Sook, by any other name, still Sook

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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A Brief Addendum​

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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 Farewell

Roughly seven and a half years ago, we flew to Costa Rica and ten days later bought a house there. It wasn’t impulsive, but it flew ever so slightly against conventional wisdom. Every single manual/website/blog/advice-dispenser/busybody will tell you that before moving to Costa Rica, you must live there for so-and-so long, you must move from region to region to identify the area you like best and so forth. Advice acknowledged.

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Let’s look at this from our perspective. When I was 27 years old, I abandoned my career path and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, USA. Two days later I married someone I barely knew and I mean that quite literally because we had spent only 15 days in each other’s company before we got married. Fifteen days as in 360 hours. That happened 40 years ago this coming Christmas season and we’re still together and loving it and each other. We moved many times within the US, buying and selling seven homes along the way, not counting our places in Costa Rica and France, nor our residence and the guest house we built on our ranch in Central Texas. When looking for a place to live, we do all the preliminary work online, including political situations, health care, infrastructure, climate and so forth. The rest is simply gut reaction. Our combined judgments may not be statistically relevant, but they’re pretty sound nevertheless. Besides, at my age and life experience, I can pretty much determine without a test period if either high humidity and a lot of sand or a mountain perch with a far view work better for me.

During these 40 years, my husband traveled across the globe on business, continuously learning about other cultures. While I ferried our son from home to Montessori School and back, he traveled from Buenos Aires to Kathmandu and beyond, and was I ever jealous! While I isolated catfish retinas under dark-red conditions in my lab, he conducted workshops in the shadow of the holy site of the Borobudur in Indonesia. We rarely traveled together during those years because our respective work schedules diverged too much.

After retirement, we utilized Home Exchanges as a way of traveling far and wide as we hadn’t been able to do in our younger years. Shanghai, Munich, Sydney, Santa Fe, Granada in Spain, or Granada in Nicaragua, we loved to explore those towns! Through home exchanges, we had a chance to travel through the alphabet together, experiencing life in foreign cities from Amsterdam to Vancouver, sometimes for a month, rarely for less than a fortnight. Our home in Costa Rica soon became our most valuable exchange token. Who doesn’t want a tropical vacation in CR, right? Barry, who made all our exchange arrangements can tell you that he received 400+ exchange request per year for our place in Atenas.

But no more. As of now, we’ve reduced our real-estate holdings to one residence, our home in France. We sold our place in Lomas del Paraiso, Atenas, Alajuela, Costa Rica, lock stock and barrel, including the Honda Element that we imported from Texas and all the linens, pots and pans, tchotchkes, and the art work on the walls. All we took with us were personal items like our swimsuits and my Zwilling kitchen knives, that have accompanied me on my life’s journey for almost as long as my husband. We also packed up our Boruca masks that I bought from the artisans during an educational event in Atenas to which I was invited two years ago. This is the post I published in 2015 about that day:

Las Artes y Los Borucas

We’re sad to leave behind the most delicious tropical fruit paradise known to man, faithfully supplying me with a daily dose of my beloved maracuyá juice and juicy pineapples for Barry’s breakfast. We will also miss the ever-changing and entertaining views over canyons and volcanic mountain ranges rising above the Central Valley, itself stretching far below our terrace and lap pool.

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7 h in the morning – looking S over the Central Valley

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mid-morning around 10 h – looking S over the Central Valley

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18 h nightfall – looking W with mists rising from the canyon floor below us

But the saddest “things” to leave behind were not fruits or views, however delicious or spectacular. They were not even our resident Greater kiskadee’s loud territorial cries, awakening us every morning at 5:30 sharp nor the world’s best sherbets created by our friend Alex, but Alex himself. Him and all our other friends in Atenas, Americans, Ticos, Germans, Canadians, Belgians, Frenchies, Brits, every one of them shall be sorely missed!

Owing to our extensive travel schedule these past two years, we had not returned home to Costa Rica in 18 months, trusting our managers of long standing to supervise the running of our property with its lineup of exchange partners and paying guests. They were not just managers, though we remunerated them quite generously, they had been our friends as well. A few years ago, they even acted as our dog’s foster parents while we were abroad. Based on this relationship, we gave them an exclusive listing last September when we made the difficult decision to sell. After five months with only a few showings and both promised second showings never actually happening, we told our manager/agent that we needed to list our property with other agents. Shortly thereafter our renters submitted a purchase offer directly to us, which we accepted – precipitating a shitstorm of epic proportions. Our managers/agent declared themselves our enemies, calling us liars and cheats. They dropped us like the proverbial hot potato, terminating all services without notice. True, we sold to buyers who had approached us directly with their offer, thus cutting out the agent. Since there was no prior interaction between agent and buyer, this was legal and customary. Our agent didn’t bring this client, nor any other clients, thus she hadn’t earned a commission. Nevertheless, the vicious venom was hurtful and the unpleasantness dragged on over many weeks, revealing also that there had been some mismanagement, especially in the pool and yard care and in the supervision of the gardener. We had learned earlier that the mandatory yearly car inspection hadn’t been done and found out eventually about a serious equipment theft which was never resolved.

