Sook, by any other name, still Sook



Today we commemorate my father-in-law’s fifth Yahrzeit. He was the kindest and gentlest father-in-law any woman could ever wish for and I loved him dearly.



Irv “Sook” Leon, 15 August 1920 – 23 October 2013


In the summer of 2010, my in-laws stayed with us in Atenas, Costa Rica for several weeks, during which time we celebrated Sook’s 90th birthday.


Owing to some health issues, he was instructed by his doctor to exercise regularly for strength and improved circulation. Since our house sat on a very steep hill, it was impossible for Sook to exercise by walking – not only for him, truth be told! – so we developed a regiment including water exercises in the lap pool, followed by a tropical fruit smoothy and a nap in a comfy lounge chair on the shaded terrace. He quite liked this spa vacation routine!


What he liked best about his water sport, I illustrated with the first picture in this post. The outside edge of the lap pool sat above an almost vertical slope toward the tract below us. That’s the strip of grassy green curving along the bottom edge of the picture. Below that lot was another as yet unimproved homesite which the construction crew of a building site across the street used to play soccer during breaks. The builder brought the crew to the building site every morning around sunrise. He careened down the switchback road in a panel truck, the loading area filled to capacity with men tossed hither and fro during the sharp turns. Toward evening, the same truck with its human cargo could be heard echoing across the canyons as its too-weak engine strained to conquer the impossible gradient, the driver downshifting again and again in desperation. The crew foreman lived on the building site for the duration, thus functioning also as a night guard against theft. His wife cooked the meals for everyone and, as we observed from above, she also did some laundry for the guys. After meals, the older workers would prefer to play cards, while the younger ones released their energy with a vigorous game of soccer.

Sook would delight in watching these games from the pool because the hard-working men had such fun. The whoops and hollers of sheer joy easily rose to our level on the hill and we would cheer each goal with them. Every now and then, one of the players would kick much too forcefully, dropping the ball into the jungle of the canyon below. The men would then send their youngest and presumably most agile crew member to climb down and retrieve the precious object. Those were tense moments for us watching helplessly until we saw the kid climb back up without having been bitten by one of the vipers that live down there!

Sook was an avid reader and also enjoyed quiet times on the patio of the casita.


Dinner out on the other hand wasn’t his most favorite thing, although he never complained. But he wasn’t an adventurous eater and the Costa Rican cuisine left him, shall we say, unimpressed. Here we are at La Trilla, which back then, was a little dark and murky, I have to admit.


Both mom and dad are gone now and we cherish their memory.


Toward Year’s End …


It is customary to reflect on the past, sometimes with regret or even remorse as a year comes to its designated end and a new one commences while we either sleep or drink champagne. Thus we either ignore the arrival of the new year in our timezone, or we celebrate it as if we achieved a goal. And maybe we have, simply by surviving yet another one! As the new year approaches, some people attempt to catalog their wishes and dreams for themselves, only to discarded these aspirations within the next few weeks. I am, however, neither a philosopher nor a dreamer, just a realist who has never written a list of resolutions. I gladly leave such endeavors to proper thinkers.

I am simply happy that I feel better after a rather unpleasant upper respiratory infection which restricted the lighting of our Hanukkah candles this year to a grand total of twice. We lit the first candle, but then I wasn’t upright again till the last night of Hanukkah.


Above all, I am happy that my husband and I are both in a reasonably healthy condition, that we enjoy our life together despite our creaky joints and all those physical nuisances which assume hallmark status on our way toward Really Old Age. Come to think of it, it’s not only the physical issues, the mental lapses clearly, or rather foggily, become unpleasantly numerous as well. That dastardly word that’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite spit it out. Yet, for the time being, we can still help each other out with a choice of vocabulary options.

That said, we are anticipating major lifestyle changes for the year 2018. We shall attempt to domesticate ourselves. We have tried that once before when we moved to our ranch in Central Texas and it didn’t work out. We loved traveling far, wide and beyond too much to remain home. Nevertheless, we shall once more endeavor to settle down and, glorious novelty, stay put at home.

