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Trip of Gifts - Italy, Greece and Switzerland

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006
An amusing journey with Zig and Georgia as they travel on a tight budget through part of Switzerland, Liguria and make a pilgrimage to Greece, Sept 25 - Oct 9, 2006.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

9/25/06 - Travel Day - Kentucky to Milan, Italy

Jenny, our daughter the lawyer, gave us a ride to the Bluegrass Airport about 11:30 am for our 2:15pm flight. We arrived early because she had work she needed to do and Georgia (nervous flier that she is) decided we needed to finish our liquid preparations at the airport bar.

The ticket counter was a piece of cake. After watching red-faced American tourists puffing up and down Venetian stair-step bridges last year, we travel light. We each had a wheeled carry-on. Mine was a fly-weight 22 lbs, and Georgia’s was only slightly heavier at the bantam weight of 24 lbs. The fact that we weren’t planning to go to an opera this time meant we didn’t need any special dress clothes and my black sneakers would have to pass for nice shoes in the low light of cathedrals. Georgia’s extra two pounds probably came from carrying a dressier pair of sandals and a relatively heavy coat. I decided to take only a light jacket but then layer myself like an onion for the trip through the Alps. Our clothes were all made of silk or permanent press so we could wash them in the sink and dry them overnight on the towel rack. Our denims were the heaviest and most slow-drying clothes we packed, but we just waited to wash them when we could hang them in the sun.

The security checkpoint was a hassle. Even though the radio said The Department of Homeland Security was going to allow travel-size tubes of toothpaste on the morrow, our examiners were working off today’s playbook and we had to surrender our three ounce tubes of decay fighting dentifrice, there’s no telling what carnage such a weapon could have caused in the closed space of an intercontinental jet. Oh the humanity! Even worse. you should have seen the line come to a screeching halt when Jethro discovered a one-ounce tube of dried-up titanium white in my water-color kit. He was probably one of those water-color sticklers appalled at achieving white in any manner other than unpainted paper but he claimed that there was no way to know for sure what was really in the dried up tube. Surrendering my own sensibilities to my critics I acquiesced in his removing the offending object. Lucky for our fellow passengers that Elly-May spotted the real terrorist threat: Georgia immediately set off alarm bells and got herself frisked. She said that all things considered it was pretty exciting.

The rest of the trip to Newark was boring. Skymall Magazine kept us abreast of the modern technological wonders. The instant “mail chime” looked interesting. A “You’ve Got Mail” ping for the snail-mail set who might not be able (like me) to actually hear the guy drive up. The stuffed toys with embedded cameras crept me out though, as did the bedroom clock with a hidden camcorder. I’m not really sure I’m ready for this century. Our fellow passengers were more interesting and a good bit less creepy.

You can always spot the Italian travelers, even before they speak a word. It’s the shoes. Wonderfully stylish shoes, impossibly long and pointed, and the women glide in them rather than walk. Well, actually I guess they have to glide in them since they can no more raise themselves up on the toe in a normal walking gait than Bozo the Clown could have gone en pointe in his shoes. But still, they look so suave and elegant, both the men and the women, at least the men and women who are flying to Milan, fashion capital of the world. I noticed them noticing me, of course. One fashion horse always recognizes another. The curled lip was an international sign of envy directed at my black sneakers, plaid shirt, and jeans de blue.

We were in the center section of the plane this time and Bobbi, a middle-aged lady across the aisle would wake me periodically to ask about each squeak, rattle, and thump. She’d only flown to Europe six times but was sure that I was the real expert because I’d flown a typewriter in the Air Force thirty years ago! Her husband, sitting on her other side, was desperately feigning sleep. Sitting on the other side of Georgia was a cheerfully chubby young man from San Francisco on his way to Lake Como for a family wedding reunion. Brothers, sisters, and parents were coming from Australia, Poland, Tibet, and he from San Francisco (no kidding). They started out as a nuclear unit in Oslo Norway, but he was a proudly naturalized citizen of the US and was not hoping for a prolonged get-together. “A little family goes a long way?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “I love them but don’t want to hang out with them that long.”

That started me thinking more about my family. I wondered why my mother’s mother’s father, Johannes Koenig, left Iffwyl, Switzerland about 1854 for a new life in Pennsylvania. That must have been a truly awesome journey in the 1850s. According to family notes he traveled with some members of his family, but left others behind. Why? Was he tired of hanging out with them too? What makes some families all live within 20 miles of where they were born and leads others to scatter like dandelion in a wind storm? Maybe we’re notoriously footloose in the US because we were mainly populated by apples that rolled very far from the tree.

Anyway, Iffwyl, anxious to enter the 21st century, now has a website and I posted a message there asking if there were any Konigs still around. Elizabeth (Lisa) Konig Staub emailed me back in broken English that there were several Konig families there and she’d like us to visit the restaurant she runs with her sister. She’d try to find information on Johannes for me. I was looking forward to meeting her, but also apprehensive about the language barrier. I don’t speak any German, and it didn’t sound like she spoke much English. But I did have a lot of family pictures and I had them all labeled. It was going to be fun to see if there was any family resemblance.

The plane landed safely at Malpensa Aeroporto outside Milan and although there were a lot of people it only took about 20 minutes to go through customs because there were 8-10 different booths. Ker-chunk went the visa clerk and we were back in Italy! Glorious Italia!

Being experienced world travelers with one two-week trip under our belt (see Trip Report 788 at slowtrav.com) and because Georgia had done another wonderful job researching our trip, we knew we needed to catch our train to Bern Switzerland from Milano Centrale. The problem was that the train from the airport didn’t go all the way to Milano Centrale because there are at least two train systems in Italy and they don’t always service each other’s stations! Sort of like having separate phone companies where you may have to call your friend’s neighbor and ask them to carry a message next door for you. Anyway, we had to get off at Milano Carbinara and catch the metro to Centrale. As you might suppose we were not the only ones attempting this so it was pretty easy following the crowd. During my “Rat Pack” days mom used to ask me if I would follow my friends if they jumped off a cliff. I should have said “Only if I was trying to find Milano Centrale and they seemed to know the way.”

We know about big city metros now, having had my pocket picked in Rome last year, so I backed into a corner and blockaded myself with our carry-ons. A nice young man saw Georgia standing and gave up his seat for her. How nice! I wonder if they still do that in New York. He then continued reading his paperback book while holding the overhead strap. Looking around I saw that five or six others were also reading books and several were reading newspapers. Big-City literacy programs in the US should hand out books at Subway stops. The trip itself was completely uneventful. We were used to the mechanical voices calling out stations and warning us to “Mind the gap.” We knew how to read the diagrams over the door and Milano Centrale was the last stop on the line so it was going to be hard to miss.

Looking out the windows it occurred to me that there is a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written on the distinct national and regional differences of graffiti. Milan, design capital of the world, attracts a much higher class of street-artist than the other Italian big cities. Not only was there a much better use of color and “movement” in the designs, but there was also no jumbling. In Rome, for instance, graffiti was a contact sport, with everyone painting over everyone else’s layer. The walls become a riot of color with fragments of designs, survival of the latest. In Milan the artists apparently had particular stretches of wall with clear-cut demarcations. Some tags were even 15 or 20 yards long and absolutely pristine, a mark, I think, of real respect among the artists. Some of them were so perfect it looked like they’d been laid out with a chalk line and ruler. Amazing florescent colors and electric color-combinations with surprising use of black to highlight the designs. Really quite lovely. If only they could be more than just a signature or territorial mark. Even colorful dog pee, artistically applied, is still dog pee.

Centrale was ENORMOUS! When we emerged from the underground up an impossibly long escalator we came up into the alcove of a truly monumental building rising above us like a columned cliff. Huge nets were suspended between the tops of the columns to catch plaster and stone that might fall from the ceiling four or five stories above where hard-hatted workers were effecting restorations. We tried to use the automatic ticket machine but couldn’t find Bern as a possible destination so we got in a ticket line. We didn’t have much time so were feeling a little anxious. We finally reached the head of the line where the agent responded to my broken-Italian question with the revelation that he could not help us as we wanted the International ticket office at booth #53 because we would be leaving Italia to travel to the city of Bern which was in another country called Svizzeria. This particular booth, #41, was for servicing passengers who wanted to travel from one city in Italia to another city in Italia. Imagine my surprise!

So we set off hurriedly in search of booth #53. Booth #51 was the largest number we could find. Georgia suspected that we really wanted booth #46 where we saw another long line waiting for international tickets of some sort. That observation lead to a fairly heated discussion about whether or not the Milanese ticket agent was likely to confuse the numbers “46” and “53” or want to send those crazy Americans off in search of a non-existent ticket booth. Should we follow the Milanese ticket agent’s suggestion, or follow the gut instincts of the Lexington, Kentucky tourist?? I wonder! In walking around in circles muttering about each other’s parentage and intelligence we found a door marked, of all things, “Billetti Internationale” behind which we not only found booth #53, but also poor little neglected booth #52!

Only a couple of people ahead of us in line and when we got to the window the agent cheerfully sold us tickets but told us we had only 10 minutes to catch our train. No, she didn’t know what binario we needed. We’d have to ask the conductor. No problem, we thought, and hurried off for the stairway.

(to be continued)

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Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
9/26/06 From Milan to Bern, Switzerland, through the Alps

Flying east across the ocean can make for a very long couple of days. September 25 merged seamlessly into September 26 with no significant amount of sleep on the plane: Bobbie needed constant reassurance after all. But it was now early in the morning of September 26th, Italy time, and we had the promise of a glorious trip through the Alps ahead of us. But first we had to scale the alpine staircase in front of us.

The station, as I’ve said, was enormous. It was built in a time when public buildings were intended to make a statement about who “we” as a people were, and this building said that the pre-war Italian people were the rightful successors of the Roman Legions, able to scale any number of flights of stairs with however many suitcases their servants might need to tote. Once up the stairs, flushed and panting, we were faced with gigantic marble corridors crisscrossing the building. The walls were pristine (as yet) and our footsteps echoed as we hurried along. When we eventually emerged into the sunlight we checked for our binario at the Information Desk, found our platform without a hitch, and boarded our train with three minutes to spare. Are we good or what?

I’m not sure we actually found the right seats but like good Italians we overcame the tyranny of the ticket and sat where we ought to sit, rather than where some little square of paper said we needed to sit. What did it care, after all, which side of the train had the more exquisite view? My nerves were steeled in this act of civil disobedience by one of my fellow travelers. He was a member of a traveling five-some: two men, two women and a cell phone, who, were gathered at one end of the car, in the handicapped section (though I can’t imagine how a handicapped person could have gotten on the train without being pitched in through an open window). The place of honor was occupied by a toothless old man situated on a bench placed along the end wall of the car. The doorway to the next car (and the WC) was on the left side so the older man was thus situated in the center of the aisle, like a king holding court. I didn’t hear his wheezy voice often, but it was evidently his comfort that dictated where the group sat. He wore a now too-big faded brown suit and a pale yellow open-necked shirt. His middle-aged heir apparent sat on the back of a jump seat on the sidewall by the doorway to the WC and the next car, on the old man’s right hand. The prince also had the strong square hands of a workman; he was short and stocky, but his black eyes really did twinkle as he surveyed the car. When I timidly asked him which seats we should be sitting in he peered out at me from under bushy salt and pepper eyebrows and a black baseball cap worn jauntily on the back of his head. He gestured at the mostly empty car, rolled his eyes, and shrugged eloquently.

We sat a few seats away so that we could watch the Alps rush at us, but also so we could watch the royal party. On the toothless King’s left hand sat the Prince’s middle-aged wife. She must have been his wife. A man would have killed any other woman who treated him with so much contempt. She too was in her mid-fifties I think, and was wearing a simple dark dress and a thin knit sweater. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled back in a neat bun. Her voice would peel the paint off a naval destroyer. She also took charge of the group’s cell phone, which she passed loudly from person to person as each of the many calls needed to be shared to be believed. Across from the fishwife/princess sat a woman whose only purpose in life was to be an amazed sounding board and incredulous audience for all the revelations received over the phone.

My stocky baseball capped mentor’s perch allowed him to survey everyone in the car and anyone attempting to travel through the train or go the WC would have to walk right through the center of their little tableaux. My Italian is much too weak. I really have no clue as to what was the proximate cause or immediate subject of the constant stream of point and counterpoint among the four (plus one). The bulk of the verbal packy-ball was played between the Prince and the Fishwife. They just had to be married. Even brothers and sisters couldn’t speak to each other at such length and with such scorn as these two did. The words were unintelligible but the hand gestures, body language, and rolled eyes aimed in our direction needed no translation. This was clearly only one brief act in a marital play that had been going on before a live audience for a very long time and showed no prospect of ending ‘til death do us part.

Midway through Act II the conductor appeared. Because we now knew how to validate our tickets on the platform and could actually tell the difference between a first and second class coach, we were unconcerned. He glanced at our ticket and punched it without a comment. When he moved to our foursome (plus one) it was an entirely different matter. He took all four tickets in his hand and said something I couldn’t catch. He was immediately surrounded by three able-bodied Italians (and one invalid) all speaking (or wheezing) at once and gesturing at their tickets. Not a tall man, the conductor nevertheless was in complete control. He never raised his voice. He smoothed his uniform jacket nonchalantly. He replied to each incredulous outburst by some mild reference to “questo treino,” this train. The general hubbub gradually subsided as each interlocutor descended, in turn, to his level of excitement. The fishwife was the last down and I’m not sure her feet ever actually touched the ground. She addressed some comment to the car as a whole and an older, well-dressed woman behind us joined in and helped stir the pot somewhat. The conductor merely turned to go, mentioning “questo treino” one last time and the fishwife instigated a sympathetic exchange with the newcomer over our shoulder then asked me if she could borrow my pen, pantomiming writing on her hand. I gave her my pen and she returned to her seat, continuing the diatribe, and began to write something on her ticket. Each written letter was punctuating with waving arms and a sarcastic comment directed toward the now silent Prince. It must have taken ten minutes or so to write five or six words. She then returned my pen with a smile and a peasant’s bob: “Gratzie,” she said. “Prego,” I replied. The Prince was intently studying something outside the windows.

About this time we arrived in Lake Maggiori, and it was definitely a Major Lake. The foursome got noisily off the train. The well-dressed lady behind us stood up. I asked what the foursome was arguing about. She shrugged and said “They got on the wrong train,” and then asked if she might join us. Her name was Jacqueline; she was originally from Lebanon, now living in Milan; she was Jewish, with a grand-daughter going to Harvard; she recognized our accents as American; hated the Arabs for destroying Lebanon, and now they wanted to do the same thing to Italy and Switzerland; she adored George Bush and thought that he should use an even heavier hand in the middle east because force is all that Arabs understand or respect; she was schooled by nuns, colored her hair red, liked rich clothes, and had a nice apartment in Milan and one in Switzerland with a magnificent mountain view; she was going to be getting off at the little town of Brig just on the other side of the mountains. “Sure,” I said, “have a seat.”

