 pair of them in styles of the war period—lined up on the bank depicting where Jews were shot and pushed into the river. H-e-a-r-t-b-r-e-a-k-i-n-g. I only got a glimpse of this from the window of the tram as we passed by and I was fighting back tears for the rest of the day. I still cannot think of it without a lump growing in my throat.

We explored the Jewish district further and dipped in and out of some hipster cafes called “ruins bars.” As the name suggests, these are bars built out of ruins.

We strolled through Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar in Budapest (where ruin bars have become a big trend), and my mood was buoyed by the eclectic and whimsical art. The mosaic mermaid on the bathroom door. The shell of an old car outfitted with seats and a table. The gnome statues and colorful flags hanging overhead.


One piece in Szimpla Kert that caught my eye was a potted plant—a skinny young tree with little white paper tags tied to its delicate branches. At the base of the tree was a sign that read “Wish Tree for Peace.” Given I was on my World Piece (yes, peace) journey, I stopped for a closer look.

It was an idea that came from Yoko Ono, to “create a peace trail to explore various aspects of peace.” You make a wish, tie it to the branch, tell your friends to make a wish too, and keep on wishing. The hope is for the collective consciousness to work its magic. Put the positive energy out there and you will manifest it. If only everyone would wish for the same thing—say, no more war, no more killing, let’s all just get along—wouldn’t that be a grand thing?

Budapest may have exceeded my expectations but my round-the-world trip did not. My goals were too grandiose. Any happiness and hope I may have spread—in Bangkok, in Beirut, in Budapest—felt diminished, swept away in the flash flood of negative news on CNN. My ambition to save the world was way out of line. On top of that, I was still affected, subdued, from visiting Gandhi’s house in Mumbai in July, seeing the photos of him dead, assassinated, dark blood seeping out from his bullet wounds. If Gandhi couldn’t save the world, who the fuck was I to think that I could?

Not long after I posted a photo of that Budapest Wish Tree on Instagram, I got a message from an acquaintance in Wisconsin: Deb Nies of Waunakee. She had seen my photo and asked me for more information. It had sparked an idea for her, she said. There was a damaged pear tree in her yard that had been struck by lightning. She was considering cutting it down, but instead she found a new purpose for it: as a wishing tree.

She put up a sign and set out a bucket of tags and markers for passers by, and the next thing you know the tree was not only filling up with wishes—meaningful ones, like “I wish for my mom to get cured of cancer” and “I wish for my husband to come home safe from the Middle East” and “I wish to never get bullied again”—it was quickly becoming a beckon of hope for Deb’s small town. The tree (and Deb’s effort) has grown so beloved it has been featured in the news and now even has its own Facebook page.

Deb has been sending me updates about the tree and the wishes on it ever since. And every time I see one of those wishes, especially those heartfelt ones, I am reminded that my trip was not in vain, that there is still so much goodness in this world, and that in my own small way I helped add to that goodness.

It makes me think about that poem by Bessie Stanley which defines success, or some modified version:
To give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition—or a Wish Tree!—to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded. 
My wish is for world peace. And in spite of being inundated with troubling news, I will keep wishing for it. I hope you will too.

Pie class in Budapest, the last one of my World Piece journey.
Leaving the world a better place, one pie and one smile--and one messy oven--at a time.

Monday, October 19, 2015

World Piece: Aachen, Germany

Two months ago today I was in Aachen, Germany. Two months ago today was the six-year anniversary of Marcus’s death. I was in the town of his cousin, Claudia, staying in her home with her husband Edgar and 2 of their 3 kids. I borrowed Claudia’s bicycle and spent August 19 alone, riding on the old railway line-turned long-distance bike path. A sunny but cool summer day, I rode several hours, crisscrossing the Beligium-Germany border as I pedaled along the meandering path. I rode to the town of Monschau where I stopped for an indulgent lunch of spaghetti carbonara, insalata caprese, and a cappuccino. Marcus would have liked that.

I ate in the courtyard of the town square, surrounded by Germany’s signature timber-frame “Fachwerk” buildings. He would have liked that I remembered the word “Fachwerk.”
You have seen this style of architecture, but you may not have
known the word for it is "Fachwerk." 

