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As I board the MV Golden Gate ferry, for my daily commute from Sausalito to San Francisco, I see that the fog is once again a thick blanket across the middle of the bay, although at least a quarter of each of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge are visible as is Angel Island. At this hour of the morning, it is cold on deck so I scurry inside to the warm cabin to watch the ever-changing scene outside which is never the same no matter how often I make this trip.
Fog clouds sit like a pale wash of lavender mauve above the teal green sea, and small whitecaps are visible across its surface. A lone speedboat steadily makes its way toward the bridge, whose towers are rapidly losing their visibility to the incoming fog. It is a dramatic picture and one I would like to capture, but alas the boat has vanished all too quickly into the cool embrace of this pervasive sea cloud, which we ourselves have now entered as well.
When the ferry passes within fifteen feet of a buoy, I wonder where Alcatraz is as I watch white-capped waves rolling slowly but unceasingly toward us. Then I realize the vessel must be directly in front of the mouth to the bay, though at a distance, for this is where the waves tend to form. The ship suddenly slows down and is barely moving when I hear the moans of the foghorns calling lovingly to each other. A red-orange and white pilot boat passes by, heading in the other direction, and then I feel the rolling motion of the waves quite strongly, but a minute later, the pilot boat too has disappeared.
Now at last, I spy the vague outline of the rocky isle known as Alcatraz on the left, desolate and empty except for its avian inhabitants. San Francisco lies straight ahead sitting mainly in the sunlight, with the flat Marina district bright and white, in sharp contrast to the fog bank, which hugs the city’s many hills and the Presidio on it’s far west side, as it reaches up to the tops of Twin Peaks so that only Sutro Tower, the gigantic tower that sits near Mt. Parnassus, is perceptible. The twin symbols of San Francisco in the summer — the only two things visible above the fog — both red, perhaps to offer caution and warning as well as signs of life beyond.
Unexpectedly a tall ship appears out of the fog, flowing easily with the current, catching the morning’s gentle breeze in its sails, and stirring within me a longing to be on it sailing to some exotic faraway land.
I had never spent much time in cemeteries until I moved to tiny Châteauneuf in Provençe. The small hilltop village had two cemeteries, an old and a new one, situated on its flanks.
The new cemetery dating to the 17th century was located outside the original wall that had once fortified the village against Saracens. This cemetery was terraced, and contained white, gray, and rose marble and granite mausoleums as well as more plain tombstones. On reading the names on the tombs, it was easy to see several generations of a family buried in the same spot.
The cemetery was shady with broad, worn, stone steps running down its middle, descending the steep hillside, and ending right behind the main grocery store. Everyone used the path as a short cut to the store, otherwise it would have been a couple of extra kilometers to get there. For most of the year everyone hurried through – children would run up and down with popsicles dripping down their shirts, and older women would tramp up the 45-degree steps with bags laden with fresh fish, produce, and a baguette tucked under their arm for the evening meal.
However on All Saints Day or Toussaint, the first day of November, the local flower lady would set up a small stand at the bottom entrance to the cemetery with bunches of mums in shades of burgundy, russet, pink, and yellow. In France, it’s traditional to place mums on tombstones as offerings to the dead, but mums are never ever given to a living person.
But it was the old cemetery, within the 12th century ramparts, that drew me. That one sat at the same height as the village, but it overhung the road winding down the hill. Three gigantic sycamore trees, looking like they had been there for centuries and resembling lonely sentinels under the Provençal sky, dominated the old cemetery. The tombstones had been removed or turned to dust, and the ground was covered with fine grass and wildflowers. In a corner was a bench to sit upon and gaze out at the surrounding countryside far below.
My old Scottie dog and I used to visit on our daily walk, and on winter afternoons I would often sit in that high lonely place where few others ever visited, to watch the storm clouds come in over the Mediterranean. During summer, giant thunderheads would come rolling up over the mountains and down the alpine valley that lay due north of the village. At night the stars would dance and swirl in the clear heavens above, an entire river of stars extending down the valley back to the Alps, while on the plain below hundreds of lights twinkled as people went about their nightly rituals. Looking further afield, the coast was a glittering diamond necklace of town after town lit up, all the way from Nice to Cannes.
I always felt that angels guarded that quiet, holy place where souls had once been laid to rest, and imagined they had glimpsed heaven, even as I had.
