Travel

British for a Day (or More): Reflections on Doing the Touristy Things

London has long held a prominent place in my imagination, jostling for space in there with Paris and Rome. At times London has the advantage, especially if I’m reading about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, the ambassador John Adams, or Churchill and the Blitz. It has been variously populated in my mind by Elinor Dashwood, any number of Dickensian characters, Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and Harry Potter. And, of course, there’s Sherlock, the greatest of all the sleuths on the telly, calling London home.

I admit I geeked out when my London guidebook came in the mail and I glanced over the Tube map. St. James—Piccadilly—Baker Street—Hyde Park—oh my! What’s a girl to do when she wants to see all the things? Well, she just puts on her comfy walking shoes and indulges in everything British!

Good morning, Big Ben!

Since this was our first trip to London we tried to hit the essentials. I won’t bore you with descriptions of them all as, honestly, you can travel the world from your internet browser. But I do want to share the experiences that left me feeling happy to be British for the day.

The Birthday of a Queen

Our first day of sightseeing was a humdinger. On our Tube ride to Westminster, we were surrounded by Londoners dressed to the nines in top hats and tails for the men and high heels and wild hats for the women. Once street-side, these dandies moved en masse toward an undisclosed location. A friendly policeman told us it was the Queen’s birthday and that shortly “Trooping the Colour” would take place at the Horse Parade (which was just a fancy way of saying “The Queen’s Birthday Parade” was about to start). We moved on to get in line to see Westminster Abbey and thought, “Well, that was fun to see all of those people.”

Westminster Abbey overwhelmed all of my expectations. I’d been to a few cathedrals already and wasn’t thrilled at the nearly forty pounds it would cost to get in. But at the risk of sounding cliché, the Abbey was stunning and I was bowled over by the history packed into its every nook and cranny. It isn’t often that you can stand in a place where nearly a millennium’s-worth of monarchs have been crowned, married, and laid to rest. Every square inch of the Abbey is a monument to someone whose name is probably halfway familiar. My favorite area was the light and airy Lady Chapel; Mary I and Elizabeth I, sisters and rivals, are buried together here. I was somewhat heartbroken that photography wasn’t allowed and I hope to get back there sooner rather than later to absorb even more.

After spending a good hour or more in the Abbey, we decided to find our next stop, the Churchill War Rooms, which wasn’t far off near Downing Street. My husband suggested that we ask a policeman if the Queen was still around where we could see her. I never want to actually look like a tourist, so I shied away from this idea, saying that there was no chance she was around since all of the crowds were gone. But he, fearing nothing, walked up to the next smiling cop, who told us that in approximately fifteen minutes she would be coming out on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, just the other side of the park. So we went tearing off through St. James’s Park and came out near the Victoria Memorial fountain in front of the palace, where I happily gave my husband all of the credit. We magically ended up with a perfect view of the balcony and with more than a few minutes to spend thinking, “This is unreal.”

At one p.m. on the dot, the Queen walked out on the balcony following a fanfare. And as if that weren’t amazing enough, the rest of the royal family joined her a minute later. I like to think that, whoever the next reigning monarch may be, I have seen him (or her?). We cheered with the crowds during the flypast, happy to join the British on their special day, although when the red, white, and blue were in the air, there were a few cries of “USA!” and “Vive la France!” to be heard). Seeing the Queen and the royal family was quite a rush, one of those serendipity moments that could not have been planned better had we tried. We walked off in love with foreign travel, gladly forgetting that, the night before, we had arrived too late to eat any dinner and were nearly too hot to sleep in London’s record-setting heat.

We finished our first sight-seeing day at the Churchill War Rooms where we learned, among other things, that Churchill was quite the character and that we weren’t sure we would have liked him personally. But the Rooms were perfect for indulging that curiosity about what it would be like to be hidden underground beneath and behind floors and walls of concrete upwards of ten feet thick.

More reflections coming soon!

Jane Austen’s Bath

“I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath–I do like it so very much . . . Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?” —Northanger Abbey

Visiting Bath, England, was a treat for this Brit-lit lover because the city has, to a great degree, the same form and appearance that it had in Jane Austen’s lifetime. Its eighteenth-century Georgian architecture and honey-colored Cotswold limestone have been lovingly maintained and an Austenite can walk from Jane’s lodgings at the eastern end of town to the Assembly Rooms or Pump Room following the same streets and taking in the same sights (cars and tourists aside) that she did.

The streets hum with activity as walkers take in the shops, peruse the Roman Baths, stop for tea and Bath Buns, and admire the Abbey. The mind’s eye can easily overlay 2017 with a vision of the past—the outlying farmers bringing their produce to market, the elegantly dressed young ladies out for their morning air, the grandest women riding across town in sedan chairs, or Beau Nash himself (the King of Bath) marshaling the cream of society for a daily round of polite gambling and dancing.

The Royal Crescent, with No. 1 at far right.

Bath’s most elite citizens at the end of the eighteenth century made their homes on the Royal Crescent: that iconic, gently curved row of stately houses with a wide-angle view of the countryside. Having a Royal Crescent address, or even a house on its sister The Circus, was just as sought-after as the medicinal effects of Bath’s renowned waters. For many of England’s nobility, it was enough just to rent one of these houses a few months out of the year. Others came and, flush with cash, decided to stay. Such was the case at Number One, Royal Crescent, where Henry Sandford of Ireland lived from 1776 to 1796. Number One is a house museum today, restored and decorated as it would have been during Sandford’s years in the house.

Number One Royal Crescent is one of the better-presented house museums that I have visited, including many of my favorites here in the U.S. The house appeared to be professionally cared for and in tip-top shape. I was interested to note the many similarities between Number One and the houses from the same period that survive in Charleston—the architecture, furniture, and attention to fine, classical details. It is obvious that Charleston’s wealthiest residents were connoisseurs of English taste and lived in just as high a style as their counterparts in England. The docents in the museum here were, however, the best part of the house. An elderly (I’m assuming volunteer) lady was stationed in each room, supplied with fun facts and ready to answer questions. Each one was cheerful and gracious, just as you would imagine an English lady to be, and all together they left a wonderful impression on me.

