Gastronomical Paradise, Almost, in Dali’s Spain

Gastronomical Paradise, Almost, in Dali’s Spain

by Regan Burke

As we reached for the Iberian cured ham and tomato bread, we jerked back in our seats when someone shouted “call an ambulance!” Our boss had an asthma attack and we followed him to the Figueres hospital. The restaurant, El Motel, 90 miles north of Barcelona and 40 miles south of the French border inspired the most famous chef in the world, Ferran Adrià to create his restaurant, El Bulli in nearby Cadaques on the Mediterranean Sea.

In the weeks before, my three colleagues and I traveled from our office at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on official business to Barcelona, we vowed to eat at the celebrated El Motel restaurant. I arrived a week before Secretary Richard Riley and his staff to arrange the logistics for the conference events and to find a typical Catalan school for the Secretary to tour. Serendipitously, a principal formally invited the U.S. Secretary of Education to visit her school in the dusty country between Barcelona and Figueres. The children celebrated him with an American musical performance that added hours to our day. With official business out of the way, we headed for the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. My colleagues, John Funderburk, Jay Blanchard and David Frank stewed in anticipation of lunch at the table of chef Jaume Subiros.

Dali said of his museum, “The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” At first glance his entrance looks like a quaint three-story red th-4clay castle. Looking atop the turret one sees huge cement eggs. The exterior walls are peppered with what foreigners think are baked dinner rolls, but Catalonians know the scatological Dali created the organic sculptures to resemble excrement pies. The aphrodisiacs inside include Dali’s surrealistic art, holograms, a vintage interthactive Cadillac and his crypt. We frittered away longer than planned and in the end found Secretary Riley and his wife, “Tunky”, resting in the Mae West living room.

Drenched in Dali elixir and blanched by a long day in Catalonia without sustenance we made our way north on the Avenida de Salvador Dali away from the “theatrical dream” and toward the gastronomical paradise of El Motel. The U.S. consulate in Barcelona booked our table and we were greeted with all the ruffles and flourishes of royalty. Low blood sugar and parched228566_1 thirst dragged us to a round table full of tea roses and peonies overlooking the dry Spanish countryside. Yes, yes! We agreed to start with plates of Iberian ham. The shared plates would dish up seafood croquettes; rice with sea cucumbers, rabbit and sausage; clams with candied tomato & lemon grass. The chef had prepared fresh Catalan custard for dessert.

As the Iberian ham was placed before me I looked up in horror to see Secretary Riley turning beet red, struggling to breathe. He recovered overnight in the Figueres hospital. In our Barcelona hotel the following day we were comforted with simple ham and cheese sandwiches before leaving for the airport.

The Ubiquitous Iron

The Ubiquitous Iron

 

Regan Burke, May 2016

When Joe was born, my mother arrived with an iron and ironing board so I could iron the baby’s clothes. My mother, Agnes, went to church at the ironing board. It relieved her hangovers, and calmed her nerves. In every house we moved into she found a sanctuary for ironing – a laundry room, spare bedroom, basement.

No, Agnes did not iron for a household of four children, did not present us with ironed sheets and pillowcases or freshly pressed school uniforms. Her ironing was reserved for her alone. She laid out her oxford cloth shirts or linen dresses on the ironing board, placed a dampened dish towel over the garment and pressed down with a hot iron until steam th-3rose up, then moved to another spot, re-dampening the towel when it dried out. Her eyes winced at the uprising of clean hot steam. The acrid smell of damp cotton or wool down below flared her nostrils. As she conquered the wrinkles at hand her furrowed malcontented brow smoothed out. Agnes’ younger sister, Joanne, after a few bourbons always eulogized her with, “Your mother loved to iron.”

Forty-nine years later I still have the iron Agnes gave me. It has a hole in the top for water which is converted to steam in the hot iron and whooshes out of the 39 holes on the sole. The sole is stained from undistilled water and from those years when I fell for the convenience of spray starch. Numerous falls off the ironing board onto a hard floor have blunted the tip. The faded red, white and blue settings sit atop a dulled black heavy plastic handle which is wrapped with a discolored turquoise electric cord. I can still see myself in the mirror-like shine of the chrome sides. And it still works.

