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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pottery Shards on the Mill River

A few days ago we went for a walk along the Mill River in Leeds, just under two miles from where I live in Florence. There is a converted trolley track going through the woods with a beautiful view of the river below. At various points in the walk we were able to go down to the water. Joey was especially excited, as we could tell when we got down to the little beach. He raced around excitedly as if to say, "Hey, it's a beach! It's just great here! Awesome!" Because it was such a cold day, none of us encouraged him to try wading into the water. But as we stood there on the little beach, I noticed the pebbles were a little unusual. Joey's dad pointed out that they weren't ordinary pebbles at all but shattered pieces of pottery and porcelain from the days when factories lined the Mill River. Factories made textiles as well as pottery, buttons, and bricks.

Pieces of pottery and porcelain found on the beach. Center is a
piece of brick worn away by the water. Two of the pieces are also below.

Top:you can still see the petal pattern from a plate.
Bottom: milky glass. 
In May 1874, the Hampshire Reservoir north of Leeds collapsed, rapidly flooding Williamsburg and Leeds. Before this disaster hit, Leeds had been a thriving little village. A number of the buildings still show where the businesses used to be, and a Catholic church still stands, though no longer holding services. It is possible to see some of the photographs taken of the flood's devastation, housed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. When you drop a mug or a dinner plate on the floor, think of all the pieces that come out of that mess. Multiply that by a couple hundred, and that's what we have along the Mill River, where it is still possible to pick up a brick lying in the water after all these years.

Leeds has never quite been the same since the big flood, which is described by Jim Parsons for the Leeds Civic Association in more detail, including the way it was once divided up into different sections according to ethnicity or named for a natural landmark, such as "Crow Hill." Because this village and its residents were primarily working-class people, the notion of memorializing this history came a bit later to Leeds, but you can find it today if you look. Historian Elizabeth M. Sharpe has written about this event and its context In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 (2007), and you can also see a monument dedicated to the 51 Leeds residents who were caught in the floodwaters.

A bonus factoid dug up by Jim Parsons in his mini-history says that the first man to play Charlie Chan in the movies, Werner Oland, lived across the street from what is now the ChartPak factory in Leeds. However, Wikipedia does not mention Leeds, naming Southborough, MA as his primary residence at his time of death. The Charlie Chan Family Home website shows this tombstone, and gives fleeting hints about Leeds. If anyone can show me proof of his residence, I'll be very willing to post it on this blog in the future. Let me know!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pine-Scented Turkey

Aaah, 'tis the season for the turkey. I am not always called upon to cook the turkey, though I have done so in the past. Most notably, I made Thanksgiving dinner with a big turkey when living in England one year. I had to lug the frozen turkey in my backpack home from the supermarket. I can't remember anything about cranberry sauce or stuffing, but it met the Thanksgiving needs of the three Americans at the table, and satisfied the Thanksgiving curiosity of the three British women at the table.

I went to visit my parents in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. Little Joey the dog came along. It's hard to know what he thinks of the holidays and the dinners since he may not have had the most stable home life before coming to live with me, but he was rewarded with a juicy piece of turkey on Thanksgiving night. We all, that is, Joey's Dad and the extended family give thanks that Joey has come to live with us and become a part of our lives!

The Christmas tree part of the store.
 Notice the blow-up Santa in front. 
It's rare for me to visit my parents without paying a visit to the "World's Largest Dairy Store." (Excuse me, while I scoff. But I can't scoff too long, since Ripley's Believe It or Not gave them this designation a long time ago -- it's on their neon sign.) I grew up near this place when it was still a small barn and the little farm out front still looked more like a hobby farm. As kids, we used to lug their colorful plastic bags for schoolbags, since no one ever bought a backpack back then. I was really shocked recently to learn that my cousin from California had put down a visit to Stew Leonard's on his "must-do" list of tourist sites. Excess and kitschy farm imagery help bring people into the store, though we have always liked the freshness of many items offered. It's the Disneyland of Milk, and they have the same animatronic animal figures to prove it. The milk is definitely a big draw, though they have stopped processing the milk at this facility. Nowadays the display of milk cartons going around the conveyor belt is just for show, and you can tell when you look closely at it.

