Mistletoe Misadventures

When you live in the southern Appalachian mountains, you don’t buy mistletoe in a store.  You go out in the woods and blast it out of the treetops with a shotgun.

“Seriously?!” I asked Tom when he told me.

“Yes,” he said, seriously.  “It’s called harvesting.”

Mistletoe is a lazy and opportunistic plant.  It’s capable of creating its own food through photosynthesis, but it much prefers to wriggle its roots down into the bark of a host tree and freeload nutrients, often harming or killing the tree in the process.

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Once I learned this, I didn’t feel so badly to hear that it sometimes gets shot out of the sky.

Mistletoe is most often found in the top branches of apple and oak trees.  And while it tends to be more common in the Piedmont and low-country of the Carolinas,

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 Tom says he sees it from time to time up in the mountains.

“Oh, please take me with you to find some!” I begged him.

This is exactly the kind of Appalachian adventure I am always looking to capture in photographs. Tom wanted an excuse for kissing and so the hunt for mistletoe was on.

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By now I have lived here long enough to know that life in Appalachia can be a tease – any time you assume you are in control of your own adventures, you may quickly find out how very wrong you can be.

You may discover, for example, that the search for a seemingly innocent plant leads you down a trail that instead reveals a romantic encounter from your boyfriend’s past.  (This should hardly come as a surprise, though, considering Celtic Druids thought mistletoe represented the oak tree’s heart or soul and Greeks considered it a symbol of sexuality and fertility.)  But to get back to the story –

Tom began looking for mistletoe each day as he drove around for work.  On the weekends, he scanned the trees in the mountains surrounding his parents’ farm.

Nothing.  No luck. The upper branches held nothing but the occasional squirrel’s nest.

So the Sunday before Christmas, I decided to drive out through the countryside myself.

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Rural areas surround Asheville and it takes only a few moments to find yourself in a completely different world.

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A world where you still see mailboxes piled up alongside the road, like baby birds waiting to be fed.

A world where you might have to be a little careful if you are an outsider who happens to wander onto someone’s property….

Just as I was rounding a curve, a bundle of green hanging on a nearly porch caught my eye.  Was that a bunch of mistletoe, I wondered?

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I pulled the car over and got out to take a closer look.

(Upon closer inspection, as you can see, it turned out to be a fuchsia plant.)

But it was a pretty scene and I had already taken a quick photograph when I heard the front door open and a gruff voice say, “Can I help you, ma’am?”

I froze.

The man attached to the voice was perhaps in his early 70s.  His piercing grey eyes looked at me from underneath his cap, sizing me up.

Trying to think fast, I introduced myself, then asked if he knew where I might be able to find any mistletoe.

“Charlie might have some up the road,” he said at last.  His house was near the mailboxes and the intersection of several rural roads.  I had no idea where he was suggesting I go, much less who Charlie was.

“Up Bear Creek Road,” he added helpfully.

I was still in the dark, but somehow we got to talking.  We talked about life.  We talked about raising kids.  He told me about his grown son and daughter.  I told him I lived in the old Giezentanner house, hoping it would help him to see me as someone interested in local people and history.  In turn, I heard stories from the old days in Asheville (stories about his life that I can’t even repeat here.)  After an hour or so, I got up to leave.

“About that mistletoe,” he said, remembering.  “Take a left up Bear Creek and look for the end of the fence.  See if there’s any up around there.”

I found Bear Creek Road and I found many fences.  I didn’t, however, find any mistletoe.

That night, I told Tom about my adventures “out in the counties,” as they sometimes say around here,

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miles and miles away from home.  And I mentioned the name of the gentleman whose stories I had listened to for an hour.

Tom looked at me.

“Old brick house on the right?” he asked after a moment.

“Yes!” I said, incredulously.  “How did you know?”

He laughed, then told me, “I used to date his daughter!”

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“Many years ago,” he added, thoughtfully.

I tried to calculate the odds of Tom knowing the one person I had randomly encountered that day, let alone having dated that person’s daughter.

 One out of the 16,000 possible residents I could have run into.

A man living in the only house I stopped at in the 66.8 square miles area once known as Turkey Creek (that is, until a frontiersman by the name of Leicester Chapman renamed it in 1859 for the Earl of Leicester, for whom he himself was named.)

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Unbelievably unlikely.

