Monday, December 31, 2007

Last day of the year

Well the title says it all. Today, Monday, is the last day of 2007, a rainy, chilly exit from a pretty fantastic year for the two of us.

It wasn't not so much any one specific thing or incident or person that made this past year so amazing, but rather what we experienced during the entire year. Living and working (at Pascal's for Susie) in Paris was really a dream come to life. Just going about the daily chores, keeping to a routine of daily life in in Paris was something we will never forget and already ache to recapture. Susie has come to realize that baking is the absolutely right direction for her life now and there is no going back on that simple fact. (photo: Susie at Pascal's in Paris.)

Equally important, we readily and openly acknowledge that we feel very much at home abroad. Odd but true. We just feel comfortable there. No, I'm not sure why. The language and occasionally bizarre cultural issues can be challenging to be sure, but, I suppose that is what makes living there so dynamic; the simple energy we felt in Paris or Siena or Florence is very palpable and hot to the touch.

Ultimately, though, it is the social side of living in Europe that appeals to us. I don't mean the "social" as in parties and the like. No, I'm talking about the social fabric that is so patently alive there as opposed to here.

What I mean is that while we have come to feel at home in our new space in Providence, most days one can walk say the mile or mile and a half down Broadway to downtown and find very few people sharing the sidewalks. In Europe, by contrast, people are everywhere on foot it seems, families, students, elderly (thank you), business types, all walking, roller-blading, jogging; the entire social tapestry of the community is out on foot in other words.

We miss that deeply.

Still, we don't regret one thing we have done.

We have seen some truly wonderful and marvelous things in the past year, reconnected with old friends (who are not "old" at all), and found several new friends along the way, visited wonderful places, eaten great food, sipped some of the world's best wines and just savored the joys of being alive.

Another revelation of sorts is that for two suburbanites, two Midwesterners cultivated in the smallness of Middle America, we now find ourselves curiously enthralled with life in the "big city." And Providence is just the right size for us, and with the right attitudes we think.

Anyway, we needed to return to the USA in order to find a home for at least the foreseeable future, get our lives in some sort of order, and get our things out of storage so that we might continue the process of downsizing as we plan for the (permanent) return to Europe.

The New Year promises to be even better than the last, though, and I'll tell you why.

We have family nearby in New England, a few folks we can truly call good friends with whom we can share much needed laughter and good food, a nice home, a Mini Cooper (40 mpg thank you very much), and good health. Our prospects look good and, whatever may happen, like Rick says to Ilsa, "We'll always have Paris. . ."

The future is, I think, pretty much what we make of it.

We hope your future will be plagued with ceaseless joy and boundless happiness each and every day of the year. Really. I mean it.

Happy New Year! Buon Capodanno!! Bonne Année!!!

Wish you were here,

Steve

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rhode Islanders now

We've had brutally cold weather over the past several days. Light snow fell this past weekend but only half or less than what they got in southeastern Massachusetts, just thirty minutes north of Providence.

By Monday the sky had clear and the day dawned clear and very cold. But the DMC beckoned and so off I went. Now most of us have an inordinate fear of auto registries -- well-found to be sure. But Monday the gods were smiling -- and so were the folks on the other side of the counter. I waited maybe 15 minutes before they called my number (0574) and 5 minutes later I walked out the door with brand-new RI license plates. (photo: brother and sister resting together in Swan Point cemetery.)

So I have RI license, a car with RI plates and a home in RI. I guess that makes it about as official as it gets: we are Rhode Islanders now.

It's funny in a way I suppose.

For the better part of the past dozen years or so the places we have moved to have become progressively smaller: Michigan to Vermont and now to Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union (what's next the US Virgin Islands, I wonder?) At the same time, we have moved to increasingly larger cities: Chittenden, Vermont (pop 785) to Rutland, Vermont (barely 19,000) to Siena, Italy (55,000) to Florence (450,000) to Paris (over 1 million). Now to Providence (175,000), which may indicate a gradual backwards to ever smaller places again.

Then again it may mean nothing at all except we like the places we have lived but only up to the point where we decided it was time to move somewhere else, to do something else.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Gentle snow on Westminster street

It's early Thursday afternoon here in west Providence (and probably on the east side too). A gentle but steady snow started falling about an hour and a half ago and seems determined to persist through the rest of the day.

Our life here in Providence remains slightly unsettled. Susie is up to her eyeballs in work at Gracie's -- it's the big party season right now -- and she's feeling every bit as overwhelmed as you might imagine. And her focus for the moment is singularly on developing the dessert menu while at the same time providing the necessary components for the existing menu. And of course learning the workflow at the restaurant. Her grasp of the pastry business has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few months and continues to develop exponentially; her ability to tackle another brand-new career with such determination and intellectual prowess is truly amazing.