As if to make up for this heartbreak, our friends and neighbors up the hill dove in with practical help and encouragement despite going through some difficult times themselves. Their unwavering support was calming and reassuring, they simply enveloped us with their goodness and love. Your wings, Marcella and Mike, are without any doubt of archangelical proportions!

During our last few weeks in Costa Rica, we tried to hang out with as many people as we could between sorting belongings and canceling services, strengthening bonds and even forging new ones. A lot of hugs remained unhuged because I got pretty sick and had to step back from human contact for a lot longer than anticipated. Nevertheless, we generated many lovely memories with our friends in Atenas, especially with a certain couple in Roca Verde, who would restore our joie de vivre with their signature Negroni cocktails and lovely dinners every time we thought we had lost our spunk for good. Thank you, Judy and Neal!

Costa Rica is well known for its incredible bio diversity. When you live there, you’re never really alone. You share your space with untold members of the living world, sometimes a little too closely, but more often than not, a delight to observe.

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Black iguana youngster, still sporting a lot of green,

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while mama is almost done with her latest molt.

 

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My Kangal Dog Otto’s resting place

 

 

 

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“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”  Henry David Thoreau

 

Distinctly Different Vistas

We left France recently for our first trip back to Costa Rica in 20 Months, más o menos. The contrast between small town Saintes, Charente-Maritime, and small town Atenas, Alajuela, couldn’t be more pronounced if you tried! With a few of the pictures I took during this last week, I can illustrate the dichotomy between the tranquil life along the Charente river and the dramatic natural forces on the slopes of the Cordillera Central.

On our last day in Saintes, I discovered “our” swans on an outing with this year’s crop of cygnets. Framed against the backdrop of 2000-year-old l’Arc de Germanicus, they are the perfect symbol for life in rural southwest France.

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While I was watching, the parental units brought their swanlings a little closer to the left bank to teach them the swan-ly skill of underwater grazing.

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Mute swans, Cygnus olor, Anatidae

 

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Close supervision of the fuzzballs brought quick success. 

Finally, even sleepy number seven joined its siblings.

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That’s easy, dad!

In contrast to the gentle breezes and mild temperatures of southwest France, we arrived in Costa Rica to an atmosphere of nearly saturated humidity, so moist and oppressive that even the cashier at the supermarket had to wipe her face repeatedly with the collar of her polo shirt while she was checking us out. If the locals can’t stand it, how am I supposed to cope? Our customarily crisp and brilliant sunrises were also a bit on the murky side.

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Fortunately, the weather has since reverted to normal, with pleasant mostly sunny mornings and thundering afternoons, befitting the early rainy season.

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The hillside across the canyon hasn’t fully greened yet,  but it’s early days – the rainy season has barely started. However, when it does rain one can’t easily ignore it!

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My circadian rhythm has reset itself, adjusting to the near equatorial day with daylight from 5h00 to 18h00 and brief dawn and dusk periods. In Costa Rica, pretty much the whole country rises and retires with the proverbial chickens, except the party crowd in posh Escazu, of course. In addition to the properties of lux influx, I postulate that an adaptation to the local alimentation greatly influences my Tica-style sleep-wake cycle. After all, one can not possibly start the day in Costa Rica without a serving of Gallo Pinto, can one now?

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Speaking of food, Costa Rican ants like their protein, too. It took a steady stream of tiny Formicidae roughly 36 hours to completely strip this beetle of all nourishing organic matter. A contiguous ant-highway extended along my bathroom tile grout for several meters between the supine victim and the outdoors, moving along with single-minded determination. Amazing!

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The statuesque lady below, sunning herself on our cement pool surround is a member of one of our resident Black iguana families, Ctenosaura similis, Iguanidae. They live on the hillside below and above us and their extensive escape tunnels incorporate our rainwater drainage system. Iguanas are pretty shy and tend to disappear rather quickly when they detect you.

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The spikes on the iguana’s tail give them their other name, Spiny-tailed iguana. 

 

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Another iguana family lives in the steep mountainside opposite our back door. One of the cave entrances is five or six meters above our carport. They do enjoy sunbathing, so in Costa Rica, I have a much greater opportunity to observe iguana than swans!

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Both locations, Saintes and Atenas, are gorgeous in their own way, don’t you think?

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05h29, May 31, 2017