I decided to give up on the math, the search for mistletoe, and the opportunity to see Tom “harvest” it.

Who needs a excuse to kiss, anyway?

The day after Christmas, we decided to work off our holiday excesses

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by hiking ten miles through a national forest with a group of friends.

About an hour into our climb, Tom turned around and said to me,

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“Look up!”

And there, high up in the trees, was a lovely lacing of green leaves.

Mistletoe.

These Appalachian mountains have a lot of personality and sometimes it seems as if they are messing with us just for the sheer fun of it.

We couldn’t find mistletoe in time for Christmas, but its location was revealed – on mountain time – the day after.  

I could almost hear the mountains laughing at us….

127 Hours before Christmas

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the movie house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

That’s because my son and I, along with dozens of other movie-goers, were sitting in stunned silence watching “127 Hours.”

This took place back in 2010, but Christmas still brings back memories of Danny Boyle’s film for me.

And why is that, you might ask?

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Given that we live in the mountains, and often go hiking, I thought I’d use “127 Hours” to drive home a lesson to my twenty-year-old son –

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Never hike alone!

Or, if you do, to at least take the time to file a flight plan with someone – anyone – regarding your anticipated whereabouts.

“127 Hours” is a grueling film, and not for the faint of heart.

Based on canyoneer Aron Ralston’s memoir, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” it’s a biographical, survival drama about five days in the life of a young man whose arm has been pinned between boulders after a fall. James Franco portrays Ralston, making video logs of his ordeal and wrestling with the excruciating decision either to die alone, or cut off his own arm in order to free himself.

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I was fairly certain it might teach both of us an important lesson.

Leif loved how the film portrayed Ralston’s interior mental and emotional journey.  On the way home, he appeared to be lost in thought, as I yattered away about safety issues.

I slept peacefully that night, happy my point had been made.  Another item off the list of the potential perils of living in the Appalachia mountains, I thought.

A few days later, Leif asked me to hang up my Christmas stocking.

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What for?  I asked, unable to remember the last time anything had been put into it.

Just do it, he advised.

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We open our presents, in the Danish tradition, by candlelight on Christmas Eve.

Start with your stocking!  Leif said to me as soon as we gathered in the living room.

I took it down from the mantle and was surprised to feel several small packages inside.

Leif watched as, one by one, I opened them up.

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First, the ever-useful bear bell – a bright and cheery jingle to warn of your approach in the woods, hopefully scaring off any nearby bears before you actually see them.

Next, an emergency poncho, followed by a thermal blanket.

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The forth little package turned out to be a magnesium fire-starter.

I was super impressed by his thoughtfulness, and started to tell him so.

“Wait,” he said. “Open the last one!”

I undid the wrapping.

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Inside was a small commando saw, capable, I noticed, of cutting through bone.

“In case you’re ever stuck between rocks,” Leif said cheerfully.  “You’ll be able to saw your arm off!”

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Curiouser and Curiouser…

So let’s just say you’re out walking your dogs in the neighborhood one day when you happen upon a lean, older fellow with a weathered face and broken jeans, lounging on the curb in the afternoon sun.

He’s smoking a cigarette, go-cup in hand.

Based on that description, one might be tempted to make the assumption that you have nothing much in common, and pass on by.

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But if you happen to be feeling somewhat curious that day, you might slow down, smile and say hello…

Which might lead to a conversation and the discovery that this gentleman has lived in your neighborhood probably longer than anyone else around here.

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You might learn that his parents found him in a foster home just down the street when he was only a handful of months old, and here he has lived and here he has stayed for close to seven decades now.

You might be surprised to hear that the street corner you’re standing on was where, back in the day, he and his friends used to build bonfires on the nights when it snowed,

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before sledding down the hilly streets of your mountainside neighborhood –

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back when the poh-leece turned a blind eye to both the bonfire and the street sledding.

If you can spare just a few more moments to listen to his stories, the ghosts of the former denizens of your neighborhood will begin to be revealed to you — people his pale blue eyes squinting in the sunlight tell me he still can see in the streets and houses around us.

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And you may also discover (much to your great surprise) that the house you’re living in is the house his ex-wife grew up in.

And if you’re having an especially magical Appalachian day, his ex-wife, who hasn’t lived in the neighborhood for decades, may just happen to drive by while the two of you are talking, and slow down to say hello.

