Pip Bull

Pippa turned 9 last week. She wanted a very specific celebration. Dinner at home with her favorite foods and a night at the Ritz Carlton in Sintra. She likes being fancy. She loves hotels. Her birthday was a Monday. The hotel stay was on Friday and in between she wanted the partying to continue.

The thing about Pippa is that she’s a pretty easy kid. She doesn’t really demand a lot. She doesn’t want much. She says her favorite things are to be at home and play with her toys and give out hugs and kisses to me. She had to write a poem recently about her best friend and she wrote it about me. When asked what her and her best friend liked to do together she wrote cuddle. She is the best cuddler.

Pippa is fiercely loyal. She really hates hurting the people she loves. If we get angry with her, she actually thinks about what she did to hurt us and she gives out these wonderful sincere apologies. When she cries her hazel eyes turn bright green. This makes her sadness seem even more acute.

Sometimes I like to mess with her and talk about the men I am in love with…none of whom are her father. Men like the Portuguese guy who sells butter on billboards around town, or Channing Tatum (now that he is single). My priest always tells Pippa to attack me when I mention these men. He calls her his warrior princess, but she prefers “Pip bull.”

There is something magical about Pippa. I have never met anyone like her before. She’s funny to be sure. She is extremely smart, but doesn’t care about her grades. When I ask her why she doesn’t write neater or study for tests, her answer is always that same, “who am I trying to impress? The only opinion that matters is God’s and he doesn’t care about my cursive.” True. She always dances like no one is watching. Her Tuesday flamenco dance class is the highlight of my week. Watching this little girl dance with such intensity is mesmerizing. Maggie thinks it is creepy that her sister never smiles while dancing and Pippa’s answer is, “flamenco is a dance of passion, it is not a dance for simple people who want to just have fun and smile.” Also true.

I never worry about Pippa being hurt by rude or mean kids because she sees through them. She has told me why kids are jerks and why she just ignores them, or feels sorry for them. She is wise beyond her years. I often say I want to be like Pippa when I grow up because she really is living life right. She defends those she loves, she loves passionately, she sees humor in everything and she doesn’t worry about things that aren’t truly important. I didn’t teach these things to her. My Pip bull discovered early on that life is meant to be enjoyed and how you enjoy life is to love with your whole heart. I hope her love helps to transform the world.


Since my youngest daughter was able to speak, I have been writing down her funny expressions in a note I call “Pippaisms.”  These sayings have helped me appreciate the joys of parenthood.  On days when I think that life isn’t that funny, I read them over.

Pippa has a way of seeing the world that I adore.  Yesterday, as she and I were walking to the grocery store, she said to me that she loved Portugal.  She said she understood it and that understanding is the key to life.  It is really, isn’t it?

If people took the time to understand each other, we wouldn’t be where we are as a society.  Pippa gets this.  She wants a “change-a-matic friend.”  When I asked  her what that was, she explained to me a transgendered person.  She told me that making friends with everyone and listening is the key to happiness.  Why does my 8 year old daughter understand this and millions of hate filled people don’t?

Sometimes my heart hurts and then I see my baby girl who is pure love.  I really hope she becomes President someday…she told me she plans on running when, “she gets hair on her vagina.”   Seeing the world through Pippa’s eyes makes me happy.  I think I want to be her when I grow up.

What I learned from Berber Nomads

After spending 10 days in beautiful Morocco, I feel like my understanding of wealth and happiness has greatly changed. Of course, I like beautiful things. Nice hotels, meals in restaurants with white table cloths…the standard trappings of our Western world. However, I saw first hand in Morocco how people who have nothing are often more giving and generous than people who have too much.

We spent 2 days in the Sahara desert. Here we encountered Berber Nomads. They are people who have lived in Morocco for thousands of years. They still live an incredibly traditional life. No electricity, no running water, no bathrooms.  I have often been called a Nomad. I have moved a lot. I love seeing and living in new places. I do this all the while taking my comforts with me. I am no Nomad.

