Yesterday Afternoon And An Afternoon Thirty-Three Years Ago

[The tomb of Joseph and Caroline Damer]

Thirty-three years ago I parked a VW Polo in a small space a short distance from the village of Milton Abbas. I was an exchange teacher at a school in Dorset, England. A teacher friend told me that I must visit an Abbey near Milton Abbas. I was open for any suggestions so off I went on a Saturday afternoon.

I can recall the day in great detail. It was crisp and clear and the air was chilly enough to slice like a razor through my new heavy wool sweater. I walked along a gravel path. There was (and still is) a private school on the grounds of the Abbey. I was told it was where “To Serve Them All My Days” was filmed. The movie was a sort of “Mr. Chips” kind of story about a teacher who spent his entire professional life…teaching.

But, I digress.

I wasn’t there to see the school. The Abbey was my goal. I can’t say it was an easy place to find. It’s basically located in the middle of an isolated part of Dorset. The roads were narrow and the hedgerows were brushing against my left rear-view mirror. If I met an oncoming vehicle, one of us had to pull over and let the other pass by.

[The fields near the Abbey]

After walking the path, I stood at the front entrance of the Abbey. The exterior was covered with moss and lichen. It was a cathedral on a small-scale. The flying buttresses were almost reachable.

I opened the door expecting to enter a typical English church. Instead, I held my breath and stood, trying to take in one of the most awesome sites I had seen so far in England.

To my left was a marble tomb. The ceiling had vaulting that would make an architect sigh.

[Vaulting]

That was more than three decades ago. Yesterday, I revisited the Abbey with my wife. I needed Mariam to see this place. Nothing had changed with the exception of the organ that was wrapped to protect it from the dust of some interior work.

People had worshipped on this site since 964 B.C.E. That’s over 1,000 years of prayers and funerals, weddings and quiet contemplation. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a millennium.

The building I stood in yesterday is not the original. The first structure burned in 1309. Changes too confusing and complicated for this space occurred over the centuries.

In 1752, the Abbey and grounds were taken over by a Joseph Damer (Lord Milton). He had a wife, Caroline, whom he loved dearly. Death separated the two. She died young. Joseph commissioned a tomb of white marble-topped with an effigy of the two of them to honor their marriage.

I approached the figures. I reached out and stroked Caroline’s marble hair. I glanced up and saw Joseph staring into my eyes. His white marble orbs unnerved me.

“Take your hands away from my wife’s forehead,” he said with white accusing eyes. I ran my hand down her cold marble arm. I squeezed her delicate fingers.

All of it was cold white marble.

 

[A full view of the Damer tomb]

I still wear the heavy wool sweater that I had on that day, thirty-three years ago. Some things like well-made sweaters and Abbeys are made to last and last and last.

 

[Beauty and Death]

[The view from the entrance of the Abbey]

[Information source: britainexpress.com (Google search)]

[All photos are mine]

 

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Her Husband Is Poorly: A First Walk In Yorkshire

[Grassington, Yorkshire.]

We’re staying in Grassington, Yorkshire. I saw somewhere it was called the “Swiss Alps of England”.  I can get the sense of that. No snow-capped peaks and Matterhorns, but the Dales are pure and English and brimming with grand vistas. There are enough walking paths to satisfy the Swiss Alpine Club, the Sierra Club, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the odd afternoons when the Grassington Horticulture Society has run out of gardens to visit.

Today was the first day that I felt like taking a walk. We’d been traveling a great deal and travel, as we know, is broadening, but also very tiring for a guy who just turned 71 years old. So, we chose a very short walk from the town center to a small church at Linton Falls. The entire hike was a bit over a mile.

But, I got my scenic jolt among the stone walls, the fields of sheep and the church at the end of the walk.

[Yes, that’s me.]

We found the small church and spent some time inside studying the Norman columns and arches. There was a Norman baptismal font. A few crypts were on the floor of the nave. One man died in 1665. Only his initials were given.

[St. Michael’s of Linton]

Then, after sitting in quiet contemplation for a short time…I noticed the window.

It was really a place that I would call a ‘prayer alcove’.

[The prayer window/alcove]

There was a small pad of paper. A pencil. A few prayer cards, some stick pins and two cork boards.

