Welcome Home

Tags

, , ,

July 2, 2016

Two years ago today I ran away from home. Got on a plane in Tallahassee, Florida, and two days and five planes later there was Mt. Kilimanjaro floating outside my window. I did a rough count of the miles I traveled for 14 months in 20 different countries: 63,730 miles, 39,940 of which were air miles. 23,790 miles in cars, buses, trains, and ferries. I’m not counting the walking. The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles.

So it was, as they say, the trip of a lifetime. At least so far; in this lifetime. Now it’s just memories, waves of nostalgia, longing. As beautiful as my life is, as grateful as I am for all its gifts, it pales in comparison. That taste of freedom lingers, occasionally asserts itself like a spoiled child. Two years ago I left, ten months ago I returned. One day follows the next and time moves on.

When I was traveling, I didn’t always reveal that I was on a year-long odyssey, still don’t. People either ooh! and ahh! or it doesn’t compute. And I got tired of talking about it all the time. Yet I imagined myself at parties when I got home, making conversation: “When I was in Cambodia . . . ,” and my friends rolling their eyes whispering: “There she goes again . . . “

Most of the time it just feels like something I did, not a big deal. It’s like raising children: easy to forget the late nights and early mornings, the tantrums. And the damn thing is, I’m still the same person—same flaws, same griefs, same plain sweet Jane. But with more stories to tell.

And this is where larcenous time comes in: the whole journey doesn’t seem real anymore because it no longer exists, except in photos and words. It’s yet another, albeit more glorious, victim of time—the thief that grabs the past and runs down the road with it, the conjuror, the flim-flam man. Merciless, relentless time. I suppose it can be kind as well, leaving the hard times behind, without meaning to be.

The most common question I get is “What was your favorite place?” A question I can never answer. Everywhere was my favorite place. Every memory that pops up is trailing wisps of nostalgia.

P1270885 (1024x431)

People also ask me about culture shock.

I arrived in NYC in the evening, spent an hour waiting for my bags, caught the AirTrain to the A Train. It turns into a local late at night, stopping at every stop through deep Brooklyn. The car was full of fat and brassy black teens squeezed into tube tops and tight skirts, laughing loud and shouting at each other across the car. The exact opposite of the Paris metro. Nothing like Africa, India or SE Asia where people don’t assert themselves into our common space quite as vigorously. Next to me was a man, perhaps Turkish, who’d flown on the same plane as me. He was clutching his map of the subway, following along with the stops, warily watching the action.

Two middle-aged black ladies, with pushed-up lower lips that said “don’t mess with me,” stayed glued to their cell phones for the entire hour-plus ride. In the corner a pale old woman was sleeping with her head knocked back and her mouth hanging open. Next to her was a stuffed shopping cart. I had to wonder if this was where she spent the night. Somewhere in Brooklyn a blonde white girl boarded and spent 40 minutes applying makeup—quite a challenge in the lurching train.

In Manhattan two brawny gay guys boarded. One sat on the other’s lap as they held hands. The Brooklynites looked away, faces stony. I was beginning to worry about my stop. I stood up, stepped over my pack and took four steps over to the gay guys to ask them. They reassured me the train would be stopping there. When I sat back down an older black man chastised me: “Don’t leave your bags!” “Okay.” I reassuringly patted them.

By the time I walked the six blocks to Wendy and Sam’s apartment in Chelsea, it was 1:30 a.m. and I was wiped out. But I was happy to be in America—loud, crass, bold, materialistic, entitled America—where, as of that very day, marriage equality had become the law of the land! No wonder those guys were getting cozy on the subway. Yay for America! And yay for the Supreme Court whose decision came on the eve of the annual Gay Pride Parade!

P1270813 (1024x768)

Stonewall Inn, now a National Monument

P1270632 (1024x768)

Jeannine just happened to be in town, too!

Life seemed so easy now. So familiar. And I’d be spending the next two months couch surfing with friends and family. I put my journal away and forced myself to ease back on the photos. I’d find myself thinking: If I don’t write this down or take a picture of it, I might forget! Get over it, I’d tell myself—I’ve spent the bulk of my life doing things I can no longer recall. It’s okay. I had to talk myself down repeatedly. It had become an addiction.

032 (1024x768)

New York City at Uncle Mike’s Boat Basin Cafe

 

P1280046 (1024x768)

Then upstate with Wendy and Sam

 

090 (1024x768)

Drove to Niagara Falls with my sister and great-niece

 

 

175 (1024x768)

Then took a bus to see Roz in Vermont–an excursion to Bread and Puppet

IMG_1328 (1024x768)

And on up Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, to join other friends from home

016 (1024x768)

Back through Boston to stay with brand-new friends

060 (1024x768)

And south to Baltimore to visit my high school roomie

025 (1024x708)

To my sister’s home in Maryland and an evening with Jr. High friends

And a few days in DC, thanks to the kindness and generosity of friends.

024 (1024x768)

A peaceful few days in the Shenandoahs–possibly my most favorite spot in the world

 

 

 

012 (1024x768)

Took the train to southern Virginia to see old friends

042 (1024x768)

Then headed to Chapel Hill where family put me to work

140 (1024x768)

Met Mom in Charlotte and flew back to Vermont for wedding bells

003 (1024x768)

And at long last–back to Tally. Home Sweet Community

In Chelsea, Vermont, I was lying in a hammock in a cathedral grove of pines, thinking how most people in the world stay where they’re planted. Subject to the vagaries of circumstance, they lean and bend in order to coexist with their neighbors. Only a few reach the highest heights where they can see the larger world around them. The oldest become magnificent. The rest find peace with their place in the ecosystem.

And here I was, one of the lucky few who get to see the world, a rolling stone returning home like Candide to tend my garden, but with Pangloss’ optimism intact. The world, I discovered, is full of nice people, generous people, people who smile and laugh and hustle despite their circumstances. People who hope. In the words of Amanda Anne Platt “I swear this world ain’t as sad as the papers make it seem.”

Once home, not only would I be unpacking my furniture and belongings, but also the reality of a life that was supposed to include Howie, but wouldn’t. Throughout my journey, up until I got on that plane back to New York, the thought of this sent my heart scurrying. What would I do in that empty house, with that empty life, with no mission? Just me and no-Howie on into the empty future.

My journey was a digression, a diversion, a coming up for air, an expedition into the world outside my life. Full of the wonders of the tiny blue dot that is home to every one of us, heart opened, braver and immensely grateful, I was reentering the river of my life right where I’d left it fourteen months before, ready or not.

20151225_171348 (1024x576)

This is it, folks, the official end of my storyblog. I’m not out of things to say, but I feel my time is better spent composing this narrative into a memoir that I can hopefully hold in my hands someday, with a hard cover and a dust jacket. It’s been a pleasure and I’m immensely grateful that so many of you have come along for the ride. It’s a thrill to see the name of a new follower or comment pop up, to hear a friend recount a story they’ve read here, or, as happened just this evening, to hear a new friend, who moved into the community while I was away, say “Yeah, I read your blog.”

Advertisements

Whirlwind Paris: Last Stop

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Paris! Par-ee! as they say. The most romantic city in the world. Culture! Art! Love! Blah blah blah. I liked Paris, but I loved Rome more. Nevertheless, the City of Light gave me a wonderful whirlwind of a time, taking in as much as I could during my last stop before mounting the big bird to fly back across the ocean to my home country.

119 (1024x768)

080 (1024x768)

I must say, I was impressed by the metro. Even though I stayed in an Airbnb in a suburb outside the city center, my three-day metro pass made it super easy. I chose that neighborhood, near the Mairie de Clichy station, because that’s where my Bla Bla car ride to Frankfurt, where my flight home departed from, was going to pick me up in three day’s time. It was an early morning pickup and I didn’t want to risk missing it.

P1270620 (768x1024)

First stop: the Eiffel Tower. The line took 45 minutes, better than I’d feared. My first impression was it’s just a big old pile of scaffolding, but once I got close, it did have a certain appeal. More than a certain appeal—it had muscle and sinew, elegance and flair. And to think it was once red!

008 (768x1024)074 (1024x768)

As I waited in one elevator line after another, a voice would come over the loudspeaker: “Pickpockets are operating in the tower. Please watch your belongings.” This happened again and again. Apparently large gangs troll the crowds. Easy pickings, since everyone’s packed in, obviously has money, and many, despite the constant warnings, insist on wearing their backpacks on their backs.

When I finally made it to the elevator leading to the tippy top, a loud alarm sounded and the announcement went something like this: “Due to a dangerous situation, the building is now closed. Please leave the building.” WTF? Everyone just kind of stood there stunned. It repeated about four times, but no one moved. The ticket checker continued to let people in. The collective thought must have been: I paid to get up here, it’s taken two hours, and I’m not leaving. Finally the elevator opened, we all piled in and up we went. We never heard another announcement.

070 (1024x768)

The crowds at the top were alarming. I got in the wrong line and found myself being herded right back down again. It was one of those times I was grateful for my small size—I squished out of that line and squeezed my way to the windows. The view confirmed how big Paris is. The cityscape stretched on as far as I could see.

026 (1024x768)028 (1024x358)

By the time I got out of there, it was 3 pm. Could my time have been spent better somewhere else? Most certainly, but it felt like one of those gotta do it kind of things.

035 (1024x768)

I headed for the Place de la Concorde. I circumambulated while rain burst in intermittent showers. The 3,300-year-old Obelisk of Luxor, elegant lamp posts, the fancy fountain with busty, gold-crowned ladies, the Eiffel in the background, the smell of petrichor rising from the broad avenue.

089 (1024x768)097 (1024x768)

I looked down the Champs-Elysées at the Arc de Triomphe, then turned around and headed for the Louvre. I was overwhelmed by the width of the road, the challenge to even cross it. It wasn’t a pleasant stroll. I know, I sound like a Philistine—I’m supposed to wax poetic, but my feet hurt, the rain was blowing and blustering and, well, I wasn’t strolling beside the one I love.

104 (768x1024)093 (1024x330)

It was all Napoleon’s fault. He made Paris into a grande city. Only a few neighborhoods (Marais, Montmarte) still retain the original narrow medieval streets. Wide avenues and stately buildings are nice, but not on a human scale. I did appreciate the covered sidewalks, though. It was 4:30 by the time I reached the Louvre.

105 (1024x768)115 (1024x356)

I got my tickets only to find out it was 45 minutes till closing. I raced for the Mona Lisa. Just because. I again used my petite advantage to squish in toward the front of the crowd that was massing up against the barriers, which were manned by three guards whose unpleasant job it was to push people. It was an unruly bunch. Watching the crowds snapping photos and selfies was entertaining. Why do we take photos of it? None will look better than the gazillion already out there in cloud-land. But there I was, snapping photos, too.

136 (1024x768)

141 (768x1024)

Because so many people say, “It was smaller than I expected!” I expected it to be smaller than it was, so, for me, it was larger than I expected. But man, there are some gigantic paintings in the Louvre. Short on time, I walked on by all the huge Italian canvases: lapis and lofty virgins, holiness and adoration, preferring to spend my waning minutes on the visceral agony of El Greco and the muscular drama of Delacroix.

142 (1024x768)166 (1024x768)

I ran downstairs to the African, Oceanic and American Art. How these must have blown the minds of Picasso and his contemporaries when they first encountered them. The guards began sweeping us out, but I dodged them, got caught, slipped by the door and headed back upstairs, where the sheepdog guards herded us toward the stairs. “Madame, s’il vous plait,” they said in their polite French way. To reach the exit, we had to pass through the statuary, which disobedient tourists kept stroking, angering the guards. Not an easy job. I was sorry to miss the Vermeers.

146 (768x1024)172 (1024x768)

The Louvre metro stop was horrendously mobbed. I headed for St. Paul in Marais so I could walk the few blocks to the pleasing cobblestone lanes of the Jewish quarter. I wanted a cozy neighborhood. And falafel.

175 (1024x768)178 (1024x768) (Note the date—that’s 1995 for you Gregorians)

A man boarded the train. His face was lined with pain and worry, but he didn’t look homeless. He began speechifying. Everyone just ignored him. I don’t speak French: I couldn’t tell if he was lecturing or asking for a handout, I suspected the latter.

