Volunteering in Haiti, October 2012

Sugarcane field in Haiti

Sugarcane field near Mellier, Haiti

Hello friends, family, and blog readers – I hate to hit you up like this but here goes!

As you may or may not know, I’m leaving for Haiti on October 22, returning October 30. I’m going with a group from the First United Methodist Church of Pasadena. I went to Haiti for the first time this past January and shortly thereafter took a training course offered by UMVIM (United Methodist Volunteers in Mission – http://www.umvim.org) on team leadership. The church in Pasadena had put together a team with capable leadership and people who are well traveled and have done much relief work worldwide. Due to the special circumstances in Haiti, however, someone in each group has to have worked with UMVIM in Haiti before. I felt quite honored when someone from UMVIM contacted me and asked me to be a co-leader  alongside Rev. Allison K. Mark, Associate Pastor at FUMC Pasadena.

I know it’s all rather last minute but if you’d like to be a part of our team in spirit and remembered fondly while I’m there (and I might just bring you back a souvenir ;-) make a tax deductible donation to our team.

You can do this in one of two ways. You may mail a check to:

First United Methodist Church of Pasadena
500 East Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91101

And in the Memo Field write “UMVIM Haiti – Kerry Cooper”

Or you can donate online using a credit or debit card or online check.  Go to: www.fumcpasadena.org and click on “donate” (or go straight to the donation page by clicking here.)

Go down to “Other”, type in the amount you’d like to give and in the blank space next to it enter “UMVIM Haiti Kerry Cooper”, click continue and fill in the card or check details.

I appreciate anything you can give be it $5 or $500!

At the worksite in January.

We’ll be doing construction work in Leveque, a small community about 2 hours north of Port-au-Prince. Everything within a few hours drive of Port-au-Prince suffered severe damage in the earthquake in January of 2010. The rate of rebuilding is slow but steady. When I was there in January, you could literally see rubble from a damaged or destroyed building no matter where you were. Destruction is always within visual range.

We’ll be bringing medical, construction, and school supplies. Each team that goes to Haiti generates 10-20 jobs for local Haitian people in the communities we serve in. Over $7000 is put directly into the Haitian economy.

We need a grand total of $17,000 for the 9 of us to go covering all of our expenses and to pay for the workers (cooks, translators), construction materials, etc. while there. We’re only a couple of thousand short so please pitch in if you can!

Someone once asked “Why are you going there – again!?!?” I think these photos will sum it up:

I’ll leave you with this.  In January one of the team members asked our translator, “By coming here are we really helping?” To be honest, we weren’t the best construction crew around and we did take breaks to play with the school children during recess. He replied, “When you come, you give us hope. You remind us that the world hasn’t forgotten about Haiti.”

Thank you and God Bless!

Provence 2.0

I wanted this blog to be about experiences, feelings, emotions, and connection with a place and its people. I don’t know that I did that the first time. Enjoy this retelling of “Provence”.

A wise, older, and very Christian friend asked me once what I really loved. “What are you passionate about?” she asked.

I stared at her for a moment and said, “The only thing I really love to do, is sit with a friend over a meal, or coffee or wine . . . and talk.”

Her reply: “Then you should be an evangelist!”

Being an evangelist is not exactly my calling. However, for the first time, someone let me know that if sitting and talking with a friend is what I live for, I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

My friends in L.A. are passionate about movies (acting, directing, watching) and others love theater, magic, art, religion, music, teaching, running, and the gym, among other things.

I can appreciate these things. I enjoy music, film, art, a good magic show, theater, and religion – but I’m not enthusiastic about them. I don’t find pleasure in practicing and preparing for any of those things for hours on end. It’s not me. (And I really don’t get the running and gym thing AT ALL. I work out for the same reason I eat kale. It’s good for me – not fun.)

I believed that being passionate about art or medicine is noble. Being passionate about movies or television – and I mean to the extreme found only in Los Angeles – or theater – to the extreme found only in New York – is somehow trivial. As I lay in bed one morning thinking about the job I dreaded and the day ahead of me, I asked what I wanted to be when I grew up (I was 41 at the time) and couldn’t think of anything. I thought about my friends excited to go to work or impassioned about their hobby. As “trivial” as I may have found it, at least they had something. Something I lacked.

