What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off? What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction? I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question. I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers. Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.
I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.
Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall. Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful. And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds. They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style. And it seems they have it still.
The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby.
A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown. The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC. Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful. The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.
And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least. Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful. Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious. I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere. Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.
I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold. I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.
Rose Street, in Edinburgh’s New Town, is not particularly new. New Town dates back to the reign of George III, which is an era many of you know for the American Revolution. In comparison to the Old Town of Edinburgh–a snarl of alleys and ginnels, a mess of hills and ridges– this New Town is bold and orderly in layout.
But orderly facades are always facades, and architectural symmetry always belies the messier lives there housed. So consider New Town. The main streets (Queen Street, George Street, and Princes Street) are wide and regal. But tucked between are smaller streets– more like grand alleys– running through the blocks, like veins through flesh. And here lies Rose Street.
Today, Rose Street is a pedestrian road peppered with bakeries, pubs, restaurants, and shops, but it still retains a “back alley” aura. Not least because it has an outrageous number of pubs, and sometimes an outrageous number of people stumbling out of those pubs and weaving from wall to wall the length of the street. All told, it’s reputation is generally respectable, if just a bit sodden, these days. It’s cleaned up a bit from the red light reputation it had 60 years ago. In fact, it’s home to many more-than-reputable restaurants — 1780 being one I can heartily vouch for.
I bring up Rose Street today, because I stumbled on the lead photo for this post the other day– a photo I took of some street art , part of a series on Rose Street. It struck a chord, but I had no idea what the verses presented were all about. Today, I sleuthed about the internet to find that they represent bits of a poem by Scotsman George Mackay Brown, who, as it happens, used to drink in a bar named Milne’s, sat on the corner of a street named Rose, running like a vein through the arm of New Town.
Bottoms Up, dear George! Today I celebrate your poem, “Beachcomber,” and think about Edinburgh’s New Town, sat side by side with a very old town and perched on the edge of a cold North Sea, both harsh and beautiful.
Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.
Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.
Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.
Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.
Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.
Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.
Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.
Everyone is talking about today’s solar eclipse. It’ll draw its dark line diagonally across the US today, but the inky darkness will bleed out across most of the country– even those of us who aren’t in the line of total eclipse. It’s been the big story for days now, leading a news cycle that has contained other chatter that included stories about North Korea and Russia: a big old stew of news that brought to mind two posts from a couple of years ago; posts about Moon Pies, Cold War, Russians, and North Korean politics. Strange bedfellows, maybe . . . maybe not.
Seemed an appropriate time to bring out that original post (Moon Pies and Moon Landings), as well as it’s follow up on the saga of Choco Pies in N. Korea. Happy reading, bon appetit, and Godspeed on eclipse day!
Moon Pies and Moon Landings (Modern History and the German Grocery Store)
I began writing this post under the title “The Perks and Perils of Shopping Abroad.” However, I soon realized that the insights you are about to read are much broader than my mishaps in the grocery aisles.
The larger story starts in the years after the Second World War. (Or even after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.) It gains steam in the Cold War and the Race for Space. However, the more immediate story starts in the aisles of my local German grocery store, Edeka. And like the larger story of political machinations, it’s fraught with perks and perils.
For example, it was recently brought to my attention that the lovely, fragrant German laundry detergent I’ve been using for about three months is actually fabric softener. Who knew? Well, in fact, I had suspected for a few weeks. My clothes were so fragrant and soft! But were they clean? Well . . . they weren’t not clean.
These things happen when you shop abroad.
But great things happen too. This morning, I was meandering the aisles of our grocery store, picking up jam, sorting through coffee, and pondering fish, when I stumbled upon the most amazing thing on an Eastern European/Russian shelf. Moon Pies! Well, okay, Choco-Pies–but they were Russian Moon Pies! Eureka! For all of you non-American (or non-Southern) folks out there, here’s a little lesson: Moon Pies are chocolate, graham, and marshmallow pies that are a Southern staple and made in Tennessee. Before the markets were flooded with snack cakes and convenience food, there was the Moon Pie. Apparently, they were produced beginning in the 1920’s and they were certainly big stuff in the sixties and seventies. (My mother loved to pack my lunch with Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, but my heart, and my taste buds, yearned for Moon Pies.) They were iconic. And delicious.
And here I was, in Germany, staring down a Russian doppelganger! At first I laughed, and then I greedily stuffed a box into my shopping cart! I considered my good fortune as I walked the streets of town, heading home with my grocery bag and its treasure. But as I walked, I started thinking about more than my good fortune. I started thinking about the doppelganger-ness of the little chocolate pie: the shadowy counterpart, the ghostly (and ominous) double. The American Pie/the Russian Pie: forever locked in a shadowy dance.