Of course, my imagination was also piqued here because it was only a few short decades later that Jane would have rubbed shoulders with occupants of houses like Number One. The interiors looked like a BBC costume drama and there was a pianoforte in one room fit for Georgiana Darcy. However, I learned several startling things about that time period while visiting the house that forcefully reminded me that the past is a foreign country. Think, for example, of the chamber pots kept in each room of the house (I used to think they were just for, well, bedchambers). There would have been one in the dining room, of all places, behind a screen. Fortunately the men would have waited for the women to withdraw from the room after dinner before using it, but they still had no reservations about using the pot while continuing a conversation with their friends. The women who needed to use a chamber pot had to return to their bedrooms, where they would have needed the assistance of their maids to sit down on one. Then—there was the meat rotisserie in the basement kitchen, operated by a captured stray dog. Opinions wavered as to whether this was cruelty or kindness, since the dog would have been fed well in payment for his labor. I was also confronted in the kitchen with the lack of refrigeration, or really even an icebox, and the terrible question of what did they do with their food? I guess you would have had to eat up—because the leftovers won’t be any good tomorrow!

Eavesdropping

Abacus, 2014.

I found a fun book along these lines while I was in Bath—Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The Adkins follow English men and women, rich and poor, from birth to death, as Jane would have found them. While some sections were dry and fact-laden, others were intriguing and even at times appalling or downright hilarious.

I laugh to read of the “smock weddings,” where a bride could appear naked or in her shift to make plain that she brought nothing to her marriage or to release her groom from paying her debts, and of wife-selling, the easiest way for the poor to “divorce.” As a mother, I shudder as I read about dangerous birthing practices and infant and mother mortality rates, and I have to scratch my head at the common practice, even in Jane’s family, of fostering out infants “until deemed old enough to return home.” What? And then I have to be thankful for modern sensibilities that allow for women and poor people to be educated; in the nineteenth century I would have been way out of my place as a woman. My stomach turns at the lack of personal hygiene and heads filled with lice and at the idea of not wearing underwear.

There are aspects of Jane’s world that are attractive, such as the quiet, the slower pace of movement, and even the thought of sharing books around the evening fire. I also admit I like her time-period’s taste for classical beauty in its art and architecture. Yet after a day spent wandering Jane’s Bath, I was thoroughly grateful to eat fresh, tasty food, take a hot shower, and throw myself on a clean bed in an icy, air-conditioned room.

The River Avon from the Pulteney Bridge

The Pump Room

One of the Assembly Rooms

Great Pulteney Street

Bath Abbey

Serendipity in Italy, Part 3

I’m homesick for Tuscany. But “homesick” doesn’t seem to be the right word, as I’ve never been “home” there. Is there a word for how I feel about a place that isn’t my home? I feel the same way about Colorado and the alpine cabin I spent a week in every summer for six years. Its a punch in the gut when I see a picture of that far-away place, a warm prickle of longing when I replay a memory in my mind. Its the kind of feeling reserved for the most special of places and faces. It happens when I see a picture from Tuscany—a hilltop village baked golden brown in the sun—or hear the name Siena.

For this series, I’ve gone through my vacation memories and pulled out the serendipitous moments. Siena, though, was Serendipity. From start to finish, Siena boasted the best day and a half of our trip.

Siena wasn’t as much about seeing the sights as experiencing Tuscany. We saw the duomo, its baptistery, and a strange crypt-like room—each only halfway memorable—and we wandered the frescoed halls of the Palazzo Pubblico, which was more memorable. These were smaller repeats of things we had seen in Florence. Siena, though, came across as the “real-deal” Tuscany. [I won’t go too far with that statement because Siena is still one of the larger towns in the region and there’s so much more to explore; the smaller towns are probably even more so the “real deal”]. It had all of the Tuscan charm of Florence without the size or bustle.

In Siena, we said, “This is Italy.”

Let’s start with our journey into Siena. The train was a relic; it had at most three cars hooked together and moseyed its way out of the station. Rick Steves’ warning that Italian trains run slow was at last proved correct. The mint-colored interior of our car appeared to have been untouched for at least forty years. There was no climate control and the narrow windows were opened school-bus style, allowing hot air to buffet our faces. But no matter. The route the train followed (and this held true for the train out of Siena as well) was a back country road compared to the interstate of the other train routes we had taken. We ponderously crossed over the main streets of villages with names like Castelfiorentino and Poggibonsi, their houses and businesses stacked right up to the tracks. We meandered through dozens of sunflower fields and a few vineyards. The distant views of tiny, ancient towns crowning nearly every rise kept me glued to the window and vowing to come back someday in a car.

The taxi ride from the station to the hotel was unforgettable. The driver shot through the narrow, inches-wide streets, while shoppers and tourists and grannies wove around the car and stepped off of the sidewalk without a glance to the right or left. I know I held my breath, and I know he missed people by inches. I would like to see some statistics on hit-and-run incidents in Italy.

Now, I always feel some trepidation about booking foreign non-chain hotels sight-unseen and booking one in Siena was no exception. This time, however, I hit the jackpot. I’m not even sure I will name it online for fear it will be “discovered.” It was more than just a home base, a place to sleep and maybe eat breakfast. I would call our hotel a Tuscan destination.

My expectations were low as the taxi pulled up to a nondescript door along a very brown side street (everything here was sienna—the name given to that brownish-orange color of earth in Siena). The hotel foyer was also unremarkable, though it appeared to have its original period ceiling. But that view down the hall—! Through double glass doors at the end of the hall was a landscaped terrace with a low, stone wall overlooking endless miles of Tuscan countryside. And, when we made it up to our room after checking in with a crew of cheerful, lovely young ladies, we had the same view from the window. Our room had a timber and clay tile ceiling over a fluffy bed, a luxurious bathroom, and I was starting to wonder why I had thought we needed only one night in Siena.

For lunch we found a hole-in-the-wall ristorante around the corner from the hotel. A large group of attractive young, dark-haired, Italian men filled the front room, sitting around a dining-room-sized table sharing platters of mouthwatering food. A huge refrigerated case full of cheeses, meats, and all manner of pasta concoctions took up the rest of the space. We ordered from a hand-written, all-Italian menu, and asked for nearly every tomato dish they offered. My mouth is watering remembering the bruschetta, caprese, and panzanella, all piled high with chunks of sweet tomato and ribbons of basil. Hands down, it was the best food I ate in Italy.

