Love in Oaxaca

Girl in mom's arms
You don’t see the easy copout of plastic masks. This is serious business. Kids and adults sit for hours on end beside foldout tables laden with pots of paint and grease pencils, to be transformed into the dearly departed.

Before leaving for Oaxaca and the cultural glories of Día de Muertos, we prepared by watching the animated movie, Coco. I suppose it’s like watching Aladdin before boarding a plane for Bagdad. To be fair, though, Coco is a Pixar movie, so it contains pretty much all you need to know about Oaxaca and the Day of the Dead. We cried at the end.

Virgin at night
Skeletons and tributes to ghosts are all well and good. But this is a Catholic country, so you also need night-time processions and ladies with flowers carried high on men’s shoulders.

On our first night in Oaxaca, we strolled to the zócalo for a beer and to take in the sights.
As a band played under a restaurant awning, arthritic skeletons rose from their tables, clasped each other and danced.

Among the milling crowd in the zocalo, a girl in her early twenties, wearing tight striped pants and a sleeveless white shirt. With her glossy hair and makeup, her sandals and painted toenails, she might have been waiting for some friends to go clubbing.

Except that, she likely was not going clubbing. Her shirt was open and, as she chatted with a girlfriend and elderly skeletons danced the polka around her, a baby was clamped and furiously sucking on the girl’s exposed breast.

Boy + tuba
We spent most of the first day of festivities watching parades and listening to bands. Loud, ragged and beautiful.
Mother and kids
The simplest explanation for why Mexicans have a lot of kids is because they love them so much. Kids are everywhere: sleeping in their parents’ arms, playing under the family food stall, walking hand in hand with their ancient abuelo. Parents are endlessly patient and indulgent.
Red pants
The playing was just as sharp.
Black witch + red pants
On the Day of the Dead, unbridled joy, as beaming parents watch their kids play in bands, whirl in a dance, join a chorus declaiming a heroic poem. 

We sat in a dusty park beside the zócalo, on a bench facing an empty fountain. Dogs stretched out and sleeping in the dirt, pigeons picking at candy wrappers and chewed-over corn cobs in the dry fountain. It was late afternoon, the between-time following the day’s music and dancing and before the night’s renewed festivities.

Opposite our bench, a man sat on a low wall and beside him, stretched out full-length, was a sleeping princess. She about eight, in a purple satin gown, with white shoes and a golden tiara.  Head on his lap, fast asleep, clearly exhausted from the day’s parading and dancing.

The man had a distinguished head: carefully barbered, like all Mexican men. Neat and clean despite his shabby clothes and broken shoes. As he sat, the man stroked the princess’s bare arm and, as the shadows lengthened and the first evening chill stole into the park, he reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a blue and yellow cloth. With care, lest he wake her, he unfolded the cloth and tucked in the sleeping princess. All the while stroking her hair and arms, absently gazing at the parents and children streaming by, loving and gazing all the while.

Couple on bench
In the zocalo. A moment later, he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

Continue reading “Love in Oaxaca”

San Gimignano

Twin towers
Two of the remaining fourteen towers of San Gimignano. There were originally seventy-two. On a clear day, we can see San Gimignano from our agriturismo. On the horizon, it looks like Manhattan transplanted to the Tuscan hills. Slender towers rising into the sky, proclaiming the power and influence of the individual families that erected each sky-pointing finger.

We pulled into the small parking area at the Porta San Giovanni before ten in the morning. I made a quick beeline up the main street, wasting no time viewing the celebrated frescoes at the Collegiata or climbing the town’s medieval towers, in my haste to reach the opposite Porta San Mateo, where I finally arrived at my destination: San Gimignano’s barbershop. Continue reading “San Gimignano”


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I know we’re supposed to be in Volterra, but I couldn’t help looking back at Montegemoli and the lovely Gilda, who was so choked up at our departure that she couldn’t face the camera.