The desert Nomads live in makeshift camps. They put up patchwork tents that are open to the elements. The ground is covered in carpets that they weave themselves. They sleep on these carpets and use them for blankets when necessary. In the summer there are scorching temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius, and then they just sleep on the ground. Usually several families live together. It makes life easier. Their food is made on an open fire. They move this camp whenever they must. Weather, sandstorms, water access, wheat availability are all factors in their movements.

Our guide was a desert Berber. He was at home in the sand dunes and in the volcanic rock that made up the desert. He said he wanted us to see real Berber Nomads.  My priest and I were uncomfortable about descending upon a family just living their life in the desert, but our guide assured us that this family would be happy to greet us. It was their way.

We drove in our air conditioned 4×4 across the sand and saw in the middle of nowhere two tents and a small clay building. There were children running around outside. The women saw us and directed us to go sit in their tent. I was transfixed by the children, barefoot and playing with rocks and sticks that they had collected. I couldn’t stop smiling at them. They were so happy. They had nothing.

We sat in the tent and one of the women brought in mint tea for us to drink. She also brought us a plate of the most delicious nuts any of us had ever eaten. Then a few minutes later, they produced hot bread for us that they cooked on an open fire. They told our guide that they liked how I smiled at the children and they wanted to give us something they made. The bread was delicious. It was especially good because it was made with love.

I cannot state more clearly that these people had nothing, yet what they had they were willing to share with strangers. Our guide said it is the Berber way. When we left, our guide said the family would accept some money to help them get wheat and some supplies. They had a donkey which they took to a market weekly…it was their desert 4×4.

The entire experience was like no other. We were guests in a Nomad’s home. I felt lucky to step back in time. I felt blessed to see how gracious people can be who have so very little. Sitting on the floor of a tent in the Sahara desert, surrounded by nothing but sand for countless miles, I was struck by how a simple smile can mean the world to someone and how kindness should come naturally and easy to us all.

California at a quarter of the price.

I love California.  I have lived there several times during my life and I seem to be drawn to the beauty of the golden state.

I love the ocean and the smell of Eucalyptus trees.  I love the hiking trails.  I love the mountains and the fog.  All of these things can be found and experienced a few minutes from my doorstep here in Portugal.

Portugal, however, also has the benefit of being in Europe.  This means it has gorgeous old and historic buildings.  It has winding narrow roads. It has cute coffee shops everywhere, where you can enjoy a coffee for 60¢ and sit for hours people watching.

Portugal, unlike California, is cheap.  A trip to the farmers market can yield pounds worth of organic fresh fruits and vegetables for under $10.   Dinner out with appetizers, wine and dessert for a family of four is usually about $30.    A fabulous brunch is usually under $7.   Really what can beat cheap and delicious?  I argue…nothing.

I meet a lot of Californians here.  They too have discovered all the things they like about home, with the many added benefits here in Portugal.  More and more Californians are retiring here and I have even met some young families who have embraced the California of Europe.

Even surfing is huge here.  The coast of Portugal has a lot of surf competitions and in the winter the big wave surfers flock to Nazare to ride some of the largest waves in the world.

I really shouldn’t be telling you this.  The locals don’t want too many more people knowing about how cool this country is.  Tourism is already up by nearly 40 % from a decade ago.  Just read this and then forget I told you, okay?

Why do the Dutch not let you use the bathroom?

If you travel with kids, or a priest that has to go the bathroom constantly, you need to have toilets readily available.
In Amsterdam, I guess men peeing everywhere was a real problem because they have open urinals all over the streets. They are these gray boxes with four open stalls. The drainage for these stalls goes directly into the canals. We were all fascinated with these things. My priest upon first seeing them stated, “who would use these? Gross!” Fast forward two hours later after he had two coffees. He ran from us and headed straight to an open air urinal. Maggie ran after him to take a picture. He was mortified. We were happy.
We took a picture of him pretending to pee earlier.  A picture I promised never to share.

Anyway, my point is for men at least Amsterdam provides options.  For women, we have to pay for every toilet.  Even some restaurants don’t provide free toilets.   We went to a rest stop on the highway.  We got a Starbucks coffee and went to use the restroom.  We encountered a turnstile at one rest stop.  It was €1 per person and children to use the bathroom.  The only exception was if the kid could fit below a wooden cut out.  None of my children fit, but I refused to pay for Pippa and I made her sneak under.

