Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Sugar Shack in the Hills

Last Sunday, I went with my yoga buddy, Jeff, and his wife (my sushi buddy), Lori, up to Ashfield, Massachusetts to go swimming in maple syrup. I am only slightly exaggerating. South Face Farm has been a farm for about 150 years, and the maple sugaring has been going on since 1952. Jeff and Lori come up here frequently from Northampton, with only a 25 mile drive through the hills. I was really excited to be asked along on this trip, as I had been wanting to go to a sugarhouse since moving to Massachusetts. I had grown up in a part of New England that is closer to New York City, without such attractions nearby. The main objective on this visit was to eat a meal dripping with maple syrup. Jeff had refrained from eating anything that morning, except for a yogurt, in order to have enough room for the maple sugar-covered brunch he was envisioning.

The maple sugaring season has started early this year, as have other natural processes related to springtime. Usually the sugaring happens when it's still really cold, but the days have grown longer and the longer hours of sunshine provoke the sugar maple sap to start running. The photos below show the typical wintry look of maple sugar season from previous years.
Sap drips into these pails, to be boiled down later.
Inside is maple syrup mecca. (http://www.southfacefarm.com)
While I am not the greatest connoisseur of maple syrup, I did appreciate being able to pour it on everything without guilt or paying extra. To have this privilege so close to the source of the syrup made it very special and perhaps made each of us even more gluttonous.

We were so busy with eating and pouring maple syrup that I neglected to take pictures. (I would have ended up with a sticky phone, if I had tried.) But here is a quick rundown of how we tried hard to replace our red blood cells with maple syrup:
  • Three coffees with maple syrup (at least two tablespoons per cup)
  • One waffle with maple syrup ice cream and blueberries
  • Short stack of French Toast made with cinnamon bread, covered with blueberries and maple syrup (at least one cup)
  • One combo plate with 1 pancake, 1 French Toast, 1 corn fritter, covered with two cups of syrup
  • One plate of corn fritters (four), each to be covered with maple syrup (1/4-1/2 cup) on individual plates
  • Small plate of pickles
Okay, so the pickles weren't dipped in syrup. They were meant to give us a palate cleanser, of sorts. And a disagreement arose around the waffle with ice cream, but I supported the notion that the ice cream would have had enough syrup, offsetting the need to pour additional syrup on top. I will admit it would have looked pretty, but would have caused the ice cream to start melting even faster than it already was trying to do. You can check out the menu yourself, and if you're coming to next year's maple syrup season, let me know! Many thanks to Jeff and Lori for showing me the way to maple syrup nirvana!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Interfaith Emergency Cot Shelter and Brisket

Last night's excursion would not normally be considered a destination for most visitors, but the Interfaith Emergency Homeless Shelter (often referred to as the Cot Shelter) on 43 Center Street in downtown Northampton is one of a number of emergency shelters available to those in need. My visit last night was my second one where I helped provide the evening meal to the night's residents.

It's not a glamorous place, located in the basement of an office building next to the police station. Last night we had twenty diners for our meal of corned beef brisket, macaroni and cheese, fruit, cheese and crackers, salad, bread, dessert, accompanied by milk, water, or apple cider. The dinner can be a bit potluck because different individuals bring the different parts of the meal. To make things even more random for the diners, each night's meal is the responsibility of a different group's members. Last night I was working as part of the League of Women Voters-Northampton Area, responsible for one night out of the month. We'd be unable to add any more days because there are no more open nights for us to give a meal. The first time I looked at the sign-in cards, back in January, I was amazed to see how many people in the area are eager to help out.

This shelter takes in the overflow of clients who are seeking shelter and services at another local shelter, the Grove Street Inn. Those who cannot be accommodated at the Grove Street Inn, and then the Cot Shelter, are asked to stay at a  shelter in Easthampton, the next town over. With only twenty spaces available at the Cot Shelter, it is not unusual to have people asked to check another shelter nearby. The Cot Shelter is available from November to April, the colder months when most people will be seeking shelter and hot meals. The night's diners are also resident for the night. 

For me, it was a chance to play restaurant again, as I once did on occasion back in the past. To be able to feed people is a great pleasure, and I will readily admit that when some of the diners came back for seconds, saying the meal was delicious, I was more than happy to help serve more to them. Not having to deal with the exchange of cash really helped, too, though replacing the choice attached to the financial power of paying is the lack of real choice in the meal.

