World Piece: The Homecoming…But Where is Home?

Goodbye, Frankfurt!

My very last stop on my World Piece itinerary was Frankfurt, Germany. This was where my flight would take off for Los Angeles.

LA was the place where I started, the place where three months earlier I said a tearful goodbye to my parents as they waved to me from the other side of the airport security checkpoint. I sobbed for a solid hour—all through the TSA scan, through removing and putting back on my boots, through the entire length of the concourse as I passed all the fast-food and Starbucks outlets on my way to my gate. Through getting onto the airplane and into my seat, the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. Instead of being excited about my journey, I was scared. I was terrified, mostly, over the idea I might never see my parents again, that something would happen to them while I was gone—or that something might happen to me.

I made myself get on the plane anyway. I had committed to doing this.

You would cry too if you had to say goodbye to these people.

And then, finally, after three months, 30,000 miles, 10 countries, and 211 pies, the day arrived. I was going home. Except I didn’t really know where home was.

Exactly one year earlier I had moved out of the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, where I had lived for four years. (It had been a surprise to everyone, especially to me, that I stayed so long, as I left my native Iowa at 17, vowing never to return.) I was sad about moving out—I would have liked to have stayed—but the pressures that came from living in a tourist attraction had worn me down. So I went back to LA, which is where I was planning to move before I detoured to that irresistibly cute house in Iowa. I thought I would stay in LA indefinitely. I stayed for six months.

LA had been my home for many years. No matter where I flitted off to, trying on a new town or country for size, LA was and is always the place I go back to. It’s where my parents moved 15 years ago, leaving Iowa to live closer to three out of five of us kids. And given that my parents are 80 now, it’s important to me to live closer to them.

But when I returned to LA this last time, living in a furnished studio guesthouse 6 miles from my mom and dad, and 2 miles from the beach, I struggled throughout the entire six-month stint. Why? Because I discovered something I had not realized: Iowa had changed me.

My parents’ ocean view

I was different and needed different things. Instead of trendy wine bars and power yoga—and traffic jams—I needed space, quiet, solitude. In rural Iowa, I was just as happy—no, happier—sitting at my kitchen table sharing a $10 bottle of wine with a friend and doing yoga guided by a 20-year-old Shiva Rea CD, rarely ever needing to get in my car. When I did drive, the only traffic was the occasional lumbering combine or Amish horse-drawn buggy.

My LA lease was month-to-month so I was free to leave anytime. But I’m not a quitter. All through the winter, I tried to readjust and find my old California self—the free-spirited and social surfer girl I was before I morphed into “the Iowa pie lady.” By spring, seeing how my life had been reduced to daily dog walks and nightly dinners with my parents, and how the one time I went surfing I got seasick, I accepted that there is no going back in time, only forward. I began itching to find a new home. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or live, so instead of forcing a decision, I bought myself some time. I would finally make my World Piece dream come true.

Still, I had hesitated. The enormity of a round-the-world trip was so daunting. I had a million excuses not to do it. But my inner-taskmaster barked—and barked—“What the hell are you waiting for?” until I actually called the airline and booked the ticket. Admittedly, I was also spurred on by the looming expiration date of the frequent flyer miles. Either way, I was sick of talking about it. It was time to stop feeling stuck and Just. Do. It.

But there was one catch. I needed someone to take care of my dog Jack for three months. I knew just the person—and the place. So before setting off on my big international trip, I took a big domestic one. I packed up my dog and all of my belongings into my RV (aka The Beast—yes, it’s still running!), drove cross-country, and delivered dog and all to my friend Doug’s farm. In Iowa. It was the best decision I had made all year, one that I couldn’t have guessed would lead to another, bigger decision upon my return.

50 pounds is the weight limit. This
beast weighed in at 50 exactly.

After all those months that it took to make World Piece happen—two to plan it and three to execute it—I was dragging my tired body and overweight luggage through the Frankfurt, Germany Flughafen. I wandered around the duty-free shop, sniffing bottles of perfume and buying chocolate bars to kill time. Having nearly completed a full circle around the globe, I was counting the hours and minutes until my flight departed for the Great Homecoming.

But where was home?

I missed my parents. Every time we Skyped—from Auckland, from Sydney, from Bangkok, Mumbai, Beirut, Athens, Bern, Aachen and Budapest—a wave of solace filled me when seeing their beaming faces, but this was always followed by a riptide of longing whenever we hung up.

I also stayed in touch with Doug during my travels. And every time Doug sent a video of my dog Jack fetching the stick, swimming in the pond, or trotting down a trail—and he sent at least a picture or a text almost daily—my heart ached not just for my dog, but for the peace and simplicity of Iowa. And maybe something else, something I didn’t yet grasp.

One day in July, during my trip, while staying at a friend’s apartment in Bangkok and bogged down with a head cold, I sat outside by the pool and tried to meditate. I say “tried” because I’m not very good at keeping my brain quiet.

I was trying to do that “clear mind” thing, but I kept thinking about the American Gothic House and how much I missed it, how much I missed living in the little historic cottage—a whole house big enough for dogs and house guests and pie classes. I missed having all my stuff so perfectly placed in it—my overstuffed daisy chair, my railroad freight cart coffee table, my flannel sheets, my down pillows, my grandmother’s china—and having what felt like a real home, an anchor, and a community.

Inhale. Exhale. I took more deep breaths—through my mouth, because my nose was so stuffed up (which is what happens when you fly in an enclosed airplane and sit directly in front of a kid who is coughing without covering their mouth the entire eight-hour flight)—and tried to push the American Gothic House—and everything else—out of my mind.

Daisy, my sweet little angel

But then I started thinking about Daisy, and how much I missed her, my sweet little terrier-mix who had been killed by a coyote eight months earlier. (Jack, also a terrier-mix, had been wounded in the same attack, but he survived.) I missed her sparkling brown eyes, her Winnie-the-Pooh-like calm, her unconditional love. She asked for nothing and yet gave so much.

I tried not to let the sadness over Daisy interfere with my meditation. I was going to really relax, damn it! But grief is a tangled vine that wraps itself around the heart until it chokes and suffocates it. I gasped for breath, acknowledged the feelings and the subsequent tightness in my chest, and after a long exhale, I returned to my mantra, which was something akin to BE QUIET IN THERE!

The next thought that popped into my mind was Marcus. This wasn’t a surprise because he is always there, living on the surface of the cerebrum’s folds. But in my congested, sinus-clogged state I didn’t have just thoughts of him, I actually heard him. He was talking to me, gently and lovingly. “It’s time to let go, my love,” he said in his British-German lilt. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband. You should find another man.”

Marcus was reiterating something I had read in one of my grief books, something an Indian philosopher said whose advice was seemingly heartless yet so practical: “Your husband died? Go find another one.”

Marcus was offering the same practical advice. I had tried to be practical, but I was still holding on. I needed to let go—and not just of Marcus, but of the American Gothic House and Daisy and whatever other ghosts and grievances of my past that were holding me back.

The voice of my late husband opened a gate and led me through it. All my other thoughts were preempted and my synapses started firing right past my post-nasal drip. Suddenly, I had a clear idea of where I wanted my life to go after my World Piece trip was over. God knows, I had been asking myself the question and had been asked by others almost daily during my travels: “What are you going to do when you get back?” Each time I tensed up, unable to answer. But right there, in the tropical sun, jet-lagged and sick with my feet dangling in the 100-meter-long swimming pool, I had an epiphany. (Proof that meditation really can work, even when you suck at it.)

I had an answer, better yet, direction. I was going to find a new house, another cottage in Iowa where I could recreate the country lifestyle I had come to love. And once I got settled, I would adopt another dog. Daisy had been a rescue, one who had been badly in need of care. There were many, many other needy, even desperate, dogs out there I could adopt. I would do it to honor Daisy. I would also stay open to letting another man in my life. Yes, I had dated in the past six years, but there was never room for a real relationship, because Marcus was taking up most of the space.

