Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

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I Caught The Eye Of The Groom In The Brussels City Hall.

[Only a part of the Grand Place.]

Unaware Americans. Yes, that’s who we were when we arrived in Brussels. Yes, that’s how I felt when we arrived here.

Mapless.

I need to know the urban geography of any place I am in.  But, I had no idea about this city.  Changing the B&B we left to come to the Marriott was a great shift in plans. I could sleep cool and not suffer night sweats.

Besides we were closer to the city center and the city action. At first we thought we were on the main Central Place…but this afternoon, in a very light rain, we walked toward a steeple that had caught my eye.

When we got there we found it not a great cathedral or church but the Town Hall.

I watched as the middle-aged bride and groom passed and went into the room to be married. The Groom and I had eye contact.  It lasted several seconds…a long time in this kind of situation. I smiled and gave him a slight salute, he nodded and smiled into my eyes.  He noticed me…a nobody…on his way to middle-aged wedding. Mariam and I were married in our middle years. There was something about this man who, probably my age or more, saw in me and my wife the contentment that he was wishing for in his middle-age nuptials.

In my heart, I wished him the best of luck. I didn’t think I should take a picture. I wish I did.

But instead, I took some photos of the Grand Place.

We leave for London tomorrow morning.

Good-bye, Brussels…..and whomever the groom was, the one who caught my eye…I wish him and his bride the very best of luck…and the very best of a marriage at this time in their lives.

Bon voyage, my friends.

[All photos are mine.]

The “Popcorn” Man

[The Street Vender. Photo is mine.]

At first I thought he was selling a popcorn necklace. He would walk up and down the rows of diners, whose tables (here in Paris) always face the streets. And he would peddle his “popcorn” necklaces to those at the tables that were closest to the sidewalk.

Yes, I thought he was selling “popcorn” necklaces. If I bought one, would I eat it for dessert as I walked home? He seemed to be at every restaurant on the Boulevard St. Germain.

The more I saw the man, the more I thought about his life. I lived in New York City for almost three decades so I thought I knew about street/restaurant venders. Mostly those individuals sold roses, or played Do-Wop, or simply held out an old Greek coffee cup that all the delis and hot dog guys sold coffee in.

They held out their empty cups.  I had no way to discern whether or not they were truly “homeless”, truly “veterans”, truly in need. I had to go on instinct. Was this just a pan-handler (and there are more and more on the streets of New York) or someone truly in need of two quarters or three dimes.

So, I thought more about the “popcorn” man as the days went by. People rarely bought anything from him. I would watch him work the rows of diners. Most paid him no attention.

I thought about him at night when I couldn’t sleep. I thought about him when I walked through the Louvre. I thought about him when I sat and contemplated Notre Dame.

What was his life like?  Did he go home after his rounds? Who gave him the necklaces to sell? Did he have a family? Did he have to sell his wares to feed his children? Was he a widower who went home alone to an empty flat? Was he a happy man? Did he hold dark secrets in his heart?  Was he even married?

But, the real question that kept looming in my mind was quite simple.

Was this man lonely? Was his only human contact with those who pretended he wasn’t even there or brushed him off as an annoyance to their Parisian dinner?

When I looked at him, I tried to work out his life…but, clearly, that was an impossible task.

Until tonight.

I made sure we were seated up front, near the sidewalk. I had my iPhone. I wanted to ask him his name. I wanted to take his photo. I wanted to make some kind of contact.

And, I wanted to buy the necklace of “popcorn”.  I would eat it, as dessert on the way back to the hotel.

I nearly gave up on finding him.  Then, there he was. Four tables away. Then three.

Finally, he stopped at our table. I indicated that I’d like to buy his merchandise. He smiled and sold me the necklace for 3 euros.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bangladesh,” he replied.

Before he could walk away…before I could ask his name, I asked what it was that I just bought. From the first touch I knew it wasn’t popcorn.

[The Jasmine Necklace. The Photo is mine.]