In the pleasing cobblestone lanes of the Jewish Quarter, on the Rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais, there’s a boys’ school with a plaque memorializing the 260 children who were deported from there and executed by the Nazis. A horrific reminder of the reach of Hitler and how close he came to destroying civilization.

179 (1024x768)

On the way home, another guy boarded and lectured, almost a recitation. He was younger, with a backpack. A young woman handed him a box of something and he thanked her.

The next day I spotted a band inside a metro train, so I jumped in. Two guys playing sax and tuba, gypsy-style. Among the passengers, I saw little expression, no tapping of feet. A couple of them smiled when they saw my naïve enjoyment. I missed my stop listening to them.

The Paris metro is very restrained. Parisians read, stare at their laps, and sometimes their cell phones (but not like in America). Companions might chat quietly. (Tourists, especially Americans, speak loudly.) They don’t smile at you, or look at you except a furtive glance now and then. There’s a certain type of man of sartorial perfection, tasteful suit with narrow legs, pressed lines, and shoes that must have cost several hundred euros, who is common on the train. He has perfect posture, nose tipped up a bit, and eyes that keep whoever’s in there locked inside.

004 (1024x576)

I found an instructive and entertaining post online about the Metro. http://www.fusac.fr/the-paris-metro-in-26-easy-letters/  I think I should return someday and do nothing but ride the trains, see if I can get pickpocketed.

170 (1024x768)

The Moulin Rouge is at the Blanche stop. I stepped inside and admired the posters, but there’d be no cancan for me, not at 77 euros. There’s a little sleaze in that neighborhood, but not the kind you’d hide from grandma.

006 (1024x768)009 (1024x768)

My guide to Paris was Atlas Obscura, a favorite travel website that maps out lesser known attractions around the world. It sent me by the restaurant featured in the film Amalie, Café de 2 Moulins, and a store called Tombées du Camion, which means “goods that have fallen off a truck.” It looked like fun inside, but they were closed.

011 (1024x768)013 (1024x768)

My next stop was the Montmarte cemetery. I spent nearly an hour circumnavigating it, trying to find the entrance. Turns out it was across the viaduct from where I was looking down into its lanes of inviting mossiness and the dead’s own roundabout.

015 (1024x768)016 (1024x768)

It’s a nice neighborhood for the dead, shady, with proper street signs and ornate tombs shaped like narrow chapels.

017 (1024x768)022 (1024x768)

I looked and looked for Edgar Degas’ grave, returning several times to where the map indicated it was, but finally gave up. Not until now, right now, nearly a year later, did I realize I’d been looking at it all the time. Degas, Famille de Gas. de Duh!

024 (1024x768)

I saw a man digging a new grave with a small bucket truck and a wheelbarrow. And a woman etching a name using a hammer and chisel. The business of cemeteries. What I didn’t see were all the promised cats. I only saw one.

029 (1024x768)

I took the funicular up to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. I never miss a funicular. At the top, the highest point in Paris, were excellent views of the city, lots of tourists, and Africans selling knock-off handbags and Paris souvenirs. Three cops with major weaponry patrolled out front.  No photos in the church. But of course people do anyway.

035 (2) (1024x768)040 (1024x768)

The Basilica’s apse features the largest mosaic in France, a Romano-Byzantine-style beauty of blue and gold. Active worship takes place while the tourists mill about. Educational placards explain the symbols of Christianity, and there are opportunities to spend money – a gift shop and machines that dispense commemorative coins.

041 (1024x768)

Nearby, at Place du Tertre, portrait artists were doing a brisk business and most were pretty darn good. Atlas Obscura sent me down to Le Bateau-Lavoir on the shady Place Émile Goudeau, where Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

050 (1024x768)057 (1024x768)

Further downhill, at the Square Jehan Rictus, I found the I Love You wall. And I do Love You All for sticking with me through this journey!

068 (1024x768)

I hopped around the city some more, looking unsuccessfully for some things, and finding others I didn’t expect.

070 (2) (1024x768)183 (768x1024)

Then I headed for the Père Lachaise cemetery, but I was batting zero—missed closing time by minutes. No, I wasn’t on a pilgrimage to see Jim Morrison’s grave. I wanted to see the grave of one Victor Noir. The story goes that Noir, a journalist, was sent to Prince Pierre Bonaparte to fix the terms of a duel between loyalist Bonaparte and the radical editor Paschal Grousset over an insult. Bonaparte declined the challenge—calling Grousset a menial. Insult upon insult, someone slapped someone, guns were drawn and Noir was shot dead. Bonaparte’s acquittal caused enormous public outrage.

The life-size bronze statue marking Noir’s grave lies as he might have fallen, his hat by his side. There’s a notable lump in his pants, which has made him popular with the ladies. After 150 years of daily rubbing, the lump—as well as his lips—glows as if a mystical light were hidden in his pants.

074 (2) (1024x768)

That evening, a tough character boarded the metro selling pens I remembered from my school days: the kind that feature multiple inks in one. He held them up and recited: bleu, vert, orange, rouge, jaune, as he click-clicked. No one responded. He tried again. No response. With a disgusted look, he walked down the car. Later, a man with dark hair and eyes, baggy pants, cap, and dirty feet got on, looked around, said a few words and launched into a lament. Despite his half-hearted attempts at dolefulness, his performance was an anemic failure. A Muslim girl next to me was covering her mouth with her headscarf, laughing with her eyes. Someone finally took pity on the poor man and put a coin in his empty cassoulet can and he got off at the next stop.

I spent my last day in Paris along the Seine. First to the Jardin des Plantes—the Botanical Gardens—where also are found the various Museums of National History. I rode the C Train to get there, which was outfitted to look like a miniature mobile Versailles. I rode in Le Chambre de Marie Antoinette.

005 (768x1024)

The Jardin is a long linear garden with museums of Natural History, Mineralogy, Plants, Evolution and other sciences. There’s also a zoo—a menagerie. I so wanted to ride the Carousel of Endangered Species, but it was closed with no hours posted. But it was a beautiful day for walking in a garden.

011 (2) (1024x768)014 (1024x768)

I got in a little trouble for taking a roped-off trail over to the statue of the lion eating someone’s foot. I replied to the park policeman’s reprimand with one of the only words I know in French: “Désolée!”

048 (1024x768)

My Airbnb host had told me about the Batobus, a hop-on-hop-off tour boat that plies the Seine between the Jardin and the Eiffel Tower. It glides past the Île de la Cité, with Notre Dame rising up proudly, the imposing Hôtel de Ville, the Louvre, and under many bridges. It was nice to travel the city above-ground after all my metro trips. I trailed some of Howie’s ashes into the river. We would have come to Paris some day.

065 (1024x768)084 (1024x768)

I hopped off at the Pont Royal and found my way to Serge Gainsbourg’s house at 5 Rue de Verneui. The former home of France’s biggest heartthrob, the adoring graffiti covering the façade is a testament to his popularity. During his 30-year career he composed over 500 songs ranging from jazz to rock to reggae to disco to funk. He was a naughty boy, once hoodwinking Rita Marley into singing erotic lyrics, and in his later years an alcoholic mess. In recognition of his iconic status, the graffiti has not been painted over.

103 (1024x768)

Near the Pont des Arts, at the Café des Beaux Arts, I had the best quiche ever. Then I walked out on the bridge. The love locks had been removed just weeks before and replaced, temporarily, by plexiglass panels painted by street artists. The locks remaining on the rails leading up to the bridge were glittering in the sunlight.

112 (1024x768)

I saw a magician on the bridge, cute guy with a silly smile wearing a hat, vest and tie, playing with rope. I love magicians. He made the rope into a loop, added ends from his pocket, then removed the ends. All sleight of hand—probably standard magic for the average magician, but it always dazzles me. He also pulled out a small red bag and made an egg appear and reappear. He was from Sweden.

He asked if any of us had a bill, so I volunteered 10 euros. He made the expected jokes about taking off with my money—he wasn’t a pro in his delivery, but he was charming. A small crowd gathered, but they were a bit standoffish. He had me initial my bill, then made it disappear. Then he went through his whole routine again. He kept saying, “Soon I will do a trick with a KNIFE!”

127 (1024x768)

When he finally got to the trick with the KNIFE! he pulled out a lemon and cut if open. Squished into a little ball in the middle of the lemon was my 10 euro bill. I was impressed. Two couples dropped some coins into his hat, but that was it. I was indignant. How much were these people spending on lodging, on dinner, drinks and museums? They couldn’t spare some coins for this young man who was working so hard to bring a smile to our faces? I gave him five euros and a hug. (He gave me back my ten.)

129 (768x1024)

My next stop was Un Regarde Moderne by the Place Saint Michel, a wonderfully chaotic underground bookstore that can’t be much more than 300 square feet, with tiny passageways between the thousands of volumes piled against the walls and in the middle, several layers thick, vertical, horizontal and topsy turvy, threatening to fall on you at any moment.

161 (768x1024)164 (1024x768)

Then across the Seine to the Île de la Cité. When I asked my friend Jane Popov for her favorite place in Paris, she told me about the Sainte-Chapelle, a gothic gem of a chapel. Located in the courtyard of what was once the royal palace, it was built as an enormous reliquary to house King Louis IX’s collection of Christ relics, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and, Good Lord!, the Holy Sponge. I was disappointed to learn they’re now hidden away in the treasury of Notre Dame.

173 (768x1024)176 (768x1024)

Satisfyingly gothic on the outside, with marvelous gargoyles springing off the walls, the inside is still a treasure house. The vaulted ceilings on the first level are patterned with gold stars on a field of rich blue. The red and blue columns are decorated with fleur-de-lis and castles. It’s a small space so you feel as if you’re clothed in rich garments or trapped inside a jewelbox.

178 (2) (1024x768)185 (768x1024)

Upstairs the ceiling soars and the walls are all stained glass, each window telling a biblical story in dazzling detail. It would have been a contemplative place but for the crowds, everyone straining their necks to piece out the stories on the glass. Binoculars would have been helpful.

187 (768x1024)190 (768x1024)

204 (1024x768)206 (1024x768)

Over at Notre Dame a mass was about to start. After the delicate elegance of Sainte-Chapelle, the cathedral interior seemed muted, the exterior more impressive. I was glad to hear the mass conducted in song.

148 (1024x768)150 (768x1024)222 (768x1024)

I crossed back over the Seine on the Pont de l’Archevêché, which was still drenched in love locks—soon to be removed as well. Vendors were selling them and couples were penning their initials on new ones.

243 (1024x768)134 (1024x768)

On my way home, I counted how many metro stations I’d passed through on my short visit: 26 stations on 10 lines. And I never had to make more than one transfer. I didn’t make it to all the places I wanted to see in Paris, but I never managed to get an early start and my feet could only take so much walking. I was, frankly, worn out. Not from Paris alone, but from a solid year of constant moving, hoisting an often heavy pack on my back every few days, tromping down concrete sidewalks and over mountain roads, sleeping in ever-changing beds, poring over internet sites looking for lodging and transportation, sucking in new information, regurgitating it in my journal, and reworking it onto my blog, bumping along on buses, trains, rickshaws, jeeps, taxis, planes and camels, pushing my introvert boundaries to meet and interact with strangers, coping with uncertainty and language barriers, and learning to trust the world and all its marvelous people.

314 (1024x768)

Ferrying between England and Spain

2014-12-28 22.57.02 (1024x576)

The train to Rajasthan

I won’t say my ride to Frankfurt was uneventful, but it all worked out. I overnighted in Frankfurt in a pleasant hostel in one of the sleaziest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. A block of “sexy hotels,” strip clubs, and creepy guys sneaking out of them. Followed by another squalid block of junkies, their faces ravaged far beyond their years, parked on the sidewalks rolling joints, making deals, rolling up their sleeves. I’m a liberal, tolerant person, I’ve seen a lot, but these folks were really fucked up. Geez. I travel through a big chunk of the third world, but where do I find the seediest neighborhood? I guess I kind of enjoyed the irony.