That epiphany was in early July. I still had two months and six countries to go in my round-the-world trip, so I couldn’t put my plan into immediate action, but the clarity gave me peace and helped me to stay more focused on the present. (Traveling solo, by the way, with a packed itinerary is a good exercise in staying in the present. There is no time to focus on anything beyond the logistics of making your next flight or finding your next bed.)

At last, it was August 27, the date I had been eyeing on the calendar since I flew away on June 2nd. When they announced my Lufthansa flight to LA was ready for boarding, I tried not to run down the jetway. I was heading back to the USA. I could finally get going on my plan.

I landed at LAX on a Thursday afternoon. My parents had dropped me off three months earlier, and now they would be there to pick me up three months later. My heart pounder harder as we taxied toward the gate, my iPhone already buzzing with messages from my mom saying they were waiting in baggage claim. I zipped through immigration and rolled my 50-pound beast of a suitcase past customs one last time. God, I would not miss dragging that bloody bag around!

I scanned the hundreds of faces lined up along the barricade and spotted my mom. She looked so petite among the mass of tightly packed bodies and tall chauffeurs holding name signs. It was her, her short dark hair in a spunky new cut, her matching yellow top, pants and flats, her flowered shoulder bag coordinated to complete the outfit.

Like animal instinct, the recognition of a mother and her offspring was more than visual; it was visceral. Once we found each other we locked on. Her brown eyes, which had been hunting for me like a lioness looking for her cub, turned from expectant to shining to misty. We both teared up in an unspoken moment of relief, a release of that underlying anxiety we had apparently both been holding onto for the past 15 weeks.

Hooray, she said without words. You are home safely.
Hooray, I said with my tears. You are here and you are okay.

And then our silent-film moment dissolved suddenly, replaced by the full volume of airport noise that nearly drowned out my mom’s voice when she said, “Come on. Dad is over here.”

My dad pushed through the crowd as he saw us approach, and without regard to the people trying to pass with their bags, grabbed me in a bear hug. “Welcome back, Boo.” His blue eyes twinkled from beneath his seaman’s cap. He fixed his eyes on my face, his smile lighting up the Tom Bradley terminal so brightly he could have brought down 747s with it.

The moment I had been waiting for. The “Victory Shot.”

Whatever stress, sadness and sickness I endured throughout my journey, the magic of this reunion made every bit of it worthwhile. We took a few “victory shots” before leaving the airport, recreating our parting shot with a return one.

This is what love looks like, surrounded by luggage.

I studied the photos later. My parents looked the same: healthy, happy, and vibrant. Which was a tremendous relief given they had both had skin cancer surgeries during my absence. Their scars were already healing, their prognoses positive, and neither looked worse for the wear. In fact, they looked better than I remembered.

Did I look the same? My hair was a little longer. I had lost maybe a pound or two, though that could be wishful thinking. Surely my face looked tired, if nothing else from the dehydration of the transcontinental flight.

The bigger question was, was I the same person I was when I left? A young woman I met during my travels insisted that this must be a life-changing trip. I paid lip service to her and nodded in agreement, but inside shook my head at her naiveté. No, this trip wasn’t the stuff that changes lives. It is not life changing to get on and off airplanes and make pie for three months. Life changing is when your husband drops dead at 43. Life changing is when your angelic terrier’s body is ripped open and eaten by a coyote. Life changing is having to move out of your tourist attraction house after four years upon realizing you have inadvertently become the attraction. (Perhaps this last one isn’t so traumatic when you remind yourself that six-foot-long snakes lived there too.)

I can think of many adjectives for my World Piece mission: interesting, informative, enlightening, educational, exhausting. But did it really change me?

The best answer to that, I think, is summed up in a comment left on my last blog post about Budapest. “The reward for effort is sometimes not realized until long after the work is done,” this person wrote. “Like a farmer, you’ve sown a seed and somewhere it’s growing.”

I stayed with my parents in Redondo Beach for three days, basking in their love and their hot tub, and their homemade meals of creamed tuna on biscuits. I was in LA. With my parents. I was home. Sort of. But not really.

My dog Jack was still back in Iowa, with Doug on his farm. My trip wouldn’t be complete until I was reunited with my “Little Man.” Restlessness and anticipation—and jet lag—nagged at me until I was once again airborne—headed for the Midwest.

Doug gave Jack a bath before my arrival.
This picture always makes me laugh.

Doug picked me up at the Quad City Airport and didn’t bring Jack with him. He wanted to video tape our reunion and for that he wanted us to have room outdoors on his farm. Doug may not have had Jack in the car, but he had a bouquet of wildflowers. And a card. With a gift certificate for a massage for me. We stopped for milkshakes at Whitey’s and talked the entire two-hour drive back to his house.

Iowa (aka Home)

The reunion with Jack was all that I had envisioned—the face licking, the tail wagging, the racing around in circles to shed the energy that couldn’t be contained in his 15-pound body, me crying tears of joy while smothering him with kisses. Doug got it all on tape.

But reuniting with my dog after my round-the-world journey is not where the story ends. It is just the beginning.

Sowing seeds for the future.
One of the pictures Doug sent me during my trip.

My meditation by that poolside in early July proved prescient. I’ve only been back two months and I have already ticked everything off my list of goals. The reality, however, isn’t exactly what I had imagined. No, it is far better and came with some added bonuses.

I found an Iowa farmhouse to live in. I moved into Doug’s. The place, with its original wallpaper and crown molding, is every bit as quirky and charming—and old—as the American Gothic House. But it is not a tourist attraction. It sits on 1,200 acres surrounded by crops and cows (instead of mean neighbors!), and offers a luxury I had been missing: privacy. Doug and I worked together to rearrange two of the upstairs bedrooms in his four-bedroom house—a big one for my office and a small one for my dressing room—so I have my own space.

“Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.”

I have not adopted another dog—yet. Instead—or, should I say, in the meantime—Doug graciously sacrificed some of his pasture and barn space to give a home to four goats whose owner could no longer care for them. I used to go on long road bike rides from the American Gothic House and one of my favorite routes took me past these goats. I would stuff carrots in the back pockets of my bike jersey to feed them. I loved them so much they often became my destination rather than just to pass by. I cried the last time I visited these cute shaggy creatures last year, thinking I would never see them again. And now they live at my house!

Meet our four goats.

Except that it isn’t my house—it’s our house, Doug’s and mine. The big, seemingly elusive and hardest to accomplish goal on that list was to make room for love again.

When I returned to Iowa, I saw something—someone—that seemed new but had been there all along. Doug and I had been friends for a while, and we had had a brief romance a year earlier, but after moving out of the American Gothic House, I was sure I was destined to move back to California, so I never really gave him a chance. But Doug, who has the patience and faith of a farmer (because, well, he is a farmer), never gave up. He had not only texted me photos and videos of Jack during my trip, he took the time to write me long, newsy emails with stories of his farm, his outings to the city, his arrowhead-hunting creek explorations, his kayak trips. He offered me words of encouragement when he could tell I was tired, cheering me on every step of the way. His letters were an especially noble effort considering he doesn’t like to type.

The happy couple, Doug and me.

When I came back to pick up my dog, I felt a seismic shift in my heart; that resistant muscle in my chest cracked open like the San Andreas Fault. Not in a broken way but in a way that a dam bursts and a rush of water flows in to fill the empty space. Doug was that flood, that tsumani.

Doug had not only shown the utmost love and care for my dog, he had shown it to me. I just hadn’t been willing to accept it. Until Marcus showed up in Bangkok and whispered in my ear. Until I visited Marcus’s homeland of Germany and said my final goodbyes to him. Until I made it back to LA and made sure my parents were in “good order,” as my dad likes to say. Only then was I ready and able to open up to a new life.

So yes, maybe my trip was life-changing after all. Just not in the way I expected. It took traveling all the way around the world to learn the meaning of home. And now that I know what home is, I have learned there is no place like it.

And they lived happily ever after. 

