Footsteps: My Trip to Europe 2006

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Reflections while on a three-week trip to Europe, 2006

Submitted: August 15, 2011

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Submitted: August 15, 2011

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Footsteps

 

Footsteps

 

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A Journal from my trip to Europe

2006

 

By Karen J. Venditti

 


Prologue

 

It began many years ago when I was seventeen. My father’s mother, Lucia Tamasi Venditti Thomas, better known as Lucy Thomas, lived with our family during my teenage years. Old age weighed heavily on her in the form of arterial sclerosis, most evident in her mental faculties. The older she got, the more she regressed in time. The person I had previously known as grandmother was a short, tough, rosy cheeked woman from the old country of Italy, who served up heaping bowls of spaghetti to her husband George (my father’s stepfather). She had an excellent command of the English language as well as her family. But in her declining years she progressed from English to a mix of English/ Italian, and finally, only Italian.

As a blossoming young woman who sought to embrace her Italian heritage, I would sit by her chair and simply nod as she rattled off Italian words that flew over my head. I deeply respected this woman who had braved an Atlantic crossing in 1910 with two young children in tow. Leaving her Mediterranean homeland and family, she journeyed to America to start a new life with her husband in the strange, cold world of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Even more amazing was the fortitude she showed when her husband died in a work-related accident, leaving her alone in this foreign land to raise and provide for her five children. At that time she knew little or no English and had no marketable skills. So, she took in boarders, cooked, cleaned and did their laundry to make ends meet. And she made sure that all of her children were highly moral, educated, and able to take care of themselves. A remarkable woman!

Lucia had often talked about her homeland and had wanted me to see it someday. By the age of seventeen I was confident, wide-eyed and open to life’s adventures. That’s when I first planned to go to Italy. There was an international youth gathering to be held in Beirut, Lebanon, the summer following my high school graduation. I took part-time jobs and saved up enough money to go and take a side trip to Italy at the same time. I read the book Europe on $12 a Day and began to make plans. Alas, it was not to be. My father changed jobs, which meant I needed to use my savings for college. It would be another forty-three years before I would finally visit my grandmother’s homeland.

I had a fairly challenging life myself – divorced after sixteen years of marriage, a single parent working hard to support two boys without depending on a man. I had grown to like my aloneness and independence and had learned how to take good care of myself. I also learned to love isolated, natural settings that nurtured my spirit. My solo adventures started out small but got bigger and braver with time. With little vacation time from jobs and not much money to play with, I chose to travel to many of the scenic places in the American West – the Colorado and Canadian Rockies, Yellowstone and the Tetons, the high desert of the Four Corners region, the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, the spectacular coast of Oregon and California, the Grand Canyon, and just about every square mile of my fifteen-year home state of New Mexico. I had been to Alaska and Hawaii, and had spent two months trekking around the South Pacific. My last vacation had been to Belize and Guatemala, but that’s another story. I often thought about going to Italy. I even got serious enough to buy Frommer’s Italy tour book in 1997 and listen to Italian language tapes. I researched Italy’s history, the important religious places and customs that my grandmother was raised with, in an attempt to write a short biography.

I loved life so much that I didn’t want to waste any more time than absolutely necessary at a desk. So when my sixtieth birthday approached, I retired. It was the following year when the opportunity to go to Europe came up. My son Drew had a business trip – a week in Paris. His wife couldn’t go, so I took advantage of a free week of lodging in Paris and planned two weeks in Italy after that. It was time. I’d see the important places on the Grand Tour and save the last week for exploring Lucia’s hometown of Carpinone (car-pih-noh?-nay) and its surroundings. I wanted to walk in her footsteps, see the houses that were like the one she was raised in. I wanted to walk in the fields that she cultivated and look upon the mountains that inspired her soul.

Planning was part of the adventure for me. I spent hours on the computer, researching what to see, where to stay and how to get around. One foot was grounded in my home in California, the other in famous places in Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, and of course, Carpinone. I talked with people who had been there, borrowed books, scoured maps. I finally decided to use a tour company for the first week in Italy that had an itinerary that looked good to me. They provided lodging and transportation to the famous cities – three nights in Rome, one in Siena, two in Florence, two in Venice, and the last night back in Rome—a decision I later regretted.

I saved the best for last – a week of freedom to explore southern Italy in a rented car. I could find no accommodations in Carpinone (a small village with fewer than 2,000 people) – not even a room to rent – so I reserved a room at a modest Bed & Breakfast in the nearby village of Macchiagodena (mah-kee? ah-go-day?-nah) that was part of the growing agri-tourism business.

By the time my departure drew near, my ducks were in a row. My house and cat were covered. I had a new memory card for my camera. I had cash, travelers checks and plastic, along with a general idea of my budget. I made copies of my passport, driver’s license and credit card, and scanned photographs of my grandmother and her mother with notes of birth and wedding dates. I even made a reference table with my itinerary, lodging and phone numbers in case of emergency. My son laughed when he saw how over-prepared I was, but I had never been to Europe before, so I just went by what the books suggested.