The Duomo of Siena

The floor in the duomo was covered in these intricate designs.

A stunning ceiling with gold leaf in the Palazzo Pubblico.

Dinner that night was a close second. It might have taken top honors if I hadn’t still been suffering from a bad cold, which caught up with me again at dinnertime. Even so, eating at the Antica Osteria da Divo was one of the most fun dining experiences I have had. A hostess led us through the brightly-lit, cavernous restaurant toward a set of stairs at the back. We followed her down into a cellar-like room, with tunnels leading off in several directions. Our table had its own niche in the rock, making it a quiet and cozy space. We snuck a few surreptitious pictures after the hostess walked away. We shared a family-sized bowl of ribolitta soup, bolognese (that I am still trying to replicate) over fresh tagliatelle, and stuffed pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes. There may have been some more chocolate mousse involved, too. I was able to taste only half of the food around blowing my nose, but I’d do it again in a minute.

The interior of the Antica Osteria da Divo.

The day had turned to night by the time we left the restaurant; it was dark and mild. We wandered toward the piazza in the glowing light spilling from storefronts and restaurants, casually searching for the day’s serving of gelato. We found a spot to sit directly on the still sun-warmed stone pavement of the piazza, facing the beautiful tower of the Palazzo. Siena’s piazza is the largest open town square in Italy, and people treat it like a beach—spreading out, reclining, and people-watching.

We settled in for what turned out to be our most entertaining people-watching adventure yet. Couples and children strolled around us from every direction, the young Arabs were peddling the same light-up toys that we had seen in Florence, but the group that drew our eyes stood only a few feet away. There were two middle-aged couples and two teenaged boys, probably from Germany. They looked and interacted like in-laws and cousins. One of the boys had bought a light-up spinner and tried to set it in motion. The trick was to fling it up in the air, like shooting a rubber band, and it would float in a helicopter motion back to the ground. The peddlers could launch them as high as the roofs surrounding the piazza. The boys could not launch it more than a couple of feet and sideways. After several minutes of futility, one of the men motioned for the spinner with a “Here, let me do this” face. He confidently grasped the toy, flicked the band—and it smacked back into his hand. He shook out his hand in pain while his family burst into laughter. Then he began to giggle. And giggle. We watched for fifteen hilarious minutes as first one family member, then another, tried the toy with little luck. They never stopped laughing; they had themselves so wound up that we started laughing, too.

We could not understand a word of their language, yet laughing with them created an instant affinity for a family we’d never met and would never see again. We were reminded, as we were so many times on this trip, that people are the same the world over. When they finally drifted away, the piazza felt sadly empty and quiet. In a few short minutes, we got up and wandered off, too.

The next morning, I admit that I was rueing my decision to move on to Rome after only one day in Siena. But we squeezed every last drop of pleasure out of our time. The countryside was bright and clear, the air soft before the heat of the day. We found a gourmet cold breakfast on the terrace: hams, cheeses, boiled eggs, fruit, breads with an abundance of honeys, jams, and butters, and teas and coffees. We parked along the stone wall in a shady, cool spot. After we had eaten, one of us went back to our room for our books; we wanted desperately to prolong the enjoyable moment. Pulling away at last was hard. This was a place and time to be bottled up for safekeeping in our memory.

Given the abundance of over-exuberant travelogues—maybe including the one you just read—the reality of this “homesick” feeling gets lost in superlatives and cliche. It is hard to avoid saying, “This was the best pasta I ever ate … That was the most charming village I’ve ever seen ….” The truth is, though, some places stick with you more than others, and it’s a surprising sensation. I really have no idea why my brain would assign the same emotion to a place where I spent a few days as it does to places where I’ve spent years of my life. But it does.

Maybe someday I’ll invent the right word to add to the lexicon.

Serendipity in Italy: Part Two

The second leg of our Italian vacation took us into small-town Italy. If you haven’t read about the first part yet, read up on Florence here.

The Cinque Terre

Our second stop in Italy was the Cinque Terre (cheen-kweh tare-eh), a strip along the Mediterranean where five small villages (“Five Lands”) cling to the coast. Again we suffered in the European transportation purgatory in order to get there, packed onto the train like sardines. We traveled from Florence, and the view from the train was lovely. Tuscany stretched around us, each hilltop boasting a farmhouse and olive grove. I faced backwards so I couldn’t see what was coming and spent most of my time reading and brushing up my knowledge of the Roman Empire. At one point I raised my eyes to discover an unexpected vista of alpine mountains stretched out on the near horizon. I knew these couldn’t be the Alps. I learned later that most of Italy is mountainous and that we were passing the Apuan Alps. The train passed by Carrara, the home of the famed marble and, sure enough, the mountains around that stop gleamed white. We also passed through Pisa and we craned our necks looking for that famed tower, but it remained hidden from sight.

After we made our final train switch at La Spezia Centrale station, the train plunged into tunnel after tunnel through the mountains on its way toward the coast. I became distracted by the nagging suspicion that my train ticket might not have been “validated,” a fact that our host in the Cinque Terre indicated via email would be a terrible thing. I imagined angry plain-clothes policemen storming into the compartment and fining me 100 Euros for neglecting to validate. There were four British ladies “on holiday” seated around us in our compartment, and they debated their ticket validation back and forth amongst themselves. We all eventually settled down, each to our separate thoughts, eyes glued to the windows even in the darkness of the tunnels.

With a rush of air, the train suddenly burst out into the blinding sunshine. All of us—myself, my husband, and the Britishers—gasped audibly. Spread across my side of the train was the Mediterranean, sparkling and wide, bracketed by two small outcroppings of the mountain holding the train. Nearly straight down from us, the water was of the purest, brightest blue, clear all the way to the rocks at the bottom. My beach experience so far in life had been of the wide, flat, and sandy South Carolina variety. This, the Mediterranean, was rugged and exotic.

With the strangeness and unreliability of Italian trains, we were abruptly deposited on one of these ocean-side mountain niches on an isolated platform and told by intercom that we had reached the end of the line. We would have to wait for yet another train. But at least this time we had something marvelous to look at.