As for me I continue to troll through craigslist looking for something that might tap into the somewhat bizarre amalgam of skills I have acquired over the years: research, digital photography, image editing, take your pick. It's challenge to be sure. In the meantime I'm selling lots of "stuff" on eBay and a few things on Amazon as well -- stuff that we should have sold off before we put everything in storage, I suppose, and we look forward to moving more of our "stuff" out of our place into someone else's.

As for the home it, too, continues to evolve: the track lighting is up in the dining room at last and the hot water issue is now resolved. We had a curious thing occur here of late: it turned out that the hot water in our flat was directly connected to the hot water in the flat below us, no. 8, which, at one time, along with our flat, had been the family's living quarters when this was an operating funeral home. That's now fixed. We still haven't found the right spot for all -- or rather some -- of our family photos so they sit quietly on the floor waiting for some quality time and attention.

So today we will see how well our new snow plow service works. Bob the builder stopped by this morning to let in the plumbers and told me that of course they had never had to use a snow plow service in the past since they weren't any tenants until this past fall. But Gracie's is only a mile and a half from our flat and Susie's actually been walking home lately. She was really quite excited this morning saying that she hoped she could walk home in the snow. What a Michigan gal!

Oh, and speaking of the condo, the builder has lowered the prices on the remaining units and put them on craigslist. It will be interesting to see if anything comes out of that move, but one never knows until one tries I suppose.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Clark & Rose, Ltd? Think again!

Speaking of movers, if you are planning a move from Europe back to the US and are in the market for a mover (or "remover" as they are called abroad) I urge you to do your homework thoroughly, and certainly before contracting with Clark & Rose, Ltd, out of the United Kingdom.

Here's how our experience went down:

After looking through a variety of resources for a mover in Paris to ship about two dozen boxes of our household things from Paris to the US, we contacted the Paris agent of Clark & Rose, LTD. After deciding to go with this company we also opted to pay extra for insurance, covering loss or theft up to 10,000 euros. We also declared certain specific items of value, primarily my Nikon DSLR camera system that would be part of the shipment (2000 euros).

In early March two men from Clark & Rose came to pack up our things. I had put all of my digital SLR equipment into a large camera bag which was then boxed up and sealed by the movers.

That was the last time we saw it.

Our household goods arrived at my brother-in-law's home in Massachusetts not long after Susie and I had settled in northern Maine for the summer. Shortly afterwards we made a quick trip down to check on our goods and discovered that the box with all the camera equipment, as well as several other items from our kitchen, was missing.

Now before going into an explanation of what occurred after we made this discovery I should also say that when our goods were delivered they were brought by a young man from New Jersey or some such place, all shrink-wrapped, and he just left them at Dick's house. No one at no time signed for anything. In fact, had we been less scrupulous we could've have easily informed the "remover" that nothing arrived and claimed the full value of 10,000 euros.

Anyway, the fact remained that my camera equipment had indeed been "removed," permanently it seemed. And so began the long and tedious process of getting our insurance claim money from Clark & Rose.

We submitted the necessary paperwork and all the documentation within the time required. Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Days went by, then weeks, which turned into months.

Finally, after nearly five months we received notification that our claim was being processed for payment. Less than two weeks later we were in receipt of the money for our claim. Of course we have no idea what conclusion the "adjusters" drew from their "investigations" into the Paris end of the story since they decided to share virtually none of that information with us.

While we are of course pleased that Clark & Rose at long last lived up to their contractual arrangement, we can only caution anyone considering hiring their services to think twice before doing so. The company repeatedly failed to respond in a timely and respectful manner to my requests as to the status of the claim. Often days would pass before I would hear a response to my inquiry about the claim's status and then it would be some assistant or another saying that the person handling the claim was "out of the office" or "in a meeting" or some other such thing and would be back to me soon. Which he rarely ever did of course.

Clark & Rose? Think again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Looking for a mover in Vermont?

Think twice before using Todd Transportation out of Rutland.

Todd, an affiliate of United Moving Company, moved us several times over the past dozen years or so and until about two years ago we had little to complain about.

This last time was a bit different.

Our things were moved into storage into their Rutland warehouse where we paid a princely sum of rent every month -- and come to find out that when we moved out in mid-November of 2007 we were not going to get any of our November rent back. Se la vie.

