Friday, July 25, 2014

Get Lost!

My husband and daughter are on a long-planned road trip.  They are going to run in the Nova Scotia marathon in Barrington, Nova Scotia.  They are driving up the coast to Maine, then on to New Brunswick, taking the bridge across to NS.  Yesterday late in the day I received this first text from my daughter on the road.  "We"ve already lost something."  I envisioned credit cards, running shoes, a wheel off the car, something essential to their endeavor, but when I ask what she wrote back.  "The map flew out the window."

I was fairly certain which map that was.  The carefully annotated one of New England that we'd had in the car for about ten years.  I'm not sure if we ever really used it, but I know that Larry who was somewhat apprehensive about this trip (long drive, grown-up daughter, 26 mile race, etc) told me he'd marked their route.  He had it all planned.  He'd showed me the four pages of mapquest directions (drive .05 miles, make sharp left on to the ramp, drive .03, etc).  Of course I probably would have done the same thing, but I teased him a bit. I told him then to just throw it away.  Just drive northeast, I said.

When I heard that it was the map that they lost, I was, of course, relieved, but also I felt oddly happy with this news.  I wrote back to Larry.  Here is the message of the map.  Get lost!
Getting lost in this day and age isn't that easy to do.  In fact it requires some reverse skills.  No GPS for instance.  No smartphone Google maps. In Morocco in the Sahara we used a GPS for the first time.  It kept saying, "Wrong road; turn around" until I unplugged it.

Matt Gross who was once the frugal traveler for the New York Times and now has gone out on his own wrote a series for the Times about just this theme.  He began in Tangiers.  He traversed the city with no map, no guidebook, no guide.  Just following his nose.  Matt wrote about doing the two things that he loved most:  sitting in one place for a long time and doing nothing; ambling without destination.

There's a word for this in French.  You call someone a "flanner."  He walks without purpose or plan; he has no where specific to go and nothing to do.  You walk for the sake of walking.  And in the process you can get lost.

I've never been one for itineraries.  Once we were planning a trip with dear friends and as we were planning it it was becoming clearer and clearer that they were people who had plans and we weren't. There's a famous saying by the founder of the Dada movement - I think it was Tristan Tzara - who said that not having a plan is a plan.  I like that notion.  It is my plan not to have a plan.  In the end we do best traveling alone.

God's curse to Adam was "You will be a restless wanderer."  The words "travel" and "trip" in fact come from the term Latin term tripalium which was a form of Roman torture similar to impalement.  Nobody knows how tripalium morphed into travail in French and travel in English.  How impalement transformed itself into a Eurail pass.  One other interesting detail.  If you Google tripalium, trip advisor and trip planner come up right after it.  I'm not sure what this means.  Though I would say that for me any plan is a form of torture.

For me the pleasure is in the wandering.  It is in the moment when, as E.M. Forester wrote so beautiuflly in "Room With A View" you are visiting Florence without your Baedecker.  It is when you cancel the guide. Or when your map flies out the window.

I believe that for Larry and Kate the fun has just begun.  It is the difference between taking a trip and traveling.  And once you allow that the journey is the destination, and the map is not the real way, then there's no telling what you'll find.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Old Woman in Hong Kong, leaning on a wall...

Larry says you're a poem, not a story, but it is your story that draws me in.  We saw you when we arrived and now you are here again as if to mark our leaving.

You stand by the wall, peering down, morning after morning - watching the people as they come and go.  The parents, taking children to school, lovers who've just tumbled out of bed on their way to work, husbands and
wives, mother going to market, nannies with babies.  Dogs.

You watch them all as you stand at your wall - your caregiver at your side.  I imagine that you are standing on an egg crate, some kind of a box, just high enough for you to perch your elbow on this wall.

In this sea of high rises the wall that surrounds you stands out.  It is low, perhaps not six feet high, made of stone.  Behind it I can see houses, trees.  I like to think that it is a small village, a remnant of the past, and when you are gone it will be gone too.  If we come back in a year or more, I'm sure this enclosure in which you dwell will be torn down.  It cannot survive you.

I long to peek behind, to walk in the door that is always open on Mosque Road.  I peer in and can see the shabby huts that comprise the neighborhood where you dwell.  I am curious.  I want to know what goes on behind this wall.  I want to see where you live, to walk in your garden.  I want to step inside your trailer or your house.