I took a moment to read a few prayer requests. After the second one, I felt an unexpected sorrow and pity for the person who wrote it. I’m assuming it was a woman…but I’ll never know. It was a simple note, not even a real request. Just a simple statement which read:

A good friend who’s husband is poorly.

 

[Another part of the prayer board.]

The word ‘poorly’ hinted to me that it was a British person who wrote this. As usual I began to wonder where she lived, who was her friend? How poorly was he? She clearly felt desperate and desolate enough to go to a remote church and post this humble note. Did she light a candle at Salisbury Cathedral?

But, most of all, I failed to notice the date (if there was one) and I wondered if the husband was still alive…

We began to make our way back to downtown Grassington. It was sunny and hot. The sheep I saw earlier were all laying down in the fields. We stepped aside for many walkers. We side-stepped for many dogs. The Brits love their dogs. So many signs about keeping the dog leashed…so few leashes.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead. I took pictures of the ferns and wildflowers growing between the rocks of the walled path.

I wondered about the ‘poorly husband’.

I’m not a praying man, but…

[All photos are mine]

 

An American In Brussels

Trust me. I can say a few words about how this grey-haired man is exhausted from what is only the early days of his European Tour. I was there, every minute…waiting for the train in Bruges and sitting in the hot humid air of Brussels Midi station wondering whether he should jump into a taxi or sit at a spaghetti restaurant across from the train station.

The guy decided to go to the restaurant and share a beer with his wife. He was unnerved. He knew nothing about the geography of Brussels. They took a taxi to the B & B they had found on an online booking service. When they got there, it was three flights up to a room that was very artistic, but lacked a desk, chairs and a fan. It was humid in Brussels that afternoon.

They spent a night there. He sweated through most of the dark hours. They took a walk and found the Grand Place.

It was the night before his birthday.

They made an unusual choice to depart the B & B and take a room at the Marriott. Not something he had planned to do…he wanted small hotels, European-style. But, he didn’t want to sweat another night.

They booked a room at the Marriott. Once they were allowed into their room, this tired old man took a nap.

Now, a little history:

This man, after he passed his mid 60’s, began to feel that each birthday had to include something somewhat unusual.

On his 67th birthday, they were in Paris. They climbed the steps to Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. On the 67th step, they stopped and embraced.

On his 68th birthday, they were in Dorset, England. They went to Salisbury Cathedral. They walked 68 steps down the central aisle of the nave, stopped and embraced.

Some years passed. They didn’t find themselves in a foreign country on his birthday, so it was all low-key. Should we take 69 steps toward the local post office and stop and embrace?

That wasn’t going to do it for him. So, how did it all play out today in Brussels…a city he knew very little about. The answer was beneath their feet.

The cobblestones!

He chose a side street with a beautiful cobblestone pavement. They tiptoed 71 tiles (cobblestones?) and stopped and embraced.

Then it began to rain very hard. They ran to the restaurant that was enthusiastically recommend.

As he ate his cod dish, he was already thinking about number 72.

[All photos are mine]

Bruges Makes Me Sad

[Mariam and her husband after dinner at the Market Square.]

Occasionally, during your life you arrive at a destination that forces you to hold your breath, for too long, and then exhale with an audible gasp. Your heart can hold off on a beat and then give you an extra pump. And a part of your thoughts fade…you lose a sense of time. The view before your eyes alters your senses in more than a few ways.

This happened to me the first time I visited Bruges (Brugge, if you wish) in the mid 1980’s. I walked beside the canals, then lined with lace and chocolate shops. I paused with my friend who was traveling with me. I had to lean against a tree. I was overcome by a deep and very intense sense of melancholy. I began to cry.

I was in Bruges and I was sad.

In my heart, I knew why this was happening, but I was reluctant to put it into words. How could anyone really understand my inner thoughts?

I never forgot my visit from that year. We were given a choice, after studying posters, of a free Mozart concert in the City Hall or a one-ring European circus just outside of the old city.

We chose the circus. I don’t need to tell you how I fell in love with the trapeze star. She was beautiful and she soared back and forth like an undecided angel. If you ever see the film Wings of Desire you will get an idea of how I felt. (Spoiler!) In the film, the main character is an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist. Of course angels can’t do that…so he pays the price…by losing his wings.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet,

I see her walking now away from me,

So hurriedly. My reason must allow,

For I have wooed, not as I should

A creature made of clay.

When the angel woos the clay, he’ll lose

His wings at the dawn of the day.

–Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh

I cannot separate this poem (later a song by Van Morrison), from my experience in the 1980’s. You feel special and celestial, one moment and then you feel human the next. But love, beauty, art, youth and history were in the mix of tea leaves I drank the following morning.

So, now I’m back in Bruges with my wife, Mariam, thirty-three years later, and I’m feeling the same melancholy thoughts that made me lean against a tree so many years ago and begin to cry.

My thoughts now are the same as they were then. As our train came to a stop at the rail station, the very same emotions overcame me.

But is all this simply about the love of beauty and the beauty of love?

Why did I lean against that sycamore tree? It was because of a question that became evident the moment I walked into the Market Square so many years ago:

Why can’t the world have more places as beautiful as Bruges?  Why is art defined by the amount of steel and glass?  There are beautiful buildings in New York City, but not that many.  The Woolworth Building. The Chrysler Building. The Empire State Building.

But, this isn’t a post about Manhattan. It’s about how one young man found beauty in an old Belgian town…and, not knowing how age changes perspectives, found the same feeling decades later. Laying expectations on someone, like your wife, is blatantly unfair. Even so, I needed Mariam to see the beauty of this town, as I did.

When we visited the Louvre, Mariam and I had a conversation about beauty and art and the feelings of the soul. I told her that many of the great paintings (please don’t ask for examples) made me sad. She replied that great art should elevate the soul and evoke happiness. I said that really profound art, like Venus de Milo, did the opposite for me. She is most beautiful in her sadness.

Beautiful art, beautiful men and women, ancient Roman and Greek female nudes and beautiful cities make me yearn for a better world…one without hatred and violence. The destruction of art in the name of any god, is a godless act.

I suppose this post is about love and beauty.

 

[All photos are mine]

People Watching: Our Final Night In Paris

If you are a frequent reader of my posts, you will probably have noticed that I like to make up stories about people and things I don’t know anything about. The pleasure, for me as a blogger, is that I’m not bound in by only what I read or hear.  The type of posts I choose to write free me of mere facts.  I can invent an entire world.

True, many of my older blogs dealt with memories and dwelling in those memories. This post is something of both. I’ve tried to record, with a few meager photos and some scribbled notes, my thoughts and imaginings about watching the people on the streets of Paris, on a warm day in late May. This is a fraction of what I feel I could write about, but I’m a guy who needs limits.

We walk the streets. We sit in cafes and bistros and taverns. I sit and I think. I sit and imagine.

I watch the pretty young women riding bicycles, backs straight, skirts flowing and smiles on their faces. I wish they wore helmets. Some do, most don’t.

Along the narrow sidewalks, confident women with swishing skirts, breezy and full of thoughts of the future.  Behind them, are dignified older women with chunky necklaces. Some walk with friends…some are alone. I always wonder about an elderly woman alone. Is it by choice? Is she missing someone…a female partner or older husband?

I always wonder about these things.

I look at the young brash men, full of exuberance, full of expectations of a life yet to be lived. They are defiant and gentle from one second to the next. I observe no macho strutting. I see confidence and disregard for a danger that may lurk around the corner as they speed off on their scooters.

Children ride scooters, girls with pink helmets, boys with blue. Always a parent to wait at the corner. Always a mother to hold a hand. Always a father to proudly guide his son to the next corner and to their life beyond.

There are old grizzled men who look like they are keeping a secret. Standing on the corner, they smoke and think and they stare in the middle distance. Are they trying to forget? Trying to remember?

Next to them are the handsome middle-age men, comfortable in their middle years. Did they just leave the apartment of their mistress? Did they just say good-bye to their mistress? Was this their first afternoon with their mistress?

Some of the teenage girls seem wary, unsure of how to present themselves. Others are older than their years and know exactly how they look to the others boys, or girls, on those narrow streets.

There are more women, beautiful and lithe as models, chatting on their cellphones.