The adventure began on Thursday, April 20, 2006, with the drive to Los Angeles, where my flight would depart. I had arranged to go down the day before my flight so that I could check in at least two to three hours before my 10:00 AM departure.

The following journal was the result of a natural process that has grown more meaningful to me over the years. I did not seek to make a record of all of the sights and events of my trip, but rather to capture my thoughts and feelings as I took this journey. It begins the month before leaving with asking myself about my motivations and expectations of this journey.

 

Wednesday 3/8/06  Vacation fast-approaching

 

In the midst of searching for places to stay, things to see and do, and how to get there, I seem to have neglected the first step: what do I hope to get out of this. I want it to be more than the must-see-and-do trip to Europe to satisfy my curiosity, as well as Western society’s baseline for sophistication. Those I have little concern for. Is it to sample other cultures first hand? Or to walk in the steps of history-makers and shakers? To appreciate my roots in Western civilization, as well as those of my father’s family? How do I hope to be affected? changed? For I doubt that this will be mostly about personal pleasure. And while I want to experience the awe of seeing great art and architecture in person, it will be insufficient unless I come away with a deep appreciation and inspiration that touches my life.

 

  • Savor the coffee, the meals, the people, the flowers, the feeling of the place.
  • Get off the beaten path. Find a quiet spot to transcend time.
  • Be an ambassador of grace and goodness. Be true to yourself.
  • Do not fear what you might miss.
  • Do what your heroes did: draw, sketch, paint, meditate, pray.

WEEK ONE

Paris

 

Thursday 4/20/06

 

It begins. The Grand Tour of Europe that every self-respecting Westerner takes - the graduation trip of college seniors, April in Paris, the honeymoon I never had, the trip to Italy I’ve been planning since high school. Three weeks, hotels, $4000 plus: it’s a big deal for me. The first and probably last time I’ll go to Europe, so make the most of it – do it right.  

 

Friday 4/21/06

 

“Adventure is a state of mind” says a little refrigerator magnet that friends gave me. I’ve had my share of adventure, everything from climbing Long’s Peak solo (Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: 14,256 feet), to jumping out of an airplane at 12,000 feet, to watching the sunrise from Temple IV at Tikal. But adventure is not always found in the obvious; some of my greatest adventures have been quiet ones. Adventure is made, not found. It begins with our choices of the moment and unfolds when we abandon our past and future, immerse ourselves in the moment, and let go of the outcome. How often does that happen?! Not very. Sometimes it happens when we’re in a beautiful place, all alone, and give ourrselves to the silence. Hopefully, it happens when we make love – but only if we really love the other. When I directed the choir from Hornell’s church loft or played the pipe organ, I gave myself wholly to the moment, let the music course through my being and find uninhibited expression. When I play with my beautiful young granddaughters – physically play—the magic takes over. When Sally sits on my lap and lets me stroke her, we connect and her contentment becomes mine.

Being in the moment seems to have a common thread: we become part of a larger reality and lose that feeling of separateness. Connectedness. Oneness with another, with animals, nature, the universe. Perhaps that’s the beauty of music and art: it offers a window of connectedness. But so does sitting quietly watching the sun set over the ocean, or looking deeply into another’s eyes.

So, perhaps adventure is really about giving ourselves to the place, being in the moment, and feeling our connectedness to each other and the wider world.

 

Saturday

22 April 2006—Paris

 

The RER-B train quietly zoomed through the suburbs, giving me my first glimpse of Paris. Old slate roofs intermingled with wood plank shutters, brick and stone houses that would cost too much to build today, side by side with “newer” houses built in the hundred years or so. I was stunned by the graffiti on every wall lining the tracks and litter that must’ve been accumulating for months. I remembered the criticism many Europeans make of Americans – that we’re anal about cleanliness. Perhaps there’s some truth to it, for I was rather uncomfortable with the lack of it. I even thought I detected the faint odor of urine on the bus from the airport to the Metro. But the lack of cleanliness on the bus was more than made up for when a woman burst forth spontaneously, unabashedly in song. I was delighted and surprised by her lovely, gutteral voice with its sensual French way with words and sounds…


Ce furent les jours, mon ami,

Nous avons pensé qu' ils n'aviaient jamais fin

Nous aimerions chanter et danser pour toujours et un jour…

 

“Those were the days, my friend.

We thought they'd never end.

We'd sing and dance forever and a day…”

 

 It seemed that she was bursting with such love of life that she couldn’t contain it. Then after several songs, she moved about the passengers, asking for tips. It was the first of many street minstrels that I would encounter in Paris and throughout Italy.