I told her we were from Kentucky. And then the flood of words washed over us again. I nodded frequently between waves and tried to steal glances out the window. Lake Maggiori looked like a fjord, so deep and blue was it, even on an overcast day. And there were lovely little towns sprinkled around the shore. During one of the lulls we apologized for not being very talkative, “Tres fatigue,” I explained about our extended travel day.

“I will let you rest,” she said, “We are coming to the tunnel anyway.”

“Tunnel?” I wondered and just then it went dark outside and remained dark for a good thirty minutes with only occasional bursts of light illuminating impossibly deep gorges with impossibly soaring pinnacles. Except for your typical mountain goat peacefully munching weeds on the face of a cliff the area was completely uninhabited and then suddenly there were amazing vistas out the left side of the train proving that we had, in deed, ridden a train (literally) through the Alps!

The narrow gorges gradually seemed to open up although you still couldn’t possibly take in both the height and the depth of the ravines at the same time. The cataracts coming down from the cliffs formed streams of milky aquamarine. As we also rushed down the mountainside we could see gardens laid out below us in a neat patchwork and pinned to the lower mountainsides. Whatever else might be planted along the tracks there were hundreds and hundreds of apple trees laden with gorgeous red fruit to the point of breaking. The limbs were supported by poles the way my mother used to prop up a heavy-laden wash line. Jacqueline got off the train at Brig, took one of my brochures and promised to visit my website. She wished us a pleasant trip and we hoped she’d get to visit her granddaughter in Boston soon. And then she was gone and we resumed our rush through the glorious Swiss mountain valleys toward Bern in silence. Somehow the mountains became less forbidding and easier to see as we gained some distance from them. No wonder people like to take photographs. It’s much easier to tame a spectacle through a little viewfinder than confront it in person. We had to fight sleep that last hour, afraid we would miss our stop and sick at the prospect of being unconscious amid such splendor.

The Bern train station was not nearly so monumental as Centrale, but much more modern. The passageways are all underground, but so wide they don’t feel like tunnels. And they are lined with small clean shops. You wouldn’t even think of graffiti in such a place. We bought some delicious bread in a little bakery and the tourist office gave us a great map to the “Hotel Landhaus” where we had reservations. It was supposed to be about a 45 minute walk. Georgia was all primed and ready to go! I propped my eyes open with toothpicks and stumbled out the door after her.

(to be continued)


Switzerland from the train window
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Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
9/26/06 - Switzerland - In Bern

Bern, capitol of Switzerland, my genetic stomping ground. Why did Johannes pick up and leave in 1854? The town is stunningly picturesque and after the wall-to-wall clouds of northern Italy, even “partly cloudy” in Switzerland is dazzling. He certainly didn’t leave hoping for better photo ops.

The train station is at the high point of the old fortified town that used the swiftly flowing Ayle River as a moat on three sides. Our hostel, “Hotel Landhaus” was located just over the river at the bottom of the horseshoe. That meant our walk was going to be all downhill. That sounded really good to me as I much prefer sleepwalking downhill. And here, gentle reader, you might well ask: “Well, why didn’t you just hire a taxi, cheapskate?” The answer is “Yes, that’s right.” I’m proud of my “cheap-skated-ness.” You see, we had checked and rechecked and calculated and recalculated finances for this trip. The airfare was more than last year’s, the three-country itinerary was much more ambitious, but the final outcome needed to be essentially the same: less than $5,000 for the both of us! Last year’s trip to Rome, Venice, Florence, and Elba had rung the bell at $4,500. Before we left we added up our “fixed costs:” those hotels, airplanes, buses, trains, and ferries we were going to have to take and then we divided the remainder by the number of days we were going to be gone. To make budget we needed to hold ourselves to €30 a day or less in incidentals, and that included food. That’s why sending postcards was one of our big splurges and why photographs and pebbles constitute our cache of souvenirs. A taxi would have cost €20, so we walked.

And what a wonderful walk, like stepping back 400 years in just 100 yards. The buildings were ancient but immaculate, five or six stories, quarter-timbered masonry and plaster accented with window boxes of lovely red geraniums and trailing blue morning glories. The streets were about 25-30 feet wide, with watering troughs every hundred yards or so. I call them “troughs” even if the tour-books call them fountains because “fountain” gives the wrong impression. These six-foot in diameter stone basins were obviously built so that local people could easily gather water. There were free-flowing pipes built into the bases of carved wooden statues rising from the center of each. Every neighborhood seemed to have its own patron statue, 12-15 feet tall and brightly painted. Bears and soldiers and lions and dragons and heroes and heroines were everywhere supplying fresh-flowing icy-cold water to a happy and prosperous citizenry. A steady stream of bright red trams traveled around these statues on tracks laid in the 6” squares of basalt cobblestones. One of the major intersections had the famous clock tower Einstein used to watch as he rode to and from work at the patent office. It was gloriously painted and the clockworks also ran a charming menagerie of carved and painted animals that put on quite a show each and every hour. And judging by the crowds this wasn’t just a show, it was the show in Bern. It was on one of these trams that the theory of relativity was hatched as the Great Brain wondered what the tower would look like if you were traveling away from it at the speed of light. That may be an indication of just how exciting the old city was or perhaps indicates how anxious Herr Doctor was to leave and put down roots in New Jersey!

The trip down to the Landhaus was only arrested by Georgia visiting one of the many chocolatiers along the way to see what there was to see inside. I remained outside watching a young couple with blue hair provide their own entertainment passionately swapping saliva. They were drawing a crowd to rival the clock-tower menagerie, but were also causing a pedestrian traffic jam thereby.

Denizens of Bern, being a very thrifty and industrious lot, not given to wasting space, long-ago discovered that if roads could easily double as watering holes then sidewalks can do triple duty. If you think about it, they really are a waste of space. No matter how busy the pedestrian traffic, the space above and below them is completely unused. Not in Bern. As early as the 14th century, Berniers were extending their buildings out over the sidewalks, and under them as well. The sidewalks, then, are really just long arched porticos with shop windows on one side and the roadway on the other. And at the edges of the roadway are what appear to be cellar doors that open to steps leading down to more shops, subterranean! Eventually Georgia re-emerged and tore me away from the floor show and we wound our way down to a beautiful carved stone bridge high over the river. It looked down on the roofs of riverside houses below and another smaller, even more ancient bridge. The combination of clay-red tiled roofs and churning aquamarine water was delightful to both the eye and the ear. The Landhaus was easy to spot from our perch. It was a 4-story masonry and plaster building flanked by the river on one side, and a mountain towering over it on the other.

The twenty-something desk clerk (surely his name was Dieter) took Georgia’s bag and apologized that our room was on the third floor. “That means it’s on the fourth floor” my sweetie quipped. “No,” Dieter replied icily, “Zat means eet issss on ze tirrrd floor.” I frowned and signaled to her that Bern was apparently not the place for word play. Georgia shrugged and we plunged up the narrow chute of a wooden spiral staircase behind rapidly ascending Dieter. The steps were so steep and the passage was so narrow that it was more like climbing a tree house than walking up a staircase. I could see why they specialized in backpackers. There was no elevator and I can’t imagine trying to carry a traditional suitcase up those steps.

We emerged a few minutes later puffing and dizzy in a circular vestibule at the top of the chute. There were four doors, three of them with numbers. He opened the one without a number to show us the little common bathroom and toilet. Only one person could fit in there at a time. He then unlocked our closet-sized room and showed us how to use all the modern conveniences, like the sink on the wall by the twin beds and the doorknob out to our postage-stamp-sized balcony. He then stood there expectantly. World traveler that I am, it dawned on me that he wanted a tip, and since it didn’t look like he was going to leave without one, I started fumbling around in my pockets. If I had known he was coming I would have baked a cake, but, we had no Swiss francs yet and only some fairly large euro notes. I certainly wasn’t going to give him one of those. I heard something jingle in my pocket and pulled out two American quarters. I offered them to dour Dieter expecting a sneer, but thanks be to God! His face broke into a smile. Evidently 50 cents American is a large tip for people who work in student backpack hostels.

I laid down on one of the twin beds for a moment to check for cracks in my eyelids while Georgia went to check on the facilities we shared with the other rooms. She claims that I was snoring before she closed the door. I’m sure she’s wrong because I was there and I don’t remember that at all. Anyway, she says that I suddenly snorted and then went silent. The suddenness scared her so she poked me to see if I’d expired from altitude sickness. “I was afraid you’d quit breathing” she said. “No,” I replied, “It’s now a settled habit with me.”

This was the evening of the 26th and we toppled back down the chute outside our door in search of a supermercato to buy some picnic supplies for supper as well as something for tomorrow’s trip to Jegensdorf. That was the closest train stop to Johannes’ little town of Iffwyl. And it was a commuter train running early in the morning and late in the afternoon so we needed to get a bite pretty soon and turn in. We’d heard that the mountain adjacent to the Landhaus was topped by a wonderful rose garden where people would go to watch a spectacular sunrise so we thought we’d wake up early and see the sights before catching the train. We climbed back into town, found a Coop Supermercado about to close, but managed to grab a few supplies as they were turning off the lights. After a nice little picnic of cheese and bread and sausage on the bench beside the Landhaus we climbed up our laundry chute again and fell heavily into bed.

Boy, I’ll tell you what. Bern was visited in the 14th and 15th centuries by some amazingly silver-tongued clock salesmen. Beginning about 2am I was awakened every 15 minutes with multiple sonorous BONGS echoing through the river valley. After much effort, I was finally able to accidentally awaken Georgia about 5am and send her tottering off toward the shower. It was pitch black outside but I wanted to beat the crowds to the rose garden!

Halfway down the first flight of the laundry chute the light suddenly went off. I thought someone must have a pretty sick sense of humor until I realized the lights were on a timer and we just weren’t moving fast enough for it. I guess the Swiss are less interested than Americans in residual light (like an exit sign) on stairways, or perhaps they just feel that anyone who spends the night in a tree house must have good night vision. Anyway, we had to feel our way along the wall until we found another light switch and could illuminate our descent to ground level.

It’s kind of sad really. We had to corkscrew down four flights of stairs to reach ground level so we could climb the mountain beside our hotel when we could almost step onto the pathway off our balcony. But there you have it; people who sleep in tree houses need to love to climb up and down. And so we began our ascent to the rose garden.

It was now downright nippy and I was glad to have four or five layers capped by a windproof jacket. And my gloves. Can’t forget the gloves. I can stand just about any temperature if my hands are warm. We took the mountain in stages (how else would you take a mountain?) and we were both grateful for our preparatory exercise routine at the gym. We would climb slowly for 100 steps or so then silently stop and pretend to admire the view. The speechlessness, unfortunately, was not a result of the potentially spectacular view. As a matter of actual fact we couldn’t see anything. A couple of times I gasped out that perhaps the rose garden couldn’t possibly be adequate recompense for this frigid inky climb. Bern’s nightlife was apparently so listless they turned off the streetlights around midnight and the only lights we could see were the ones flashing behind our eyes. I wonder if Bern was any more exciting in Johannes’ day. Maybe he wondered what the place would look like if you were leaving it at the speed of light too. Maybe New Castle, Pennsylvania looked exotic in comparison? Anyway, Georgia assured me that the rose garden was world famous and well worth the climb. And she suggested I remember who had awakened whom.

It must have taken about an hour of steady climbing to reach the top. I wish I had words to tell you how beautiful it was. I’d love to be able to describe the ten thousand (or so) varieties of roses: the subtle color and textural differences among them. I wish I could convey the look of the exquisite statuary and make you thrill to the flutter of the silvery leaves in the bower . . . I wish I could describe the long alleys or convey how charming the birds looked as they flitted from branch to branch, and how we were absolutely captivated by their gentle trill. . . . I wish I could do all this. But I can’t. It was pitch black on that flippin’ mountain; I couldn’t even see the garden. I bet it was lovely; I bet the birds were too. Perhaps I should have tried to awaken them, but if hours of sonorous “BONGS” couldn’t do it, I’m pretty sure my breathless yelling and weak-kneed tree-shaking wouldn’t have ruffled a feather. I did smell the rose garden though. It smelled really nice.

I always associate that combined smell of roses and boxwoods with Uncle Roy’s little overgrown garden in New Castle and it brings back fond memories of sitting with him at the picnic table beside the little fish pond listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the radio, and watching him shoot at neighborhood cats with a BB gun. That seemed to be Uncle Roy’s chief pleasure in life—listening to the game and shooting at cats. That’s life in Party Central, Pennsylvania. I wonder if Johannes bought a BB gun when he arrived?

(to be continued)


Our hostel just over the river

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
09/27/06 - Switzerland - Bern, Jegensdorf, Iffwyl, and Fraubrunnen

We did find a giant chess board in the dark and set up all the pieces. I was shocked that they were all actually there. Can you imagine how long a 3’ tall chess man would last in a typical American park, let alone a complete set? And these pieces were obviously not brand new. They showed the scuffs and buffets of many playground fianchettos and alligator gambits. As we were searching out wounded soldiers in the underbrush a stealth-policeman buzzed by on his bicycle to see what we were up to. I guess that explains why they haven’t deserted. Determining that we were harmless he pedaled silently away.

After feeling our way around in the rose beds we sat by the low garden wall, picked thorns out of our thumbs, and waited for the sun rise. It was now only a little after 6am with just the faintest hint of pink peeping over the distant snow-capped mountains. The bench was frigid and there was just enough of a breeze to frost your grandmother’s crabapples. After 30 seconds of waiting patiently we decided the sunrise would look just fine from down at the warmer riverside.

The descent was certainly faster than the trip up, but I noticed that my knees seemed to be getting a little rubbery. The famous bears (for which Bern received its name in the 10th or 11th century) were evidently still abed. Their pit was therefore empty. Eventually Dieter opened the little breakfast nook and we feasted on stupendous bread, hot croissants, butter, and jelly. The coffee was to die for of course. We wrapped up the leftovers in a napkin and took them to snack on as we hiked back across the river, up the cobblestone streets, and toward the train station.

Along the way we did manage to visit an “old Catholic” church that was being refurbished. It had some lovely stained glass, one especially gorgeous blue rose window with Christ as a pelican, bloodying his own breast to feed his brood. We also passed a dour Protestant Cathedral which seemed to be the unofficial homeless hangout. That was a little spooky. Hard for me to think of the thrifty and industrious Swiss having any homeless population at all. Also saw a stained glass atelier with some really lovely things in the window. I made note of their hours with the intention to come back after our road trip.

Back in the train station: Boy, those Swiss run their trains like a fine watch; sort of like a fine Swiss watch, I guess. They are clean and on-time to the second. The area between Bern and Jagensdorf to the north seems to be about half residential and half agricultural. Even the clearly residential parts harbor little garden plots with the ever-present, over-laden, apple trees. It was just a twenty minute ride with one stop at a busy shopping mall and outlet center. Georgia didn’t want to get off. She didn’t seem to have a fever.

