Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

Travel Envy

I have a friend who is heading off to India for a month and she's invited me to come over and help her pack. "You're an expert packer," she says. Briefly I ponder hiding liquids and sharp objects in her luggage. I've just bought my daughter a ticket to Egypt - graduation present. And my friend who lives in Tokyo says he's spending January in Thailand.

I know that envy is one of the seven deadly sins so I've tried to keep it in check. Freud would be proud of me, but, when it comes to journeys, I have to admit it - I have travel envy. I'm never really happy for the friend who got that great assignment to Istanbul or is spending her sabbatical in France. For my last sabbatical I broke my leg and spent it on my sofa as my daughter wandered through Fez, where I was to join her.

I try to hide it, but when R takes off each Christmas for Vieques or V rents that place in Key West, I want them to slip me into their suitcase. I want to go along too. I don't want to read the blog from the Loire Valley or the magnificent photos of spice markets Kate sent home. I want to leave now. But of course I can't. Not this moment anyway. I still have about fifteen portfolios to read and evaluations to write. I am deluged with assorted requests. I feel as if it's winter in Fargo and I have to keep digging myself out.

Meanwhile our neighbors across the street, who've been living for the past year in an old olive press in the South of France have returned. They share with me that unfortunately they had to move from one end of the olive press into a place on the other end. I am trying to find the unfortunate part in this as I nod my head in faux sympathy.

People can tell me about their film deals, the third child that's on the way, the fact that they just dropped twenty pounds, I am genuinely happy for these people. I think good for them. But just tell me that you are heading off on a bicycle through Sicily and I start to fall apart. Once I could just pack a duffel and walk out the door.

The other day my cousin told me this joke. A priest, a minister and a rabbi were discussing when life begins. The priest said at conception. The minister when the child is born. And the rabbi said when the dog dies and the kids leave home. Sadly our beloved dog, Snowball, has recently died and our daughter has sort of left home, though she occupies a studio apartment in our house. So I am thinking it is time to just pack up and go.

I was thinking that thought about two weeks ago. I felt as if I couldn't sit still. I found myself, staring at random maps. Going back to Dr. Freud, there is something about adolescent turmoil (which it seems I can't grow out of) and the desire to escape. The adolescent, struck with a barage of emotions, cannot contain himself/herself. I too feel stuck, my own emotions bounding. So I woke up one day last week and turned to my husband. "I want to go somewhere," I said. In fact I told him I had to go somewhere.

"Where?" and then I said, "Istanbul."

It seemed like a good place to test my travel legs again, crossing back and forth between Europe and Asia. So I booked passage. I'm going to cruise the Bosphorus, perhaps journey up to the Black Sea. This is a part of the world my ancestors came from.

My legs are restless. I know it's a syndrome, but in my case it's a compulsion. I don't want to go packing for my friends and imagine my daughter, negotiating the medinah in Fez. Travel envy, like real estate envy or money envy or even penis envy, is just one form of misery we have available to us in this world. But at least with travel envy (certainly unlike penis envy) I can actually plan and pack my bag and walk out the door.

More than just wanting to do this. I have to do it. As with writing, travel is both a pleasure and a compulsion. I am echoing here the 94 year old artist, Carmen Herrara, whose work has just now received recognition. I like this idea of something being both pleasure and inner necessity.

Yesterday at a memorial service for a beloved teacher someone read these words from a Hebrew prayer: "Birth is a beginning. Death a destination. And life is the journey in between." Time, I suppose, is awasting. And so I must be on the road.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wreath: A New York Christmas Story

A long time ago our neighbor, Martha, offered to give my husband and me a few hours of relief on a Saturday morning. She invited our daughter, Kate, who was six at the time, to go with her to the farmer's market at Grand Army Plaza. Normally Kate and I went to market together. We liked to haggle with the maple sugar man or taste the hot cider. Often we brought home more than we could carry. In truth I'd wanted to go with her that morning, but Martha offered and we thought Kate might enjoy a little adventure. I gave her five dollars and a small shopping bag. I asked her to buy apples, something for herself, and a surprise for her dad and me.

An hour or so later she returned, rosy cheeked, and shivering. She had the bag of apples, but she was also laden down with a much larger bag. Reaching into the bag, she pulled out a beautiful Christmas wreath, made of fresh pine and pine cones, sprigs of holly and tied up in a red ribbon. The wreath filled the house with the scent of woodlands and distant, wintry places. "It's a wonderful surprise!" I told her, though I could not imagine how she could have afforded it. "How did you get this?"

