Category Archives: travel

The parcel goes to Georgia.

Chattahoochee River Walk

It was a long day’s journey that took me to Georgia for my grandson’s wedding. Though journey doesn’t seem like the right word for it. When I was packed into the middle seat of an airliner I remembered John Ruskin’s words, “Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” Ruskin died in 1900 – what could he possibly have experienced that would compare with what Economy ticket holders a hundred years later suffer?

I had even bought extra legroom, to help me cope with the middle seat stress, but the two men on either side of me had broad shoulders and muscular arms, and made me wish for extra elbow room. Still, I didn’t have much to complain about. I was not uncomfortable, my traveling companions did not smell bad, and I always love having all that time to read my book.

Before we had left the ground, the 20-something man by the window finished eating a hamburger, put away his wrapper and was asleep within a minute. I know he was out because he was jerking in his sleep and bumping my arm. I was amazed.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. At seven that morning I’d taken the airport bus from my town, so that I could leave my car at home and thereby prevent a good bit of stress. On that first part of my trip I did not read my book, because I had a surprisingly agreeable seatmate. Ideally, I would have chosen to sit alone with my novel, but it appeared sharing was necessary, so I moved over and the gentle woman sat down.

She didn’t talk loudly or fast or constantly, but we had quite a bit of conversation over the next two hours — about how she travels with Habitat for Humanity building houses, what tomatoes we grow in our gardens, about beekeeping and raising worms. I learned many things from her, and she was a calming presence.

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”   ~Cesare Pavese

What makes me plan a trip these days is always the desire to be with family or friends. But in cases like this, in the process of getting to my people I have to spend many hours surrounded by and dependent on strangers. The people themselves I haven’t found to be brutal or untrustworthy; of course, many of them are employed specifically to be helpful to the traveler. But the system, the schedules, the invasions of privacy that are supposed to keep us safe — they are brutal for sure. This trip, I wore jeans so that I wouldn’t have to be patted down, but at the Atlanta airport I was thoroughly frisked anyway. Yes, there is a lot that feels dehumanizing. But can our humanity really be reduced so easily?

 

That’s the drone up in the sky.

 

I won’t put off any longer telling you more about the wedding of “Roger and Izzy.” It was lovely, so simple and unfussy, you would have thought it was a 60’s wedding, if not for the many cameras and cell phones and even a drone! (But no professional photographer) In some ways it was an unusual and fun wedding, but the traditional service was performed solemnly in the name of the Holy Trinity by a white-haired preacher who might have come out of a storybook, the picture of a Southern Country Gentleman.

We were a small but joyful and festive group, and quite charmed by the setting, a family chapel in the middle of a vast green field. It was perfect for this event even though it has no electricity or plumbing!

 

A New Southern style restaurant dinner was our post-wedding celebration, and the food was excellent. Instead of cake the couple had decided to serve a southern favorite that I had never heard of: Fried Pies. They were bought elsewhere and the restaurant let us bring them in to eat for dessert.

It’s a rare dessert that I don’t finish eating, but I tried a peach pie, and the next day on my trip home a pecan pie, and I could not find one thing to enjoy about them. They were super sweet and bland, and the pastry was like thin cardboard. I have to ask you Southerners, Do you suppose these are truly like your grandma used to make?

After the wedding the guests along with the newlyweds enjoyed hanging out by the Chattahoochee River (don’t you love to say that?) for a few hours total, in the afternoon and again at dusk. The young people played an impromptu game of “Ninja,” which required no props and brought on lots of laughter. I didn’t try to understand the rules.

The groom’s sister, my granddaughter Maggie, had brought her ukulele across the country to play the processional for the wedding, and down by the river in the evening she plinked out some more tunes, which two of her brothers sang along with. She and her new sister in their sleeveless dresses had gotten chilly by this time and were wearing her brothers’ sport coats.


They were singing “Here Comes the Sun,” though the ball of fire had left the sky for the night. I could only think of the marriage of Roger and Izzy being like a warm sun that had just risen, to brighten and energize their lives from now on.

Sunday dawned much later than I woke up, evidently totally whacked-out in my inner clock. It was another day of bus-airport-airplane-airport-airplane-airport-bus — then home! That does sound like the schedule for a parcel, doesn’t it? But I had a sweet encounter at the Atlanta airport, which probably shored me up against the frisking that came after.

I had quite a bit of time before my flight, so I didn’t go through security right away. Instead, I sat in a rotunda that was filled with various groupings of chairs, ottomans and such. It was fairly crowded, but there were free chairs in one area where the occupiers looked fairly encamped, either sleeping or just sitting there people-watching. I wondered if they were loiterers who weren’t traveling anywhere. Before I chose a seat I made eye contact with one woman who seemed to be watching me, and she returned my smile. Later as I was reading my book I heard her snoring a little behind me.

