Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Winery Runs Through It

No Crowds is back - and so are No Crowds reporters Gary Ransom and Lorraine Carulli. These never-really-retired international consultants are now travelling the American landscape and this story, ostensibly about Kalispell, Montana, says a lot about the American spirit and makes me want to head for Montana.

Our Kalispell story begins a few years back and a few miles away, in Bozeman (AKA the Big City). Meredith and her twin sister were both in the pre-med program at the University of Montana. Their dad was a doctor, their grandfather was a surgeon, and, modern times being what they are, the girls were expected to follow in the family tradition. In particular, their science achievement had been exemplary, so they were obviously good material.

But fate intervened. The summer after aceing her MCATs, Meredith took a job at a Bozeman wine bar (I’m guessing it was THE Bozeman wine bar), and discovered a completely different application for her skill in chemistry – she fell in love with wine.

Fast forward to 2018 in Kalispell, an old west town situated, as the guidebooks say, squarely on the continental divide, with mountains to the east and west, still snowcapped in July. Host to the somewhat aspirationally named Glacier International Airport, Kalispell has a fine National Park 30 miles to its north and the crystal clear waters of Flathead Lake 15 miles south. It’s in the process, as the local paper writes, of being discovered.

Meredith is now the owner and proprietor of Tailing Loop Winery (tailingloopwinery.com) out on Highway 35 just at the edge of town. Her voice and bubbly energy seem out of scale for her compact frame – she could command the attention of an audience of 500 without a mic – so everyone in the winery gets entertained by it, whether that was their plan or not. Meredith is an energy machine behind the bar, spinning stories and finding out where people are from and what brought them here.

As we work through our flights of wines on offer, we strike up a conversation with the couple next to us at the bar – locals who are thrilled to have a winery in town. The wife, sitting closest to us, asks where we are from, and replies “oh, Florida”, as if describing a nasty intestinal flu she has just recovered from. But then she brightens and congratulates us on discovering northwestern Montana. I feel that she would absolutely not be surprised if I told her that, after a week here, I had called my realtor back home and told her to sell the place and everything in it, and send us the proceeds so we could buy our cabin in the woods. “We see that a lot”, her husband would say, tapping the bar for emphasis.

Tailing Loop has a décor that can only be described as a cross between Cowboy Shabby Chic and A River Runs Through It. There are sepia-toned drawings of cowboys and saloon girls (each one armed with fly fishing tackle, rather than weaponry) by a local artist on the wall, an event room dominated by a massive buffalo head, and a front porch that appears to be stolen from the set of “Longmire”. Everything is raw, unpainted wood, with varnish slathered on where appropriate or necessary.

“But wait”, you say, “you can’t grow decent grapes for wine in that climate!” And you’d be right. Which explains why, several times a year, Meredith and a friend set off on a 12 hour journey through the night to Washington State, and return with a truckload of grapes from three vineyards. The rest of the work to produce the unoaked chardonnay, excellent pinot noir, syrah-based rose, tempranillo and more is done locally. And of course, since Tailing Loop has movie nights on a regular basis where an ancient projector runs spaghetti westerns from the 60s, she would have to have a Montana sangiovese to accompany the Italian cowboys.

But Meredith is still following the science closely, and is watching several experiments with developing grape rootstock that is hardy through the high plateau winter. If they are successful, locally grown wines are only a graft away, and it’s clear that by then, Meredith will have herself a vineyard. She’s already started some vines. Meanwhile, she’s comfortable living over the store (she actually does, along with her guard cat) and building an unlikely business in a fascinating corner of the world. And her mom finally accepted Meredith’s unusual career choice, with one condition – that a wine be named after her, and that it would have the saloon girl on the label.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sheep-worrying in Wales

It can be a criminal offence to worry sheep in Britain. That seems fair. I’m sure worried sheep produce less luxurious wool and probably taste funny too. But what about when you worry about the sheep? Little lost lambs (they weren’t) gave us great cause for concern. Marauding herds running right for us (they weren’t) were a city girl’s idea of a brush with death. I learned a lot about sheep during a recent fifty-mile hike through the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales this weekend.

Mostly I learned that my Tanager teammates preparing to Walk the Bryson Line through Britain this June to raise funds for 5 fantastic charities are great trail companions. They got me over barbed wire, down a path that had become a running river, over a snowfield and through a biblical amount of mud. We dealt deftly with diversions, pubs closed for renovations (bugger) and walking along major roads.

