Friday, November 30, 2007

Big Pine Key

There's trouble among the pine trees and its spelled development. The county commission is running out of money, partly because of mismanagement and spending on commissioner's pet projects ( sinking ships, buying restaurants, not maintaining reserves) and partly because state lawmakers in the middle of a massive fiscal downturn in a state that gets most of its money from the value of property insists on rolling back property taxes. Capable local government is feeling the pinch. Cretins similar to the majority of the Monroe County Board of commissioners are leading us down a terrible path.
Anyway the majority of the board is contemplating putting a development fee on any buildable lots found within the confines of the National Key Deer refuge, which encompasses Big Pine Key and Little and Middle Torch Keys. The idea is to recoup some cash by charging owners of lots to build on them which is a not totally crazy idea. However the figure the Board has been recommended to impose is a one time go of $100,000 which as one might imagine has more than a few people up in arms. I call the majority of the Board cretins for good reason.My Vespa GTS "parked" on 16th Street. This "street" and many others like it are the target of the new development fee.
Attorneys and accountants are among those lurking in the rural fastness of the island. But most of what you see from Highway One is like this:
Open space and huge ugly buildings- welcome to downtown Big Pine Key!

The fee's going nowhere and I'm pretty sure its just another not so clever way to send a message to Tallahassee to remind state lawmakers why they continue to exercise oversight over development plans in the Keys. Local lawmakers have been deferring putting in a proper sewage system for twenty years while allowing unbridled development up and down the islands. The result is predictable- everyone is totally pissed off and nothing gets done.
Shopping in fancy footwear after some rain? No paving or landscaping here!

Big Pine key is crying out for development. This the largest island in the lower keys, hence its name- the pine trees that grow on the ten by 3 mile island are actually quite puny, but there's a ton of land here, covered in scrub, thorns, pines and palmettos, and in between the scrawny flora pop up the odd human habitations, always surrounded by "No Trespassing" signs and a general refusal to engage with one's neighbors. This island is the rural retreat for people who prefer guns dogs and trucks to subtitled films, vintage wines and far flung vacations. This is Salt of the Earth country and its under siege.I think of places like Naperville in Illinois, San Antonio in Texas and Baltimore's Inner Harbor among I'm sure many other illustrious places, as examples of communities that have made an effort to create urban order out of decay. Big Pine Key sure ain't one of those. I am conflicted as to whether it should be. On the one hand I rarely go to Big Pine unless its for a specific purpose. On the other the island seems to be doing fine without me!My wife grumbles all the time about how she would like a Publix grocery instead of the struggling Winn Dixie, or the more yuppie Walgreens chain over the chaotic CVS, but she is firmly in the camp that wants Big Pine made "nice."

And they have a point. Big Pine is a wide spot in the Overseas Highway plagued by extra low speed limits to protect Key Deer and the businesses along the highway are a mess. This is not a place the appeals to the eye and says "shop here!"
The best use of Highway facing lots along US 1 in Big Pine Key is boat storage? After Scotty's left no one else could figure what to do with this dump off US 1.This place has been a mouldy eyesore since Wilma, now possibly coming back... Hurricane proof poles may be necessary, but the decorations are a mockery.Traffic lights hint at urban agglomeration but not necessarily civilization.

There again many of the people who live in the hinterlands of this island want to keep it that way. They've got themselves a home, possibly a trailer or a ground level concrete block structure relatively inexpensive, even if flood-prone, and they've got woods, room to shoot their guns and no neighbors peering into their yards. This place is the refuge from the urban yuppiness of Key West. And yet, I look at the flea market, a huge open space filled with junk, run by a mad preacher (no, really!) who hates his neighbors and I think to myself this place would be ideal for a Publix with a Target to attract shoppers from Key West and Marathon.Maybe we could even have a decent little restaurant of which there is none currently that encourage me to leave the comfort of my home for a culinary adventure. For good eats we head south a few miles to Square Grouper or Coco's, both on Cudjoe Key; never Big Pine! BPK Restaurant's cusine stops at eggs and burgers- curb appeal? What's that?

