Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Matters Most~ Buddhist Thought for the day

"Each morning we are born again.
What we do today is what matters most." 

Have been on a little end-of-summer hiatus. Please excuse my absence.
I was looking for a Buddhist quote about time and found this. 
It is such a gift to remember that today
---and the present moment---
are what really matter most. 

Eckhart Tolle calls the present moment
the main portal into spiritual awakening.
Every morning that I awake,
I try to make connecting with the divine
the first thing I do. 

My morning meditation is often about maintaining that connection,
staying in the present
and then setting my intentions. 
But it can often become filled with the minutiae of my day.

That movement of gently bringing thoughts back to the present 
is what I need to fill my day with.
I mean really, if the minutiae insists on being part of my meditation,
then my meditation should insist on horning in on the minutiae. 
Let's just try that for awhile. 
What they call mindfulness. 

May your day be filled with peace 
and presence. 

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen
Taken in Sonoma, CA.) 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Anniversary of Pompeii

Growing up in the relative poverty of the American Hippie movement,
Europe was an exotic and distant planet to me
and one I barely dreamed of ever seeing.
My heart raced and I believe I may have even drooled slightly
when my 3rd grade teacher filed us into the library
and read to us about artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci,
the places they lived and worked
and the creations that fired from their brilliant, brimming minds. 

As long as I can remember, pictures of far-away lands fueled an ache inside me,
a fierce longing that churned and burned, roiling like lava itching to spread itself out onto the planet. 

When I was 14 and living in San Francisco,
the father of my mother's boyfriend handed me a book,
gifted it to me and told me to read it. 
by C.W. Ceram.

Then he told me about a place described in the book that I'd never heard of;
about an ancient city buried in ash; about Pompeii. 
The book was a bit hefty and dense for a teen to slog through
but I kept it for decades and I never forgot the incredible story of a city buried alive,
lost to the world and found nearly two thousand years later. 

So visiting Pompeii was a dream come true for me,
A place I thought I would only ever see in books.

(Temple of Apollo
built in 2nd century BC.)

(Statue next to Temple of Apollo)

By then, having realized my dream of traveling through Europe,
I was still in awe when I arrived at Pompeii,
at truly seeing the place I had only heard about since very young. 
And while having seen many of the famous ruins of Greece,
I still wasn't prepared for the astonishing volume of buildings still standing,
not just 'ruins' but entire walls and fountains, columns and reliefs
still displaying their colorful paintings and intricate mosaics. 

This past weekend on August 24th, between noon and 1pm,
was the anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius 
and the complete burial of two entire cities
(Herculaneum being the second.)
(And apparently now the day of a 6.0 earthquake in the Napa Valley region!)

On this day in the year 79 A.D.,
in the Campania region of Italy,
the baths were open and people gathered for lunch. 
There had been a few warning signs,
small earthquakes, water sources drying up
but they hadn't recognized them. Tremblers were common. 
To them, Vesuvius was just a neighboring mountain.

While the citizens of Pompeii sat down to lunch,
the skies darkened and hot ash and rock fell from the sky. 
People ran through the streets with pillows over their heads for cover.
Many escaped the city
but those who stayed, about 5,000 of the approximate 20,000,
were caught in the deadly wave of red-hot ash and gas on the second day.
This pyroclastic flow, reaching temperatures of 475 degrees celcius 
and moving at 100 miles an hour,
killed instantly those who stayed with their city. 
Their bodies, surrounded and buried by the hot ash,
left an ashen crust with cavities large enough for technicians of modern day
 to pour plaster casts of the body's exact positions,
sometimes even facial expressions. 

What's left of the city itself
is a stunning glimpse into ancient Roman life. 

Pompeii was founded around the 6-7 century BC.
(though some of the oldest carbonized tests date back to the 8th century BC.)
The houses of Pompeii were used by the wealthy
which accounts for the size and beauty of some of the interiors.
Holiday villas for wealthy Romans. 

Some of the homes were equipped with 'alcoves'
specifically for sexual entertainment
and in 1599, during the digging of a channel,  a few frescoes were uncovered,
but were considered so salacious
they were re-covered and left for a few more hundred years. 

Many of the wealthy townhouses
had ornate fountains and dazzling mosaics and frescoes...

(House of the Faun)

The above photo shows the House of the Faun,
which was excavated in 1830 by the German Arch. Inst.
and took up 3,000 square meters
(a full city block.) 

It is so called because of the dancing faun in the marble impluvium.
Fauns were considered woodland spirits or forest gods similar to Pan
or followers of the Greek Dionysus or Roman Bacchus.
The impluvium was the sunken section usually located in the atrium 
 used to collect rain water,
 the atrium being the open space allowing for light and ventilation. 
Water collected in the impluvium was filtered through the cracks into a cistern below. 
During hot and dry times, the naturally-cooled water 
could be drawn back up into the pool and used to cool the atrium
and thus the house. 