The good news is my redux through the Istanbul Airport was nothing like the first time. It looked like a completely different airport. I didn’t recognize anything. Signage was helpful, staff was pleasant and efficient. It was all Turkish Delight. Had my experience one year before been some sort of hellish mirage, the twilight zone? Turkey, all is forgiven. New York City, I’m on my way.

P1270622 (1024x768)

IExplore: Waterfalls and Safaris

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Well, readers, I’ve had another two pieces published on the site IExplore. These two made it to the front page, which is exciting.

The first on Plitvice and Krka in Croatia:

The Waterfall Wonderlands of Croatia

The second on African safaris:

Six African Parks for the Safari Hopper

 

Meet Brigitte

Tags

,

“Ees my sons! Ees my sons!” The Frenchwoman in the Nassau Airport was grabbing at a magazine in Mary’s bag. Mary was my mother-in-law’s best friend. They were en route to the Exuma Islands where they both lived in colorful wooden houses built on small clearings in the bush, in sight of the sea.

“Excuse me?” Joan asked in her haughtiest manner. “Who are you and why are you grabbing at our magazine?”

“Ees my sons!” she repeated, finally wresting the bag away from Mary and turning to the cover. It was an in-flight magazine. “Oh! Ees not my sons.” She handed it back to Mary.

That’s how our family met the Popov’s. The ad on the back of the in-flight magazine was the same as the ad on the back of Nicolas and Dragan’s recently published Island Expedition book. Brigitte was excited and proud that her sons had motored inflatable rafts through the out islands of the Bahamas visiting local communities and then started the School at Sea for young folks. She wanted to talk about it.

004 (1024x768)

Brigitte and her boys in the ’60s. Photo on Brigitte’s wall.

And Joan and Mary listened. They were birds of feather—eccentric blue-blood rebels who loved the scrappy out island communities of the Bahamas and the watercolor sea that supported them.

The Popov home in Nassau at Love Beach became Joan’s second home whenever she was passing through. And when our son Soli, at 14, got wind of the crazy three-month-long sailing adventure that was the School at Sea, he and his friend Amanda spent two months raising the money so they could join. We were a little wary, considering the stories we’d heard—sinking boats, fish and rice diet, living on a rusty sunken freighter in the middle of the Silver Banks, swimming with humpback whales—but how could we say no?

The School at Sea in all its eccentricity was the pivot that turned both the kids toward their best selves. Teenagers need a coming of age experience, something challenging, intoxicating and, yes, dangerous. It was that. And more. I’ll be forever grateful to the Popov’s for every bit of it—the day long hike Soli took up Pico Duarte with nothing to eat but chocolate, the night the kids spent alone on an island with only rice and matches while smugglers came looking for the bales hidden in the bushes, the nights Soli mused all alone on the helm with only the slap of the sea for company.

692 (1024x768)

Soli at sea. Photo courtesy of Jane Popov who had it waiting for me.

It’s 20 years later. Brigitte’s in her 80s. She’s living back in France now, in her musty olive mill home in Opio. There’s a huge millstone in her living room, and a cobblestone floor, but she stays upstairs in her bedroom most days. She’s got a frig up there and a big TV where she travels vicariously by watching nature shows. Art prints and memories are taped to her walls and every surface is a dusty clutter of stuff—interesting, tattered stuff. She doesn’t throw things away.

094 (1024x768)059 (1024x768)

 

When I arrive, she’s chattering a mile a minute as she leads me to the same room where Howie and I slept eight years ago, the room Joan captured on canvas—the small painting hangs on Brigitte’s wall. Commanding me: Put your pack in this cupboard, turn on this light, hang your clothes on these hangers, read these books I’ve laid out for you on Etruscan and Greek Art. In the bathroom, flush the toilet lightly, take a bath, use my shampoo and toothpaste—not yours.

003 (1024x739)

Joan’s painting

She leads a full and rich life from her bed, talking to friends all over the world and staying engaged with her own mind, which remains sharp. She hands me her precious phone, which she tells me allows her to call 40 countries for free. Call someone, don’t use your own phone. Call Soli! So we do and she chastises him for not visiting and asks him: Are you married? When was your birthday? Oh! how did I miss it? It’s not in my book! Of course you have to imagine all this in her thick French accent.

095 (1024x768)

She’s a fallen aristocrat, careless and generous, enriched and burdened by memories of war, occupation, and family drama. She never forgets her friends. She never forgets her grudges either. She’s still outraged about Yalta, how Churchill threw Yugoslavia under the bus—her late husband, who fought for the Allies, lost his country. What kind of gratitude was that? And then there’s the neighbors, in-laws, who live in the Grande Bastide while she lives in the old mill. She complains about them in a fierce whisper, as if they were in the next room. There are a lot of skeletons in that closet.

013 (1024x768)

The Grande Bastide

066 (1024x691)

Le Moulin Popov

But Brigitte’s tribe is always welcoming. Not just the family, it rubs off on their friends as well. If they like you, they’ll take you in and expect you to act like a member of their marvelous, adventurous family.

034 (1024x779)

Hanging with some Popov’s on the Isle of Wight

Her attention flits like a butterfly. She hunches over me in a long, filmy peasant dress falling off her shoulders, long hair streaming mermaid-like. She takes my hand and kisses me on the head. To her, personal space is very intimate. She tells me: Beauty is more important than cleanliness. She leads me downstairs with my laundry, grabs a broom on the way and starts sweeping, opens the washing machine to add soap, then turns to the dishes, leaving them half done.

007 (1024x768)

Brigitte insisted on arranging this tableau for me to photograph.

Each day she gets up at dawn and spends several furious hours in the garden, in the house sweeping and cleaning, and in the kitchen, unloading the dirty dishes from the dishwasher and washing them all by hand. Mid-morning she collapses in her bed for the rest of the day.

060 (1024x768)

The dining room

She brings me a stained Guatemalan dress, a ragged wrap. You can wear these while you’re here. You can wear them when you’re pruning my roses. She’s a joker, laughing with a throaty har-har-har. It’s all a bit exhausting. When it’s time for me to go, she leads me around her room, finding presents: cowrie shells, a piece of jade, a green pendant, a little Murano glass dolphin. She gets frustrated if I turn her down, so I take the mementos and say I will think of you when I look at these. She says: You will think of me even when you don’t look at them. Har-har-har! Of course! She’s an indomitable force of nature.

012 (768x1024)

Brigitte doesn’t like her picture taken, but she agreed here with camouflage.

Off to the final stop of my journey. Paris!

Building Muscles and Saving Elephants in Namibia

Tags

, , , , ,

I’m excited to report that I’ve just had an article about EHRA, Elephant Human Relations Aid, published on the online travel blog “IExplore.” You can read it here. Hot off the press.

or here: http://www.iexplore.com/destinations/africa/saving-elephants-in-Namibia

Damara -- funny shot at waterpoint (1024x768) (1024x768)

 

Aigony du Midi

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Mont Blanc was socked in by clouds and the weather report only promised rain, I had two days in Chamonix before heading to the south coast of France to connect with Dragan (another of the Popov clan), and the ticket woman at the Aiguille du Midi station was a dour pessimist. My head was as cloudy as the mountain and I was so full of uncertainty I couldn’t think straight. You’d never know I’d been traveling for nearly a year.

I asked the ticket clerk, “What’s the forecast?”
“Not good,” she said, cooly.
“Isn’t it still worth it, though, even if visibility is bad? There must be hiking up there?”
“Not really.”
“But it looks like others are going up?” I pleaded.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” she said, brushing me aside.

024 (1024x768)

I was discouraged. So instead of buying a ticket up the mountain I spent an hour on iffy wifi trying to sort out my forward plans. BlaBla car, bus, train, air? If I missed Dragan, who was heading out of town, I’d be at the mercy of the limited bus schedule from Cannes to Opio. If I left in the morning, I’d catch Dragan, but I’d also miss the remote chance the clouds might clear.

Riding the cable car to Aiguille du Midi had been a dream of mine for nearly ten years. Why was I allowing a cranky ticket seller to rain on my parade? With steam coming out my ears, I marched over to the ticket booth and bought a Multipass, which would allow me two chances to head up the mountain, plus some other options. I’d miss Dragan, but I’d still have several days with Brigitte, the grand dame of the Popov clan and a wonder of the world herself.

052 (1024x768)173 (768x1024)

The Alps loom over the town of Chamonix, France, dominated by Mont Blanc, at about 15,780 feet the highest mountain in the Alps. You walk around town looking up all the time at the glistening glaciers. The cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi (12,392 feet) was built in 1955. It stops off at Plan de l’Midi and is the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world. The upper section is a nearly vertical ride. There’s a cable car from Aiguille du Midi to Mont Blanc, too, but it was out of my price range.

028 (1024x768)176 (1024x576)

Up I went into the mist and was glad of it. The fog had lifted above Plan de l’Midi, so I wandered through the sharp cold, over boulder fields dotted with lichen, up higher to snow patches, and into silence etched with bird song. It cleared my head to just look at the mountain. It was like a great silent orchestra up there—the rocks and clouds playing bass, timpani, bassoon. I found a lovely glacial lake, reflecting the cliffs above in its blue mirror.

061 (1024x768)073 (1024x768)079 (1024x768)092 (1024x768)

At the top, on Aiguille du Midi, the only thing visible were the spires of the Aiguille (translation: needle) rising above the labyrinth of tunnels and panoramic terraces. Looking down was just whiteness dropping into nothingness.

104 (1024x768)126 (768x1024)131 (1024x768)151 (1024x768)

I felt winded climbing the stairs, loopy, almost dizzy from the elevation. Up on the highest terrace, with the sky spitting ice crystals, clinging to my hair like fairy lights, I pulled the film can from my pocket, popped the lid and poured some of Howie’s ashes into my hand. I heaved them into the void: Howie flying into the mystery; me not knowing where it is he went. It’s so easy to allow tears to flow when you’re befogged on a mountain peak.

135 (1024x768)

Waiting for the ride down I asked a workman how they hung the very first cables back in the 50s. He said climbers dragged them up the mountain. Vertical.

169 (1024x768)053 (768x1024)

The next day started out sketchy, but blue skies came peeking through. I headed back to the top.

011 (1024x576)012 (1024x768)

What had been invisible the previous day shone in all its brilliant glory. Craggy peaks that bragged their supremacy. Elegant glaciers aloof to all but the rocks and the blue sky. Fantastic.

020 (1024x310)027 (1024x768)049 (1024x768)

Adapting myself to the bright mood of the new day, I rolled some of Howie’s ashes into a snowball and tossed it into the playful otherworld, being careful not to wallop any of the  adventurous alpinists tromping down the snowy slopes and rappelling off the sharp needles.

041 (1024x768)

This tunnel . . .

140 (1024x768)

led to this sign . . .

143 (768x1024)

which seemed to have some persuasive effect on a foggy day, but on this clearer day . . .

029 (768x1024)

no one seemed the least bit concerned.

031 (1024x768)

Later in the day, I used my Multipass to ride the little red Montenvers train to the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in the western Alps.

143 (2) (1024x768)

The train chugs alongside Chamonix, then climbs, sometimes steeply, through the forest till, suddenly, the view opens out to the glacier. Which I thought was dirt with only a little ice on top. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was ice with a dusting of dirt.

074 (1024x768)086 (1024x768)

There’s a gondola ride halfway down into the valley and 400 steps more to an ice cave at the bottom. Along the steps are markers indicating the progression of climate change. Since 1830 the glacier has lost a mile and a half in length and nearly 600 feet in thickness, 250 feet in the last 20 years alone.

090 (1024x768)111 (1024x768)101 (1024x768)

Each year a new cave must be carved since the entrance moves down the valley with the flow of the glacier. The grotto diggers used to carve it out with huge steel ice picks; now they use a giant drill to dig the main corridor, then the ice and light artists get to work. It was mighty cold in that cave! And a bit kitschy.