I should have discarded it long ago. I’ve packed it up and moved it from every place I’ve lived since 1967 always keeping it in the corner of the closet shelf over my clothes. I’ve tried to replace it with new irons, but they last only a few years and I go right back to the trustworthy General Electric 39-holer.

Wrinkle-free fabrics have made Ironing unnecessary now. Lower-end baby boomers and their offspring don’t even know how to iron. When it became fashionable or rather acceptable to wear wrinkled linen in the 1990’s I chucked the old ironing board. Something stopped me from discarding my vintage iron, however. I still use it to press scarves on a folded towel laid out on the dining room table.

At craft fairs I see old irons decorated with decoupage and sequins transforming them into doorstops and  bookends. Maybe I’ll spray paint my iron anniversary gold and give it to my son on his birthday next year. I’ll paint words on the bottom: Happy 50th Birthday To Us. Will he wonder why I kept the iron my mother gave me all these years? I certainly do.

“Get Off the Bus” by Annette Bacon

“Get Off the Bus”  by Annette Bacon

Get Off the Bus

th-1I made the 146 bus after a quick run and put my Ventra card on the reader. It did not beep so I tried it several times. The driver said that I had an 85 cents negative balance. I apologized and said that I only had a ten and a twenty. She said I needed to get off the bus. I started to leave and this guy shouted, “Don’t, you do not have to get off the bus. I am calling the CTA.” “She can’t throw an elderly person off the bus due to lack of funds.” People were staring at us and I decided to get off. I ran across the street to my garage and took some quarters out of my car. I ran back to the bus stop as the other 146 bus had arrived. I put the quarters in the money holder. I looked up and saw the people from the first bus getting on. The bus driver said, “What’s happening?” “Thth-3e bus behind me is empty.”

The same guy that was yelling on the other bus said, “I’ll tell you what happened, the other bus driver threw this elderly woman off the bus and that is against the law, so I called the CTA. And there she is!” He was pointing right at me. I cringed again and tried to pretend I was reading. The same guy called a friend and said the whole story again so loud I could hardly stand it. He ended the phone call with,“And I told the CTA I want this bus driver relieved of her duties. She did not have her badge on either!” I panicked. Someone was getting fired due to me? The woman was probably a single mom with four kids. When we arrived at my stop on Michigan Avenue, I jumped off and ran into the Fourth Presbyterian Church sanctuary. I said a prayer for this woman and asked God not to let her get fired.

As I went up the stairs of the church, I could feel my blood pressure was up and I felt like I was flying. On the second floor I walked into Buchanan Chapel and tried to calm myself. I couldn’t decide if I should call the CTA and identify myself as the “elderly woman”. Then I could ask them not to fire her. The system was so huge I knew this would not make sense. They would think I was deranged. Meditation was the answer. Afterwards I took my “elderly woman” body up the elevator to my memoir writing class at the church’s Center for Life and Learning.

In the Attics of My Life, Jerry Garcia Lives

In the Attics of My Life, Jerry Garcia Lives

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician. The world view I dreamed up included good people who ultimately acted in the best interest of the whole.  Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In th-11991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next day’s schedule. He descended the jet’s stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his hands up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next seven years.

In the still of an August morning in 1995 NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my false world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in a soft yellow, flowery cotton frock and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat of don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

Immortality, Interrupted: Lake Forest Eviction

220px-Barat-PereMy lawyering father would make a barrel of flimflam cash, move our family to a gilt-edged neighborhood and drink it all up within a year. He would sneak away on a business trip and a few weeks later my mother would wake my two sisters and I in the middle of the night, pack us into the car and drive to another state, another town, another gilt-edged neighborhood.