I have also learned that my friends and family are the most generous of supporters. God bless every single one of you who has made a contribution to the Royal Brompton Hospital that got me back on my feet and back on the trail.

If you would like to contribute but haven’t yet, here’s the link.

And if you feel really sorry for my teammates who have to spend 30 days trekking with ‘little miss smartypants, you might want to consider a donation as well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Never Give Up

This Sunday, I went on a 18 mile training hike for Walk the Bryson Line -  a group of 'mostly Americans' living in Britain preparing for a 569 mile/30 day trek through the British countryside to raise money for some fantastic UK charities.

This June, we'll be walking an average of 19 miles a day and this February training session, with hail and epic amounts of mud, gave me a taste, but only a taste, of how 30 days non-stop at this pace and distance will feel.

But this Sunday, I also read a moving and beautiful article in the Observer Magazine about walking in Britain by Stuart Heritage that got me thinking - about my Mom. The story starts out, "My mum was a great walker. Now I'm following in her footsteps, to help me get over her death." And here's one of my favourite parts of the article:

"But walking suits me. It's a pursuit that rewards persistence over ability, the methodical grinding down of obstacles over the showy exploding of them. Hood up, head down, keep going ... You find a spot in the distance and point yourself at that. Repeat those steps enough times and eventually, you get to where you want to be ... Trust in the route. Trust in the plod."

And I'll add here, Trust in your genes. Like Stuart Heritage's mum, my mother was a walker - in Bhutan, Nepal and on Everest as in the photo above. But those 'walking' genes aren't the ones that will get me from Cape Wrath in Scotland to Bognor Regis on the south coast of England. What will, I wrote about shortly after my mother's death in 2015 and recount below.

Why We Travel

When I was growing up, my parents often travelled to faraway lands. It didn’t worry me during the day, but at night I dreamt over and over again that they died in a plane crash.  I dreamt it so often that I taught myself how to control the story. Just as the plane was about to hit the ground, I would tell myself to wake up and not to worry, it was only a dream. One night, probably from boredom or just curiosity, I let the dream finish its terrible trajectory.  This night the plane crashed. Everyone aboard was killed. At the funeral, my father was quietly lowered into the ground. My mother, by contrast, sat straight up in her coffin right before they closed the lid and said, “If you think I am taking this lying down, you are sadly mistaken.” She got up and walked out. I never had that dream again.

So you can imagine the shock when she did die.  Not violently in a plane crash but quietly in a bed following a stroke. The doctors had prepared us for what was coming, but I didn’t believe them. After all, she had defied so many expectations and predictions. After a skiing accident, they said she might not walk again. She walked. Snow blind on Everest, she found the path. In jail in Algeria, she got out. Dead in my dreams, she quit her own funeral.

So you can see why I thought, of course, she would make it. When I arrived at the hospital following the call from my father, she was singing “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” from Mary Poppins and asking for bourbon. Even at the very end, even when the nurse whispered, “I think she’s gone” and began to check for a heartbeat, Mom took a huge, deep, gasping breath that made us all jump out of our skin. See, I thought, she isn’t ‘gone’. Not my mother. But a few minutes later, she was.

But this is supposed to be a travel story – about an adventurer - an old-school, lady traveller to be exact. Please note that I did not say old-school woman traveller. My mother didn’t set much store on feminist activism. I think she was bored with it. Instead, she just did her own magnificent thing. As the Reverend Tom Midyett said at her service, “Nan was an artist” with all the individuality that statement implies.

The sweetest words my mother ever heard were always, “No, you can’t do that.” Maybe she never intended to do it. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But the minute something was forbidden, she would get a really fun, terrifying glint in her eye. I think she lived for those moments. And then she was off, to Africa, to Antarctica, to New York, to altitudes and deserts and rivers and castles, to all the places that for all kinds of reasons she was not supposed to go. She was Boudicca in a Chanel suit, Sacagawea leading Lewis and Clark, Gertrude Bell mapping the Middle East - always leading the charge against convention and expectation. 

And just when you thought she’d done it all, she’d head off again. ‘Where’s  your mother now?’ was my favorite question as a child. It still is. So where’s my mother now? It’s hard to say. Off on some adventure, causing trouble, I suppose. I hope. 

I like to think of her this way. On her very first trip - 15 years old, excited, apprehensive, about to board the train in North Carolina bound for New York City and Julliard and my father and us, her children, and everything that happened after that including Antarctica and Algeria and Everest. My mother taught me this. We travel because God gave us two feet, a strong heart and a sense of adventure. We travel because, aware of all the hazards, we still want to do it.