Arriving in Vernazza, our base in the Cinque Terre, was a little bit like being dumped in a box of pastel crayons. The platform emptied right into the village’s one-and-only narrow street, which plunged steeply downhill and around a bend lined with tall, squeezed-together houses in all shades of pink, coral, orange, and red. The short street dumped right out into the harbor at its end. Our host, Ivo, a grizzled sailor type, greeted us in English with so thick an accent that I could barely make it out. He grabbed up our luggage and took off down the street. Our tiny room was right off of the street, across from his family’s ristorante, and up at least four flights of steps. My enduring memory of this little room is the miniature clothesline attached to the windowsill where I hung out our underwear for all of the Vernazza world to see.

Vernazza is a good place for wandering and watching because there really isn’t much to do. We climbed the maze-like steps—labeled like streets—up to the medieval tower guarding the village. Each turn in the “road” made for a discovery of a new little compartment filled with flowers and herby smells. Surprisingly, this seaside myriad of “streets” was the cleanest and freshest smelling corner of Europe I’ve been in (I was expecting it to smell fishy). From the top we had a grand view of the mountains and the sea and could see all the way to the next villages, Corniglia on one side and Monterosso on the other.

The “streets” of Vernazza.

The view from the guard tower.

On the morning of our second day we walked the seaside trail all the way to Corniglia. The trail was perhaps two miles in length, but I soon discovered that I was in shape only to walk horizontally and much of the trail was either steep ascent or descent. We followed the trail very slowly (thanks to me), but maybe that only means we were able to savor it that much more. The early morning air was muggy and a warm 70 degrees, but the views were spectacular. The trail wove in and out of old olive groves on the mountainside, magical places that tempted me to stop and indulge my imagination. Perched halfway between Vernazza and Corniglia was a lone farmhouse providing for the hikers’ need for refreshment. We stopped briefly (I could have stayed much longer) and had a fresh-squeezed lemonade. Entering Corniglia, we walked through vineyards stacked up the hillsides. Corniglia, being at least twice the size of Vernazza, had a different feel, as if normal life took place there, and was not quite so rustic. Old ladies with their hair done up in kerchiefs talked/yelled at each other across the narrow lanes and a tiny church’s clocktower chimed the hour. As I was not about to walk that two miles again, we rode the train back (and forth—we may have missed our station and/or gotten on the wrong train). I think we spent the rest of that day’s daylight hours asleep. Travel does take its toll.

Vernazza from above.

Corniglia in sight!

Our two days in Vernazza were filled with sun, color, and basil pesto. And gelato (Vernazza claims the distinction of being the home of my favorite gelato flavor—cinnamon). I did have a serendipity moment on our first night in Vernazza. By dinnertime that day I was feeling tired, sick with a bad cold, and a little disappointed that my restaurant of choice was filled up. We re-ascended the maze of steps halfway up to the tower to a different restaurant sitting atop a rock outcropping over the harbor. We were early (Americans are, of course!) and were seated under a big awning by the railing over the harbor. The sun was going down over the distant mountains and the water in the harbor sparkled. Vernazza grew quiet as the day-trippers departed. We ordered a platter with a little bit of everything from the day’s catch. There was a white fish and kalamari and several other things that I couldn’t name. 

Shortly after we’d started our meal, three men walked in from the entrance, one carrying a bass violin, and settled themselves in front of the bar. These wandering troubadours opened their show by singing Dean Martin’s “Amore.” It tickled my funny bone a bit to hear “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie” sung in Italy. Then followed a selection of cheerful popular favorites. They sang for most of our meal and then stayed for big hugs all around from the kitchen staff. We settled up with the “Mamma” sitting near the door with the money box—with not a word of English but with plenty of vigorous nods and the offer of a cookie on our way out.

Back down the steps we went and found a bench on the piazza beside the harbor. It was mostly dark and mostly quiet. A few lights twinkled down the coast, and a trickle of late sea-goers came and went silently in the water. Very few minutes passed before the troubadours came down the steps and set up at one of the piazza restaurants. The classic line from “Amore” started up once more. Two older American couples sat near us, and one of the women jumped up and pulled at her husband’s hand, begging him to join her. Only after many protestations and a lot of giggles on her part did they begin dancing around the square.

There is so much joy to be found in sitting quietly with someone you love and watching other people enjoy themselves. In Vernazza, the happiness was contagious. I didn’t have to be dancing around the square with them to be having just as much fun. Italy was special in this way; with its friendliness and colorfulness, it seemed always to be bringing out such happiness in everyone, no matter their nationality or native tongue. I remember thinking in this moment that Italy had ceased being a foreign country. It was just another place among many to feel a connection with people who are so much like us.

Serendipity in Italy: Part One

My own photo, July 2016.

I’ve decided it’s time to finish writing up my European summer vacation memories before they start to slip away from me. And—eek—it will be summer again before we know it, especially here in South Carolina where the “winter” has been in the 60s and 70s.

A funny thing has happened to those vacation memories; where they used to be vivid and sometimes have rough edges (i.e., the angst of international travel), they have since smoothed out and I’m left with the highlights. I suppose I am now in the zone of rosy retrospect. In a way, I really regret not getting my thoughts—the good and the bad—down sooner. Lesson learned.

I still stick by my assertion that the best travel moments happen serendipitously. The things we planned to do and see were wonderful, but the memories that shine brightest are the unexpected vistas, the hole-in-the-wall places, and the plain old fun of watching other people have a grand time.

Florence

It is way more fun to say Florence as Firenze (frankly, it’s way more fun to say any Italian word as if you’re trying to be that “spicy meatball” guy). Anyway. Florence was our first stop in Italy after a week in France.

The feeling of flying into a foreign country for the first time is quite unlike anything else. There’s so much to discover, it feels as if the sky’s the limit. The fellow passengers are always part of the building anticipation. The first time we went to France, there was a French family waiting at our gate in Atlanta. It was almost more than I could handle. Real French people! A vrai père and mère and bébé! Flying into Florence was no different. There were Mediterranean-featured people at the gate and the flight announcements were in Italian! Ah—Italy!

Unfortunately our arrival in Florence marked the low point of our vacation. The airport is small and almost as soon as we disembarked the plane we were at the airport’s exit. I stopped in my tracks about ten feet back from the door and worried aloud, “Wait, where was customs? Why didn’t they ask for our passports? Are we here legally?” I was just plain ignorant; they don’t check passports within the EU, but for a few awful minutes I was convinced they would come after us for not having our passports stamped. In a haze we wandered around the parking lot until we came upon a bus heading to the center of town.