At different times of the year the Stew Leonard's complex features a garden store, or a holiday store. On the day after Thanksgiving, Florentina's approach to the store was greeted with the huge smell of pine trees. Christmas is on its way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bison in the China Shop

I know it doesn't look like much in these photos, but this is the Long Hollow Bison Farm of Hadley, Massachusetts. Joey's Dad and I took these photos from the parking lot of Lowe's home superstore on Route 9. I have passed this location a number of times when I've traveled to the superstore shopping centers near the Amherst town border.
Bison, View 1. There is a fence between us.
Bison, View 2. There is also a ditch that
separates us, in addition to the fence.
They have a gift shop where you can buy bison meat and steaks to bring home. If you like hamburgers, bison meat makes great burgers.

Today we were on a mission to check out china place settings at Bed Bath and Beyond. We had seen a specific pattern that looked interesting, and wanted to see it in person without having to drive to a mall or wait to visit Macy's at Herald Square

We were thwarted in this attempt, as the store didn't have a separate section with all the fancy stuff, which some stores have started to feature. In fact, we started to ask ourselves where people buy their nice china these days, and if they are still doing so. (Does anyone know what's done these days, and where people go?)

Joey's Dad and I are in the middle of such ruminations because of a very special day in July 2012. One that often sends people to register for china and silverware, and to obsess over food for more people than normally attend the average dinner party.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Noodle Wonderland

 This afternoon Joey's dad suggested that I needed to get out of the house. I needed to get more rice noodles for future pad thais, but I felt as though I couldn't get going. But he persisted, adding that Joey needed to practice having me come and go from the house as a means to shake his separation anxiety. Besides, if I needed rice noodles, they had to be bought from the right place. Where else would I go but to Tran's World Food Market in Hadley, Massachusetts? It's right across the river from Northampton on Route 9 (or 50 Russell Road, if you want the local address). Tran's is a real treasure and I'll never forget the first time I visited a few months after moving to Florence. They stock a gazillion items in what seems to be a really small space, and everything is super neat.
Aaah, the aisle of noodles.
This market bridges two different versions of Asian markets that I have grown accustomed to in my lifetime. Not to sound dramatic and all, but here in East Coast towns away from the bigger cities (Washington DC, NYC, Boston) it was rare to find adequate Asian markets. It still is where my parents live, and my mom thinks it's because they live so close to Westchester County and New York City. Frequently even the old markets in NYC Chinatown will still remind me of the older style with its many dried items, canned goods, and preserved meats, such as Chinese sausages on the strings that have to be cut down.

But nowadays we have some really great, shiny Asian supermarkets springing up in places where the population has become larger. When I say shiny, I mean really bright and well-stocked with items I never dreamed of. Many of these newer supermarkets are stacked high with items from various countries, including those from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin American countries as well. To call them Asian markets may be inaccurate nowadays, which is why Tran's is very accurate in describing themselves as a "world market." I saw French lentils on the shelf today, not far from the Cafe du Monde coffee with chicory.

The array of treasures that came home today.
The seaweed rice crackers were prescribed by Joey's dad.
One of numerous fridges/freezers. In the bottom
of this one, note the whole durian fruit available, next
to the more benign mangosteen.

After my shopping was done, I came home to find out that I'm invited to Local Burger in downtown Northampton tomorrow night for a fundraising dinner. So much for making pad thai tomorrow! At least I've gotten started on the seaweed rice crackers.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Heat and Light, Wet and Dry

This past week has been one where lots of people have been eager to get back to routine, the most humdrum of routines if possible, especially if it includes heat and electricity. I am not terribly proud to admit that I couldn't handle the lack of heat and electricity for more than a day and a half before I escaped to Connecticut to my parents' house for those highly coveted items. I'm not quite sure what my dog Joey thought, but I get the sense he was awfully happy to visit a warm house, too.