What I was thinking about while I was walking in the mud and the hail this weekend was this. Your mother would never have given up. 

And neither will you.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Fun Times in Dublin with Laura Healy

Almost 20 years ago, I met Laura Jane Sanderson Healy in London outside Puffins Nursery School where both of us had enrolled our darling daughters. The daughters are now at University. Laura and I are still 'bessies' and Laura is still one of the best writers I know.  Herewith, her action-packed romp through Dublin with tons of tips and great ideas. Thanks, Laura for a wonderful post.

Last fall I returned to Dublin, Ireland, after a decade’s absence and had a complete ball. The place was buzzing like I had never seen. My husband of Irish origin was working in his father’s hometown for a stretch, so Temple Bar Hotel in Fleet Street was our boutique oasis in the midst of Bourbon Street-like Temple Bar, an historic, quayside area on the south side of the River Liffey. No Crowdsers would best enjoy life here during quieter weekdays. Tour Temple Bar Gallery + Studios; patronize the eclectic Jam Art Factory and scoop up the colorful animal jewelry (I have the fox brooch and stag necklace) by ARTY SMARTY. Look for alley murals depicting Ireland’s dazzling writers (Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett) and scruffy musicians (Phil Lynott, Bob Geldof); seek out classics, local lit, or cards at The Gutter Bookshop, or join the Socialists at Connolly’s and get your manifesto on. Musicians play in the street and in the many Temple Bar pubs; you will always hear Thin Lizzy’s electric version of “Whiskey in the Jar,”  sometimes detect a stray Cat Stevens’ song, and Trad (Traditional) Irish Music feat. whistle, bodhran, and fiddle is always on the boil.
  The Irish Film Institute In Eustace Street has two cinemas, a library, a film shop and bookstore, and cineastes coffee-klatsch in the center’s cafe and inner courtyard. On a spooky, rainy afternoon shortly after my arrival, I watched Aoife Kelleher’s “Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village” about the supernatural happenings parishioners recounted at the then small country church at Knock in 1879. (Disclosure: I was lured to this particular screening having once been assigned out of London to report on a moving grotto statue in County Cork.)

  Truly miraculous to lovers of the stage is the Dublin Theater Festival, which appears religiously every September and was a favorite of my droll, late father-in-law. Husband and I saw three fab revivals: former borstal boy Brendan Behan’s prison drama THE QUARE FELLOW at Temple Bar’s Smock Alley (the renovated boys school-church-Restoration playhouse which began life as the Theatre Royal in 1662 and where Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan premiered their witty plays); Somerset Maugham’s THE CONSTANT WIFE at The Gate; and Martin McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE at The Gaiety.

Good, casual restaurants around Temple Bar are Gallagher’s Boxty House (named after the Irish potato pancake) and Elephant and Castle along Fleet Street, the fun French bistrot The Green Hen on Exchequer Street, and The Bull and Castle by F.X. Buckley, a gastropub/steakhouse across Lord Edward Street from Christ Church Cathedral. We had dinner with my husband’s cousin here one, because it has recently been called one of the best restaurants in Dublin, and two, to celebrate the fact that it was once the family pub called Healy’s. 


  The author James Joyce is ubiquitous in Dublin, and he and a friend sit forever in bronze beside the cobblestones of Anglesea Street smoking and drinking at the pub bearing that surgeon-writer pal’s name: Oliver St. John Gogarty (“Buck Mulligan” in Joyce’s ULYSSES). The middle name of St. John is pronounced “sinjin,” by the way, so you know, and the pub is at the corner of Fleet Street and Anglesea. One Sunday evening, my husband took me to The Parlour Bar upstairs at The Stag’s Head Pub to see Robert Gogan’s one-man-show “Strolling through Ulysses.” Gogan is hilarious as he “introduces” all the pertinent characters of Joyce’s epic novel in just 75 minutes with one wee intermission; you can buy his officially annotated version of the book — ULYSSES BY JAMES JOYCE, REMASTERED BY ROBERT GOGAN — to keep from going mad or reaching for the lotuses. Do not take children to this wickedly lewd performance.