Be fearless -- like a lion.
Inside the Aachen Cathedral
He would have liked that Claudia and I went to the Aachen Cathedral the day before and lit candles for him, admiring the mosaic ceiling with the symbol of the lion, the symbol of courage. He would have liked that I went to the thermal baths in Roetgen where I floated for hours in the warm saltwater pool and sweated in the different saunas and steam rooms there. He would have liked that Claudia and her sister Martina and I drank champagne the night of the 19th. We made a silent toast, but you could hear the collective unspoken words in the clink of the glasses: “To Marcus. Who left us way too soon. The world is a dimmer place without you in it, but here we are, carrying on. Here’s to you, our beloved man."
Me and Claudia...lighting candles for Marcus
He would have liked that I treated Claudia and the family to lunch a few days earlier at Vaipiano, our favorite place when they opened their first location in Frankfurt and the last place we ate together in Stuttgart.

He would have liked that I used his frequent flyer miles to travel around the world in the first place, to make pie, to spread a message of peace and love and community building. He would have liked that my last stop was Germany, that I was channeling lion-like fearlessness and immersing myself in his country, spending time with his family, teaching his cousins and their kids how to make apple pie, looking through our old photos of our wedding and the other German family gatherings. He would have liked that we were there because of him — and to know how deeply he was missed.

"The Cousins" as we call them. Making pie in Aachen.
It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday together.
Family photo. And what a beautiful family it is.
I'm so happy I can still be part of it.
When I set off on my World Piece journey, I was determined to dive headfirst into my fears, to go to Germany, teach a pie class in the Black Forest village where we got married, make pie in Stuttgart where we lived, stay with his cousins in Aachen, and last but not least, visit his grave. But I realized that most of those things were too ambitious for a barely healed heart. “Don’t open the wound,” friends cautioned. So my modified version of this — the way the trip actually unfolded — is that I went to the Black Forest, but I stayed in a cabin a few valleys away from where we got married. I did teach pie classes in the Black Forest, but to the kids of our friends instead of the people from our wedding, embracing a new generation, acknowledging the circle of life. I did visit the cousins in Aachen, but I skipped Stuttgart and I did not go to the grave. I have no regrets about taking those last two off the list. As I have always believed, Marcus is not at that grave. He is in the stars, he is in the candlelight inside the church, he is in the sun and wind on the bike path, he is in the beauty of the Fachwerk village, he is in the flavor of the carbonara and the froth of the cappuccino, the bubbles of the champagne, he is in the heat and saltwater of the spa. He is in my heart, all our hearts.
Belgian-style pie in Aachen. Does it get any better than this?

A fine place to eat a place of pasta...
Coffee and Cake (or pie) -- my 2 favorite German words
I could have ended my trip after Aachen. It felt like my journey was complete after that. I thought my mission was about pie. But I was wrong. It was about Marcus, about getting closure. It was about going to the place that still held so many memories, the place I hadn’t been since his funeral six years ago. It was about realizing how far I have come since he died, how much he taught me, how much he has supported me even after his death, how the connections to the friends and family we loved together have endured the time and distance and loss, how he is still remembered and admired by those friends and family even after he is gone.

In short, my time in Germany did not open the wound. Instead it was a salve, a true healing potion. I will always carry a scar of losing Marcus, but it’s the scars that make us who we are. The scars are reminders of how fully, how courageously we have lived. You’d be hard pressed to find a lion without scars.

After Germany I went to Budapest — that story will be my next post — before flying back to Los Angeles where I was reunited with my parents. And finally, on September 1, I flew back to Iowa to be reunited with my dog, Jack.

Jack had been staying all summer on the farm of my friend Doug -- or at "Camp Doug" as it has now beed dubbed after I started telling everyone my dog was at "summer camp." And now for the big plot twist in the story. Instead of picking up the dog and moving on, I have stayed. I have come to a rest in the tranquility of the Iowa countryside, living in a farmhouse—with the farmer who owns it. My life has taken a big turn, my heart has opened back up, and I’m spending my days—and nights—with Doug. I could not have guessed two months ago, while riding Claudia’s bike through the German countryside, that my World Piece trip—and my tribute to Marcus—was really just the process of making room for this new beginning. I think Marcus would like that.