Baked Corned Beef Brisket Ala Kevin the BBQguru
The lack of choice in the meal did not stop some diners from making requests. Some didn't want salad; some didn't want brisket; some wanted bread without butter; some only wanted one piece of brisket. One man who approached the server was unsure about brisket, claiming that because he had been raised in the South, his mother always told him that white meat was better than red meat. To me the requests were generally run-of-the-mill, not signifying finicky behavior but rather the assertion of individuality that was threatened with annihilation in their current circumstances. 

For another member of our team last night, however, this was not the same view. We cook the meals at home, serve the meals, and then clean up in the kitchen. As we bused the trays, many of which were heartily cleaned off by hungry diners, one tray came back nearly uneaten. The team member in question criticized the unknown diner, talking about him/her as if he/she had been a naughty child refusing to eat what he/she had requested, in this case, in a somewhat more generous portion. Two of us stopped to let her know that we cannot know if someone didn't feel well, or if the meal didn't agree with him/her for whatever reason. "Everyone has a different preference," I asserted, to this team member's silence. She was unwilling to let go of her motherly bias, that this person was asking for a lot and then wasting it. But she was also unwilling to acknowledge that we're dealing with grown adults who may have had corned beef a number of times in the last week, because we had just celebrated Saint Patrick's Day. In fact, today at the Stop and Shop Supermarket, I saw an abundance of these corned beef briskets for sale, and was terribly tempted. But I know that I don't want to eat it all the time, either.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Best in Show: Not Your Typical Dog Show

I know it's been a while, but winter doldrums can mean the lack of snow to brighten the day, and a routine that becomes really routine. What this meant for Florentina is the uncertainty of what would spice up the not-so-sunny days out there. Well, Florentina and Joey found it today. Little Joey was not so sure, but he was a brave little man/cockapoo for a few minutes, as you will see.

Joey: Yikes! 

Well, today was the seventh annual Not Your Typical Dog Show at Northampton High School, Joey's Dad's alma mater. It is a benefit for the Volunteers In Northampton Schools, a non-profit organization providing volunteers for all the Northampton public schools. We decided to have a look without expectation of participating in any events, since it's not clear that Joey is capable of demonstrating ability, tailwagging, fetching, singing, agility, tricks, or conventional obedience in a school gym filled with dozens of dogs and approximately one hundred people. Never mind competing in the smooching category -- Joey is wary of PDA in front of other dogs and people as well as showing off his natural talents.

Joey can jump this high,
but only in private when
he's really excited.
Luckily, Joey has gotten a lot braver about meeting other dogs and people thanks to our daily walks. We ran into his trainer, Shannon, at Leading the Way in Florence, and met lots of people with their dogs. I wanted to stick around to see some of the events, which seemed to be about agility with the hurdles and cones set up in formation. It seemed like a lot for me and Joey to take in. He hasn't been training for the Doggie Olympics in the last few months, unfortunately.

Weaving in and out of cones
as a test of obedience?
Without expectations of competing in events, Joey and I were able to see who was getting ready to compete. Dogs and their humans were lined around the ring, ready to strut their stuff. The pressure was off and it was a good thing because Joey had it after about twenty minutes.  And it meant that I didn't have to try to trick him into staying any longer to show him in the ring, etc. I dodged the dog show bullet that Eugene Levy caught in his two left feet in Best in Show (2000). Below he plays the hapless husband to his wife, Candie, who was supposed to show Winky the Norwich Terrier at the Westminster Dog Show. (N.B.: the screen may tell you to watch it directly on YouTube and should let you click on the link that leads you there.)


Monday, February 6, 2012

Happy Birthday to Charles Dickens

** The New York Times has an article to be published this Sunday, February 12, 2012 in the Magazine on a reporter's visit to Dickens World. Don't miss it! It has great photos. **

Today Charles Dickens would be 200 years old, if he had cut out the raw eggs in champagne and gotten lots more sleep, not to mention the various injections that now keep women looking taut and uncomfortable. While most serious news outlets and bloggers are probably going on and on about this great Victorian writer, I say let's let it go for now, right here, because I am big on reminding people that there were 50,000 novels published in the Victorian period, and to elevate Dickens to his pedestal might be a bit excessive and exclusionary. Moreover, I would also like to remind people out there not to take him too seriously because in many instances, he didn't take himself too seriously sometimes, either. We can see the humor in the texts, as well as how he dashed off the novels in serial form (most notably in his earlier works, but less so for his later, greater novels).