The outskirts of Florence, like those of any town, are not attractive; they’re industrial, congested, and run-down. But tourists must inevitably pass through them before reaching their reward. Soon enough, the architecture became more regular—Italian Renaissance!—and the landscape more picturesque. I spotted my first of those trees—the tall ones with no branches until the very top, where they fan out like an umbrella—which, appearing in any picture, immediately evoke Italy (I now know they are stone pines). The bus pulled up at the Santa Maria Novella train station and we were off on our own.

Walking down to the street from the train station, we were again immensely thankful that we had traveled with only carry-ons. The Florentine sidewalks are paved with huge stone pavers, irregularly shaped and uneven. There were wall-to-wall people and trying to get through those bumpy lanes was a sweaty job. How fortunate for us that our hotel was just at the corner of one of the avenues radiating from the train station.

The lobby of the hotel looked awfully posh—deep blue walls, white trim, sharp black and white photos tastefully arranged, and a fireplace with stylish chairs before it. It was like jumping into a pool of cool blue water. We stood in line at the desk long enough for me to be hooked. Unfortunately, this is the point where we found out it was not our hotel, because the travel agency had gone out of business the day before. I will spare you the angst. After frantically making phone calls, we found a place that could take us that night for the number of nights we needed. At the moment, I didn’t really care what kind of place it was, so long as I could know for sure I would have a place to sleep that night. We walked back out of that cool blue oasis assured that our new hotel was not far off.

Maybe that hotel wasn’t really far off, but it sure felt like it. Back onto those rough sidewalks, pushing through the people, I was powered by anger and adrenaline. But even that could not tarnish Florence. We turned a couple of corners and a huge dome appeared over the rooftops. I was convinced it was the dome, but I was wrong; it’s only that Florence is packed to the gills with churches. The streets became narrower, quieter, and blessedly shaded. We passed enticing little ristorantes where everyone had piles of pasta before them and leather shops where I’m convinced they blow the scent of leather out onto the street on purpose.

My own photo, July 2016.

My arms were throbbing and shaking from pulling my suitcase by the time we found our hotel. The Hotel Orto dei Medici was nice enough. It had high, vaulted hallways that had crumbling ceiling frescoes here and there. Compared to the posh oasis, this hotel evoked more of an economy hostel on the 19th century Grand Tour. Our room was small and outdated (or put another way, felt really European), but it was a gift after the adrenaline rush of the past couple of hours.

Before leaving the hotel again, we explored some of the empty common rooms. Pushing open the glass doors into the dining room, we discovered the back garden just beyond. The sight of this back garden worked a miracle on me; in that moment, it almost made up for losing out on that blue oasis. Over the next couple of days, it fully made up for the loss. The terrace was completely enclosed by the surrounding residences, but the back side was only two floors tall and above this roof were visible several tall, pointy cypresses and the facade of a very Florentine basilica. Flowering vines covered the golden walls of the terrace and miniature potted orange trees lined the patio beside the al fresco dining area. The hotel claims that it was built in the nineteenth century on the site of Lorenzo de Medici’s art school and that its garden is all that remains of that green space where Lorenzo discovered Michelangelo Buonarroti.

My own photo, July 2016.

For three mornings we breakfasted al fresco in the mild sunshine, enjoying fresh-squeezed orange juice and the satisfying clink of sturdy china coffee cups on the stone cafe tables, surrounded by a Babel of languages and feeling like citizens of the world. Breakfast on the terrace turned out to be one of the most luxurious vacation experiences and most probably my favorite part of Florence.

On our first night out in Florence we intended to get the lay of the land, to find out exactly how far it was to the major sights and how long it would take us to walk between them. Retracing our steps down the narrow street, the bustle began to pick up, the gelato shops appeared every twenty yards, and music and the smell of food floated through the air. Before I was expecting it, we flowed out of the street into the piazza surrounding the Duomo and its Baptistery. These iconic structures were far larger than I had imagined, both looming high overhead, although I think now that some of that sensation came from all of the buildings sitting so close together around the piazza. The Duomo reminded me of an extravagantly frosted cake with its intricate statuary and white stone inlaid with green and red designs.

My own photo, July 2016.

We sat for dinner on the piazza near the entrance to the Duomo. We ordered pizza because we were in Italy and we made a life-changing discovery—Italian pizza is nowhere near as good as American pizza. Friends, Italian pizza is boring. I had it a few more times in other towns and my opinion did not change. I have to admit this was a let-down. I had had such high hopes for Italian food. My expectations in this area were met later, in other ways, but I’ll never think of Italian pizza the same way again. But our night, like the rest of the trip always seemed to do, redeemed itself. A large brass ensemble with at least thirty members began to play on the steps of the Duomo. The bright tones reverberated in the enclosed space of the piazza, and we decided we were having fun.

My own photo, July 2016.

My own photo, July 2016.

The next few days in Florence are a blur in my mind. We walked so much, saw so much, and ate so much. We used our awesome tourist skills (thanks, Rick Steves!) and by-passed an hours-long line to climb the Campanile next to the Duomo—dark, tight, twisting steps up and up, each landing bringing an awe-inspiring vista which was only to be surpassed by the view another one hundred steps further up. The view at the top was one-hundred percent Tuscan. The red-tiled roofs stretched out to the hills, which were topped by cypress and pine and endless villas.

Ham sandwich, Italian style. My own photo, July 2016.

We ate ham sandwiches and bowls of gelato as big as mountains. We shopped in a leather goods store where we were treated royally by a consummate Italian gentleman. We saw sculptures and paintings with about ten million other people alongside. We went to the Galileo museum which turned out to not really be about Galileo. We stood on the Ponte Vecchio among the jewelry shops and watched the Arno river flow by.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Florence again. I hope I will. If I do, you can bet I’ll sit on that Medici terrace again, remembering how it always turned out right in the end.

Good night, Florence. My own photo, July 2016.

Serendipity in France: Part Trois

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Clermont-Ferrand. Construction began in 1248, using volcanic rock that gives it its distinctive dark facade.