In Jagensdorf no one in the station spoke any English. We searched out a couple of words in our phrase book and pantomimed that we needed to rent a bicycle. There were hundreds of them under low open sheds beside the station. The station master was emphatic that there were none for rent. I guess there are a lot of bicycle commuters. So relying on the crude map we were able to print out from the web, we set off walking toward Iffwyl. At least we hoped we were walking toward Iffwyl. The map was pretty clear about which side of the train track it was on so we knew the right general direction and the map only showed two main roads heading that way. Both of them went there, more or less, and it was only supposed to be 2.5 kilometers. We did see what appeared to be a bus stop but were afraid the bus would just carry us back to Bern, so we took a deep breath and started off hopefully. Soon we were deep into tiny little village streets and alleys and never really completely sure which way we should go.

Eventually we pushed through to the outskirts of town and saw a farm lane leading through some really fine pasture land. It narrowed and narrowed until it became a dirt track, but one being serviced by a street-sweeper. We asked the driver if this was the road to Iffwyl. He must have been hard of hearing because he had a terrible time understanding what I was asking. Eventually he smiled and nodded and indicated that we should turn left at the next paved road. That was only about another 50 yards or so, so the constant drone of muttering that I’d been hearing behind me seemed to subside. The paved road, unfortunately, was only six or seven inches wider than the dirt track we’d been on and because the fields were muddy we had to walk right on the road. Mysteriously, the muttering started up again, and seemed to crescendo whenever a car whizzed by. Swiss drivers are no more likely to pick up hitchhikers than Americans so we walked smartly only diving off the road when one bore down on us. The only part of creation interested in our progress seemed to be the cows in the nearby fields. We could see a little town clearly about a mile or so away and were greatly relieved to find a sign indicating that it was actually Iffwyl.

If you look up “charming” in your Funk and Wagnals you’ll see a photo of the place. Why in the world would Johannes want to leave such an obviously peaceful and quiet village? A young couple getting into their car pointed out the restaurant, Wirtschaft Kreuz, for us.

Lisa Konig Staub knew that we were to arrive sometime on the 27th, but she didn’t know exactly when because we didn’t know exactly when. She’d warned us that the restaurant would be closed for the Swiss vacation season but that we should just knock loudly and be patient. We did and we were. The building was enormous. It had obviously once been a gigantic household with an attached dairy barn. The whole complex must be 200 years old and Lisa showed us a photo of her father as a young boy playing outside the house with his parents and brothers and sisters. Except for a new coat of paint the building was unchanged. The whole village was pure Switzerland and the restaurant looked to be the center of the village. It had been in her family for five generations.

Lisa opened the door blowing her nose. She had a terrible cold (which she later shared with me) and her eyes were watering as much as her nose. I felt terrible for her, but also very thankful that she was there, and fluent in spoken English. She’d worked in a London Hotel and had only come back to Iffwyl to take over the family business when her father died suddenly. They had made cheese at one time. Now the stables were rented out for catered wedding and anniversary parties.

As bad as she felt she gamely looked through all the photos I’d brought though I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. It was sort of odd. I brought photos of people. She took out photos of buildings and coats of arms to show us. She was sure that there was no relation between her family and ours, but she was very interested in the 100 year old German Dutch obituary I showed her saying that Johannes had come from Iffwyl. She got on the phone and called all eight of the other Konig families in the area and tried once more to find a connection. Absolutely none of them had any family memory of a Johannes going off to America in the middle of the 19th century, let alone taking other family members with him. She did, however, want me to meet her 92 and 85 year-old aunts.

The younger aunt was pretty cloudy, but the 92-year old was absolutely amazing. Just on constitution alone she could easily be related to that first generation of Konig children born in the US. They all reached their 80s and 90s without breaking a sweat. She too was thin and wiry, of medium height, with the brightest eyes you could imagine. Auntie also read the obituary with much interest and brought out a typescript of the family history her parents had begun. In it there was a mention of a Johannes Konig who “emphatically” died in a farming accident. There was some confusion on my part about the exact meaning of “emphatically.” Lisa struggled to explain her translation. The upshot seems to be that people weren’t really sure what happened to Johannes and therefore surmised that he “must” have died in a farming accident. “‘Must’ is ‘emphatic,’ yes?” I admitted it was. The same man was mentioned again in the history as having died of a lung disease. The odd thing is that my Johannes did emigrate about the time this other Johannes “emphatically” died and he really did die of pneumonia in Pennsylvania. There was no mention of any emigration though. No mention of any brothers or sisters or missing wives and children. Could Johannes have slipped out of such a small village without leaving a ripple? Or was there something about his leaving that inclined those who remained behind to drop him down the memory hole?

I showed Auntie pictures of our family. I don’t have a picture of Johannes, but my brother Jim’s picture brought a surprised smile to her face. She had pasted and thumb-tacked pictures of her extended family all over the wall beside her little breakfast table. She took down a faded picture of a smiling young couple and identified them as her mother and father. There was a definite resemblance between her mother and Jim. Auntie loved looking at my photo of Johannes’ grown children. We struggled to communicate with each other for a while then lapsed into silence. Lisa was restless and said she needed to get back to the restaurant. We tearfully kissed Auntie goodbye, and she clung to my hand as we walked out the door. Even when she finally let go, she continued to wave while we climbed into Lisa’s little red car. If we were not family before this meeting, we certainly were afterward.

Lisa had work she needed to do but asked us to come back to the restaurant in an hour or so and we would visit the local records office. Georgia and I walked all over Iffwyl in about 15 minutes. We passed an especially fragrant pig pen then sat on a bench in the school playground for another 15 minutes watching workmen install a sewer line leading toward a new subdivision mushrooming up out of a nearby pasture. We wondered how they were going to like having the pigpen for a neighbor. Then we walked to the bus stop and tried to coax a little herd of cows into petting range with a handful of the ubiquitous apples. Each cow had its own collar with a clanking bell, and each bell clanked lazily as they edged closer and closer to the barbed wire fence. Locals watched me bemusedly as I snapped picture after picture of teasing cows who placidly munched my tossed apples but wouldn’t let me actually touch them. That killed another 15 minutes or so and we hiked around the town one more time snapping pictures before we headed for the restaurant. I would have to honestly say that Iffwyl is less exciting than Bern. The pig pen was as odiferous, in its own way, as the rose garden, but I think the garden had more pure excitement-potential.

Lisa piled us into her stuffy little red car again and we raced off for the county clerk’s office in Fraubrunnen. Unfortunately the office was closed and Lisa promised to return another day to search for records of Johannes’ wedding in 1839, or for records of the brothers and sisters he left behind. We hugged goodbye outside the clerk’s office and promised to stay in touch. She didn’t have time for lunch with us. I’m pretty sure she doubted we have a common ancestor, and even if we did, time and circumstance have now lead our branches off in radically different directions. She has responsibilities to people I’ll never meet, and she can only imagine our life in the US. The visit, though, taught me that family isn’t just the people alive at the same time we are, but also the people who came before us, and those who will come after. And I also learned that there are people, like Lisa, who identify themselves more with where they come from, than who they grew up with. My Johannes only became interesting to her with the mention of Iffwyl in a faded old scrap of newspaper. She would say with our airplane seatmate: “I love family but don’t want to hang out with them that long.” Her breakfast nook, that is, is covered with pictures of familiar places, rather than faces of familiar people.

But Auntie and I studied each other’s face longing to see the features of a beloved family member. And I really think we both did.

(to be continued)


Iffwyl, Switzerland

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
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9/27-28/06 Fraubrunnen to Bern to Lausanne

In Fraubrunnen we walked over to a little café called “Café 22” for lunch and enjoyed a tomato salad with tuna, a hard-sausage sandwich, and very timid Swiss beer. We caught the express train from there back to Bern. I can’t believe that I was the one who wanted to stop and shop at the Mall we passed and it was Georgia who didn’t want to get off the train. What is wrong with this picture? Isn’t it odd that you can be married for 37 years, raise four children together, weather any number of major and minor catastrophes, and still provide your spouse with liberal doses of mystery and amusement? I leave it to your imagination which of us is mysterious and which of us is apparently an endless source of amusement.

Then when we got back to Bern, Georgia wanted to go shopping. It was just as well because I wanted to visit the Atelier I’d seen earlier: “Martin Haler: Glassmaler.” The shop was right by the Landhaus, not 20 feet from the edge of the river in a little cul-de-sac of downstairs shops with upstairs living areas. The leaded glass lantern above the door showed clearly that Herr Haler was an innovative artist. It was an open-bottomed cylinder with a wide brass coolie-style cap. Blues and greens swirled in a lovely watery pattern. Really lovely. The lead looked different from the lead we use in the US. I was anxious to watch over his shoulder.

A bell tinkled when I opened the door and Martin looked up. He was sitting, hunched over, on a tall stool in front of a small glass easel. A gorgeous coat of arms was coming to life in front of him, illuminated by the natural light from a bank of windows. The ceiling was low and ancient wood paneling glowed softly. The only sound came from the soft murmur of the river outside. Martin said something to me in German but didn’t stop his work. He was applying a thin film of tracing black to the enameled colors to add shadows. His precise and deliberate motions bespoke more than just a lifetime of practice. There were yellowing news articles on the wall showing him as a young man standing next to an older glass painter, evidently his father.

Just then Martin’s assistant came through the door and spoke to me in German. “No sprechen zie Deutsch,” I said. “You speak English?” he replied. “Yes,” I said gratefully, “Do you speak English?” He said that he spoke a little but that Martin spoke none at all. I complimented them on their work and showed them one of my brochures. I told them I was visiting Europe and taking every opportunity to visit other glass artists. I asked if I could take some pictures of them. There was a brief exchange between the two. Martin rolled his eyes. The assistant said “No pictures please, Martin has had problems with people stealing designs.” I understood his concern and put my camera away. Martin seemed to relax at that.

I asked where he had learned such painting skill. It turns out that he is both the son and the grandson of Glassmalers. And he is often called upon to repair ancient windows that have become cracked or broken over the centuries. That gives him time and opportunity to learn from the best of the best. Did I say that I was jealous?

I followed the assistant back to his work bench and watched him flux and solder the entire length of the leads rather than just the joints as we do in the US. That was what gave their lead such a distinctive look. And as far as I could see they used only the German hand blown glasses. The gleam and transparency of that glass contrasted exquisitely with the silvery leads. And then finally, Martin used thin brass rebar as part of his design. Normally the rebar is just tacked on to support glass work or left off completely with really inexperienced workers. Martin took this functional part of the craft and gave it an esthetic part to play. He had a series of flowers, for instance that used the rebar as stems. Quite remarkable. Coupled with his exquisite painting and enameling I knew I was watching a master craftsman. I wished that there was some way I could study with him for a few months but I knew I was in their way so I made leave to go. They gave me several of their advertising brochures and told me how to find their web address. I think they realize how much I really admired their work and I think they were glad I’d stopped by. For learning my craft this one stop made our trip to Europe worthwhile.

Outside I sat on one of the benches along the river and made notes to myself about Martin’s technique. It was chilly, but not really uncomfortable, and I was wholly wrapped up in my notes when I heard someone clear their throat. I looked up to see an elderly woman pulling a two-wheeled grocery cart behind her with a pitifully small paper bag perched on it. She was dressed rather shabbily, that is to say, her clothes were clean, but a good 30 or 40 years old. Her shoes were black and what would have been called “sensible” even in the 1960s. Her sweater was blue-black and threadbare. “She’s homeless,” I thought.

She cleared her throat again and wheezed something to me in that peculiar brand of German-Dutch that is spoken in the “German” cantons. I hadn’t a clue what she was saying but figured that she was hitting me up for money. “No sprechen zie Deutch,” I said and went back to my notes. I looked up and she was staring at me incredulously. Seriously, she looked dumbfounded. “She can’t believe I’m not Swiss,” I thought. Neither of us spoke. She just stared at me and the river gurgled behind the low wall. “Sprechen zie English?” I asked. “Nay,” she huffed in obvious disgust. “Englisher?” she asked. “Ya,” I replied. She shrugged and wagged her head as if to say “Can you believe THAT?” She pantomimed being tired. I stood and bowed, motioning that I would love to have her join me on the bench. She bobbed a slightly ironic curtsey, and sat down heavily. We sat in absolute silence for about 10 minutes. Ten minutes is a pretty long time when both of you would like to say something but can’t. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, “Parlez vous Francais?” I offered. “Nay,” she replied with great disdain, as if speaking French would be even more humiliating than speaking English.

We lapsed into silence again for another five minutes. Then she stood and said something that nearly choked me. I swear I heard her say “Ich bin Konig,” I could have died. “Konig??” I asked. “Ich bin Konig” I said patting myself on the chest. I wrote the word on my pad for her to see. How in the world could I travel these many thousands of miles to meet my relatives the Iffwyl Konigs, apparently miss them there, and find one on a park bench by the river. God really must have some weird sense of humor.

“Nay,” she said again. “Ich Hunger” she said and wrote the word on my pad. Hungry. I decided that she was justified in thinking we Englishers fools. “Ah, yah,” I smiled and nodded, “Hunger.” She indicated that she lived just around the corner and stood there uncertainly for the longest time. I had the impression that she wanted me to come have supper with her or perhaps she was still hoping for some money? In any event I had no means of saying anything to her and eventually she walked slowly away.

It feels odd to me to meet strangers like this old woman or Lisa and realize that we really are swimming in the same gene pool. I “belong” in Iffwyl or Bern in a way that I’ve never belonged anywhere in the US, even though I’ve lived in 10 different states. And yet, I found Iffwyl humorless and boring and Bern felt just as cold to me as Jacqueline had predicted it would. I guess I’m really glad old Johannes picked up and left whatever the reason. And it must have been some doozey of a reason for there to be no family memory of him at all. I know that in the middle of the 19th century the Swiss government was paying for the passage of landless peasants because of waves of hunger and famine that swept through the countryside. Maybe emigrating was shameful, a recognition that you were a failure. America, then, might have been Johannes’ “do-over.”

Early next morning we were up and on our way to the train station again. We were traveling back to Italy via the city of Lausanne on Lake Geneva. It might take a little longer but it gave us a chance to see more of Switzerland. The trip was similar to the trip to Iffwyl, with very gently rolling hills and immaculately kept farms and garden plots. No farm seemed bigger than 40 or 50 acres, and each house seemed to have its own garden. Apple trees everywhere again. The houses were quaint, usually two or three stories. I don’t remember seeing any single-story dwellings anywhere in Switzerland.

As we approached Lake Geneva the language switched from German to French for both the signs and recorded announcements. I began to feel much more comfortable as I could now understand much more of what was being said though I still couldn’t express myself very well. Not being able to understand or be understood is always the worst part of visiting a foreign country but when you learn to just go with the flow you learn that it’s going to be okay.

Lake Geneva is stupendous, like an inland sea. We saw the water long before we saw the city. Miles and miles of immaculate vineyards slowly gave way to charming pastel towns, which gave way to expensive villas as we approached the city limits. We were only going to layover for a couple of hours and I really wanted to see the Cathedral under repair. It was supposed to be glorious. We should have taken the time to find a locker for our luggage. As always, the Cathedral was built on the absolutely highest point of the city and Lausanne was a city of several mountain-like hills. In French we asked a very nice lady on the street how to find our way and she looked dubiously at our rolling carry-ons. In a mixture of English and French she explained very patiently that we needed to find the road that lead to the bridge or we would find ourselves plunging down tiny streets to the valley between the mountains and we’d have to climb up the other side. As it was we only had to go up, and up again, and up again. We found the bridge to the Cathedral just before my nose began to bleed. I think 12th century bishops just wanted to make it hard to go to church.