The Dutch are pretty cool.  They ride bikes like champions.  They are super environmentally friendly.  They eat some sweet food, but why won’t they let us use the bathroom?  Calling it a cut name like “pipi” doesn’t help either.

The Impressive Portuguese

Living in Portugal is pretty easy,  even if you don’t speak the language.  The Portuguese know that their language is difficult to speak.  They pride themselves on the fact that it is hard.  They don’t expect you to speak it and are always pleasantly surprised if you try at all.

Brazilian Portuguese is not the same language really.  It is like British English and American English.  Technically the same, but pronounced wildly differently.  I wish I knew this before we moved and I practiced religiously on Duolingo.  I thought I was getting pretty good, until I came here and realized that the pronunciation is night and day.  Some Portuguese people claim they have a hard time understanding  Brazilians.  For your information, every app to learn Portuguese is in Brazilian.  Sucks.

Portugal is a small country with only 11 million people.  Brazil is huge with over 200 million people.  Any movies or television shows that are dubbed into Portuguese are usually in Brazilian Portuguese and therefore, the people here  wouldn’t want to watch it.   As a result, every TV show and every movie here is in English with subtitles in Portuguese only.  The one exception is cartoons.  They are dubbed.

My point is, the Portuguese are used to hearing English all the time.  They watch TV in English.  They hear English music.  They actually often speak with an American accent.  They claim that they don’t speak English well and then they can carry on elaborate conversations without any difficulty.

I am deeply impressed with the Portuguese.  I would grow tired of paying money to see a movie and then have to read the whole thing.  Or to put on a TV show and have to actually pay attention instead of doing ten things at once, because you need to read the words.  The Portuguese don’t seem to mind.  In fact, I would say that they enjoy watching programs in the original language.   They like being multi-lingual.  They like helping you if you are struggling in their language.

Portugal was recently rated one of the friendliest countries to live in if you are an ex-pat.  I completely agree.  We feel at home here and we can’t even really speak this language.

I love April Fools day.

April Fools is my jam. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the best days of the year. It is a day when you can screw with people and there are few repercussions.
I have always loved it.  As a child, I screwed up a lot and I realized, after having my mom in tears, that jokes about people dying are not cool. I have come a long way.
As many of my friends can attest, I can be relentless. Now…imagine the torment I inflict on my own children and incredibly gullible priest.  My priest has fallen or been the victim of terror over the years.  One year, I was very pregnant and I pretended to fall in the shower.  I banged the shower walls and then calmly sat on the ground waiting for him to arrive.  He did.  Screaming, “Why? No!”  Tears streaming down his face.  He had forgotten what day it was.  It was cruel.  Maybe too cruel, so I started doing trickier things.  Like the year I put multiple signs on his car that said,  “Honk and wave at me.  It is April Fools day and I have no idea this sign is on the car.”  He was so distracted that so many people were waving at him.  He was distressed by his new found popularity.

This year was hard.  April Fools day also happened to be Easter Day.  I was rushing preparing for both and I had to pull an all nighter to prepare.   Freezing food, plastic wrapping toilets, filling Easter eggs with grapes and croutons, trashing my kids rooms….it was a lot.  The pranks were good.  Green water poured out of the taps, food was tainted, people were mad.  My job was done.

This year something magical happened.  My kids actually pulled off pranking me.  At the end of the day, I was wiped out and headed to brush my teeth.  As the pressed on the toothpaste tube, this gross milky substance shot out.  They replaced all of my toothpaste.  Impressed?  I was.  I thought that was it.  I started to swig my mouthwash when I began to gag.  They replaced it with vinegar dyed blue.  It was nasty.  I was so proud.

If my kids learn nothing from me, at least they have understood the joy of comedy.  The students became the master.  I went to bed happy.

Busted at the opera.