When I got up to leave I glanced back at her and we smiled at each other again. I walked away and swung my backpack up on to my back — but it seemed to get hung up somehow on my sweater between my shoulder blades. I sat down somewhere else and tried to shift it this way and that but I couldn’t get it situated or unsnagged. When I tried to take it off I was afraid I was going to rip a hole in my sweater. Of course I couldn’t see what was going on back there.

Then I thought of the friendly woman in the rotunda, and I returned and approached her where she was slouched in her chair, and asked if she would help me straighten out my burden. I kneeled down with my back to her and she gladly fixed it. I still don’t understand what the problem was. When I took off my sweater later there was an odd stretched-out place but nothing was torn. The whole package of me was just fine.

“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”
― Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

 

Proteas bloom in Monterey.

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The week before Lent I journeyed to California’s Central Coast to visit my son and his family in the busy city of Monterey. Besides being popular among tourists who like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea, the John Steinbeck (Cannery Row) connection, etc., it has military and higher educational value thanks to institutions such as the Naval Postgraduate School and the Defense Language Institute; a state university and a school of international studies.p1060736crp

 

 

But for me, of course, the main attraction is three little boys and their parents! I had two entire days to hang out with them all and read stories, play with Matchbox cars, cook and eat…. Four-year-old Liam and I cleaned up the kitchen together one morning and pruned the butterfly bush the next. He really did work!p1060756

We visited the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum where I took pictures of the boys at the feet of a stuffed grizzly bear, and they played with magnetized glass eyes such as taxidermists use, trying to fit them into the proper skull.

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My own favorite exhibit was of sands from around the world. It made me want to start my own collection, to go with my rock collection. I’ll need to get some small bottles that I could tuck in my pocket or camera bag, and always be ready to save a sample.

 

 

 

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Joy made an elaborate picnic that we ate on the beach, and then we spent an hour exploring the sand there, and the creatures that wash up. It took most of the following week to identify the animals as pyrosomes (the long pink things) and Corolla spectabilis pseudoconchs (the transparent roundish ones). A marine biologist friend of Kit’s pointed us to this article on: Tubes and Slippers, which also shows them side-by-side.

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The proteas are blooming in Monterey:

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It was a blessed trip. I’ll stay closer to home now for a few weeks.

Happy March to you all!

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Four Seasons in Rome

Only a few pages into Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, and I was enthralled; I began to want very much to make my own visit to that most historic and colorful city. But a chapter in, I realized that Doerr had brought me with him, and that my vicarious travels were so much more exciting and satisfying than anything I could accomplish in real life — all without the huge expense and strain of international travel.

Energy pours off the traffic, off the sidewalks; it feels as if we are pumping through the interior of a living cell, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging. Here is a pair of stone lions with crossed paws; here is a Gypsy sleeping on a square of cardboard. Down the white throat of a street a church floats atop stairs.

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Stone Pines, aka Umbrella Pines, of Rome (internet)

Doerr’s year in Rome was certainly stressful, but he was young and strong, and was able to take his adventures, which any of us might know in the present moment as anxieties, dilemmas, pain and suffering, and turn them into prose that conveys not just a complainy travelogue, but his own engagement with the sensory overload of living in Rome, combined with being a new father. Fatherhood alone is such a transformative experience, it would give such a writer plenty of material for a book, but to have twins, and then to take them at six months of age to live in Rome, where you don’t even know the language, is exciting to the point of crazy.

What did Columbus write in his log as he set out from Spain? “Above all, it is fitting that I forget about sleeping and devote much attention to navigation in order to accomplish this.” Henry wakes again at two. Owen is up at three. Each time, rising out of a half sleep, it takes a full minute to remember what I have forgotten: I am a father; we have moved to Italy. All night I carry one crying baby or the other onto the terrace. The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance little strands of glitter climb the hills.

Last year I read Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. All I did was run my eyes along the words and lines, and the author did all the magic of transporting me to another place and time, to rooms in Germany and houses in France, to the beach and along streets and into human hearts beating with fear and hope. I couldn’t help but love them, we were that close – and it was the writer who had brought us together.

It seems that he was already working on All the Light ten years earlier, while in Rome on a literature fellowship at the American Academy. It was a good thing he didn’t have to show anyone a progress report, because Rome and twins were all-consuming. He did write a lot of journal entries, which eventually became this delightful book.

During the Doerr Family’s year in Rome the twins didn’t let their parents sleep much. They also were very sick for weeks, and then Doerr’s wife Shauna ended up in the hospital. Pope John Paul II died, and a new pope was elected. The seasons changed, the husband and wife went on outings to Umbria, and the babies learned to walk. They watched the pines out the window:

Mediterranean pines, stone pines, parasol pines, and umbrella pines—all the same thing: Pinus pinea. Regal trees, astounding trees, trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.