  Museum wise, The Little Museum of Dublin is a winner: relaxed and attractively-curated, the donated collection is housed in a fine Georgian house on the north side of the St. Stephen’s Green park. For a small fee, amusing guides take turns presenting the place to you, beginning in the drawing room on the First Floor (up one, in Europe) where you may partake of colorful liquorice candies while you sit on a sofa and listen to the spiel about the most ancient city’s rebellion against a foreign power. The history of the Irish Free State is carefully explained before the small group moves into a room full of cultural treasures including the podium President Kennedy spoke at when visiting town and a wall of celebrity photographs (I loved seeing one in particular of a parading Goya painting —  The Diceman was a performance artist I once saw “sail” as a “ship” down Grafton Street to advertise the old Switzer’s store’s SALE). Upstairs, Irish rockers U2 have a floor of their own.
  Where do paint-splashed studios go when their artist kicks over all the buckets in the room? In the case of Irish painter Francis Bacon, to the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, which reassembled the messy thing intact from 7 Reece Mews in London’s South Kensington to Charlemont House, Parnell Square North, Dublin 1. It’s fun (and free) to see, and I loved eating lunch at the gallery’s cafe across from an art-loving grandmother and her little granddaughter. I needed sustenance to spend the next hour studying “The Metronome Bursts of Automatic Fire Seep Through the Dawn Mist Like Muffled Drums and We Know It for What It Is” by Belgian artist Sven Augustijnen for The Hugh Lane's Artist as Witness 2016 program (the quote came from LIFE journalist John Saar, whom I once worked with in New York).

  “During the Cold War, the light automatic rifle — the F.A.L. manufactured by Fabrique Nationale de Herstal in Belgium — was the most distributed weapon in non-communist countries, and therefore named the "right arm of the free world;” however, the rifle appeared on both sides of the ideological spectrum in the various conflicts around the world,” the artist writes. The gallery website explains that his “selection of TIME and LIFE magazines, alongside RTÉ archive footage from Northern Ireland, reveals how both weapons and journalism are entangled in the fabric of our history. He installs the magazines in chronological order and his meticulous editing of image and article provokes a collision with the values of freedom and capitalism as embodied in these publications. This dramatic installation transforms information into sculpture. The pages selected date from the late 1950s to 2016 and present profound political and social upheavals which are repeatedly mirrored in our current news; a devastating critique on the ongoing tragic spectacle of war and its production.”
  I had to look it up, but in November 2013, the Bacon triptych of his portrait painter friend Lucian Freud was the most expensive art ever sold at auction when it was knocked down at $142.4 million at Christie’s New York. That’s one way of bringing home the Bacon. 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here are some fun links:


Friday, October 21, 2016

That Was My Iran

It all began with a headline. British Airways to resume direct flights from Heathrow to Tehran. Such magic, mobilizing words. Eight months later, we were on the flight.

I blame my professors. Both the Editor and I had studied History and International Relations. That Iran had re-opened to tourism meant we could finally see the monuments and antiquities of those great empires and civilizations while observing contemporary life in one of the Middle East’s most important political actors. Once the idea was planted, we had to go. But how?


You can’t just pick up a rental car at Tehran airport and drive around the country. For starters, your itinerary has to be pre-approved by the authorities in order to acquire a visa, a ‘not fun’ process filled with complexity. Also, driving in Iran is best left to the locals. In short, for this trip, we needed support.

We knew that Steppes Travel, a tour operator in the UK with British Museum antecedents, was offering small group travel to Iran. We liked their offering. Surprisingly, the price difference between going with a group and travelling solo with our own guide and driver was not hugely prohibitive so we chose to be on our own. Of course, we weren’t. We were almost 24/7 with our guide and driver.  Here is where our calculation that Steppes would have good relationships in Iran paid off.

Steppes local provider, Pasagard Tours, was flawless in its delivery, especially in providing our brilliant guide, Navid Ghods, and our excellent driver, Houman. Navid’s passion for his country’s history and culture, his attention to detail, his concern for our comfort and wellbeing made our trip truly exceptional. Anyone who has seen me incompetently crossing busy roads in London would appreciate the death-defying efforts Navid had to exert to get me safely across the streets of Iran. No matter how I try, I cannot imagine a more perfect leader, teacher, protector and friend.

And finally, a word on dress.  I worried a lot about this topic before travelling but in the end, it was no big deal. Yes, women have to keep their heads and the curvy parts of their bodies covered but you can buy good looking scarves (cotton is best, they don’t slide around) and tunic-like tops to wear over your regular trousers. They don’t have to be black. Most importantly, your efforts to be respectful are appreciated and it certainly adds an element of the exotic to your visit.