The building itself was in very elegant decay because the stone was not standing up well to our gasoline-powered world. Some of the interior decorative pillars were literally held together with Ductape while awaiting their facsimile replacement. The stained glass was only so-so with most of it broken out at the same time the “papist” statues were smashed in the Reformation. There seems to be some regret now about that iconoclasm. We saw several protestant churches in Bern that were putting statuary and figurative glass back. Poor Zwingli must be spinning in his grave like a top. The rose window looked original but either it had been damaged by the smog or over-cleaned by some other restoration zealot. Much of the painting appeared to be lost. That’s the problem with either restoration or reformation, sometimes it cleans things too well. Age adds a patina to windows and institutions that is both natural and often very lovely. It’s good to clear away grime and institutional sin, perhaps, but it’s a pipe dream to think that either cosmetic surgery or an abrasive scrubbing can return a person or an institution to childhood innocence. It’s just not going to work for the long term and it’s liable to introduce as many problems as it solves.

And so we coasted back down to the train station, arresting our freefall only long enough to buy a little something to “smack” on.

(to be continued)


Lake Geneva

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
9/28/06 - Italy - Lausanne to Liguria

Our return train journey carried us back along the shores of Lake Geneva where enormous villas and spectacular sailing yachts gave us some inkling of what “real” wealth was like, generations of wealth. Something Americans may always find foreign. We are the land of the world’s nouveaux riche. I’m sure the estates along Lake Geneva could not be bought for any amount of money. Pretty impressive view too. On this side of the lake there was the broad valley, filled with vineyards, and on that side of the lake there were the Alps, like the Rocky Mountains had hiked over to dip their toes in the crystal blue water. As we left the shoreline we turned toward Brig once more to rejoin our original track through the mountains. Looking out the train window I foolishly tried to capture the mountains in pixels but also managed to always capture a telephone pole instead. Pointless. So I just sat back to enjoy the panorama. Fall had been mild by Swiss standards, but the purple mountains were craggy and treeless and sometimes covered with snow. The sky was electric blue and the vineyards were still soft green. We never did see any indication of the tension Jacqueline warned us about between the Moslems and the Christians. I hope she'll get to visit her granddaughter in Boston.

When we stopped again at Lake Maggiore in northern Italy a raucous group of 8 - 10 uniformed high school children got on board. Even the girls were wearing neck ties and everyone had a cute little backpack. They were laughing and teasing and completely assured of their centrality to all creation. They could have been any adolescent shopping mall group. They commandeered the center of the car, lounging in seats on both sides and filling the aisle as well. You could tell they were off the clock because their shirt tails were mostly un-tucked and their neckties were loosened. I can’t remember the etiquette of those long-gone days, but I think it was typical for girls to sit in the seats and thereby attract a swarm of guys to the aisles where, pushing and shoving for prime real estate, each guy tried to strut his stuff. In this new world it was the young men who sat in apparent disdain, ignoring the young women who preened in the aisles. The feigned boredom was still a ruse, of course, but whereas women were the scarce commodity in the sixties, it is evidently now the men who’ve made themselves scarce. And they feign boredom with this new reality? Makes me wish I was young again. At each little town kids got off the cool school bus.

We savvy world travelers now knew our way around Milano Centrale and found the train for Santa Margherita easily. The stretch between Milan and the western coast is Italy’s Kansas. Instead of wheat they have rice and corn. When we hit Genoa we made a sharp left turn and headed south along the coast toward the Cinque Terre, the Five Lands. But there are a lot more than just five. There seems to be hundreds of little villages taped to and separated by the luxuriant mountains along the coast. It was the railroad tunnels drilled from one to another that finally connected them like beads on a necklace. This 19th century innovation hasn’t yet completely overcome the historic isolation and subtle regional variations between little towns not five miles apart. Nevertheless there are also some recurring patterns. In all cases there is an “upper town” and a “lower town.” The lower town was once dominated by fishing but now by tourism. The upper town is the ritzy section. And right along the tracks you find the apartment houses where the people who work on the boats, or in the shops, or who clean the villas live. And the space available between the mountains for the train station is often so limited some passengers (but not those in first class!) have to disembark in the tunnels and walk towards the light. Santa Margherita was just such a little jewel. The train station was tiny, perched on a flat ribbon of land not 50 yards wide etched into the side of the mountain - just wide enough for two train tracks, the station, and a narrow service road. The parking lot for the station was about the size of a pack of playing cards and cluttered with vespas and yellow taxis.

You know how the image that you have in your mind of a place or a person is seldom like the real thing? Well, that is doubly true of Santa Margherita for me. Years ago we were introduced to the movie Enchanted April, about a group of four women who rent a seaside villa near the Cinque Terre. When Georgia, doing our trip research, told me that the movie had been filmed at Castle Brown in nearby Portofino, I knew we had to visit Liguria.

She printed out maps of the city with all the landmarks clearly indicated. We would be staying at the Oasi Regina Pacis, a convent in the upper town, #6 Via Dei Pellerano. As the train pulled away, leaving us awestruck on the platform I tried to orient myself on the map. Just over the railroad tracks, not 35 feet inland we could see a 15 foot restraining wall partially covered by enormous blue morning glories. Along the top of the wall, parallel to the tracks, we could tell there was a narrow street with driveways leading up to magnificent villas. To our left about seventy-five yards away we could see where that little street crossed over the railroad tracks on a spindly bridge then came down on our side to form the station’s access road. Looking to the right we saw nothing but the mountainside RIGHT THERE. The tunnel itself was closer than a pitcher is to home plate. No going that way. In 10 steps we were through the station and on the seaward side of the building. From the curb, looking out over the vespas and taxicabs, I could tell the station was also built on the top of a restraining wall. At the edge of the road the red tile roofs and green treetops of the lower town immediately began.

It was obvious that we needed to follow the access road up and over the tracks then back along the top of the wall past the driveways to find our street up to the convent. I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye: ancient soft red-brick building on a tree-lined street with an even more ancient church just across the plaza. The seaward side of the plaza would face the ocean and we could stand there in the evenings to watch the ships sail in and sail away again. Couldn’t wait.

But something was obviously wrong with either my mental map or the paper thing I was holding in my hand. The one in my hand showed a main road at the top of what we could now tell was that restraining wall, but not a single lane, alley-sized, asphalt-covered foot path! I’m not sure a car could actually get by us should we meet one on the apex of the spindly bridge. To say that Georgia was nervous about walking up and over that gangplank would be somewhat of an understatement. We stood on the “entrance ramp” for some moments trying to see if there was any other possible alternative. We certainly couldn’t go south of the station unless we lassoed a mountain goat, and the access road heading north only presented two alternatives. Either we went up and over the “bridge” or we followed the road as it seemed to transform itself into a sidewalk winding down toward the bay. Our way had to be up. So we screwed our courage to the sticking point, made sure we had a good grip on the rolling carry-ons (if they got away from us I’m pretty sure they’d ski jump all the way to the ocean), and started up.

We did meet a car, but evidently we were not the first pedestrians they’d seen on this footpath and it eased by without crushing our feet. Now we were uphill from the station and able to see the water above the tops of the downhill palm trees. Oh my Lord! Wonderful! What glory! The sun and the water really are just a different color than they are in Kentucky. My gene-pool may be in Switzerland, but my heart is definitely in Italy.

Unfortunately, I think I left my ability to draw a deep breath in Switzerland as well. The street we were on wasn’t any wider than the gated driveways that issued onto it and after we traversed the top of the wall facing the station we made a hard left turn (because of that MOUNTAIN I told you about). High up on the wall we saw the sign “Via Dei Pellerano.” There was only a broad stairway going up and up and up, then switching back to go up some more out of sight. Georgia said that was evidently the way we wanted to go. I knew she was wrong. The street we were on must be Via Dei Pellerano. She couldn’t see the picture I had in my head. That goat track didn’t lead up to any tree-lined street. It must be a private sidewalk leading up to one of the villas, so I left Georgia with the bags and trotted up the stairs. No kidding. I trotted UP the stairs. I knew I was going to be coming right back down and we’d continue our trek up the road until we found the right street.

At the top of stairs where it switched back I found a gate and a cherubic elderly woman who smiled pleasantly at me. “Dove Suare . . .” I hesitated not knowing how to finish the sentence. “Suare?” (Sisters?) she interrupted. “Si,” I replied gratefully. She smiled beatifically and pointed up the goat track. Beatifically? Or was it diabolically? The walk kept going steadily up until it hit another turn and the stairs disappeared from view. I had a really bad feeling about this whole situation. “Gratzie,” I said without enthusiasm. “Prego,” she chirped.

I started slowly down the shallow stairs to retrieve Georgia and the carry-ons. The pathway at the top of the stairs was about a meter wide, and each “step” varied between the width of your foot to a meter or meter and a half. It varied just enough to keep you from establishing any kind of rhythm. You may encounter a short step and traverse it in one pace, or maybe hit a wide one and have to take two or even three steps before stepping up again. Sometimes you’d have to step up on your left foot, and sometimes on your right foot. And sometimes the steps were smooth and level, and sometimes they were rough and broken. Sometimes the walls on either side were so tall and the overhanging magnolia and fig trees were so low you had the feeling you were entering a cave, especially now that evening was coming on. I noticed that the mosquitoes loved the evening and the trees too, and the decaying leaves underfoot made a great slippy-slide. The fact that my eyes smarted from perspiration and my glasses would darken in the sun before we plunged into each cave didn’t help me secure my footing either.

Up, up, up, we went.

(to be continued)


Santa Margherita Ligure

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
9/28/06 - Italy - Santa Margherita

Georgia quickly gave up trying to pull her carry on. She decided that I’d be happier pulling both of them, “It’ll help you balance,” she said levelly. “Many thanks” I said gratefully. “Don’t mention it,” she mouthed wordlessly. After a few shuffle-thumps I gave up trying to wheel the bags and bent to carry them “stoopedly.”

Every five minutes or so, I had to sit on the bags and lean against one of the walls. Except for the sweat dripping in my eyes and the mosquitoes buzzing me it was very peaceful. It wasn’t easy determining which way to go as we came to little intersections with other goat paths. It was definitely a case of “If you have to ask you’ll never find it.” After about 30 minutes of tugging and lugging two-wheeled anchors up a cliff we came to a straight stretch of simple stairs climbing up out of the lower rain forest. A stone post had the number 6 affixed to it. “Oh my God, take me now,” I thought. “This way!” chirruped my unencumbered sweetie and pointed up the steps of purgatory.

She arrived at the gate several minutes before I did but was afraid to push the button on the little speaker box. By this time it was getting dark. We pushed the button and announced to some disembodied voice that we were the Zeiglers. “Sono Zeiglers.” The door clicked and buzzed at us. Entering the gate it was clear we were coming in at the top of the property. We could just see another foot path up above. Inside the fence there was a short flight of stairs down to a level patio. It overlooked a wonderful garden and also served as the entrance to the whitewashed convent which rose above us in three or four stories like a small flat-roofed hotel. The biggest tree was an enormous palm tree. There were also some lovely pines. So much for my crumbling red brick convent on the square surrounded by live oaks.

Suor Bianca met us on the veranda. She was very short, about 5-foot nothing, and she launched into a wonderful lilting welcoming speech, completely in Italian. I asked if she spoke any English. She didn’t. I asked if anyone at the convent spoke any English. She said that there wasn’t anyone. With lots of back and forth it became apparent that the thing uppermost on her mind was whether or not we would be taking supper with them. They were getting ready to serve. “Solo colazione,” “Only breakfast,” I replied, and pantomimed that I really needed to go lie down and rest somewhere. It was definitely getting dark now and I was sopping wet. She finally relented and showed us to our villa.

I say “villa” because our little whitewashed detached cottage was so lovely and overlooked the garden. It had two single beds pushed together, a desk, a wardrobe, separate bathroom with a pencil-thin enclosed shower, and a lovely crucifix on the wall. The typical shuttered windows were modified slightly to slide into place instead of swinging open, and the view out the window was amazingly tranquil. Outside our window we had a small balcony-like veranda of our own complete with picnic table and chairs.

Georgia oohed and ahhed and started unpacking our bags. I heard the shower calling me. Undressing was more like peeling the skin off a grape. But when I wedged myself into the shower and turned on the needle-like spray it felt wonderful. In 15 minutes I was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt (wouldn’t have done that in Switzerland!) and I felt so much better. We took off down the winding path among the orange and fig trees and flower beds. There was even a large pomegranate bush. The gate was located right at the start of that purgatorial stairway where I hoped God would lift me up out of my misery. There was no call box there, but now Suor Bianca had given us a key to let ourselves back in. Paradise is much more attractive when you have a key.

We needed to find a drugstore. Cousin Lisa had shared her cold with me and I could feel myself starting to fade. Georgia had packed some antihistamines and I took two, but my mouth felt like the Russian Horse Cavalry had slept therein. I really needed some gargle to kill the taste. Because we didn’t have any euros we also needed a bank. We found the drugstore first and the druggist showed us where the Bancomat was located. They aren’t hard to use in Italy since you can always choose English as one of the languages. If you warn your bank beforehand those debit cards are, by far, the most economical way to get Euros. We returned to the same drugstore and had the druggist show us where the mouthwash is kept. You’d think it would be obvious, but oh no Fairfax! When you can’t read the language you can’t really be sure whether the smiling lady on the label is excited about her fresh breath or her sparklingly clean undies. Or perhaps she’s excited about getting the window crystal clear. I really didn’t want to gargle with Italian Clorox or Windex. Afterward I wasn’t so sure. Italian mouthwash tastes like aspartamine-flavored chlorophyll but I sure hoped it was in there killing those germs.

I couldn’t face the prospect of pounding up the mountain without any fortification whatsoever so we went to the gelateria next door. I thought a gelato would kill the taste of the mouthwash. Georgia had Malaga (rum raisin), and I stuck with your basic lemon. Oh, Italy, Italy! La dolce vita! Then we waddled next door for a couple of nice dark birras to gargle for good measure. It couldn’t hurt. In fact, it was just what the doctor ordered after antihistamines, aspartamine, chlorophyll, and gelato. I felt no pain whatsoever as we stumbled up and over the spindly bridge and I have no recollection at all, of the stairway to heaven. Georgia says I was singing.

9/29/06, Friday - Italy - To Sarzana

Next morning we’d planned to rise early for the train trip to La Spezia but somehow couldn’t make it. When the sisters rang the bell for Mass at 8am we thought it was the breakfast bell so I rolled out of bed and went to fetch coffee. I caught Suor Bianca just as she was about to go up to the chapel. She invited us to Mass but I declined, promising that we’d be there in the morning, “a domani,” and just carried some coffee back to the room. Georgia was now finished with her shower and we strolled back to the dining room as we heard the sisters finishing Mass.

On our table there was a bottle of water, basket of bread, jelly, and a nice thick slice of crusty aged cheese. I don’t know what kind it was but it tasted like a soft brick of pure aged butter. There was real butter too in case you needed more fat in your diet. Mmmmm.