In addition to long chats over food and drink . . . travel. The smell of jet-fuel gives me an adrenaline rush and sets my imagination ablaze. Travel used to be about seeing sights and having new experiences – and still is to some degree. But more than anything else, I want to connect with someone from another culture, another place. As ironic as it may seem, I want to know what their dreams are. What direction they hope to go in life. How they are going to get there? And maybe I’m hoping that these conversations will help me find the direction I seek.

This brings me back to Provence via Dallas. The back-story actually started in while I was living in Texas in 1997. I was working for a travel company and supported an outside sales representative in Geneva named Régine. We clicked right away, over the phone and later when she came to Texas for meetings, a long-term friendship started growing. From laughing so hard we couldn’t breath, to long talks about disappointments in career or love, and even the deaths of loved ones, it was always easy to be friends, to share, and know there is another who “gets me”.

To arrive at her home in Provence (she’d just moved back to her childhood home from Geneva) felt like I myself was coming home. The table was set with brightly colored Fiesta Ware, candles, cheese, bread and wine. She, her husband, and I caught up and started laughing. Her poor husband. I kept thinking about the “someecard”:

someecards.com - Yes, we are aware of how obnoxious we are when we are together. No, we don't care.

As we drank more wine, we laughed harder about sillier things. Our memories of events from years past with a good dash of gossip left poor Sven in the dark. She’s lucky to have him, and he’s lucky to have her. His order in balance with her passion. Her emotion and his logic meeting in the middle. Just stand back in the kitchen. His domain. After eating with them for a few days, I didn’t want to leave.

Every meal was filled with wonderful local food from the market down the street. Wines grown, harvested, and aged in barrels just a few miles away. The salty smell of the Mediterranean, grilled fish caught that day. Bread – real French bread – and hours of conversation. Her childhood friend, Sven’s son, and a few uninvited mosquitos finished out one evening in the garden, all to the sounds of the Bill Evans Trio playing on vinyl. My father once said piano music aids in digestion. He was right. And for dessert, the 1973 movie A Touch of Class and ice cream. The cherry pastry we’d planned on making, ahem, we’d planned on Sven making, didn’t happen. We ate all the cherries before they made it to the kitchen. In Provence, even the cherries are irresistible.

Breakfast was simple yet perfect. The house was once multiple units and features 3 kitchens. One is brightly painted with bulletin boards covered in family photos and pictures cut from magazines, like Pintrest before Pintrest was cool. Régine calls it the “Barcelona Kitchen” since it’s eclectic and bohemian, like Barcelona. There each morning I enjoyed espresso, baguette, butter and jam – what else does one need?

Barcelona Kitchen

A walk to the beach, scenic drives, sights and hillside Mediterranean vistas – it was all very nice. You can read all about it below. But what I loved about Provence had little to do with geography.

My passion may not be typical. It may not be something I can collect, or watch or show. But it is something I have.

Provence, France

I landed in Marseille and my adrenaline started pumping. A few minutes earlier the Trans-Atlantic flight had exhausted me, but I was wide awake now. Fortunately I had enough miles to get a Business Class seat. Awe Business Class, how I will miss you now that I’ve cashed in every last mile that I had accumulated.

Train to Toulon from Marseille

I took a shuttle to a nearby train station, then a train on to the central station in Marseille, and another on to Toulon about 45 minutes east along the Mediterranean coast. It couldn’t have been more French. American’s have a stereotype of what France, and especially Provence, should be. We all wanted to experience it, as I identified no fewer than 8 voices with American accents on the flight from Frankfurt.

Stepping out of the station in Toulon, one immediately knows that this is France.  The architecture was unmistakably French. From Renaissance to Beaux Arts to 60s modern and beyond, the French invented architecture as an art.  The first school was established in Paris in 1671, long before anywhere else in Europe.
Toulon
My friend Régine picked me up and we took off for Le Pradet, 20 minutes away.  Still along the coast, Le Pradet plays into even more of the American dream of Provence. It’s a quaint village with a vibrant square flanked on the sides by bars, restaurants, and shops, along with the church on one end and a construction zone on the other.

Church in Le Pradet

Régine’s childhood home had become her new full time residence as she’d just recently moved back after many years. She and her husband Sven did not disappoint.  They played into my Provencial fantasies. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  The shutters in the living room:

Shutters in Provence

I’m not going to go into how fabulous it is to sit outside and dine with wine and cheese and baguettes, fresh fruit and salad and colorful dishes.  See for yourself:
Lunch in Provence

The conversation was as amazing as the atmosphere. Sven’s heritage is German and Swedish, which means he speaks English flawlessly. Régine and Sven switched between French, German, and English as easily as quickly most of us can flip a light switch. Keeping up was fun too. I surprised myself with how much French I could understand.  Maybe some day I’ll actually be able to read the novels Régine writes. (You can buy them here: Amazon & you can read her blog here.)