For sure, I’ve watched too many episodes of “The Americans,” the Cold War spy drama, lately. But my odd brain was playing out this Spy v. Spy (Pie v. Pie) drama and finding it fascinating.
By the time I got home, I was mad to know more. I ripped out the Choco Pie box and scanned the label for clues–amongst the Cyrillic (Russian) script and German sticker stood out something I could decipher. Original since 1974. Ha! It wasn’t the original then–we got there first. Not only did we get to the moon first*, but we got to the moon pie first. I chuckled as I opened the box and saw that the pies were smaller than their American counterpart. Well, what did I expect.
But then I took a bite. Oh my. I took another bite. They were delicious. So fresh, so chocolaty. I felt conflicted in my patriotic soul. There had to be an explanation for this; no way the shadowy double could rival the Southern staple. Think, think! (Take another bite.) Think some more! Oh–of course–the problem is that too many of the American Moon Pies I’ve eaten have been plucked from dusty lower shelves of rundown convenience stores or seedy Stuckey’s truck stops. Who knows how long they had lingered there, gathering dust and grime? That’s it. That must be it.
I was raised in the 70’s with a taste for Moon Pies and Tang. In my mind, that era will always be about playing kick the can, catching fire flies, eating Moon Pies, and drinking Tang like the astronauts. I remember some of the Apollo missions; I coveted the GI Joe astronaut dolls (Barbie never had the astronaut get up, although her house and pink convertible weren’t too shabby); and I marveled when Skylab sustained people and research in space.
I didn’t cheer on the Cold War or Nuclear Proliferation– they scared the hell out of me– but I was a product of a culture and a time. I didn’t know whether I was an observer or participant, but I felt the adrenaline of the Race. The Race for Hearts and Minds, the Race for Space, for Superiority, for Survival. And then I tucked my head down into a Moon Pie or Mad Magazine and took refuge from the noise of it all.
Only to find today that, maybe– just maybe– my youthful Soviet doppelganger was doing the same thing in 1974.
Only she couldn’t call her treat a “Moon Pie”. . . because we got there first.
Just another lesson learned at my German grocery store.
*Sort of. We put a man on the moon first. But before that, the Soviet Sputnik program beat us into outer space and the Soviet Luna program reached the moon with unmanned crafts.
Update to “Moon Pies and Moon Landings” (first posted just a few days after the Moon Pie post)
This may come as a shock, but apparently my Moon Pie post was not as loopy as it sounded to many of you. Turns out Moon Pies (or Orion Choco-Pies, their Russian/Asian doppelganger) really are a propaganda piece in the machine of Cold War. The present tensions between North and South Korea, that is.
The opening lines of John Hall’s article read like this: *Chocs away! North Korea unleashes latest weapon against its rivals in the South – counterfeit Choco Pie cakes to rival delicacy available over the border *North Korea has a roaring black market in the popular Choco Pie snack Sweet treats change hands for £3.60 in Pyongyang, but only 17p in Seoul *So popular they are even used as alternative payment by some employers *But Kim Jong-Un is angry at the North’s love of a South Korean product He is now making his own Choco Pies in order to bring down their value
Well, Mr. Kim Jong-Un, the joke is on you. You are just putty in the hands of the universal Moon Pie awakening.
About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.
Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End. The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary. (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me. And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little. Seriously. I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think? Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me. I’m lots cooler than that. Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)
Moving on. . .
Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London. Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic. Good plan. But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill. One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views. The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.
It fit the bill well. The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky. The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).
We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.
The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning. I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London. So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.
First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse. But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.
The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present. (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge. So many.) There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh. A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows. And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens. The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall. This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper. (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)
If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark. Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty Charles Dickens. Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.
But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into. Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart. We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.
If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.
We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it. We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.
We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.
But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.
“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ― Dickens, A Christmas Carol
When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted. It was the right sort of house for that: imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.
I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.
But then nothing happened.
Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.
Still, nothing happened.
After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened. What a rip off! I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!? Not a fair trade off if you ask me.
But ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas. I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life. It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life. What was Christmas like for them? Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver? Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage? Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?
And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area? Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.
And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II. What about those Christmas dinners? Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark? Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe? Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me. I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.
And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided, like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.
Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either. I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.
It’s better not to know, I tell myself.
Still, I want a ghost for Christmas. I can’t shake that feeling. It’s part of the old house package.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” -William Faulkner
I had a ghost once, a few years ago.
I know, I know–just hear me out. This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances. The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening. For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point). And one more thing–the children aren’t around. If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.
I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).
So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days. That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined. It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.
Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.