We’d obviously missed the early train to La Spezia so after breakfast we moseyed down the stairway to the spindly bridge. Evidently there must be “mountain legs” akin to “sea legs” because our nearly vertical climb (okay, not quite “nearly vertical”) didn’t seem to bother either of us that much this morning. Hiking in Switzerland is good practice for the Cinque Terre I guess.

We were on our way to La Spezia because I’d made an appointment to visit with Henrry (sic) Lopez, a stained glass artist in Sarzana. I’d admired his work on the web and we’d corresponded via email for a few months. I wanted to meet him in person and see the work up close.

Traveling on the local trains and buses is so much fun! So much more enjoyable than the typical tours where you view the local life out bus windows. They make me feel like I’m traveling through a game preserve instead of a real place where real people have real lives. No danger of viewing the locals out these train windows: they were absolutely filthy; you couldn’t see anything through them! And my eyes were getting so watery from the cold that even two antihistamines couldn’t dry me up. I could tell it was going to be a two hanky day.

La Spezia is both a town and a region of Italy south of the Cinque Terre. Sarzana is in La Spezia. Georgia thought it was a suburb of the city, when in fact it was another city in the region. So when we arrived at the train station she said we could walk up the hill to the glass shop. I was dumbfounded. Luckily this was one time I’d actually checked out maps online and I knew that Sarzana was about 30 kilometers inland. Because Georgia is always right in these kind of situations (I get lost in elevators) she refused to believe me until the tobacconist sold me bus tickets. She decided that maybe I was right but she was pretty sure it was going to be a very short ride.

About 30 minutes into the hour-long bus ride she gave up the idea that we could have walked. And boy was the bus crowded. We started with a basically empty bus and I took a picture. I kept taking pictures as the bus got more and more crowded. Georgia thought I was trying to get surreptitious pictures of this redhead sitting at the front. The fact that she was in all the photos is purely coincidental. The fact that one of the pictures is a close-up of her elegant boredom is just a result of the fact that it was a new camera and I was having trouble figuring out how to use the zoom. I swear it.

Did I already say that I LOVE traveling with local people on local routes, trying to catch snatches of everyday conversations, studying the faces, marveling at the views the locals take completely for granted. And those faces! Wonderful Roman noses, elegant shoes, (and occasional flaming red hair). Tons of students again with their little book bags and happy chatter. There were little buttons on the bus that you’d push to indicate you wanted off. Bing! Then “Permesso, Permesso,” “Excuse me,” as you try to worm your way through the crush toward an exit. As before, I was touched to see people surrendering their seats to pregnant ladies and mothers with small children. I guess seats don’t need to be labeled “handicapped” for naturally generous people. I doubt there will be labeled handicapped sections in that other Heaven either.

Sarzano was the last stop on our line so we didn’t have to fight any crowd to get off. The bus station shared a parking lot with the train station. Standing in the lot it was impossible to locate ourselves on the little map we had. We knew which general direction to go (because we knew we needed to head away from the train tracks) but after that, there was no telling. I have never, in my life, seen a little city with as many crossing and criss-crossing streets. We tried to ask two local ladies which way to go and nearly occasioned a fistfight between them. After listening to them argue for five minutes or so I retrieved my little map and we stole quietly away leaving them to sort out their differences alone.

We intersected with a main thoroughfare and followed it uphill, figuring that any Italian city-center was always going to be built uphill. We soon came to a piazzale with a roundabout joining five or six other streets. We walked from one to another clueless as to which way we should go. Georgia saw a menu affixed to one of the walls and I took a digital picture of a prominent road sign so that when we got hopelessly lost we could show the picture to a passerby to find our way back to this point. I figured we could find the bus station again from here.

Then, on the advice of the menu affixed to the wall, we entered the narrow gate and walked down the winding pathway to Enotecha la Corte for little bit of something while we decided how to proceed.

(to be continued)


Oasi Regina Pacis

Georgia & Zig

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9/29/06 - Italy - Sarzana

At the bottom of the walkway there was a trellis-covered courtyard with two or three single tables and one long table set up to accommodate eight or nine. There were four people sitting at one of the single tables, laughing and talking, and smoking like chimneys. A handsome sandy-haired waiter met us with a (no kidding) long white apron tied around his waist and a towel draped over his forearm. He bowed slightly, smiled pleasantly, and said something to us in Italian. I told him (in terrible Italian) that my Italian was terrible, “Parla inglese?” “Si,” he replied, “a little.” That was a relief. Sarzana is not a tourist mecca and I was afraid we’d be more than usually dependent on our “Thousands-of-expressions-you-need-to-travel” Phrase Book. Trying to find the right expression quickly is not easy, and trying to make an Italian passerby just stand there while you thumb through a phrase book is not recommended.

He sat us across from each other at the end of the long table. We showed him our little map with Henrry’s shop circled. He said he knew exactly where it was but that we were now entering siesta and he wouldn’t be there. That meant we could have a guilt-free leisurely lunch. Have I told you I love Italy?

There were interior dining rooms, dark and gloomy and filled with smoke the way a bar is supposed to be, but the courtyard we were sitting in was very sunny and cheerful with little flowerboxes. The surrounding buildings were brick and there was the sound of construction in one of them. Our waiter apologized for the noise but said it would be siesta soon for the workmen as well. Because of the surrounding buildings and the fact that we had walked down a winding path to the courtyard there was no traffic noise at all.

Our waiter was very pleased to be serving an American couple and wanted to know where Kentucky was. I drew a rough map of the US. He knew where New York and Florida and California and Texas were but was seemingly impressed that people actually lived there in the middle of the country. I didn’t know how to tell him that more than half the US population now crowds the coast line, our middle is becoming depopulated.

He excused himself and went back into the kitchen. When he came back he said he had to tell the cook that we were there. A few minutes later we saw the chef come out, ostensibly to visit the walk-in freezer located just off the veranda, but I didn’t see him bring anything back out. It looked more like he wanted to see if we “looked normal.” I guess we looked normal enough. They really don’t see many tourists in Sarzana.

We asked the waiter about the specialties. He recommended the local meat plate so we got that as antipasta and then ordered tagliatelle with fish sauce for primo. With bread that was plenty to eat so we skipped ordering a secondo. He brought us separate plates and we shared everything. No problem. He brought us the house wine: an Italian chardonnay and it was wonderful, light and fruity but easily able to hold its own with the meat and cheese.

And oh the meat! He was right to be proud of it and had to tell us the story behind each and every exquisite slivering. Not that we could understand his charming mixture of English and Italian. There were two kinds of salami, one “regular” and the other made from wild boar. There was prosciutto (“NOT from Genoa!” he insisted) sliced more thinly than a sheet of paper. There was pork sliced the same way that looked, for all the world, like raw bacon. There was American beef also sliced raw. There were several kinds of cheeses. I recognized Brie, but none of the others. I was surprised that there wasn’t any gorgonzola but that is evidently a Venice thing. With the crusty bread and a large decanter of wine I didn’t care if they ever brought the pasta primo.

But he did, and brought more bread and butter as well. The taggliatelle was good, but al dente in Italy (at least in Sarzana) is more dente than al. If I fixed my pasta that way in the states people would complain that they might chip a tooth. I think we’ve gotten used to mushy pasta, and that’s a shame. When you eat pasta with some substance you know you’ve actually eaten something. For one thing, you have to chew it. When was the last time you had to chew your spaghetti? See. We overcook our pasta.

We had coffee, but no dessert. A little cup of mud. Delicious mud, but mud. It was served with a tiny spoon already in the cup. I could tell the coffee was strong before I sipped it. When I took my spoon out of the cup it breathed a sigh of relief. After coffee the waiter took our picture. You can see an assortment of champagne bottles behind us, ranging in size from a fifth to one that must have been three feet tall! The bill came to €43. We gave him a €7 tip and one of our Kentucky postcards, making this the most expensive meal we had, by far. He walked us out to the street to show us which little alley to take to find Henrry’s shop.

A good meal, a beautiful warm sunny day in Italy, and good directions to where we wanted to go. We still managed to get lost, of course but not so lost I needed my road sign photo. And anyway, being lost in a small Italian town is being lost in a small Italian town. Even school children come home for siesta. Henrry wasn’t likely to be back in his shop before 4pm anyway, so I draped my jacket over my shoulders the way Italian men do and we strolled. We found a 12th century church and then a 13th century castle. We took lots of photos of each other on the moat walls and then planned on dropping back into the little winding streets but saw a handsome young woman opening the portcullis. She was talking earnestly to another couple and we tried to slip behind her into the castle. “No, No, No” she wagged her finger at me. I think the castle must be used as the backdrop for various large wedding parties and so forth. I think she was the real estate agent. Anyway, she had a very expressive finger. A pretty smile too.

Henrry was a nice young man, very friendly and open but his glass looked more interesting on the web than in person. His more intricate designs used something akin to stained glass overlay with its “stick-on” lead and liquid color smeared on plate glass. His painting wasn’t any better than mine but he seemed to find the same price limits I do. He didn’t know of anyone else making interesting glass.

There’s no doubt the serendipity of Bern’s Glassmaler was more fortuitous than this planned meeting in Sarzana but life is like that isn’t it? The interesting bits of life happen in spite of the plans we make that don’t work out. We’d planned to walk part of the Cinque Terre but because of siesta it was now getting late. Walking along the cliffs in the dark didn’t seem like a good idea so we just took the bus to La Spezia and caught the train back to Santa Margherita. It was a much cleaner train this time.

We had a car all to ourselves except for a very pretty dark-haired young lady with a terrible cold who got on the train at the first stop after us. She sat somewhere behind us. I could hear her sniffling and blowing continually. At the next stop a handsome young man got on the train as well. He offered some simple greeting as he passed the young woman (he ignored us). She croaked a reply. He sat a few seats away from her (I could see their reflection in the glass). We all road in silence for 15 or 20 minutes then the young man got up and moved to a seat across the aisle from her and asked her something. She replied with something that he must have somehow interpreted as encouraging, so for the next 20 or 30 minutes he talked and talked and talked. She gave very occasional polite monosyllabic replies but was obviously (obvious to me, at least) feeling terrible and wanting to be left alone. She had no desire to be entertaining and engaging, nor even to be entertained and engaged. She just wanted to be lying down somewhere warm, perhaps in a big terrycloth bathrobe with a pocketful of paper handkerchiefs, cup of hot tea, dry biscuit, and maybe a glass of orange juice. A mindless book close by would be nice for when she woke up from a nap if she cared to read. Finally, this painful tableaux came to an end when we arrived at her stop. Before she had a chance to get off a middle-aged man got on. They apparently knew each other and chatted briefly. He noticed immediately how bad she felt and said something consoling. She replied to the effect that it was nothing and he offered her some sort of advice that she smiled at. In that instant I understood why younger women could really be attracted to older men. Young men, driven by testosterone perhaps, must sometimes be very hard to put up with.

It was dark by this time and worried that we’d miss our stop, Georgia had me get up at each station to look for the sign to be sure we hadn’t passed Santa Margherita. And this milk-run stopped at each and every station along the coast. “Yes, I know the train schedule I’m holding says Rapollo is supposed to be three minutes away from our last stop and it’s been three minutes and the train is stopping and Santa Margherita is supposed to be 30 minutes away but it’s so dark outside and I can’t read the station sign so could you please get up and look out the open door to be sure this is really Rapollo? Please?” Wives are clueless as to what middle-aged men must put up with to keep the peace.

By this time Lisa’s memorial cold had taken a pretty firm grip on me. I’d already soaked my second handkerchief of the day. It felt awfully good to pull into our station; just one quick trip to the gelateria for fortification and then our “stairway to the stars.” That prediction turned out to be perfectly true as it happens.

(to be continued)


at L'Enoteca La Corte
L'Enoteca La Corte, P.San Giorgio N.10, Sarzana

Georgia & Zig

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9/30/06 - Italy - We Meet Some Movie Stars

We’d promised Suor Bianca that we would be in Mass this morning so we set the alarm and were all showered and spiffy when they rang the bell. We climbed four flights of stairs and took our place on a little pew in the chapel. The room was tiny, maybe six paces across and 10 paces deep but with two banks of windows and a patio door it was flooded with sunlight. There were only about 15 of us; 10 – 12 sisters and four or five civilians, plus Father, who looked and sounded like a chubby Sir Lawrence Olivier.

One of the civilians, a sixty-ish gray-haired woman with a radiant smile was talking earnestly with one of the elderly nuns. The sister was saying “sure, sure” and making deprecating hand motions. The woman moved to the lectern and smoothed her dark patterned dress nervously. Public speaking coaches always tell you to stand for a moment where you will be delivering your speech and “own” the room: see how the space feels, and know that you are going to do fine. She looked at the book of readings in front of her, took a deep breath, smiled uncertainly at us all, then returned to her seat by her old friends. They patted her hand and whispered encouragement.

And then the Mass began: Even though it was conducted in Italian we could follow each step in the familiar ritual. First comes the sign of the cross and the greeting, then the exhortation to remember your sins and shortcomings; then the father’s prayer for God’s mercy. Then we sit and wait for the lector to read the day’s readings. The first is always from the Jewish Scriptures, then comes a Psalm, either sung or spoken, then the second reading, usually from a letter of St Paul, then the priest or ordained deacon reads from one of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

As we sat after the initial prayer, I saw our gray-haired cherub sigh deeply, smile timidly at her friends, and make her way unsteadily to the lectern. Father was sitting behind her and on the opposite side of the room. He folded his hands placidly and watched her, as we all did. She took her place, just as she had before, though without any air of “owning the room.” She began reading from the Jewish Scriptures in a lovely contralto. The passage sounded familiar to me, even in Italian, but I couldn’t place what it was. “Something of Something” over and over . . . then she stumbled on the word “Qoheleth,” and I knew she was reading the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities says Qoheleth. Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity. What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun? One generation passes, and another comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun goes down, then it presses on to the place where it rises. Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north; the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds. All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place . . .” Her voice faltered. “To the place where they go the rivers keep on going.” She sighed so deeply, and looked up at us. Tears were forming in her eyes and she saw sympathetic tears forming in our eyes as well, but she pressed on. “All things are full of weariness . . .” Her voice broke and tears began to run down her cheeks silently. It was very quiet in the room. She put a hand up to motion for us to bear with her. No one moved. She smiled bravely, swallowed several times, sighed deeply again, and looked back at the book: “All things are full of weariness. A man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been that will be . . .” Her voice cracked and she paused again, but she knew better than to look at us weeping with her. “What has been, that will be; what has been done that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.” “La Parola del Signore,” “The Word of the Lord,” she said. “Thanks be to God,” we replied.

She looked up and saw her little congregation smiling broadly at her, so very pleased for her success. She owned the room, no doubt about it. Now she smiled happily too, and wiped her eyes.