Another thing that disturbed us -- and here Todd is certainly not alone in the moving industry - is insurance: you pay (another) princely sum of money for insurance during the move but, in our case, whose to say that there wasn't something damaged in the two years our things were in storage? It's a sad story when a business cannot guarantee its work to be of even reasonable quality (in handling and the like) and wants the client to foot the bill instead for anything it may do that is slipshod or worse.

Anyway, once our things actually were delivered to Rhode Island and all the boxes were accounted for in the inventory, some of the larger items had no inventory sticker; it had obviously fallen off somewhere probably while in storage. The movers who delivered our things just shrugged their shoulders as if to say, "Hey big deal."

Putting your things in storage in Rutland or moving out of Rutland? Think again when choosing a mover.

Monday, December 10, 2007

An update from Susie

Bon soir everyone,

While I am a bit late with my news, I wanted to share with all of you that I am now working at Gracie's restaurant in downtown Providence. I had a trial day a couple of weeks ago which went well, after which I shadowed Cara, the current pastry person, for a day this past Thursday. Chef Joe Hafner and I talked further at that point and agreed on a 30 day trial period during which I would be shadowing Cara, learning the routine stuff as well as starting to add in some things of my own. I officially began work last Friday.

Shortly after Cara and I started our day on Saturday, she and Chef had a short meeting at which time she was told she will be moving to the fish station (about which she is ecstatic, by the way). That means that I will be thrown into the thick of things much sooner than I anticipated. It's a busy time right now with various holiday parties so there is a lot for me to keep track of. This week the plan is that Cara will get me up to speed and soon I'll be on my own. She will still be there of course to answer any questions, but since I'll generally be going in to work earlier than she will, I'll have to have a handle on the daily prepping and refurbishing of various dessert components.

I certainly hope to start adding some new things to the dessert menu, and, as a matter of fact, I went in today (the restaurant is usually closed on Mondays) for a few hours and made some dacquoise and some chocolate macarons which I plan to incorporate into some of the party "trios" for the week. It's all a bit overwhelming right now, but I'm keeping an open mind and am eager to see how the next month goes. Piano, piano.

We're starting to feel settled in our apartment and even have a small tree up and decorated for Christmas. It's also nice to be a short 30 minute drive from my brother Dick and his wife Dorothy's house in Douglas, MA. I'll have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so we'll be able to spend some time with family for the holiday.

It's certainly a new and different phase and will be a learning experience for me, to be sure.

I wish all of you peace and happiness now and throughout the year.

Joyeux Noel and Buona Festa!

Susan

Friday, December 07, 2007

Settling in nicely thank you very much

Well, we continue to settle ourselves into Providence, and have already started going through the various and numerous bureaucratic hoops to become official Providentians, or Providenites, although sometimes we feel more like we're Providoofses. Piano, piano, we are finding our way, both physically and spiritually, here in the tiny but very curious Ocean State.

Yesterday (Thursday) after I dropped Susie off at Gracie's restaurant (more of that later) I headed off to find one of a handful of locations around RI where one can get a "VIN inspection." Now in RI before you can do anything vis a vis the car, one has to go to sanctioned location and have them check out your vehicle identification number (VIN). So I did.

After stopping a policeman along the way to help me locate the one in North Providence (just behind Oki's Steakhouse on route 15, Mineral Spring Avenue) I pulled into the parking lot and followed the sign that said VIN Inspection here. Once inside I met a friendly and very nice woman who grabbed her clipboard and went outside with me to check the VIN.

A few minutes later and 20 bucks lighter I was on my way to the next stop: Wickford Appliance to pick up our track lighting for the dining room.

If you live in Providence and are in need of appliances or lighting stop in and see Cathy at Wickford. This may sound like a commercial but believe me I'm not getting paid for it. Wickford has a huge selection, competitive prices and Cathy is one of the nicest and most honest sales people you're likely to meet.

On Tuesday we picked up our TV in Massachusetts and on Wednesday drove to Dick and Dorothy's in Douglas to check out the wine tasting and sale at Friendly Liquors in Whitinsville after which we had a delicious supper at their home before heading back to our flat in Providence.

"Our flat in Providence." It has a nice ring to it actually.

And just as our home is about completely set up, so our lives turn another corner: Susie got the job as the new pastry chef at Gracie's restaurant in Providence. The young woman who has been doing the desserts has always wanted to move back to the savory side of the kitchen and now appears poised to do just that. So Susie has been shadowing her and will continue to work with her for the next ensuing weeks through the holidays and perhaps beyond.

As for me I have yet to hear back from the "cognitive skills tutor" informational session, a curious experience indeed, that I attended last Monday evening. More of that in another posting.