Instead I watch you, watching.  If someone waves, you greet them.  Otherwise your eyes just follow the flow of the escalators, the sea of humanity that flows by as we sit across the way in a cafe, watching you watch them.

Life streams by and you are old.

What is your story?  Or is it a poem? Is the caregiver your daughter as I'd like to believe?  Or a loyal daughter-in-law?  Have you loved someone?  Is he gone?  When did he leave you?

My eyes are filled with tears as life passes you by.  You are my mother.  When I look back, you are already turning to leave.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone.  Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.


I'm not sure this post requires any explanation but perhaps a little context.  In Thailand our last morning with friends we went early in the morning to give offerings to the monks in exchange for their blessings.   Then a few hours later at the airport, leaving Bangkok, we were always blessed - by Ronald McDonald.  End of story.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Blackie: South Dakota, October 1986

Last week my daughter, Kate,and her boyfriend moved into a new apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  It's only a few minutes away, near the water, in a place we love.  Her dad and I wanted to help them get settled so we began going through things around the house that we thought they might need or enjoy.  Also, full disclosure, we were happy to clean out the basement and her room a little as we move into this next phase of our lives.

Digging in the basement yesterday I found this photo that I shot almost 28 years ago.  It had hung in Kate's room for years but after she graduated from college, moved to DC, and then to LA, it had stayed behind and finally was relegated to a stack of neglected framed artwork.  When I found it yesterday it was covered in dust, but I brushed it off and there it was once again.  Blackie.

It was in October, 1986  I had gone to South Dakota to visit my friend, Dan O'Brien, and stay for a while on his ranch.  I was almost six months pregnant and my life was, more or less, in shambles.  My partner of many years didn't want to get married and I'd decided to go it alone.  I had no idea what this meant and I had no idea what lay ahead.  But it was beginning to occur to me that, unlike a sweater from Bloomingdales, I could not take this back. 

I had for most of my adult life avoided decisions, commitments.  I'd managed to be fairly undecisive in everything except my desire to be a writer.  That was my one constant.  My work.  And now I would have this child.   I assumed that this trip out to Dan's would be one of my last journeys for a long time.  Maybe years.  I assumed that a child would alter my life so that it was no longer recognizable to me.  

I read once that cowbirds need to go where the buffalo roam.  Their entire food supply comes from the mites on the buffalo's back.  And so they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds because cowbirds don't have time to be parents.  For years I'd just assumed I was like the cowbird.  I had no time for parenthood.  And now here I was, very pregnant, and very alone.  

As I walked through the fields around Dan's place, a loyal dog named Jake stayed with me and I'd decided that if Kate was a boy I'd name her Jake.  I was alone in the fields on this day except for Jake.  Dan was off somewhere, riding the range.  There was this moment when the sky was dark and a streak of golden sunlight came down.  

I got the image I wanted.  This wasn't photoshopped or instagrammed.  It's just the way the sky and the fields and Blackie looked at that moment.   It's one of those moments I'll never forget and I am so grateful that I was able to capture it on film.  This wasn't my last journey, not by a long shot.  In fact when Kate was born in late January, the first thing I told the labor room nurse was that I used to be a travel writer.  "Make her sleep in different places," was her advice to me.  "She'll go anywhere."

So I did.  I made Kate sleep in my bed, in baskets and even drawers, and sometimes her crib.  And the fact is she will go anywhere.  And for years she roamed.  When she moved out west, I thought that was where she'd made her home.  That was where she'd be.

Now she lives a few minutes away and this morning I drove Blackie over to her new place.  I had a car full of other things - artwork from her room, bits of furniture.  She wanted the furniture but didn't want any of the art.  "I brought Blackie," I told her.

And she said in that childlike voice she sometimes uses, "I want Blackie."  So now he is back with her and she is back near us.  As with any journey that isn't exile, there is always the moment of return. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Meal and A Memory: for Urdin

It's a rainy Sunday morning as our flight from Barcelona is landing in San Sebastian in Basque Country, the north of Spain.   We've been to San Sebastian many times and, in some ways, it is our favorite place to be.  We love it water-front city, its food, and its people. We have come to San Sebastian only for the day.  We are going to the house of friends for a meal in the country.