 

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After checking into the Hotel Meslay Republique, I showered and hit the streets. A one-page copy of a map of Paris tucked neatly into my pocket, I started out on the adventure. Heading toward the river I meandered up and down the streets and found myself in a seedy section of town, full of sex stores and Vietnamese markets. I came full circle and took another direction, passing more cafés than I could count. There’s a place to eat every few store fronts. Parisians must love to eat out.I’ve begun to notice some of the small differences between Paris and the U.S. For instance, the men’s and women’s restrooms share an entrance and sink area, and the women’s toilets have no seat or cover. Motorcycles share the sidewalk with pedestrians, as well as zigzag through traffic. Small cars are parked every which way, nose to nose, kissing bumpers (how do they get out!!), even head in to the curb when others are parked parallel.

 

My meandering led me to the river, and I crossed the bridge to Ile de la Cite, where it all began. I haven’t figured out why they picked an island in the middle of the Seine River in the 3rd century BCE to settle – defensible? – and I don’t know what the Romans found here on their way to Britain. By the Middle Ages the settlement had spread to both banks.

 

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NOTRE DAME - Originally the site of a Roman temple, the cathedral was built between 1163 and the 1350’s in the French Gothic style, specifically to accommodate 6,000 people. It is 433 feet long by 117 feet high.

 

Crowning the island is Notre Dame. I walk slowly toward its front, taking in the beautiful architecture, then move around its sides and back, awestruck by the intricacy of its buttresses and spires. It’s too crowded to enter the church today, but I’ll be back. The bronze star in front of the cathedral, called Place du Parvis ND, is point zero, the point of origin from which all distances in France are measured.

 

Pausing at the gates of Notre Dame … Street music with a great saxophonist, guitarist and drummer, capturing their moment in the sun along the banks of the Seine. If this was happening late at night at a club, it would cost big bucks.

 

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Picture-perfect baroque architecture lines every street – rows of windows with lacy wrought-iron balconies, antique street lanterns and cherry trees in bloom. An assortment of mini-cars and scooters flitting here and there … a glass of French red wine at an outdoor café on the corner of Rue De Rivoli and Place Baudoyer. Boy, it’s all happening at this corner. The tables are jammed so tightly that I could extend my arm and touch seven people without any effort. A police siren sings out its so-do-so-do-so-do, while an assortment of ages and colors and expressions parade by on crowded sidewalks. Youth are everywhere, exuding their energy as powerfully as the musk of a skunk.

 

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Sunday

23 April 2006

 

The Bible says, man shall not live by bread alone, but in Paris I think they do. After walking the streets for forty-five minutes, I gave up on finding a place that served a “real” breakfast, so I settled for bread. I found the delightful street Les Petit Carreaux, for foot traffic only and full of food shops—fromageries (cheese shops), boulangeries (bakeries), meat and sausage shops, flower shops. I saw a crowd gathered around a bakery and promptly got in line. I came away with a ham and cheese baguette sandwich and a raisin roll for Drew. My first bite of the sandwich told me I’d be back for more. Such perfect bread!!!

Paris is an amazing city – City of Lights, capital of the world according to my seatmate on the plane, David, a Hungarian-born Parisian who travels the world on his job. Its energy and architecture, history and diversity are fascinating. I’m not a city girl at heart, but perhaps I’ll come to love it by the end of my week here.

Later… Drew caught up with me at the hotel and we immediately hit the streets. We set out to explore the streets of Paris, turning this way and that whenever we glimpsed something of interest. The streets were much quieter on Sunday than they had been yesterday, and most stores were closed. Eventually, we found ourselves at the Opera, a beautiful circle bordered by posh hotels and shops. After a short rest back at the hotel, we looked around the Republique square for a place to have dinner and decided on Leon’s. Such luck! A wonderful meal at Léon’s of mussels, goat cheese salad, and dessert. Drew chose the Belgium waffle with ice cream; I, the crème brulé with caramel sauce. Sumptuous!

 


Monday

24 April 2006

 

After catching a train to the stop nearest the Eiffel Tower, Drew and I caught a lunch (a “sandwich” and beer) at a little café, then strolled up the long park to the Tower.

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I took a few pictures and pressed on to a church on Madeline Place. Little did I realize that this church was built in honor of Mary Magdalene until I was face to face with the inscription and famous frieze. It brought to mind the current controversy about Mary and Jesus and their possible descendents. The square around the church is lined with the most expensive shops – jewelers, clothing, sweets.

 

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La Madeleine, church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene

Built in 1845, its classical design includes 52 Corinthian columns that ring the entire building.

 

Finally, I am sitting, enjoying a carafe of water and a glass of wine at a crowded outdoor café. (I think outdoor cafés are always crowded.) It’s a fun place to watch people. As Drew observed, everyone (French) wears a coat. It’s a warm day, so the coats must be a matter of style. Most women wear pants with coats that come to the knee. Scarves are another big thing for both men and women – even under teeshirts. You don’t see any weight problems here, unless it’s among the tourists. Is it because they all smoke? Or eat their main meal in the middle of the day? Or because Paris is a city made for walking?!

