This December we had a family reunion in Texas. Having been born and bred in the Boston area and having spent the last 23 years in Rome, I had an erroneous idea of what Texas is all about. I expected a lot of gun-toting cowboys, blond cheerleaders, and pick-up trucks. But Texas was a not at all like my pre- conceived notions and stereotypes. It is varied in both its population and its landscape with so much to see, absorb and do.
We traveled from Dallas to Hunt, Texas to San Antonio, and Austin spending many hours in the car, but if you look at a map we just covered a minuscule portion of that gigantic state. To give you an idea, the state of Texas is more than twice the size of Italy. We saw a wide range of territory from the flat, parched Dallas area to the hill country with its big creeks and stony bluffs.
Our journey began in Dallas and my first introduction to the city was on the highway. If you live in Dallas you spend a lot of times on the zillions of highways that zig and zag all over the place. The locals refer to them as “spaghetti” until you get to one of those crazy intersections where the roads go all above and below curving to the left and right, up and down, backwards and forwards. Those intersections are known as the “mixmasters”, which is a very appropriate name because you head in, are whirled around and come shooting out the other side heading off where you need to go feeling like you have just been through the blender.
Despite being used to driving in the chaotic traffic in Rome, all this spaghetti and mixmastering was a bit disconcerting to me. On my first day there I was very impressed to see a woman putting on her mascara using her rearview mirror while going 80 miles an hour on the George Bush Highway. “Oh, that’s normal,” said my sister Gwen, who was driving. “Don’t women do that in Rome?”
“Yes, at red lights,” I replied. I think if I tried to put on mascara while going through one of the mixmasters I would accidently end up using the mascara brush as a Q-tip.
We spent a lot of times mixmastering in those first few days as we whipped over to Fort Worth to check out the stockyards with the Texas Long Horns – Wow! They have very long horns – I looked it up, from end to end on a bull they can be 6 feet long (1,80 meters). Despite looking a bit slow and hulky, I have heard in Texas, it is the Longhorns who pull Santa’s sleigh.
One of the pleasures of Fort Worth is that you can go from riding a Longhorn named Big Jake at the stockyards to admiring the incredible collection of European, Asian, African, Greek art and much more at the Kimbell Art Museum.
As we ambled through the European collection, my son Nico was bothered that a museum in Fort Worth, Texas owns the most famous Caravaggio painting, “The Cardsharps.” “Mom, that is like the Louvre having the Mona Lisa, it is just not right,” Nico muttered as we wandered between works of art by Picasso, Fra Angelico, Cezanne, Matisse, Bernini, Canaletto and even an early painting by Michelangelo. “Money can buy almost everything,” was my answer. Kay Kimbell was a Texas businessman and art collector who gathered the works first for his own private collection and then on his death left the money for the museum.
My husband was particularly enthusiastic about the new Renzo Piano pavilion – a long, low building with lots of columns and long windows, full of light and space, designed by the renowned Italian architect.
Alongside the “spaghetti” and the “mixmasters” there was a lot of flat territory with suburban communities with similar homes. Somewhere along the “spaghetti” between Fort Worth and Dallas, I noticed a giant building that looked like a space ship. It was the “Grace Revolution Church” –made St. Peter’s seem a little outdated. I am guessing that Renzo Piano did not design the Grace Revolution Church.
From Dallas we headed to Mo Ranch in Texas Hill Country. After a few hours we left the flat prairie lands and started seeing more greenery. My sister – an environmental expert—looked disparagingly at what I thought were nice bushes along the road, “Ah, those are just water-sucking cedars,” she declared, “not good.” Water is a big issue in Texas and I won’t take up the topic because it is too complicated for me. She seemed to prefer the prickly pears—they are not water-suckers.
As we drove along we checked out the interesting ranch gates and I noted some of their names: Cow House Creek Ranch, Flying Spur Ranch, Bumblebee Creek Ranch, and Crackanoon Ranch. “They don’t get up until the ‘crackanoon’ there,” my sister stated as we drove past
After Lampasas I started noticing signs for peach farms and wineries. Gosh, I never knew Texas produces wine. You definitely cannot find Texan wine in Rome (perhaps in Rhome—more on that later).