World Piece: Budapest (And a few other thoughts)

It is ironic that I was traveling around the world with the goal of spreading peace, love, comfort and community building through pie, yet in my wake so many troubling events unfolded.

 A month after I was in Bangkok, Thailand, a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people and injuring 125. It detonated at exactly the spot and time I walked past each evening after making pies at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

 Then, in Lebanon, I watched as the little cabana that held the neighborhood’s handful of garbage cans filled. It filled some more, and then more, and as the days ticked by the garbage eventually began spilling out in a heap onto the street. And that was just the garbage for one building. Beirut was facing a new war—a battle with garbage and where to put it as the old landfill had reached capacity and was closed before a new one was designated. It didn’t take long for this to turn into a crisis. The garbage piled up so high around the city center that restaurants closed. The country has been without a president for over a year and the parliament members couldn’t—or wouldn’t—make a decision to create a solution. So citizens took to Beirut’s stench-filled streets protesting the situation. Several months on, the temporary solution was to reopen the old overflowing landfill.

I was in Athens, Greece during the height of their financial crisis. The fear-mongering media reported that tourists shouldn’t go there or they might get robbed, that cash-needy Greeks might see tourists as their personal bank tellers and mug them. (I went anyway. I did not get mugged. And I found the people—cash-needy Greeks and all—to be some of the nicest of my entire trip.)

And then, Hungary. I spent four days in Budapest—eating, making and sharing pie—and just two days after I left they closed the train stations, halting transportation to Germany so as to keep the migrants from, well, migrating. Luckily I had booked a flight instead of the train. After I left, the news was—and still is—dominated with the growing refugee crisis and Hungary’s refusal to let them pass or even enter the country.

So much for pie and world peace. Sigh.

Ah, but this post is supposed to be about Budapest and my time there. And the point—not just of my blog but of life—is to focus on the positive, to be the change you want to see in the world, even in the face of disappointments and discouraging events.

Keep calm and bake on, I say!

Budapest was a good surprise. It is an impressive city with its old architecture, grand and stoic buildings. Although Hungary is a landscape of rolling green beauty, Budapest isn’t known for ample parks or green space. The apartments and hotels are towering blocks, creating a claustrophobic dark alley feeling, made darker still when you see how much of the still city bears the pockmarks of war and the neglect of its communist years. But to walk along the banks of the Danube River is to find relief, open space along with Old World European postcard views.

With Ryan (L) and Ron (R) enjoying
some breathing space along the Danube

My hosts were Ron and Ryan. Ron is an old family friend from Southeast Iowa. Ron used to be a priest. He left the priesthood to get married. To a woman. He eventually left that marriage and got remarried. To a man.

When Ron learned I was setting off on this round-the-world trip he extended an invitation to Budapest where he and his husband run a bed and breakfast, called Budabab, out of their charming apartment. I could stay there, he said, and teach a pie class in their kitchen.

I had never been to Hungary and I admit it wasn’t high on my priority list of places I wanted to go, but I had said from the beginning: World Piece is about the people, not the places. I liked that Ron and Ryan’s story fit with my cultural tolerance mission, particularly as in late June the US Supreme Court had just approved gay marriage as a civil right. I also liked the thread of Ron being connected to Iowa, to my family and to my childhood, as this rooting into my past seemed to emerge as a secondary theme to my journey. That Budapest was an effing cool place was a bonus.

The days there were a blur—we packed in sight seeing, always taking public transportation around the thousand-year-old city. I loved hearing the female voice over the intercom as she announced each tram stop, coating the hard Hungarian words with flannel sheets and making the “sh” endings sound softer and more slurred than what one hears on the streets.

I arrived when the country was celebrating its biggest, most important holiday: Saint Stephen’s Day. There were festivals taking place all over the city, including a food festival where we grazed on local fare like potato pancakes fried in a pool of oil then covered in sour cream. Take note, health-conscious travelers: Hungary is not good for your cholesterol!

A pig roast! Just like Iowa. Only this is on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.
Potato pancakes. With a little grease on the side.

We walked across the Chain Bridge, a Budapest landmark connecting the towns of Buda and Pest. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube, opened in 1849. The bridge is flanked by lions, two on each end. Every sign and symbol of courage I could get was appreciated. And anyway, I was glad I was seeing lions instead of my previous animal token of snakes—live ones, as some of you will recall from my days in the American Gothic House.

We popped into the Four Seasons Hotel, the old Gresham Palace of Art Nouveau design. Ron insisted we walk through the lobby and I was so glad we did. It is restored to perfection, with polished marble floors, wrought iron gates, velvet sofas, and as a somewhat incongruous touchstone to Seattle, a Dale Chihuly glass chandelier, which is one of his most beautiful works I’ve seen. I stayed at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, getting a room in exchange for teaching pie classes. Had I known about the elegance of the Four Seasons Budapest, I would have volunteered to teach classes there. Ah, next time!

The Four Seasons lobby with the Chihuly chandelier. A dreamy place.

Ron took me to the healing waters of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, another must-see landmark in Budapest. We spent several hours soaking in the outdoor pool and, wow, talk about a veritable melting pot. I floated around trying to count how many different languages I heard spoken and came up with more than 10—French, German, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and a few I couldn’t identify.

World peace in a pool—it seems warm medicinal water is the answer to cultural tolerance!

The thermal baths of Budapest. Healing the world one dip at a time.

Because I was teaching a pie class at Budabab, Ron took me to the Great Market Hall to shop for ingredients. This is the place to come for souvenirs, especially if paprika is on your wish list.

We bought apples, peaches, and a few slices of strudel—called rétes in Hungarian and pronounced “ray-tesh.” It was “WTC,” as my friend Jane would say. Worth the calories.

Hungary isn’t just known for its strudel (er, rétes). The streets of Budapest are lined with pastry shops, the fancy, cream-filled kind of cakes. We sampled some on a Saturday afternoon, sharing bites of Dobos, Eszterhazy, and some other delicious poppy seed, almond-paste filled things, while sipping coffee at an elegant outdoor cafe. Talk about the quintessential European experience.

European grandeur. Felt like a step back in time.

Too many good choices.

Yes, there was pie! A fancy kind.
Come on, you know you want some….

Another outing took us through the streets of the Jewish quarter, taking in memorial sites and artistically rendered reminders of the atrocities of WWII. “People used to live here,” a plaque on a building declares in a tone just short of shouting a reprimand. Plaques embedded in the sidewalks spell it out more specifically with the names of individuals killed by Nazis. These are for people who had no relatives to keep their memories alive, but were later immortalized by the donations of these name tags.

Behind the peepholes in this wall are old photos of people who used to live here.

There is a heaviness about this city. And if the Jewish district memorials are not enough to make your your chest seize up with a chokehold on your heart, just go down to the river to see “The Shoes of the Danube,” a “sculpture” of cast iron shoes—60 pair of them in styles of the war period—lined up on the bank depicting where Jews were shot and pushed into the river. H-e-a-r-t-b-r-e-a-k-i-n-g. I only got a glimpse of this from the window of the tram as we passed by and I was fighting back tears for the rest of the day. I still cannot think of it without a lump growing in my throat.

We explored the Jewish district further and dipped in and out of some hipster cafes called “ruins bars.” As the name suggests, these are bars built out of ruins.

We strolled through Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar in Budapest (where ruin bars have become a big trend), and my mood was buoyed by the eclectic and whimsical art. The mosaic mermaid on the bathroom door. The shell of an old car outfitted with seats and a table. The gnome statues and colorful flags hanging overhead.

One piece in Szimpla Kert that caught my eye was a potted plant—a skinny young tree with little white paper tags tied to its delicate branches. At the base of the tree was a sign that read “Wish Tree for Peace.” Given I was on my World Piece (yes, peace) journey, I stopped for a closer look.