I have loved the English tradition of Christmas crackers and wearing paper crowns during Christmas dinner ever since I was first introduced to it many years ago. My various Scottie dogs have always enjoyed Christmas presents, particularly tearing into the wrapping, so I always make sure to wrap up various dog treats and place them under the tree.
Some years past I was invited to the annual Christmas Eve party given by my neighbors for all the ex-patriates in the small Provençal village where I lived. The hostess was a former London fashion model married to a Dutch man who made basses for a few select musicians like Sting.
They were the loving owners of crazy Daisy, a very silly and utterly spoiled Cairn terrier, whose small terrier friends had also received their own special invitations to the celebration. Daisy was the best of friends with my little female Scottie dog, as well as with a handsome male Scottie, Chivas, who belonged to the owners of the local Dutch Country Club.
The owners rambling house had been traditionally decorated with bunches of green holly, swags of pine boughs, red amaryllis, ribbon, and many tiny sparkling lights, but the center of attraction was an enormous Christmas tree hung with old-fashioned glass ornaments. Underneath the tree, a large variety of doggie treats had been placed just for the pups.
During the party, the three dogs were given the run of the house. Astute and gregarious, the small gang of terrorist terriers took full advantage of the situation. Knowing that no one was keeping an eye on them, they chased each other, ran circles around the tree, jumped on the furniture, and generally behaved like very unruly guests.
Each of the other guests had been given a glass of champagne and were in the process of toasting the hosts, when all of a sudden there was a very loud bang! Then a glass of champagne took an unexpected leap towards the ceiling while at the same time, an elderly and quite startled gentleman plopped down unceremoniously on the seat nearest him. As we all looked around for the source of the noise, we saw peeking out from under the tree, one of the Scottie dogs and the little Cairn terrier holding opposite ends of a large Christmas cracker.
“On the longest night we search for the light,
And we find it deep within.
Open your eyes to embrace what is wise,
And see the light of your own soul shining.”
~ Lisa Thiel
”Think and wonder, wonder and think.”
~ Dr. Seuss
Once upon a time in the ever, ever foggy land of San Francisco, there lived a droll and gregarious Scottish terrier named MacDougal. Now MacDougal never did get along with other dogs, but he had many human friends and other friendly relations, notably among the cat and cow families.
The first time I saw him, he was striding jauntily along next to a pair of skyscraper legs which reached up and up into the fog and belonged to a very tall man, his owner. I had met his owner at the weekly volleyball get-together, and MacDougal had come along for the pizza party following the game. While not much of a sporting dog himself, he was an enthusiastic connoisseur of tasty pizza and promptly gobbled up the portion his owner had intended to take home. Although MacDougal won me over immediately with his funny and silly antics, he was banned from pizza parties for a long time afterwards.
As we had all become fast friends, Mac started coming over regularly and even spending weekends and an occasional holiday. With a smile, I remember the gigantic rawhide bone that resembled a dinosaur fossil, which he received one Christmas morning. Never mind that it was nearly his own length and too heavy for him to pick up, MacDougal was a tenacious dog by nature. So he promptly grabbed hold of one end of the bone and proceeded to drag it round and round the living room, while wagging his short tail triumphantly!
On another occasion, MacDougal and I were out for a walk in the park, across from the house where I lived, when he saw three other dogs in the distance. Determined to defend his territory, Mac started towards them. Running hard after him, I scooped him up and raced breathlessly back to the house with a Doberman, a German shepherd, and a large yellow mongrel fast on my heels. Meanwhile, Mad Mac continued to bark his defiance at them all the way back home.
After each of these madcap visits, MacDougal would invariably return to his abode in the foggy Sunset district, leaving me with the slowly growing desire to have my very own dog, and more specifically a dog just like MacDougal. Because of the special friendship that existed between the dog and I, his owners agreed to escort him on a first date with a well-bred and adorable Scottie who had recently moved into our neighborhood from Paris.
Trimmed and groomed and looking every inch the brave, stalwart and handsome sire, MacDougal proudly led our little retinue forwards to his rendezvous. But soon, too soon, any hopes for a romantic interlude and possible offspring were dashed when he spied the Parisian Scottie’s constant companion — a sweet, timid, floppy-eared Belgian dwarf rabbit. True to his ancestral instinct, MacDougal was far more interested in chasing the rabbit than in cuddling up with the little Scottie. She, at the same time, fiercely protected her pet companion, and would have nothing further to do with the unmannerly Mad Mac ruffian.