Later… I’m so proud of myself: I found the way home on the Metro with no problem. After unpacking and taking a leisurely shower, my stomach reminded me it was time to eat, so I got dressed and braced myself for the hunt. Fortunately, there was a delightful bakery across the street, and I got there just before closing. Their special of the day was sweet and sour chicken, and I chose a pile of green beans to round it out – all for about seven Euros (E7). After she rang me up, I saw a dessert I had to have: a rhubarb custard wedge – piec d’resistance! I took it all back to the room, opened the bottle of red wine that I bought Saturday, and settled down to a relaxing evening.

Now to figure out my game plan for the next four days: what to see, and how to use the Metro instead of my feet. Hmm .. Le Marais, Latin Quarter and St. Germaine, the Louvre; and Versailles or Fontainebleau.

 

Tuesday

25 April 2006

 

My new favorite place in Paris: the bakery across the street called Landry’s. How could I have walked so far looking for what was on my doorstep?! Everything I could want – delectable bread, coffee (large, E3), beautiful pastries, salads, fruit, yogurt, dinner du jour, and confections of every variety!

But perhaps that’s not the best part. The owners run the shop and are very helpful. And their dog Nicky rules! (Yes, a dog in the bakery, usually minding the slicing machine.) Such a lovely store: walls lined with marble and tile, the floor mosaic tile. A collection of beautiful dolls dressed in 18th century dresses sit high on three shelves – for sale: Luisa E30, Marie E50. But the ceiling steals the show: ornate gilded borders dividing and encircling delicate paintings – wheat and loaves surrounded by flowers and flourishes on each end of the ceiling. The center is a large oval panel with a lovely maiden reclining on sheaves of wheat, an angel endowing her with a crown of wheat, a babe below in a flowery hat with an angel of her own.

I sit at a small, tall bistro table in the center of the shop, the last in a line of six. (It always amazes me how tightly Parisians pack the tables. It makes it hard to ignore a nearby smoker’s smoke. … lovely – the smoker coughs with no attempt to cover his mouth.)  

What is the learning/ growing opportunity here? Perhaps one challenge is to understand the Parisian comfort with the body and their freedom to flaunt sexuality. Huge advertising signs of women naked with only her hand or a star covering her breast, another of a woman on her back with her legs doubled over her head, cherubs and maidens, young men in briefs advertising a movie. The Renaissance permeates the culture with the unabashed appreciation of the human body. England did not feel its impact so deeply, and, alas, American culture is most affected by the Brits. And yet, I know from experience that when something is suppressed, we rebel, and that very thing becomes an obsession, the tool of our rebellion. Such as alcohol – a taste denied to youth, the evil substance foreign to the home – becomes an addiction as soon as the child leaves home, a declaration of independence. And so, with the American girdle of sexual taboos based on underlying religious modesty, the young burst at the seams at the first opportunity.

Later … Supper at 7:00 at Landry’s, surround-sound Francoise. I can speak only a few French words, enough to get by: Bon Jour; Buona Sera (bon-swa?); Merci beaucoup (mayr-see? bo-coo?); pardon, excusez-moi (ex-coo-zee-mwah?); s’ie vous plait (see-voo-play?); parlez vous Anglaise? Café au lait, oui (wee). (French pronunication almost always drops the last consonant.) But there are many other French words and phrases that have become common in America if I think about it. Je’ t’am (I love you); se’ la vive (such is life); que sera sera (what will be will be); mon ami (my friend); sacré bleau! (o, god!); adiéu (good-bye); monsieur/ madame; mademoiselle; belle (beauty .. of the ball); beau; nouveau (new, experimental); rouge (red), rosé (pink); derriére (behind); chateau (castle); du jour (example: soup “of the day”); entré (entrance); refuge .. How nice it would be if I could just use what I already know. I’ll have to practice.

This afternoon we had lunch at a lovely café near Les de Halles and then went across the river to the catacombs. I probably would not have done this without Drew’s interest. After all, Rome’s catacombs go much farther back in history.

 

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Catacombs in Paris

 

But I’m glad I went. It seems that back in 1780-something, disease spread from the cemetery, so they ceremoniously moved all the bones to an old stone quarry under the Latin district that had been fortified to support the buildings above ground. In subsequent years they continued to move bones from various cemeteries around town until 1860. The section displaying the bones was both eerie and sacred, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of skulls, femurs, etc., arranged with care in symmetrical designs. Memorial plaques and tributes etched in stone dotted the long, underground halls of the dead, a reminder that the only peace to be found on the planet is in our final resting place. So, be careful what you ask for—peace can be permanent. Life is messy. Children can be noisy and demanding. Loved ones try your patience and push all your buttons. Streets are crowded, merchants are pushy. Even your own body complains and fails you at the worst moments. Food can be greasy, and wine stains don’t come out. Rain ruins a hair-do, and ice sends you sailing on your butt. Falling in love can end in heartache, and eating alone feels conspicuous. If you let the mess or threat of discomfort stop you, you’ll never know the thrills and learn the lessons that life offers.