It was an idea that came from Yoko Ono, to “create a peace trail to explore various aspects of peace.” You make a wish, tie it to the branch, tell your friends to make a wish too, and keep on wishing. The hope is for the collective consciousness to work its magic. Put the positive energy out there and you will manifest it. If only everyone would wish for the same thing—say, no more war, no more killing, let’s all just get along—wouldn’t that be a grand thing?

Budapest may have exceeded my expectations but my round-the-world trip did not. My goals were too grandiose. Any happiness and hope I may have spread—in Bangkok, in Beirut, in Budapest—felt diminished, swept away in the flash flood of negative news on CNN. My ambition to save the world was way out of line. On top of that, I was still affected, subdued, from visiting Gandhi’s house in Mumbai in July, seeing the photos of him dead, assassinated, dark blood seeping out from his bullet wounds. If Gandhi couldn’t save the world, who the fuck was I to think that I could?

Not long after I posted a photo of that Budapest Wish Tree on Instagram, I got a message from an acquaintance in Wisconsin: Deb Nies of Waunakee. She had seen my photo and asked me for more information. It had sparked an idea for her, she said. There was a damaged pear tree in her yard that had been struck by lightning. She was considering cutting it down, but instead she found a new purpose for it: as a wishing tree.

She put up a sign and set out a bucket of tags and markers for passers by, and the next thing you know the tree was not only filling up with wishes—meaningful ones, like “I wish for my mom to get cured of cancer” and “I wish for my husband to come home safe from the Middle East” and “I wish to never get bullied again”—it was quickly becoming a beckon of hope for Deb’s small town. The tree (and Deb’s effort) has grown so beloved it has been featured in the news and now even has its own Facebook page.

Deb has been sending me updates about the tree and the wishes on it ever since. And every time I see one of those wishes, especially those heartfelt ones, I am reminded that my trip was not in vain, that there is still so much goodness in this world, and that in my own small way I helped add to that goodness.

It makes me think about that poem by Bessie Stanley which defines success, or some modified version:

To give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition—or a Wish Tree!—to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded. 

My wish is for world peace. And in spite of being inundated with troubling news, I will keep wishing for it. I hope you will too.

Pie class in Budapest, the last one of my World Piece journey.
Leaving the world a better place, one pie and one smile–and one messy oven–at a time.

World Piece: Aachen, Germany

Two months ago today I was in Aachen, Germany. Two months ago today was the six-year anniversary of Marcus’s death. I was in the town of his cousin, Claudia, staying in her home with her husband Edgar and 2 of their 3 kids. I borrowed Claudia’s bicycle and spent August 19 alone, riding on the old railway line-turned long-distance bike path. A sunny but cool summer day, I rode several hours, crisscrossing the Beligium-Germany border as I pedaled along the meandering path. I rode to the town of Monschau where I stopped for an indulgent lunch of spaghetti carbonara, insalata caprese, and a cappuccino. Marcus would have liked that.

I ate in the courtyard of the town square, surrounded by Germany’s signature timber-frame “Fachwerk” buildings. He would have liked that I remembered the word “Fachwerk.”

You have seen this style of architecture, but you may not have
known the word for it is “Fachwerk.” 

Be fearless — like a lion.
Inside the Aachen Cathedral

He would have liked that Claudia and I went to the Aachen Cathedral the day before and lit candles for him, admiring the mosaic ceiling with the symbol of the lion, the symbol of courage. He would have liked that I went to the thermal baths in Roetgen where I floated for hours in the warm saltwater pool and sweated in the different saunas and steam rooms there. He would have liked that Claudia and her sister Martina and I drank champagne the night of the 19th. We made a silent toast, but you could hear the collective unspoken words in the clink of the glasses: “To Marcus. Who left us way too soon. The world is a dimmer place without you in it, but here we are, carrying on. Here’s to you, our beloved man.”

Me and Claudia…lighting candles for Marcus

He would have liked that I treated Claudia and the family to lunch a few days earlier at Vaipiano, our favorite place when they opened their first location in Frankfurt and the last place we ate together in Stuttgart.

He would have liked that I used his frequent flyer miles to travel around the world in the first place, to make pie, to spread a message of peace and love and community building. He would have liked that my last stop was Germany, that I was channeling lion-like fearlessness and immersing myself in his country, spending time with his family, teaching his cousins and their kids how to make apple pie, looking through our old photos of our wedding and the other German family gatherings. He would have liked that we were there because of him — and to know how deeply he was missed.

“The Cousins” as we call them. Making pie in Aachen.
It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday together.
Family photo. And what a beautiful family it is.
I’m so happy I can still be part of it.

When I set off on my World Piece journey, I was determined to dive headfirst into my fears, to go to Germany, teach a pie class in the Black Forest village where we got married, make pie in Stuttgart where we lived, stay with his cousins in Aachen, and last but not least, visit his grave. But I realized that most of those things were too ambitious for a barely healed heart. “Don’t open the wound,” friends cautioned. So my modified version of this — the way the trip actually unfolded — is that I went to the Black Forest, but I stayed in a cabin a few valleys away from where we got married. I did teach pie classes in the Black Forest, but to the kids of our friends instead of the people from our wedding, embracing a new generation, acknowledging the circle of life. I did visit the cousins in Aachen, but I skipped Stuttgart and I did not go to the grave. I have no regrets about taking those last two off the list. As I have always believed, Marcus is not at that grave. He is in the stars, he is in the candlelight inside the church, he is in the sun and wind on the bike path, he is in the beauty of the Fachwerk village, he is in the flavor of the carbonara and the froth of the cappuccino, the bubbles of the champagne, he is in the heat and saltwater of the spa. He is in my heart, all our hearts.

Belgian-style pie in Aachen. Does it get any better than this?

A fine place to eat a place of pasta…
Coffee and Cake (or pie) — my 2 favorite German words

I could have ended my trip after Aachen. It felt like my journey was complete after that. I thought my mission was about pie. But I was wrong. It was about Marcus, about getting closure. It was about going to the place that still held so many memories, the place I hadn’t been since his funeral six years ago. It was about realizing how far I have come since he died, how much he taught me, how much he has supported me even after his death, how the connections to the friends and family we loved together have endured the time and distance and loss, how he is still remembered and admired by those friends and family even after he is gone.

In short, my time in Germany did not open the wound. Instead it was a salve, a true healing potion. I will always carry a scar of losing Marcus, but it’s the scars that make us who we are. The scars are reminders of how fully, how courageously we have lived. You’d be hard pressed to find a lion without scars.

After Germany I went to Budapest — that story will be my next post — before flying back to Los Angeles where I was reunited with my parents. And finally, on September 1, I flew back to Iowa to be reunited with my dog, Jack.

Jack had been staying all summer on the farm of my friend Doug — or at “Camp Doug” as it has now beed dubbed after I started telling everyone my dog was at “summer camp.” And now for the big plot twist in the story. Instead of picking up the dog and moving on, I have stayed. I have come to a rest in the tranquility of the Iowa countryside, living in a farmhouse—with the farmer who owns it. My life has taken a big turn, my heart has opened back up, and I’m spending my days—and nights—with Doug. I could not have guessed two months ago, while riding Claudia’s bike through the German countryside, that my World Piece trip—and my tribute to Marcus—was really just the process of making room for this new beginning. I think Marcus would like that.

World Piece: Germany’s Black Forest

I had had talks with several friends over the course of my travels about Marcus, about how I was going to teach a pie class in the Black Forest village of Alpirsbach where we got married (in 2003). I was going to stay at the same hotel where we had our reception and spent our wedding night. I was going to light a candle in the church where we had our ceremony. But the conversations cast a darker shadow onto this plan. “You don’t need to open up the wound,” friends cautioned me. It was true. I didn’t need that. I needed to move forward. And as much as this trip was about revisiting my past, it was about letting go of it to make room for a future. (You didn’t really think this trip was all about pie, did you?)

My Europe leg was the last and the longest—a full month instead of the 10-day increments I had been doing—and yet I had not committed to any specific places or dates for it. It was a lesson in staying open. Had I not been so flexible I might have missed out on one of the highlights of my journey: four days in the Black Forest.