Over steaming cups of Jasmine tea and gales of laughter, we all agreed that MacDougal was certainly a very special dog, and we would have to wait a long time indeed for him to sire a puppy. Shortly after his failed attempt at romance, one of my colleagues gave me a magazine clipping of a Scottie and a dark-haired woman in red holding him. Since the woman resembled me somewhat and red is my favorite color, I immediately pinned up the clipping next to my desk and glanced at it often during the course of each work day.
A few months later, I left for a year’s sojourn in Europe to visit friends but naturally to include some doggie haunts. In Scotland, I met several of MacDougal’s long-lost relatives, and it simply reinforced my desire to have my own Scottie dog. I found the perfect puppy in London, but he was too young to make the trip back home. While in Texas, once more I came across a Scottie puppy, but it was not meant to be. As I slowly made the cross-country trip back to California, I spoke with various breeders, only to have my inquiries met with a by-now familiar response, “You sure don’t see many Scotties nowadays.”
Indeed, no Scottie dogs were to be found. However in Los Angeles, I did share lodgings with a couple of Great Danes, more like small horses, who enjoyed climbing onto the bed when they thought I was asleep. Certainly it is an original and effective way of waking up and getting out of bed to avoid being trampled on before breakfast. Another image comes to mind of MacDougal’s own fascination with horses, but especially cows. He came from a kennel in the mid-West that was located next to a dairy farm, and perhaps he had experienced “imprinting” as a puppy.
On drives up to Sonoma County, whose low-rolling hills are dotted with sheep and cows, Mad Mac would constantly dash from one side of the old VW station wagon to the other, barking at all the grazing cows. Whenever I visited a dairy farm, he would sit quietly by the fence watching the enormous cows on the other side, until he was dragged away. In fact, even when there were no cows nearby, it was easy to tease him by simply calling out, “MacDougal – mooooo cows!” and that was enough to get him going.
While reminiscing on these past adventures with MacDougal, I started the last leg of the journey through the farmlands of California’s Central Valley towards the almond farm of a warm Italian family, with whose daughter I had worked. Pulling up, I saw the new pink piglets running around and broke into laughter remembering Mad Mac’s adventure the year before. He had been left on guard duty outside when all of a sudden, there was a commotion. Somehow the piglets had escaped from the pig-pen, and the next thing we all saw were all the piglets running around and rooting in the garden with MacDougal in their midst, looking like a shaggy black piglet himself.
However, along with the welcome of glasses of delicious homemade wine and mounds of hand-rolled pasta, there was a troubling message from MacDougal’s owner asking to contact him as soon as I returned to San Francisco.
Upon arrival, I went to see him right away, and he had some unexpected news. Since he and his girlfriend had separated, MacDougal had not taken it well. She wanted me to come over and visit the dog, who was listless and despondent and had taken to peeing on the bed pillows when left alone. I hardly recognized the sulking and unhappy dog, so very different from the high-spirited one I knew so well. His mistress confided that his present behavior was out of loyalty to his former owner, and then she really surprised me! The two had agreed to give MacDougal to me, that is, if I wanted him. Of course, of course I did!
So that is how a MacScottie wish came true almost forty years ago. Although MacDougal is long gone, there have been a steady and unbroken succession of MacScotties since then. With each passing year, I am increasingly grateful for my continued relationship with these courageous, loyal, stubborn little dogs that have always brought me joy and laughter. And I am often reminded that wishes do come true simply because a funny Scottie dog once claimed me for his own in the foggy, foggy never-land of San Francisco. Since where a Scottie dog magically appears, others are bound to follow and that is also the nature of miracles.
Though I have celebrated Christmas all over the world, I was lucky enough to have worked in Gouda in The Netherlands. That lovely, medieval Dutch city has a magnificent town hall, all spires and leaded glass windows about three stories high and a block long, harking back to the Middle Ages. Early on the evening of December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, candles are lit in every window and around the entire square, while children choirs sing beautiful Christmas carols.
Though this is truly a magical event, an even more astounding one occurs when Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieter make their annual appearance. It always is an occasion for fun and merriment, but among the most memorable was when my neighbor, the cardiologist, played Sinterklaas and my insurance agent turned into Zwarte Pieter at the local Dutch Club when I lived in France.