View from La Californie

One afternoon she said she wanted to show me her California.  Well, the nearby neighborhood of “La Californie” to be exact. I was surprised. I’ve always heard of Los Angeles as having a “Mediterranean climate”, vegetation, etc. Drop an Angeleno here and he’d swear he was in the Hollywood Hills somewhere off Mulholland Drive. The plants, the trees, and to an extent the architecture were the same.  Then I turned around – unfortunately you cannot see the Pacific from the Hollywood Hills.  The view of the Mediterranean from “La Californie” was quite breathtaking. “It can’t be that blue,” I kept telling myself.  We drove down the hill along the coast. I wish I’d taken more photos. Kite-surfer’s had taken over one end of a peninsula. With a dune obscuring the view of the people, it looked like butterflies randomly darting above even more blue water.

Regine at the beach

Most of Le Pradet is within a 10 minute walk of a beach.  In places powdery and sandy and in others a bit gravelly, but beautiful beaches none the less. I’d imagine that year round they are beautiful. I want to go with a chair, a book and a blanket some winter. I’ll update this when that happens. (Do I sound like I’m 80 all of a sudden?)

Another evening we drove to Hyères. This town was founded by the Phonecians in the 300s BC and subsequently very important to both the Greeks and Romans. It is the oldest resort town on the French Riviera.  Check it out on Wikipedia. The history is fascinating. According to the article, Robert Louis Stevenson said, “I was only happy once, and that was in Hyères.” Numerous British aristocracy and authors spent time there including Queen Victoria. Again, this place defies my best descriptions enjoy the view from the main plaza.

Hyeres

There they introduced me to Liqueur de Mandarine. It is what it sounds like it is. Only it tastes better than you can imagine. If you like oranges, tangerines, mandarins, or citrus in general, you’d love it. Unfortunately, I cannot find it in the US. (If anyone knows where, please comment and let me know.) An ice cold shot sipped slowly, on the rocks, with soda, or over a scoop of vanilla ice cream – you cannot go wrong.

Mandarine Liqueur

The Provencial fantasy continued when I woke up the last morning. Régine’s step-mother was listening to “Paris Café” on Jazzradio.com via a Wi-Fi connected iPod touch connected to the stereo system. We exchanged “bonjours” while she did a little dance and sorted through some mail. I just want to point out the music American’s think of as stereotypically French isn’t just a stereotype. Apparently the French enjoy it as much as we do. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. Stereotype confirmed. Fantasy fulfilled.

Houston, Texas (Not a travel post)

Sorry to deviate from the plan. It’s been a while since I last wrote. Since the last posting, I’ve quit my “day job” and with much more time at hand, plan on developing this into a more full fledged travel information site and blog. The focus will be on my travel stories, advice, and recommendations with helpful links along the way. That being said, this is not a travel related entry, so please forgive.:

I traveled to Houston, Texas Monday, July 23 because my nephew, Jerami Dattilo passed away. He was 2 years younger than I and we grew up seeing each other quite a bit. Every few months from his birth in 1972 until 1997 we saw each other at family gatherings or just because. In February 1997 I moved to Dallas, where he and his mother – my eldest sister – were living. We saw each other daily for over 2 years. The times that I’ve laughed and the cried the hardest were with him. His mother, Debbie, was not just a sister but a good friend. She’d been diagnosed with lymphoma and the outlook wasn’t the best. I moved to be closer to them. She passed away in July of 1998 at the age of 44 and a part of Jerami died with her. He never recovered from that loss. Looking back now, so many things about him seemed frozen in 1998. When someone passes away at 40 (or 44 for that matter), and had so much more to live for, anything you read in a sympathy card doesn’t seem to work. As harsh as it may sound, he is in a better place, reunited with his mom. His tormented soul, now set free to fly and shine and be.