And then I start to imagine the extra traffic, the nagging about parking, the need for expansion, blah blah blah. I must be crazy. Leave things as they are, all messy and confused and unappealing. If I want urban civilization its just 30 miles down the road and I know all about the squished up feeling people in Key West get. God knows they complain about it loudly enough!

We are our own worst enemies, sometimes, and though I pride myself on moving to the Keys not to change them the crappy environment and lack of facilities in Big Pine has stuck in my craw. I need an attitude adjustment, really I do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Staff of Life

The weather is frightful, windy rainy and 75 degrees, the roads are puddles and the decks around the house are covered in a sheen of rainwater. This is very good as it puts more water into my cistern and keeps me away from reverting to the aqueduct's chlorinated, briny product, but its hell for a motorcyclist enjoying his first day off in four, long days of police dispatching. The Monday after a holiday weekend tends to be busy as revellers get back in the swing of complaining against their neighbors. Some occasionally have real emergencies.

I took a call from a woman giving birth to her first, premature, baby, which was a bit sweat inducing until I realised the contractions were far enough apart the new arrival would probably show up after the paramedics. Then a few hours later a child called explaining her mother had put her arm through a window and was spurting bright red blood across the room. Both calls required a fair bit of pre-arrival instructions as it took the ambulance a few minutes to get across town and take over. I had a trainee with me and I had been telling her we rarely give much in the way of pre-arrival instructions in Key West as the island's size means we rarely wait long for the responders to get on scene. Fate proved me a liar as I told the woman's daughter to apply pressure as her mother squealed loudly down the phone. The kid was great and prevented her mother from bleeding out. "There's so much blood.." I heard her mother moaning as the kid pressed the artery and kept her mother alive. Ah, life, so tenuous!

All this drama and then the carbon monoxide detector went off in a hotel where a guest was poisoned last year, putting me in mind of bread making, which gives one's nerves a much less stressful pounding. Bread gives off gas as the yeast cooks and later the loaf itself fills the house with that delicious waft when you open the oven. The perfect antidote to CO poisoning.
In the Ikea store in Fort Lauderdale a couple of weeks ago my wife and I bought a bag of ingredients to make two lingonberry loaves, a coveted Swedish delicacy I'm told. So, as my wife created a beer baked chicken masterpiece for Turkey day I turned my hand to making bread. Its not a well known fact but I am something of a past master when it comes to home made bread. My wife and I sailed to Key West in the late 1990's from California and we made the trip eating bread that I baked the whole (grain) way. I discovered during all this pioneer-ish Central American baking that creating a loaf of bread is a very inexact science and homemade bread is a product that will struggle against all the odds to come to fruition. You can screw up the proportions really badly but some indefinable yet edible lump will appear from the oven despite your worst expectations. If disdaining proportions and precise quantities is your style you are a homemade bread maker, by instinct.

The Swedes at Ikea made it fairly easy. Heat some water, add the yeast to the water, my first deviation from the printed instructions on the packet, and let the yeast limber up and start bubbling gently, creating a sweet, beery gas. Then pour on the flour and mash it all up so the flour gets wet and the active yeast gets distributed through the mixture, but don't mush it endlessly as it will resent too much handling. As will you.Cover with a cloth and let it rise for 30 minutes or as long as you can stand.
After a while cover your hand, and arm as it happens, in flour and with a little extra flour (2 cups?) thrown in to absorb the extra moisture start kneading the dough, which should be moist but not too sticky.Set in a couple of well oiled bread pans and let rise as long as you feel like. The more it rises the less solid will be the loaf if you kneaded it thoroughly, but not too much (go figure- it comes with practice). Bake for around 40 minutes (with a pan of stuffing for a side dish if you like) and stick a knife in it, when the blade comes out clean its ready to set out and cool for ten minutes before being dumped on the Thanksgiving table.Eat soon as it has no preservatives to keep it "fresh."
We buy commercial lite bread these days but I am not really sure why. I think this will have to change. Release all that stress into a big wet bowl of mush. Nothing better, I find. And it tastes pretty good too, even if it is Swedish.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Off Course