Stay well, keep warm and, as always,

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Settling in, but still unsettled in Providence

I suppose the title says it all. We are making progress in getting settled here in Providence, but emotionally we are still very unsettled about being back in the US. Odd but true.

Let me explain.

Since moving in on 19 November we have begun the process of becoming American homeowners once again, and frankly we continue to have mixed feelings about. Somewhere along the line I probably alluded to these feelings before, but the stark reality is that for the past two years we have been pretty carefree -- and it's now starting to dawn on both of us how "spoiled" we had become: no debt, no homeowner hassles. Now we're back in the groove (some might say the "grind") and feeling the perplexities an “adjustment phase” at the moment. Or maybe we just really miss Paris and Italy.

The upside is that we needed to get our stuff out of storage and get on with living like adults -- or something approximating adulthood. We also looked forward to living in a big city. So we have met both of those goals: we now have our "stuff" back, we own a place in Providence and we're getting on with the vagaries of being alive, the peculiarities of our world, enjoying the simple delights of a good wine, a tasty meal, laughing together; things to be savored when we are lucky enough to have them.

And so here we are. Since I last wrote -- aside from the road trip we took on Saturday, 1 December -- we have pretty much gone through all our boxes and have so far made two trips to the Salvation Army with one or two more still ahead of us I'm sure.

Small bugs still pop up in the condo: right now a leaky pipe under the kitchen sink, but then other bugs get fixed: the mailbox is repaired, our stove works fine after all (that's me not reading the manual thoroughly), our door buzzer to let people in works fine although the talk/listen features were manufactured by drunken 12-year-olds, and the trash got picked up at last.

Clothes are all put away in their respective places, pictures, prints, photos are now going up on the walls and Susie's numerous handcrafted teddy bears and Santas are finding their own special places of course.

Along the way we’ve also eaten out at several of the local eateries: Gracie’s restaurant in downtown Providence. Incredible food and service, and a superb wine list. We’ve also eaten at two local Mexican restaurants: La Hacienda, just down the street from our building and Don Jose Tequila on Atwell’s avenue.

Speaking of Atwell’s Avenue and Federal Hill, we caught up with Jack and Pat F. from Rutland this past Friday night. They were in town to hear their son in a concert at Providence College (he’s in the music program there) and we happened to connect earlier in the week by phone and email so we planned to meet them for dinner. Since they like to hit Federal Hill when they come to Providence and since we lived nearby we opted to meet up with them at Cassarino’s, night at Cassarino’s, just off the corner of Dean street on Atwell’s. The food was plentiful and tasty – although volume seemed to be the operative word here. Service was, shall we say, interesting: when our server explained one of the wine specials to Jack she said that it tasted of raspberry and “stuff like that.” We skipped that one. Keep it simple I always say and our gal that night lived up to that motto – right down to her glossy black fingernail polish. Lots of laughter at the tables around us, which did my heart good to hear so many people enjoying the slice of life handed to them.

The search for work continues as well. I troll Craigslist every two or three days and send out the occasional inquiry to a posting for anything from a Photoshop specialist to a teacher -- in fact I'm looking into working as a "cognitive skills tutor," which should be exciting since I haven't a clue as to what one does but I'm sure it's fascinating. Susie meanwhile is still negotiating with a local restaurant -- they clearly want her but are trying to work out the details. We just tell each other what Egina, our Italian teacher in Siena use to always say: “Piano piano,” step-by-step.

Wish you were here, and maybe you will be soon!

Steve

Rhode Island road trip

It is chilly and overcast today, Sunday, the second day of December. Yesterday was quite cold and very windy, adding to the overall chill factor but the sun was out in force, the sky was brilliant and since we sorely needed a break from the constant focus on unpacking and settling in to our new home, we headed off on a road trip through southern Rhode Island, looking for the ocean (well actually Rhode Island Sound). (photo: Narragansett Bay where it empties into Rhode Island Sound.)

We have made great strides in getting our new home in order (OK, Susie has made great strides). Most of the boxes are emptied and gone, furniture has been rearranged hopefully for the last time – well for at least a month or so – and things are starting to appear on the walls: prints, photos that sort of thing. Stuff is being given away, thrown away, sold on eBay or hung on the walls, store dint he basement or simply moved around the apartment looking for a home. Anyway, more of that in my next entry.

For moment I want to talk about Rhode Island, or rather that part of that we sped through on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

After spending the morning on the process of settling in and wondering why we kept all the things we did (eBay is the correct answer here), we grabbed the state road atlas and hit the pavement.