I remember the moment when that realization sank in. I was taking a ride with my folks over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado – age nineteen. It was cold and windy above treeline. Dad stopped and invited us to walk on a path to an overlook. I nearly declined because it’s no fun to be cold. But I stepped out and immediately was glad I did. The brave alpine flowers were testament to the cost of making the most of life. I knew then and there that if I let the prospect of being uncomfortable keep me imprisoned in the shelter (in this case, of the warm car), I would miss out on the richness of life.

It seems that life-changing lessons usually come in those existential moments, the split second when we make a choice. For me those include…

 

  • That moment on my hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor in Chaffee (around age 24). Totally disillusioned with the life as a minister’s wife and feeling like a single mother, it dawned on me that the choice was mine. No one else was going to give me happiness. I must take responsibility for myself, my choices, my happiness – not feel like a victim – and embrace all that comes with it.

 

  • The split-second shift from a modest minister’s wife to an uninhibited woman who would get naked in front of strangers to bask in the warm waters of McCauley’s Warm Springs in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.

 

  • The phone call from Drew in June 1995, when he told me he was taking the teaching job at Turlock. I knew instantly that I would move to California to be near him now that he was settling down. No question of how, no hesitation to leave job and new house and friends behind. Perfect clarity on what was most important to me – my son.

 

Defining moments – defining ways of looking at life, of responding to life. When did I first decide that fences and rules were there as guidelines to protect? That if no harm was done, what was the harm in climbing the fence, crossing the line, breaking the rule? Of course, sometimes there was unforeseeable harm or risk, and I learned some things the hard way. But all in all, I’ve never been hurt, nor have I harmed others. Besides, it fits with a can-do, fullness-of-life mentality that goes deep. And a belief that no one essentially owns a place, particularly one of natural beauty. We are caretakers of the planet and members of the family of mankind.

 

Wednesday

26 April 2006

 

Tuesday night Drew came back from a business dinner at midnight in a mood darker than the night. We stayed up, sharing wine and conversation until 2:00 AM, then struggled to sleep. Still struggling with sleep, we finally took some aspirin at 4:30 AM and drifted off. It was 9:00 AM when we finally roused, dressed and wandered across the street to Landry’s for cappuccino. We hopped on the Metro and headed for Notre Dame. The cloudy gloom suited Drew’s mood but did not enhance the cathedral. This time there were no crowds, so we were free to go in, sit and gaze at the magnificent rose windows, contemplate the human history that it bears witness to over the 800 plus years since its construction began. The injustice and tragedy of its past touched a chord deep within Drew. I gave him much space.

 

 

From there we walked across the Seine to the Left Bank and meandered around the Luxemburg Gardens. I had wanted to wander the picturesque streets in the footsteps of deep thinkers and great artists, to sit at a café and sketch pictures of the French life. Instead, it had become just a walk, where we barely glanced at the cheese shops or architecture. After strolling a few streets of the Latin Quarter, we shared a sweet crépe, then Drew excused himself and headed

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back to our room to sleep. The church bells signaled the noon hour. I was glad to have the afternoon to myself. I backtracked to the Jardin Des Plantes, which José had recommended. It was vast, complete with museums and a zoo, but it was not beautiful. Was it the gloomy weather? Or was it me?

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Lovers at the Luxembourg Gardens

 

 

 

From there I hopped on the Metro and headed for the Muséo D’Orsay. I was eager to immerse myself in the Impressionists, and I hadn’t actually spent money on a museum yet. Alas, the line was miles long, and I didn’t want it that badly. I walked on to the Rodin Museum, where I spent the rest of the afternoon in its gardens and galleries. A good choice! A simple lunch of a French broiled cheese and ham sandwich at an outdoor table under an umbrella sheltering me from the light rain. How nice! Lunch in the Rodin gardens. Rodin’s sculpture so powerfully captures emotion, pathos. It suited my frame of mind.

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The Thinker, by Rodin

 

Thursday

27 April 2006

 

A few moments of calm before the storm – caffé, a petit baguette and fruit while Drew sleeps a little while longer.  I rose around 10:00 AM and went to the bakery for breakfast to give Drew another hour’s sleep. It was to be our (only) day and evening together. We hopped the Metro to the Louvre and got in line. After waiting (and not moving) for fifteen minutes, the guards inexplicably closed the tall metal gates and sent everyone away. On to Le Marais and Place Des Voges via train. We wandered the streets leading to the old noble square where dukes built their grand apartments. Barely touching the square, Drew headed up a side street. After a few blocks I found a nice outdoor café, where we had a lunch of French onion soup for him, a goat cheese salad for me. After that we headed back to Republique, where Drew crashed and used the internet, while I pressed on for a walk along the canal, a pause in the park, then the train to Sacré Couer.