107 (1024x768)119 (1024x768)118 (1024x768)

Satisfied with my visit to Chamonix, I headed to the south of France and spent several days with Brigitte in her olive mill home. She’s in her late 80s, toothless, and as dynamic and eccentric as ever. But she deserves a post of her own . . .

A Thun of Fun in the Swiss Alps

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Before I headed back over the pond, I figured I’d get in some more quality time with my Continental boy, Soli. Why not a bike ride over the Alps?

I met a Swiss family on Khao Sok Lake in Thailand who raved about the Herzroute (Heart Route), a 13-stage, 700 kilometer bike route through the Swiss Alps. At each stage are bike rental stations—pick up in one town and return in another further along. And best of all, they were big on e-bikes. They promised to be the type I enjoyed on Hvar, Croatia, not the mini-motorcycle variety I did battle with in Bagan, Myanmar.

Soli and I opted for Stage 4, between Thun and Langnau in the Emmental, reportedly the most scenic stage of the entire journey. From Thun at 559 meters, Stage 4 climbs up, up, up to 1,137 meters. Most of the 72 kilometer ride averages 1,000 meters—at the end it gradually heads down to Langnau at 673 meters.

We met at the train station in Bern and headed for the small town of Uetendorf where we met our wonderful couch surfing host, Isabella. Switzerland is expensive! So we were pleased to have found someone to house us in comfort for four nights, two before and two after our bike ride. Isabella is German, but grew up in a huge, traditional Swiss farm barn-house with her sister and grandma. She had surfed a lot of couches herself—her generosity was motivated by a desire to give back, despite her upcoming exams. She was studying to be a doctor.

120 (1024x766)

We weren’t the only surfers. There was a couple, Russian and Ukrainian, from Portland, Oregon, and two more Ukranians, living in Sweden. We chatted around the table for several hours about all sorts of things, including Sweden’s “average, good enough” society, driving in Europe, the conflict in Ukraine, how it is to be an immigrant, etc. Soli and Isabella commiserated on Swiss German, which Soli was finding unintelligible.

We spent a day in Thun, a picture-perfect Swiss town of flower-bedecked balconies and a fairy tale castle, along the Aare River which runs swiftly out of Lake Thun and under covered bridges. The water is a beautiful, creamy turquoise. Isabella said sometimes people surf on the swift currents or rent rubber rafts and float all the way to Bern.

135 (1024x768)147 (1024x768)145 (1024x745)

The Alps loom in the background, and from the shore of the lake you can see the big three mountains of the Jungfrau: Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

149 (1024x751)

Back at the house we helped Isabella prepare raclette, a traditional Swiss dish. She had an electric raclette grill with slots for eight little pans below a bacon grill. We boiled potatoes and poured melted raclette cheese on top of them, then grilled veggies on the pans with more cheese on top. We garnished our meal with pickles, pearl onions and tiny ears of corn. Cooking your food in little pans forces you into slow-food mode, especially when you’re dining under a walnut tree next to an apple orchard on a summer evening.

198 (1024x768)

We got a late start the next day—a leisurely breakfast, followed by an even more leisurely cup of tea in Thun. Since we planned on finishing the one-day ride in two days, we weren’t in a hurry. After some confusion, we found the trail proper, denoted by signs with a picture of a bicycle and “99.”

The e-bike motor made the going easier up the steep hills and on slight inclines which went on for miles. As helpful as these bikes are going uphill, they’re cumbersome if you expect them to perform like a mountain bike. They’re slow, lumbering beasts without the motors. The pessimistic weatherman had predicted rain, but we had glorious weather for most of the way.

236 (1024x768)

The trail followed narrow tracks rarely used by cars. Forests, homes, farms, lots of woodpiles. After an hour or two, we took a break in a mossy forest, checked out some boisterous cow bells –they were sitting down but their intense fly-swatting activity kept their tails swinging and their bells ringing. The sky clouded up, ominous, thunder. We waited out the rainstorm, then headed into the washed-clean mountains.

206 (1024x730)

A half an hour later, we looked down on Lake Thun and the glaciers beyond in all their glory. The air was fresh and cool, perfect for cycling. What a glorious place to live! After the wide open view, we cycled into dark forest, mixed hardwood and pine.

230 (1024x768)

Architectural guidelines in Switzerland must be strict—we saw no slacker houses, only tidy chalets big enough to be hotels. Once we were astonished to spot a trailer tucked in the woods. What must the neighbors think?

289 (1024x809)

Many of the houses have giant kids and babies on them, accompanied by their names–presumably the kids who live there.

We didn’t see many people, even in the villages. Most of those we met had round, red mountain cheeks and friendly smiles. Some of the older folks were reticent, like the woman selling cheese out of her well-stocked cellar.

248 (1024x768)

Several hours into our ride the lake came back into full view with glaciers beyond (it’s a long lake). Spectacular. A photo doesn’t convey the full experience—the mountain air, the peace, the grandness of the undulating landscape, the charm of the traditional villages and homes, the freedom of the bikes. Though my butt was getting sore!

238 (737x414)

We rode through the delightful, lush forests of Eriz—narrow lanes lined with buttercups and purple aster, with Queen Anne’s lace carpeting the slopes. A bridge ran over a rushing, muddy creek with a small but vigorous waterfall.

252 (1024x768)254 (1024x768)

Half an hour later we were soaring again, looking out at rocky mountains that looked like Mt. Rushmore without the presidents. I was getting tired! And my bike was acting up—if the gears didn’t align just right, the motor wouldn’t kick in. If it happened on an uphill, I had to pump and slog and eventually climb off and push. I may as well have been pushing a car uphill, with the emergency brake on! My 8th gear disappeared, too. It was getting late, though thankfully not dark, and the kilometers stretched on. To top it off, our batteries were getting low. They started blinking! So we tried not to use them. Fortunately the hills had leveled out.

257 (1024x768)261 (1024x767)

The last few kilometers took forever, but we finally rolled into Rothenbach, where we could switch out our batteries, about 8 pm. The food stores were closed, so I called Daniela, our AirBnB host (who was wondering where we were), and she cheerfully offered to cook us spaghetti.

It was five more kilometers to her house, where we were met by Daniela and her husband Stefan, along with their children who came prancing out the door of their converted farmhouse, arms thrust out to shake our hands, introducing themselves like the Walton’s without the hick factor.

We enjoyed our dinner, conversation with the family, and a soak in the wood-heated, round “hot pot.” First time I’d ever hot-tubbed with cows mooing and jingling. The house was heated with wood and solar and their water flowed down from the mountain—the rights to it came with the house. Daniela told me all the farms have their own patch of forest, which they selectively harvest for firewood. This explained the tidy wood piles in the forest we’d seen throughout our ride.

263 (765x1024)

We were on our own in the morning. The self-cleaning coffee machine decided it was time for a very long cleaning cycle before it would make coffee. We found it interesting how much a culture obsessed with preserving their quaint traditions and respect for the land do enjoy fancy new devices.

The views were less dramatic on our second day, mostly farm country. A gorgeous undulating landscape. We reached Signau about 11:45, waited for a train to pass, and headed up, up, up through the forest to a ridge overlooking all the farms. After 9 kilometers (an hour—a lot of uphill!), we reached an intersection with a confusing sign that seemed to indicate Langnau was 15 K back in the direction we’d just come. We studied the map and realized we’d taken a wrong turn in Signau, which put us on the next leg of the Heart Route. We shouldn’t have crossed the railroad tracks and gone up the mountain— Langnau was only a 6 K flat ride from Signau. An hour and a half detour, but it was sure pretty.

274 (1024x766)286 (1024x326)291 (1024x768)

At the confusing junction stood a barn. A radio was playing. We peeked through a crack in the barn door and saw tails, cow tails, wagging in tune with the music on the radio. I pulled the door slightly open and saw milk cows standing in thick clean hay. Their tails were tied to the ceiling, presumably to keep them from dragging in manure and soiling their udders. Being cows, they wagged their tails, and somehow they synchronized to the music.

290 (769x1024)

By the time we spun back down the mountain and reached Langnau, it was pouring. We stopped at a shop for Emmental cheese and bread and ate huddled under the roof line. When it let up we returned our bikes at the train station and caught the train back to Uetendorf.

282 (1024x768)

The next day we took the train to Interlaken East, then Lauterbrunnen, where we caught a bus to Stechelberg—910 meters. We’d have loved to take the cable car all the way up to Schilthorn at 2,790 meters, but at 100 franks it was beyond our means. The mountains and glaciers rose up before us in glittering white ethereal beauty. This is the Jungfrau region.

011 (1024x768)062 (1024x386)087 (1024x768)

From Stechelberg we hiked steadily uphill through Gimmelwald (1,363 meters) to Murren (1,638 meters)—it took about three and a half hours—along a bubbly river the color of a milky green gemstone. Above us the cable car ascended to Murren and behind us fell the tallest waterfall in Switzerland—Murrenbach—as well as numerous falls running off glaciers down distant cliff faces. Below us were green valleys dotted with houses and cows with their jingling bells.

022 (738x1024)034 (1024x768)041 (1024x768)

Gimmelwald feels like the middle of wilderness when you approach it walking. But the cable car stops there and there’s an historic hostel—Mountain Hostel—occupied by serious looking backpackers lounging outside in view of the glorious cliffs. It’s a small, quaint settlement, an easy hike from Murren—along the route were examples of natural and man-made avalanche control techniques.

058 (1024x386)076 (1024x768)086 (1024x768)

We didn’t avail ourselves of all the adventure possibilities up in the Jungfrau: hiking trails, 360-degree restaurants, kiddie adventure trails, downhill carts, and the James Bond 007 “Walk of Fame” (where “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was filmed). We just had dinner and enjoyed the view. Then we caught the last cable car back down to Stechelberg and the train back to Uetendorf for our last night with our lovely host, Isabella.

081 (1024x768)099 (1024x768)110 (1024x768)067 (1024x768)

Popes and Good Folks Along the Rhone

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Occupied since the Neolithic Period, the city of Avignon, France, is most famous for its nearly-70-year reign as the Seat of the Papacy from 1309 to 1377 and another 39 years (1378-1417) as the Seat of the Anti-Papacy. The election of a French Pope (Clement V) in the early 14th century and the itinerancy of the papal court resulted in Clement, and six subsequent French popes, choosing Avignon as their residence. The Palace of the Popes (the largest building site in the Western Christian world in the 14th century) was constructed over a 20-year period.

227 (1024x405)

Palais des Papes

201 (1024x768)

The Virgin Mary sits atop the Cathedrale Notre-Dame next to the Palais.

 

Gregory XI brought the Holy See back to Rome in 1377, but the following year, when Urban VI was elected in Rome, a faction of dissident cardinals chose Clement VII as a rival Pope and installed him in Avignon. This was called the Great Schism—during this period seven popes reigned in Rome and two in Avignon. At one point, there were even three popes. The family feud was finally resolved in 1417.

211 (1024x768)

Avignon skyline

168 (1024x767)

Inside the Palais

The Palace of the Popes heads up the old city center of Avignon, one of the few cities in France still enclosed by medieval ramparts. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It’s an elegant city of narrow streets, cafes and chic boutiques, adjacent to the Rhone River and conveniently located right across from the train station.

006 (1024x640)085 (1024x768)

280 (768x1024)282 (1024x752)

Avignon held two advantages for me: It was on the way to Switzerland where I was to meet Soli for a birthday bike tour, and Avignon was only 78 kilometers from the Chauvet Caves, which I sorely wanted to visit. Plastered with superb, well-preserved cave paintings, possibly the oldest in the world, the actual cave has been sealed off to the public since its discovery in 1994, a lesson learned from Lascaux Cave where mold damaged many of the paintings. A facsimile of Chauvet, not far from the caves, had opened only a month before I arrived to rave reviews.

I inquired at the Avignon train and bus stations about getting to the caves. There was one bus going and one returning each day, but the timing between them only allowed two hours for a visit—not enough time, especially since you still had to catch a shuttle from the bus station to the caves. I checked the tourist office. There were tons of wine and lavender tours—surely there’d be excursions to this amazing site. Nope. I asked at my hostel. They suggested rent a car or hitchhike, neither of which I was willing to do.

