Cezare – an Old Friend & His Message of Hope

Eduardo, Maria and Cezare

Eduardo, Maria and Cezare

As soon as we walked in the door, Cezare shouted enthusiastically:  “Please, sit down!”  “You must stay for a long time!” and “Please, you will have lunch with us!”  Then came the food:  BBQ pork ribs, cheese, salad, bread and saucisson.

“Oh my god, we just ate at IHOP.  I can’t eat any of this,” said my stepdaughter Prescilla through clenched teeth.

“Ssshh,” I said.  “Let’s be nice to Daddy’s friend.  They haven’t seen each other in years.”

Earlier that day, we were driving through Matawan, NJ where my husband Eduardo had lived for 12 years during his previous marriage.  So many memories, I thought as he pointed out his old hang-out spots.  Then we drove past a house with its neatly manicured lawns and colorful flowers that decorated the front.

“He’s alive!” he said.  “Let’s go in and visit.”

Cezare was Eduardo’s neighbor and their back lawns used to be connected.  At 85 years old, Cezare was still strong as an ox and cared for his garden long after retiring as a landscaper. For more than a decade, their friendship strengthened.  After spending hours doing yard work, the men would relax and chat over homemade wine and eat his famous grilled Sicilian ribs.

Then over time, as his marriage started to disintegrate, Eduardo spent less time taking care of his backyard.  Cezare saw less of his friend, and then the visits stopped altogether when Eduardo moved away to NYC.  That was eight years ago.

A delicious Italian lunch for us (that was our second lunch that day!)

A delicious Italian lunch for us (that was our second lunch that day!)

Cezare couldn’t stop beaming the moment we walked in.  First the look of surprise at seeing his old friend after all these years.  Then a flurry of English, Spanish and Italian words as they caught up on each other’s lives.  They understood each other and that’s what mattered.  Eduardo looked so happy to be reunited with his old friend.

When Cezare first greeted me, he pulled me close and kissed me on the cheek.  Then he shook my hand so firmly that I thought it was going to fall off.  He looked great for his age and I could tell from his tanned face and weathered skin that he still spent most of his waking hours outside taking care of his beautiful garden.

His wife Maria was lovely too – she was a plump Italian mom who couldn’t stop serving us food.  “You married good man,” she told me with her thumbs up.

During our meal, in broken English, Cezare shared about his grandson getting married and how it was harder for him to get around and take care of his garden now that he was older.  “Your baby?” he asked, probably referring to how Eduardo had a little baby at the time.  He laughed and pointed at Prescilla, “She’s not a baby anymore.  She’s 14!”

After much eating (after all, it was our second lunch!), and  as we were getting ready to leave, Cezare looked pensive.  He quietly asked what had happened.  Eduardo said that back then he had to leave, that his marriage had ended and he needed to move on.  I sensed the feeling of loneliness that Cezare must’ve felt years ago when his friend had left without saying goodbye.  And that for many years, he probably wondered if Eduardo was happy and If he’d ever see his dear friend again.  He was like a son to him.

Then Cezare patted Eduardo on the back and said, “Ah you happy.  You have new family.  Good!”  Then he boomed out an Italian phrase with the words “prima vida” over and over again as we headed to the car.

Later I asked Eduardo what Cezare had said before we left.  He grinned and said, “After a difficult period, sometimes you reach the prime of your life.”

Yes, I think that’s true.



What First Intrigued Me about Tibet


Potala Palace

My curiosity about Tibet went way back.  As a kid, I was an avid stamp collector, and I remember scouring the globe for this obscure place, Tibet, that didn’t have its own stamps.  Every other country had its own.

“Because they’re part of China,” my dad shrugged and went back to mowing the lawn, the air thick with the smell of grass and new spring.  As I pulled out weeds with my small fists, I was determined to get to the bottom of it.  How strange.  Even odder that their leader, the Dalai Lama, with his big thick dark glasses and his kind warming face that reminded me of hot soup on a rainy day, wouldn’t go back to Tibet.  He seemed to travel a lot but just never went home.

I learned years later that the Dalai Lama’s life had been threatened, and he had fled his homeland to escape the Chinese occupation.  I couldn’t imagine another country invading Canada and our Prime Minister having to escape or be killed.

Then I hit my teenage years and forgot about faraway countries that had no stamps and a homeless leader, and I concentrated on school, boys and why my body was changing so much.  It wasn’t until after my university days that a BBC documentary about Tibet awakened my desire to travel there again.  As my eyes followed the procession of Tibetan monks trailing the prayer wheels circuit, I thought:  I have to go there one day.  Everything seemed so peaceful. The way the colorful prayer flags decorated the exterior of temples and mountain passes, like ribbons on presents.  The way the saffron robes graced the creaking floors of wooden temples, while the low, soothing sounds of Tibetan trumpets echoed in hallways.