Jerami moved to Houston in 2001. He was an interior designer and a fashionista at heart but he also loved the theater and acting. His last job was at Stages Repertory Theater in River Oaks. He seems to have inspired the theater to do Steel Magnolias. It’s running now through August 19.  Kenn McLaughlin, the Producing Artistic Director wrote the following about Jerami in the director’s note for the playbill, dedicating the show to Jerami. He summarized Jerami’s personality better than I ever could and that text is below:

About eighteen months ago, I took a road trip out to Liberty, Texas to see a production of Hairspray by the town’s local theatre. The happy band that headed eastward included my partner Brad, Stages’ board member Nixon Wheat, and a dear friend of Nixon – Jerami Datillo – who was a recent hire to Stages’ sales staff.  Along the way we laughed and talked about any number of topics but no matter the subject, Jerami managed to keep us in stitches with a sense of humor that is probably the finest I’ve ever known. I remember I asked him how in God’s name he got to be so funny and with a timing that only Jerami has, he brought me near to tears with two words: Steel Magnolias.

As part of the American comic lexicon, Steel Magnolias is a remarkable achievement. It is possibly the youngest play in the canon of American comedies that is already a timeless classic. Just saying the name in almost any conversation will evoke at least one quote from the play and the movie is one of the most popular films of all time.  The original story comes from the memories of playwright Robert Harling who grew up in earshot of the battles between his mother and sister and as part of the ritual beauty trips each would take to the local salon. He began writing the play as a way to process his deep grief when he lost one of these beautiful women much too soon. The play developed into a celebration of several women who had impacted Harling’s life and has grown to become the seminal theatre piece to celebrate the women who shape our lives.

As with Auntie Mame, I believe this great play is lost a bit in the shadow of an iconic film and the story is oft dismissed as a comic romp, a star vehicle, or a piece of lighter fare. I scream foul at the thought! The original work is a complex multi-layered story of six very different women who develop a dignity and grit through time together. Yes it is a comedy. And yes, these characters meet life with a lofty zeal and humor but they are first and foremost, very strong people confronting issues of abandonment, illness, poverty, faith and death.  And they learn to do all of this as a rag-tag little community. They are you and I. And if we are so blessed to have the pluck of these six women, then you and I get to laugh a lot along the road together.

Which brings me back to Jerami.  As I began to write this director’s note I learned that Jerami died suddenly today. I am still in shock. He was a big part of our heart here at Stages and he was very much our funny bone. When he mentioned Steel Magnolias those months ago, he planted the seed in my mind to produce it and no one in Houston was happier that we were doing this show then he was. He spent much of the past six weeks endlessly quoting the show to all of us. The last quote he spouted my direction was on Wednesday when I was complaining about something silly. “Shelby would not want us to get all mired down and wallow in this” he said and of course I laughed. And a good laugh is worth more than any of us may ever know. I am smiling right now even as I think of him and I’m crying too and I know what he’d say – “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”.

So, for Jerami, here are our Magnolias. They are here because of you, you dear, great, funny man – may they make you smile.

Thank you Kenn for your comforting words and for reminding me to laugh at my many fond memories of Jerami’s humor. Memorial donations to Stages Repertory Theater can be made online here and click the “donate” button on the upper right. In the field that says “Are you making this donation in memory of someone? (List name below)” please put Jerami Dattilo.

And thank you also, Nixon and Terence. You were his family and helped him so much and for that I am forever grateful.

Poland, New Year’s Eve 1988-89

I was 18 and looking for adventure. My German friends would go cross-country skiing in southern Poland right after Christmas. I had to go. The cold war was still on and I had to go and see this scary place full of communists and secret police. We had a friend in Warsaw who would be our host and guide – a Polish boy who worked in Germany during the summer. He was friendly and down-to-earth. At 17 he had a very entrepreneurial streak. He would come to Germany, work all summer, and stock up on tennis shoes and jeans. Then go back to Warsaw and sell the shoes and jeans, and use money to buy a lot of beer and vodka and fun. Nothing like the communists we’d learned about in school.

We sat on the train for what seemed like days. Finally, I was in Warsaw. The next day we were exploring the old city. We stopped at a little cafe and I had hot chocolate. It was the best I’d ever had. It was like someone in the kitchen took fine milk chocolate and melted it into a cup but forgot to dilute it with water or milk. I loved it because I knew this would be wrong back home. Madonna was playing in the background. Somehow this didn’t seem communist.

We wandered around the center of town. We saw the 14th century squares and the city wall filled with shops. We found a magic shop selling with charms and items of the occult. My Baptist sensibilities were called into question. I saw the charms and potions and as conflicted as I was, it was fascinating. Despite the spiritual consequences my soul may one-day face, I bought some things. I could worry about that another time.