084 (1024x768)

Perhaps this magical carousel will carry me to the caves?

I spent hours online looking for alternatives. I booked an AirBnB only to find it wasn’t close enough either. I booked a Bla-Bla car ride only to find the tour slots at the cave had sold out. I researched hotels up and down the highway, buses, visits to the Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace and a Labyrinth I read about on Atlas Obscura. There was just no getting there or anywhere between Avignon and my next stop, Lyon. Frustrating. So close yet so far away.

I couldn’t help but compare . . . if these caves were in Vietnam, there would be a train and a number of bus options that would pick you up at your hotel and escort you to the caves. They’d have it all figured out to make it easy for backpacker travelers. People think it’s hard to travel in the “third world,” but often it’s harder in the west, especially for budget travelers sans auto.

Once I had fully given up, I was able to relax and regain that wonderful world feeling that goes underground when you wrestle with travel plans. I hit the streets.

066 (667x1024)

Many of the city’s windows feature trompe l’oeil paintings.

 

087 (1024x911)

078 (1024x757)

Les Halles Market

076 (1024x874)

A cheese lover’s paradise

The Archaeology Museum in an old Baroque chapel is mainly a lapidary collection with wonderful hunks of statuary, vases, paintings, funeral stelae and tombs that look like bathtubs. A school group was dwarfed by the cavernous space, the kids sitting on colorful cushions, hands going up at the teacher’s questions.

029 (1024x770)039 (797x1024)

The Angladon Museum was once the home of Jacques Doucet, who had a lucrative fashion house and began his collection with 18th century art. In 1912 he sold most of it and started buying contemporary art: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani. He died in 1929 and his heirs later turned the collection into a museum.

058 (1024x792)

051 (653x1024)

Modigliani

054 (1024x874)

The only Van Gogh in Provence!

And, of course, the Palais des Papes. As I am prone to doing, I spent twice as long wandering the vast halls as they estimate most tourists do. My poor feet. My favorite room had a floor covered in colorful, mismatched handmade tiles–of course they wouldn’t allow photos. The funniest thing I learned from my audio tour concerned the Pope’s serving dishes. After dinner, no one was permitted to leave until every dish had been counted lest one of his distinguished guests make off with a pontifical plate .

090 (1024x768)139 (1024x768)

164 (1024x799)174 (785x1024)

Another worthy site to visit in Avignon is the Pont d’Avignon, a medieval bridge that once crossed the Rhone (it only goes halfway now). It’s also known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet, for the frail shepherd boy who, according to legend, heard the voice of the Lord asking him to build a bridge across the river. He miraculously lifted a huge block of stone and threw it in the river, which won him support for the project. He formed a Bridge Brotherhood to oversee its construction, and was interred on the bridge itself in the Saint Nicholas Chapel.

232 (1024x768)

The other claim to fame of this charming half-bridge is the famous children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” It’s actually a dance that involves lots of turning and bowing and curtsying.

271 (1024x347)

My next stop on my way to the Alps, alas without seeing the Chauvet Caves, was Lyon, 300 km up the Rhone River (I caught a Bla-Bla car ride). Another UNESCO World Heritage Site. A chance mention of the city on Facebook inspired a friend in Tallahassee to put me in touch with a lifelong friend of hers—who generously invited me to stay with them for a couple of nights. Again, the kindness of strangers!

013 (1024x768)

I had a wonderful visit with Judy and Bernard in their lovely apartment on a block lined with stately linden trees, the most heavenly fragrance wafting through the air from the delicate white blossoms. She’s an American who has lived outside the U.S. virtually her whole adult life. He’s a Frenchman. They met in South America. They’re retired biologists—Bernard spends a lot of time in the country taking care of the family castle (oh the obligations of European life!) and Judy has taken up jazz guitar. In just a few years she’s become quite proficient, performing in clubs and plugging into the music scene with gusto.

075 (755x1024)

Joan of Arc

019 (643x1024)

The artsy La Croix-Rousse neighborhood, once the silk-weavers’ district.

011 (1024x391)

Amphitheater of the Three Gauls

066 (1024x766)

I later saw saw this same painting in the museum.

Judy and Bernard fed me quiche, pork chops, exquisite cheeses including melty Saint-Marcellin, croissants, and other Francophilian delights. They took me to the jazz club for a Django-esque good time and to the corner café, which featured tasty cuisine and a wine-glass chandelier.

070 (1024x919)115 (924x1024)

They sent me across the Rhone and down cobblestone streets to the Place des Terreaux with the grand Hotel d’Ville (city hall), the Beaux Arts Museum, and a fantastic fountain spouting mist-hissing horses driven by a sturdy woman surrounded by cherubim. Frédéric Bartholdi, who made the Statue of Liberty, designed the fountain, which represents France as a woman on a chariot controlling France’s four great rivers.

047 (1024x768)

Sculpture by the opera house

029 (1024x768)

Hotel d’Ville

035 (1024x751)

La Fontaine Bartholdi

The museum houses an eclectic collection ranging from antiquities to modern. It was a manageably sized museum, allowing for bench breaks among the paintings. I sat before them and imagined the stories behind the eyes, the gestures, the settings: A wedding photo—he’ll turn out to be a cad and Grandma knows it; his brother in the chair already is. People watching a concert with great interest—one of them with his face in his hands feeling like a total failure. A family posing for a portrait—let’s just get it over with, okay?

080 (742x1024)

091 (803x1024)

Alexej von Jawlensky

095 (772x1024)

Gino Severini

 

I found a chocolate shop next door to the museum. They sold colorful spiky balls (like chestnuts) filled with liqueur. I assumed liqueur-flavored ganache, but no, they were like little shot glasses, the strong spirits flooding your mouth as you bit into them.

100 (1024x752)

The most famous specialty treat of Lyon is Le Coussin de Lyon, the silk cushion, a tasty chocolate ganache flavored with curacao and wrapped in blue marzipan. The story goes: In 1643 a dreadful epidemic was spreading throughout the city. The city aldermen vowed to walk to the Fourviere Hill (a site dedicated to the Virgin Mary) and offer a wax candle and a gold sovereign on a silk cushion. Every year since then, the city magistrates have renewed this vow. And the city chocolate makers have memorialized it.

101 (1024x740)

It’s also memorialized annually in December with the Fête des Lumières. Residents all over the city place candles in their windows and a light show takes over the streets. As you can see by this video (not mine–I was there in the summer–but watching this video, I’m determined to return!) the show is so spectacular it alone is worth a trip to Lyon.

But there are plenty more sights to please visitors–I only scratched the surface. Historically, Lyon was important in the silk-weaving industry, the Lumiere Brothers pioneered cinema there, and it’s the gastronomic capital of France. I also learned from Mr. Wikipedia that it’s the capital of trompe l’oeil and that, should you have a long layover between flights in Dubai, you could visit “Lyon Dubai City,” a recreation of the French city plopped down in the desert. As for quality of life in Lyon, the Lyonaisse can wander peacefully along the Rhone or picnic in the Parc de la Tête d’Or, the largest urban park in France that has a big lake for boating, a botanical garden and even an African wildlife park.

056 (1024x768)

107 (1024x740)

Parc de la Tete d’Or

Next stop: the Alps, both Swiss and French.

Pintxos in Paradise

Tags

, , , , ,

On my way to Lan Ha Bay in Vietnam, I met two Spaniards, Isabel and Helena, on the bus. In Catba, when I passed them eating at an outdoor café, they invited me to join them. Twice. When you’re traveling alone, it means an awful lot when people invite you into their circle. It’s not common for folks traveling in groups to reach out to solo travelers, at least not when the solo traveler is in her 50s. I was very appreciative and liked these women immediately.

I asked them, “Where’s the prettiest place in Spain?” They replied, “San Sebastian,” where they’re from. They offered to show me around if I came to town. Fast forward two months and there I was in San Sebastian. Not only did I have tour guides, but Isabel offered me a place to stay. The kindness of near strangers!

San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) is in the heart of Basque country, with all its complicated history, unique culture and exquisite cuisine. I had two full days there. Isabel had to work during the day, so I spent my days wandering the waterfront. In the evening, they introduced me to the town and one of its epicurean delights: pintxos.

After spending the first morning in San Sebastian grappling with my itinerary: Paris, Berne, Opio, Frankfurt? or Berne, Opio, Paris, Frankfurt?, trying to make the trains work, trying to navigate the train booking sites—which are different for each country—my head was tied in knots. (Hard life, I know. Or as I like to say: first world problem). The two beaches on La Concha Bay, which curve into a luminous crescent nearly two km long, smoothed those knots out in no time.

149 (1024x768)

La Concha Beach

236 (1024x768)

Ondarreta Beach with Mt. Igueldo Tower above

The world-class beaches of San Sebastian are popular with surfers, sunbathers, and even swimmers despite the cool temperatures. Helena is a surfer—she heads to the beach at the end of the day and works out the stress of her job by chasing waves. This time of year—early June—it was still light enough to surf at 9:30.

225 (1024x696)159 (1024x768)

015 (1024x766)004 (1024x768)

Tracing the beachfront is a long promenade—Paseo de la Concha—that’s a delight to wander along. Fresh salt air, exercise, people-watching, even a two-story Belle Epoque carousel.

220 (1024x784)

223 (1024x739)162 (1024x768)

210 (1024x908)

Along the waterfront are two huge cubes—theaters which feature San Sebastian’s international film festival—that I thought kind of ugly, until the sun set and they began to glow, painting their golden reflection on the sand.

343 (1024x704)

Dinner is late in these parts as well. After dark, Isabel, Helena and I headed to Parte Vieja, the Old City, for pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. Tx is pronounced ch.

144 (1024x768)

In the authentic pintxos bars, where the locals go, it’s often a stand-up affair, and you travel from bar to bar as each has their particular specialities—kind of a “pintxo crawl.” We started at Borda Berri with Txakoli, a regional white wine from the region, which the barman pours from on high to get some bubbly going. Isabel suggested she do the ordering—a good idea since I tend to shy away from scary and unfamiliar ingredients. She ordered four pintxos and didn’t reveal their internal workings until I’d tasted them all: Risotto de “Pontallette” de Idiazabal (a creamy orzo risotto with Basque—idiazabal—sheep cheese), Carrillera de Ternera al Vino Tinto (falling-apart veal with red wine sauce), Pikillo Relleno de Carri-Kabra (veal cheeks and goat cheese with some tang from mild peppers), and the one I wouldn’t have ordered, but which melted in my mouth in a sea of deliciousness, Canelon Cremoso de Morcilla (yes, morcilla is blood pudding). There you go. Who knew I’d like blood pudding?

142 (1024x550)

That’s blood pudding in that-there canoloni!

Next up was Txepetxa where we enjoyed three anchovy pintxos—Antxoa. One balanced with a cream, another a citrus tang, and the last in a salsa-like sauce. Then we invited Gilda to the table. Named after a famous Rita Hayworth character, it’s a green olive, an anchovy, and a mild jalapeno-like pepper skewered on a toothpick. You pop the whole exciting assemblage in your mouth. Zing!

The next day I went back for more—to Martinez—where I sampled a salmon mousse tucked into a zucchini wrapper and a boiled egg with salmon and a fat swirl of mayo. These were not as exciting as the previous night’s fare, but I did invite Gilda back to the table. Zing!

188 (1024x768)

I found La Cuchara de San Telmo tucked away in a small alley. This place was as good as the night before, especially the mouth-watering scallops wrapped in bacon. The goat cheese pintxo sat on a layer of crisp toasted cheese—just like you get when your toasted cheese sandwich runs over the edge in the oven.

192 (1024x768)194 (1024x703)

The streets of the old city are narrow, pedestrian affairs, hemmed in by tall 19th century buildings. The entire city was razed by fire in 1813 by drunken, riotous mobs of Anglo-Portuguese troops and had to be rebuilt. The street that runs from the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus to the church of San Vicente, at the far end of the old city, did not burn and today bears the name “31 de Agosto,” the day of the fire.