My priest was given tickets to the opera.  When we were first married we had season tickets to the Toronto Opera.  We enjoyed our date nights, but that was a million years ago and before we had two kids.  Now a date night usually consists of a date afternoon where we grab a quick coffee and some yummy Portuguese treats.

Last night, we got dressed up.  My daughters did my make up, so I looked like a common prostitute, but I went out like that anyway because they were so happy with their work.  My priest look adorable, but Pippa put so much cologne on him that you could smell him from several kilometers away.

We arrived at the Opera house in Lisbon, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.  It was built in 1793.   It is a small space.  It has seats for only 1150 people, with amazing acoustics.  We were there for Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”  Our seats were four rows back from the orchestra.  I had to take a few pictures.  Apparently, I was not allowed to, but there was no sign anywhere indicating this fact.  I got fully busted and yelled at by two ushers.  I snuck in a few more. The place was stunning…how could I not take pictures?

I guess you can dress us up, but we really shouldn’t leave home.  We seem to cause trouble, even without the kids.


You have no passion.

When your 8 year old daughter tells you that you have no passion, it hurts.  You see Pippa has decided that she is a flamenco dancer in her soul.  I am not.

This all started when we took her to Seville last year and she watched one of the best flamenco dancers in the world perform.  The woman was serious.  Her face was wrinkled and her eyes sorrowful.  She danced with such extreme passion that it was hard not to be moved.  Maggie thought the lady was crazy.  She wanted her to smile.  She was not impressed by her intensity.  Pippa was transfixed.

Watching the flamenco dancer told a story of pain and passion.  Pippa studied her every move.  When the show was over, Pippa’s new life began.  She begged me to buy her an entire flamenco dancer outfit.  This was the easy part because every tourist shop in Seville is teeming with the crap.  Pippa rarely asks for anything, so the costume seemed innocent enough.  When she put it on, she was transported.  She had truly studied the performance and started dancing with such passion.  Her face mimicked the lady she had watched before.  Her feet started pounding the ground with real rhythm.  I truly was moved.

I also thought that this would be a phase.  I was wrong.  She continued to dance.  Every time she would dance a sorrowful dance.  Pippa’s face would express pain and sadness.  A pain, her then 7 year old life, had never experienced.  She told me she felt flamenco in her soul.

Fast forward to this winter.  My parents are visiting us in Portugal and they suggest a vacation in Spain.  We head to the Marriott Playa Andalusia in Marbella, Spain.  It is a fabulous resort filled with activities to do.  One night they even had a flamenco show.  We reserved the front row.  Pippa dressed in her flamenco costume and after preparing my parents for what they were about to expect, she settled in to be wowed.


The three female dancers began dancing to music that was recorded.  This was their first mistake.  As Pippa pointed out to my parents, they needed to dance to live guitar music to be authentic. Strike one.  When the dancers were smiling, Pippa wanted to leave.  She whispered in my ear, too loudly I might add, that we should leave because these women were not professional.  Strike two.  The women continued to put on a pretty decent performance, albeit not as good as the one in Seville.  Pippa was crushed.  Strike three came when no male dancer appeared.  In Seville, the intense dancer did several dances with a man.  These were dances of a lost love and they were deeply moving.  Pippa said that without a male dancer, these women were missing the point of the passionate break up.

My parents were really impressed by the show. They enjoyed the dancing and they couldn’t wait to see Pippa dance flamenco back in the room.  When we got back to our room, Pippa said the show was crap.  She picked apart the dancers lack of understanding of true flamenco.  She told her grandparents that she was glad they liked the show, but that it was for tourists only.  The only thing she liked was their costumes.

The next day we were visiting the stunning ancient city of Córdoba.  We saw a professional flamenco shop with real costumes, not ones for tourists.  Pippa ran inside.  She studied the dresses, the shoes and the castonettes.  A sales lady asked Pippa if she needed some help.  Pippa started talking about the show from the night before.