I don’t remember another thing from that Mass, but because I do try to remember at least one thing from each Mass I attend, if I live to be a thousand I will never forget her pure joy at being able to weep in front of us and feel the love of her brothers and sisters wash back over her. When she sat down her friends held and patted her hands all through the rest of the service. It is a wonderful gift to be really loved, and not just a gift for the one who is loved, she gave us a gift by letting us love her. So many people are theoretically willing to love someone, because they remain in control and can give or withdraw that love depending on circumstance. But when you are willing to be loved, then you are vulnerable. I wonder if Qoheleth would think this little roomful of love between strangers “vanity.” Kierkegaard, of course, knew that one Knight of Faith can always recognize another Knight of Faith; they are never really strangers at all.

After the service I had to walk to the lectern to double-check the reading from Ecclesiastes. We were the last ones to wind our way down the four flights of stairs to the hallway just outside the dining room. At the first table on the left of the door our elderly lector was sitting with her friends. They were still patting her hand. I too had to pat it and offer my congratulations: “Brava, signora,” I told her, and she bathed me head to foot with one of those angelic smiles. “Mille Gratzie,” she replied, and patted my hand right back. What unspeakable joy.

At our table by the window there was a stunning sight. Two of the most beautiful people I have ever seen in my life silhouetted by the early morning sun, a young man and a young woman. They could have been movie stars. It turns out they were. With a warm sea breeze blowing in the open window Sofia’s honey-colored hair was mussing slightly. Dark-haired, and dark-complexioned Daniel, sitting on her right at the end of the table, provided perfect foil. The white linen table cloth ruffled slightly. We took our seats, Georgia facing the open window, and me directly across from her but sitting next to Sofia. There were two large bottles of water, a large basket of crunchy bread, one pitcher of coffee and another of hot milk, butter and marmalade, and a very large wedge of aged cheese. “Are you English? Or are you from America?” asked Sofia in a lilting voice. They were from Sweden, but she had very little accent. We introduced ourselves and complimented her beautiful pronunciation. She thanked us for the compliment but turned it aside gracefully by telling us that Daniel was the one really fluent in English. Daniel introduced himself and told us briefly about the two years he’d spent living in Los Angeles studying dancing and acting, trying to break into American films. He’d suffered some sort of leg injury that ended the dancing career. That, coupled with other crises had lead him to re-examine his life and its apparent trajectory. As a consequence he’d restarted his dormant religious quest. As a consequence of that he’d felt called to enter the seminary and was now studying to become a Lutheran pastor. I could tell that the change had left him slightly breathless.

They had a three-year-old son, who was being looked after by grandparents so they could have this holiday alone (after just finishing being in a film together). Sofia was lovely, and lovely in a somewhat unselfconscious way. What I mean by “somewhat unselfconscious” is that she accepted her stunning beauty the way I accept my eye color (her eye color, by the way, was the most amazing pale green!) No matter what Quoleth says I don’t believe there was any vanity in either of them. She hadn’t a hint of makeup, and though her hair was combed, it was put up simply in a French-twist sort of style, and there were many loose hairs to get caught charmingly in the breeze. She told us about the movies she’s starred in and we’ve tried to find them since returning home. As best I can tell, they have not been released in a US-compatible DVD or VHS format. Daniel was dark and more intense, but with a smile as warm and ready as hers. Both of them were slender and the picture of their curly-haired son suggested he was impish and adorable. They confirmed that he was.

We had the best talk and lingered at the table long after the cheese was just a little piece of rind, and every bread crumb had been retrieved with a wetted finger tip. Sofia felt that she’d always been a Christian and was so very pleased that Daniel had come to himself. We marveled together at how we stay the same person we’ve always been when we convert and yet we also completely change, more ourselves than we were when we were trying to do our own thing. It was as though all that was not us falls away, or perhaps more precisely, starts to fall away. Sofia had evidently been in a serious accident too; there was a thin scar running from her upper lip all the way down to her chin on the right side of her face. It had completely whitened, but how could an actress be so unselfconscious as to leave it untouched by makeup? Such effortless grace moved me deeply. She accepted her imperfections with the same equanimity she accepted her stunning beauty and thereby raised herself, in my estimation, far beyond the many beautiful women I have met in my life. I hope to see her movies someday.

The sisters clearly wished to clear the tables. Daniel and Sofia were going to bum around the convent with no particular plans. We wanted to visit Castle Brown, where “Enchanted April” had been filmed, so we planned to meet again the next morning (if not before) to rehash the day’s events.

With our new-found mountain legs we easily walked back into town to catch the bus and wind along the coast to the once-upon-a-time fishing town of Portofino. Since the 1950s it’s become a harbor for yachts and celebrities. Nevertheless it’s still lovely. The onion pizza we bought in a little store on the waterfront was horrible. It was the only truly lousy meal we had the entire time. We couldn’t even finish it. Dry, lifeless crust with mediocre olive oil and over-cooked stringy onions. Ugh! But! We were nibbling at it while sitting on a castle wall looking out over sparkling blue Italian water! It seems really churlish to complain. There were lots of celebrity pictures in the rooms: Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Prince Ranier, John Wayne, etc., but no pictures from our movie. Very surprising. It was as though there were no more movie stars after 1964. Then we walked another 300 meters through the woods above the shoreline to the lighthouse. I had the best time taking pictures of everything, near and far, big and little, glorious and trivial. What a place. Then we caught the ferry to the Monastery at San Fruttuosa. We thought we’d hike the three-hour trail but were just too tired and wimped out. The monastery was dark and mysterious but cheapskates that we are we didn’t go in and just poked around on the beach for a while (it was supposed to be topless, but everyone I could see was fully topped) and jumped back on the ferry for the return to Portofino. More poking around there, then back on the bus to Santa Margherita to do some grocery shopping. Things had been going altogether too well, we decided it was time to get lost in a small Italian town.

(to be continued)


Portofino from Castle Brown

Georgia & Zig

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9/30/06-10/1/06 - Italy - Supermercados and the Cinque Terre

We travel so cheaply by staying in convents and student hostels, and buying local food in local supermarkets. In Italy they are called collectively “Supermercado” though the name of the particular store will vary from town to town. It’s where the locals shop, and they can afford to live in these places for a reason; they don’t eat at the restaurants every day!

When we got back to Santa Margherita from Castle Brown we went to the tobacconist (they know everything): “Dove il supermercado?” He rattled off directions, waving his arms left and right and indicating “go straight” like a karate chop, then summarily dismissed me, looked down at his newspaper. “Gratzie,” I said. He didn’t look up, but did acknowledge my thanks with a miniscule shrug and slightly upturned palm.

I really hadn’t a clue what all he’d said but I had the distinct impression that we should start out in “that” direction then go left, then go right, then go straight. I went back to report the conversation to “the lady in charge.” Her reply was “He said what?” I recapitulated the brief conversation with hand waving followed by a karate chop. “Oh great. We go ‘that’ way,” she said dubiously looking down an alley. “That’s what he said . . . I think.” She looked up at the sun hurrying toward the horizon.

It’s amazing how quickly the sun goes down in Italy. I know you’ve read in science books that high and low tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull causing the water in the oceans to bulge as it sweeps over them. That bulge is actually a very small indication of just how powerful the oceans are, trying to bring the moon down out of the sky. The same thing is true for the sun, only because the sun is so much bigger the effect is magnified. That’s why in places with an ocean on their west coasts night comes on so much faster than in places like Kentucky, where we only have horses and grass of a peculiar hue. They pull on the sun hardly at all. Not anywhere near like the oceans on the west coast of Italy. That’s right. It’s true. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, it was definitely getting darker, though we still had an hour or so before the sun hissed into the water, so we quickened our pace. That means we started walking up and down various alleys faster. The lady in charge was not pleased. There were lots of people out, even some with shopping bags and they all gave us the same directions: “It’s right then left then straight.” And always with a karate chop at the end. There must be a martial arts school in Santa Margherita where the locals are taught how give tourists directions. We got more and more lost. More and more rights then lefts began to creep into the directions we were given. We were obviously somehow circling the store so we just stopped dead on the little street to reassess the situation.

We’d been walking about 20 minutes. We had about 45 minutes before dark. We could only find our way back to the port by heading toward the setting sun, and we were hungry. On our first trip to Italy this situation would have been sufficient for a panic attack. But we were old pros now. We decided to stop one more, poor pedestrian, then we’d give up and go to a restaurant by the water: “Scusi, Signora, Dove il supermercado?” She started the litany of rights and lefts then saw the look of dismay on my face and stopped. . . “Segualo,” she said and motioned for us to follow. Then she took off down the street at something between a walk and a dogtrot. How in the world do 50 year-old Italian ladies maintain such a pace? We slipped farther and farther behind. After five or six minutes of lefts and then rights and rights and then lefts she stopped at a corner to wait for us. “La,” she said karate-chopping at a giant sign (by Italian standards) announcing “Goliath” out in front of a little (by American standards) grocery store. “Destra ed allora sinistra.” Right and then left. And she turned on her heel and set off for home at a quick march. “Gratzie, Signora!” I called out to her back. “Prego,” she sang back with a little wave.” I guess the store really was “right, then left, then straight,” but little Italian towns have lots of “rights, then lefts, then straights.” I don’t know that we would have ever found this particular combination.

Before entering we took a transit sighting to see the point where the sun was aimed and planned our escape route perpendicular to that point. We figured that should intersect some road or other to carry us back to the convent.

Pears and cheese and bread. A tiny three-pack of canned tuna and a box of little cookies. Sparkling water and Prosecco, Italy’s sparkling wine and poor-tourist’s champagne. Then we sprinted up the escape route and found ourselves clinging to the edge of a mountain goat track populated by whizzing cars. The lady in charge was beside herself. I suggested she carry her grocery bag in one hand, the one hanging out over the roadway. “The cars will be able to see the white bag easier,” I said cheerfully, “and they’ll be more likely to hit the bag than smash us up against the mountain.” It made perfect sense to me. Impeccable male logic. She was not pleased and there seemed to be a steady stream of muttering coming from somewhere in her direction.

But we survived, by sprinting back and forth between the inside wall and the outside guardrail to maximize our visibility in the deepening gloom. We dove into the quiet little footpath that passed for a road above the convent and started walking down, coming out at the upper gate just about the time the sun touched the water. Sitting on our little veranda, we tried to shoot birds out of the trees with Prosecco corks and watched the steam rising from Sole estinto, the extinguished sun. Somewhere close by a newborn baby cried and cried to see the sun drowned. We tried to reassure him that it would be back tomorrow but he was inconsolable. There are some things you just have to learn through experience, that no matter how hopeless it seems today, the sun will come up again tomorrow, and how to “go right, then left, then straight.”

10/1/06 Sunday - Italy - Cinque Terre

Today we visit the towns of the Cinque Terre. In the 1960s, my mother had bought me a “John Gnagy Drawing Course Art Book” She knew I loved art (or at least loved trying to draw naked ladies from the lingerie section of the Sears Catalog) and thought she could steer me away from my passion by showing me how difficult drawing really was. But I was fascinated by the mechanics of the “grid system” for transferring a smaller drawing or photograph onto a larger canvas (now people just enlarge them on their desktop copy machine!) I had a school notebook full of clumsy sketches but one attempt was less clumsy than the others. In one of our infrequent “Life” magazines I’d seen a full-page color photograph of a small hill-town overlooking a tranquil turquoise bay. Tiny houses rose like pastel-colored crystals from the surrounding rock matrix, row upon row all the way to the top of an imposing sheer cliff. I carefully drew a thin pencil grid over the photograph and laid out the same number of squares on my canvas-board. And then I set to work transferring each and every tiny house and rock and tree onto the board. Precise little outlines, just waiting to be colored in like a do-it-yourself paint-by-number set. It took me months to finish, but eventually I presented it to Mom and Dad, who proudly hung the painting on their living room wall for years and years. Mom would show the picture to her friends: “This was done by my son Johnny, the artist.”

Anyway, the caption for the photograph was on the page facing the one I’d torn out so I had no idea where this little town was. I knew it was on the Mediterranean somewhere but France? Italy? Corsica? Sicily? I hadn’t a clue. After we’d decided to stay in Liguria to be close to Castle Brown, Georgia showed me pictures of other sights to see, one of which was the famous five towns of the Cinque Terre. I recognized Manarola as the little town I’d painted so many years before and knew I had to see it in person.

Painting or drawing requires looking at something more deeply than non-painters can understand. In the hours and hours of transferring each and every house and each and every rock on the cliff to the canvas I came to live in that little town with no name. I walked each and every invisible street, and supped under that tree right there. I sat on the pier and listened to the water lapping against the rocks. I relaxed in the warm sun like a lizard on the rocks, and I listened to the fishermen proudly boasting as they returned with the day’s catch. I stood at the window of that house and looked at the sea. It took me months and months to paint that painting, and I lived in this little unnamed town the entire time.

So today was the day we were going to walk the pathway along the cliffs. Legend has it that it was built because the locals came to enjoy knowing their neighbors and were too frugal to buy train tickets. One stretch is called the lover’s walk because getting to know your neighbor can sometimes lead you to love your neighbor as your other self, don’t you know. Over the years these paths became transformed into a glorious tourist attraction as photographs revealed the amazing beauty to the outside world. Today, it was threatening rain and neither of us was up for walking all five towns so we got off the train at the second, Vernazza, where the hike up to the cliff path left our lungs aching and our vaunted mountain-legs quivering. The young ticket sellers were sitting at a little card table like a fraternity-run lemonade stand.

There were lots of other hikers and the polyglot of languages would have to be heard to be believed. We had such a good time trying to discern Albanian from Lithuanian, Swedish from Danish, and Greek from Russian. All in all it was about a 45 minute walk to Corniglia, lower on the cliffs but still high above the water. Georgia was threatening to catch the train to ride to the next town. There had been a lot of going up and then going down to complement yesterday’s left and then right. But I was so anxious to see Manarola from the cliff-approach that I bribed her with a gelato and promised her another when we got there. She was dubious, but another American tourist who had just walked from Manarola to Corniglia persuaded her with the promise that Manarola was all downhill from here. That did it.

The famous 400 steps on the southern edge of Corniglia was much easier to go down than it would have been to go up. And then we were basically at sea level for the rest of the walk. We strolled leisurely along the paved path and I told her about my childhood love affair with the town whose name I didn’t know. There was a brief climb right at the end. As we came around that final bend and I saw the exact scene burned into my memory I burst into tears. My reaction startled me and I stood there transfixed. C.S. Lewis talks about being “surprised by joy” when God fulfills the dreams we didn’t even know we had. There are some longings so woven into who we are that we don’t even recognize them until they are fulfilled. I was here realizing the dream that my 15-year-old self didn’t even know he was planting. I now know exactly what Lewis meant. Even in our personal history one person plants and another reaps.

I walked around the town in a dream and we stopped at a little pizzeria to get some foccacia and sparkling water to eat under my tree. As we sat there we heard a commotion up the hill toward the train station. A young bride and groom were walking down the center of the street hand and hand, followed at a discrete distance by the cheering and teasing wedding party. The bride was radiant and stunningly beautiful. The groom looked bewildered but also very proud to be holding hands with such a beauty and slightly embarrassed at all the attention. Not the bride. She loved the attention. This was a day she’d obviously looked forward to for months.