I was pinching myself as we left the border behind and bounced down the uneven road into the stark granite countryside. After all these years this was the country that had been closed to the world all my life, the place where no outsider was welcome. I was inside the mountains that ringed Zenda, or Ruritania or any fantasy land dreamed up by writers, telling stories of places too far away to be imaginable. My desire to know this place was fed by those stories, and in an unhappy childhood I read a great many, more or less uplifting tales, not least the Belgian detective known as Tintin.He had adventures all over the world including the Balkans, possibly a Ruritanian version of ... I liked to think it was Albania which to a 20th century traveler, was far beyond the horizon, as distant and unreachable as the moon. Until 2007.
Under the late Enver Hoxha, Albania was the last place on Earth anyone might want to visit, a circle of mountains backed onto the Adriatic, closed to Greece to the south and Yugolsavia to the North. Hoxha pulled his country back within itself, declining to join the United Nations, trading only with China, a country so small and forgotten no one knew it was there. Hoxha had no nuclear weapons so his people could starve in peace, protected from a well nourished world by concrete bunkers strewn through the fields facing outwards. Nowadays these little concrete bus stops serve as emergency toilets for travelers too curious to drive past without stopping to inspect their reeking interiors. I cannot imagine standing guard in one of these structures, no facilities, no electricity, no water faucet. All to insure the bloodthirsty Yugoslavs will stay on their side of the line.

The sun was setting and the light was golden as we drove away from the unusually lengthy passport inspection at the border between Montenegro and Albania. Montenegro seemed amazingly sophisticated compared to the Albanian goat herders cluttering the main road to Shkoder, 23 long slow miles inside the country. We were filled with wonder- where were we going to sleep? What currency did they use? What on Earth were we going to find round the next corner? Why in hell did we choose to come here? My wife has never harbored lunatic desires to visit Albania so this side trip was all on me.The closer we got to Shkoder the thicker the traffic became, and traffic was an absurd mixture of ox carts and Mercedes Benz cars. The only in between vehicle was our modest Ford diesel station wagon which was an entirely inadequate weapon to carve a path between the indifference of the ox cart drivers and the imbeciles in the Mercedes.God looks after drunks and idiots and once again, as the sun got close to the horizon and we got close to the center of chaos that is the heart of the provincial city of Shkoder we found paradise. No, it wasn't a palm tree but it was five star hotel rising up above the dust and swirling noise of a busy little town. The Hotel Europa, a small squat skyscraper rose up glistening in the fading sunlight. "We get a room there," my wife whispered, and later she confessed she was ready to pay $400 (300 euros) for a room up there. As it turned out we got a palatial room with hot and cold running water and Italian television programs for 60 euros or $100 with free car parking in the secure basement. I sat on the bed and watched Fawlty Towers with Albanian(?) subtitles to try to forget where we were for a short while. Driving in Albania quite takes it out of you.

We went out into the streets of Shkoder and wandered through the park, kids were running around, mothers in scarves sat placidly on blankets while the old men huddled over upturned cardboard boxes and slammed down dominoes. We watched for a while and when they asked something we said "America" the universal word and they gave us big, stubbly, gap toothed grins.

Dinner was a slice of some sort of Albanian pizza, spinach wrapped with strong cheese and wedged between slices of flaky Greek-style pastry. It was very greasy and good. The scarfed lady in the doorway took a Euro ($1.30), for we had no Leks, and the nature of our brief visit meant we likely wouldn't get to buy any local currency either. We wandered down the main street as darkness descended. The sidewalk was lumpy, the traffic endless and the little stores were filled with varieties of universal plastic gewgaws. It was entrancing.

We bought me a pair of $15 shoes, the lady clerk grinning like she was going to die of amusement at these strange creatures. My wife looked for a set of metal dominoes among the plastic and failed. We sat at a sidewalk cafe and drank crisp beer, across the street from a mosque, and the domino players sat at a neighboring table and grinned cheerily. We wanted to ask if they used family heirlooms in the park, but we lacked the Albanian to ask where they got their dominoes. We went to bed exhausted and slept like zombies, so deep was our state of unconsciousness the morning call to prayers from the neighboring mosque did nothing to pull us out of our coma.