“It’s Jasmine. Jasmine flowers,” he said as he walked off, moving on to another restaurant. Ten seconds after we had spoken, I lost him among the the pedestrians.

Now our room is filled with the scent of Jasmine.

I’d like to think (maybe it’ll help me sleep) that I made a quiet street vendor smile, even for a second, and fall asleep to the scent of Jasmine.

 

Street Scene In Paris

[Paris is a city of light and charm.]

It was our first day in the City of Light. Getting there involved subjecting ourselves to a subtle form of modern torture.  We were taking a “red-eye” from JFK to Paris.  We flew American Airlines because we’re addicted to air miles.  I won’t tell you how many miles I’ve accrued, but I will say that I earned every one of them.  My intent is not to dis American Airlines in this blog, but I can’t help but convey how long and endless and really awful the flight was. The food was fine, considering it was airline fare. But, for a trans-Atlantic flight, most everything was woefully below par.  The screens for the in-flight movie were not viewable unless one wanted to combine eye-strain with minor neck injuries.

At the end of the nearly seven hour flight, I thought I needed a massage on 22nd Street. My legs hurt, my back hurt and there was not enough leg room to raise a knee to tie a shoe lace or stretch a muscle in the lumbar region.

But, I digress.

After a two-hour taxi ride to our hotel near St. Sulpice, I was ready for one thing. A two-hour nap. After a three-hour nap, we pulled ourselves together and headed to see some places we loved in the Latin Quarter. I wanted to climb to the bell towers of Notre Dame, but the line (in a blazing sun) put me off.

I can’t take the heat and the direct sun.  I’m Irish.

So, we headed over to Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, which is a must stop for me.  I love the place.  But, I didn’t need another book to carry on our journey, so I opted for a beer instead.

And this is where the story begins.

It was a street full of foot traffic.

[It all took place on a busy street, just like this.]

We chose to sit facing the street just off the Rue St Michel. It’s busy and touristy.  As we sat in the shade, I noticed there was a homeless man sleeping on a foam pad surrounded by a few pieces of luggage.  I can’t say he was truly homeless, but I noticed all the signs.  We sat for forty minutes, reluctant to go back to the hotel and too tired to explore much more of the Latin Quarter.

I watched the man who slept.  He was in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

Another line of thought came to me.  I had heard of the deranged people who drove trucks into crowds and even went on stabbing rampaged.  I wondered about the SWAT patrols and where they were hiding out.  Then I spotted three well protected (but not heavily armed) police wander by.

A few minutes later, three more SWAT members (two female and one male) approached the sleeping guy on the sidewalk in front of me.

I was prepared for violence that would later be seen on YouTube.  They prodded the guy to determine if he was alive, dead, drunk, stoned or flying on some other drug.  I was prepared to not like what I was about to see.

Instead, the three officers, finally roused the man and got him to his feet.  I was sure they were going to cart him away…

But, they helped him walk to a spot by a street lamp.  Out of the way of the amount of foot traffic.  They dragged his belongings to his side.  He lay back and fell asleep.

The officers walked away.  No hassles.  No arrests.  No clubbing.

I wondered about the man’s life and what brought him to this busy sidewalk.  Then I felt grateful that he was in Paris, where no one used clubs or made him vanish into the bright light of the afternoon.

And all this happened within sight of this:

c

[Notre Dame Cathedral]

 

A Hint Of Green: Southbound On Train #238

[Everything is ON TIME]

Aboard the 12:10 train for Penn Station

I check my watch as the train jolts into motion.  It’s 12:09.

There was a time when Mariam and I would make the trip from Manhattan to Rainbow Lake in one day.  It was 305 miles from our apartment door on W. 93rd Street to our driveway at 58 Garondah Road, deep in the heart of the North Country.  Oddly, it was exactly the same distance from the driveway of my childhood home (420 Front Street) in Owego, New York.  But that’s beside the point.

We left our city apartment in November of 2011 and moved to the Adirondacks.  My childhood dream was realized…I was living in my favorite playground.  Now, I could hike, kayak and bike to my heart’s content.

Reality set in quickly.  I had serious lower back issues and my right foot was problematic.  Hiking became less enjoyable…it actually became unbearibly painful.

“Age appropriate,” said my orthopedic surgeon.

“Thanks,” I said as I thought about where I would store my snowshoes and x-country skis.

Fast forward to the present moment.  We no longer make the trip to the city in one day.  Our favorite hotel is on Wolf Road in Albany.  Mariam has since retired from her job of fifty-one years in health care.  It wasn’t a total break, however.  She is now the President of the Hemophilia Association of New York.  That means quarterly trips to the city.  We’re on such a trip as I write this.  We’re old hands at this, although we still use SIRI to get from our hotel to the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak Station.

I’d like to say that the gentle rocking of the coach is nap-inducing, but in reality, its nausea-inducing.  We make sure our seats are close to the restroom.  The train is really not rocking at all, it’s jerking me from side to side like a Yuma cowboy at the County Rodeo.  I’m having trouble hitting the right keys as I write this.  I’m using my MacBook Air without a mouse.  The heels of my hands are firmly planted on the deck of the laptop, but still I hit the wrong keys.  Three sentences ago, I meant to type “The train is really not rocking at all…”, but what appeared on the screen was: “Yug brain is ggreally not frocking ab vall”.

I’d like to say that in a half-hour, I intend to stroll back to dining car to sip a cognac and play a few hands of Whist, but in reality, there’s is no dining car on this particular train.  What made me think I was on the American version of the Orient Express?  But, hey, given the present state of rail travel in a country that sold its soul to Detroit and spends zillions of dollars on the Interstate System, I should be happy to settle for what we do have.

And, this trip is a little different for another reason.  I’m running away from a very long and depressing winter in the North Country.  It’s still January at Rainbow Lake.  I had to shovel a path to the garage just yesterday.  I’ve been filling the bird feeders two or three times a day.  Our respite in the city, where flowers are blooming I’m told, is only for a week.  Then its back to the snow, which I promise, will still be present in our front yard until early June.

As I look out at the Hudson River to my right, I do not see any snow…only on the tops of the distant Catskill Mountains.  Alongside the tracks, in the trees that line the river, I see wisps, mere hints, faint washes of pale green.  Spring is arriving in this middle land between the Adirondacks and urban New York. Across the river, on the western shore, I think I see forsythia shrubs in bloom.  The yellow is intense.  Some of the trees are starting to bud with a reddish hue.

[One of the many lighthouses of the Hudson River.]

It’s great to see color after six months of a monochromatic grayness.

Now, if I can only hold myself steady against the jerking of the train, and not slam the right side of my head against the plexiglass window sustaining a slight concussion, I can end this post.  But, I must find my email first.

We’re passing a nuclear power plant.  I think I’m starting to glow.

Do I see the George Washington Bridge coming up on my right?  Soon, we’ll be in tunnel on the west side of Manhattan and I will lose the wireless.  This is my second posting from a moving train.  I’ve done it!

[All photos are mine.]

 

April Idyll

[Source: Wikipedia]

If you’re like me, you have a lot of time on your hands.  Maybe too much.  I’ve found that staring out of the window at the daily accumulation of snow passes the time quite well.  Sometimes I stand close to the window and my breath fogs the glass.  Remember that scene in Dr. Zhivago?  Unbelievably, this can get a little boring so my default action is to find something to update on my laptop…and watch the bar at the bottom of the screen move to the right, making my computer a better thing to own.

I found myself staring out of the window this afternoon.  There was plenty of action at the suet cage and feeder as the birds (saw a Tanager today) fill up on sunflower seeds.  Of course, they should be busy nesting and mating but there’s no time for hanky-panky when survival is a first concern.  My hearing is still above average for someone my age, so I know I wasn’t mistaken when I heard two Finches talking:

“We came back from Capistrano for this?”

Another easy way to break the mid-spring blues is to book an appointment with your eye doctor.

So I did.

I knew there might be trouble when I sat down in the waiting room and began to shuffle through the magazines.  A copy of National Geographic caught my attention.  There was a rock climber on the cover so I was naturally interested.  I used to rock climb, back in the day.  My friend Greg and I would drive to the “Gunks in the Catskills and walk around with a brilliantly colored Perlon rope and lots of climbing hardware like carabiners and chocks.  The gear clanked a lot and we liked that.  We were good, and the more we climbed, the better we got.  I guess that’s an obvious thing, that practice makes perfect.

But, I digress.

As I turned the pages in the Geographic, something felt amiss.  I checked the cover.  It was the April issue so it should have been filled with the hot new stories from around the world.  But, something was still amiss.  I checked the cover again.  It was April alright, but the year was 1996.  I did some simple head math and realized that I was holding a magazine that was 22 years old.  What does that say about my doctor?  What equipment did he have back there?  Call me naive but did they even use eye charts back in the mid-1990’s?  I doubt it.

I put the Geographic down and began to go through the other offerings that were there to make the time easy passing.  I saw a Country Living, six copies of Highlights, four copies of Bow Hunter, the latest issues of Golf, People and Time.  Under those I discovered a six month old Reader’s Digest, two issues of Good Housekeeping, one copy of Rotarian and one copy of Where To Retire.  I prayed the doctor was running late.  I had a lot of reading to do.

It was then that I saw the Holy Grail of doctor’s office magazines.  The Pennysaver.  Pinch me, I’m in heaven.

I began to leaf through the issue.  So much to get and so little time.  There was a quarter pager ad with the heading: MILITARY SURPLUS.  The first item in the ad was for Black and White Mickey Mouse Boots.  Did I miss something in some war?

The next page had a small ad that simply asked: GOT MUD?  There was a phone number listed but I forgot to jot it down.  Next page sported an ad: ELVIS COLLECTIBLES.  The location was Malone, about 30 miles to the north.  What poor soul’s life had gone so bad in Malone to force him or her to part with anything about Elvis?  I made a mental note to not look for real estate in Malone.  On the same page was a large ad that said: WARNING: DON’T BE A VICTIM OF ‘GHOST’ TAX PREPARERS.  Ghost tax preparers.  There’s a story there somewhere but I didn’t have time to make notes.

They were calling me.  It was my turn.  I asked for a moment to check one last ad.  ANTIQUE AND COLLECTIBLE CARS 1937-1977.  I almost tore the ad from the page.  Here, finally, was my 1952 MG!  Just before I ditched the paper, I caught sight of one last ad.  It was for a free bag of Real Country Dog Food.  When I saw the words: U Pick Up, I headed back to the exam room.

My head was spinning.

I sat in a reddish dentist-like chair.  There was a chart of the Anatomy of the Human Eye.  I wondered how they got this drawing.  Someone had to have had their eye sliced in half longitudinally.  I shuddered.

The nurse left to get something and the doctor hadn’t yet seen me.  I was free to look around.  I was quite startled when I looked at the wall in front of me.  There was a mirror and it reflected the eye chart that was on the wall behind me.  Now, if it was being reflected in the mirror, the chart had to be printed backwards.  Sounds like a lot of trouble.  Why didn’t they just pin a chart to the wall and forget the mirror?

[So where is my reflection?]

The mirror.  That’s when things got really spooky.  I was looking directly at the mirror, but there was no reflection of me.  Now, I know that happens in vampire movies, so I had to think things over.  This was scary.

I’d rather be back home staring out at the snow falling than to sit in an exam room and hope I was wasn’t among the living dead.

[All photos are mine except where otherwise noted.]

 

Late Night Thoughts On Milkweed Pods

[Milkweed seed pod. Photo source: Me]

I’m not a collector, really.  I do have quite a few paperclips but I wouldn’t call it a collection.  My fondness for fountain pens and Moleskin notebooks is legendary, but I practice self-control…most of the time.  My grandmother’s barn was filled with a mountain of old tires, but they weren’t hers.  They belonged to my step-grandfather who was convinced that he was going “make a killing” in the rubber market when the next World War broke out.  Now, he was a collector.  I don’t think I own even one baseball card.  I do have several Bob Dylan concert tee-shirts, but they are never to be worn.  Somewhere among the many items I have from my father’s house is a Vote For Ike and Dick button.  I don’t know how we came about owning it since my parents were New Deal Democrats.  I don’t have a shadow box filled with butterflies stuck through with pins. (More on that later.) I have a fair number of CD’s but not nearly as many as my son-in-law, Bob.  He could open one of those booths in the court of a Seattle mall and make a fortune.

Bottom line here: you won’t see me on any episodes of Hoarders.

On one of our road trips I chanced to buy a rubber band ball.  I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out how this ball was put together.  It continues to baffle me.  If any of my readers know how they’re made, please text me.  If your explanation has to do with having a double life in Honduras or China, the secret will stay with me.

[My rubber band ball. Photo credit: Me]

But, I digress.

A few nights ago I was in my office/library pencil editing a chapter of my next novel.  I was tired and my creative juices were running dry.  (Actually, they’ve been running dry since 1959.)  It was then that I noticed something behind my Staples pencil holder.  It had been there, semi-hidden, for about six years.  I pulled it out and parts of it flew away.  It was a milkweed pod (Asclepias sp.) that I found in a field a year or so after we moved here.  I’ve always found the milkweed seeds and their bounty of fluff a miracle of nature.  Perfect dispersal method.  The wind.  These little puffs will drift about on the slightest breeze seeking a new home to grow up in.

One reason I brought the pod home was to give me a chance to look at the seeds through my new binocular microscope that I nagged Mariam enough into buying.  Hey, I was a Science Teacher for 35 years!  You can’t turn that off by relocating to the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks. (Note to husbands: if you nag her enough, your wife will get it for you.  Just don’t start with 1953 MG’s, Adirondack Guideboats or any kind of sailboat that sleeps 6.  Work up.)

[My binocular microscope. Photo source: Me]

I began to ruminate.  By my taking this one pod home that day six years ago, I had prevented the growth of a large number of new milkweed.  How many?  Well, I went straight to Google, of course.  I found that the average pod contains an average of 226 seeds (Wilson and Rathcke, 1974).  One doesn’t have to be Stephen Hawking (God Rest His Soul) to calculate that, if all the seeds were viable, I had prevented 1,356 potential milkweed plants from taking root.

The implications depressed me.  I had broken a natural chain of events.  I had disrupted a cycle of nature, a small one to be fair, but still I had to own the sin.

So, what’s the big deal? you may very well ask.

Well, once inside Google, you must stay inside Google.  Follow the paths of limitless information and you might be surprised where it leads you.

Who doesn’t love the Monarch butterfly?  Nature Centers around the country celebrate.  4-H clubs, Scouting groups of all kinds have Monarch activities.  (My daughter made a special study of them in her elementary school science class). And, here’s the bit that will haunt my dreams for years: the milkweed is essential to the life cycle of the Monarch!  The caterpillar stage eats only milkweed.  They can not survive without those little seeds.

And, (I can’t cite references on this) the Monarch butterfly is listed “at risk” on some nature websites.

My story, then, ends here on a dark note.  Have I contributed to the “at risk” factor of the Monarchs?

In some minuscule way, I did.  And, if my actions were repeated by even 1% of the rural population of the Northeast, the beautiful butterfly will find less to eat and more to die from.

The Monarch butterfly; the name by the way, in Homeric Greek means “one who urges on horses”.

That’s another blog post for another time.

[A Monarch butterfly. Photo source: Wikipedia]

But, there is something you can do to help right my wrongs.  Go to www.monarchjointventure.org and explore.