We are serious about outfitting our new home in Cognac, Charente, France, to include guest space for visiting family and friends. We are serious about adding two dogs to the family and we are committed to undertaking only short-range train or car travel. We are already anticipating the visit of dear friends in June and in July, crossing fingers, our kids will bring Izzy, the apple of our grand-parental eyes, over from Austin, Texas, for a nice, long European vacation. It will be new and different and exciting for us.

Meanwhile, still in Saintes, we’ve pulled out our 30-plus-years old Marimekko Christmas placemats, enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner and getting started on that year-end Champagne. We wish you all a wonderful and warm Christmas Season and the Best for the New Year. As a little year-end puzzle, I hope you will tell me the reason why I wrote the year 2018 upside down into Julie’s wreath in the picture above? Looking forward to your guesses!!


Barry had to purchase a Bûche de Noël for us this year because I wasn’t up to baking my usual bûche. Next year, we’ll have my version again!


Before we bid goodbye to this year, I want to tell you a little anecdote about my dad. In the Fall of 1977, Barry and I drove across Germany to Kiel, to introduce my brand-new fiancé to my parents. They hosted a family dinner in our honor culminating in a Schnaps-drinking lesson for the son-in-law-in-spe. My father’s favorite Schnaps was Aalborg Akvavit, a caraway-flavored liquor. In northern Germany, it is customary to drink combinations of beer and liquor, which differ regionally. In my father’s hometown of Hannover, something called Lüttje Lage is the way guys drink their brandy with the local beer. Later in his life, our father’s liquor preference moved a little further North, all the way to Denmark where Akvavit is distilled. After our dinner, he initiated Barry into the secrets of this viscous, sharp-flavored Northern spirit. For my father’s seaburial in May of 1994, I brought aboard a bottle of the most exquisite Akvavit I could find in Hamburg and we all got completely smashed in his honor. It was a true Viking Burial! Ever since Barry and I drink an Akvavit toast to my father’s memory on his birthday, the 25th of December.


[Since neither of us actually likes the taste of Akvavit, the bottle stays safely stored in the freezer for the rest of the year!]

A Brief Addendum​


The sun shines brightly over the river Charente, the marketing is done and the groceries are put away. Time to sit back and tell you a little story about the generous spirit of the Ticos, the people of Costa Rica.

On one of our last evenings in Atenas, we went for dinner to the Restaurante Pescatore in Escazú, a western suburb of the capital city San José. The Pescatore offers a unique blend of Peruvian and Mediterranean cuisine with a heavy emphasis on seafood, especially cebiches, scallops, and pulpo, or octopus, often paired with risottos. Although we enjoyed dining at the Pescatore very much – their tuna cebiche in maracuyá marinade is unmatched! – we didn’t go there all that often because it is, understandably, rather expensive.

Nevertheless, when we returned after nearly two years, our waiter addressed us by name, remembered “our” table and even recalled some of our choices from our last visit. We, on the other hand, needed prompting to remember his name, Oscar. In Costa Rica, Barry was known as El Bigote Grande or El Gran Bigote, the big mustache, and his rather extraordinary facial adornment most certainly helped Oscar to recall this particular customer despite his long absence.

After our delicious and rather substantial meal, neither Barry nor I ordered dessert. However, to celebrate our last visit to the Pescatore before moving to France, the restaurant invited us to a dessert on the house, and not just any little dish of flan straight from the fridge, either. Au contraire, Oscar rolled over the fire-spewing dragon-cart and proceeded to prepare Crêpes Suzette for us with elegant expertise. He presented the crêpes on lovingly decorated plates with his best wishes for our future!

That’s ¡Pura Vida! That’s Costa Rica.

A Birthday


Today would have been my brother’s 52nd birthday. It’s his first birthday without him and I want to send my love to his daughters. My heart breaks for them since they already had to somehow weather their mom’s death five years earlier. With the support and love of extended family and now their partners, they have grown into strong and resilient young women. We want them to know that we’re thinking of them always, but especially today, and we’re sending virtual embraces across the ocean to them.

We were in La Rochelle yesterday and the image above, showing an empty basin of the ancient harbor at low tide in all its winter dreariness seemed like a fitting expression of my feelings today.