The hotel put on a breakfast worthy of far more than the Italian engineers who shared the buffet with us in a sumptuous ballroom. We ate syrupy fruit, sweet cheese, salamis of every type, pastries with sugary jam and yogurt of some strange Balkan variety. We took a few pictures of downtown Shkoder and dropped off an English language book Layne had finished reading in a little bookstore. We also picked up a picture book about Shkoder which revealed to me that this was Scutari, famous in the Crimean War of 1855 for the arrival of nurse Florence Nightingale and the creation of the first modern military hospital. The shopkeeper, thin and aristocratic had no knowledge of this slice of Shkoder's history. We chatted in French and he told me of his life as an agronomist, skirting the realities of life in a closed country. He bought us coffee and we parted best of friends. He went back to being a bookseller, we set our sights on the Balkan fastness to the north of us.

We had a plane to catch in Vienna in four days and we had all the mountains of Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia ahead. No time at all to pause and linger, and check out the medieval fort or the shores of Lake Shkoder. Shame though it was, we had to leave the mysterious country whose intimacies we had barely touched. We drove out of the city of Florence Nightingale and got back on the bouncy highway to the border. By lunchtime we were well past Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro ready to climb the mountains to Bosnia. Albania we had seen and done.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pasta, Mafia, Spaghetti

"How is it that people in this country always associate Italians with the Mafia?" It has to be a longstanding friendship when you get sideswiped by such a complicated question late at night. We were standing on the White Street Pier watching the street lights twinkle along Smathers Beach, and such a watery place would naturally lead to reflection. The fact that Giovanni, a cardiologist, was visiting for just two days on the back of a medical convention on the mainland meant we had a lot of catching up to do in a short while.
We grew up together, Giovanni's family spent most of their time in the city and I spent most of my life in exile at that age, in an English boarding school. After I left Europe Giovanni, who followed the conventional life plan laid out for the son of a doctor remained my tenuous connection with he Old World, a thread threatened by time, distance and commitments, but that has become less frayed as we grow older. We try to meet at least every couple of years alone or with family and ride a motorcycle, laze on a beach always staying up late to set history and the world to rights.
Explaining the Mafia stereotype to a forty-nine year old Italian who has never imagined hanging out with, or being intimidated by Cosa Nostra back home isn't easy. The Mafia is as far from his life as it is for any American, its a subject for the movies; Hollywood is short hand for graven images. "Well, you've seen the Godfather," I start out by saying. "Il Padrino reinforced the image first created when Italian immigrants started coming in large numbers to the US..." And his rebuttal, built around the irritation he feels when he replies, in his broken English, to strangers that he is Italian not Mexican, and they go on and on about the few things they know about Italy,The Mafia, and Italian history followed by a tour of monuments they've seen. Giovanni sighs and leads us to a discussion about the stereotypes of la dolce vita an image of Italy created in turn by Italian filmmakers.
Too often I hear about how Europeans have it easy with long vacations and lots of time off, but I remember well Giovanni's incredulity when we walked one morning into a California Starbucks and he couldn't believe all the lounging around going on during a workday. In France the 35-hour work week stands a good chance of being overturned because people are tired of the financial constraints of a short work week which yes, allows for more time off but it also severely limits incomes. The new French President is currently struggling with that problem and at the same time in Italy, pension plans, those distant rewards for a life time of 51/2 day work weeks, are being pushed back by threats of State bankruptcy.
Giovanni, who lives in a magnificent, high ceiling'ed, apartment in the heart of the Terni envies me my suburban American life. He loved to sprawl in my California backyard smoking and pretending to be house owner for a week or two. In Florida its the wide open deck we hung out on at night, me in my Keys uniform of cargo shorts and a tee shirt while Giovanni, even en deshabille, wore a crisp collared shirt and ironed Dockers, stretched out in our recliners admiring the stars and setting the world to rights.
We don't drink much alcohol together, we usually get drunk on exhaustion, talking about the past, musing about the future, wondering how we got to where we are. Giovanni doesn't see a very rosy future as he has bills to pay and many more years of hospital work and private practice to pay his bills, get his kids through college, help them buy homes, pay off his own mortgage and finally qualify for a his State pension. He drives a nice car, rides a big motorcycle, takes vacations where he likes, and rarely has time to be alone and think. Which he says, is just as well. Even when he is alone he thinks about what gifts to shop for and take home to his family.
"The big difference between us, " he said as he was struck by an epiphany between the eyes as it were." The difference between us is that you don't have children." He's right. I view the future as a series of different choices, variations on the various forks in the road that have led me to this point. It's all speculative but I wonder if perhaps I may or may not allow myself to live some of the time in Italy, riding around in Giovanni's wake... A fantasy rudely shattered by his insistence that these possibilities aren't open to him. La dolce vita promises him a life lived hard at work till the last possible minute. But always fashionably well dressed...
Over the decades I have come to appreciate the reality of Giovanni's daily life in Italy which is, for most Americans, a romantic idyll far removed from reality, a movie set inhabited by cheerfully gesturing lovers divorced from traffic jams, endless bills, and unemployment. Pretty much the same way every Italian in America is probably intimate with the inner workings of the Mafia.
I snapped this picture of Giovanni hanging with my buddy Scott at the Tropic cinema one warm sunset. I too love hanging out with Giovanni, he always makes me appreciate my life all the more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Central America 1951