One way that he showed his seriously not-so-serious side was by his live performances where he dramatized readings from his novels. I would say that this is a way for an author to connect with an audience at a very different level than the analytical, literary one that the physical novel often presents. To this end, it seems that we have some folks out there who have taken up this slightly ridiculous side and created Dickens World. That's right -- an amusement park dedicated to Charles Dickens! Believe me, if I could make the last eleven words quiver and blink with flashing lights, I would.

Since it opened a few years ago, I will admit that I have been dying to go to Kent, England to visit this place. I have no true love of amusement parks, but this one just screams out to be seen just for a few minutes. Sure, it looks like a funny stage or TV set, but it promises to be kitschy cute. I wonder if it also features appropriate smells, like the kind provided by the thoughtful people at the Jorvik Viking Centre at York, England. The Dickens World people have taken care to inform potential visitors that their restrooms are at least modern-day sanitary, not Victorian-style sanitary, so the smells are sure to be few if any. Don't forget: Dickens started Bleak House with a picture of London streets filled with mud and mire, while Our Mutual Friend has the dustheaps centrally located as the source of mystery, wealth, and salvation. Mud, mire, dust -- these all scream "smells!"

TripAdvisor.com offers useful information and photos for those who are adventurous and willing to report back to me. Some of these photos are interesting but I wonder how small everything is in reality. I know that folks have not been terribly enthusiastic about the place in their TripAdvisor reviews, and it is hard to dismiss the good work of TripAdvisors online, but that makes Dickens World even more interesting, like a slow motion train wreck.

Happy birthday, Chuckie! Be sure to hoist a pint for me at the Porters Restaurant in your amusement park! I know you'd be chatting up the barmaid if you could, you sly one.
The queue for the haunted house.
Oliver Twist gets chased through a place like this.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Yoga Sanctuary at Mid-Winter

We're supposed to be in the depths of winter, though we are lucky enough not to have the piles of snow that we had last year. The days aren't always sunny, and the warm air has yet to really settle down with us again. These are the days that create Vitamin D deficiencies in New Englanders. Luckily Florentina has a safe haven that has a kind of sunniness that warms up everything for the rest of the day. For the last six months or so, Yoga Sanctuary on the top floor of Thorne's Marketplace on Main Street, Northampton, has been this place for Florentina. 

Before moving to Florence, Florentina's yoga practice had fallen off. That's about five years of no yoga, after a number of years where yoga and long-distance biking had been really central to what made the world work. Now we're getting back to where mind and body are working together again in a great space with great teachers (such as Anna and Brandt) and classmates. This is where Florentina met her yoga buddy, Jeff, and through him, her sushi buddy, Lori.

Thorne's Marketplace.
First hour of parking is free.
A class in the big studio, painted with the colors of a mango.
(from Yoga Sanctuary's Facebook Page)
There is no photo available to show you how the individuals doing downward dog in the photo above would be facing a gigantic window looking across the street to old brick buildings and blue sky. In fact, this window is sometimes too bright during practice, threatening to blind Florentina while doing tree pose. 

Anusara yoga is the style practiced and promoted at Yoga Sanctuary. Its continual interest in alignment comes out in many ways. During the poses, physical alignment of body parts, muscles, and other anatomical details, receives detailed descriptions such that it's often incredible how much the teachers know about the body and its ability to make small adjustments with ease. There is also a kind of emotional alignment that happens, too, as practice causes the body work with the heart, and whatever is going on inside, so that those things can start to get sorted out. Bad habits of physical and emotional posture are involved every time.