"Tell her," Martha said to my daughter. "It's your

And Kate explained that after she bought the apples and had had some cider, she saw the woman selling wreaths. She couldn't explain this to me, but she had to have one. It was a cold, blustery morning and the woman was wrapped in a down coat with a scarf covering her face. Kate could not tell if she was young or old, pretty or ugly, fat or thin. In fact, she couldn't remember a thing about the woman, except that she was bundled up. Kate told the woman that she very much wanted a wreath, but she had hardly any money left. The woman asked to see what she did have and Kate emptied her pockets.

I know what she held in her outstretched palm because I have seen it many times myself. She had colored pebbles and bits of aluminum foil she found on the playground and quartz she'd picked up on trails in the park. She had a few shiny pennies, bottle caps. Maybe a marble or two. The kinds of things she gathered as she moved through the world.

The woman looked at what my daughter held out to her. "That should be enough," she said. And she took the treasure and gave my daughter a Christmas wreath.

That afternoon we felt uplifted and strangely blessed as we hung the wreath from our front door. We all agreed that we wanted to thank the woman. During the week, Kate worked on a drawing of a polar bear with a wreath around its neck. The following Saturday we set out with the drawing which had a child's "thank you" scrawled across it.

When we arrived, we saw a woman, selling the same wreath that hung from our door. But Kate said that she was not the right person. She was sure of it. We combed the farmer's market, but there was no one else selling wreaths so we returned to her. "We are looking for the woman who was here last week," I said. "She sold my daughter a wreath."

But the woman shook her head. "We weren't here last week. This is our first time this season." We asked if she knew of anyone who might have been selling wreaths the week before. We explained that we wanted to thank her. But the woman shook her head again.

Though we went up and down the rows of merchants, asking if anyone remembered the wreath seller, no one did. Strangely, Kate seemed neither disappointed nor surprised. We never found the woman who had accepted a child's treasure in exchange for a wreath. It was as if she'd never been there at all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Caper Caper

Last summer, after a glorious trip through Spain, with pit stops in France and England, we ended our journey on a friend's terrace in Rome. These were people we'd met a few years before when we swapped our house in New York for a medieval tower they own outside of Florence. They'd become our friends and, when they learned we'd be flying home via Rome, invited us to spend the night.

It was one of those hot Roman nights, the first of August, and they prepared dinner on their terrace. We loved the terrace from the moment we set foot on it. It was filled with plants and had a view of one of the most historic neighborhoods of Rome. Over cocktails, Giancarlo and Sophia told us that they loved our terrace too. We have a deck in Brooklyn that sits beneath the branches of a huge oak tree and we eat our breakfast and all our dinners out here in the summer. And we all joked that for our next exchange we will swap only our terraces. As we savored our first course, a vermicelli al pesto, served with an outstanding Friuli wine, they shared with us the story of their terrace - a story that might have been funny if it hadn't led to criminal charges.

Sophia and Giancarlo (I am changing their names here) live in a landmarked section of Rome and, when they tried to restore a small structure on the terrace and build a shower in the maid's room (a self-contained room at the top of the apartment where we slept), a disgruntled neighbor accused them of making architectural changes with in the historic district. The punishment for this in Rome is four years in prison. Their lawyer told them that perhaps, if they did various things (i.e. bribe the right people), they could get off in two. Thus insued a four year legal battle, right out of Dickens, but it had us laughing our heads off, particularly as Sophia described crawling under police tape in the dark of night to water her plants.

As the wine kept flowing, a dish of veal with tuna arrived. It was delicious and, as I was complimenting it, Giancarlo pointed to the caper bush from which they had picked their own capers. As he showed us their caper bush, he said that the thing about caper bushes is they are almost impossible to kill. At his wife's urging, Giancarlo began to regale us the story of the presidential palace and the caper shrub. A story I have come to refer to as "The Caper Caper."

It seems that the presidential palace was to be repainted entirely white and some general spiffing up was going on and, as a result, a caper bush which grew in the front against the wall of the palace had to be removed, which is was. The palace was painted a shimmering white and everything met with the approval from the highest echelons of the government, but soon after a matter of weeks, the caper bush began to reappear, its tentacles reaching out from beneath new plaster and paint. This time a presidential order was issue to remove the plant and a crew was brought in who dug it up and carted it away. The damage on the front of the palace was forgotten until a month or so later when the plant reappeared.