And then she might just take a moment, on this busy day before she flies to London and Paris with her new husband, to tell you the story of what happened to the little girl

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who’s buried in your backyard.

But it’s a sad tale and one that can wait for another day….

A Little Ghost in the Garden

And so, I moved into “the city.”

Even by Asheville’s idiosyncratic standards, my new neighborhood has a lot of personality.

Perched on a mountainside overlooking the north end of town, it is laid out in a maze of rather narrow and hilly streets – perfect for long, rambling walks with dogs.

It is home to musicians, artists and artisans.  Dancers and dreamers.  Builders, renovators and carpenters.   Massagers and missionaries.  Realtors and retirees.  Genealogists and historians.  Fishermen, restaurateurs, and coffee shop owners.   Mountain folk, half-backs, snowbirds, and urban-flighters.

It even has a ballet conservatory and an electronic music factory.

Yes, this is Appalachia.

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Some folks have been here most (if not all) of their lives.

And some, like me, have only just recently found their way into the neighborhood.

Some have built their dream retirement home here,

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while others are just trying to get through the mountain winters without central heat.

In addition to the home for retired Methodist missionaries, our street has a random assortment of Arts & Crafts bungalows, Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes, a little church,

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and one Dutch barn – my own casa mia.

 And, co-existing in a rather bizarre juxtaposition,

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 there is also a women’s shelter next to two lovely and historic B&B’s.

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A crazy eclectic mix – and that’s Asheville.

Each house in the little ‘hood holds a unique cache of stories of the generations of people and families that have lived and died there.

Like this one down the street, where wedding initials and dates, etched with a diamond ring decades ago,

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are still visible in the glass of the window panes.

Or this overgrown lot around the corner –

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where you can still see the ruins of an historic home that crack-addicted squatters accidentally burned down nearly twenty years ago,

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back when this neighborhood was the working turf of prostitutes and drug dealers.

And, until just recently,

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there was this old farmhouse dating back to 1910.

These photographs, taken just a year and a half ago,

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seem to illustrate the bewildering and poignant displacement of old Appalachia.

(It’s actually just my former neighbor, Donna Sue, getting irritated with me for taking “so durn long” to grab the shot, while she was busy trying to pack up and move out.  But not too busy, it should be noted, not to indulge in a lengthy discussion on flowers and the best place in Tennessee to get moonshine.)

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A few months later, after Donna Sue and her family left and only the stubborn old cat remained, the farmhouse was torn down to make way for something new.

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Even my house, it turns out, has its own ghosts, one of which belongs to a little five-year-old girl, whose gravestone I discovered unexpectedly

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while gardening in my back yard one day.

It’s a sad story, I came to find out, and one that can wait for another day.

Because Asheville

There’s an expression some of my friends around here have been using recently – “Because Asheville.”

I like it because, in only two words, it explains what is completely unexplainable about life in our town.

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 Like the unexpected magical randomness of walking down an alley and finding a scattering of yellow flower petals next to a door that says “Imagine Inventing Yellow.”

Or, discovering a mini galaxy hovering over a collection of antique bottles in the window of an old building

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in a dark alley.

There are many happenings and serendipitous occurrences I could give you to illuminate the meaning of “because Asheville.”

Here’s one closer to the heart –

It’s likely I would not have met Tom had I not purchased the house I am currently living in, the house I affectionately call “casa mia” –

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– just because it’s mine – even though I am living in Appalachia and there is nothing even remotely Italian about the house (or me, for that matter.) I just like the way it sounds.

I would not have met Tom because I would not have met Jo, a German rugby-playing architect turned landscape gardener for the Methodist missionaries who works across the street from casa mia.

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And I would not have bought casa mia

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had it not been for yoga.

Ten years ago, the kids and I picked our first home in Asheville for its views –

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a little ranch house, perched on an acre of hillside

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overlooking a lake, a bird sanctuary, and the mountains.

Much as I loved it, after the kids had graduated and loved on, I decided I wanted to move closer into town. I soon found – and lost my heart to – an old Dutch barn style house in a funky little neighborhood, just blocks from downtown.

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The realtors told me I couldn’t buy it because a contingent contract was not permitted. But I was in love and already living there, at least in my head.

I began stalking the house.