197 (1024x768)

181 (768x1024)

Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus

186 (1024x813)

San Vicente

Bullfights were once held in Constitution Square. The City Council owned the balconies and rented them out as viewing boxes for the bullfights.

203 (1024x768)

204 (1024x768)

The former Town Hall in Constitution Square

The highlight of my visit to San Sebastian was tucked into the western point of La Concha Bay, below Monte Igueldo. Isabel pointed me there, only saying there was a sculpture I might like to see. I imagined a statue, but what I found was a powerful, visceral encounter with the elements.

237 (1024x768)

A granite amphitheater faced the sea, which was particularly boisterous (surfers were out in droves closer to the beach, surfing here would be deadly), and anchored to the rocks were three abstract iron sculptures: 13 tons each, 2 meters tall, thrusting up like defiant fists against the elements.

043 (1024x494)

But to the artist, native son Eduardo Chillida, they were combs, combing the wind as it enters the city: Peine del Viento. In the Basque language (Euskara): Haizearen Orrazia. In English: Comb of the Wind. The sea was combed as well, through vents in the stone plaza where seawater and air shot up into a fountain with great groaning gusto when the swells came in forcefully.

040 (1024x755)

The sea, the wind, the iron, the rocks having a conversation.

Rock dares wind.
Wind scours rock, wrestles sea.
Sea wounds rock, cries to me.

Iron whispers to sea.
Sea caresses iron, embraces wind.
Rock clutches iron, sings to me.

Wind greets iron.
Iron combs wind, steadies rock.
Rock harrows sea, untangles me.

056 (1024x768)

I made my way along the cliff face and climbed on the rocks where I could see this conversation from a closer perch. I sat a long time, just out of the spray’s reach, watching and scribbling in my notebook.

058 (1024x766)

Sea + wind + stone: sound
iron + sea + wind: taste
stone + iron + sea: time
wind + stone + iron: courage

064 (1024x768)

Here’s a taste of the action. Not my video–it was actually wilder the day I was there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY0yKQizjRQ

Up on Monte Igueldo, there’s a sad little amusement park and a charming funicular to take you there, both constructed in 1912.

072 (1024x768)078 - Copy (768x1024)102 (1024x768)

Only the bumper cars were operating on the day I visited. The rickety roller coaster and the Rio Misterioso appeared to be undergoing repairs, and there was no telling what was up with the Casa del Terror and the Labryinth.

096 (877x1024)

When I reached the top of the funicular and looked down, I nearly gasped. What a view!

085 (1024x743)

Even higher was the Mount Igueldo Tower, built as a lighthouse in 1778. I climbed to the top on a windy stone staircase for an even more expansive view. Now my understanding of Isabel and Helena’s love for their city was complete.

115 (1024x733)

128 (1024x388)

My time in San Sebastian was short, but I had a date with Soli coming up–his birthday in the Swiss Alps–and a few stops on the way there. So I said goodbye to my new, generous friends and hopped a Bla-Bla Car to France.

138 (1024x768)

 

 

A Poet’s Tour of England—Part 5: The Pilgrim Sets Sail

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Yet another Popov connection bore fruit—this time a friend of theirs invited me to spend a couple of nights in Kingsbridge on my way to Plymouth, where I would set sail for Santander, Spain. Jean is a sculptor and painter in the ninth decade of her life. She lives in a cozy Victorian cottage full of art and antiques, and we enjoyed some deep conversation over her home-cooked meals.

On my way to Kingsbridge (by train from Frome) I took a shake-down cruise on the River Dart—from Totnes to Dartmouth—and crossed the river to Kingswear, where I boarded the “Hercules” steam train up to Paignton. From Paignton I took a bus back to Totnes, then to Kingsbridge. This journey is called a Round Robin.

008 (1024x756)

The River Dart at Totnes

089 (1024x633)

The pleasure of the ferry ride was tempered by the awful weather—cold and pouring rain. All along the riverbank is forest and moor—lovely, but dreary in the blustery gloom. I wandered from side to side, shivering, trying to spot the sights pointed out by our narrating pilot.

015 (1024x746) 029 (1024x768)I did spot a grey seal (Britain’s largest carnivorous mammal), Agatha Christie’s summer home, the sunken paddlewheel steamer “Kingswear Castle,” and the Britannia Royal Naval College.

027 (1024x768)

Agatha Christie’s summer home

043 (1024x669)

A new version of the Kingswear Castle, with Britannia Royal Naval College up on the hill

The weather improved at Dartmouth, a town with more history than buildings: Crusades departed from here, the Pilgrims dropped in on their way to the new world, and ships set sail for Normandy. Trade, war, shipbuilding and now tourism have sustained the town’s economy.

046 (1024x729)

Dartmouth

050 (1024x768)

Dartmouth

053 (1024x768)

The River Dart at Dartmouth

Kingswear, a colorful jumble climbing the hill across the river, has a tiny rail museum and, of course, the steam train.

058 (1024x800)

Kingswear

100 (1024x768) 098 (1024x768)I rode in the front, in the Devon Belle, a large windowed observation carriage with comfy couches and swiveling chairs, great views along the “English Riviera” lined with iconic beach cottages, and a lively group of families pleased to be on holiday.

073 (1024x681) 095 (1024x726)But the Hercules engine was at the back of the train. How was that supposed to work? Surely it wouldn’t be pushing us? As I sat pondering, the little engine-that-could came puffing past, then backed up and bumped into us. A young man hooked us up and off we went. The sky cleared and it was a glorious day. My only complaint was the train ride wasn’t long enough.

078 (1024x760) 097 (613x1024)In this part of England (Devon) it’s all about the Darts: River Dart, Dartmouth, Dartington, and the pièce de résistance, Dartmoor National Park.

Jean spent the next day at a sculpture garden, while I caught a series of buses to Dartmoor, an extensive moorland capped with exposed granite hilltops (tors). My plan was to ride the Haytor Hoppa bus into the moorland and hop on and off at a couple of promising spots. I hopped off at the Haytor visitor center, but didn’t hop back on there. I was mesmerized by the lure of the moors and walked about five miles to the town of Widecome-in-the-Moor. It was walking country and, dammit, despite my aching feet and leg I couldn’t resist.

040 (1024x757)

Near Hay Tor

The Hay Tor rocks looked like the toes of a reclining giant. Six toes. I clambered up, but was befuddled by the big toe. The crude chiseled-in steps were out of my reach but after some dicey exploration, I found a different angle with a cleft I could hop on to. Getting down was another story, but a kind soul offered me a hand.

005 (1024x768)

Hay Tor

015 (2) (1024x768)

The Giant’s second toe

031 (1024x771)

Climbing up to the big toe

027 (2) (1024x768)

On top of the big toe

The nearby quarry is famous as the source of the stones that built London Bridge. They were transferred from the quarry to the sea (and on to London) by way of a granite tramway further along the moor.

047 (1024x813) granite rails (768x1024)There are no signs on the moor—I was relying on vague directions from the visitor center—but I wasn’t the only walker. I would have liked to wander lonely as a moor, but instead, when I reached the granite rails, I followed behind a large group of Germans whom I’d seen admiring tadpoles in the quarry. They ignored the interloper in their midst. The view was fantastic—a rolling landscape in shades of green and brown, with chunks of rock and pools of purple bluebells in the valley.

Haytor Quarry (1024x939)

Germans admiring tadpoles

060 (1024x655)The path led into a magical hobbit forest of twisty tree and mosses, down to a stream with flat slices of granite for a bridge, then up through woods littered with bluebells, and past the ruins of a medieval settlement.

070 (1024x796) 077 (1024x657) medieval settlement (1024x719)At the top of the hill was Hound Tor, a popular climbing spot. I didn’t dally there, but stopped at the food truck in the parking lot below to clarify walking directions to Widecombe. All the other walkers hopped the Haytor Hoppa—even the Germans were tuckered out.

083 (1024x633)

Hound Tor

091 (1024x695)

Climbing the hound

098 (2) (1024x744)

“Hound of the Basket Meals”—Holmes’ most famous case was set on foggy Dartmoor.

After walking the hard road for a ways, I crossed onto Bonehill Down. The day was brilliant and the cool breeze perfect for walking. The word glorious kept coming to mind; never mind my feet—they were tolerable in all that beauty.

100 (2) (1024x768) 106 (1024x783)I found another road downhill through a shady nook and around the corner to Widecome where, to bide my time waiting for the Haytor Hoppa, I visited the church and enjoyed tea and delicious gingerbread that put the cardboard stuff in Grasmere to shame.

129 (768x1024)

Church of Saint Pancras

Widecombe is famous for a poem about Uncle Tom Cobley who borrowed a grey mare from Tom Pearce to go to the Widecome Fair, but the mare died. In the church is an old carving of the story from 1950 that was lost, found again and resurrected. There’s also a fantastic story on the wall in 1786 script about a storm in 1538: lightning struck the church, it caught fire, and an avalanche of falling stones killed several people. But miraculously most survived: “but he who rules both air and fire and other forces all hath us preserved bless be his name in that most dreadful fall.”

114 (1024x715) 124 (1024x788) 120 (1024x768)The next day, Jean showed me her studio, buried in the woods off a country road. She sculpts in clay, then casts some in bronze. Abstract vases and such, but mostly life sculptures of men, women and children. Her faces are left to the imagination, leaving the viewer to interpret their mood, their story, by the position of their bodies. She makes papiermâché sculptures as well, covered in dictionary pages, musical scores, even poems.

001 (1024x768)She told me that the last ten years have been the most creatively fulfilling of her life, in many ways her best years. And she’s 81! I told her, tears in my eyes, how much it meant to me to hear her say that. As I anxiously approach aging, fearful that my cranky conveyance is going to give out at the next intersection, I have to remind myself that I won’t even be 80 for 25 years! And here she was, 26 years further along and still growing, learning and creating. She gives me hope!

Jean drove me to Plymouth to catch the overnight ferry to Spain. At my request, we stopped at the Mayflower Steps. This was an auspicious visit for me, for my family. Howie’s great-x-10-grandfather, William Brewster, was a passenger on the Mayflower, which departed from Plymouth and arrived in America in 1620. Howie would have been pleased to visit this place—ground zero for one of his family origin stories, an important one since he comes from a family of sailors and boat builders.

028 (1024x559)

The Pont-Aven ferry

No one knows exactly where the Mayflower departed from, but a portico has been erected on the pier in front of a balcony whose bronze rails are engraved with the names of the Mayflower’s passengers, including: “Mr. William Brewster, Mary his wife, with 2 sons, whose names were Love, & Wrastling, and a boy was put to him called Richard More; and another of his brothers the rest of his childeren [sic] were left behind & came over afterwards.” Artistically intertwined with the names is a quote from William Bradford’s account of the voyage, describing harrowing seas in the “leaking, unwholesome ship,” and their fateful arrival in a “good harbour and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God in heaven.” I scattered some of Howie’s ashes over the rail.

023 (656x1024) 007 (1024x768) 010 (1024x768) 016 (1024x768)And that was that for England, at least until I return some day. On the ferry, I walked out on the stern after stowing my gear, watching Plymouth and the coast of Devon recede as we sped along, dragging a scary, roiling sea behind us. I thought of the brave Pilgrims setting out on the Mayflower, Howie and Jason and Soliman’s ancestors, leaving green England behind for absolute uncertainty. Their tiny ship at the mercy of the winds and the skill of the crew. A daunting, yet poignant experience. And here I was repeating the departure, with modern Plymouth behind me, humming motors and navigation systems guiding our way, the roiling caused by huge engines rather than “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers,” and an assured destination just across the English Channel. But a journey nonetheless, and still a deep, mysterious sea. And, in spite of all our technology, no more certain of what the future will hold.

046 (2) (1024x768)

Leaving fair England behind

035 (1024x821)

The ferry was more like a small cruise ship. There were even 2 movie theaters.

291 (1024x766)

Whale watching off the bow. We saw several pods of dolphins and, way off in the distance, a fin whale.

And, since this has been a poet’s tour of England, I leave you with a poem of the moors, a dark, tragic one by Alfred Noyes, which reputedly takes place in Dartmoor.