I had heard much about this church, particularly its beautiful stained glass windows. The walk from the station to the church took me through the streets of the “real” Paris, the area of run-down stores, dirty streets, and a menagerie of hommes .. people hawking their wares, knock-off Rolex watches, E1 teeshirts, etc. I kept my eyes down and pressed on a path faithful to my map. I was relieved to see the majestic basilica rising above the madding crowd, its steps carrying me past the tourist hawkers and noisy carousel, to the gardens above, where lovers and children found respite. Truly this church was alive in spite of being a tourist attraction.

 

 

Crowning the hill of Montemarte, the Basilica de Sacré Couer beckons at the top of many stairs with gardens taking center stage. But it was the basilica itself that drowned the effort of the climb. Arches everywhere, circles and curves in its architecture that created a feeling of life and motion. Inside the tall, narrow stained glass panels told the stories of Jesus’ life, Mary Mother of God, the Saints, and a few French kings. The deep reds and blues breathed life into the history and evoked a passion of the spirit. The side chapels each specialized in its own story, and many candles were lit by the faithful. I moved slowly through the church, frequently gazing overhead at the painting of Jesus with outstretched arms and a white robe of the resurrection. I sat and pondered, opening myself to the spiritual energy of this special place – surely more touching than the powerful Notre Dame, more personal in spite of its size.

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Basilica du Sacré Coeur

After returning to our hotel, I joined Drew and we went out in search of happy hour. It’s so easy to cover much ground simply by putting one foot in front of the other. We stopped at one bar and indulged in a beer and “Paradise” gin drink, then walked on until we were hungry enough to choose a restaurant. It was a lovely place with walls of plaster imbedded with mussels, clams and snails in fanciful designs. This was my evening to splurge: E20 for a lovely three-course fish dinner and dessert. Drew had dinner with an oyster appetizer, so we shared and both had a bit of oysters and chocolate mousse.

 

Friday

28 May 2006  On my way to Fontainebleau…

 

After five days in the city, I am ready—desperate— for a change in scenery. Drew and I shared coffee and croissant before parting ways this morning. After several mistakes with train connections, I am now on my way south to Fontainebleau. Many houses in the outlying towns are as picturesque as I imagined. Stone, brick, plaster – dormer windows, old wooden shutters. The trees are in bloom. The train crosses many canals, then a large, meandering river. The train is quiet and comfortable, even though it’s apparently one of the older ones.

Ah, finally, I have landed. Downtown Fontainebleau at an outdoor café, Le Mansart,  across the street from the chateau. Croque Mansart (broiled ham and cheese sandwich) and a carafe of water. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, and I’m just regaining some equilibrium after a difficult night.

I have to laugh at the sociologist in me: I seem much more interested in the architecture and stone paving than I am in the people. Perhaps the stones have more stories, and the people are people, the same everywhere. All shapes, sizes, colors, temperaments. But I must confess, I’ve found the people to be friendly and helpful, contrary to what so many say. The lady (owner) at the bakery, with her ready smile and parting question, if I’ll be back tomorrow. The old man at the Gar De Lyon, who spoke no English but understood my need for direction – he not only pointed out the way on the signs; he took me up and down through the maze of stations at the terminal and found an information officer to confirm where I should go. Thank you.

 

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Chateau de Fontainebleau, summer palace of the Sun King,

Louis XIV 1638-1715), whose reign lasted more than 72 years

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Napolean’s bed Fountain honoring Diana,

Goddess of nature and hunting

 

I sit on a bench in the sun in a quiet part of the gardens at Fontainebleau. So lovely. A dogwood tree just behind me is in its early stages of bloom. Other small trees are full of pink buds ready to burst. A songbird celebrates spring and entices a mate.

The Sun King’s castle is interesting – full of gilded woodwork, frescoes of mythological stories and characters, tapestries commemorating victories and grandeur. It’s a huge place with original furnishings, including Napoleon’s throne chair and the small table where he signed his abdication. And it had an ornate chapel that would make Jesus irate!

 

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Merry-go-round in town of Fontainebleau

Saturday

29 April 2006

 

Breakfast at Landry’s bakery … a perfect ending to my week in Paris. How I wish I could transplant a replica of this place to California! The breads are a perfect texture of a crunchy crust with tasty insides. The yogurt – so thick and creamy with generous slices of strawberries. The amazing array of desserts, each sitting regally on a gold foil plate. Chocolate squares and puffs and petit cakes, each promising to delight the senses. Fruit desserts, each a work of art. Small lemon pies glazed with sweet lemon juice and topped by a perfect slice. Shortcakes piled high with whipped cream, topped by the tip of the cake with a glazed fruit slice. Layered confections with fluffy strawberry cream in the center, topped with lime green frosting and a glazed half strawberry. Cheesecake and chocolate bombes that beg to go home with you. And then there are the candies. A glass case displaying chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies of the most elegant sort, some painted, others with writing, all tied stylishly with a ribbon – price E26 and up. Small, bite-size chocolates and mini-fruit balls, chocolate champagne bottles, and disks imprinted with animals and scales of justice. But the breads are most irresistible! Baguettes large and small, plain and seeded. Croissants, raisin breads, chocolate chip pastries, bear claws with almond paste, perfectly crisp on the outside.

 

Later … After rousing Drew from his all-nighter, we revisited the bakery together before I left for the airport. The hotel clerk had given me directions for catching the bus to Beauvois and recommend leaving four hours before my flight time. As usual, I was too relaxed about my schedule on the front end, leaving about 11:20 for my 3:00 flight. My dues included a frantic run with heavy luggage in tow, down two flights of stairs, through the large train terminal, up two flights of stairs, running three blocks outside to where the bus to the airport was located – just in time with one minute to spare. Fortunately, I met a younger woman on the last Metro train, Alexandra, and she was catching the same flight to Rome. She had been this route before, so I followed her without worrying about reading signs or going the wrong way. We caught up with each other again at the airport, where we chatted while waiting for our plane. Alexandra lives in Paris, where she owns her own flat. Her mother came from Rome and still has relatives there, so Alexandra goes there often. Such an attractive woman inside and out. She’s very content with the single life, even though she knows it’s very unusual. So we have a lot in common. Our conversation drifted over many things in the airport and continued on the plane, where we sat together. She worked for a year in Washington DC and speaks very good English. Her U.S. boyfriend was strongly capitalistic, while she is inclined toward socialism. In her younger days she was full-blown communist, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin. I shared how my son and I have similar disagreements all the time. She mentioned how her boyfriend was very unhappy and impatient with things in Paris, insisting that he was the customer (and the customer’s always right). The Ugly American syndrome – so sad, and ineffectual.

Drew and I actually had some productive conversations about politics. He’s very well read and spends much (too much!) time catching the news – and of course, he’s very bright and has a good heart – so I take him seriously. But sometimes I feel like he’s an extremist. He takes things too far and is quite emotional and personally vested in his views. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with him – even hard to get a work in edgewise. But I managed to surprise him a few times with my beliefs, and occasionally I interrupted him right back, so that we had a running dialogue where neither of us listened very much.  

Republican/ Democrat – Rightwing/ Left – Capitalist/ Socialist – Conservative/ Liberal. Do I have a clear stand on any politics? I’ve learned from experience that you do no favors by giving someone something for nothing. It fosters a dependency/ codependency mindset and undermines any possible self-confidence and responsibility for one’s own happiness. So, social programs must be careful. But they are needed. The fact is that most of the people on welfare are women and children. And we have a majority of mentally and physically-challenged people on their own, no longer wards of an institution. How do we ensure their survival?

Back to politics, surely one of my least favorite subjects. I agree with Drew that there’s an important difference between rights and entitlement. He says rights should pertain to all individuals, not groups of people. And rights protect, whereas, entitlements imply that the world owes me. It goes back to the Silver Plate mentality, which serves no good purpose that I can think of. Drew also believes strongly that, in the case of government, less is better. (Remember in his younger years how he advocated for the ideal – anarchy, i.e. no government.) This is the crucial difference between Capitalism and Socialism. In Socialism citizens pay their dues – heavily – and expect a return of services: health, transportation, security. Of course, governments tend to spend too much time and energy on their own bureaucracy, so it’s up to the citizenry to yell at them and keep them on track. It’s necessary to stay informed and vocal, because you just can’t trust the bureaucrats to spend your money wisely.

On the other hand, the ideal of Capitalism is to let nature take its course and interfere as little as possible. Only regulate the necessary things to protect individuals’ rights and ensure the nation’s survival. Somewhere in the gray area come the concerns about infrastructure, human well being and future, the planetary (environmental) safety and well being. These are things that pertain to the collective rather than the individual, because the individual cannot survive unless the planet does.

Time out – We’re flying over the Alps! Rugged peaks and deep valleys covered with snow. Very extensive. It’s hard to image anyone braving such a crossing.  


WEEK TWO

The Grand Tour around Italy

 

 

Saturday …  Later

29 April 2006

 

Finally… bastar (enough!), as Alexandra would say. It’s been a long day, but finally I am in Roma, comfortably tucked into the Grand Hotel Fleming – a  plush hotel but on the far north side of Rome. It was raining when the plane touched down in Rome. After exchanging e-mail addresses, Alexandra and I parted with an American hug and French greeting of two kisses. I had invited her to come to California and stay with me, and I think I shall see her within the year.

After schlepping my bag a few blocks to the front of the huge terminal, I found a cab, or rather he found me. When he told me it would be E30 (approximately $35), I nearly choked. I was expecting around E10. When I protested, he said, for you I make a special price – E25. It was late, so I agreed. I had been warned of hustlers and pickpockets around the terminal, so I wondered if I’d see my bag again as he hoisted it into his trunk. I also wondered if I’d get to the right hotel. But I had made a deal, taken the plunge – it was time to go with the flow. As it turned out, this chubby, weathered man who obviously smoked constantly was nice. He put my mind at rest about the fare by showing me the standard, government-approved rate sheet. Indeed, it was a long ride. By the time we got there, his gruff, pushy exterior gave way to a soft, honest (?) heart. Fernando gave me his personal cell phone number and told me to call him if I had any problems in Rome.

After checking in, I strolled around several blocks, looking for a place to eat as the day faded into night.  Finding none, I backtracked to the hotel’s restaurant – a nondescript dining room filled with tourists and elevator-style Italian romantic music. Hungry from a long day, I ordered the fettuccini with porcini mushrooms. As I wrote about the day, I was thinking how comfortable I was traveling alone, content to sit by myself in this setting. My head was filled with thoughts I wanted to put on paper. But as soon as I closed my writing pad and put it aside to eat, my head went blank and I felt conspicuously alone in a room full of couples. Curious.

The bread was stale, hard crusted, not worth the calories. The fettuccini lacked interest, tasted so-so, and had no presentation qualities. So much for the typical, middle-of-the-road tourist accommodations in a big city.

 

 

Side Note: On the Italian language

 

There were many people in Rome who spoke some English, but few in the other cities, and almost none in the country towns. I was glad that I had learned a few words and phrases before arriving. I kept my “cheat sheets” with me, but when you’re in the thick of it, you don’t have time to look at them. A few words and phrases sufficed to understand others and get my point across rather well, even to the extent of carrying on a conversation for a half hour or more. Mille grazie (many thanks), prego (you’re welcome), buon giorno (good day) and buona sera (good evening) were most important. Scusi (excuse me, to get attention) and permesso (excuse me, when moving through a crowd). Bene (good), excellente, and bonita. Parla inglese? (do you speak English?) and Non comprendo (I don’t understand). Numbers – uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci). Che (what) and  Quanto viene (how much). Destra and sinistra, right and left  -important when you’re asking for directions! Unfortunately, I never did figure out what some of the road signs meant.

 

The Italian way of speaking gives you the feeling of being there. Thus, I ask the reader to “pronounce” the Italian names and words (in your head) as you read them. There’s a lovely rhythm to the Italian language. The emphasis in a word generally falls on the next to the last syllable. Italian is blessedly straightforward: you pronounce things as they appear, with a few exceptions. As with most of the Romance languages, an “i" is pronounced as a long ee; an “e” like a long ay; an “a” as ah; and “o” as oh. Consonants are pronounced the same as in English, except when c, ch, or sc are followed by an i or e. In those cases, when “c” is followed by an i or e, it is pronounced as “ch.” (example: ciao – familiar hi or bye - is pronounced as “chow”). When “ch” is followed by an i or e, it is pronounced like a hard “k” (example: chiamo – name – as “kee-ah?-moh”). And when “sc” is followed by an i or e, it is pronounced as sh. Other exceptions relate to “g” followed by an “n” or “l,” in which cases the g is silent. “Gn” is pronounced as the n in onion (example: bagno – bathroom - is pronounced as “bahn? yoh”). “Gl” is pronounced as the l in bullion (example: bottiglia – bottle – as “boh-tee? lee-ah”).

 

 

Sunday

30 April 2006

 

From the beginning I knew this was a good day. After a traditional continental breakfast at the hotel, I was out the door, looking for the bus to the Vatican by 8:30. A French mother with her two teenage daughters were headed in the same direction and reassured me with their ready smiles. When we arrived, I was aghast at the long, deep line of people that wrapped around several blocks! The woman remarked in broken English that they had waited two hours yesterday. I had too little time in Rome to spend half a day standing in line, so I skipped ahead to Plan B: the Pantheon. After inquiries, I caught another bus to Piazza Argentine, just a few blocks from the Pantheon. As I rounded the corner from its rear, I knew this is where I wanted to be.

 

 

Rather than a sterile Roman ruin, I found a church, one that had been in continuous use over the last 2,000 years, a place alive with power and beauty. This ancient place of worship was dedicated to all the gods and had been rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 126 CE. Since the 7th century it has been dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. From the outside it was an impressive structure with its 16 Corinthian columns made of solid marble 40 feet high. But it was inside the rotunda that filled my heart and took my breath away.

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As I edged my way to the front of the crowd of tourists, I learned there was a special mass in progress for Austrian students. There would be a open mass at 10:30; then the public could go in at noon. That’s when I met three English women – Una, Sheila and Olivia – mother, daughter, grand-daughter. Olivia was studying/ teaching in Rome for the year, and her mother had been here many times. It was easy to become friends with them. We hung together and went to the 10:30 mass together (which began around 11:00).

 

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Church – the first thing I did in Rome. It was perfect. This beautiful sanctuary in the round, with its perfectly round dome crowned with a thirty foot opening to heaven – an oculus – also perfectly round, connecting worshippers with the sky, the universe, the Divine. A few feathers drifted about on the floor. A pigeon lazily swooped around the interior. Rain droplets drifted down from the window to h


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