No one could believe it had survived its uprooting so now a crew of botanists and exterminators and who knows what arrived and they poisoned the plant and everything around it. The damage on the palace was repaired and the matter was forgotten. Until three months later at the end of summer when, yes, once again the caper bush - that Rasputin of a shrub - began to send its branches out.

It was at this time, I believe, that efforts to destroy this resilient creature ceased and the plant itself seemed to become some kind of metaphor for all of Italy (I am not clear about what the metaphor means exactly...)but at any rate the plant has been left in peace and it grows and bloom quite contendedly in front of the presidential palace where it has always been.

Giancarlo said we could go visit it if we wished and we would have but time was short and we had finished the eggplant in tomato sauce and drunk an amazing Marsala dessert wine as we ate chocolate and peaches and we were all tired, though now the night was cooler and we just settled back on our friends's terrace as the cool breezes rustled the branches of the trees and there were even stars that night all over Rome.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Doctor Freud said...

Last year I went to Vienna to do research for a novel. I hadn't really wanted to go to Vienna. It wasn't on my wish list. But part of this book is set there and so I need to go. And in fact we wound up falling in love with the city. We spent literally days in front of the paintings of Egon Schiele (a brilliant artist who died of influenza in 1918 at the age of 28. His "Death and the Maiden" is something I will never forget.)

We were supposed to also go to Budapest and perhaps Bratslava. In fact we had changed money for Hungary. Every morning we woke up and said, "Okay is this the day we go to Budapest." But we never did. Instead we roamed this city of wide avenues, imperial architecture, dirty black crows. A city of cafes and gardens, of Schiller and Beethoven. We learned that it was here at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts that a failing art student, named Adolf Hitler, began to listen to the speeches of Vienna's mayor, Karl Luger, and his own ideas would be shaped, even as his art career dwindled.

I couldn't help but think about what would have happened had he been a successful student of art. We roamed this city. It was cold, late March, but the sun shone, and every day we sat out, searching for another cafe, another great museum, the cobbled streets of the Judenplatz. The Weisbanhoff station from which Jewish children left on the kindertransports. All of Vienna became mixed in our minds. On Bergasse Street we visited the Freud Museum.

We walked into the dark, stone courtyard and wound our way up the cement spiral staircase where Herr Doktor Freud, that interpreter of longings and dreams, once lived. We entered the grand old apartment where he lived with his wife and six children until even he was forced to flee the Nazis, carrying with him his final manuscript for the pyschoanalaysis of the Bible. There on the wall of his study I found this quote on travel.

Freud writes: "When I recall the passionate desire to travel and see the world by which I was dominated at school and later, how it was before that desire began to find its fulfillment...This was linked up with the limitations and poverty of our conditions of life in my youth. My longing to travel was no doubt also the expression of a wife to escape from this pressure like the force which drives so many adolescent children to run away from home and family. When first one catches sight of the sea, crosses the ocean, and experiences as realities cities and lands which for so long had been distant, unattainable things of our desire - one feels ones like a hero who has performed deeds of an improbable greatness."

Sigmund Freud sees in travel its inate escapism. The desire to flee one's longing, one's implacable desire. Jonathan Swift is perhaps more direct, and humor, in Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver reflects upon his Master, Mr. Bates, and how Master Bates encouraged him to go away. My students blushed when I spoke to them of Master Bates, but still the meaning wasn't lost on them. That the adolescent needs to flee the self-referential world in which he or she lives.

It is interesting that they now call those years after college and before one settles into one's life work and domestic partnership the Odyssey years. What better metaphor than to evoke the greatest traveler, the traveler upon whom all future journeys were made, Odysseus. Of course his travel was of necessity. He wanted to sail home and, despite many obstacles and detours and temptations in his path, he managed to do so.

Indeed a significant part of the journey is the return. The lost, the disappeared, this is not the journey of moving past an ononistic exist into one of mutuality and dialogue. Clearly all the male heroes mentioned here needed to get away in order to grow up. The Sirens tempted Ulysseus, but it was Penelope who awaited him at home. I do not care if travel is about escapism. It is satisfies an ancient need, a longing and a desire. I'd rather find mine on the road than in a squalid bed with a stranger. Master Bates encourages Gulliver, who is in fact gullible, to set off and find himself.