With 10 days to spend in the country, we travelled the classic tourist route of Tehran, Kashan, Abyaneh, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Na’in and back to Tehran. Sound like a lot of driving? It was - almost 2,000 kilometers to be exact. For anyone planning a trip, there is a case for flying back to Tehran from the south and skipping the long road trip back. But, I don’t know. I never learned anything about a country from an airplane.

So what were some of the highlights of the itinerary? So many, too many, the whole trip was a highlight but here goes:

Tehran is a modern megalopolis, chaotic, congested and exhilarating. We didn’t fall in love with the place but it’s a great place to start with wonderful museums and palaces, especially the Golestan Palace complex.

The Fin Garden (Bagh-e Fin) in Kashan, was lovely and filled with Iranians enjoying themselves in the splendid surroundings. Some believe that it was from Kashan that the three wise men from the east followed the star to Bethlehem. I like to think that’s true and in any event, it shows the importance of this city in ancient times.

·        Abyaneh, a 2,500-year-old mountain village with its own culture and customs where we saw our first Zoroastrian fire temple. We took a wild ride through the countryside in a recalcitrant Land Rover that took half the village to start. We loved it.

·        Elegant Esfahan, we loved it too, perhaps because with a major river (alas, completely dry at the time of our visit), tree-lined boulevards, magnificent mosques and palaces, a grand old showplace hotel, the Abassi, All Saviours Cathedral in the Armenian quarter and much more, it felt a bit like Europe from a bygone era.  Here we had an interesting conversation with a mullah and spent an evening at a mountain top restaurant with a group of madcap, partying ladies. I now know some serious Iranian dance moves.

·        In Shiraz we visited gardens and the shrines of poets. You have to love a society that reveres its writers.   Persepolis was a grand experience enhanced by an older gentleman who passed us muttering something akin to, “that son of a bitch, Alexander” who burnt the place to the ground in 331 BC. The staff at the excellent Homa Hotel was particularly accommodating.

·        In Yazd, a desert city with winding streets and alleyways, we fell in love with wind catchers (badgirs), ingenious towers that capture and funnel cooling breezes throughout buildings. Sunset at the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where, until the 1970s, the bodies of the dead were picked clean by vultures, was unforgettable. The Moshir Garden Hotel was totally brilliant with unique Persian décor, a romantic courtyard, parrots and a midget in livery working reception.

·        In Na’in, there is an older gentleman tucked away in a back room of the very interesting Pirnia House and Ethnographic Museum who weaves kilim rugs and coats and hats out of camel hair. His work is amazing and the prices reasonable so if you are heading for Na’in, save room in your suitcase and budget for an authentic piece of Iranian craftsmanship.

And then we were almost done. As Houman drove us back to Tehran – sure, a long slog but better than Interstate 95 - I thought about Iran, the last 8 months of planning, the effort involved in getting the visa and the nervousness we sometimes felt about the whole thing - after all, a British-Iranian mother had recently been jailed for 5 years on undisclosed charges – and then I thought about what we had encountered here, the richness of every single day’s experience, the warm reception we received everywhere, the splendor, the contradictions and the sheer pleasure of it all. Was it one of the most rewarding trips we have ever taken? Yes it was.  

There is a travel quote from Jawaharial Nehru that I like a lot that seems fitting for the end of this post.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

That was my Iran.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Marvellous Margot House

Margot Tenenbaum, my favourite Wes Anderson character, was the inspiration for my new favourite hotel in Barcelona – Margot House. Like Ms. Tenenbaum, the hotel is private, stylish and interesting. Numerous smart touches make this a very special place. For one, the location on the busy Paseo de Gracia. The fact that this very remarkable hotel is located on the second floor (no signs) gives it that secretive Margot touch.

In addition, there is a library, a well stocked, help-yourself bar and bicycles. The breakfasts were beautifully prepared and generous. The vibe is modern, slightly Scandi but supremely comfortable and deliciously quiet for such a swish and bustling neighborhood. In fact, it feels like you are staying at someone’s fab private house who has conveniently left you to enjoy yourself with their very accomodating staff. We took over the place for my son’s wedding in July and certainly stress-tested their ‘bonhomie’. They could not have been more charming and accommodating.

I cannot say enough good things about Margot House. The owners have created a brilliant, unique experience in a fantastic city and I must congratulate them on what they have achieved.

My feelings about this hotel are similar to Royal Tenenbaum's when his fake terminal illness has been exposed and he is being thrown out of the family home:

Royal: Look, I know I'm going to be the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life.
Narrator: Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.

Photo: Me in my garden in London trying to look like Margot