Monday, April 25, 2011


(The Bath, Alfred Stevens, 1867, Musee d'Orsay, Paris)

I am fascinated by toilets.

And Europe - like a bucketful of other wonders - has opened my eyes to the mysteries of commodes.

Honestly, until I stepped foot on European soil, it was all about the decorative design of these objects.

Did I care about their functionality?

Not so much.

Sure, I was ticked when those menacing "low-flow" babies hit the American plumbing market.

But my life went on.

That all changed when I flushed my first toilet in London.

The roar of the WHOOSH!!! was positively deafening.

And oddly fulfilling at the same time.

When I heard the flush, I pictured a complicated underground system of heavy duty pipes that meant "take-no-prisoners" business.

Wimpy whooshes in London?

Not a chance.

Plugged up pipes resulting in sudden eruptions of the nasties?


Instantly, I knew I was treading on new territory.

And I was becoming hooked.

No one has mastered the fine art of flushing like the Europeans.

Spend some quality time pondering this fact:

Most European toilets don't have handles.

That's right.

No handles.

Imagine, if you will, a rectangular Kleenex box.

Place that box flush (hmmm) into the wall just above the toilet.

Next, insert a movable five inch oval button inside the "tissue box."

Finally, push the oval button firmly into the box.

The next thing you know you're singing "zip-a-dee-doo-dah" and waving bye-bye to what your innards have just produced!

It's a beautiful thing.

And it's an activity I never grow tired of.

Are you dying to know what material is used to make these flush boxes?

I always am.

Don't worry your pretty little head another second.

My fave is the chrome box.

It's looks like glitzy silver.

And it's a perfect companion to the chrome faucets that sparkle in most contemporary bathrooms across the pond.

Baby, bring on the bling.

(This is a photo from our private collection.  Please notice the similar size, shape and material of the flush box and the tissue box.  The toilet paper holder you see is serving as a spare.  The actual toilet paper holder looks just like our American version but, unfortunately, it did not get included in this photo.)

Just days ago, Bob and I got to snoop into the private bathroom of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.

Our snooping took place at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

Elizabeth - known as "Sissi" by her family, friends and subjects - departed this life in 1898.

So it's not like we were sneaking around her private quarters while she was out picking up apple strudel at the royal conditeri with her favorite lady-in-waiting.

Busybodies that we are, we couldn't resist popping our heads into her spacious bathroom.

This is what we saw:

(The gorgeous white thing is Sissi's oven which all European castles used for heating rooms back in the day.  The piece on the right is NOT her commode.)

Sissi began every day with a cold bath at 5 or 6 in the morning.

That's because - in my opinion - she was crazy.

Occasionally, she favored baths of warm olive oil to keep her skin soft.

Thanks, but I'm gonna stick to drizzling my olive oil on top of my toasted bruschetta.

You may have noticed that the royal commode is missing from Sissi's bathroom.

That's another thing about Europeans.

They prefer to enclose the commode in a room that is separate from the bathing area.

It's all about simple sanitation.

I step mere feet around the corner from the empress's bathroom and behold a glorious object in a very small room.

My eyes are transfixed on Sissi's blue and white porcelain "throne."

And then I see it's companion piece - a splendid blue and white porcelain sink.

The sink looks just like a tiny Italian fountain.

Oh, my!

Perhaps something crafted during the Renaissance.

Be still my beating heart!

I know it's not nice to covet worldly things.

But I gotta be honest here.

I want to rip these treasures from their royal walls, slide them under my trusty raincoat, and march out of the Hofburg with some serious souvenirs!

But, of course, I don't.

Days later - while recovering from a mild case of homebound jet lag - I content myself with Lucinda Lambton's wonderful book: "Temples of Convenience."

Lucinda's book is a written/ visual history of the commode.

And it's right up my plumbing filled alley.

Ms. Lambton's opening line reads:

"Hail to the lavatory!"

And I say to that:

"Amen, sister!"

Alas, I can not show you a photograph of Sissi's commode.

(We humble tourists are not allowed to take photographs inside the hallowed halls of the Hofburg.)

But I can show you a picture of a toilet that is comparable to Sissi's.

This little number is called the "Waterfall" wash-down commode.

It is decorated with a rope and roses pattern in blue and white porcelain.

It stands today in a private house in St. Peter's Square in west London.

(The "Waterfall" is similar to Sissi's commode.)

Just to let you know.

I'll be unavailable for the next few days.

I'm booking a flight to London a.s.a.p.

I'm taking a coat the size of Buckingham Palace.

And I'm walking right out of that private house with the "Waterfall" safely concealed under my palatial parka.

I don't think anyone will notice.

Everyone in London is crazy busy with Will and Kate's wedding.

But if anyone does?

I'll have lots of time to work on "thou shalt not covet" while I'm sitting inside my jail cell somewhere deep in the bowels (hmmm) of a London correction facility.

Monday, April 18, 2011


(La Cathedrale de Reims, Eugene Galien, undated, Art

Bob and I wander over to St. Andre's Cathedral as the day begins.

Heidi and John have decided to meet us inside the cathedral after they make a stop or two along the way.

Entering this huge church, our eyes are drawn to the vaulted ceiling.

Part of the vaulting - near the altar - is crystal clean and creamy white.

It has just been treated to a sandblasting "bath."

                                                                               (This is the clean part.)
The remainder of the cathedral?

Covered with centuries of soot, dust and dirt.

Bob is off like a gazelle taking pictures.

I decide to sit down on a folding chair in the middle of the nave and enjoy a few minutes of solitude.

(Bob caught me sitting on the right side of the nave while he was shooting pictures of the cathedral.)

My eyes are closed as I feel myself sink into a restful reverie.

I have no inkling of what is about to happen.

Suddenly, the magnificent pipe organ rings out six of the most joyful notes I have ever heard.

My spirit soars.

There are no words to adequately describe what is happening to me.

I can only say that I am magnetized by this music.

Tears pour down my face as I listen.

Then, just as abruptly as it started, the organ falls silent.

I am stunned beyond my imagination.

I sit in complete stillness trying desperately to hold onto the memory of this music.

Seconds later, Bob returns to me.

He wants to show me something.

I stand up and move my legs but my heart isn't in it.

Bob guides me to a pair of knee bowing angels on the cathedral wall.

They are beautiful.

But I stare straight through them.

At any other time I would be transfixed by their heavenly countenances.

But not this time.

God - the master of tender mercies - has touched me with music so sublime I can scarcely take it in.

My mind and my heart are dwelling in the midst of that music.

Nothing else seems to matter.

We turn and see Heidi and John enter the cathedral.

Moments later, the four of us stand under Bob's angels and chat.

I smile as Heidi describes her own excitement.

She and John discovered old-world fairy tale puppets in a small shop around the corner.

A few of these treasures will be lovingly tucked into a suitcase for the journey home.

As we chat, I see a flutter of movement out of the corner of my eye.

(I'll love this gorgeous pipe organ forever!)

A studious-looking man is descending a flight of stairs near the organ.

This has to be the cathedral's organist.

He stops, drops his briefcase to the floor and firmly wraps his trench coat around him.

Then, from across the cathedral, he marches toward us.

My heart races.

I've got to know the name of that piece of music!

And this little man has the key to that knowledge.

My brain revs into gear.

The organist speaks French.

I am instantly sorry that I don't.

But Heidi knows French - enough to converse with this man about my music.

The organist continues to walk in our direction.

I realize that he is going to pass right by us as he leaves the cathedral.

Heidi is willing to speak to the organist.

But I feel it is my place to capture his attention.

This is, after all, my experience.

"It's now or never!" I tell myself.

Just then, the organist passes directly in back of Bob.

I watch him move by us.

It feels like time is standing still.

Incredulously, I do not utter a word!

Then I watch as the massive cathedral door closes behind him.

He is gone.

'What is wrong with you?" I ask myself.

I am totally mystified.

This is so unlike me.

I'll talk to anyone at anytime about anything.

My mind begins reviewing past incidents:

I once went up to a complete stranger at our neighborhood tube station in London.

I complimented her on the stylish dress she was wearing.

She was obviously shocked that I spoke to her.

But then she gathered her senses and thanked me warmly.

I wasn't afraid to enjoy an animated conversation with my romantic mystery man in Edinburgh.

I even cozied up to "Bob" at a crowded exhibit in an art museum in New York.

"Look, honey," I said to him, " isn't that painting gorgeous?"

He whispered to me, "Yes, it is, but I think you've got the wrong "honey."

Not recognizing Bob's voice, I looked up and saw a nice looking man smiling down at me.


I'll admit it.

That one was a close call.

I was definitely mortified.

But the real Bob and I had a good laugh when I finally caught up with him.

So there you have it.

Plenty of evidence that I do indeed talk to strangers.

Why, then, did I completely choke with Monsieur Organist?

Maybe my emotional attachment to this piece of music caused my faulty reaction.

I felt invested, raw, vulnerable.

What if he was bothered by my question?

What if he couldn't understand our not-quite-so-perfect French?
But those negative outcomes didn't make sense to me.

Certainly, an organist of his caliber would be delighted to share any sort of musical information with anyone who wanted it.

If nothing else, our question was a tribute to his elegant command of the organ.

The point is this:

I failed.

I acted the cowardly lion.

I blew it big time.

And I knew with every fiber of my being that I would always be sorry.


Fast forward two years.

Just after Thanksgiving (2010) I find a book called "Echoes of Heaven" in a Christmas catalog.

The subtitle reads: "The Fine Art of Cathedrals and Their Hymns"

Four musical CD's are included inside the book.

I am immediately intrigued.

I think to myself, "Bob and I are going to enjoy this book. Both of us will love the beautiful photos of the cathedrals. And I'll enjoy the sacred music."

And, yes, as I am reviewing the merits of this book, I am hoping that my cathedral music is going to be on one of those four CD's.

But do I believe that it's going to happen?

No, I don't.

Days later, I bite the bullet and order the pricey book.

It's on backorder and probably won't arrive until after Christmas.

Wouldn't you just know it?

Happily, 'Echoes of Heaven" arrives three days before Christmas.

I carefully wrap the book in glitzy paper and lay it under the tree.

Bob opens the gift on Christmas morning.

He looks through the gorgeous pages as I explain that there are music CD's in the back of the book.

Soon, children and grandchildren arrive to celebrate the joys of Christmas with us.

The beautiful cathedral book is forgotten.

Until a cold winter's Sabbath in January.

Bob leaves early to attend to church responsibilities.

I decide to fill the house with music while he's gone.

Remembering the cathedral book, I casually pull it from its shelf.

I fire up the Bose, insert a CD and push "play."

I recognize my music on the second note.

Standing in the middle of our great room, I begin to weep.

The music fills my spirit with unbounded joy all over again.

Through a flood of tears, I thank God for this gift.......

the second of His melodic tender mercies.

Monday, April 11, 2011


(Lady at Her Toillet, Unknown Dutch Artist, c. 1650-1680, Minneapolis Museum of Art)

While Heidi and John stew in their room of doom and gloom........

Bob and I are living the good life over at our place.

Comparatively speaking, that is.

Our room is splashed with bright yellow walls.

The Tuscan red carpet - though certainly not pristine - isn't manufacturing new biological lifeforms.

At least none that we can see.

Lively orange curtains frame the window.

The yellow bedspread is punched up with a classy Greek key pattern.

Even the toilet tissue in the en suite bath is a beautiful shade of coral.

It's fair to say that this time around, Bob and I hit the decorating jackpot.

That doesn't mean that our room is blemish free.

* * * * * *

The Bobster is up and at 'em bright and early this morning.

He wanders into the bathroom and studies the tub.

"This thing has got to be 30 inches high," he says to himself.

"How is Merry going to get in it without a ladder?"

Continuing to make mental notes, he adds, "It does have a seat built right into it. And it needs one. This tub can't be more than 36 inches long."

I wake up and ask, "What are you doing?"

"Studying the tub. You realize there is no overhead shower, don't you?"

"Yes, I scoped out the bathroom last night," I reply.

Bob says, "I'll be the guinea pig and bathe first."

I say, "Good. You can trouble shoot for me."

Several minutes later, Bob exits the bathroom saying:

"Be careful with that hand held shower."

I tread hesitantly into the bathroom.

Gathering my courage, I stare at the tub.

"Do you need help getting in?" Bob asks.

"I think I can do it," I reply.

Placing both of my hands at strategic spots on the tub's rim, I shift my weight and pull one leg up, up and up some more until I literally can't raise it another centimeter.

In one fell swoop I throw my leg over the side and onto the floor of the tub.

"I'm in!" I shout to Bob.

"Now if I can just turn around and land on that seat I'll be home free," I think to myself.

Gripping the wall with both hands, my feet slip and slide as I near the target.

"Now all I've got to do is pull off my big pirouette and I'll be sittin' pretty!" I assure myself.

Just like magic, I turn, bend and drop like a lead balloon onto the tub's seat.

I decide to award myself a wow-worthy "9" for "technique."

And for "artistic interpretation?"

A wimpy "2."

Dang it!

I missed nailing a "10" because of that graceless "lead balloon" maneuver.

But basically?

I'm stinkin' proud of myself!

Playing with the shower head nozzle, I adjust the arrow on the dial to: "torrential rain storm."

I intend to celebrate with a big time splish-splash.

I blow my eyeballs out of their sockets first.

I should have listened when Bob warned me about the shower head.

* * * * * *

Thirty minutes later, we meet Heidi and John for a quick breakfast.

"How did everything go last night?" I ask.

"I was out like a light," John says.

Then he adds, "I turned the bathroom into a waterpark this morning. The shower head went nuts. It sprayed water everywhere except on me."

"I slept pretty well," Heidi says, "until the bats woke me up."

"The WHAT woke you up?" I inquire.

"I heard bats flying outside our window so I got up, pulled the curtain aside, and saw the shadows of three bats on the building next door - at least I think they were shadows."

Bob, the batologist, informs us: "Bats avoid people. They are scared of humans."

I shudder and reply: "They can avoid us all they want. They are the creepiest creatures on earth and I never want to see one up close and personal - ever!"

Heidi adds, "Yup. They're just a little too Edgar Allen Poe-ish for me."

John says, " No worries. There's only one way to handle a situation like this. The next time I leave home I'm packin' heat."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


(Cafe Wepler, Edouard Vuillard, 1912, Cleveland Museum of Art)

Tantalizing aromas greet us as we enter the restaurant.

Quickly, I take it all in.

This is a French bistro at its finest.

I see the rich patina of carved wood paneling surrounding the restaurant's walls.

Old leaded glass windows sparkle above the wooden surrounds.

Lush green plants - mostly ferns - bring color and warmth to the room.

The place just feels good.



Not fussy.

We are seated immediately.

Our pleasant server arrives to welcome us and take our drink orders.

We order the usual - spring water with lemon wedges on the side.

He places menus into our hands and tells us he will return in a few minutes.

We study the selections while he is gone.

This is a neighborhood bistro off the beaten tourist path.

Naturally, our server speaks French.

The menu is written in French just as it should be.

I think to myself: "Oh dear, I'm already in trouble."

That's because I gave up and threw in the towel after just three weeks of linguistic torture in my college French class.

Today, I can translate a variety of art terms in French but that's about it.

So this isn't looking good.

Bob and John are drifting in the same boat as I am.

That leaves Heidi as our only hope.

Kindly, she speaks to our server in French.

He understands just enough to say:

"I bring someone knows English."

Seconds later, a new server arrives with a white laminated menu card.

He points and says:

"Card - menu in English."

All of us breathe a sigh of relief - including the server.

He smiles broadly and departs for the kitchen.

We pour over the menu cards for a few minutes.

Then John says: "I'm leaning toward "plays with ox beef stewed in the former greenery," adding, "how about you guys?"

We know this is no time to break into raucous laughter.

This is because we are not complete social idiots.

So we go to Plan B and break into "contained chuckles" instead.

Getting into the spirit of things, I pipe up with: "I'm not in a carnivorous mood. I'm going to try the "soft, velvety pumpkin scents of yesteryear."

Our chuckles are quickly escaping their "container."

Bob enters the fray with: "I'm going with the "burned out paved hind, sleeping on its pancakes of chestnuts with the grande union sauce."

* * * * * *

Here's the thing:

When I was a little kid, my dad, sisters and I got the giggles one Sunday in church.

I don't know what started it.

I don't know who started it.

But the upshot was this:

The four of us were just seconds away from needing emergency surgery on our abdomens before we managed to contain our smothered laughter.

Our faces looked like inflated tomatoes.

Our breathing was so shallow and infrequent, we could have been pronounced "dead" in any decent hospital.

And our sides felt like they were going to explode with pain.

Which they almost did.

That's what happened to us after Bob's comment.

* * * * * *

Heidi returns to a semi-state of sanity before the rest of us.

She explains: "You know what happened. They used a computer to translate for them."


That makes sense.

John and I order the fresh salmon.

I normally hate salmon.

So I don't know what possesses me to order it.

But I absolutely love this salmon!

And the perfectly sautéed potatoes put the whole meal over the top.

Bob gobbles down his lamb stew in record time.

He declares, "This is really very good."

This is high praise coming from the Bobster.

Heidi noshes on her veggie plate, saying, "Everything tastes fresh and looks so colorful."

Later, we shoot for the moon and order dessert.

John and I are serious chocoholics so we order the "chocolate fudge baked in a minute."

Heidi orders the "crumble mango/pineapple and milk shake."

Bob, as usual, decides to sponge off the rest of us.

The server brings our sweets and places the plates in front of us.

John and I gaze at our chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and chocolate cake concoctions for several seconds.

A crisp chocolate covered cookie lies in the middle of this dreamy dessert.

John says, "A skilled architect must have put this thing together!"

I reply, "I know! It's so pretty I hate to eat it!"


Like that's gonna happen.

John and I gobble up our scrumptious mounds of chocolate.

Heidi enjoys every drop of her elegant, fruity milk shake.

Bob brings up the rear with his declaration:

"It all tastes good to me."

Stuffed to the gills, we sit and chat for awhile.

Eventually, I notice that the patrons have thinned out.

I look at my watch.

"Guys!" I say, "do you realize we have been sitting in this place for at least two hours?"

Bob adds, "It's been a long day. Let's head back to the hotel."

We pay our bill, thank the staff for their excellent service and head out the door.

* * * * * *

Some restaurants have the "it" factor.

They have it all.

A lovely decor.

Tasty food.

And a superb wait staff.

This restaurant was one of those places.

So we returned for a repeat performance the following night.

No arm twisting was necessary.

The staff welcomed us with smiles and open arms.

Everything - let me assure you - was just as sublime the second time around.

The only thing missing?

Our chuckles.