Downed tree limbs still needing to be cleared from our local park.
(Florentina's been too freaked out by crushed cars
and downed live wires to get those more exciting photos.)
N.B.: Connecticut was actually the hardest hit state with its power outages and still has many residents waiting for the resumption of their services. But my parents were lucky, never having lost power at any time in the aftermath of our freak Halloween snowstorm.

I will admit that I kept thinking of two travelers, if not three, in the past week as the post-snowstorm drama unfolded across the region. Isabella Bird and Mildred Cable kept popping up at alternating moments this week, depending on the conditions around me. I've been looking at Isabella Bird's narrative, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875) for the conference presentation made in Houston, and on my trip to Houston my airplane reading was The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable with Francesca French (1942). The radical difference in these two environments and the objectives probably caused me to keep thinking about them together, as a way to work out what they might have in common as women travelers coming out of late Victorian backgrounds. I'm going to talk more about Mildred Cable because her narrative describes the extreme conditions here in Florence that made me a little bonkers.

Worth the trip. You'll wish you
could have been with them. 
When things got really cold, sitting around with candles lit and waiting to go to bed with four blankets and thermal underwear under flannel pajamas, my sense of guilt would arise when remembering Mildred Cable's twelve years in the Gobi Desert. That's right. Mildred Cable spent twelve years making circuits in the Gobi Desert with Francesca French and her sister, Eva French. These single women were missionaries for the China Inland Mission and are known to be the first Western women to have crossed the Gobi. Because of the number of times they crisscrossed the desert from 1923 to 1936, the narrative created is non-linear in chronological terms (a typical feature of many travel narratives). Instead the narrative is built around salient aspects of their travel route -- the people, their cultures, the religious landmarks, the local rulers who would be taken over by the Communist Chinese toward the end of the fifteen year period.
This would have been their entourage
during the warmer months. Imagine traveling
with this uncovered wagon during the cold desert winter.

The conditions endured by these three women, their animals, and their porters seem unimaginable when at their worst, and barely tolerable by softy industrialized North American standards even at some of the better oases. But reading this lovely narrative taught me the beauty of pure, clean water and a warm place to sleep. How much these two qualities were valued, as well as the hospitality of their various hosts who grew accustomed to seeing them over the years, teaches the essentials of travel. No complaints about cold noses, lack of fashionable clothes for really cold interiors, or grumblings about when the internet would come back on again.

The narrative describes an unnamed place of danger north of what was known as the Valley of Demons: "From the crest of those hills the blizzard crashes with a violence unknown elsewhere. Here many travellers have met death when the dreaded fan-shaped blizzard cloud spread from behind the summit, and the sudden violence of the wind robs man and beast of any sense of direction, while the perishing cold grips its victims in a deadly embrace" (97). Not many of us can actually be in a place empty enough to see the shape of a storm about to descend upon us, and to be able to do so in such a detached manner suggests a fortitude in meeting the hardships presented in the desert. Cable and French go on to talk about the difficulty in moving forward in these desert weather conditions. Think of that picture of a sandstorm, and add it to the worst snowstorm you've had yet. "All this drought, sterility, climatic hardship, blizzard and hurricane, combine to produce extreme difficulties in the matter of communications. No river is navigable, no railway system is available, and motor traffic, which would be the only remaining solution of rapid land transit, can only be sustained on certain defined routes, and that by dint of very effective organisation" (97). In other words, they had to rely upon their mules, and in certain storms, even they couldn't pull the wagons forward.

The China Inland Mission was famous (or infamous) for allowing women the power to become missionaries on their own, without the tie of marriage to grant them permission to work. Cable and the Frenches show that the CIM were right in recognizing women's abilities to do hard work and endure conditions unimaginable to their sisters living comfortably in Europe, and to me, running away to Connecticut in a warm car with my dog.