It’s time again to pull out some vacation memories. Thanksgiving is upon us and the Christmas craziness will be here all too soon. It is hard to believe that over (or is that only?) four months have passed since our trip to France and Italy.

Of the approximately two weeks that I have spent in France, a dozen of those days have been in Clermont-Ferrand. Clermont-Ferrand is about three hours south of Paris by train, in the Auvergne region. The town appears against a backdrop of small, volcanic mountains after the train passes through hundreds of miles of flat farmland. It is not unlike Greenville in this way (aside from the volcanic part). The jet black towers of a Gothic cathedral crown one of the lowest hills and mark the center of the old medieval city. For all that, Clermont-Ferrand isn’t a glamorous or particularly picturesque town, by any stretch of imagination. I’m sure it can’t compete with the villages of Provence or the Loire Valley or the Alps. But in my world, it’s the location of Michelin’s headquarters and the reason for my two trips to France—so I’ll take it.

Despite its glamorous reputation, I still haven’t come to love French cuisine (sorry, Julia!). I suppose this makes me a rube. Aside from the boeuf bourguignon at a tiny little gem of a place in Paris, French food has not been to my taste. I will happily chow my way through sandwiches au jambon every day of the week for lunch, but dinner-time food is a different story. Thus finding a place to eat dinner in Clermont-Ferrand was a source of tension for me almost every night. I know it was irrational, but it had a lot to do with my level of expectations. I really wanted to have a wonderful dining experience. I didn’t want to waste a single night in Europe on a bad meal. But I remembered one of my worst dining experiences of all time happening during my first trip to Clermont-Ferrand.

fullsizerenderThe restaurant in question was probably a decent place, but I just wasn’t decent at ordering, even with my French skills. When my order arrived, I was overcome—not by the appearance of my food, but by the smell, which greatly resembled a “gutted-deer” smell. Any woman who has experienced morning sickness will understand exactly what I mean when I say that the smell immediately made me nauseated. I’m a “big girl”; I can eat food that I don’t like. But this was on a whole ‘nuther level. I had to remove the plate from in front of me and set it on the empty table next to us, away from my nose. And then I had to swallow my pride and ask the server to bring me a plain old hamburger. I still don’t know what was on that plate.

With this gustatory memory clearly in mind, each afternoon in Clermont-Ferrand I wasted nearly an hour looking through TripAdvisor hoping to secure myself an awesome dinner. Frankly, none of my options ever looked great. As I looked through the TripAdvisor lists, I would find a good option, only to discover that the restaurant was not open that night, or it didn’t have any reservations available, or its menu was a mélange of items that meant nothing to me. Yes, I made this way too hard. So on our last evening in town, I armed myself with a list of three possibilities before we made our way into the old section of town and just hoped and prayed I wouldn’t smell the gutted-deer smell.

Option Numéro Un turned out to be just a wine bar with tapas. Thanks, TripAdvisor. So, we walked on to Option Deux, down a narrow, Smart-Car-only sized street. “La Table de Thierry” appeared around the bend. It was tidy and inviting, with wide windows on each side of the door. A small table lamp sat against one window, giving out a cozy glow. The menu placard standing on the street beside the door presented edible options (so far as I could understand), so we made the plunge. Option Trois would be left unexplored.

The restaurant’s door stood open, but no one was in sight. Either the restaurant was closed, or we had come too early. (As Americans, we had the apparently ridiculous idea of eating dinner before nine or ten in the evening.) I called out a bon soir and a tall, grand man emerged from the kitchen, swathed in the chef’s garb of white with a draping apron around his midsection—the quintessential French chef to an astonishing degree. (Think along the lines of Gusteau in Ratatouille, take off a few pounds, and you’ll just about have it.) I inquired if he had a table available and he said oui, as long as we allowed him to finish his preparations in the kitchen first. It seemed Thierry was to be host, server, and chef for us that night. Our culinary adventure began.

“La Table de Thierry” was a small restaurant, as many European restaurants are, with at most eight tables and a bar. An array of black and white photos covered the dark grey walls and a shelf lined with large coffee table and picture books about cars and auto-racing ran the length of the room. The Michelin man made an appearance here and there among the motoring memorabilia.

Thierry reappeared a short while later and set a large, handwritten chalkboard menu on a stool beside our table. He spoke a little English, I spoke a little French, and in collaborative fashion we explained the menu to our group. He smiled and enthused over each item and his passion for the food was contagious. We had a delightful conversation with the gregarious chef. The world got a little smaller when we found out that he was quite familiar with Michelin and had been to Greenville. And for me, the conversation had another magical quality—for the first time that week, the French language came halfway easily, and I managed my first conversation. Ordering fast food and talking to retail assistants does not count! To my sadness I’ve found that it takes me almost a week to get up to speed, and here I was on our final night in France finally getting the hang of it again. We each made our choices and Thierry returned to the kitchen, making all of those banging and sizzling sounds that assured us our meal was coming together.

We sat alone in the restaurant, doing what Europeans have perfected—letting the day end slowly and quietly, while savoring the food, the company and the twilight over a space of several hours. The forced slowness of the meal made me realize that you really have to like the company you’re in, or at least be a willing conversationalist, to make the pacing work. Sitting with someone for a long period of time allows for a lot of learning and give-and-take. I started to wonder how different our average relationships might be if we lingered around a table like this more often. And I started to notice details—funny little things that I might have missed in a rush to eat. While we sat eating our crusty bread and prosciutto-wrapped melon, I watched a bodiless arm holding a smoking cigarette repeatedly appear and disappear from a window one floor up across the street. When the hand finally finished, a lounging cat replaced it on the sill.

And still we sat. At one point, two men came in and sat down, and we watched Thierry perform his act again. When another group tried to come in, he apologized that he was full-up for the night. The plat came and went—a risotto of mussels for me and a steak and whipped potatoes for everyone else. Thierry looked reproachfully at my almost-empty plate and asked if I had enjoyed it. I don’t think he believed in “saving room for dessert.” By the time I was having my third or fourth chocolate mousse of the week, darkness and quiet were firmly in place over the old town, interrupted only by the occasional scooter exploding past the windows in a blur of color and sound.