The winter will be made shorter now that we are in possession of the Shri Card from Yoga Sanctuary. It's a swipe card that allows Florentina unlimited yoga for $99 per month. This could pay off; this summer it was possible to hit eight classes in a month's time, and that wasn't even a serious effort. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Snowy Path Less Taken

The covered bridge where all bicyclists
must dismount and Yaktrax are attached to boots.  
It's a moody day today, after a small snowfall last night.We have had two small snowfalls in the past week, and the inches of white stuff are adding up slowly, with an icy crust between some of them. (Think of Morbier cheese, with that layer of grapeleaf ash between the morning milk and the evening milk.) Today it was not only snowy but actually warm enough to take a long walk with the dog. Joey's dad and I took Joey out to Look Park where it appeared that few dogwalkers had made their appearance this morning. This is a popular spot for dogwalking and dogwatching, where you can make lots of new friends very quickly if you're a dog. Because I didn't quite trust the paved surfaces this morning, I tried to walk exclusively on the snowy sections. This proved quite easy, as I just followed Joey and his dad in the snow. Along the way I could see where the squirrels and rabbits had already tracked through the snow earlier in the morning.
The field was a huge sheet of untouched snow.
This photo is not upside down.

I was bundled up quite well, and even well padded because of my new red parka from Land's End. After many years of living in Wisconsin, I still love walking in the snow. But after slipping once, it was declared imperative to put on my Yaktrax. At the covered bridge we found a dry space where Joey's dad helped me pull them onto my winter boots, which already had very deep treads. But ice is nobody's friend, so it's always better to get some traction whenever possible, especially when the temperature is just warm enough to create a little melting of snow and ice. While this temperature is great if you want to get some ice skating practice, it's not so wonderful if you're just out for a walk. Here is a photo of my boots post-Yaktrax. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Florentina, Flu Fighter and Knitter

Hi everyone, happy new year! Sorry I've been away, but there's a good reason. I hope you all were at least conscious for the holidays, as I was barely aware of them passing by. The flu had me in its grip, and just when it seemed to be loosening its hold, a ferocious sinus infection came along, happy to take advantage of an extra-lowered immune system. A round of antibiotics and some cough syrup laced with codeine help in these cases. Even with their help I'm only just coming back to the world. There are a number of things that I honestly don't remember from the last month because I was so ill and out of it. Even the fact it is a new year seems weird to me, as I didn't go through the normal passage of time, it seems. If we can count the passage of time in terms of boxes of Kleenex, then I might be better suited to recognize it's the new year.

A big part of bringing me back to the world has been my old hobby, knitting. I have been knitting since I was a little girl, and I don't even remember when I first learned it. All I know is that I practiced the two stitches for a long time, and put it away for years. In 2005, I came back to it again as a stress relief, and learned how to put a sweater together. Now I try to produce a sweater, a scarf, or a hat from time to time, so if you're in the market for a knitted item, let me know. I always wish I could be knitting for someone else, as I can't envision making all those knitted things for myself and filling a closet full of them --it seems a bit selfish. During my illness, I've been working on a couple of hats, and it's kept my brain functioning at some vaguely decent level.

Don't be fooled. It's a yarn paradise inside.
Northampton is a knitter's mecca in the Northeast because of Webs, America's Yarn Store. It's located in an unassuming place near the highway, and doesn't look like much from the outside, as seen on the left.

But when a knitter walks in the door, the yarn craziness descends. It's an explosion of color, which is especially welcome in the New England winter, and the salespeople are really very friendly. Unfortunately the lovely photo below doesn't show any of the salespeople who are always available to talk about yarn and knitting, as well as other related fiber crafts (weaving, spinning, crocheting, for example). I was greeted so nicely when I walked through the door yesterday, on my first day of decent health in about three weeks.
View from seating area (for non-yarn folks and dogs).

The yarn craziness usually pulls me into the warehouse in the back where bargains abound. Luckily I usually go into Webs with a specific project or need in hand, so I'm buying only enough to do that work. Otherwise I would be in really huge trouble in the warehouse (photo below), where some of the nicest yarns are sometimes discounted. Savvy shoppers keep their eyes on their twitter feed or their blog for more specials.
Hard core yarnage here. I have been known to lose it here.

A number of years ago, Florentina took her mom to a yarn store in Connecticut. This part of Connecticut where Florentina's mom still lives is rather wealthy, and the yarn store had her fuming. If you added up the cost of those fancy yarns, and the emotional cost of having to sit there with leisured women who don't have to work and stress out about their leisure time, a sweater would cost well over $200.00. Webs presents the sane alternative for a hobby that was originally meant to help cut costs, at least in my family. These days it also provides some comfort, as I can go in there with places where I'm stuck with my knitting, or just need to talk to someone about our love of knitting. I'm scheduled to take a class in sock knitting in April, and I can't wait!