Left to right: Me, Marc, Bibiana, and Marcus in 2004
So yeah, I did go to the Black Forest, but not to Alpirsbach. A last minute invitation steered me to my friends’ cabin a few mountains and valleys away. So instead of indulging in memories of what was lost I chose the path to something new. And that choice led to what were some of the most fun, most joyful, most magical pie-filled days of my entire three-month journey.

I met up with Bibiana and Marc (and their 2 kids) and our mutual friend Silke (and her 2 kids) at Marc’s family’s cabin to join their short holiday. They were all friends of Marcus and mine when we lived in Stuttgart. I hadn’t seen Bibiana and Marc since 2005, when they moved to Berlin. I hadn’t seen Silke since 2009, at Marcus’s funeral.

(NOTE: This would have been a better blog post if the internet hadn’t crashed in the middle of writing it. So from here you get the abbreviated version so I can move on to the next updates. I am already 2 months behind.)

We quickly settled into a routine: pick wild blueberries before breakfast. Gather enough for both eating and for making pie. Hike down the creek every afternoon, bushwhacking through the branches and climbing over the rocks in the freezing cold water to get to the lake below for a swim. Come back to the cabin and drink Tannen Zapfle, a local Black Forest beer, which happened to be Marcus’s favorite. Teach a pie class to the kids–yes, every day we had a pie class. Besides the blueberry, we made peach, banana cream, and apple. Make dinner and serve it at the big outdoor table, and eat pie for dessert. Light candles and watch the stars. We even timed it perfectly for one of the year’s biggest meteor showers. Sleep in the loft like we were Goldie Locks and the bears. Laugh, talk, reminisce, tease, explore, read, brush teeth. Wake up and repeat.

Instead of feeling sad in the place where I had so many memories of my late husband, I made new ones. Happy ones. With a new generation. And those young kids added so much joy. Their wonder, exuberance, innocence add up to the promise of a bright future, of making the world a better place. To be around them in this enchanted forest of a setting was a surprising and huge help in moving forward, in honoring my past but also letting go of it.  I had such a great time I wish the stay had been longer. I am already reserving my bed in the loft for next summer.

Next post:  Germany continued….On to Aachen

Blueberry Boot Camp

Like bears foraging in the forest

Rinsing our berries in the outdoor fountain

Ace pie maker. Bibiana & Marc’s daughter Kim, age 10

Papa Bear (Marc). He’s been coming to this cabin
since he was his own kids’ age.

Best pie classroom ever.
Me, Silke and Bibiana….After eating blueberry pie

Kim learns to make a lattice top

This melts my heart. Kim & her brother Luc made welcome signs
for Silke & her kids’ arrival. What better way to say welcome than
with a warm blueberry pie — made from hand-picked wild blueberries!
Talk about good for the soul….

Silke’s girls got creative during the apple peeling session

If you’re ever in the Black Forest, you have to try this beer!

Did I mention we were staying in a cabin?  

This is the cabin….in a private forest. What a rare treat this is in Germany.
Instead of lighting candles at the Black Forest church where Marcus
and I got married, we lit them at the cabin in the forest.
Which was even better. Way better.

World Piece: Two Weeks in Switzerland

I left off with my blogging (and again, my apologies for not keeping up with it!) in Switzerland, where I arrived on July 29. I landed in the country’s capital of Bern, depleted from a debilitating stomach bug I picked up somewhere between Lebanon and Greece, and stayed with my lifelong friend Uschi Kamer for two weeks. We called her apartment “Kurhaus Kamer” as it really did serve like a true Kurhaus, a medical-spa-like place to recuperate.

Once I got rested enough, I boosted my immune system with exercise, biking around the medieval cobblestoned city, hiking up the Gurten Mountain (2800 ft above sea level) behind Uschi’s apartment to view the Alps, and –my favorite– swimming in the glacial waters of the Aare River, bobbing downstream at a pace faster than a bicycle, only to climb out, walk back upstream, and float down again.

The magical glacial waters of the Aare River.
Swimming in this river is not for sissies!

After I weaned myself off my restricted diet of boiled white rice and Gatorade, we ate healthy homemade meals with staples that included Gruyere cheese, chocolate, red wine and apple pie.

The pies of Switzerland. So many choices, so little time.

Looking toward France.

We made some day trips to the countryside, to the Jura region on the French border, where we toured castles and cheese factories, lunched on trout, and practiced our French. Tout va bien! We made apple pie at Uschi’s family cabin and invited other family members up to share it.

Uschi’s mom made a Schlafrockaepfel.  An apple stuffed with sugar & nuts
and baked in a “bathrobe.” This was the most-viewed Facebook post on my trip.

We made a banana cream pie and took the bike to the train to the bus to the Land Rover to get to Uschi’s friend Monika’s farmhouse where we ate it with lunch. At the farm we got to meet Monika’s animal kingdom, tallying up the count to about 24 between the 3 sheep (freshly sheered by Monika to spin the wool and knit sweaters, of course), 4 new baby goats, cats, dogs, chickens, and turtles. We worked off the pie — and Monika’s homemade apple-hazelnut cake — by hiking up a boulder-strewn river bed.

Swiss Gothic.
Lunch in the mountains was a cultural exchange:
Uschi, Monika, Monika’s mom, with American pie…and Swiss cake.

In between all the outdoor adventures, I took in plenty of Bern’s cultural offerings. Uschi and I spent an evening watching jugglers, musicians, acrobats and other street performers at the Buskers Festivals.

Then I went to a free outdoor concert with another friend, Bobi, and we bumped into an acquaintance of hers, an older woman named Susanne. When I told Susanne I was currently on a round-the-world trip she said, “Oh, I did that. For my 70th birthday.” Just when I was thinking I had overestimated my strength and stamina, wishing I had done this big trip in my 20s or 30s and not at 53, along comes this beaming ray of light who I am convinced was placed in my path to remind me: You are NEVER too old. It is NEVER too late. Get out there and do it. Keep going.

It was the message I needed to hear at exactly that time, because after being so ill, as well as drained from hauling my 50-pound beast of a suitcase from country to country, I was contemplating cutting my trip short. But Susanne’s positive energy gave me the impetus to keep going.

This is the world traveler Susanne. She doesn’t look over 70. She doesn’t even look over 50!

I needed all the motivation I could get, as my next stop was Germany, the place I had been anticipating with a quiet dread. It was the place where my late husband was from, the place we had lived together, the place I had not been back to since his funeral six years earlier. But Marcus’s frequent flyer miles had made my round-the-world trip possible. And I was determined to honor him. And so….I booked my train ticket, left the peace and beauty and healing place of Bern behind and headed north to Deutschland.

Continued in the next post….


World Piece Recap — 2/3 of the way through

I’m two-thirds of the way through my 3-month World Piece journey and I finally have a moment to update my blog. I had every intention of posting here regularly but the trip got away from me and there was never enough time, energy or Internet connections. I have, however, managed to post on my Facebook business page nearly every day — a lot of photos and captions to help you follow along with my travels. You don’t have to be signed up for FB to see the posts. If you are not signed up for FB you will be able to read everything but just won’t be able to add your comments. If you are following me already, please know I read all the comments and I appreciate them so much. Here is the link:

Here is a recap my journey so far. I have had some ups and downs, but overall the trip has been exceptionally positive.

New Zealand was so beautiful, but was so cold! It’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I lived in my down jacket, wearing long underwear underneath my bib overalls, wrapped in the wool prayer shawl made by my host Grace Bower that was the impetus for traveling there in the first place. We put a lot of miles on Grace’s Nissan station wagon, and visited the Yummy Fruit apple orchard in Hawke’s Bay, made pies from the apples they donated in a pie class for 20 at a local college’s culinary school, and saw a lot of stunning untrammeled landscape. Soaking in NZ’s hot springs and drinking endless cups of “flat white” helped warm the bones.