We left the restaurant late into the night—I think it was ten or after. I paused on the street for a picture. Thierry came out and called me to his side. The picture had to have the people in it! That night, the experience wasn’t so much about the food, although I was hugely grateful that it didn’t smell bad. It was about the slow pace, the details, and the connections. Making connections with individuals on the other side of the pond has made me more sympathetic and a good deal less nationalistic. Frenchmen, after all, are people, too.img_6032

Serendipity: Or, On Vacation Magic (Part Deux)

img_3419Does everyone dream of Paris? Or is it just nerdy girls like moi, who have too much imagination and expensive taste? The word “Paris” seems to exude images of baguettes and berets, the Eiffel Tower and river walks and the Tricouleur, and the sounds of accordions and the nasal “Bonjour, Mademoiselle!” I don’t think I’ve ever not dreamed of Paris, and I’ve now had the good fortune of being a pretend Parisienne twice.

As we walked around Paris on our most recent visit, trying to take it all in in a short amount of time, I mentioned off-hand to my husband that I had never eaten street-side at a Parisian café. There’s one—or three—cafés on every corner and in the warm months no one eats inside. The tiny round tables and classic café chairs are crammed along the sidewalk under an awning, impossibly close together, with all of the chairs facing the street. The servers, almost always men, almost always wearing ankle-length aprons tied around their waists, stand at attention beside each door, awaiting your bon plaisir. The idea is to sit awhile, eat awhile, and watch the world go by. Not having done this left a big gap in my Paris “experience.img_3414

The morning after I made this comment we planned to attend a Sunday morning Mass at one cathedral or another. We made this choice partly out of curiosity, neither of us ever having been to a Mass, and partly because many of the Parisian cathedrals offer some sort of concert following the service. On our last trip, we saw the interior of Notre Dame, so I was leaning toward another cathedral, Saint-Sulpice, where the famous organist Daniel Roth plays each Sunday.

Our ride from the hotel on the Métro took us to the loveliest (and, according to a co-worker, the most expensive) section of Paris that we had yet seen. The Sunday morning streets were deserted, the shops and restaurants barred. We rounded a corner and found the Place Saint Sulpice before us. The facades of the buildings lining the square and the cathedral and its towers all glowed in the morning light. The square and, indeed, all of Paris looked freshly washed. A garbage truck rumbled through, but then we were left alone, except for the ever-present strutting pigeons. We sat on one of the benches around the place in front of the cathedral, watched over by an ancient bishop atop the gushing central fountain.

This was the vrai Paris—no tourists (except for us, but we didn’t count). We had time to think, to ruminate on the actuality of being on a different continent, to daydream a little of all we hoped to see in the next couple of weeks. We soaked it in for a few minutes before remembering food. I had figured on picking up a cheap breakfast on-the-go at a boulangerie, as I was used to doing in France. But on Sunday mornings, the possibilities in neighborhood Paris are limited. There was one café open on the square, so this would have to be it if we wanted to make it to Mass on time.

Ét voilà, I found myself in one of my coveted France “experiences.” We jammed ourselves behind one of those serving-tray-sized tables and ordered from a menu so Parisian that it could have come straight from my first French textbook—a croissant and a chocolat for me, an omelette au jambon and café américain for my husband. The waiter was thoroughly Parisian, as well, lest I be disappointed in some aspect of my meal. He was aloof and efficient, yet had his own quirky little songs he hummed to himself as he maneuvered around the tables.

img_3421It was beautifully quiet. Locals pedaled by on their bicycles, and a stooped old lady ambled up with her newspaper under her arm and sat down near us. Every once in a while a bus rolled past, plastered with advertisements. My chocolat was parfait; it was a small pot of what tasted like a melted-down bar of milk chocolate. The croissant was huge, buttery, and tender. Here was none of the insanity of tourist season in Europe with elbow-to-elbow, wall-to-wall humans jostling for the best view. This was a moment of serendipity, one of those moments that I wished I could somehow box up and pack in my suitcase for a rainy day.

Soon enough, the bells of Saint Sulpice began a long series of chimes, drawing parishioners to Mass. I felt real sadness at leaving that café and crossing the square, knowing it was one of those things I might never repeat.

Saint Sulpice is Baroque, rather than Gothic like Notre Dame, so it feels much lighter and brighter on the inside. Apparently, the cathedral’s great claim to fame is that it is in the film The Da Vinci Code. An elderly woman gave us bulletins and we walked up the long side aisle to where wooden chairs were grouped around the pulpit, which stood where you can imagine the beams of Jesus’ cross intersecting in the traditional cathedral layout. The worshippers were mostly elderly and well-dressed, but there were a few other obvious tourists scattered throughout.

A young man in khakis and an untucked polo shirt came from behind the choir screen and welcomed us. We sang a couple of hymns and there was a hand-shake time. Members of the congregation went forward to the pulpit to read the Scripture passages. It was all surprisingly “un-Catholic” for a Protestant gal.

The khaki worship leader then presented the congregation with a special treat: the Wycliffe Boys’ Choir of London would be aiding in worship that morning. The boys had filed in earlier in their long white robes, stair-stepped in height and varying in degrees of seriousness, and gathered behind the choir screen. I have long loved the sound of a boys’ or men’s choir singing traditional English songs and hymns, particularly during the Christmas season, but CD recordings and YouTube videos always feel a bit flat. I’ve put it on my mental “bucket list” to hear the Christmas program of Lessons and Carols sung live in an English cathedral.

img_3433When the boys began to sing, it was a moment both magical and beautiful. The magic was in the unexpectedness of having one of my ideal experiences partially coming to life. And the beauty—well, I found myself feeling far more emotional than I normally consider myself to be. There is no recording that can do justice to the pure sound of voices raised in a centuries-old stone cathedral, harmonies climbing a hundred feet in the air and filling the cavernous space with sound. The heavy tones of the massive old pipe organ came underneath the singers at the song’s climax and thunderously rolled through the cathedral. I have many problems with the Catholic religion, but one of the things I think it inadvertently gets right is the awe factor. Often I think that the sanctuaries and their statues point to men or the “Church” itself, but the awesome majesty and spine-tingling beauty of the music in that moment pointed me heavenward. As when I first heard five thousand people sing a hymn together, I found myself imagining what worship must sound like in heaven.