The Highwayman
By Alfred Noyes

PART ONE

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

PART TWO

He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
Marching—marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
         Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

.       .       .

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Source: Collected Poems (1947)

103 (1024x584)

A Poet’s Tour of England—Part 4: Spiriting Somerset

Tags

, , , , , , ,

No famous poets in this post. Just more charming English countryside and lovely, generous people opening their homes to me—all thanks to the inimitable Popov’s of the Isle of Wight. The only poet in this post is not-famous (yet) me.

Jane Popov’s brother, John, and his girlfriend, Linda, invited me to stay with them in a tiny village in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. They’re renovating a cozy Victorian-era red limestone house that used to be the police station. The Mendips are a series of limestone hills, lush pastures, streams, caves, wooded valleys and quarries.

006 (1024x768) 047 (1024x768)

062 (1024x768) 088 (1024x768)I met up with Linda in the medieval city of Wells, named for the springs which rise within the gardens of the Bishop’s Palace. This small city (the smallest in England after the “City of London,” which doesn’t really count if you ask me) is dominated by the palace and the Cathedral of St. Andrew’s Well. Once hosting a thriving textile industry, its dominant business now appears to be tasteful tourism.

002 (1024x768)

Downtown Wells

There’s a moat around the Bishop’s Palace with swans (and baby swans!) who were trained (well, their ancestors were, but the tradition continues) in the 1800s to ring a bell for food. The gatehouse is equipped with slots in the ceiling for pouring boiling oil on unwelcome visitors.

010 (1024x768) 011 (1024x768) 015 (1024x768)The cathedral is gothic and grand. The garden out back is a history lesson, where you can trace the stones from ancient Roman and medieval ruins.

023 (1024x768) 024 (768x1024) 026 (768x1024) 035 (1024x768)Through a hole in the garden wall you can see into the Bishop’s garden to St. Andrew’s Well. The springs of Wells have been used since Neolithic times. Springs fed the moat and the moat fed the mills.

031 (768x1024)Leading up to the cathedral is Vicar’s Close, the oldest pedestrian street in England – an elegant row of houses along a cobbled lane, sealed by a chapel at one end and the cathedral at the other. Back in the day, clergy would follow it from their homes up a staircase that crossed directly into the cathedral without setting foot on secular land—to prevent them from going astray.

038 (1024x768) 040 (1024x768)John took me touring through Glastonbury and Bath. Glastonbury wasn’t quite appear to be as intense a new age Disneyland as I’d feared. Businesses in the small downtown are painted fun colors, smartly dressed hippies wander about, and there’s a smattering of crystal and magic shops.

025 - Copy (1024x768) 026 (2) (1024x768)Glastonbury is most famous for the Glastonbury Tor, a symmetrical buttercup-frosted hill with St. Michael’s Tower (the remains of a 14th century church) on top. From its windy peak, we could see Cheddar Gorge and the Mendip Hills, and even (barely) the Cranmore Tower (more on that below). The tor’s conical shape is due to horizontal bands of clays and limestone—subject to erosion—with a cap of hard sandstone—which resists erosion. Before modern drainage was introduced, in the rainy season the tor was an island. There’s evidence of occupation up there as far back as the 6th century.

004 (1024x768) 017 (1024x768) 009 (768x1024) 012 (768x1024) 021 (768x1024)The origins of Glastonbury’s reputation as a new age/neo-pagan mecca are rooted in its legendary associations with the tales of King Arthur (in 1191, his tomb was found in the Abbey graveyard, but scholars believe this may have been a publicity stunt to raise funds for Abbey repairs) and, according to legend, Joseph of Arimathea is said to have arrived in Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and stuck his staff in the ground, which miraculously became the Glastonbury Thorn—the only Hawthorn in the world that flowers in spring and winter. Oh, and it’s only 50 miles from Stonehenge. Like a mystical tar baby, this apocrypha has attracted a cornucopia of new age claims over the years, from landscape zodiacs, to ley lines, to earth vortexes. I didn’t stick around long enough to get lost in the mists of Avalon so I can’t report back on the state of my aura—but it appears to be intact.

027 (1024x768) 028 (1024x768)The city of Bath dates from the Romans who constructed baths fed by its geothermal springs.

037 (1024x768)

The Abbey and the Roman Baths

032 (768x1024)

Fountain at Abbey Square

040 (2) (1024x768)

Statue man at Abbey Square. The buskers here sign up for an allotted time to do their thing.

041 (1024x768)

Kind of makes you reconsider farm-to-table . . .

Bath’s Georgian and neoclassical architecture is spectacular, especially the Circus and the Royal Crescent, tony apartment buildings whose curved facades form dramatic semi-circles.

043 (1024x768)

The Circus

044 (1024x277)

The Royal Crescent

On our way home, we took a spin through Cheddar Gorge, which sneaks up on you inexplicably as the rolling pastures gets hillier and wilder until you find yourself deep in between dramatic cliffs. It’s a favorite spot for climbers and mountain goats.

055 (1024x768) 063 (1024x768) 065 (1024x768)As one must in England, I took a solo walk. Weather warm and sunny with that chill breeze that makes walking a pleasure. Down through the one-pub village, onto a small lane bordered by hedgerows (which hid a basalt quarry on the other side), to a trail through Cranmore Wood, where signs warned me not stray from the path lest I get shot by archers. To Cranmore Tower, at 1,000 feet the highest point in the Mendip Hills.

083 (1024x768) 048 (1024x768) 052 (768x1024)064 (1024x768) 070 (1024x768)On a clear day you can see the Glastonbury Tor from the top of the tower.

058 (1024x442) 059 (1024x768)John and Linda whetted my curiosity with tales of the curious man who had purchased and renovated the old tower. My visit with him was intriguing, heartfelt and gratifying.

076 (1024x768)

Delicious tea and cakes served here, with a helping of philosophical musing.

077 (1024x768)

The sage proprietor of Cranmore Tower.

Rose Petals

They call it a Folly, this stone tower
rising from the Cranmore Wood, a rich man’s
boast towering above the Mendip Hills.
I followed a lane hidden in hedgerows
and then a forest trail in a sunny, chill English May
to visit the peculiar man who’d bought the folly
and posted a sign: “Open to All Humanity.”

Once upon a time a maiden wanders deep in an unfamiliar wood,
buttercups and bluebells sprouting between her toes. She sings,
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” When she feels
the force that drives the flower spill from the top of her head
to the tips of her toes, she lifts her arms toward the sun.

From the top of the folly, beyond the tidy fields and forest,
I can see the Glastonbury Tor. Down in the kitchen
the curious man serves cakes and tea. I sit by the window
glancing at his books and ask, “Are you Bahá’í?” He says, “I try to be.”

The maiden meets a bandit and takes the sharp edge
of his hand in hers. She touches the petals of his lips
and the soft animal of his hair.

The Bahá’í, who is from Iran, tells me of the poet Táhirih,
who, for the freedom of women, threw aside her veil,
vanquished men in debate, and was sentenced to death—
strangled with her own white silk handkerchief.

Once upon a time a maiden wanders deep in an unfamiliar wood.
She steps gently, following the scent of jasmine. She sings,
“The warrior chooses a path with heart.” She carries silver
and lace in her pack, lifts her arms toward the moon and pleads.

The Bahá’í asks about my journey and why. I tell him my husband
has died and there are no promises. I tell him about the kindness
of people. I don’t tell him, but I know this: dead is dead.

(I sat next to young woman on a bus in India, a nurse, soft
and round: What is your good name? Where are you going?”
She fed me curry and sweets: “I can accompany you
to Coimbatore, help you to your bus.” She asked about America:
“Do they eat rice there? How many servants do you have?”
At Coimbatore it was dark and bucketing rain: “There is no bus
here, you must go across the city. We will drive you.” We found
ourselves behind the bus: “Hurry, before the traffic moves. Call me
when you reach Mettupalayum, so I know you’re safe.” I grabbed
my pack, wrenched out the door, and tumbled into the bus. I sat
in the front seat as we barreled through the night. I had lost all fear.)

The maiden meets a bandit crouched in a thicket, a slaughtered sheep
between his legs, bloody knife in his hand. “I’ll feed you,” he says.
She takes the sharp edge in her own hand and pulls him up.

As the Bahá’í and I sip tea, we speak of community
and its challenges, the common good. He believes humanity
is progressing toward greater unity, toward Bahá’u’lláh’s vision
of oneness. I like to think that’s so, but it’s a leap of faith.

Once upon a time a maiden eats her fill of mutton at a wooden
table. She drinks mead and sings, “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘cause every little thing gonna be alright.”

The Bahá’í and I share a long gentle conversation,
deep and hushed. I’m treasuring this curious spirit
in the wood, a believer. He’s treasuring this inquisitive
nomad, discovering her own truth about the world.

Once upon a time a maiden meets a bandit in an unfamiliar wood.
He holds a knife. He plunges it in her heart. She sings, “Once upon
a time I let my soft mind believe. I won’t be fooled again.”

As I was leaving, the gentle man said, “In the womb
we grow the eyes and ears and arms and heart,
all we need to live in this world. After death,
when we shed this cage, the soul continues
its eternal journey towards perfection.”

Once upon a time a maiden wanders deep in an unfamiliar wood.
She is silent, listening. Along the path a falcon has taken down
a thrush, droplets of its blood like rose petals on the earth.
She sings, “They fall, they are torn, they rise, they walk again.”

The Bahá’í said, as I turned away, “Your husband is looking out
for you, all the time.” I saw the rose petals falling like tears,
marking the lane back through the forest spread white
with Queen Anne’s lace, fragrant with the ferment of bluebells.

053 (768x1024) 079 (1024x768) 090 (768x1024)

A Poet’s Tour of England—Part 3: Though I sang in my chains like the sea

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

If England’s Lake District is the happy hunting ground for Wordsworth devotees, the south of Wales is such for fans of Dylan Thomas, and I found myself conveniently plonked down in the middle of it. Not only does his ghost haunt its seaside towns, rolling meadows and pubs, but his relatives are sprinkled throughout—and the debate as to exactly which town(s) and people he satirizes in his radio play Under Milkwood is still a topic of conversation.

036 (1024x768)

The Castle—one of Thomas’ favorite pubs in Llansteffan

The Welsh are passionate about their language. After repeated acts of civil disobedience over the years, the law now mandates Welsh on par with English. And don’t expect your English skills to help you wrap your tongue around the jumbled rock piles of Welsh consonants. I did learn one thing though: When two L’s are together, the pronunciation sounds like a hissing cat saying “CL” with his tongue pushing against his front teeth. So Llewelyn is closer to Clewelyn than it is to Lewelyn. And it’s a musical language—though Thomas was not a Welsh speaker, its lilt and cadence surely influenced his poetry.

078 (1024x623)

Good luck with this!

The village of Laugharne, on the estuary of the River Taff, is dotted with cozy nooks where Dylan Thomas lived, wrote, drank and walked, most famously The Boat House, his family home for the last four years of his life. I booked a room in the closest hostel I could find to Laugharne, across the river on the Llansteffan Peninsula. I didn’t know it then, but both of Thomas’ parents were from the Llansteffan Peninsula and he spent happy chunks of his childhood roaming on foot or horseback between the villages of Llansteffan, Llanybri, Llangain and Llangynog. And I was delighted to learn that Fern Hill, the home of his Aunt Ann, was only a few miles down the road from my hostel. If you ask me what’s my favorite color or food or song or anything else, I’ll say “I dunno,” but if you ask me my favorite poem I find myself at the mercy of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill.

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle starry,
        Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heyday of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
        Trail with daisies and barley
    Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
    In the sun that is young once only,
        Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
        And the sabbath rang slowly
    In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
    And playing, lovely and watery
        And fire green as grass
    And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
        Flying with the ricks, and the horses
    Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
    Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
        The sky gathered again
    And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
        Out of the whinnying green stable
    On to the fields of praise.