Warsaw’s Centralna Train Station

A few days later our friend’s mother drove us to Warsaw’s central train station, “Centralna”. She was an elegant intellectual woman. She looked too young to be the mother of a 17 year old. She drank and smoked and offered us beers. We would be taking the night train to Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains on the border with Czechoslovakia. A week of unsupervised cross country skiing and New Year’s Eve partying. The night before we had a long conversation about communism, Perestroika, martial law, and the future of Poland. She gave me Lech Wałęsa’s book “Solidarity” to read on the train. She said it would help me understand what was happening in the country and the ideology of her hero

We were standing on the platform about to board our train. I needed to put my gloves in my bag and dig out my Walkman – yep, a mixed tape. I unzipped the top flap of the duffel and on top in bright red and white was the shiny new cover of “Solidarity”. Our hostess, standing next to me in a floor length brown fur coat, glanced down. I was oblivious, digging, and talking to my friends. She knew the security cameras around Centralna were watching. She knew that the smiling security guard or the older woman in the fur hat could be secret police informants. She knew that the book “Solidarity” was banned and she knew there were consequences if I was caught with it. She did something so simple and yet remarkable. She took her hand from her pocket and grabbed the edge of her coat. She flung it out, to swing it away from her leg so she could crouch down. On the way down, her coat surrounded my bag on 3 sides, shielding it from view. She acted as if I’d asked her to help me dig in my duffel. Looking into the bag as naturally as I was, she placed her palm on the cover of the banned book. With a fluid motion she slid it to the side and pushed it down, along the outside, to the bottom of my bag. Retrieving her hand, she didn’t take her eyes off of the clothes on top while she spoke to me under her breath. “That book is forbidden. DO NOT let anyone see you with it.”  She stood up and continued the conversation she was having with her son, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Her point hit home all too well. I left the book in the bottom of the bag until we returned to their apartment in Warsaw some days later. I was too afraid to retrieve it.

Zakopane, Poland

Less than two years passed and Lech Wałęsa became the first democratically elected President of Poland. I still haven’t read the book, but I understand quite clearly why he wrote it.

That last night in Warsaw, we had dinner at our friend’s grandmother’s apartment. She’d never met an American before and I was like some kind of celebrity. We didn’t speak a common language but we talked with our translators’ help. Before I left she ran into another room and came out with an old coffee table book. The title in giant block letters, “WARZSAWA” and a black silhouette of a famous statue stood out from the grey canvas cover. I said I couldn’t take it but she insisted.

It’s still on my bookshelf and a prized possession. Every time I see it, I think of my time in Poland, of the full-length fur coat, of “Solidarity”, and of 10 days in Poland, over 20 years ago.

Barcelona

Commissioned by the textile industrialist Josep Batlló, this apartment building was designed by Antoni Gaudí and built between 1904 and 1906. Barcelona is amazing. Great cafes and shopping, architecture, friendly smiles and the beautiful Catalan language.

For me, Gaudí’s most amazing work is the one that’s still in progress. Sagrada Familia, the cathedral he started planning in 1883 is indescribable. It looks organic, not built. Enjoy.

Read more about Antoni Gaudí here.  And pick up some Catalan here.

Miami Beach

a room with a view – casa grande suite hotel – miami beach

I walk into the sea. The creamy blue water lifts me and my soul. I close my eyes and the wave buries me. Another forces me to the top, floating above the sand and shells. The warmth of the water, surrounds me like a giant blue blanket, more beautiful than any ever sewn.

My feet leave the sea floor again. Fear grips my heart as I am pulled away from the shore, but only for a second. Fear gives way to peace and freedom and ecstasy. I’m flying in a liquid sky, and nothing else matters. The life I feel in these short moments is more than I have ever felt. The salty water fills my mouth and I know I am alive. The waves lift and cover me and I know I am alive. The sand swirls at my feet and I know I am alive. The crashing sound of wave after wave roars and I am alive. The wind blows on my wet skin and I am alive. The sun burns down on my flesh and I am alive. The blue and the green overwhelm me and I am alive.

Why now? Why does this make me feel so free and well? Thoughts are clear and joy fills me. I am not distracted. I am focused on one thing with all my heart. I knew, but had forgotten. I resist drowning in the sea, but I would do well to drown in this moment.