Joy comes bottles of all sizes, doesn’t it? And sometimes the corks just blow off like a new Prosecco, and sometimes you ease them out noiselessly as with a fine aged port. I do hope the young groom someday has the quiet joy of walking through one of his realized childhood dreams and sharing it, hand in hand, with the lovely young woman he’s known and loved and raised a family with, and squabbled with for 37 years. I’ve experienced both joys and I know which I think is better.

As the sun set we boarded the train for our last night in Santa Margherita. It had been a very good day.

(to be continued)


Dreams we didn't know we had

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
10/2/06 - Italy to Greece - Trains and Planes, Life and Death, and the Island of Kos

I am so in awe of people who can switch easily from one language to another. Daniel and Sofia were speaking flawlessly English with us on the veranda overlooking the nighttime garden when two Norwegian ladies arrived at the convent. Without skipping a beat they switched out of their impeccable English into this flood of words that didn’t even sound like words to my ears. (They told me later that they were able to speak to the Norwegians in Swedish because the two languages are related in roughly the same way American English is related to British English.) I asked what languages they spoke between them and I think it topped out at about six or seven and those were only the languages they were good at. Sheesh. Multilingual people live in a much larger world than do we poor saps who struggle to have one native language and consider ourselves worldly if we can parrot out occasional phrases from a guidebook. And that’s not just a cliché. Their world really is bigger and richer. The connection between what goes on inside our head and the size of the world we live in is not nearly so simple as one would like to believe.

And yet, fluency is no guarantee of a broad worldview either. They told us about the French lady who was sharing their breakfast table before we arrived. She had some sort of argument with Suor Bianca regarding the morality of being a nun. I guess that can sound strange, but there are some deeply wounded people who are perpetually angry and hurt, not only by the normal stresses and strains of life, but also by the very fact of their own existence. I once had a boss in complete honesty tell me that the only truly immoral action anyone could make was to have children. This, unfortunately, was just about the time we started turning out children like hotcakes. (During the height of the flapjack-frenzy I worked in “modular buildings” with tissue-thin walls and overheard two co-workers planning yet another baby shower on my behalf: One asked the other what the office should get me as another gift and the suggestion was that they should get me something really useful, like a vasectomy!)

Anyway, where do you go when you want to complain about your own existence? God staffs the obvious complaint-window but trying to shoot arrows at Him often means hitting the deeply religious people He surrounds Himself with. But Sister was so self-contained and strong that her very lack of defensiveness offended this woman. Her tranquility was a reproach. Daniel and Sofia said she spent her last morning sobbing at the breakfast table then abruptly checked out.

But if bringing more children into the world is the only truly immoral action we can perform then would taking people out of this world be the only truly moral one? I’m afraid I was too unsophisticated at the time to pursue this line of questioning, and the man was, after all, my boss. The issue, though, has stayed with me all these years. One of the things I found most intriguing about the matter was that what was going on inside his head was so very central to the kind of world he lived in. You would like to think that the world is a given, unconcerned and independent of our perceptions, but this man, being philosophically consistent, of course, never had children and always left as small a footprint as possible.

One of the existentialists (I forget which) was obsessed with being “in the way.” No matter what he did he would always be thwarting someone else’s wants and needs, like the man who held up our train from Sarzana to Santa Margherita for two hours by inconsiderately falling off the platform into the path of one of the high speed intercity trains. Our companion at the time, a lady police officer from Canada said that she once had to work such an accident scene. Except for a red smear and one shoe it was as though the man had simply disappeared. He had checked out very abruptly, only the inconvenience to others remained.

My boss was like that. He saw his very existence as an accident, and his every move as thwarting the aspirations of others, where both “others” and “aspirations” were very broad categories that included manatees, sperm whales, un-dammed rivers, prairie dogs, and pine trees. How does one live day to day if their very existence is an affront to all creation? To whom does one apologize? But “creation” necessarily implies a creator. What if everything else is just as accidental as I am? Is it then still immoral to thwart their aspirations? Do I need to apologize to anyone at all? I can see how one might find it distasteful removing the obstacles to your own private goals if they don’t wish to be removed, but it’s hard to see how it would be “immoral.” If you cut down trees or wipe out the manatees or pave over the Grand Canyon, and only thereby remove one of the world’s other accidents what have you done wrong? In such a world how is anything, let alone having children, immoral.

And what was Sister’s faith beyond something going on in her head? She did not feel that she was an accident. She did not feel like the rest of the world was just in her way, nor did she feel that she was in the world’s way. She did not feel that paving the Grand Canyon or wiping out the manatees would be morally neutral, and she certainly did not spend her morning sobbing at the breakfast table. I’m afraid some people live in Hell, and some people live in Heaven, and odd as it may seem I think we all are fundamentally responsible for which place we inhabit. But then I guess, one could say that’s just something going on in my head.

Gentle reader, if you don’t mind a suggestion: If you live in a world mainly populated by fools, knaves, poltroons, and people who are “in the way” during your morning commute, you really should take time for a head-check. Back away from yourself for a bit. Sister’s world is not like that. She lives in a world of amazing people on pilgrimage who pass through her tranquil space for a time. She sees her purpose as easing their journey as much as she is able. She gives them a safe and clean place to refresh themselves while they perform a head-check. Her charism of hospitality is one we can all adopt—you don’t have to be a Benedictine.

We were going to be traveling to Linate Aeroporto, outside Milan, on the same train with Daniel and Sofia though not, unfortunately, in the same car. Sister volunteered to get up early to have breakfast ready for us at 6:30. It was delicious as usual and we wrapped up the leftovers in a napkin to take with us. Taking leave of her without being able to speak fluently was very touching. It was that “Knight of Faith” thing again. She talked to me at length in Italian and I replied at length in English. The rough translation for both of us was “I love you.” We recognized in each other kindred spirits but Kierkegaard had warned us that recognition still would not allow us to speak directly to each other. I don’t think he had my limited Italian vocabulary in mind, and I am determined to learn more languages and enlarge my world before I check out.

The lights were off in our train compartment as the commuters were dozing through the glorious Italian bread basket. I missed the wonderful red springtime poppies, but the fields of grain, tobacco, olives, and corn were still very lovely in the early morning light. Even the graffiti was becoming familiar. I was beginning to see different “degrees:” from crude tagging to surreptitious “public” art. I was beginning to appreciate what an investment in time and money these artists were willing to undergo to leave electric versions of some of their dreams and nightmares.

We rode on the shuttle bus with Daniel and Sofia from Milano Centrale to Linate and had a second sad farewell at their gate. I hope we can stay in touch. There is something about meeting fellow pilgrims that creates a bond out of all proportion to the length of time spent together. We did hear that they arrived home safely and that the trip was very eventful for them: little Ossian is going to have a new brother or sister. That Italian hospitality is just amazing.

The flight from Linate to Athens was interminable. The spectacular Greek stewardess was the only saving grace. Jet black hair, olive complexion, one huge eyebrow, and two enormous . . . hands. No matter how hard I tried I wasn’t able to accidentally get a picture of her, though we did later see a gorgeous 2500-year-old statue of her on the Acropolis. Her name had to be Helen. Poor Georgia, it wasn’t a terribly smooth ride and they didn’t serve wine. She suffered manfully but kept checking out the window to chart our progress. Looking down from the air it was surprising just how narrow the heel of Italy’s boot really is. Looked like you could hop, skip, and jump across it easily. What an amazing world.

Lunch on the plane was also horrible, a crepe filled with potted meat and covered with congealed Velveeta. If there hadn’t also been a small honey-flavored brick I would have starved. In Athens we only had time to marvel at yet another language to not understand, this time with an alphabet we didn’t recognize, before we were whisked onto our flight for the Island of Kos. Thank God for the honey-roasted peanuts otherwise I would have eaten my pillow. We landed on Kos at about sunset.

The entire day had been taken up with traveling. It was very comforting to have reservations, but we had no idea how we were going to get to the Hotel Koala. We could tell from the approach that the airport was in the middle of nowhere. There was no information booth in the airport. The lady at the tobacco shop spoke enough English to tell me there was no bus at this time of night that we needed to hire a taxi. Heresy! Get thee behind me! €45, I’d rather walk!

We pulled our little carry-ons outside to see the sunset and think over the situation and saw a bus over to the side of the little terminal. There were a few exhausted tourist-like people sprawled on board, so we sprawled on board too. I mean, it’s an island. How many places can a bus go on an island? Eventually the bus driver came over to see why we were sprawled on his bus. I asked if he was going to Kos town. He admitted that he was. I told him we’d like to ride along. He said that would be fine but I’d have to reimburse him €4 each. Actually, he just stood in the bus aisle gave me a quizzical look, I handed him a bill and he gave me change.

The drive itself let me vicariously live the life of a pinball. We caromed at a high rate of speed along a highway the width and straightness of a cooked spaghetti noodle. As we pulled into Kos Town I asked the driver if he could drop us off in front of the Hotel Koala. I’m not sure of his exact reply but I’m pretty sure it was something to the effect that the filament in my light bulb must be sputtering if I thought I was sitting in a taxi. When we de-bussed I asked him where the hotel was. He waved vaguely in a westerly direction and said something that (I think) roughly translates “Good luck, chump.” I handed him a one euro tip and thanked him for the ride. He underwent a radical demeanor transplant. Unfortunately he had also learned how to give directions in Santa Margherita: “Go straight, sir, then left, then right.” As we toddled off into the dark I thought I heard him mutter “And good luck, chump."

(to be continued)


in Manarola

Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
10/2/06-10/3/06 - Greece - Evening on the Island of Kos, then off to Patmos

It’s interesting to walk around in small Greek or Italian cities or small Swiss ones for that matter. They don’t have near the number of streetlights we take for granted in the U.S. Consequently it’s not at all unusual to see stars inside the city limits. As you know, in the U.S. all the stars have been exiled to the countryside for national security reasons; they are strictly a rural phenomenon, like chicken poop and feral cats. Speaking of which, Greek islands are absolutely overrun with cats and have a good healthy supply of locally produced chicken poop as well. I have never seen anything like it. Cats are everywhere like the red poppies we saw on our first trip to Italy but they come in many more colors and they move around when you aren’t looking.

Anyway, we followed the bus driver’s directions: straight then right then left and surprise of surprises! They worked . . . we became hopelessly lost. I could never have found the bus again, as if the driver didn’t speed away as soon as we were out of sight. There we stood on a darkened street corner, well actually we were standing in the center of a cobbled street because the light from the flickering streetlight was better there. It’s really hard to read Google maps by starlight. But this was hopeless. Where we were bore no resemblance to this little scrap of paper, flickering light or not. Up ahead there was a bright light on, the only lighted building we could see in the deepening gloom. And it was a travel agency! But the lady in charge was on the phone and not to be disturbed. She wouldn’t look up or even acknowledge our existence. But that was okay with me. I’ve been ignored by some real pros, my children. I wasn’t going anywhere without getting some directions from her to someplace, anyplace. Finally, the never-ending story ended and she looked up at me. “Yes?” She said in English. This was getting better and better. We asked her if she could direct us to the Hotel Koala. “But sure,” she chirped. “Where are you from?” We told her about Kentucky, gave her a postcard, had to draw a quick map of the United States showing her where Kentucky was located, explained about the horse farms, and asked again about the Hotel Koala. “But sure,” she chirped. “How long will you be on Kos? We don’t get many visitors from . . .” she looked down at her notes, “Ken-tuc-ky.” We explained that we were just spending the night on Kos as part of our trip to Patmos to see where John was exiled. “But sure,” she chirped. “You speak English very well,” Georgia told her. “But sure,” she chirped, “I want to visit the U.S.” “Oh yes?” I said. “But sure,” she replied, “only since . . .” she hesitated, looking for the right word. “9/11?” I asked. “But sure! Since 9-11 it is very difficult to get a visa.” We all shook our heads. “I’ve been trying to get off Kos to come to the U.S., and here you are getting off the U.S. to go visit Kos.” We shook our heads and marveled at this small world with its little ironies.

And here I would like to insert a brief message to the Secretary of State, if she happens to be reading this trip report: You really need to think about loosening up the restrictions against foreigners visiting the U.S. The world is full of people who used to want to come visit us, but if we keep telling such people to “get lost” we may find that they stop wanting to come and stop liking us as well. I think you call people who don’t like you, enemies. People who like you are called, I think, friends. As a national policy I would like to humbly suggest that we do everything we can to maximize the number of friends we have and minimize the number of enemies we create. But then, I’m from Ken-tuc-ky—not a sophisticated place like Washington D.C., or Crawford, Texas.

We continued to shake our heads and “tsk, tsk, tsk.” But I wasn’t going to forget about the Hotel Koala, no matter life’s little ironies. “The Hotel Koala . . .” I began. “But sure,” she chirped, “how are you going to get to Patmos?” she wondered. “Well, we need ferryboat tickets,” I admitted. “How many?” she said reaching for her receipt book. “How much?” asked Georgia, cutting right to the chase. The amount quoted was more than the on-line information suggested we pay. I saw that look in my sweetie’s eye and saw her open her mouth, but before she could say anything I suggested we needed to speak to each other privately, outside.

“That’s too much to pay for the tickets,” the Secretary of the Treasury exclaimed. “Well yes,” I whispered, “But do you see any other travel agents around?” “We don’t need a travel agent; we can buy cheaper tickets at the dock!” “Do you see a dock anywhere around,” I mouthed noiselessly. “Do you, in fact, see anyone who could tell us how to find the Hotel Koala?” I whispered, looking around for emphasis. “Well . . . no,” she admitted a little more softly, “But it’s TOO much . . .”

I shushed her and we went back inside. “We’ll take two tickets to Patmos for the morning,” I said pleasantly. “But sure,” she chirped, “you catch the catamaran at the city dock.”

Now that the financial transactions were out of the way she turned her attention to the little matter of finding the Hotel Koala: “It’s straight, then right, then left. You can’t miss it.” But we could, and we did. But we did find a coffee shop in another section of town and they told us how to find the Hotel Koala: “It’s straight, then left, then right.” “But sure,” we said, and trudged off deciding that there really wasn’t any Hotel Koala, only a local variation of our Boy Scout snipe hunts, but Sacre Bleu!!! There it was! There was the Hotel Koala!!! And they were really expecting us.

They had a room for us and everything. It was not a large room, and the TV and lights went off when you removed the electronic key from the little slot on the wall, but it was clean, and we had our own little balcony, the size of a box of spaghetti. There were even two chairs out there. You had to put your knees through the railings if you sat on them, but they were there. There was also a very strange sign in the bathroom that seemed to suggest that you should not throw any paper in the toilet. I knew that couldn’t be right that they really meant you shouldn’t throw paper towels in the toilet. Georgia wasn’t so sure, but she is just not able to understand local peculiarities the way a savvy world traveler like myself can. I admit that I did think it odd, as Georgia pointed out, that there didn’t seem to be any paper towels in the bathroom. But I smugly told her that the sign was an old one left over from the time when there used to be lots of paper towels in the bathroom. Like a good wife, she demurred to my greater wisdom, though she did wonder about the diaper pail beside the toilet. I assured her again that it was just a trash can with a tight fitting flip-top lid and a plastic-bag lining. “You’ll see them everywhere,” I nodded. We did. We also saw the little “no paper in the toilet” signs everywhere. Weird. But there’s no accounting for the strange signs foreigners put up in their bathrooms.