In another place I read that Anthony Doerr likes to quote Victor Shklovsky, who wrote 100 years ago: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”

And this is what Doerr tries to do – but first he must shake himself out of the habit of not seeing, this habit that he explains is quite necessary:

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs…..

“Habitualization,” a Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” What he argued is that, over time, we stop perceiving familiar things—words, friends, apartments—as they truly are.

If I did go to Rome, I’m sure I would be shaken out of my everyday way of seeing things. This has happened to me many times, being in a new place without The Usual surroundings and schedule and people in my life. Even the air smells different, and seems to wake up the brain. Reading Doerr makes me want to take off the blinders more often and really be attentive to what is bombarding my senses.

It could be scary, I know – or exhausting, as he warns:

The gaze widens and drifts; the eye is insatiable. The brain drowns.

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“The Big Fountain” near the Doerrs’ apartment. Completed 1690.

So Anthony Doerr is very good at what he does, but he is more than a skilled observer and wordsmith; as he imparts to the reader what he receives from the world, his own warmth and humanity come with the package. He is a grateful and caring man who reveals his humble likableness in this very personal account. As he tells you what he sees, he can’t help but tell you who he is. When he looks at his little son:

…his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother’s love, his brother’s ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs.

When it is time for the Doerrs to return to their Idaho home, Anthony tries to put the experience of leaving Rome into words:

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience. Roma, they say, non basta una vita. One life is not enough.

I was grateful to visit Rome by means of this book, but of course, it was enough for me. I don’t have a bucket list of books or places to see or experiences to have, because if I ever start to think like that, I am reminded of the example of our Lord’s earthly life that was on the surface quite confined — He didn’t go to Rome, either — but was the expression of the best human life ever lived.

I could also be content not reading another book for the rest of my life, but I did just order Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, and in that way hope to see more wide views through his brain-drowning gaze.

Walking Pennsylvania woods and gardens.

It was fun to be in a different climate zone with lots of plants I’m not used to. All my cousins appreciate my love for the flora of their world. Elise has this huge tree in her little back yard, a pawlonia or Japanese Empress tree, which I remembered from three years ago. I took a picture of a small portion through my bedroom window.

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Renée and I walked in the woods twice in two days. Even the rotting leaves smell different in her woods from the ones at home. A different recipe – and the aroma is delicious. p1060017-beeches-euonymous

There are also a greater quantity of leaves than I’m used to, what with all the deciduous hardwoods. In the middle of one woods our path ran alongside a clearing where leaves collected from neighborhoods are dumped into big piles for composting. In my part of California the disposal companies might make mulch from the contents of the green bin, but leaves are just a small part of the mix.

Many of the trees were already bare, but birches and Japanese maples were still colorful.

And an invasive species of euonymus that is pink right now. It’s called Winged Euonymus because of the little rectangles sticking out like flags along the stems.

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Renée is such an accommodating host that she was willing to go down to her garden just to pick greens for our breakfast — in response to my answer about what I usually eat. We did this again for dinner, and I took pictures of her garden.

< One of the things she grows is Kalettes, a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale. We enjoyed lots of those in our stir-fry!

 

 

 

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p1060066On my last day in Pennsylvania, my cousin drove me to Longwood Gardens, a property of over 1,000 acres with several conservatories that make it possible to grow exotic plants all year. Right now they are having an amazing chrysanthemum show.

It was novel, the propagating they do with mums, such as grafting 100 varieties on to one stem. That plant was more freakish than beautiful; maybe it had also passed its prime. The 100-bloom domed plants were prettier:

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They have an intricate system for supporting the flowers in such a strict form.

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In 1906 Pierre du Pont purchased the land that has become Longwood Gardens. Previous owners had been farmers, and by 1850 the arboretum they planted had become an expansive collection covering 15 acres. Du Pont bought the 202-acre farm in 1906 to preserve trees that were in danger of being cut down. Then he proceeded to restore and develop the gardens, to grow fruit trees and plant a long Flower Walk, build a chimes tower, install fountains… many features that we didn’t have time to see on this visit, given the early sunset of November.

When Pierre du Pont died in 1954, the Longwood Foundation that he had put in place made possible a transition from private estate to international treasure. Trying to find if there was a connection between Kate’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in D.C. and this gardener, I did discover that Pierre was the grandfather of the Civil War soldier for whom the traffic circle was named. It is fascinating to read about this large and prosperous family through the generations.

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sea oats

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I loved the orchids, and the mandarinquat tree, and hanging gardens and succulents. Of course I won’t show you pictures of everything. But this Silver Garden was an especially lovely and soothing display.

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I must end my travelogue; though it seems incomplete in that I have had to leave out lots of experiences I might ramble on about, it is also a little too delayed for me to want to delve any more into those events. Now the pink leaves are no doubt fallen, and soon snow will be covering them along the forest paths. I came home and have returned to my everyday life that is never the same from one day to the next, so I will get back to writing about that.

Happy December!

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