I doubt that Herr Doktor Freud could have said it better himself. I have found that I can't not travel. I do better in motion. When I am planning a trip, all the aches and pains mysteriously leave my body. I am in flight mode. One I had this wonderful dream. Perhaps I have put it in this blog before, but I'll repeat it if I may. I dreamt that I was flying. I was flying all over the world. Over mountains and deserts and seas and jungles and places I'd never seen or knew existed. And I couldn't get lost because my belly button was equipped with navigational redial. I simply had to push it and I'd fly home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Just before sailing

I am itching to travel. I can't stop thinking about it. I just want to go. Many many years ago I published my very first short story in a journal called "Just Before Sailing." A friend named Ron Horning published this and, well, it always seemed fitting. It is nice to think that my first story was in a publication that dreamed of sailing.

Lately I've been dreaming too. It's not that I haven't traveled in recent years, but, well, I haven't had an adventure. Something unpredictable. Surprises. In the spring of 2008 I had a sabbatical from the college where I teach and I was off to Morocco, Spain, and parts unknown when I broke my leg ice skating. Since then, and now that I am finally healed, I am longing to go. Istanbul, Morocco, India await me.

Already I am making plans. Just today I told a student of mine from Calcutta that I want to go to India. She began planning my trip. I've found myself, gazing at maps. A sure sign. When I was younger, my mother used to say, "Oh oh, Mary's looking at maps again." Sending out feelers. Everyone writes back. They know a hotel, a restaurant, a place I must see. I am ready. I am so ready. Chomping at the bit.

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? In a restaurant near our house that we like to frequent the owner is going off to Cambodia for six weeks. He does this every year. Namibia last year. He takes off with his girlfriend and has no idea where he'll end up. He just knows where he'll land. It has been years since I've been able to do this. Pick a place on the map and fly there. But I am ready to do it again.

My leg is healed, my daughter is grown. I think of my own mother who at the age of 85 walked the Great Wall of China. And then I see the photo I took this summer of this little boat, about to set off, for somewhere. Anyway. Wherever it wants to go.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Life (Not Wife) Swapping

Part of what I like about house exchanges, beyond the cost saving and convenience, is that you get to live inside someone else's life for a couple weeks. You get to shop at their markets, visit their pharmacist (or doctor as I once had to), sleep in their bed, maybe borrow a sweater on a cold night, and perhaps if you let your imagination roam, take on their story. Or find one of their own.

We have done twelve swaps thus far (with more planned) and each time I've managed to eke out a story or two. In Barcelona we had this secluded house with a swimming pool, but people kept showing up. Maids, the pool man, the Culligen man. The gardner and hedge cutters. We'd wake up in the morning and there'd be a small man in powder blue shorts, standing just feet from our bed (the pool man). In Todi I thought I heard voices coming from the cellar of the old medieval tower where we lived. And later the owner told me that indeed that cellar had a dark story of its own.

In France on a cold afternoon I slipped into a woman's sweats and, over lunch in a nearby restaurant, learned the sad story of a girl who'd died a tragic death, leaving her parents bereft. In Ireland there was the drama of the missing calf and the discovery of something at a local aquarium, known as a "mermaid's purse." And in Belgium, perhaps the strangest of all, we stayed in a house where an old woman had died just weeks before.

You don't find these kinds of stories in hotels where strangers make up your bed and waiters bring you your meals. Stories take time to evolve. Not just days, weeks, and sometimes even years. But each of these narratives came because we lived somewhere. We had walked into a world we didn't know.

As my teacher, John Gardener once said, we were the strangers who came to town. And everything unfolded from there. I don't want to think of that sad family in that balloon hoax (who were trying to get on that reality TV show, "Wife Swapping"). I prefer life swapping - switching tales, not partners, and walking for a brief time into someone else's dream.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 old piece I wrote about Ireland when we did our exchange with a family from County Clare.

Irish Mist: Reflections on Irish Weather

As I sit at the seaside home we have come to on the West Coast of Ireland, I contemplate the fog. It has been thick and gray for the past three days. Before that it was mist. In the weeks we have been here we have spordically seen the sun, and always, it seems a day when we are traveling.

It's not that we weren't forewarned. Friends gently urged us to take all our rain gear. An ardent Ireland traveler told me over drinks in early July to bring a wool dress. Wool, I thought. It is summer. I came with a kind of naive disbelief. Like anyone setting off on a perilous course, I was sure it wouldn't happen to me.