In seventh grade I entered my 11th school since I started first grade in 1952, the Academy of  Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois. I intended to shine in all subjects, especially my nemesis arithmetic, no matter what was happening at home. Experience warned me I didn’t have much time until the next midnight move so I crammed my head with Latin conjugations, algorithms, periodic tables, Romeo and Juliet, diagrammed sentences, the French revolution and the Gospel of Mark. At the end of the year the Mater Admirabilis Award (Mother Most Admired, another name for Mary), an Oscar-like trophy would be bestowed on an eighth-grader for her excellence in academics, sports, religious and civic activities. Her name would be engraved on a bronze plate and permanently fixed next to the previous winners. I prayed everyday for God to keep me in that school through the eighth grade so I could win that prize.

Sacred Heart nuns had been in Chicago since the 1860’s. Bishop Anthony O’Regan brought them from France to open a school at Rush and Illinois Streets, a mile from where I live now. They taught women leadership in society rather than social graces and homemaking. O’Regan moved the school to pastoral Lake Forest when hotels, saloons and brothels flooded the Rush Street neighborhood.

A hundred years later, French still permeated our activities. “Congé” (holiday) was a surprise day when schoolwork was suddenly replaced by a day of fun such as playing Cache Cache, a version of hide-and-seek. Congé ended with “Goûter” (to taste), a roomful of refreshments celebrating the winners of the day’s games. This joie de vivre coupled with the nuns’ love of God appealed to my awakening soul.

My teachers gradually increased my extra credit assignments to include tutoring, public speaking and sports. By the end of the 8th grade everyone knew my name would be forever on display in the trophy cabinet.

In the school bus on the way home from an ordinary day in early May, I thanked God for Sacred Heart and my soon-to-be immortality. The bus driver pulled into our driveway and slammed on the brakes. Furniture, clothes, pots and pans, bicycles – everything we owned clogged the pavement.

I told my sisters to stay on the bus, as if something dangerous was happening, until I saw my mother sitting on the couch with my 3-year-old sister Stacy. I needed to save her from a reality I didn’t understand. A sheriff blocked the front door. We were not allowed to enter. A family friend arrived to drive us to a downtown Rush Street hotel. A week later I was in another school, another town, another state.

 

Film School with Vivienne

Film School with Vivienne

 

The elevator opened to a lit-up scene of human statues in the closed-for-business City Hall lobby.

“Cut! Close that elevator door!”

I slinked back into the elevator, up to the 4th floor Elections Department and flew to the telephone in my office where, in the Saturday morning quiet, I had just finished the 1993 voter registration plan.

I called my high-rise neighbor, Vivienne de Courcy. “You have to come down here right now!”

“Ach. Can’t possibly. Bogged down. Writing,” said Vivienne, a frustrated 9-5 insurance lawyer who spent Saturdays grinding out movie scripts.

“You must — they’re shooting a movie in the lobby. We can get access with my I.D.”  Vivienne and I loved sifting through the credits at the end of movies trying to figure out what everyone did, but we’d never been on a movie set.

Chicago’s City Hall squats on one city block with doors at Randolph, LaSalle, Washington, and Clark Streets. I hurried to the Washington Street side of the building down the stairs to the lobby. Flyers were posted in the stairwell: Lobby Closed Saturday Noon for Filming of The Fugitive. When did they put those up?

I ran down the hallway, shoved open the polished brass doors and caught my uninhibited, garrulous sidekick swinging her long legs out of a taxi on Washington Street.

Vivienne’s knockout looks never suffered from uncombed hair and no make-up. Flinging her camel-hair cape over her shoulder she shivered in the March wind, grabbed my arm and skipped inside. I muttered quick instructions: don’t embarrass me, don’t say a word, don’t make me laugh, do not get me in trouble.

Crew Only signs sat on food tables along the corridor. Perched at the table near the rotunda we hawk-eyed bowls of popcorn. Vivienne whispered her intuitive movie-credits knowledge. That’s the Director. Production Assistant. There’s the Script Supervisor. Which one is the Grip? Dunno.

A crew member gestured to the popcorn, assuming we were extras. Vivienne helped herself. What? Don’t do that!

And then, Action! Harrison Ford came running down the circa-1911 polished marble staircase across the wide rotunda zig-zagging through the crowd of extras I had witnessed by the elevators. Cut! He walked back upstairs. Action! He came running down again chased by Tommy Lee Jones.