Walking through town, we came across the bookstore specializing in comics.

The Bandes Dessinées, the french language comic strip telling the adventures of Tintin was Charles’ favorite growing up, while mine was Asterix. He and I shared a lifelong delight in the tradition of social criticism expressed through comic albums in the West and manga in the East. We were horrified by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff and I mailed two copies of their first post-attack edition to him as soon as it came out. But for me, it is Tintin who is most strongly associated with my brother’s memory.

We concluded our lunch in La Rochelle with a lovely Mousse au Chocolat, as this was the first dish he ever prepared.


As always, Happy Birthday, Charles!

À la Recherche du Temps perdu

Recently a friend of mine took issue with my avatar. To be precise, with the motto inscribed over my avatar’s image, which he perceives as negative.


Don’t get stuck in the quagmire of your memories

These sage words were spoken by my sister Diana some time ago when we were talking about the need to look forward while living in the present, rather than getting bogged down by expectations of demanding family members and convention in general. It originally only represented our resolve to move beyond confining memories.

However, within the last two years, three of my friends just up and died. Without much warning, cancer took all three of them. Earlier this year it got even worse. My baby brother died within weeks of being diagnosed with cancer, which affected me to a much greater extent than I was able to comprehend at the time. I was there with him when he was condemned to death and I shall never forget the spiraling vertigo engulfing both of us at that moment.

When you approach the end of the line for yourself and the most beloved persons around you, your focus narrows, highlighting how precious every single day, every single hour truly is.

Since Charles’ death, my avatar motto took on an additional meaning, as it became exceedingly difficult for me to pull my boots out of the thick mud lining the banks of the river Styx of memories of my brother and all those myriad ways our lives intersected. Charles lived with my husband and me a few times over the years and finally settled down in the US, like me, raising his family in Texas.

Out of this closeness developed a memory burden I am trying to bear gracefully, with varied success in so far as I can’t stop wanting to tell him stuff. I have become vulnerable to memory attacks in unsuspecting ways. Small, everyday things we encounter during our travels, as for example the motorcycle parked on the Hoe in Plymouth, which had a sidecar mounted on the “wrong” side. Charles was a bike-with-sidecar aficionado and would’ve laughed at its peculiar appearance. So I took a picture of it before I realized, all over again, that I can no longer send him pictures.

Recently my husband and I did a home exchange in Brittany, a part of the world I’ve loved for a long time and which holds any number of fond memories for me, many of which are intertwined with my brother. Family vacations in the early seventies took me repeatedly to the rocky southern coast of Brittany, in particular, La Baule, Carnac, and Le Cabellou.

In contrast to my familiarity with this region, our home exchange was the first visit to Brittany for my husband and I was looking forward to showing him around. For myself, I was hugely curious to learn how the area had changed since my last visit 40 odd years ago. But going back to Brittany also took me straight into serious sucker-punch territory because so many of my past trips included Charles. Back then, he was the only one fluent in French, thus our youngest family member became everybody’s linguistic helpmate when he was only seven years old.


La Baule with its self-styled “La Plus Belle Plage d’Europe” designation was undoubtedly Charles’ special playground since, in addition to family vacations, he spent several summers there with a family whose son, Jean-Christoph, would then also spent time with our family in Germany. He told me how he and Jean-Christoph would target German tourists at the beach for adolescent mischief and how he felt wholly French there. So I chickened out and we bypassed La Baule, driving directly to our exchange home in Arradon, Morbihan. I believe this was the best course of action for us to take. I wanted to start our trip together without the need to clear all that emotional sand from my sandals every other step.

Fortunately, the Menhirs of Carnac and a certain creperie in le Cabellou are far less heavily steeped in brotherly memories. Together, Barry and I successfully chased down some fun and funky memories about large rocks and sweet crêpes. Memories relating to the oddest trip to Brittany one could possibly imagine.

In 1974, after having lived in sin for seven years, my sister Diana and my brother-in-law Wilfried decided to get married, and a beautiful wedding it was. They asked my father for the use of his RV to drive around Brittany for their honeymoon. Neither one of them had ever been there before, neither one of them had ever driven a large, van-like vehicle before. As a matter of fact, my sister didn’t like to drive at all and my brother-in-law, may he forgive me, had a few incidences of moving violations on his record. Long story short, our Solomonic father was striving for a compromise when issuing his verdict: yes, as long as Claudia acts as your chauffeur. Live-in chauffeur that is, considering we needed to share the confined space of a small RV.