World Piece: Germany's Black Forest

I had had talks with several friends over the course of my travels about Marcus, about how I was going to teach a pie class in the Black Forest village of Alpirsbach where we got married (in 2003). I was going to stay at the same hotel where we had our reception and spent our wedding night. I was going to light a candle in the church where we had our ceremony. But the conversations cast a darker shadow onto this plan. “You don’t need to open up the wound,” friends cautioned me. It was true. I didn’t need that. I needed to move forward. And as much as this trip was about revisiting my past, it was about letting go of it to make room for a future. (You didn't really think this trip was all about pie, did you?)

My Europe leg was the last and the longest—a full month instead of the 10-day increments I had been doing—and yet I had not committed to any specific places or dates for it. It was a lesson in staying open. Had I not been so flexible I might have missed out on one of the highlights of my journey: four days in the Black Forest.
Left to right: Me, Marc, Bibiana, and Marcus in 2004
So yeah, I did go to the Black Forest, but not to Alpirsbach. A last minute invitation steered me to my friends' cabin a few mountains and valleys away. So instead of indulging in memories of what was lost I chose the path to something new. And that choice led to what were some of the most fun, most joyful, most magical pie-filled days of my entire three-month journey.

I met up with Bibiana and Marc (and their 2 kids) and our mutual friend Silke (and her 2 kids) at Marc's family's cabin to join their short holiday. They were all friends of Marcus and mine when we lived in Stuttgart. I hadn't seen Bibiana and Marc since 2005, when they moved to Berlin. I hadn't seen Silke since 2009, at Marcus's funeral.

(NOTE: This would have been a better blog post if the internet hadn't crashed in the middle of writing it. So from here you get the abbreviated version so I can move on to the next updates. I am already 2 months behind.)

We quickly settled into a routine: pick wild blueberries before breakfast. Gather enough for both eating and for making pie. Hike down the creek every afternoon, bushwhacking through the branches and climbing over the rocks in the freezing cold water to get to the lake below for a swim. Come back to the cabin and drink Tannen Zapfle, a local Black Forest beer, which happened to be Marcus's favorite. Teach a pie class to the kids--yes, every day we had a pie class. Besides the blueberry, we made peach, banana cream, and apple. Make dinner and serve it at the big outdoor table, and eat pie for dessert. Light candles and watch the stars. We even timed it perfectly for one of the year's biggest meteor showers. Sleep in the loft like we were Goldie Locks and the bears. Laugh, talk, reminisce, tease, explore, read, brush teeth. Wake up and repeat.

Instead of feeling sad in the place where I had so many memories of my late husband, I made new ones. Happy ones. With a new generation. And those young kids added so much joy. Their wonder, exuberance, innocence add up to the promise of a bright future, of making the world a better place. To be around them in this enchanted forest of a setting was a surprising and huge help in moving forward, in honoring my past but also letting go of it.  I had such a great time I wish the stay had been longer. I am already reserving my bed in the loft for next summer.

Next post:  Germany continued....On to Aachen


Blueberry Boot Camp

Like bears foraging in the forest

Rinsing our berries in the outdoor fountain

Ace pie maker. Bibiana & Marc's daughter Kim, age 10

Papa Bear (Marc). He's been coming to this cabin
since he was his own kids' age.

Best pie classroom ever.


Me, Silke and Bibiana....After eating blueberry pie

Kim learns to make a lattice top

This melts my heart. Kim & her brother Luc made welcome signs
for Silke & her kids' arrival. What better way to say welcome than
with a warm blueberry pie -- made from hand-picked wild blueberries!
Talk about good for the soul....


Silke's girls got creative during the apple peeling session

If you're ever in the Black Forest, you have to try this beer!

Did I mention we were staying in a cabin?  

This is the cabin....in a private forest. What a rare treat this is in Germany.
Instead of lighting candles at the Black Forest church where Marcus
and I got married, we lit them at the cabin in the forest.
Which was even better. Way better.