There is a need in one's life for flights of imagination, and there in my bathroom lies a well thumbed copy of a paperback book filled with pictures, photographs fit to dream on, especially if you ride a motorcycle with a big round headlamp, flat handlebars and those tight curving mudguards, so typical of the era. William Carroll's business went into bankruptcy during 1950, which crisis naturally prompted him to do the obvious thing: sell his home and take off on a motorcycle tour, more precisely a B33, a 500cc BSA single, the apotheosis of motorcycle engineering of the era. And he took off for the dangerous lands south of the Rio Grande.
Its a book of words and images that set a boy's mind to take off on flights of fancy- here today, gone tomorrow, especially when one has the modern equivalent of a B33 of one's own, lurking underneath the house. Copper Canyon, here I come!
Its the effect images have on the brain. You look and without warning you are sucked in, to a world perhaps that doesn't even interest you. And yet that image won't go away. For instance I would never want to see myself wrapped up for winter riding, dodging heaps of snow, yet the Aerostitch catalogue is utterly irresistible.

Big knobby tire, huge headlamp, scenic but not desirable, it all sets a even tropical brain to dreaming, while sitting. I can't say I care for the electronic gadgets offered in the catalogue, but Lord knows there are plenty of toys that I just know I will (would?) need on the road to Mexico... Dry bags to throw over the tank, tool rolls, and widgets and gadgets that cost less than an arm and a leg but are about as useful to my current style of riding as snow tires. Yet they make me dream, those masters of the soft sell make me dream.

So I flip the pages of Carroll's fabulous picture book and read of his detainment in Mexico at the Guatemalan border, his struggle through the ruts and rocks of the main highway to Tegucigalpa, a chance encounter with another rider on a Triumph, in the dust of Central America. He wears as illustrated here a sensible, and carefully thought out riding uniform of baseball cap, overalls and stout boots. Not a GPS in sight, and the Triumph rider he met was wearing similar ATGATT.

And after a money grubbing detour in Costa Rica to sell a few useful articles on railways and bananas, a sudden anti-climactic arrival at the Panama Canal. And all this illustrated by 175 pictures of that dreamy tour, which we currently find beyond our reach, if not beyond our motorcycles. Hell they look like twins, excepting of course a few accessories like mirrors, turn signals and front tag holders ($60 nostalgia option in the current New Bonneville catalogue!).

There is mention in the book of just how small his BSA appeared on the road to passersby. I suspect the author, who was lanky, made it look more so, as he appears positively crouched on the motorcycle in some of his pictures. One couldn't say the same of my Bonneville, until I suppose one comes across a fully dressed Harley, or a Gold Wing or some other sport tourer with all the bells and whistles. They make my 900 Triumph look similarly compact if compared across the decades to the BSA 500 of 1951.

And here I am enjoying the daily grind with all the security of a paycheck, a routine, a front door to kick my boots off in front of. A wife to soothe my fevered brow. This must be a good life, not on the road.

The long way home, not on the Pan American Highway, but on Card Sound Road, after a day riding the mainland.