Australia was all positive — I spent time with and made pie with very dear old friends, Kate Hayward and Foong Broecker, gave a presentation to the Sydney International Women’s Club, met former prime minister John Howard (my dad’s name too!) at a luncheon celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and got to bottle feed a baby kangaroo. And I sampled a lot of Aussie’s meat pies, some with mashed peas and potatoes on top. Talk about comfort food!  But it was in the friendships — new and old — where the real comfort was found.

In Bangkok, I had a cold for the first 4 days but I bounced back quickly (I credit the fresh fruit and healthy Thai diet for helping speed up my recovery), but after that I pushed full-steam ahead making 75 pies for the American Embassy’s 4th of July party. In order to accomplish that I moved into the pastry kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Erawan where I baked side by side with the Thai staff and came away with some very good friendships. They spoke Thai and I spoke English but we spoke the same language through our baking and our smiles.

India was a big challenge for me. They say you either love it or you hate it. I didn’t love and didn’t hate it, I just didn’t understand it. I did not experience a bad stomach like I had expected, but I cried every single day, which I had NOT expected. I don’t know why it was so challenging…I don’t think it was the poverty as much as it was the grime and garbage. If cleanliness is next to godliness then I wonder why this place is deemed so holy. I did, however, fling myself headlong into it. I taught two pie classes at the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai that were such a big hit they requested I teach a third. Instead of teaching another class I spent that day, courtesy of the lovely Deepa Krishnan of Mumbai Magic, touring India’s largest slum. I was impressed with the industriousness and work ethic there. These people are not hanging around, they are working 10-hour days and making money!  “Don’t call it a slum,” I was told. “It’s a neighborhood.” That was one part of India I actually understood.

After India, I was in Lebanon, in Beirut, a place the American government has placed on the  “do not travel there” list. Alas, I went, because I had an incredible host, cookbook author Barbara Abjeni Massaad. I stayed with her and her family (husband, 3 teenage kids, 2 dogs and 2 cats) in their  apartment. There was evidence of the war, now past, with ongoing effort to ward off any future uprisings. There are barricades, road blocks, military check points, and sandbags surrounding various places and numerous abandoned buildings. Still, it felt safe — except for the driving. There are almost no stoplights so each intersection or onramp is a free-for-all, which was very unnerving.

Barbara took me to a Syrian refugee camp about an hour from Beirut, toward the Syrian border. Talk about not heeding the “do not travel there” warning! We delivered 12 homemade apple pies (that took me 9 hours to bake in a 90-degree kitchen) to people living in tents. I am sorry to say our effort didn’t feel as noble as it sounds. There was tension in the camp and a fight was just breaking out in the very spot we were headed to, where friend’s of Barbara’s lived. (She spent two years visiting the camp, building up trust and relationships, and then photographing the people for a humanitarian aid project and soon-to-be-published cookbook called SOUP FOR SYRIA. You can pre-order it here. We had to leave the camp so there was no time to tell the story of the symbolism of the pie, and how we wanted to promote peace. But we can only hope that that little taste of comfort will lift the spirits of a few. You can never really know what impact you’re making. It’s a lesson in trust, humility, gratitude and so many other things.

One of the refugee families we visited was educated and had been successful in Syria. This family of 11 is trying to use their skills, both creative and business, to make a difference. The eldest son, Wissam, was a third-year mechanical engineering student when they had to flee their homeland. He is now a budding filmmaker, documenting peace efforts in the camp. I was very moved by this video he showed us. In Arabic these kids are saying, “We miss peace. We want peace.”

Who knows if the pies had a direct effect, but it was pie that led us to this filmmaker and his message, and by sharing this it keeps the effort moving forward. So it all matters.

I arrived in Greece, my shortest leg of the trip, with a traveler’s “bug.” I won’t go into the gory details about my compromised health, but sadly, I slept the entire five days I was in Athens. I finally saw a doctor, got on an antibiotic, and tried to change my flight so I could stay longer and make up for the lost days. If you’ve ever been to Greece in August you will know that the airline practically laughed in my face. There were no seats available for 2, even 3 weeks out. There was no outward sign of the country’s financial crisis with this summer tourism season in full swing. And happily the media’s fear-mongering about tourists getting mugged didn’t keep travelers away. I had to stick with my schedule and fly onward, to Europe. I will just have to return to Greece another time. In fact, I loved the teeny tiny bit of it I glimpsed — seeing the islands from the plane, the landscape out the window of the airport train, and the historic streets around my bed & breakfast near the Acropolis—enough to know it warrants its own separate trip. I mean, this was the birthplace of pie and I was too sick to even eat one bite! So yeah, returning is a must.

On July 29, I landed in Frankfurt, Germany and made a beeline for Bern, Switzerland. Medieval Bern at the foot of the Alps is the first city in Europe I ever visited — when I was 22 — and no sooner did I arrive that summer I made some friends with two sisters, Eve and Uschi. Fast forward 31 years, we have been friends so long we are more like family. I was so depleted from being sick I tempted to bail on the rest of my World Piece journey and head back early to the US. Instead, the cure was coming to Bern. Old friends in a gentle, peaceful place (sheep are grazing right out my window and I can hear their neck bells tinkling like music) combined with vitamin C (as in chocolate!), I am in an ideal place for replenishing my reserves.

I fly back to the US on August 27 and I still have a few countries to visit— and a lot more pie to make and taste—before I head home. So keep following along (on Facebook).

I wasn’t sure when going into this project if I would have enough material to write a book about my journey, but I am now convinced that I do. There are many threads that connect the stories, the people and the places. It has all the elements of “the hero’s journey” and all the plot points that fall right into place of a three-act structure — as if it was planned that way. It wasn’t! I will likely be spending the fall back in Iowa where I plan to buckle down and write about the experience while it is still fresh and raw. But I have to get through the rest of the trip first!

Thanks for checking in.

The Start of Leg 2: Surreal Times in Sydney, Australia

What the earth looks like between
Auckland and Sydney.

I flew into Sydney, Australia from Auckland on my birthday, June 14. When I got off the plane and came out of customs there was a camera crew waiting with my friend Kate standing behind them. When Kate told me she was going to try to get some publicity for my trip, I thought she had gone way overboard. Three cameras were pointing at me with their spotlights on. My World Piece project may be noble but it’s not that newsworthy. I walked past them and their lenses did not follow me. Kate and I had a huge laugh when we saw that right behind me was the famous Australian rugby player, Jarryd Hayne, who was just flying in from California where he now plays NFL football for the San Francisco 49ers, and all the cameras rushed toward him. Phew!

Kate took me for a long walk around the city on my first day there. We walked straight into a pie shop! Called Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, this famous place is a Sydney institution, around since the 1940s. Probably one of the first food carts — long before they became popular — Harry’s sits on the waterfront of a wharf where military ships dock. No wonder they’ve been so successful — they serve the ultimate comfort food: meat pies topped with mashed peas, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

Barbra Streisand is on the wall of fame. I made a lemon meringue pie for her once,
when I worked at Mary’s Kitchen in Malibu.

Sailors aren’t the only ones
who appreciate comfort food.

The next day was a busy one. Kate goes to work by ferry and I joined her on her morning commute. A ferry ride on a sunny morning is the ultimate way to see Sydney Harbor — or Harbour, as they spell it. This kind of transport would almost make me want a full-time job in the city. Almost.

Commuting with Kate. You know you’re in Sydney
when you see the iconic Opera House.

I left Kate at her office and walked a few blocks over for a meeting with Sam Cawthorn, an author, amputee and motivational speaker. He is someone Grace in New Zealand thought I should meet, because he is an inspirational figure, so she sent me his contact details. Because I want to meet all the inspirational people I can, I contacted him — and I asked him if he’d like to meet for pie. (Does one need any bigger agenda than just eating pie?)