Oh my god, he’s coming this way. “Vivienne! Say something!” Harrison Ford sauntered over to munch popcorn. I shoved Vivienne toward him. He said hello and she asked him how he liked Chicago.

“Is that an Irish accent?”

“’Tis.”

“How do YOU like Chicago?”

“I love it.”

“Well, I love popcorn.”  He smiled and strolled away.

My starstruck legs wobbled. Back at my side with a handful of popcorn, Vivienne shimmered. Turning toward the exit we faced crew and extras gathered for the catered lunch behind us.

“Are you two extras? What’s that I.D. around your neck?”

We skedaddled down the hallway, fluttered out the doors and whooped it up all the way home.

 

Vivienne de Courcy’s first feature length movie. “Dare to be Wild” is premiering at the Palm Beach Film Festival in April, 2016. She currently resides in Ireland and London.

Hippies At Thanksgiving

Ode to Thanksgiving

th-2

Vermont with Tricia Thack and our children in her ’62 Ford
To escape husbands and dull lives at the Jersey Shore
Route 100 Pittsfield apartments at the Village Green
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor
With sheltered hippies, ski bums, drop-outs, in-betweens
Divorcees, dharma bums, dogs, cats and a runaway queen
Working snow season ten miles up the road
Bars, restaurants, ski lifts, tourists by the busload

California hippies made yogurt
We ate it plain no mediocre
East Coast hippies found health food stores
Raw cashews, unsulphured raisins, no carnivores
Steam the vegetables
Sunflower seed salad incredible
Eat brown rice
Don’t eat meat, except bacon

October 1969
Friendships accelerated deeply on pot and wine
Music-fueled astral planes
Snowshoes with children in tricky terrains
Thanksgiving dinner hearkened merrymakers from the mountain
Mishmash beans soaked in apple-cider-vinegar foamy fountain
Simmered four hours with smashed garlic cloves
Vegetables landed willy-nilly into crackling oil skillet on the stove
Chopped tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, squash, mushrooms, celery
Washed brown rice seethed unstirred roguishly
Cool beans hot rice folded into vegetables simmering glimmering
A bland bowl for the children fingering
Honey dollop, crushed marijuana, basil, jalapeños, paprika, ginger, pepper, ever so
Settled on low heat emitting brewed fragrance of Old Mexico
Aroma announced time to eat Mishmash and pour sauternes
Apple wine and marijuana released the kitchen from worldly concerns

Cool cats appeared extra marijuana added to Mishmash haplessly
California hippies topped off stew with yogurt joyfully
We relished the sweet and savory peace of our groovy family

La Dolce Vita in Cinque Terre

It took six months in 1998 to organize our jitter-filled lives around a two-week vacation in Vernazza, a thousand-year-old fishing village in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera.

Vernazza RoccoRooco, Kristina, Mark and I left the 19th century train station and rolled our overstuffed suitcases 20 minutes up a cobblestone switchback twined in purple morning glories. Our home abroad sat 1300 feet above the Mediterranean Sea and overlooked a village of 1000 happy Italians. We arrived at LaTorre midday, when the sea is dark turquoise and the sun swells the nose-tickling lemon and olive trees.

LaTorre is a 13th century pirate lookout with a galley kitchen, a modern bathroom, a luminous living-dining area and an alcove captain’s bedroom. Three other beds were lofted into stacked platforms in a stone tower, and the only way to get to them was by rope ladders. We staked out our sleeping arrangements and headed back down the path to the village.

Like bloodhounds we followed the scent of ground basil and garlic around the village into a ristorante on the piazza at the harbor. Our first meal was homemade bread dipped in fresh pesto,Vernazza’s culinary legacy to the world.

Some days we hiked the village-to-village trail along the sea, returning to Vernazza by water taxi. Other days the train took us to Le Spezia, Portofino, Pisa Vernazzaand Lucca. At night we lounged on LaTorre’s heirloom terrace in front of the twinkling lights of passing boats on the navy blue horizon.