After that experience, I was flying pretty high. I floated through the sermon, which, other than the speaker’s priestly robes, I also thought remarkably un-Catholic. It became obvious to me that I don’t know that much about Catholics. We watched the distribution of the wine and the wafers with interest, captivated by the young tourist who joined the wafer line out of curiosity (or deviousness) and walked away with the wafer, inspecting it in her hand until an old man rushed at her and told her to eat it and, when she moved too slowly, grabbed her arm and forced her hand to her mouth. Evidently the locals are fervent believers.

The organ concert that followed was enjoyable but, for me, nothing to compare to the music of the boys’ choir. After joining in the polite applause for the organist, we emerged into the sunshine of lunch-time Paris.

We spent a bright afternoon wandering through the Jardin du Luxembourg and around the Panthéon and the Sorbonne, but my Paris dreams had already been fulfilled during our morning on the Place Saint Sulpice.

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Le Jardin du Luxembourg

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Le Panthéon

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La Sorbonne

 

 

Serendipity: Or, On Vacation Magic (Part 1)

Me, Firenze, 2016

Me, Firenze, 2016

A few weeks ago my husband and I sat in the heart of charming old Rome, not enjoying our dinner. It was past eight, the heat was down, and Italia began slowing down around us. We were seated under cutesy lace umbrellas on the stony pavement of a (relatively) quiet side-street. The servers bustled around us, a horse-drawn carriage or two clopped past, and I caught at least two romance languages being spoken nearby. It was the picture of charm. Only it wasn’t charming.

The man between myself and the oscillating fan smoked like a chimney. The two French girls seated next to us argued tensely over a Facebook picture. The poor waiter was being pulled in ten directions at once, but never in ours. The family at the table behind us had a toddler who didn’t like waiting forty minutes for his food . . . and yes, the food was ridiculously slow in coming. As the evening wore on, it grew harder and harder to not pick up on the tension in the people around us. So much for a relaxing dinner experience on our first night in Rome.

I have found that international travel is not for the faint of heart. It in no way resembles the leisurely pace of roaming the U.S. by car, stopping when you need a bathroom or just when the mood strikes. It does not have the assurance of a Hampton Inn at the next exit, or at the worst, ten more miles down the road, or the fallback of Mickey D’s for dinner if there’s nothing more appealing. Since I never flew overseas until I was twenty-nine, I suppose I was bound to be startled by the experience. From trying to do without a night’s sleep while sitting upright on an airplane, to racing between train platforms with only one minute to spare while dragging ten tons of luggage, or to losing your husband in the Roman metro because he’s more daring at jumping on a train with closing doors than you are, international travel is exhausting and, at times, intimidating. At its worst, it’s the stuff of nightmares. *Cue scene where American couple arrives in Italian city to discover that their hotel reservation has been cancelled and the payment gone because the travel agency went bankrupt the day before.*

We (and by we, I mean semi-amateur travelers like myself) expect Europe to look like the pictures. We expect it to be like all of those fabulous international thrillers we’ve watched. We probably expect too much. We expect it to be perfect.

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Bon matin, Paris!

I have found that travel perfection, like perfection in anything, rarely exists. Europe is … often dirty, smelly, and—foreign. But all of this is not to say that we can’t or don’t have a marvelous time. When I look back on our most recent trip, I see a pattern. The first few hours in a new city feel like a let-down. We just spent over ten hours crammed onto a plane and all I want is Paris! Instead, you get innumerable shuttle buses, the inside of a jumbo airport, long lines, and a dingy train station. Oh, and exhaustion. Or, you fly into Italy after a day spent hopping over Europe and there is no room in the inn (see above). All of the chaos combines to mar that perfect Europe image you had floating through your mind. Somehow, though, over the space of a few hours, your eyes and the rest of your body follows to adjust to the strangeness around you. You can let that perfection go and accept the beauty of what is actually there.

Europe is lovely. It is the land of intriguing people just like us who are really not at all like us. It is a land of dreams (for me and a lot of other literary types, at least); it has castles and mountains and villages—oh my! It has an old soul and piles of stories to be told. Its loveliness is best absorbed over time and sometimes, honestly, it’s loveliest when viewed in memory and out of the broiling sun and away from that garbage stench. But there are definite moments while you are traveling when the perfection that you’ve released comes back, when you’re not exactly looking for it—moments that feel like serendipity.

Instead of retelling in laundry-list fashion what we did and saw each day in Europe, I’m going to recall moments of serendipity, when all of the vacation magic came together to make a perfect moment. I will be breaking this post up into a series. But here is one sweet memory before I go.IMG_3403

My first instructive vacation-magic-moment happened on our first France trip in 2013. Sometimes you don’t realize to what extent you have anticipated an event until it happens. I studied French for four years in high school under a fantastic teacher that taught me how to get around Paris from my desk in the middle of Indiana. I have known for years what the best sights are in Paris, where they are located on the city map, and how to get there on the Métro. I then spent four more years studying French in college. I guess I had the Paris thing pretty well built-up in my mind. But when we first visited Paris, I still wasn’t prepared for how magical it would be.

We flew to Paris overnight, leaving Atlanta some time around 8 p.m. the night before, suffered trying to sleep upright in the back row of the airplane, and then sat on the tarmac for an additional hour at Charles de Gaulle where you can’t see the Eiffel Tower. It was cloudy and drizzly on the ground and about to rain cats and dogs. Our hotel for that trip was at the airport, so we had a forty-minute train ride into the city. We quickly discovered that Europeans do not spend a lot of money keeping their infrastructure in ship-shape. The train was grungy, the surrounding embankments covered in graffiti, and I STILL couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower. Soon the train headed underground and we arrived in a giant station—Châtelet Les Halles, I believe—one of those places I have dubbed “European transportation purgatory.” We switched trains here to take ourselves to the Louvre.

Friends, there is no magic like coming up the stairs out of the train station and catching your first breathtaking glimpse of a place of which you have dreamed for half your life, finding yourself in the heart of the City of Light. Those old walls of the Louvre palace in front of me, the Palais Royal at my back—I couldn’t even see the front of the Louvre with its glass pyramid or the Tuileries from that vantage point, but even now I remember being nearly in tears from that first sight of Paris. (Don’t tell me it was just the exhaustion.)

Look for Serendipity in France, coming soon.

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Me, Paris, 2013