And honored among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
    In the sun born over and over,
        I ran my heedless ways,
    My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
        Before the children green and golden
    Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
    In the moon that is always rising,
        Nor that riding to sleep
    I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
        Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

018 (768x1024)My hostel, with the odd name Pant yr Athro, is run by an affable guy, Ken—half British/half Kentucky hillbilly. After twenty years of traveling, he parked himself and his family in Wales and started his own hostel. For some reason, it’s got a Mexican theme.

025 (1024x768)Ken gave me directions to the town of Llansteffan, several miles down the Wales Coastal Path. Trudge up the hill, climb over the stile, follow the small road, turn left, find the path to the right, and so forth. In keeping with my newly developed penchant for, well, to paraphrase Robert Frost: I’m telling you with a sigh, here, months and months hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one that was wrong, And that has made my feet awfully sore.

030 (1024x763)

A stile, just not the right stile

Wrong stile, wrong path, or right path but wrong direction: through a field of leering cows, a mile or so down the hard road and up a hill to a menacing dog and back down the hill to a friendly farmer who sent me back the way I’d come. I ended up taking the hard road, painful on my feet, which were becoming increasingly intolerant of long walks. Eventually the bus came along and I flagged it down.

027 (1024x768)

Leering cows just over the hill

I’d really wanted to walk in the woods and meadows and along the river. Instead I counted my steps and thought about the things I’m scared of. People often say to me: “You’re so brave to travel,” but you’re not brave if you’re not afraid—buses, trains, crazy traffic, foreign cities, remote villages, wooded paths, and staring strangers don’t scare me. I’m afraid of big cows glaring at me when my only escape is a briar hedge, and poisonous snakes hiding in high grass and swamps. I’m afraid of failure and other people’s opinions of me. And I’m afraid to hitchhike by myself. Which is really inconvenient.

032 (1024x768)

Wooded path—not scary

In the graveyard of the Llansteffan parish church, I found Thomas carved in many of the stones, but I also saw Jones’ and Morris’, all names in my family. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy to imagine my Welsh ancestors.

045 (1024x768)Down at Llansteffan Beach, the sky cloudy and threatening and dotted with brilliant blue—about every kind of sky all at once—I found a wooded trail that ran above the beach until it turned down to Scott’s Bay. The tide was out and a few people in boots squelched atop the sinking sand to gather cockles.

060 (1024x442) 081 (1024x768)But the main attraction on the beach were huge, globby, masses, big as car tires, that wobbled when you poked them. They were dead Barrel Jellyfish, lots of them, splayed out in the sand like alien life forms. The older ones were blue; the fresher ones had orange spongy parts. They wash ashore for just a couple of weeks each year.

095 (1024x768) 099 (1024x768)Above the beach sits Llansteffan Castle. Built by the Normans in the 12th century, it changed hands with the Welsh several times, then volleyed back and forth between the Welsh and the British crown for centuries.

119 (1024x768) 131 (1024x403)The view from the top was magnificent.

133 (1024x768) 128 (1024x435)

My new friend Sequoia, a lovely Irish earth-mama who picked me up at the train station in Carmarthen when I first arrived, gave me a lift to the Laugharne bus. Laugharne is only across the river, but you’ve got to go up the peninsula and back down to get there. It’s a charming town with a castle looming over the harbor and Dylan Thomas’ Boat House around the bend. Stony Georgian and stucco row houses painted in soft colors, cobbled lanes, and, of course, every house has a name—This House or That Cottage.

161 (1024x872) 269 (1024x768)Corran Books is a used bookstore piled high with dusty books, run by a guy, George Tremlett, who coauthored a bio about Thomas with his wife, Caitlin. He designed a handy guide map to Thomas sights in Laugharne and Carmarthenshire. The fold-out pamphlets are chatty and affectionate, and he gives them away for free.

213 (755x1024)

Even the cellar was stuffed with books.

220 (1024x768)

Sea View, the Thomas’ home for 3 years

Brown’s Hotel, Thomas’ favorite pub.

163 (1024x768) 170 (1024x768) 167 (768x1024)Across the street from Brown’s is The Pelican, a sherbet green stucco house where Dylan’s parents lived, and where he and his dad, an English master, would work out the daily crossword puzzle in mere minutes. I don’t know what’s in there now, but the windows are painted over with caricatures, most notably one of a drunk Dylan and a pissed Caitlin.

175 (1024x1003) 212 (768x1024)In medieval St. Martin’s churchyard, the old cemetery surrounding the church is atmospheric, with tipsy, moss-covered stones in and amongst a deep Yew wood.

183 (1024x768) 181 (1024x768)Dylan and Caitlin are buried in the new wide-open cemetery across a small bridge. A simple white wood cross, with Dylan on one side and Caitlin on the other. It’s well tended, with succulents and tiny flowers, rocks and shells, and sweet gifts—a little bear, a stone heart—evidence of heartfelt pilgrimages. It was a more welcoming burial plot than Wordsworth’s Grasmere grave, which is fenced off and stately.

193 (909x1024) 200 (768x1024) 198 (1024x768)By the harbor there’s a village green, then mud flats, then the estuary with strands of the sea looping through.

270 (768x1024)As I walked along, I’d stop and read from my Dylan Thomas poetry book. Some of his poems I find very difficult—you have to just catch the wave and hold on, reading aloud as it roils and thrashes. Seeking satisfaction with the music and alliteration, and now and then riding the crest of it, salt burning your eyes as you pick out “The sky, the bird, the bride,/The cloud, the need, the planted stars, the joy beyond/The fields of seed and the time dying flesh astride,/The heavens, the heaven, the grave, the burning font.”

258 (1024x409)Tremlett’s pamphlet points out landmarks where, say, Thomas might have imagined a character from Under Milkwood, or where he played cricket or bought the morning paper, or where he and Caitlin used to dance. He points out vistas that inspired some of Thomas’ poems, such as the beautiful Poem in October, composed as he walked along the waterfront on his “thirtieth year to heaven.” An excerpt:

 And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels

        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
        These were the woods the river and the sea
                Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                Sang alive
        Still in the water and singing birds.

        And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
        Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
        Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart's truth
                Still be sung
        On this high hill in a year's turning.
275 (1024x311)

View from the Birthday Walk

The Boat House was originally a fishermen’s cottage on a bluff above the Taff Estuary. In this “seashaken house/On a breakneck of rocks,” the Thomas family celebrated Christmas, read bedtime stories, watched the tide rush into the garden, and worried about money. Now it’s a museum and a café.

235 (1024x768)The parlor is set up much as it would have been when the family lived there, and an upstairs gallery displays Thomas memorabilia, including a framed letter from Jimmy Carter praising Westminster Abbey for installing an overdue memorial to the poet in 1982—he, as President, had lobbied for it five years previously, but church officials had concerns about Thomas’ “dissolute” life. Carter describes how his family, after discovering the poet in the 1950s, “spent many good hours reading his words aloud, even diagramming his sometimes enigmatic phrases.”

238 (1024x768) 248 (641x1024)On the patio of the café you can see across the estuary to Sir John’s Hill, where Thomas watched birds at war, and wrote: “I open the leaves of the water at a passage/Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs prancing/And read, in a shell/Death clear as a buoy’s bell.”

257 (1024x768)

Sir John’s Hill, across the water

He watched those birds from his Writing Shed, halfway up the walk to the house. You have to be someone special to step inside—it’s locked. But you can peek in the window—like looking inside a tiny fairy house. A messy poet fairy.

266 (1024x768) 264 (1024x768)Back in Llansteffan, Sequoia and I went for a drive. First stop was Fern Hill. When Ken told me about it, I imagined wandering under the apple boughs, exploring the barns, seeing for myself what the hell a dingle was. But it’s fenced, locked up tight, surrounded by thick bushes and glorious trees. Apparently it’s still in the Thomas family, but no one has seen fit to turn it into an artist’s retreat or a bed and breakfast. I don’t think anyone even lives there. We paid our respects to the sad house where young Dylan once ran his heedless ways, and cruised our own heedless way down the narrow banked lanes, festooned with wildflowers.

004 (1024x907) 007 (1024x871) 013 (768x1024) 030 (2) (1024x767)Late one the afternoon we spent several sunny hours at Llansteffan Beach with Sequoia’s grown daughter and Ken’s young children. Sequoia raced after the squealing kids—she’s a playful spirit, quick to dance, turns every moment into a song. When she has to admonish children, she says things like, “Let love guide you.” She says, “The past doesn’t exist—live in the moment,” as she sweeps her hands over her heart and opens them to the universe, and she means it.

045 (2) (768x1024)

Ken’s kids made a word search and a castle.

sequoia2 (1024x604)

Sequoia

If I were to believe the past doesn’t exist, it would only be in the sense that it seems a dream, not that it can be discarded like old skin. This journey hasn’t transformed me into a free spirit like Sequoia. It’s made me braver, more gregarious, more trusting, brought reams of happiness and transcendent moments, endeared me to people, but I’m not the vagabond with a bindle. Maybe I’ve become more acquainted with the self I was before I was a wife and mom (the scraps that are left of her). And maybe I’m a little less afraid of my empty house or just tired enough of the gypsy life that I’m willing to face it. As much as I love traveling, I’m earthbound, a homebody, encumbered with home and history, and grateful for it.

094 (1024x768)

Another beautiful stone wall garden. England is full of them.

My last adventure in Wales was a hop on/hop off bus ride to the Gower Peninsula. Jutting to the west of Dylan Thomas’s home town of Swansea, he called it “one of the loveliest sea-coast stretches in the whole of Britain.” As a boy, he camped there with his friends and, reportedly, was prone to spending too long on the rocky promontory of Worm’s Head at Rhossilli, which cuts off at high tide, just as the boys do in his Tom Sawyer/Huck Finnish story, Who Do You Wish Was With Us. Thomas returned to Rhossili throughout his life. He even considered living there until he realized it didn’t have a pub.

093 (1024x761)

That’s Worm’s Head off in the distance

The Gower is packed with stunning landscapes: wild moors, limestone cliffs, marshes, dunes, oak woodlands, and golden beaches.

063 (1024x768)

Parasailers at Rhossili

104 (1024x765)

Launching requires a lot of patience.

077 (1024x718)

Rhossili. With sheep on precarious perches.

066 (1024x768)

Rhossili beach

126 (1024x765)

Buried bones of a ship

128 (2) (1024x811)

The water was icy cold!

Three Cliffs Bay was stunning.

166 (1024x768)

137 (1024x767) 149 (1024x397)

150 (1024x768)

The Shingles. Up close, the layers looked like tombstones leaning up against each other.

Dylan Thomas did live to sing his heart’s truth in a year’s turning from his thirtieth year to heaven. And eight more years after that. But he was only 39 when he died. Through his writing, though, he lived many lifetimes. By the age of 24, he had written over half of all the poems he would write in his life, and some of his finest were written as a teenager. He had an early gift for language and deep insight well beyond his years. He said his love of words came early, from nursery rhymes: “I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy.”

243 (803x1024)His early poems were introspective, paganist, concerned with creation and death. Then family life and the atrocities of World War II brought him out of himself, and his work became more empathetic, sometimes humorous, and often concerned with the loss of innocence. Above all, and through it all, he was driven by love.

263 (1024x768)

The Boat House

076 (1024x934)

Above Llansteffan Beach

055 (1024x758)

Llansteffan Castle

143 (1024x757)

Along the trail to Three Cliffs Bay

In my craft or sullen art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

–Dylan Thomas

Have a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XMaJanGuWI

241 (1024x768)

Dylan and Caitlin

To round out my pilgrimage, three months later in New York City, I visited the White Horse Tavern where Thomas drank his last and the Chelsea Hotel where he fell into unconsciousness.

The myth, promoted by his agent and the press, was that he drank himself to death. But the pathology report found no alcohol poisoning or liver cirrhosis. The main cause of death was given as swelling of the brain from pneumonia. Of course he was an alcoholic, which compromised his health, but he also had lung problems most of his life. The doctor who treated him at the Chelsea Hotel failed to diagnose the pneumonia and administered an overdose of morphine—shortly after he fell into a coma and never awoke.

022 (1024x753)

Inside the White Horse

048 (1024x768)

The Chelsea Hotel, under repairs

sequoia hi (1024x548)