In the cafes, handsome men, handsome as Yves Montand, sip a mid-day white wine. Nearby are the waiters, black jackets and white aprons that extend to their ankles. They are ever vigilant and attentive to their patrons in need of a second espresso. Elsewhere in the bar are lonely men and lonely women, reading and holding onto their glass of rose or beer.

I feel like I’ve watched a thousand lives pass in front of me. Behind each face they hold a history of their life, secretly in their minds until a foreigner like me intrudes into their memories, inventing lives for them they surely never imagined.

It’s getting close to dusk. I hear sirens, so many sirens that I think there’s been another terrorist attack. The sirens. Is Putin in town?

The buzzing roar of the scooters, some small and innocent like a Vespa and others large…willing and able to wear the Harley crest.

At our last restaurant, I snapped a photo of a woman fanning herself (it was humid). It was one of those flirtatious Carmen-style fans.  She was totally absorbed in a conversation with her three friends and totally oblivious to the fact that an American, grey-haired and middle-aged (?) had stolen her privacy.

Some cultures believe that taking a photograph of someone, somehow robs them of their souls. Do I have her soul in my iPhone? In the cloud?

Yes, I do believe that I have stolen her soul. In years to come, I can scroll back and look at her. I possess her image. She and her friends will soon forget this evening. They will move into new lives and become different.

And when I remember that final evening in that Italian restaurant in Paris, all those people who stepped in front of my camera…I have their images frozen. And I can thaw them out anytime and play with new versions of a thousand life stories.

One or two of them may touch the truth.

 

[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.

 

One Son

[Brian. April 24, 2018.]

No, the title of this post is not something I stole from a menu from one of the many Korean eateries on W. 35th Street.

And, if you look at the photo above…(I always use a lead-in graphic for my posts), I can tell you certain things:

It’s a profile of my son, Brian.  No, he is not dreaming of traveling to France.  No, he does not make a living balancing things on his forehead (maybe he does, maybe I missed something). And, no, he is not conjuring a suitcase.  If he had that kind of talent, I’m confident he’d be conjuring something more interesting that a valise with faded travel stickers.

We were at a restaurant just south of Macy’s and a few blocks from where he works.  During the dinner I looked at him and recalled that I didn’t have a good profile picture of him.  So I asked him to pose against a neutral wall, not considering the piece of old-time luggage that was mounted there.

Before we rejected the desert menu, I was busy thinking.  I had written many blog posts that highlighted places and people who I hardly knew.  Interesting interactions with people who I, most likely, would never meet again.

I’m proud of those posts, but it occurred to me that I had not highlighted my own children enough.  I had mentioned them in many blogs, but never were they a main subject of my encounters.

When I first moved to Manhattan in the very early 1990’s, Brian was about five years old.  I was going through a divorce.  My father brought him down to visit.  I took my dad to Bethune Street where he worked for the Bell Labs in the 1930’s.  Brian came along.  He was a tiny guy in the big city.

Later, he came down with a friend.  I have a picture of him in front of the Twin Towers.  He says he remembers the day clearly.

Even later, he came to live with us while he attended Baruch College to complete his undergraduate degree.  We had a challenging time fitting him into our one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.  For me, it was good-bye Letterman while he slept on the fold-out sofa.

He graduated and before you could say “congratulations”, he had a job.

Now, he buys us dinner…we are the ‘out-of-town’ now.  He tells me which train to take to get to some obscure place in one of the boroughs.  He has a lady friend and they live in Astoria.  Ironically, he lives just blocks away from where my wife grew up.

I’m awed by how my son has grown up.  I’m amazed at his success.  I’m proud to have him as my son, my only son.  No one will carry the Egan name into the future except him.  And, I’m not pushing anything.

I love my son beyond what I thought was possible.  He is everything I tried to be in my life…funny, outgoing and charismatic.  Where I failed, he succeeded.

Look at the photo below.  It seems like just yesterday that I took the picture.  I’ll always think of him with the little stick in his right hand.  The look on his face says to me: “I’m a good boy, daddy.”

I hope the sweater is still in around somewhere.  In a trunk maybe.  Then someday, if he has a son of his own, he may be able to have him pose for a similar photo.  And, maybe he’ll write a blog about much he loves his little boy.

Oh, yes you are, my one son.  My Number One Son.

Love you Brian.

[Brian. ca.1990]

All photos are mine.