According to the conventional story, our American Santa Claus is an adaptation of the Dutch Sinterklaas. However, the origin of Sinterklaas is a rather unconventional story. It seems there once lived a Middle Eastern saint named Nicholas who was known for his kindness to children, as well as his travels by ship to Greece, Italy, and Spain. But my version of the Sinterklaas story is rather subjective because St. Nicholas has always been near and dear to my heart since my childhood and then later, after I fell in love with a Dutch sculptor named Nicholaus.
My grandmother, who was Spanish, observed her family’s tradition of St. Nicholas feast day. As children, we would receive stockings brimming with ribbon candy, walnuts, pecans, mandarin oranges, kumquats, and gold-foiled wrapped chocolate coins. To this day oranges, walnuts, and chocolate always evoke Christmas for me. As children, we did not really understand all the various holy days during the Christmas season, but we quickly figured out the cycle of gifting that started with St. Nicholas feast day, and on through the final go-round signaled by the arrival of the Three Kings.
Though not a religious man, my grandfather always put up a creche beneath the Christmas tree. While we received our major gifts at Christmas Eve, we always waited eagerly for the Three Kings to arrive across the desert. We thought we were pretty smart knowing that when the Three Kings arrived at the manger, we would also receive additional small presents. So my sister and I would move the tiny figures and their camels further along when we thought our grandparents were not looking. However to our dismay, the Three Kings did not make the rapid progress we anticipated, and so we would try again and again. Sometimes we would have races with the Three Kings, and I would always pick Balthazar, the black Moorish king who was my favorite because of his shiny face and bright green turban.
Much later when I lived in The Netherlands, St. Nicholas Day was the major feast day of that country’s Christmas holiday season, the real day of exchanging presents and a national holiday. Sinterklaas always arrives by ship in Amsterdam’s harbor, having come from Spain with his white horse and his sidekick, Zwarte Pieter or Black Pete, a Black-a-Moor. Once Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam, he also makes simultaneous appearances in every village and town throughout The Netherlands. It is wonderful to see the children in every public square gathered around him and little Zwarte Pieter.
Sinterklaas rides across the Dutch countryside on his magnificent white horse and sends Zwarte Pieter down the chimney with gifts for the children. In turn, children leave a carrot and hay for the horse in their shoes, which they place next to the fireplace the night before his arrival. Somehow, this custom has been transposed into stockings hung by the chimney in America for Santa Claus to fill. However, if Dutch children are not good, Zwarte Pieter whips them, throws them into the empty bag, and takes them back to Spain.
According to legend, St. Nicholas left Turkey and then traveled by ship along the Mediterranean, settling in Spain for a while, where his feast day is also observed. It was in Spain that St. Nicholas met his black Moorish helper, an adolescent boy who helps him distribute presents and goodies, from the bag he carries, to the children who have been good.
Indeed the Dutch custom of Sinterklaas arriving each year by ship from Spain has its real origins in the trading routes between the two countries. As well, the golden chocolate coins distributed by Sinterklaas to the children are a throw back to the Spanish doubloons of old, as is the dark chocolate, and of course, the white horse was originally a Lipizzaner.
The Spanish occupation of The Netherlands was a particularly harsh one, and none suffered more cruelly than the southern province of the Brabant. From the late 16th century into the early 17th century, Charles V, king of Spain and holy Roman emperor, and his son ruled The Netherlands with a sinister hand. It was Philip II, who started breeding the famous Lipizzaner horses in Spain, but since he was a Hapsburg, he eventually moved the horses to Vienna. Today, they can still be seen performing in the Viennese Riding School.
At any rate, a Dutch revolt against the Spanish monarch began in 1555 and continued until 1609 when the Dutch finally overthrew their Spanish oppressors after six decades. To this day, you will see men with black curly hair and dark eyes in the Brabant, much like my dear friend, descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese soldiers who were stationed there.
The Dutch can be quite pragmatic, and so they kept the best of what they had experienced under their Spanish tyrants – St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas, his black Moorish helper became Zwarte Pieter, dark chocolate, and the Lipizzaners – combining them into a convivial day of celebration.
That is how St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas, who in turn became our own Santa Claus.
“Life will break you.
Nobody can protect you from that,
and living alone won’t either,
for solitude will also break you with its yearning.
You have to love. You have to feel.
You are here to risk your heart.
You are here to be swallowed up.
And when it happens that you are broken,
or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near,
let yourself sit by an apple tree
and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps,
wasting their sweetness.
Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing:
Only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence. ”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow