Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Nasturtiums are beneficial as pest control (and salad).
I'll be planting more of them in different parts of the garden. 
 I have always loved growing things. Genetically, this came from my maternal grandpa, who believed roses were the cure for all ills, and my mom, whose beautiful flower beds were the envy of our neighborhood. My mom’s freezer was always stocked with fruits and veggies harvested either from our property or from her many trips to pick-your-own farms. (The one thing she never did – canning – after an exploded green bean jar episode before I was born. She was deathly afraid of botulism.)
When we lived in Delaware I had the advantage of a 30-year-old compost heap which made growing veggies as easy as plopping seeds in the group and watching my tomato plants rise to over six feet, heavy with luscious fruit.
Then we moved to Arizona. About a week after the June 2005 move, I bought some tomato plants from Home Depot. I figured if they were selling them, I should be able to grow them. Despite shade cloth, judicious watering and loving attention, my plants succumbed to a week of 115 degree (plus) temps. 
This was my garden in Phoenix. Very challenging.  
Noel and his pup finishing the garden.
In eight years of desert living, my many attempts produced about five edible tomatoes. When I planted in the fall, a deep winter freeze zapped everything. I was eventually able to harvest kale, eggplant, arugula and some incredibly delicious snow peas, but I never really got the hang of desert gardening.

Noel, Jenny and Nathan taking a break.
I couldn’t wait to start my garden in Costa Rica. Once the rainy season (e.g. winter) started to wind down, we hired Jenny’s gardener Noel to dig up the back yard of the workshop. Five hours after shoveling and hauling about 25 wheelbarrows full of “good dirt” from across the road, Noel had given me a nice 16’ x 20’ plot. The “good dirt” was pretty dense, and Jenny suggested I add graza (rice hulls) to aerate it. A few days later she called and said better than plain graza, she could get organic chicken poop fertilizer mixed with graza. “You’ll love it,” she said. It was 1 mil (about $2.00) a bag. I had purchased bags of some kind of fertilizer from one of the garden centers and they were about a kilo for 1 mil. “How many bags would you like?” she asked.
“How about if I go with 12.” I figured that would be a good start. A few days later I heard the familiar rumblings of Fernando’s (Jenny’s dad) truck pulling up to the workshop. Jenny and Noel were with him. The truck was filled to the brim with huge sacks. I think my eyes popped. They had to be at least 50 kilos (110 lbs.) each. And I was getting a dozen. Jenny saw my face. “Bigger than you thought?” she asked.
My huge bags of fertilizer.
“Uh, a little.” But heck, I’m a committed gardener now, I’m sure I can use them. Noel hauled my dozen bags to the little shed behind the workshop. I paid Jenny the 12 mil colones and set about planning how to use my wealth of fertilizer. I’d divided the plot into eight sections. In addition to the workshop plot, I’d started a small herb garden in the backyard of the house, and, after researching Costa Rica gardening advice online, planted my eggplants and tomatoes in buckets on the patio.
Paul turning in the fertilizer.
Me, watering.

With Paul’s help, I turned a half a sack of fertilizer into each of the eight sections. I then went over to the “good dirt” area across the road and filled pots for my tomatoes and eggplant, adding a few healthy scoops of fertilizer into each pot. My tomato plants were ready to be transplanted, so I shifted most of them to the new pots, leaving several in the original pot without the chicken fertilizer. I didn’t realize it then, but this has become my “control group.” There is an amazing difference between the “chicken pots” and the original pot that didn’t have the benefit of my new fertilizer.

Garden divided into sections and planted.

Lots of squash and cucumber plants.
It’s now the end of January and my gardens are in various stages of happiness and unhappiness. Part of the problems stem from being away just as things started sprouting. We left for the states right after Christmas when I should have been using row covers and nipping problems in the bud. And as soon as we returned, I came down with a nasty stomach virus that kept me flat on my back and out of the garden for nearly two more weeks. So by the time I started focusing on the garden again, the bugs were winning -- big time. I'm posting the good, the bad and the ugly here in the hopes that someone might see this who has some solutions for me.

Spinach and lettuce. So far, so good. 
I’ve just harvested the first of the zucchinis (I have five varieties of squash) and am in an ongoing struggle with cucumber beetles, using two different organic insecticides that seem only mildly effective. 
Cucumber beetles.
The prolific pests seem most interested in the zucchini, but I’m going after them on the cucumbers and cantaloupes as well. The cucumbers and cantaloupes are blossoming despite the pests, 
Cantaloupe blossoms still undefeated by the
cucumber beetles, but not looking very healthy.
carrots are sprouting, and the spinach and lettuce, shaded by a row of sunflowers (although many of their leaves have been munched up by leaf-cutter ants – grrr), are progressing nicely. 
Leaf cutter ants ate all the sunflower leaves.
Organic pesticides -- not working very well. 
Pests have been leaving the lettuce alone.
Some lavender peeking under the eggplant.
Destroyed green beans.
My green beans have been almost completely decimated by a still-to-be-discovered insect (possibly the cucumber beetles, but I haven’t seen evidence of them); I may be able to eventually harvest enough to add to a salad. 

Down in the shadier herb garden, I’m growing snow peas. The only herbs that are showing any progress so far are the basil and a few oregano sprouts. 
The herb garden did not have the benefit of the chicken fertilizer, but herbs don’t really need rich soil. And on the patio, the tomatoes are blossoming (at least the ones planted with chicken fertilizer). I have some lavender plants in among the eggplant to keep pests away, and I am either growing a bucket of marigolds or peppers – I can’t tell yet and I don’t remember what I put in that particular pot. The nearby nasturtiums seem to be doing a nice job repelling pests – I should have planted them in with the squash; I’ll know to do that next time.


I’ve expanded one flower bed that was overgrown. A young mango tree and an azalea were crammed beside several agave. Now they all have their own space, nurtured with chicken fertilizer. In that bed I’ve also planted gladiola bulbs and some mystery flower seeds. I have lots more plans for other areas of the garden and so much more to learn about gardening on our beautiful mountain in Costa Rica. I’d love to hear from others in the Central Valley who’ve had experiences – positive or negative – with their gardens. 

Mango tree and azaleas in new flower bed.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Using cash for most purchases means piling up lots of change.
Before we moved to Costa Rica, the only time I ever had cash in my wallet was when our school was having a fundraiser and I knew I needed money to buy candy bars, frozen pastry, coupon books (which I never, ever used), raffle tickets, and once, I contributed to the group lottery ticket purchase (as a group, we won 20 cents each). I used my debit card for every other purchase, paid most of my bills online and wrote checks at the doctor’s office. If I ever had spare chance (e.g. my 20 cent lottery win) it went into the big change jar in the bedroom.
Using my debit card also helped me avoid handling anything with nickel, because I have contact dermatitis. Handling nickel (including costume jewelry) causes my hands to break out in itchy, oozy disgusting welts. Because I rarely had to use coins and knew better to own any jewelry with nickel, I’d basically forgotten about the contact dermatitis issue. That is, until I moved to Costa Rica.
We’d only been here for about two weeks, taking the bus downtown, shopping at the Central Market and the Farmer’s Market and using colones for all transactions. My palm started itching. Madly. Then the watery welts popped up. I hit the cortisone cream hard. Colones!!! That must be it. I’d been making change willy-nilly for two weeks and now I was paying for it, in a matter of speaking.
Grrrr! The cause of my contact dermatitis
(except for the aluminum ones)
As soon as I realized the colones problem, I made it a policy to bring Paul along whenever I knew I’d be using coins. One day he had so many coins in his shorts pocket that his pants started to hang down like some of our former high school students. I almost sent him to detention. At home, we kept the spare colones in a little glass box on the dining room table. For some reason, Paul became obsessed with sorting them, putting them into piles, and complaining about how useless the little aluminum ones (5 and 10 colones) were.

It seemed that many of the merchants weren’t so thrilled about handling colones either. If, for example, the vegetables we just purchased came to, say, c2565 (2 thousand, five hundred sixty-five colones, or about $5.00), I would pull out a 2 mil note (paper money starts at 1 thousand colones – 1 mil) and Paul would dig in his pocket for the remaining coins. As he would start counting out the coins and dumping them into the merchant’s hand, if he came anywhere close, the guy would wave him off. “Okay, okay … no mas!”

Sometimes a deal isn't that great of a deal. I thought
 these were sandwich bags. I'd never heard of snack size.
Now it came to pass that the week before we left Phoenix, I had one of those $5.00 “bonus bucks” from Walgreens. I hate wasting bonus bucks, but we really didn’t need anything, especially anything that couldn’t be easily packed for our move. So I cruised the aisles looking for a way to spend $5.00. There was a big buy-one-get-one free sale on baggies. I could get two of a couple of sizes of the store brand for my bonus bucks. Deal! I brought the boxes of baggies home and stuffed them into one of the suitcases. It wasn’t until we unpacked here in Costa Rica that I discovered that I’d purchased two of something called “snack sized.” They were these little bitty bags that I’m guessing were for people on diets who had to count out seven Cheetos for their permitted “snack.” That’s about all that would fit into these useless baggies. And now I had 100 of them. Try to squeeze half of a tomato or onion into one. Impossible.
Until one day when Paul and I were having lunch. There on the table was the box of colones. “Don’t we have a lot of those pointless little bags?” Paul asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“I have a great idea,” Paul said. He often has great ideas. Paul is a very interesting guy to live with. “I’m going to make 1 mil bags of these colones,” he said. “Then instead of digging through a pile of random colones from my pocket, I’ll know exactly how much I have in each bag.” He set about his task. At first he put all the big coins, the 500s and the 100s, in one bag. But then he was left with all the 50s, 25s, 10s, and 5s. So he evened things out a bit until he was satisfied.
Paul's 1 mil baggies of colones
The next task was to try out his new system. We drove down to the Farmer’s Market. It was to be my first foray out after 10 days of battling an ugly virus, so I was not planning to meander. Get in. Get out. The baggies of colones would help.
At our first stop, we bought a lot of greens. They came to exactly 1 mil. Oh boy! Paul pulled out a baggie and dumped the coins into the vendor’s hand. “One mil, exactamente!” Paul exclaimed. “Sistema por colones,” he added. The vendor smiled. But he still counted the change.
As we continued through the Farmer’s Market, Paul pulled out baggie after baggie. Usually what I was purchasing cost less than 1 mil, so he had to start juggling baggies. But he was still happy with his system. After finishing up at the Farmer’s Market, I had to stop at the regular grocery store. “How are we doing with the colones?” I asked.
“We have about 350 left,” Paul said, peering into his last baggie.
A week's worth of Farmer's Market provisions for under c10,000 ($20) includes a half-kilo of FRESH shrimp, fish filets, a kilo of tomatoes, a kilo of carrots, two kilos of onions, bananas, ginger and a variety of greens. 
“Perfect,” I said. “Just enough to tip the bag boy.” I had recently read on somebody’s blog (probably Vicki's extremely helpful blog) that most grocery store bag boys work for tips alone. Seems pretty sad. But maybe that put them at the head of the line when a paying job came up. I hope so. If I were getting more than three items, I might have thought that 350 (about 75 cents) was a little slim. But how hard do you have to work to bag butter, grated cheese and a bottle of wine?

So now we have no spare colones in the house, but when we do, I know the snack-sized baggies will emerge once again. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


December 2013 TOTAL

Cheese!!! Enough cheese to make Wallace and Grommit happy.
Saw these on first visit. Didn't buy.
They were gone, gone gone a week later :(.
Remember last month, the first month that I published our expenses, where I said we were trying to keep our expenses under $2,000? Well, that was before we joined Price Smart (the Costa Rican COSTCO) and shopped there … twice. True, the many staples I purchased will last us for months, but will we be able to avoid the Siren Song of smoked sausages, imported cheese, GHIRADELLI CHOCOLATE CHIPS!???
I hope so. We actually only bought one pricey chunk of cheese, skirted past the smoked sausages and, much to my broken heart (and the main reason we’d returned to Price Smart for the second time in as many weeks) the Ghiradelli chocolate chips were gone. Shoulda bought them on the first trip.
We will probably go back sometime in January because the giant bag of premium dog food at Price Smart was twice the size and half the price of the dog food we’ve been getting downtown in Grecia. But I’d still like to keep our grocery/household budget to about $100/week. I also prefer shopping at Grecia's Central Market and especially the Farmer's Market. It makes me feel much closer to becoming a "GringTica" which I hope some day to consider myself. 
What else kicked us over our $2,000 budget? Well, as everyone who owns a car in Costa Rica knows, December is Marchamo month. Marchamo is the annual liability insurance that car owners are required to pay. It’s based on the kind of car you drive and the age of the car. For our 2004 Subaru Forester, this year’s Marchamo was about $300.00.
I’m thinking that our doctor/dentist/meds category will probably stay around $250.00 until we get on the CAJA, so for the foreseeable future that’s not going to go down and may increase – neither of us has seen a dentist yet and although they are supposed to be a lot cheaper than in the U.S., we are going to wait for a few more months.
EPA -- just about everything for home and garden.
The other expense that is high this month is workshop/garden (besides being seduced by Price Smart, we were also lured by EPA, which is similar to Home Depot. It doesn’t help that Price Smart and EPA are within a half mile of one another). Paul is still putting together his workshop, and, unlike last month when we counted the electrical wiring as an extraordinary expense, we’re considering the lighting and shelving as more of “development expense.” And apparently the only place to get organic insect control is at EPA.  So those items are in the budget.
An EPA purchase and husband installation: Critical to my culinary happiness
and Paul's evening dish washing tasks -- lighting over the kitchen sink!
Well, even though we didn’t stay below $2,000, we spent a lot less than we would have if we were still living in the U.S. And most importantly, we love it here – we love our house, our garden, our workshop, our community … and especially the friends and discoveries we are making.

Monday, January 13, 2014


We have lived in Grecia, Costa Rica for nearly thirteen weeks; but legally speaking, we are still tourists. We will start the process of getting our residency this month, January. Those who have been reading our blog know the routine. Briefly, as tourists, we are required to leave the country every three months and then re-enter to begin a new three-month stay. In March, we’ll travel up to Nicaragua for a few days. This process will continue until we become legal residents.
Our three months were up in December, so we decided to fly north to frozen Delaware on December 28 to visit friends and family. But on January 7, as we boarded the plan at BWI airport to return to Costa Rica, I became aware that a simple question was floating around in my subconscious.  Was I going home or leaving home?
In the faintest of voices, an old strand of DNA was speaking to me. Don’t leave, it warned.  Did I really want to stay? Or was I merely anticipating six hours in a horrible coach seat whose headrest would reach only to my shoulder blades, leaving my head to bobble around in agony.
Happy Family: Back row: Michael, Matt, Marilyn,
Paul. Front row: Chris, Kaylee, Stephen
But the voice inside came from a deeper place. My stepson and his wife and two wonderful grandchildren (they aren’t children anymore) live in Wilmington. We love to visit them; there’s nothing like laughing and playing music, hours of Scrabble and Monopoly (this year, Beatles Monopoly!) and just connecting in ways that don’t quite translate over SKYPE. Was it the time we spent with old friends downing eggnog and catching up on each other’s lives? Maybe it was the general ease and familiarity of English, of knowing where to go for the best kielbasa (Johnny’s Market on Maryland Ave.), or buying shop lights at Home Depot with actual dollars.
As I buckled my seat belt, it came to me that a visit is like a dip in the pool. It’s nice, it’s refreshing, but eventually you get out of the pool. The answer to my question became obvious. Marilyn and I have changed profoundly since living in Wilmington. Our brains have been rewiring at breakneck speed. We were going home.
At 6:10 am our plane lifted off the frozen runway at BWI. My mind drifted to the 1938 film Lost Horizon, in which a group of plane passengers survive a crash in the Himalayas and stumble upon a hidden valley called Shangri-La. Here people live contemplative, peaceful lives and remain young for hundreds of years.  The passengers become enchanted and choose to remain in this paradise, except for one, who wants to return to his old life with Maria, a beautiful young woman from Shangri-La. But as they hike out of the valley back into the mountains, it becomes clear that she is no spring chicken. Her body begins to shrivel up like a three-hundred year-old raisin. I looked over at Marilyn, who was dozing next to me. She still looked good, and I put the movie out of my mind.
At 9 am, we touched down in Miami. All but paralyzed from the neck down, I found a place on the carpeted cement floor and with a rolled-up towel under my neck, fell asleep. Ahh, divine flatness! We finally took to the air at 2 pm and arrived in Costa Rica at 5 pm. There were plenty of old people who were not all shriveled up. The warmth and familiarity of the place embraced me at once. This was home.
Flor, telling her mountain lion story with daughter
Jenny, our landlady, translating
Customs was a breeze. A cursory question: “How long are you going to stay?” and the thump of a rubber stamp. We snatched our bags from the carousel and headed outside for a taxi.  Immediately, I spotted a familiar face in the crowd. It was Flor, our landlady’s mother. We had met her at a Christmas party where her delightful story of fending off a mountain lion somehow melted through the language barrier and had us all laughing.  Now, here she was, smiling and waving at us. Flora! Pablo! Marileen!  Hugs and kisses all around. She introduced us to Giselle, who explained that she was our neighbor. Her husband is the saddle maker at the top of our little road. Aha!  The sign at the top of the road. Monturas! Saddles! More hugs.
Woozy from all the bienvenidos, we loaded our bags into Giselle's nine-seat van. She cranked over the engine, which sounded to me like a V-3. At the exit gate, the machine wouldn't accept her ticket. Clearly, she had not experienced the airport parking garage before. She and Flora chatted about what to do as we circled the parking area looking for a way out. Finally, Giselle called to an hombre who pointed to a door in the terminal where you had to pay. Giselle turned to Flora with a shrug. Que? (I took it to mean “What the…?”) She killed the engine, got out and walked back to the terminal and paid the guy. When she got back in, she said something to Flora which must have been hilarious, because they both exploded in giggles. The V-3 started with a jolt, and Giselle took us back to the exit gate, which this time accepted our ticket.  
Giselle and Flora seemed unaffected by the traffic congestion outside. They chatted as if they were on a veranda somewhere.  Marilyn and I, seat belted in the back, attempted to add comments in Spanish based on our guesses as to what they were talking about, but it was obvious that we were not making any sense. I wanted to ask, “Is rush hour always like this?”, but decided it was best to sit quietly and wonder at Giselle’s light and breezy mastery of traffic which might easily have driven lesser drivers to curses and bloodshed. Every so often she would ask a question over her shoulder. We assumed she was asking if we were all right, so we would say, “Si, si. Gracias.”  We laughed at ourselves remembering how new ESL students would come to class with only a few phrases of English.  “Welcome to my classroom,” we would say.  “Yes, yes. Thank you,” they would respond.
By the time we arrived at our little barrio on the mountain ridge, it was dark. The lights of Grecia twinkled in the valley below; the stars of the Southern Hemisphere twinkled above. We paid Giselle 25,000 colones ($50). Muchas gracias, mucho gusto and hugs all around, and Giselle was off, back up the hill to the house with the “Monturas” sign.
Charlie and Lily, our sweet doggies, were wild with joy. Of course, after our 10-day separation  they had no way of knowing if we had died or what. I took off my glasses and let them lick my face until they had their fill. It was the least I could do.  Marilyn threw some bow-tie pasta together with tomatoes, olive oil and Parmesan. We barely had enough energy to eat before we crashed onto our fantastic Swedish foam king-sized mattress with Charlie and Lily. Hugs and licks all around, and we fell instantly to sleep. Yes, this was home.
We woke at 5:30 am (a habit acquired during our teaching days) and had our coffee on the patio, as the sun was rising over the mountain to the east. The dogs ran around the yard; Charlie, like a jet powered aircraft; Lily, like a tugboat in hot pursuit.  After about an hour, we listed the payments we had to make today from my Social Security check. Rent, utilities, payment to Justin the dog sitter, groceries, and if we had enough left over, some lumber for improvements around the house and my Tico workshop. I was in the shower, when I heard the dogs barking. Marilyn called to me, “Paul, come on out. I want you to meet Hansy.” I threw on some shorts and T shirt.

I shook hands with Hansy, an amiable, generously tattooed young guy who lives a couple of houses over across a field. He is Tico but lived in the US for a few years in Woodstock, New York when he was married to a Gringa. He told us about his youth on drugs and alcohol and his rebirth only a few years ago as a painter. That explained the canvas he had with him, a still life of flowers rendered in a playful, giant, acrylic pointalistic kind of way. After taIking a bit about trying to survive as an artist, he offered to sell us his painting for a very good price.  He couldn’t have come at a worse time since our money is all spoken for and will be for the next several months. We gave him a ride downtown where we were headed to buy groceries. He showed us a large mural he had painted in the market by the bus station and then was off to sell his painting.
Grecia de Mis Abuelos by Hansy Lizano (The Grecia of My Grandparents); Mural in Grecia's Central Market
On the way back up the hill to our house, we decided to stop at the local ferreteria (hardware store) so I could buy some lumber for a light installation over the kitchen sink. Who did we run into but our landlady, Jenny and her father, Fernando. Hugs, slaps on the back and mucho gustos all around. Jenny insisted that her dad bring our lumber to our house in his truck, so we wouldn’t have to tie it to the roof of the Subaru. While Fernando and some workers loaded up his truck, Jenny introduced us to the owners and staff of the ferreteria. She knows everybody! She told Orlando, the owner, that I was doing home improvements for her rental houses and that I should always receive her discount. She was everywhere at once, climbing a ladder in the lumber yard to show me a Costa Rican hardwood, leading us into the back room where the stock is kept, assuring the salespeople that Marilyn and I are to be trusted.  They all smiled and stepped aside. 
On the way up the hill to our house, we looked at each other with goofy grins.  Ten minutes later Fernando arrived in his Land Cruiser truck with my lumber.

Yes, this is home. Gracias, Fernando. 
Fernando, Jenny's Dad

Friday, January 10, 2014


Creche, Grecia Town Square
This year brought many firsts:  first time retired, first time living in CR, first time learning Spanish, first time not spending Christmas with family and friends. Also, when we moved here in October,  we brought none of our Christmas decorations. No ornaments, no tree, no lights … and without TV, we’re not bombarded with tons of ads for the latest and greatest must-haves.
No Christmas shopping – our gift to ourselves and our family is our trip to Delaware on December 28. I feel none of the stress of worrying:  Did I get good enough gifts? Will they like them? What if they don’t? Maybe I should go out one more time; look online again in case I missed something. In the past, from Thanksgiving until December 24th, I was pretty much consumed with buying the perfect presents, cooking the perfect food, making the house sparkle in and out.
I was always involved with whatever church we belonged to. One year that meant finding swathes of fabric from the attic and quickly fashioning it into 24 costumes in 24 hours for the children’s pageant. There were always meals to serve to the homeless and Angel Tree gifts to buy. These anchors kept me focused on the being of Christmas and I could never give them up, even when I was teaching and the week before Christmas also meant final exams and grades. But they often morphed into doing, and doing sometimes got pretty overwhelming.
One year, on Christmas Eve, after the stores had closed and I couldn’t shop any more, I baked and roasted, sautéed and simmered. In between, I painted the extensive wood moldings in the dining room. We’d recently redone the room, but my choice of color of the baseboards and wainscoting didn’t seem quite right. And heaven forbid that our house full of company would think I had bad taste. So I stayed up all night painting three coats of soft yellow over the olive green mistake. It was no wonder I usually ended up with the flu or bronchitis every year by New Years’ Day. I had accepted this as a consequence of burning out with all the doing I was doing.
Instead, this year in Costa Rica we relish the peacefulness of being. Here on our mountain, as Christmas approaches, I take pleasure in my daily routines of writing, gardening, baking/cooking. And after Paul’s morning writing stint, he heads up to the workshop, losing all sense of time as he works on another sculpture.
Polish Raisin Bread - A Tradition Passed Down from My Dad Who Got It from His Mom
Grecia Metal Church
How is this being, not doing? The only way I can articulate it is that, to me, doing always has a “should,” “must” or “have to” attached to it. Being, on the other hand, emerges from one’s inner spirit. I bake bread, not because I am supposed to bake bread as part of an action plan, but because the entire process of baking bread is joyful for me. In contrast, I painted my wainscoting because I had to have a perfect house for my Christmas guests.
Altar, Christmas Eve, Grecia Metal Church
Mini-Santa, Grecia Town Square on Christmas Eve
It’s not until Christmas Eve, however, when we drive down the mountain to Mass at the Metal Church in Grecia, that the being of Christmas this year envelops me. We get to Grecia early and stroll around the town square. The town crèche is still missing the Infant who will be placed in the manger at midnight. It’s balmy; people stroll or sit on the cement benches. Several pose in front of the crèche for photos. We sit too, people-watching before entering the church at about 7:30 to get a good seat.
Red velvet drapery swags tied up with gold bows greet us as we enter the church. Red and gold is the theme of the festively decorated pillars; the altar is banked with dozens of red poinsettias. A crèche just a little smaller than the one outside on the town square waits for its Infant. A blue curtain behind the crèche hides the glass coffin where the crucified Christ lies in repose. No sense worrying Mary about the future on this eve of her baby’s birth.
More people-watching. Folks enter the church, bless themselves and find family members. There are hugs, kisses. Many of the women hold what at first appear to be baby dolls. Then I realize that they are tenderly cradling the infants from their home crèches. A distant memory tugs at a corner of my mind: I know that I’ve seen this before, maybe at St. Anthony’s, the Italian-American church I attended in high school. These infants will be blessed at the end of Mass before being taken home and carefully placed in the family’s manger scene.
In a corner of the altar, behind the blue curtain, choir members and musicians tune up and check their mics. A man who looks like he knows what he’s doing adjusts chairs, lecterns. He hurries to the back of the church and I see that he’s entered a tiny room with ropes hanging down. He begins ringing the church bells. A deep bong, bong, bong … I have an overwhelming urge to join him, hanging on to one of the bell ropes, feeling the weight, the heavy brass bell pulling me up into the bell tower.
The first hymn signals the procession of gold-robed priests preceded by a deacon enthusiastically swinging a censer. The smell and smoke of incense soon permeates the church. The final priest holds high the Infant who later will be nestled into the manger. Mass has begun. The Pascal candle is lit from the four Advent candles – three purple and one pink.
Mass in Spanish reminds me of my childhood when Mass was in Latin. Now, as then, the mystery of the words is balanced by the familiarity of the rituals. I am well-practiced in sit-stand-kneel. At the Peace, Paul and I hug and he whispers, “What do we say?” “How about Feliz Navidad?” I whisper in reply. We turn to the nuns in the pew behind us and grasp their hands. “Feliz Navidad,” we say. The nuns look confused. It occurs to me that because the Infant has not yet technically been born, e.g. placed in the manger, it’s not time to say “Feliz Navidad” yet. Oh well. Gringo mistake.
Getting Ready to Place the Infant in the Manger
In Front of the Grecia Town Square Creche
At the end of Mass, the women around me take out their infant statues and the priest blesses them. One woman kneeling nearby clutches her baby Jesus and sobs. Others hold theirs with their husbands or children, a family tradition. The choir begins “Little Drummer Boy” and the procession to bring the infant to the crèche begins. After Jesus is placed in the manger, the church bells ring out and people begin filing out. Now is the time for “Feliz Navidad.” People greet each other jubilantly. They will go home and gently place their Infants into the mangers. Jesus, not Santa, will bring gifts to the children.
Paul Videotapes Worshippers Leaving Mass
We head down the church steps to see if Jesus has shown up in the town crèche. Not yet. People are posing for pictures and we do too. I haven’t discovered how and when Jesus gets into the town crèche. Is there another procession at midnight on the dot? Is he snuck in by one of the town maintenance workers? I just know that in the morning, when families come to stroll the town square, Jesus will be there. Being, not doing.

Our Patio, Where We Watch the Stars
Paul and I return home and have eggnog and homemade Polish raisin bread (from the one precious loaf we’re not giving away) on our patio. The sky is inky black; sparkling with millions of stars. A bright planet glistens above the town square now distant in the valley. Waiting for Jesus.