This isolated place, tucked away in the Himalayan Mountains, where McDonalds and Coca Cola hadn’t penetrated, fascinated me. There would be no Starbucks on every corner, no ads constantly flashing in my face, or at least I didn’t think so.  I wanted to experience that seclusion, to let my fingers run down the walls of temples where only my footsteps could be heard padding up and down the stairs.

My curiosity for Tibet never left me, but it would be many years before I would travel near that region.  Not only was it difficult to get there, but Tibet had been closed to tourists for many years.  Instead, shortly after university, I traveled to other places in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.  But now that I was at Tibet’s doorstep, it was time.

And then there was the lure of Mount Everest, its first base camp by the border between Tibet and Nepal.  Imagine standing at the foot of the highest mountain on earth!  Throughout high school, I had read fascinating stories of those who succeeded and many who perished climbing to the formidable peak, the ground littered over the years with their frozen corpses.

I could go anywhere after that.  Thailand, with its beautiful beaches.  Burma, with its hundreds of abandoned Buddhist temples dotting the landscape.  Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples.

I wanted to cruise down an unknown street and try a different concoction of food every day, to get lost in a crowd, to be nameless, to relish the transience of meeting others who didn’t care about knowing my past or belonging to my future.  I wanted the here and now, the freedom to be engaged in the moment.

This was an excerpt from THE SAME SKY  For more excerpts, click here

Remembering New Delhi with Hope, Curiosity and Loneliness

Ajanta Caves, India

Ajanta Caves, India

Remembering smells and sounds bring back memories from childhood, from past travels, often remembrances I hadn’t thought about in years.  Sometimes a flood of emotions rushes back, sometimes just one word.I arrived in New Delhi a couple of days ago.  And when I walked out of the airport and smelled the air – a unique blend of pollution and dust with a tinge of burnt nuts – a strange word came to mind:  HOPE.

Around six years ago, I started a new job and I flew to New Delhi for a senior management meeting.  My first business trip with the company!   And I wanted to make a good impression.  I stepped out of the terminal and I was immediately greeted by the bustling city:  I smelled the strange new air, heard the cacophony of blaring horns from nearby trucks and saw the blur of yellow hooded green tuk-tuks speeding by.As my taxi cruised down the road to my first meeting, I observed the ever-changing sights of the city.  I thought that no matter what, in this new job, I was meant to grow, and to not be afraid of change.  I felt HOPE.That was six years ago.  Many business trips later, I’m still here with the same company.  Funny how I remembered that fleeting moment from so long ago.

Yesterday, on my way to Connaught Place, a popular shopping area in New Delhi, I passed by a bus stop.  I watched passengers shuffle onto the bus.  Then I heard the familiar clang-clang of coins dropping into the fare box.  How rare these days to hear coins since most commuters now use paper tickets.  Then I stopped for a second and suddenly, a surprising feeling emerged:  CURIOSITY

Instantly, I was brought back to the first time I took the bus by myself.

I was 13 years old armed with a bulging change purse with Hello Kitty emblazoned on the front.  My mother had given it to me with the warning to not talk to strangers and to keep the extra $20 in change handy, just in case.  I remembered hearing the familiar sound of coins clanging into the box, followed with the shwoo-lump of the lever to release the change, then the whooo-wup of the doors closing behind me.  That bus ride down Boundary Road and onwards to downtown Vancouver where I would meet my friends was so exciting for me then.  I felt free, independent and CURIOUS about the world as I saw the familiar stores pass by me.

Finally, last night, I headed back to my hotel room, put on some music and flipped through a New Delhi newspaper.  The English Patient soundtrack came on.  I paused – and I felt LONELINESS.  I was instantly taken back to the summer of 2000.  I had just moved to New York and didn’t know a soul.  I was living in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, a stone’s throw away from a huge Blockbuster’s where I rented a lot of videos.  A lot.  My favorite movie that summer was The English Patient, a beautiful and moving love story.  I bought the soundtrack and frequently listened to it.  To this day, the English Patient theme song always echoes and stays a bit longer in my head.  It reminds me of the loneliness I felt in those early days in New York and the kinds of dark questions I often asked myself:  What am I doing here?  Am I meant to live here?

Well, New Delhi is waking up and I am scooting out to enjoy the day, to experience new things and to create more memories.  Perhaps years later, I will remember this trip and think “Remember that time in New Delhi…?”