As we passed over creeks and rivers, my daughter Caterina warned that she would not be doing any swimming because she didn’t want to see any crocodiles. My sister assured her that there are not any crocodiles in Texas and that the snakes have “gone to ground.”
I was relieved that they had “gone to ground” – Texan for into hibernation, or if you are human equivalent to “unreachable.” Later I looked up snakes in Texas Hill Country and there are roughly 60 varieties including copperheads, cottonmouths, water snakes, rattlesnakes, coral snakes and milk snakes. I was getting a cottonmouth just thinking about all of them—good thing they were gone to ground!
We stopped at DQ (Diary Queen) along the way for burgers and ice cream. When I inadvertently added an Italian spin on the “latte” end of the “moolatte” I was ordering, the cute, young blond woman at the cash register said, “Y’all R not from ‘roun here R ya? Where y’all from?” I wasn’t sure if I should say Boston or Rome so I said I am originally from Boston but I live in Rome. She was intrigued when I said I live in Rome and asked me if that is somewhere in Texas. There is actually a Rhome, Texas and, of course, a Paris, Texas, so she was not too far off. She was very sweet and friendly. As a matter-of-fact, every Texan I met was outgoing, friendly and welcoming.
The Mo Ranch in Hunt, Texas, where 15 of us stayed is a sprawling ranch along one of the gazillion bends in the Guadalupe River. We were perched in Niklos’ Place on a windy bluff above the river.
The Ranch is 1340 Farm to Market road in Hunt, Texas and to get there involved driving about half an hour on a winding road that went back and forth over the Guadalupe River.
Texans seem to refer to the FM roads all the time. In my business, any time you mention an FM you are talking about the Foreign Minister of some country, in Texas you are referring to a country road that leads into a town. (In Italy, where the Slow Food – Kilometer Zero movement is steadily growing, the idea being able to buy and eat your food near where it is grown is increasingly popular and I think people would like this whole FM road business)
But I was not thinking about slow food as we went along on FM 1340, I was worried about fast food – venison on four legs. There were deer grazing all along the road and at dusk and at night it was a nightmare trying not to hit one. We had to inch (centimeter) along waiting for one to dart out in front of us. Actually it was hard to convince my Italian husband to inch along. Despite the two recently killed deer we saw alongside the road, he still seemed to think he could swerve around any crazed deer darting out in front of us.
Every time we turned on the radio, the only station we could get clearly was 92.3 “Real Country for Hill Country.” In between the country songs, they frequently a repeated an ad for an auto-repair service in the town of Bandera that started out “when you hear that all-too-familiar thump of hitting a deer…” I spent all my time on Farm to Market Road 1340 waiting for the “all-too-familiar-thump” and thinking it would be better to hear that in a big pick-up truck and not a small rental car. But we made it back safely – no snakes, no thumps.
From Mo Ranch we made a couple trips to San Antonio where we walked along the Riverwalk – a charming area along the San Antonio River with brightly colored umbrellas at outdoor restaurants mostly serving Mexican food. I was struck by the diversity of the people along the Riverwalk – no gun toting cowboys – people of all races and colors.
For Christmas they had decorated all the trees along the river with multi-colored lights making the place seem magical, or “like Disneyland” if you are my cynical Italian 21-year-old son. But the cynical 21-year-old was not cynical at all when it came to going to see the San Antonio Spurs beat the Chicago Bulls on Christmas Day. He was walking on air.
In the center of San Antonio stands the famed Mission known as The Alamo. The Alamo – and the battle it is famous for – basically sums up the spirit of Texas. In 1836 a small group—around 200 — Texan frontiersmen holed up inside the Alamo under siege by the Mexican army. Their leader, Lt. Col. William Barrett Travis wrote a letter– to the people of Texas and all Americans– asking for reinforcements. It is engraved on a plaque outside the Alamo and says the following:
” I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna — I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man — The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken — I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch — The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country — Victory or Death.”