For times when the streets ran with water,
stones were placed to create 'crosswalks.' 

One of the buildings that sustained the least amount of damage
were the baths (discovered in 1958) also known as The Suburban Baths.
They housed a dressing room (apodyterium),
a lukewarm room (tepidarium),
a hot room (calidarium)
and a cold room (frigidarium.)
It also held an exercise and steam room.
And of course, much gorgeous artwork.

Another of the many things I found most astonishing at Pompeii
were the huge amounts of artifacts still sitting on site. 
Shelves and racks and racks and shelves
and glass cases of pots, jugs, art and plaster cast bodies
sitting in the open, a museum in itself. 

Pompeii was a flourishing city and commercial port 
with much trade of import and export.
Nearby fertile land provided abundantly with grapes, wine, olives and oil, wool, cloth,
animal, vegetable and cereal. 

Some of the foods produced and consumed by Pompeiians included
walnuts, chestnuts, garlic and onions, 
figs, pears, peaches, and grapes, carob and beans.

The same plaster cast process done on the bodies of Pompeii
have also been done on tree and garden plant roots
yielding information on their planting patterns.

Much of the wine, olive oil and grains were exported 
and Pompeii was known for their own specific wine
known as Vesuvinum:
vinum being Latin for wine and you can guess where the rest comes from. 

Mastroberardino, a family winemaker in the Campania region,
is working on recreating Pompeiian wines as they might have been in Roman times.
With permission, they are replanting the same vineyards using the same grape varieties.
They've even uncovered underground cellars of terracotta jars 
used to store wine beneath the ancient vineyards. 
I've got The Chef working on 
how to get our hands on some of these new Pompeiian wines
they're calling the Villa dei Misteri project,
named for one of the well-preserved, out-of-town villas
called the Villa of the Mysteries.
One of the heads of the project, Antonio Mastroberardino,
has been called "The Grape Archaeologist." 

I'm hoping to take some friends to Pompeii for their first visit.
Having done this before with friends from Greece,
people who are used to their lands dotted with the many Greek ruins,
it is a gift to see the looks on the faces of those who have heard
but never really understood the full extent of the beauty of what has been preserved. 

And for myself, 
I'm just looking forward to my next visit. 
Each time I go, certain 'Houses' are closed to the public 
for various maintenance reasons
so each visit yields something new,
some miraculous new discovery.

Just as when I was 14...

the story of Pompeii is imprinted on me.

And after having been there,
their personal stories

keep calling to me...

And one day I will tell them. 

(All photos copyright: Kirsten Steen
Sources: Wikipedia, 
Judith Harris' 'Pompeii Awakened'
and DVD 'Pompeii, the doomed city.')

(Aside: After spending the better part of August 24th,
off and on, putting together this blog post,
The Chef found a local wine shop who carried exactly 3 bottles 
from the Mastroberardino family wines.
They are not from the Villa dei Misteri Project
---recreating the same varietals of grapes on exactly the same vineyards the Pompeiians used
of which very few bottles have been made and even fewer made it to the States
and cost in the $200/bottle range---
but they did carry Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
or 'The Tears of Christ of Vesuvius.'
The name is derived from the old belief that Christ cried at Lucifer's fall from heaven, 
that his tears touched the land and gave divine inspiration to the vineyards. 
The deep lava gouges along the sides of Vesuvius make it easy to see why it got its name. 
And so far, according to archaeologists who have analysed the residue on the ancient taps,
this wine is the closest equivalent to that which the ancient Romans drank.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

12 Ways Tourists Annoy The Parisians

The Local asked readers the top 12 complaints
that drive Parisians crazy:

1. Stop getting robbed
In other words, watch your money closer
and be more careful on the subways.
Keep your purse and pack in the front and wallets out of trouser pockets.
Apparently, our carelessness is giving Paris a bad name. 

2. Thinking no one speaks English
Be careful what you say in front of others
and don't assume the Parisians don't understand you. 

3. Stop with the Locks~ 
No one, especially the Parisians, is happy about the love locks
damaging bridges in and around Paris. 
Nor the keys tossed into the Seine. 
It's causing huge problems for the bridges and the river
so take a Selfie and post it on Facebook or email it to your friends
but keep your locks to yourself. 

4. Manners go a long way~
Saying Bonjour before asking for help or directions
is common practice among Parisians
so consider saying hello or Excusez-moi before launching into your questions. 

5. Metro etiquette~
There are several unspoken rules when traveling by metro:
Let others off before getting on.
Take off your large backpack and keep it on the ground next to you or between your feet.
Don't lean over others to look at the Metro map again and again.
Move back away from the door to let others in.
Keep your voice down while inside. 