In addition, we were to take Jean-Christoph with us and deliver him safely to his family in la Baule. At that time, no-one counteracted a parental verdict, at least not in my family. So all of us left Hamburg on our group honeymoon on Saturday, September 8, 1974, at 08:00 hrs. An hour later than scheduled – as always! Odometer reading: 11 640 Km.

[I kept a diary hence this ridiculously precise recollection forty-two years later :-)]

We successfully negotiated Paris, arriving in La Baule on Sunday night at 21:30 hrs in pouring rain, delivering a very happy Jean-Christoph into his mother’s arms. We ourselves took refuge at the residence of friends of our parents, M. & Mme Thomas Gehnert, and spent a peaceful night in their driveway.

Eventually, a day or two later, we ventured further westward along the coast, reaching the small fishing village of Piriac-sur-mer toward evening. The one and only bakery sold us their last baguette before closing and we enjoyed a simple meal parked in the church square. After dinner, we walked around the corner to the bistro of the Hotel de la Plage*, the only place that was still open at about 8:30 PM. To put it mildly, we caused a sensation. Jungle drums had long since announced that a German campervan was parked in the square. But now this guy showed up with two women. One guy – two women. Wow! The head fisherman, Théo, spread the word among his buddies to come and look at the exotic foreigners. Once we involved the chaps in conversation, their wild fantasies reduced themselves to near normal and we were invited to a fun moonlight harbor cruise. Unfortunately, Diana slipped in the dinghy and hit her back really hard resulting in quite a bit of pain and deep purple bruises later on. After a number of further [medicinal] shots at the hotel bar we foolishly agreed to go out fishing with them the next day – only hours away.

[*Hotel de la Plage today – much, much, much more modest back then!!]

At five in the morning, the church bells awakened our miserable, hungover and/or hurting selves and with the meager help of a few cups of tea we attempted to get ready to go fishing. Théo soon rapped at the window and we left harbor before sunrise. Despite our multiple sweaters under foul weather slickers and double socks, it was darn cold out there before the first net was hauled in. From then till early afternoon we worked hard sorting and separating fish from cephalopod from crustacean, throwing the babies and unwanted creatures back into the sea. It felt at times as if we were submerged to our necks amidst the plentiful catch. But we held our own, and our bladders, disembarking proudly, stinky and covered in fish scales. Complying with local fishermen’s custom, we repaired to the pub to wash down all that fishy aroma with our new buddies, before hightailing it to the public pool one town over for a thorough hot shower. Our jeans, stiff with fish blood and dried slime, had to go in a plastic bag for safekeeping in the furthest corner of the RV. There were no laundromats in these rural coastal corners, washing them had to wait till we could commandeer Mme Gehnert’s machine back in La Baule.

A sojourn in Brittany will, one way or another, always include an encounter with stones. There are large rocks everywhere. Beaches are littered with them, so is the land. The terrestrial ones are called menhirs and ancient humans, for unfathomable reasons arranged those rocks in long rows. Thousands of them. Thousands of years ago. Back in 1974, it was possible to walk among them, even climb on the menhirs. Today, they’re protected from accidental or deliberate damage by fences. Barry, who firmly believes the menhirs were planted because the Gauls thought they would grow, sort of a rock orchard, and I visited the Alignements de Ménec and Kermario in Carnac, just as our wedding party had done way back when in 1974. Love them menhirs!

Another place lovingly remembered is Ti Plouz ar Baluchon**, roughly “Welcome Home, Travellers”, a creperie in the beach community of Le Cabellou on the outskirts of the ancient fishing harbor Concarneau, Finistère. My mother and I discovered this cozy little place under the tall pines in 1972, when she and Charles and I traveled around Brittany during summer break.