In the end the reinforcements never arrived and the Mexicans attacked and killed them all. The men immediately became legends and the cry “Remember the Alamo” inspired others to fight off the Mexican army of thousands.
When I was growing up there was a TV series about one of the defenders of the Alamo, Davy Crockett. I still remember the refrain of the song, “Davy, Davy Crockett – King of the Wild Frontier!”
(A little aside here…reading about the Alamo battle made me think of a similar siege/battle and tale of heroism just about 300 years earlier in Italy. In that case the group of besieged individuals were in the Ravaldino Castle in Forli’ led by the fearless, brilliant and beautiful Caterina Riario Sforza De’ Medici. Outside was the fierce warrior Prince Cesare Borgia and thousands of soldiers – if you want to know more about that battle you must read “The Tigress of Forli” by Elizabeth Lev. One of these days I will get around to doing a post on Caterina Sforza. Now back to Texas)
Although it is famous for that battle, the Alamo played an important role as one of the five Missions in San Antonio – a series of small communities built by Franciscan Friars along the San Antonio River to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. The missions also served as a toehold for the Spanish Crown moving up from Mexico and competing with the French who were moving in from Louisiana. The communities were built with wood and adobe with stone walls around them. Inside there was a church, living quarters, workshops, gardens, granaries, barracks and a cemetery – all built around a large open central area.
In addition to converting the Native Americans, the friars taught them their language and trained them to become skilled artisans in woodworking, masonry, weaving and blacksmithing. The people living in the missions started farms and orchards around the missions to feed their community. They missions also had their own sheep, goats and cattle.
The Native Americans that joined the missions were from small groups of nomads living in that area collectively known as the Coahuiltecans. The Coahuiltecans population was being decimated both by the spread of European diseases and by attacks from the fierce Apache and Comanche tribes in the north. The Missions provided these smaller groups protection and food security.
Speaking of food…while in San Antonio we stopped by Haagen Daz and I got a Midnight Cookies and Cream Dazzler Sundae. All those foodies out there who get enraptured over tiny scoops of precious Italian gelato will be horrified by my vulgarity in ice cream taste – but it was awesome!!! I also ate every type of Mexican food possible while I was in Texas — Tamales, Tortillas, Burritos, Nachos, Guacomole, Margaritas, black beans etc etc. Delicious.
On to Austin…..the State Capitol of Texas. We quickly learned in Texas that it is all about Texas, not about the United States. Texans are proud of their own state and the rest of the country is out there somewhere. In fact the Lone Star State flag flies just about everywhere. My nieces Stephanie and Cassie informed me that in high school they say both the pledge of allegiance to the United States and to Texas every morning.
Austin is a funky city with a big music scene and my brother Stephen took my son and me one evening to hear the band “Uncle Lucius” play at Continental Club. I was having a fine time until a waitress popped over and asked me “What’s up, Mama?” when I motioned for her attention. All I wanted was a beer but after she said that I felt really old and wanted to escape. Maybe she was just an avid fan of Mozzarella Mamma (si, buonanotte—Italian for “yeah, right”). Austin has adopted the motto “Keep Austin Weird” and its residents seem proud of its unique, artsy, hip, funky atmosphere. I hope it stays that way.
I was particularly amused by my brother’s neighbor’s home. They had Christmas lights everywhere and inflatable decorations all over the lawn. Apparently decorating your house, lawn and yard with holiday lights is a big deal in Texas and my brother was the neighborhood slacker with a mere string of white lights around a palm tree in their front yard and around the garage. But the neighbors made up for him with snowmen, reindeer, snoopy, Santa Claus and a variety of other creatures in their yard. The only problem was they were deflated during the day making it look like there had been some horrible Christmas massacre in their front yard. But as soon as it got dark…..whoosh….they popped back up again.
There is so much more I could say about what I saw in Texas, and so much more that I did not see. I must return.