And then the phone rang.

John Funderburk  was on the line frantic to let me know that a journalist was about to call me wanting information about Monica Lewinsky. John was a fellow political appointee in the Clinton Administration and he recommended I consult with a lawyer before taking the call. Perfect vacation bliss was now teetering at the cliff of a darkened sea.

My D.C. job occasionally had me organizing publicity and logistics at events for the President’s appearance. In the Spring of 1997 I’d been advancing a small fundraiser in a Washington hotel when an old friend from Indianapolis came into the room through the metal detectors right after Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky was known among advance people as a Clinton stalker, so I asked my Hoosier friend to shield the President from her potential clutch as he passed by.

A half a year later news broke about a Grand Jury investigation into Clinton’s relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky. Back in Indianapolis my friend panicked that he would be hauled before the Grand Jury. So he held a press conference about his brief encounter with Lewinsky – and mentioned my name.

The sudden jolt of reality stirred our Dolce Vita quartet in Italy to hatch hilarious mad scenarios to confound the intruding journalist. When the call came, Rocco answered. “Prrrronto! Si? Si? Sorry. No Inglese! Ciao!”

Che finito, we returned to our intermezzo between the acts of the crazy world.

Biking Around the Bomb

 Bicycle Grace by Regan Burke

The photo shows 2 athletic young men, 2 children and me, a plump old lady, pedaling east across Stockton Drive, a tree-lined street that sidewinds Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

The photo appeared in the City Beat section of the Chicago Tribune August 10, 2015 with the headline, “Biking Against the Bomb.” The caption reads “Demonstrators begin a 7-mile bike ride Sunday to mark the blast zone of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.”  My bike has a big yellow front tire, a black whitewall rear tire and red basket. I’m sporting neon pink ankle-length trousers, lime-green sneakers, and a “Bike Around the Bomb” extra-large short-sleeve turquoise t-shirt snugly over my long-sleeve lemon shirt. The t-shirt just happens to be the same color as my helmet and eyeglasses. My bike posture befits a 69-year old short grandmother with bulging thighs and donut midriff.

I stand out in the photo.

You see my hands gripping the handlebars of my beloved town bike. What you don’t see is God caressing those hands with high-fives. The day this photo was taken, that bicycle grace relieved me of the physical pain of moral certitude.

When I was in my 50’s, I worked in downtown Chicago overlooking the Daley Center. Every month a group of bicyclists, Critical Mass, gather in the plaza before their raucous ride through city streets. How I longed to join them! But I’d been derailed from lifelong bike-riding by fibromyalgia. After I retired I downshifted into wheelchair-bound despondency.

Suicidal thoughts took me to the velodrome of alternative therapies. Round and round I went to anyone, anything that might relieve my suffering mind-body. Eventually meditation led to feldenkrais, writing therapy, pain relief, and a bicycle.

I’ve marched in peace demonstrations since the 1960’s so “Biking Against the Bomb” was the perfect foray into group cycling since I regained mobility. Educated by nuns, I learned about peace huddled under my 1st-grade desk hiding from a possible atomic bomb. Pray for peace. God required peace by every means possible.

President Truman had written his own moral code a year before I was born. In August, 1945 he murdered 180,000 Japanese civilians with atomic bombs. An unnamed fear took root in my fetal shroud and sprouted in the dappled shade of A-bomb-talk throughout my youth. This genetic consequence chained me to the spokes of peace activism.

At my meditation group I tried to describe my day of bicycle grace but spiritual gobbledegook fell out of my mouth and I self-consciously coasted to the end of my sharing with, ”I think I could ride with Critical Mass now.”

Group-think chattered: “Oh no. Not them. Scofflaws. Sail through stop signs. Wheel around pedestrians. Weave in and out of traffic. Lawless.”

I said, “But they have a police escort.”

“Yeah. Unruly fringe group. Take over the street and piss off drivers.”

I went home, opened my computer, defaulted to moral certitude and clicked “going” on the next Critical Mass event listed on FaceBook.Biking