6. Velib bikes~
These are meant to help Parisians (and visitors) get from place to place in a hurry.
If you want a group bike tour, find one online and schedule it. 
And remember to keep your Velib on the street
and not ride on the sidewalk. 

7. Learn the basics~
Everyone has told you when traveling to France
to at least learn a few phrases to start with. 
As mentioned before, Bonjour or Parlez-vous anglais? 
lets them know you're trying. 

8. Blocking while taking photographs~
Be mindful of blocking pedestrians and/or traffic while stopping to take your pics.
Yes, everything IS gorgeous but remember you are probably about the 
100th tourist they've had to step or drive around that week. 
Take care that you're not blocking someone's way. 

9. Table etiquette~
Sitting down at a table clearly set for lunch or dinner
and asking for drinks only will leave your waiter plenty surly. 
Or moving chairs and tables around to suit you 
can sometimes cause them fines from the Police
so ask first. 

10. Keep your voice down~
The French are a much more discreet lot
and when sitting in close quarters (as many of the cafes, metro and trains are), 
they don't appreciate our booming voices or laughter. 
Again, more manners than anything. 

11. Road hogs~
Apparently, far too many visitors insist on walking down narrow pathways
en masse. 
This seemed to be a common complaint
and can be easily rectified by walking in couples or single file
to keep oncoming traffic happy. 

12. Changes to the menu~
It's a simple thing in the US and most restaurants will accomodate us
but in Paris, it is again considered rude. 
Ask for substitutions at home
but when in Paris, try it the way the chef created it. 
Keep those chefs happy! 

Some of these seem pretty basic and maybe even a little whiny
but with 30 million tourists a year, 
I imagine some small slights
can become huge. 
Seems common sense mostly. 
If you're not sure what bothers your hosts,
do a little reading online about etiquette of your host country.
We appreciate it when travelers do the same for us. 

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen
Info via The Local)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Secret of Health~ Buddhist thought for the day

I had a different post scheduled for this week
but the untimely death of a certain public figure
and beautiful, tortured human being
as well as the recent diagnosis of a family illness
left me with the need for something different. 

Monday, August 11th,
was also the birthday of a beloved friend
who would have been 51
but was taken from us,
fighting all the way,
at 26. 

So I went in search of Buddhist quotes 
as I sometimes do. 

"The secret of health for both mind and body
is not to mourn for the past,
nor to worry about the future,
but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly."

Today's quote is so basic
but a real reminder that when we spend our precious energy
on rehashing the past or worrying about the future,
our bodies don't have their full energy potential for healing and staying healthy. 
And usually, rehashing and worrying
are filled with toxic, negative emotional components
that also destroy our ability to heal. 

Being in the present
gives our bodies all the attention they deserve
and the energy they need. 
And since the present moment is really the only thing we truly have,
we might as well be living it to the fullest. 

Take a moment today,
maybe even more than one,
and spend it in gratitude just for this one particular moment
and the beauty around you,
your friends, your family,
and the love that encompasses you
through the grace of God and the universe. 

Feel that peace. 
And wish that soul (among so many others)
who just chose to leave us
a breathy, beautiful farewell
and that same peace. 

My hope is that my friend is there to greet him,
these two who both so loved the same city.
That they still feel the love we send them
and know how much joy they brought to us
and that they keep each other giggling 
with their funny characters and voices. 

Miss you both.
Til we meet again. 

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen
Lithia Park, Ashland, Oregon)

Monday, August 4, 2014

French hospital to offer wine to terminally ill patients

In a little French news,
a hospital in southwest France,
located in Clermont-Ferrand,
plans to open a wine bar specifically for the terminally ill. 

Dr. Virginie Guastella decided it was time 
to bring pleasure to those coming to the end of their lives
through 'medically-supervised wine tasting.' 
The wine bar will include champagne and whisky
and patients will be welcome to invite friends and family. 

Those French are always considering quality of life! 

(Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen
Info thanks to France 24
Article by Louise Nordstrom)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beaux-Arts Pont

Just a couple of photos today 
of the Pont Alexandre III
which spans the Seine.

Built in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition
along with the Grand Palais and  Petit Palais. 

Adorned with art nouveau lamps,
gilt bronze statues, nymphs, horses and cherubs,
it is named after Tsar Alexander III of the Franco-Russian Alliance. 

Interestingly, the first stone of the foundation was laid by 
Alexander III's son,
Nicholas II in 1896
and the Trinity Bridge in St. Petersburg
was created as a memorial to the Franco Russian-Alliance,
designed by Gustave Eiffel
and the first stone laid by French President Felix Faure in 1897. 

Wish we made more bridges like this one! 

(Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen
Info by Wikipedia)