But there were warning signs when we arrived. An illuminated sign, showing a couple, relaxing on a Caribbean beach, said "It's easier from Shannon to take your summer sun holidays in 2002." Only briefly did I ask myself: why would they need summer sun? Then on the Aran Islands as we took a ride, shivering, in a pony cart with a cold mist in our faces, our driver turned to us in the laconic Aran way and said, "Well, at least you got a break in the weather." I was unclear why this was a break until we spotted a souvenir t-shirt. It showed a sheep, dressed for all four seasons. In three he was dressed for rain and in the fourth he wore a snowsuit.

The past few weeks during which it has been too cold to head to the beach, which is why we came here, have given me time to think about the Irish character and its relationship to weather. Descended from the ancient Celts, a loosely organized band, the Irish have maintained a fierce independence, a rugged sense of resignation, a twinkle in the eye, and a strong sense of the here and now.
In America we live by our ten-day weather forecasts. Indeed the language of our weather reports has a kind of poetry to it: Early clouds soon open to bright sun. Cold front moving in will bring crisp, breezy day. We want to know all things before they happen and our weathermen seem to make promises they can actually keep. Many times I have planned my life based on the Yahoo weathermap. Indeed our weathermen are minor celebrities and we all know Storm Field (great name, of course) and Al Rolker. We are sometimes amateur meterologists ourselves. If I call my father in Milwaukee and tell him it's raining, he says, "Oh, you'll get our sunshine tomorrow." And he's always right.

But who's an Irishman or woman to call. Their country is no bigger than Cuba. If the mother from Cork calls her son in Galway and says, "What's it doing up by you," chances are its doing the same as down by her. A waiter in Connemara put it this way as we slipped into a restaurant to escape the driving rain, in Ireland you get all four seasons in one day. An Irish friend offered this up as the Irish forecast. If it's sunny in the morning, it will rain by the evening and vice versa.

My husband calls this the ten-minute forecast. As we sit home on a cold, foggy afternoon, playing a l983 British edition of Trivial Pursuit the question presents itself. What is the name of a person who studies the weather? And we all realize that, unlike how many eyes does a bat have, this is not a trick question. The notion of an Irish weatherman is a bit of a paradox to them. At the very least he seems irrelevant.

My Canadian husband is befuddled by this. Weather is the first thing we discuss with our relatives. It is the major topic, especially when people can't say what's really on their minds. For example we received a letter from a childhood friend who wrote the first page on the weather (How little snow we've had this season) and the second page moved seamlessly into the break-up of his marriage. My husband is perplexed by the Irish seeming indifference to their climate. To him it's like a country whose economy is on the brink of collapse and everyone hides his money under the mattress and goes merrily along.

But even in this fog and chilly air, I think I see. Ireland remains true to its pagan roots and mysticism and superstition abound. As we watch a blazing red sunset, a neighbor joins us and said, "Red sun at night; sailors delight." But in the morning when nothing has changed, we alter it to "Red sun at night in Ireland isn't right."

One night a flock of birds appears. Thousands and thousands soar overheard. As we run out to see, a neighbor's child turn to us and says, "It will be hot tomorrow. We learned this in school. When the birds come in flocks, it will be hot tomorrow." But the next day when it is just as cold as it has been we are left to ponder the efficacy of the Irish public school system.

I ask the mother of a friend who lives in Tralee what an Irish weatherman does for a living and she replies, "Oh, they just cover all the bases. A little wind, a little rain, a little sun, a little fog." Yet no one seems too upset by this. Indeed no one thinks very much about it as they blithely put on their slickers and move their livestock or plough their fields, as they take children for walks or even swim in the sea which we saw people doing several times in rainstorms. There are no predictions here. No "what will come tomorrow." Anything goes.

It is what I have come to admire about the Irish character.

In pubs they sing of shipwrecks and brokenhearts and the heroes of Ireland, but no one sings of the weather. The only person ever to discuss the weather with us in any detail was a despondant Hungarian innkeeper and a neighbor who kept asking cheerily, "So what do you think of our Irish weather." We did once listen to about a dozen takes of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Stormy Weather" and thought the tape was stuck until we realized it was the restaurant's idea of a joke. And it's not lost on us that their number one liqueur is called Irish Mist.

But to me it all goes back to those Celts who cast their lot with an unyielding land, but also believe in fairies in the Liss. To them this land where little grows is magical and they have clung to it fiercely through years of oppression. They aren't going to be bothered by a few drops. They will strike as defiant pose and carry on. They will head to their pubs for a pint and a song.

I know when I will next see the sun. When my plane lifts off in a few days. Meanwhile this fog which sits outside my window is nothing to them. It will come. It will go. And it has a beauty of its own.

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