Australia is such a fun & happy place, even the pie is smiling!
So Sam and I met, and talked, and ate pie for breakfast. Steak and Mushroom pie at Pie Face, an Australian pie shop chain that expanded to the US and now is fighting to survive a bankruptcy filing. But that’s not relevant as their doors are still open and their smiley pies are still good. 
Sam asked me about World Piece. I explained my mission, which I might have been downplaying a little bit as it prompted him to quote Marianne Williamson, pounding his chest as he spoke — 
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

— and then he told me I needed to shoot more video for my social media sites and made me promise that I would do that because it would make me more successful. Hmmm…well, I still like my still photos and writing essays. He told me how much he loves what he does, and then we said goodbye. I’m not sure which was fuller afterward, my belly or my head.
But the day got even more “Dreamtime” after that. (Had to throw in an Aborginal term since I’m in Australia.) First the ferry ride, then the smiling steak pie and pep talk, and then….lunch with the former prime minister of Australia, John Howard! Where am I and how did I end up here?!?!  
It was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Kate’s parents had been invited to a luncheon and had two extra places — for Kate and little ol’ American me. I had to laugh because it was the ultimate cultural experience, a window into an octogenarian underworld as the lunch was hosted by the English Speaking Society and some other organization that might as well have been called Save the Monarchy. I could be a neutral observer and marvel at the different ways in which people view the world — or how they think the world should work, still work after all several centuries. Whether Australia is part of the Commonwealth or an independent republic, it’s a really great country and I feel really excited/lucky/privileged to be here and experience it — even if just for 10 days. 
The funniest part — well, maybe not funny because it forces me to admit my lack of knowledge of world history — is that I had to Google “Magna Carta.” It is basically a charter of liberty, the first document to declare that no one in society, not even a king or a queen — is above the law.
No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
Good to learn something “new.” That’s why it’s good to travel. You can fill in the missing pieces of your education, while dining on a lunch of grilled salmon and lemon tart with dignitaries and well-dressed white-haired ladies.
My dad’s name is also John Howard.
Though apparently no relation. I wonder if
this John Howard likes pie as much as my dad.
My next post — if I can keep up with my blog — will be about my presentation at the Sydney Women’s International Club.  So check back soon. There’s more to come. More pie, more people, more countries. 
Only two and a half weeks into it, the World Piece journey has been a great, fulfilling — and mind-opening — adventure so far. Thanks for following along! I’m posting daily on Facebook — and you don’t need to be signed up for FB to read it — so check there for updates in the meantime.

First Pie Class of the World Piece Journey: New Zealand

My first pie class of the World Piece tour was in Napier, New Zealand. Brett Zimmerman (aka Mr. Z), a friend of Louise Watts (my host Grace’s daughter), is a cooking teacher at a local college. (College in NZ is high school in US terms.)

Mr. Z offered use of his classroom — 6 large stainless steel tables and seven — seven!! — ovens. YES! PERFECT! THANK YOU!

The first thing we did was go shopping for pie tins. There is a restaurant supply warehouse just 2 blocks from the school. And luckily they had pie tins. The only kind they had were “very deep dish” but I didn’t mind. We had plenty of apples to fill them. My pie mentor Mary Spellman taught me to make pie in generous portions: “Don’t be stingy,” she always said if I put too little filling in a pie dish. Besides, America has a reputation of doing thing BIG. So big pies were what we would make.

Meet Mr. Z. He is not just a cooking teacher, he’s also a rugby coach.
This is what the classroom looked like before we made a mess.
Pastry gems are some mysterious cross between butter & shortening.
Seemed ideal, and the price was right (FREE!), but the texture was hard.
As for the taste, it was okay, but I wouldn’t recommend the stuff.
Gorgeous apples from The Yummy Fruit Company.
From left to right: Ballaret, Granny Smith, Lemonade.
Lemonade is a new variety, a cross between Gala & Braeburn.
Ballaret are tarter than Gr Smith & easier to peel. Perfect for pie!

Before the class, Mr. Z used some of the apples to give me a lesson in knife-handling skills. We carved swans. He had worked in some fancy pants restaurant and they made these as a garnish, not to eat. He said he worked 14-hour days at that job. No wonder his days were so long! It takes a lot of time to create these carvings. It was fun to learn, but I prefer using apples for pie.

Swan in progress.

Not bad for my first (and last) attempt.
Luckily I did not slice my fingers
 off in the knife-handling exercise.
Especially since this was only
 the beginning of my trip.
Pie is always better with butter. I came to the right country as
New Zealand makes really good butter. 
We had about 18 students for the class. (I didn’t actually count them, Grace did, but I think the number was more like 16 because she included me and Mr. Z in the headcount.) Participants ranged in age from 17 to 70. Mr. Z had sent out email invitations to the school administrators, his cooking students, his catering business helpers, and a few local Hawke’s Bay friends. 
Neil, one of the first participants to arrive.
Check out those pants! A patchwork extravaganza,
he told me they’re 20 years old. 

This cutie pie is Sam. She showed up in braids and someone asked her if she was the Pie Lady.
I wanted my pic taken with her since, based on our matching hairstyles,
we were obviously kindred spirits.

And there is it, the teacher’s corner. More like “Show & Tell.”

No matter where in the world I teach a pie class, it is pretty much always the same format. Introduction, overview of what we’re going to do, demo, turn everyone loose, and then watch the flour fly.

The Pitchfork Pie Stand lives on in every pie I make!

“Rolling dough is like horseback riding, you have to take control of the reins.”
Yep, that analogy works in pretty much every country.

These are some of Mr. Z’s students. They love baking.

Mr. Crazy Patchwork Pants and Miss Cutie Pie Braids. They were a great team!

This table of ladies includes a florist, a school nurse, and a librarian.
They made the most beautifully decorated pies.

My host, Grace Bower, was clearly having a great time. She is not only an
excellent knitter of prayer shawls, she also is an excellent pie maker.

This is Mona. She’s a food judge. But this night she was on the other side of the table.

A crimping lesson.

Neil had to leave early so he took his unbaked pie home with him. On his bike. He had to ride one-handed. In the dark. I never did hear if the pie made it or not. I’m pretty sure no news is good news. I had to hand it to him for his adventurous can-do Kiwi spirit.

The culinary students went to extra lengths to make their pies pretty.
Not for extra credit, but because they enjoyed the artistic process.

Making progress. 

The first pie to come out of the oven belonged to Mona the food judge.
Her pie could have won any pie contest.

I wore my running shoes for the class. I know from having used classroom kitchens before that when you have multiple ovens dispersed through the large room it is a real workout to move between the tables and around the people (dodging rolling pins and trying not to slip on the pie dough that’s fallen on the floor) to get to the ovens. You don’t want your students to do all that work preparing the pies only to have them burn!

I couldn’t read the dials on Mr. Z’s ovens as the numbers were worn off. They were in celsius so I couldn’t understand them anyway. But thanks to my sprinting and squats and the effort of rotating pies around on the oven shelves, every single pie came out looking….well, YUMMY.

See? No pies were harmed (or burned) in the making of this film.

After all these years and all these oven burns, pie still makes me happy. 

Louise Watts presents the “Apple Award” to Mr. Z. The hand-blown glass artwork
came from Utah and Grace determined that people who have contributed something good
should be bestowed with the award–or at least have their picture taken with the apple.

Every pie class ends with a “Victory Shot.” This one was no exception. Look at all those happy people. And look at all those gorgeous pies! Pie really does make the world a better place.

And to think is only the first class of the three-month, 10-country, round-the-world journey. Here’s to many more pies and many more happy people.

Thank you, New Zealand — Grace Bower, Louise Watts, Brett “Mr. Z” Zimmerman & the William Colonso College, Paul Paynter & the Yummy Fruit Company, the Ibis & Novotel Hotels in Rotorua, and many others — for making the first leg of World Piece a fun, safe and successful one.

Next stop: Australia (June 14 to 24)


Mad Apples at The Yummy Fruit Company

Here’s a lesson in trust. For most of my stops on the World Piece tour I have quite a few things planned, scheduled and confirmed on the calendar. For New Zealand, however, my first stop of my three-month journey, I left things a bit, shall we say, loose. I knew I wanted to teach a pie class. And because it’s New Zealand, home to the Granny Smith apple — the apple of choice I use for my pies — I knew I wanted to visit an orchard where these beauties are grown.