I detoured all of my trips into town so I could drive past it and gaze at it longingly. It was so charming, I worried, surely it would sell before I could unload my current house in an uncertain real estate market.

Several days after I first saw the house, I walked into my local yoga studio. Ninety minutes later, lying on my mat in a post-Ashtanga state of savasana, a thought came into my somewhat blissed out head.

The heck with the realtors, I thought happily –

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why not just knock on the door and ask the owners if I could buy their house? At the time, it seemed like an entirely rational idea.

Within moments, I was on their front door-step, disheveled, sweaty and still wearing yoga clothes. I told them I was passionately in love with their house and felt inexplicably drawn to live there. And then I offered them their asking price.

The owners – a heavily tattooed Frenchman and his American wife – said okay.

As simply as that.

But, of course, it wasn’t that simple.

I arranged to pay them monthly not to sell it to anyone else while my realtor and I energetically worked to sell my house up by the lake. Seventy-two showings and seven months later – two years ago this week –  there we were, sitting at the settlement table.

And then, an hour later, the little Dutch barn house was mine.

The next spring, while working in the front yard, I met Jo – the German rugby-playing architect and landscape gardener.

Who introduced me to Tom.

Because Asheville.

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A Very Appalachian First Date ~ Involving a Bull, a Beggar, a Dinosaur, and a Pig

My first proper date with Tom was also the first (and only) time I have ever had a pig’s tongue inside my mouth.

I’ll explain how that happened in a moment but first, let me say that it was a very Appalachian first date, involving interesting characters, layers of history, craftsmanship, and livestock (of course) – interwoven in a uniquely contemporary way.

It took place along the banks of the French Broad, one of the oldest rivers in the world,

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under the watchful eye of a dinosaur.

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Where it flows through Asheville, the French Broad has for decades been lined with a motley assortment of old warehouses and industrial buildings held together by not much more than lush green ivy and many layers of graffiti and spray paint.

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Back in the day, this stretch along the river was the epicenter of produce and livestock distribution for the surrounding Appalachian farms.

Over the years, however,

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with the retreat of the farmlands and the changing ways of handling livestock, the buildings were gradually abandoned and fell into disrepair.

And then, decades later, something magical began to happen.

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Slowly and quietly, first just a few, then hundreds of creative souls moved into nooks and crannies of the old industrial buildings that were even somewhat inhabitable, creating a much treasured warren of artist’s studios along the river.

And pretty soon, art was cropping up just about everywhere.

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One of those creative beings was John Payne, kinetic sculptor, self-professed time traveler, and founder of the Wedge Studios.

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In 2001, Payne purchased a three story classic warehouse adjacent to the railroad tracks, which he transformed into affordable studio space for himself and other artists.

Known as the Wedge for its shape, the building originally functioned as a produce and livestock cooperative for Appalachian farmers back in the early 1900s.

A few years after Payne moved into the building, the Wedge Brewing Company, a craft brewery, opened up on the back loading dock, overlooking the train tracks.

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Gradually, the area that had once been home to chicken hatcheries, tanneries, livestock yards, an ice house, and a flour mill,

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became a home for breweries, eateries, and artists – and is now known as the River Arts District.

One of the many things Tom and I had already discovered we have in common is a love for grabbing a pint

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down at the Wedge.

It was, therefore, a logical starting place for our first real date.

After Payne’s death in 2008,

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one of his fantastical creations, the Utahraptor, was purchased by the current owners of the Wedge Studios. It now stands guard above the entrance to his old studio on the building’s backside –

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next to what has recently become The Bull and Beggar, a restaurant that Modern Farmer – a magazine and website “for anyone who cares about where their food comes from” – declared to be among their top ten global (yes, global) picks.

Drinks turned into dinner when Tom and I wandered hand in hand down the loading dock to check out The Bull and Beggar’s “sipid food and sturdy drink” inside their recently renovated portion of the warehouse.

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Accepting someone else’s idea for who to date had so far worked out quite nicely for me.

So when the women seated at the table next to us (as well as the waitress) raved about the pig’s tongue on the menu that night – despite the voice inside my head screaming – No!!! – I said okay, I’ll try it.

Years of trying not to bite the tongue in my mouth, however, was too much experience to try to overcome in just one evening.

Or, possibly ever.

Tom just laughed as he ate the rest of the porcine dish, all by himself.