We met our friends, Carmen and Josep, the year before when we did a house swap with them.  We've done many house swaps mainly all over Europe (it is how we travel), but we really hit it off with them.  As Josep said many times, "es un suerte."  It is good fortune that we met one another.  They offered us their flat in Barcelona where we stayed this past May and also invited us to come and spend a night or two with them.  Their oldest son, Urdin, who is "a good cook" would make us lunch.  We would fly home the next day.

Really we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into.  We just assumed that lunch was a meal in the middle of the day. But for the Basque, and Spanish, people for whom food and family are everything lunch is something else.  Carmen had informed me that Urdin, her oldest son, had been planning our meals for weeks, but still it did not prepare me for the feast we were about to enjoy.

Urdin and his wife's house is set out in the countryside.  It is on land that belonged to his wife's family and was parceled out among brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles.  Urdin and his family live in a house that is attached to the house of their in-laws.  Everyone comes and goes.  There seems to be a free flow of people as well as animals, dogs, cats, cows.  We hadn't been there long when buckets of steamed mussels appeared and bottles of my favorite Basque wine, Txacoli.  We made our way through the mussels, then the lobster salad, the baked cod on potato slices, the cooked to perfection chocolate souffle.

It was Urdin's chocolate souffle that brought another memory to mind.  Many years ago Larry and I were eating lunch at a restaurant in Paris that was well-beyond our means.  A friend had recommended and told me the price which I assumed was for two (it was for one and didn't include wine).  When our menus arrived Larry whispered to me, "Order the skate; just the skate."  As in the olden days only his menu had the prices and the skate was all that we could afford.

At any rate we were there, having our meal which was delicious, but not particularly memorable, and, as I took a bite from my chocolate souffle dessert, I dropped my fork because it was so good.  In fact the only thing I really remember about that meal was Larry whispering to order the skate and me dropping my fork.

But after that whenever we had a good meal, Larry and I began to ask each other if it was a "drop your fork" meal.  In truth there haven't been that many in our lives.  There was a great lunch we had in Tarragona near some Roman ruins.  Grandma's lasagna that we ate under some fig trees near Lago de Garda.  A chicken tangine in Tangier that reminded me of my grandmother's cooking.  A night by the Tiber River with our friends, Gloria and Giovanni.  And a few more I can't recall but they all happen while we are on the road, traveling, often with family and friends.  What we came to decide about "drop your fork" is that it's not just about the meal because we've all had good meals.  But it was the memory and the experience of the meal that mattered the most.

We had no idea when we embarked upon it that this lunch would turn into a day, the day into night.  Or that at some point someone would place a blanket over me as I napped under a tree.  And then wake to my husband and our Basque friends dancing to Greek music.  We had no idea that the day would entail many wonderful courses, flowing wine, great laughs.  Or that Carmen and Josef's other son, Iker, would bring with all the watercolors he'd painted in the past year and offer for me to choose one.  It is at the framer's as we speak. We had no idea that hours later, as the sun was setting, we'd be walking in the farmland before we staggered home.

As we walked in the hills, Urdin spoke to me about this blog.  I had no idea he read it but he told me that he enjoyed these short essays about journeys and the images that accompanied them.  He asked me why I had been silent for so long.  I told him that I'd been busy, traveling and living my life.  But I promised him, and
here I hope I am fulfilling that promise, that when next I wrote, it would be about him. 

As we were heading back towards San Sebastian Carmen asked us what we'd like to do for dinner. "Dinner?"  Larry and I were in shock.  We'd just finished lunch.  But not our Basque friends.  As soon as we were home, we headed out across the street to their local tapas bar where we ate more food and drank more wine and stumbled into bed, slept four hours, and managed somehow for some reason that still eludes me to make our flight home.

A few weeks before in a tapas bar in Barcelona we met a young couple.  Actually they shared their ham croquets and then we started sharing beer and stories.  I don't remember her name, but she said as we were leaving that in Spain everything happens around a table.

And a meal that is a "drop your fork" isn't only about the food.  A meal like that is an experience and that experience without a doubt becomes a memory - in this case one we will never forget.