Since our arrival in Tuscany, we’ve been hoping to find Etruscan shards underfoot, but the place has been picked clean. No shards to speak of, especially of the highly valued Etruscan variety. But we’re here for another couple of weeks and will continue to look. Continue reading “Volterra”


After twenty-one hours of travel — enough time to jet to Australia — concluding with a harrowing drive on switchbacks with thundering trucks, only dimly registered under the blinding glare of the setting sun, we arrived at Montegemoli.

Like our recent travels in Anacortes, Washington and Hayley, Idaho, Montegemoli is the smallest dot on the map.

Our lovely hostess and her happily leaping dog, Gilda, greeted us and immediately hustled us off to a nearby restaurant — the only restaurant in town — just a five-minute walk away. We hadn’t planned on eating, but were too polite to say so. We were so exhausted that we were looking forward to a quick Spartan meal of a crust of bread and a square of chocolate, before toppling into bed and into the embrace of oblivion.

But we gamely trudged off to Osteria dell’ultimo carbonaio. The place was unassuming, with just a few customers sitting at rough wooden tables and chairs, surrounded by screaming children with plastic swords. We scanned the offerings on the vinyl-covered menu: vegetarians would starve to death. Boer, venison and duck featured prominently in just about every dish.

At a loss, we asked the waiter to recommend a few dishes. Something light, as we were tired and not particularly hungry. The “light” antipasto turned out to be a platter of carpaccio. Our hearts sank. But the carpaccio melted on the tongue. Next, two bowls of homemade pasta: One of sausages and porcini, the other with black truffles and cream. We’ve ordered truffled-up dishes in restaurants back home, and always dismissed them as hype, as it’s almost impossible to taste anything, given the microscopic shavings that, rumour has it, may have been sourced from truffles.

Here, the truffles, likely sliced on a mandolin, were generous, earthy and sharp. A mineral quality so different from anything else we’d tasted, they could have been mined on the moon.

So good it was enough to make you weep.

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Striped lady at a café.

After a long night’s sleep, Gilda joined us for breakfast on the patio, overlooking the Tuscan hills. The hills are different from those in Idaho: gentler, less abrupt, more cultivated. Geometric fields give the landscape the appearance of a lumpy bed covered with a patchwork quilt. Our hostess brought us figs from her garden, and we drank cup after cup of coffee as the shadows shortened under the rising sun.

The view from breakfast. Note the rooster at lower left, whose tail is a whirligig. Much better than a real rooster, who would wake us up.

(Many years ago, on a deserted beach in Greece, an old man arrives every other morning, bringing us large figs in his straw hat: purple figs, so dark at to be nearly black, bursting with jammy meat. A glass of cold water, three figs on a yellow plate, distant applause from the morning sea.)

The rest of our first day in Tuscany, we spent at Colle di val d’Elsa: a walled city that is nearly invisible in the guidebooks we consulted. Cobbled streets and stone walls and small, tidy museums and palazzi with hanging laundry at their windows. The relative lack of tourists, such ourselves, was a pleasure. But we did see a number of Europeans on some kind of pilgrimage, each of them weighed down with bright nylon backpacks and their private sorrows.

The approach to Colle di val d’Elsa, after parking our six-speed, diesel-powered Fiat Tipo — a joy to drive on the twisty roads.

We read a lot about this walled city. Medieval seat of blah-blah, gateway to the duchy of this-and-that, cathedral to Saint-what’s-his-name, celebrated centre of industry. We stepped into a few shops and the tourist office. Famous for its armaments, and its finocchio. Or was it Pinocchio? I forget which; maybe it’s both.

Facts roll out, make a few orbits around the drain, and disappear. Many people collect them — facts, I mean. But I don’t retain a single one, which makes me a terrible travel companion and dinner guest.

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One of the many alleyways in the walled city.
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Part of the clocktower, attached to the cathedral, which is a magnet for pilgrims.
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Evidence of life in the deserted city. It’s easy to forget that only mad dogs and tourists stir between one and four o’clock in the afternoon.