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And then, asked me out for another date.

[painting of John Payne by artist Ben Betsalel]

© dating appalachia & kristin fellows photography

Speed dating in Appalachia

Considering some of options for meeting singles here in Appalachia, lucky I am to have met Tom on a blind date.

I once came across a speed dating social held at outside a barn during the semi-annual Lake Eden Arts Festival

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which forever scared me off the idea.

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I appreciated the colorful photo-op, though 🙂

© dating appalachia & kristin fellows photography

Dating Appalachia

So, you might ask, how did this blog come to be called “Dating Appalachia?”

Well, for the past 8 years, ever since my move to Asheville, I have been jotting down stories about my transition from city life to life in the mountains on various scraps of paper, in journals that somehow became neglected after a month or so, and in random folders on my computer. But nothing came to mind for what to name this collection of experiences in my new home in a small town in Western North Carolina.

Until, that is, I went out on a blind date.

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I arrived in Asheville as a single (divorced) woman, with two kids – one in high school and one in college. It took me awhile to realize that my prospects for finding a boyfriend here were pretty slim. According to Kiplinger, Asheville ranks among the ten worst cities for singles in the US.

I knew just what I was looking for, though. I had lived in London as a kid, worked in Paris as a teenager, and traveled throughout much of Europe for work as an adult. So naturally I was on the lookout for an international boyfriend, someone to have travel adventures with and learn different languages from. Asheville attracts an interesting mix of people, but eight years had passed with nothing more than a handful of dates and a few relationships that didn’t last past two months.

And then fate intervened unexpectedly in the form of a tall, long-haired, German, rugby-playing architect named Jo. Jo is in charge of landscaping at the retirement home for Methodist missionaries located across the street from my house and for the past year, we had waved to one another occasionally or spent a few moments chatting about gardening. Or house design. Or Germany.

One day, on a whim, I asked him if he had any single friends.

“No,” he said (sort of smugly, I thought) – “We’re all taken!”

I regretted having asked.

Several week later, however, he came striding across the street as I was pulling my car into the driveway.

“Okay,” he said, not wasting any time with small talk, “I’ve thought of someone!”

Surprised, I agreed to meet that “someone” without pondering why it had taken him a month to come up with this guy.

“When are you going to Spain?” Jo asked.

For most of the summer, I had been talking about my upcoming trip to Barcelona, planned strategically with my Chinese horoscope in mind. For a whole week, I would do nothing but walk the city, experience the food and wine and people, and take photographs on the streets.

My horoscope had promised that those born in the year of the Monkey would find true love some time in the last quarter of the year of the Snake. Accordingly, I booked my trip for late September, thinking I might help things along a little by putting myself in the perfect location to meet an adventurous, handsome Catalan.

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Sadly, though, I returned home boyfriend-less (although I did meet a lovely waiter named Pablo on my last night in Barcelona at the restaurant just outside the flat where I was staying, and two glasses of wine later, it might have turned into something interesting, but….)

Re-entry is always tough. And so on my way back to the States, I spent much of the five-hour layover at JFK pondering this upcoming blind date and strategizing excuses for how to get out of it. (Unfortunately, though, I had no way to contact Jo unless I happened to see him working in the missionary gardens.) There was nothing to do but go through with it.

Hours before the rendezvous, Jo re-appeared on my front porch to tell me my date’s name (Tom) and the location of our dinner – he’d thoughtfully made a reservation for us at Curaté, a wonderful Spanish tapas restaurant downtown. (My opinion of him immediately went up another notch.) He also told me I would be able to identify my date by the rugby shirt he would be wearing. (Rugby shirt, at Curaté? Oh well…)

It had been a 23-hour journey back to Asheville and, massively jet-lagged, I dragged myself through my pre-date preparations. Just before 7, headed downtown.

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We arrived at the restaurant at the exact same moment. Even before I saw the rugby shirt under his sports jacket, I knew it was him.

He was smiling at me.

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Sitting side by side, while the chefs provided us with dish after dish of deliciousness, we talked for nearly four hours.

I discovered he isn’t German or European, he is a fifth generation Appalachian. And he has the complexion of someone with Scottish roots, not Mediterranean. He does have an accent, however – a Southern one.

I also discovered the time I spent inventing excuses to get out of a second date …

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was entirely wasted.