[** Ti = home; Plouz = straw; Ar = the; Baluchon = (a wanderer’s) bundle, bag, pouch. Ti plouz = reed-roofed cabin; Baluchon = symbolic for traveller]. No guarantees! Simply the little bits I may or may not remember of the Breton language!]


“Ti Plouz ar Baluchon”

We stopped by often for coffee and maybe a crêpe for Charles when he wasn’t playing between the rocks on the beach just up the road. The creperie’s waiter that summer was quite intriguing to me. My mother and I called him “The Black Man” between us, as he was always dressed in black from head to toe, with long black hair in a Prince Valiant cut, and never a smile on his lips. A challenge, certainly, for my 22-year-old self. The creperie owners Maryse and Raymond, nearly my mother’s age, soon became friends and we enjoyed spending time with them.

Two years later, our honeymoon convoy pulled into the gravel drive of the creperie and we parked in the shade behind the house. Diana and Wilfried fit right in. There were many intense Mah Jongg sessions with Maryse late at night after the last guests had finally left the restaurant and we all took our aprons off. Later in the week, while Raymond was sailing a friend’s Dufour Arpège to Deauville, Maryse came down with a bad case of phlebitis and Diana managed the kitchen for her. During the off hours, we just lazed about in the sunshine or collected shells on the beach, while Wilfried experimented as avant-guard film director.

One particular day in Le Cabellou will live forever in my heart as a beautiful memory. Sunday late morning, Raymond, Diana and I drove to the fishing harbor in Concarneau and bought six dozen oysters straight off the boat – 65 oysters actually because we got a baker’s dozen. Back home we lit the fireplace, opened some bottles of chilled Muscadet, the regional white wine, and set the table with candles while the boys chucked the oysters and piled them high on a tray to go in the center of the table. Let the feast begin!

After bread & cheese with hand-churned butter from a local farm, we finished the meal with ice cream & coffee, and calvados to aid our digestion. What a day!

Since I had such a strong connection to the Plouz for nearly a half century, I was psyched to find it again on our recent trip. Upon arrival in the area, Barry crept up and down one narrow lane after another in the quite over-build Cabellou Plage neighborhood, at agonizingly slow speed, while I scanned every property trying to identify a landmark, any landmark. Finally, we parked and started walking through this beautiful neighborhood, lingering on adjacent beaches.


After a long, fruitless search which was really a long and delightful promenade, we were climbing back into the car when I decided to give it one more try. Nearby, I had noticed a woman busy with yard work. I walked back to her and introduced my query with the standard Frenchy formula: Je suis désolée de vous déranger, Madame, mais j’ai un petit question = I’m so sorry to disturb you, dear lady, but I have a quick question. As is the rule, she listened attentively to my explanation about a creperie in her neighborhood which operated more or less 40 years ago. Even though she hadn’t lived there THAT long, Madame pointed out, she recognized the place. No longer a creperie, did I know? As it turned out the property in question – a private home for some time now – was literally around the corner from her property and four houses up the street. We had driven right past it, I believe, because the property is so overgrown that you can’t even see a house from the street.

Barry encouraged me to sneak up the neighbor’s driveway to catch a better view. Yes, this is the former Ti Plouz ar Baluchon, without any doubt!! It made me very happy that we found the old place which miraculously looks exactly like I remembered it.


Even though I exchanged letters with the Collers early on, I lost touch and don’t know what became of Maryse, Queen of Mah Jongg and Raymond, sailor par excellence. I vaguely recall that they wanted to expand the Cabellou property and had gotten a building permit, but that they had difficulties to come up with the funds to start building. Looking at the house, it’s clear it wasn’t altered. Now that I have the street address again, I may write a letter to the “house” and see if I get a response from the current resident.

In order to improve my attitude toward managing my memories, my friend forwarded a quote by Petrarca, recommending to “Lerne zu vergessen, was nutzlos ist, und erinnere dich mit Liebe an alles Schöne.” [to learn to forget what’s useless and remember lovingly all the beauty]. I would welcome to participate in one of Petrarca’s famous dialogues to see if he could provide a solution for those gut-wrenching moments when the damn beauty becomes the quagmire that threatens to suck you under. Out of my sorrow, I have to respond with another Petrarca quote:

And tears are heard within the harp I touch.