She told the lady that her grandparents had taken her to a flamenco show where the dancers were smiling.  The sales lady said that was wrong.  Pippa told her she thought it was terrible to not show passion.  The sales lady asked Pippa to dance.  In this small shop in Córdoba, Spain my daughter started to dance.  The worker clapped an intense rhythm that is a huge part of flamenco and yelled olè, which they also do during dances to encourage the performers.  The sales lady said that Pippa understood the passion needed to be a flamenco dancer.

Pippa and the sales lady then discussed, in depth, why a hotel would not show true flamenco.  Tourists, they concluded, need upbeat things, not things with true passion.

On the drive home, my daughter said to me that, “flamenco is about pain and loss, you just don’t get it mom.  You need to have passion to understand flamenco.”

How does my daughter who has never experienced pain, nor loss fake it well enough to trick us all?   This is a mystery of life.  Also, I have experienced both pain and loss, but apparently this did not translate into my body, because I lack true passion, according to my child.  I could be hurt, but I am more stunned that I have been ‘out passioned’ by my baby.

(This is a picture of the ladies smiling.  Pippa refers to this as proof.)

Do what makes you happy.

I love the expression, “do what makes you happy,” but somehow that seems hard to do. I was asked recently by my youngest daughter what makes me happy. I quickly responded that she and her sister make me happy. It’s true. I never wanted children originally. I had a career as a television news producer. I liked pursuing stories and hanging out with my colleagues. I liked that my priest and I went on cool vacations to exotic locations.  I liked having no one to worry about except me, my priest and our dogs.  Yet one day something changed.

I was visiting my grandmother and parents at our summer home in Canada and recently one of our elderly neighbors had died.  The husband, now a widower, was sitting on his porch alone.  He looked sad and lonely.  I said to my grandmother that I felt sorry for him and she said, “he  never had chick nor child, hide nor hare.  You will be sitting alone one day on the porch with just your husband and no one will visit you either.”

It hit me then.  One day when my job is over and I am old, it will just be me and my priest alone.  Maybe we still have good friends, maybe we don’t, but the idea of just being old and alone crushed me.  I told my priest immediately that I was making a trip to my gynecologist and seeing if I could crank out a kid.  I was 29 years old.  I got pregnant two months later and Maggie was born two months after I turned 30.

My grandmother never got to meet her.  She died when I was 6 weeks pregnant.  I hadn’t told anyone I was pregnant, but my grandmother knew.  I was home for Christmas and she touched my nonexistent belly.  She said, “you’re pregnant.”  I was stunned.  How could she possibly know?  She said she could tell and she was happy.  My grandmother’s name was Margaret.  The little girl in my belly would grow up with the same name and she still hears marvelous stories of my awesome grandma.

Pippa was a result of Maggie desperately wanting a sister.  I could hear her in her room at night praying for a sister.  I was happy with just having Maggie, but she wanted more and it had to be a girl.   I tried to tell her that I couldn’t guarantee her a sister (as a side note, I also really didn’t want to grow a penis, so I wanted a girl too).  The idea of creating a little boy and all of his parts, freaked me out.  God answered Maggie’s prayers.  Even the one where she prayed her baby didn’t have red hair because she didn’t want to be jealous of her.  Maggie loves my red hair and she used to think only mermaids and really lucky people got to have red hair.  She did wear an Ariel wig a lot as a little girl.

To get back to my main point, I think my quick answer to Pippa that being a mom makes me happy, is true.  I didn’t know that when I was consciously avoiding getting pregnant.  My priest always said he would like to have kids, but he also said it was up to me.  He claims he knew I would change my mind.  He said that he watched me with kids and knew I loved them.  He saw me working at summer camp and running  kids games at our cottage.  He knew, but he didn’t push me or even really tell me.   It all came down to one lonely man sitting on his porch.

I understand that being a parent is not for everyone.  People live full and happy lives alone.  They surround themselves with friends and they make themselves invaluable.  They find happiness in a million different things.  I still find happiness in a long run or a hike in the forest, but if I was being honest, I am most happy when I am with my girls and my priest.  Hearing them laugh or even fight, makes my heart sing.  When they tell me they love me for no other reason than they just felt like it, I feel warm and content.  Being a mom is the last job I thought I wanted.  Sometimes wise people and God know what you want more than you do.