We turned left out of our drive, and after about a quarter of a mile we turned left again onto route 10 south; a few miles later and we were on I-95 heading south. At exit 9, we turned south onto route 4, getting off onto route 102 toward Wickford. Dorothy had told us about the quaint seaside village of Wickford and so we stopped, parked and walked around. The village not only looked like a New England town decked out for Christmas but the Boy Scouts were out in force selling homemade baked goods (for the Cooking merit badge I wonder?) and lots of tiny shops smelling of incense and cuteness. And of course Santa was out taking a buggy ride with the kids!
The day was not for casual strolling, however, as the winds were being most unkind to anyone foolish enough to be outside – and there were a great many of us outside in Wickford to be sure! So back to the car, a quick u-turn and another quick turn left onto route 1A south toward Narragansett.

The drive along this part of the state certainly recommends itself – plenty of views of Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound beyond (that's the Sound right there, look down there, see it. Pretty exciting , eh?! Such glorious emptiness.)

Anyway, before long we were pulling beneath the “Towers,” one of the more curious attractions we would see that day. Built of hand-hewn stone in 1886, originally designed as a casino, this imposing structure is 460 long and route 1A passes right beneath it just like you might see in the Loire Valley of France. In 1900 everything burnt down, except for the “towers” themselves. They stand the proverbial tests of time through hurricanes, nor’easters and the foolishness of man.

From Narragansett we turned back toward route 1 heading north and near Wickford Junction turned west onto route 102. We made a quick stop at a Home Depot we spied along the way: toilet bowl plunger, and a myriad of other household items on the “list of stuff for our home,” a list that never dies.

And speaking of never dying, we soon found our way heading toward Exeter and one of New England’s vampire tombs.

According to local legend, when 19-year-old Mercy Brown died in 1892, there was speculation that all was not right with the Brown family deaths – her mother in 1883 and older sister Mary died in 1884. All were interred in the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church cemetery, right on route 102. (photo: Mercy is the middle grave in the back, her sister Mary is on Mercy's left and their mother Mary is in front of her daughter Mary; George, the father, is in the front row to the left in the photo.)

Sooooo, after a great deal of speculation that maybe there was a vampire in the midst of the tiny community the bodies were exhumed. (And you thought 9/11 hysteria was new, eh?) While two of the bodies were skeletons, Mercy’s was in pretty good shape and after an autopsy it was discovered that she still had “fresh” blood in her veins and heart! Well the townsfolk took care of that in short order: they burned the heart on the spot and the ashes were made into a remedy for the survivors to drink in order that they may be protected from such a cruel fate. It apparently worked since there were no reports of vampires again. At least that's one variation (For more about Mercy Brown click here!) Anyway, the father George lived until 1922.

After paying our respects to Mercy’s grave – and her entire family in fact – we pointed the Mini back west again on route 102 and took off, often the only car on the road for miles, zipping past beautiful groves, rolling hills, crossing tiny brooks and past the occasional New England farmhouse, glad to be alive.

Eventually we had to say goodbye to route 102 – and we remarked how nice it would be to see it in the spring and again during foliage season. I put the Mini onto route 14 and soon found ourselves crossing the gorgeous Scituate reservoir, the largest body of water in Rhode Island and the main water supply for Providence. Not long after seeing where our water comes from, we found ourselves once again among the hordes of motorists on I-295 heading north and east toward a place that can only be defined as “Purgatory” (meaning “mental anguish or suffering”)

Well actually it wasn’t Purgatory in the literal sense of the term. But we did get off at an exit designed specifically by the CIA to make us feel small and stupid – in other words a huge mall complex. Our goal was simple: buy a television. And what better day than a Saturday just three weeks before Christmas!

So we found the nearest big box (Circuit City, motto: “Our sales people are not stupid, we just make them act that way”), where we parked the car and walked inside.

Now apparently the corporate giants that sit around the boardrooms coming up with the ideas that eventually get translated into reality at the store level never actually walk into one of these places. Otherwise they would run out screaming with ears bleeding from the insanely loud and intensely banal garbage being spewed out of every TV speaker.

But fixing our gaze firmly on the TV side of the box we walked purposefully over to the row of TVs we were considering, picked one out, buttonholed a guy with a couple of questions (“Uh, I gotta get a guy who knows TVs”), found the guy who knew about TVs (“Uh, I don’t know anything about that model”), said “no” to the extended service plan (“covers everything even if your TV is deployed to Iraq), paid our money and arranged to pick the thing up at another store. (“Uh, we’re outta that one here”).

Back to the highway, back to the Interstate and back home.

Wish you were here,

Steve