I love seeing how things come together.

My NZ contact, Grace, has a daughter, Louise, who lives in the Hawke’s Bay region, the largest apple growing region in the country. (The area is also famous for my other favorite horticultural product: wine.) Grace told Louise the “American pie lady” was coming to visit and asked if she could organize a tour of an orchard. Louise happened to be grocery shopping one afternoon a few days before my arrival and saw a truck parked outside. It had a company name painted on the door: Johnny Appleseed. It was a local apple grower.

Louise approached the man getting into his truck and told him about me and my request. (Go, Louise!) His name was Terrence, lo and behold he was the operations manager of the orchard (life is magical that way), he gave her his card, and after Louise passed his info on to me I emailed him.

After an initial exchange I then received an email from the company CEO, Paul Paynter, who offered to conduct a tour himself. He wrote, “We are completely snowed right now, so I don’t have a lot of time, but you are mad enough that I want to meet you.” (Mad as in crazy.) “The world needs more mad people.”

And that’s how I came to get a tour of The Yummy Fruit Company orchards.

Ushered into the boardroom, I was greeted by a tableful of apples — and a man wielding a knife.

The man with the knife turned out to be company chief, Paul Paynter himself. He introduced us to some of his favorite apple varieties with cute names like Ballaret, Lemonade, Ambrosia, Braeburn, Pacific Queen, Sweet Tango, Smitten — and of course the one with which I am intimately familiar after making thousands of pies with them: Granny Smith.

Paul gave us a tour of his orchards (they have 1700 acres), apologizing for the fact there wasn’t much to see given it is currently winter in the southern hemisphere. The Yummy Fruit Company is a family owned business and Paul is its third generation to run it.

We drove past the Granny Smith section and I asked him if he planted those New Zealand sheep there just for me, as a prop to make the place look more, well, more New Zealandish. No, he said, they serve a purpose. They eat some of the leftover apples off the ground and their feet (hooves) stomp the leaves turning it to mulch.

Paul’s grandfather changed the company name from Paynter to Johnny Appleseed to convey a more all-encompassing side of their product.

Harvest was several months ago, but there were still apples on some of the trees.

Do you see the pink spot on the trunk of the tree above?  It is marked to be cut down. Paul has a test plot where he is experimenting, trying to create and grow new varieties. He walks through and takes bites out of them and spits them out, like wine tasters do. The trees with apples that don’t measure up to his taste get the axe to make room for new and different trees until he comes up with a new variety –and taste — that he likes and thinks he can market.

Paul says the world needs more “mad” people like me. I think the world needs more “mad” people like him. So we were in agreement on that. He is passionate about his work, he loves his apples and cares for them like their his family — and really, they are his family since his grandfather started the business and the company is run out of his grandparents old house. (The boardroom pictures is the old dining room.) Meeting Paul and spending an afternoon tasting apples was a highlight of my stay in New Zealand.

In the true spirit of pie — and by that I mean generosity — Paul gave us three cases of apples to use for my first pie class on the World Piece tour, which I was teaching the next day. We ended up using all of them and they were, just like the box says, absolutely yummy.


A Few New Zealand Pie Recipes

New Zealand gas stations don’t just sell fuel for cars.
The pie display the BP gas station — or petrol station as they say in NZ.

If there is one thing I’ve learned on my World Piece journey so far, it’s that New Zealand loves pie. Kiwis (as New Zealanders are affectionately called) love pie so much it’s sold at every gas station, convenience store, just about everywhere you look. Some consider it a staple and often eat it for “tea,” which is dinner (which in parts of the US is known as supper), others say pie is what you eat when you’re coming home from the bar. On this trip so far, it’s been the go-to food when jet lag makes my stomach growl at odd hours outside of normal meal times.

Hand pies are served warm, the filling is soft and gooey gravy, and the crust is always flaky. And they are almost always savory, salty and hearty. (I don’t even want to know the fat and calorie count!)

One of my stops was in the town of Rotorua, famous for its hot springs. It’s a crazy thing to see a town built on a lake that looks more like a cauldron. Steam vents puff out columns of smoke all around the town, making for an eerie site, and the underlying concern that the whole place might blow up if the earth decided to let loose.

My NZ host, Grace, and I drove from Auckland to Rotorua on the way to her daughter’s in Napier (Hawke’s Bay) further south. In Rotorua, we stayed at the Ibis Hotel, where the manager rolled out the red carpet for us, upgrading our room to a lake view, throwing in a free breakfast, and then, when he heard about World Piece, he treated us to a free dinner buffet at the Novotel next door. That is some impressive Kiwi hospitality!

The buffet was a good introduction to the local cuisine, mainly fresh shellfish (oysters, mussels, shrimp), lamb shank, and their favorite dessert, a meringue/pudding combo called pavlova. After tasting the New Zealand specialty of Butter Chicken (similar to Tandoori chicken) and LOVING it –and raving about it to the waiter — the chef came out with the recipe. His name is Rikesh and he is half Indian, half Fijian. He hand wrote out the recipe by hand for me and walked me through it, pointing out that he didn’t have numbers or amounts for the ingredients. I told him, “Don’t worry about it. That’s how I bake!”

I’m down in Napier now and I had a butter chicken pie for lunch yesterday. It wouldn’t win any pie contest. I fear Rikesh spoiled me for any other Butter Chicken. Thank goodness I have the recipe. And here it is for you.

If you’re ever in Rotorua, stay at the Ibis and make sure you
have the dinner buffet at Novotel Hotel next door. And tell Rikesh I said hi.

Meanwhile, further south, in the stunning and fertile region called Hawke’s Bay, I went to a Sunday farmer’s market.

Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Fertile and gorgeous, it’s also one of the sunniest
places in the country. Perfect for growing grapes and apples.

It’s bloody cold here in winter (yes, it’s June!) so they moved the market inside.

I walked past all the hand pies for sale and migrated toward the hand carved rolling pins. Made from Tasmanian black wood and from a local New Zealand wood called Rimu, these are made from single pieces of wood. Of course I wanted to buy one, but I still have a whole world to circumnavigate and I am already over the weight limit on my luggage.

If I could have bought one it would have been hard to decide which one!

At the market I was introduced to a fruit I had never heard of called feijoa. It tastes like a cross between a passion fruit and a kiwi fruit. It’s very perfumy and for that reason is best eaten in smaller doses. For example, when I tasted feijoa juice my reaction was “that’s too much of a good thing.” But forget the juice, you can make pie from this exotic fruit! (Exotic to me. In NZ it’s an everyday fruit that grows in back yards.)

I came across the stall selling mushrooms. And at the stall was a recipe for mushroom pie.

While I was perusing the aisles for pie ingredients, Louise and Grace bought picnic supplies at the farmer’s market. So after the market, Louise drove us on a scenic tour (which wasn’t a stretch considering there is not one corner of NZ that is not scenic!!) and we ended up at Ocean Beach. It tugged at my heart a little to know I was looking straight back across the water to Los Angeles, where I had just left a few days earlier. A baguette, a bag of feijoa fruit and an apple pie-thing (more like a danish) made for a good snack. And the World Piece apron made for a good tablecloth!

We used the rock as a cutting board for the feijoa fruit.

Grace’s daughter Louise cuts the apple pie.

Later, while browsing for pie plates at a local home goods store, I had to take a photo of this. The pie dish may look like the kind we use in the US, but when you read the recipe you’ll know you’re in another country. Which is the whole point of this journey. Vivre la difference!

Cloves and caster sugar. Grams instead of ounces. You can see it’s not an American recipe.
Note they also suggest using a pie bird.

And the World Piece journey continues….

Coming up in my next posts: a tour of The Yummy Fruit Company apple orchards, and the first pie class I’m teaching on my round-the-world trip.