Greek TV makes no more sense than Italian. The Game Shows have categories like “Musical Comedy” and “Broadway” and the talk shows use six-way split screen with talking heads in each, all jabbering at the same time. American movies with Greek sub-titles would be okay but they seemed to show only “never-run” movies like Sylvester Stalone’s “Judge Dredd,” which I hope is better in sub-titles than in the English I could hear. “I knew you were going to say that” has got to look more believable in Greek than it sounded in English.

Greek soap operas are completely unintelligible without facility in Greek and are probably no more intelligible to native speakers than “As the World Turns” is to the uninitiated Americans. But they were sure popular with store clerks anxious for you to leave so they could get back to the story.

Lots and lots of sidewalk cafes, lots of little kiosks selling everything. Every shop owner accosts passersby with the excellence of their menu, or their swimsuits, or their cruise tickets, or their hotel. You couldn’t go a block, even at night, without having handfuls of cards thrust out at you. One especially persistent fellow wouldn’t even take “we already have a room” for sufficient reason to refuse his hotel’s card: “for next time,” he insisted. Oh yeah, we come here all the time.

We had a late supper of shish kabobs and French fries just around the corner from the hotel and our first couple (of many) Mythos Beers. Delicious! Then we toddled off to bed with visions of Patmos dancing in our heads.

October 3

There were lots of ferries at the dock and I’d forgotten what a “catamaran” was. Each Ferry lingered at the dock for about 30 seconds so I felt that same sense of dread I’d felt trying to catch my first local bus in Italy. There are so many of them and they move in and out so quickly that if you are not standing in the right place when the doors open you’re going to miss it! It’s the kind of thing that gives tourists panic-attacks the locals just can’t understand. What is the problem? I kept pestering the poor ticket taker who insisted that we’d see it arrive when it got here, and not before. They’d open the gate when we were ready to board. As I went back to report the conversation to Georgia it hove into view—The Dodekanisos Express, twin hulls and sleek as a racing boat. A catamaran, of course! No wonder the ticket taker wondered at my IQ; there was no way to confuse this huge sleek catamaran with the dowdy old garbage scows that lumbered passengers back and forth between some of the islands and the Turkish coast.

As it backed up to the dock I could see a few cars, and a little truck, and a handful of vespas on board. After unloading the cars and reloading new cars they opened the gangway to the pedestrian traffic and we piled on, heading immediately upstairs through the interior cabin to the observation deck. We could have taken our time because it lingered at the dock a good 15 seconds longer than the typical ferry loading only foot traffic. I think the last few passengers had to pole vault onto the retreating gangplank. As the captain gunned the motor you could feel the ship rise up onto its twin hulls and then skim across the surface drawing 35-40 knots. The ride was relatively smooth because the main hull was lifted clear of the whiteheads. I tried to walk forward but the wind was just too much. I had to grasp the rail firmly to keep from being blown backward, and the salt spray stung my cheeks. I soon gave up and returned to the observation deck, aft, to content myself with admiring where we’d been instead of anticipating where we were going. Much like foreign travel or life itself, eh?

Off to the port about 200-300 yards we scooted around a little island about the size of a large shopping center. It was almost completely barren, except for some olive drab scrub brush, but as it was obviously a mountain rising from the seafloor and we could also easily make out lovely little square houses piled on top of each other like a jumble of Kleenex boxes falling down the mountainside. We could even see the open doors and shutters, generally deep blue, starkly contrasting with the lovely pastels or freshly whitewashed houses. They were superficially similar to those we saw on the Cinque Terre but startlingly white and always roofless, absolutely flat on top (with the outside walls forming a low rim on top for the cats to sun themselves.)

There on the hillside we could also see a plume of greasy dirty smoke rising. “What’s that” my sweetie asked. “That’s a volcano,” I replied confidently, “I was a geology major, you know.” My sweetie nodded her head in wonder at the number of things I know. What a paragon she married. The water was a combination of steel gray and turquoise. The sky was partly cloudy but each of the larger islands looked like there was a glass bowl over top of them trapping a brown-gray haze underneath. I thought must be from gasoline and diesel fumes until we landed on Patmos and I could see that it was actually just cigarette smoke. I haven’t seen so many smokers or been trapped in so much cigarette smoke since the time I rode up the elevator with my dad to visit his office in 1956.

On the dock at Skala, the main town on Patmos, we had to run a gauntlet of hotel owners touting the virtues of their establishments, but because of her on-line research Georgia already knew we wanted to stay on Chochlakas Bay because of the “wonderful sunset views” and had the name of a hotel we wanted to check out. The directions from the web were a little sketchy and the warren of streets and alleys facing us was a little intimidating but we kicked a few cats out of our path and set off bravely.

(to be continued)


Bouganville on Patmos

Georgia & Zig

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10/3/06 - Greece - The Island of Patmos

I don’t know if I ever really made it clear just how much Georgia hates to be lost. Me, I’m lost so frequently I have my own personal box at the Lost and Found. As we set off in search of Chochlakas Bay and the Doriza Bay Hotel I was going on my normal assumption that it was an island fer cryin’ out loud! How lost can you get on an island? Georgia, on the other hand was thinking dark thoughts about my less than sterling record of locating looked-for places on the first try. I would here defend myself with the observation of a friend many years ago who was, in fact, a remarkable calligrapher. For Christmas he made bookplates for everyone in our little book-discussion group. For me he drew an absolutely lovely stylized “Zig” starting with a backwards swash “Z”, followed by and calligraphically linked to a backwards “i” and a backwards “g.” All three, as I said, were backwards but the totality was still clearly “Zig.” “You always do things backwards,” he said, “but somehow they manage to come out alright anyway.” So very true. As I look back on my life that is the recurring motif. Each action, looked at in itself, is backwards (at best), or clearly wrong (at worst), and yet somehow, (God’s grace?), they come out right. If anyone needs an object lesson in the adage that “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord,” they need only try to follow my stumbling footsteps through life’s thickets.

But Georgia, as I said, was not yet ready to concede that anywhere I was walking was the path, nor willing to admit that anywhere I ended up was the proper goal. And repeating myself, my record is not sterling in this regard, so any route I select between point A (where we are) and point B (where we want to go) is subject to running analysis, discussion, revision, and recrimination. We had a tiny little map of Patmos that showed Chochlakas Bay (where we wanted to go) an easy walking distance from Skala (where we were) in that direction. We stood there discussing the available routes for a while. There are times I get the feeling that “discussion” is more important to my wife than “finding” though “finding” is eventually very important. For me, “discussion” as an end in itself is all well and good, but as a substitute for “finding,” it stinks. I’m a “let’s start walking this way and if that doesn’t work out we’ll try some other direction” kind of guy. Georgia is a “let’s talk about the possibilities ad nauseum, worry ourselves to death, then ultimately choose what we would have chosen if we hadn’t had this little discussion” sort of woman. Making a command-level decision, I picked a route and started walking. Georgia was right on my heels, rethinking the route with each and every step. I pretended deafness and pressed on. The little shops petered out and were replaced by small five or six-room hotels and “studios.” None of the buildings were more than two stories tall, and there wasn’t any neon in sight, only small neatly lettered signs affixed to pastel walls. What a backward people, to read the signs you had to be standing right in front of them. They didn’t flash and scream at you hundreds of yards away. How was someone whizzing by on the freeway supposed to read them? Oh, that’s right. We were walking down the center of a dusty little street pulling our wheeled carry-ons, not breezing along a freeway, and we were only occasionally surrendering the right of way to a buzzing vespa or automobile the size of a Red Flyer wagon. Maybe the little signs work ok after all.

On the right hand side of the street the hotels and “studios” were surrounded by six foot cinderblock or stucco walls covered with billowing masses of pink flowers. The bright sun cast amazing shadows along the walls of the houses, elegantly designed with little porches and verandas and trellises and abutments to make use of these cast shadows to magnify the texture and colors. Pastels make lovely dark contrasts when shadowed and bright white reflects the color from the flowers and trellises and shutters. Everything was subtle and lovely and took great advantage of the bright sun, cool shadows, blue water, pink flowers, and sparkling white walls. It’s a beauty not easy to describe in words and easily lost on a culture saturated with flashing billboards and advertisement trucks that tout their wares in the middle of gridlock. On these back streets no one was even trying to hand us business cards. It was just us, the cats cleaning themselves in the shade, occasional buzzing vespas, blue sun, sparkling water up ahead, and another of those Greek volcanoes off to our left.

But this “volcano” was located on the flat land between two ridges, a very unusual place for a volcano. And this one was also surrounded by a few apparently abandoned refrigerators, old broken furniture, and a wrecked minibus. Lucky for the geologist in me that Georgia didn’t notice the smell of burning rubber issuing from this “volcano” and continued to aim her withering barrage at my route selection.

When we reached the water the little dusty street “T’ed” into another smaller one running left and right along the water’s edge. It seemed pretty clear that we had, in fact, found Hokhlakas Bay, and I justifiably took credit for the success. I couldn’t be held responsible for the fact that Doriza Bay Hotel was nowhere in sight. To our right about 50 yards away the street ended at a small abandoned stone house at the base of a bare mountain. To our left the street wound around the bay for 200 yards or so then up and around a more shallow incline of another, much larger mountain. In the distance and inland we could see that mountain became the center of the island. We could just make out the Monastery of John the Evangelist on the brow, like a fortress overlooking everything but no Doriza Bay Hotel. There was some hotel or other on the lower slopes about 200 yards away, but the sign out front was just too small to read at this distance and I was just not brave enough to suggest we pull our little bags 200 yards along and up the dusty street on the off-chance that it might be the Doriza Bay Hotel, and it might be nice. What this country needs is more large flashing neon billboards so tourists can find places, fer cryin’ out loud.

We considered the possibilities of going back the way we’d come and checking out the little hotels we passed, but they were not close enough to the water to see the sunset and that was the real reason Georgia wanted to be situated right here. The tourist brochures said this was the place (“volcano” or no) to see the sunsets. The obvious place to stay, then, was The Scirroco Studios, in front of whose gates we were currently standing. You couldn’t get closer to the water unless you pitched your tent on the pebbled beach, and the building was obviously the newest in this area, but I was pretty sure they would be too expensive for our limited budget. The gate was open though, and we decided to try. You know how I love the movie “Joe vs. the Volcano?” “We’ll just jump and then we’ll see . . .” so through the gates we went. As we crunched across the new gravel a woman came out of a little bungalow in the courtyard to meet us. She was anxious to show us a room but I told her I needed to know “quanto costa” first. She wrote €40 on a piece of paper. We’d hoped to pay 25 but 40 wasn’t out of the question so we climbed the outside stairs to have a look at the room she proposed.

It was perfect! Little kitchen with small refrigerator, stove, coffee pot, pots and pans, and sink with dishwashing liquid. Small kitchen table for two. Bathroom with sink, bidet, and decent sized shower (by European standards, 2’ by 2’). Windows everywhere, over the kitchen table, in the bathroom, facing the front veranda. The rooms were absolutely full of light. You stepped down from the kitchen area to the sleeping area where there was a queen sized bed and more windows, and with lovely French doors leading out to a covered 10 x 10’ terrace facing the water just across the little street. Because we were on the second (and top) story we were about 10’ off the ground. Our terrace had nice privacy and was complete with a solid wooden octagonal picnic table and canvas-backed wooden chairs plus chaise lounges. The décor, inside and out, was all lovely brown wood, in the furnishings, the cabinets, the exposed ceiling beams, and white for the stucco walls. They reflected all the light and made everything bright. The brown wood made it warm, and kept it from being oppressive. Deep blue shutters and occasional spots of trim let you “feel” the nearby water as well as hear ever-present low sound of the surf.

There were even clothes pins on the clothes line strung between two wooden awning supports on the terrace. We’d done some laundry in Santa Margherita but because of Italy’s overcast skies everything was slightly damp. The chance of rain here was pretty much zero and the breeze promised to dry everything in 15 minutes.

The landlady was justifiably proud of what they’d built. We took the room. Eventually, we did walk up close enough to the lower slopes to see that relatively dingy building in the distance was the Doriza. But by then we were glad to have missed it. See, everything will work out just fine.

We waded in the water and found a lovely sea shell but the pebbles and fist-sized smooth rocks were much too hard to walk on—even with flip flops. Our ocean adventure lasted about 10 minutes and consisted only of “ouch, ouch, ouch” as we tried to walk on all fours in the cold water. We only managed to wet our wrists and shins, and decided to look for a little something to eat.

Walking back along the little dusty street toward Skala we found a sidewalk café down an even smaller alley. Our table had already been staked out by a spectacular collection of cats, but they didn’t seem to mind our joining them. We ordered the “appetizer sampler” for €10 and added a carafe of wine and more Mythos Beer. On the sampler there was bread of course, two kinds of hummus, feta cheese, yogurt, fried eggplant, fried zuccini, enormous shrimp (fried, with their shells on!), fried banana peppers, cucumbers, beets, and mystery meat balls. The shrimp had me stumped. They were coated in a light batter but completely un-cleaned (in the American sense) with their heads and tails still on . . . under the batter. It was obvious we were supposed to eat everything but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat the heads or the legs. I did crunch manfully away at everything else though. I guess it supplied all the roughage I’ll ever need. Georgia pretended to love them. Our cat friends definitely loved the heads I offered when the grumpy young waiter wasn’t looking. We wished them a “kalaimera” “good morning,” though it was actually getting to be late afternoon, but they didn’t seem to mind the obvious faux pas, and we took our leave. Greek cats are very forgiving of conversational indelicacies.

A few more minutes of exploration to locate another restaurant for supper and we headed back to the Scirroco. We definitely wanted to be in our seats, front row, center, when the curtain went up on sunset (or does it come down?) Either way it really was beautiful. Amazing oranges and reds and violets to go with the ever-present blues of sky and water. We sat at our octagonal table, sipped more Mythos Beer and wrote postcards home. I even tried to add some little water colors sketches to a few. I wanted to get some use from having smuggled my paint set through the various airport security stations. After dark we headed back for the restaurant we’d staked out. We should have rejoined our little company of cats instead.

(to be continued)


Sunset from our balcony

Georgia & Zig

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10/3/06-10/4/06 - Greece - My Pilgrimage on Patmos

We should have known that it wasn’t going to be a good dining experience when we couldn’t catch the waitress’s eye. We were out on the sidewalk and thought that perhaps we were just too far away from the action so we moved up onto the deck just outside the restaurant’s main doors. There seemed to be slightly less cigarette smoke outside. We picked one of the tables for four. The owner’s daughter still ignored us, no mistaking the family resemblance. She was tired and cranky and had had enough tourists to last her all of her roughly 17 years. But we were hungry. Under duress she took our order.

The lamb chop was tasty but overcooked. The stuffed baked potato was good too, but it came with rice and French fries (!?) and that was a bit too much starch for me. The house wine wasn’t any good either; Georgia said it seemed to be flavored with turpentine, the natural Retsina taste all alcohol has on the islands. And the daughter substituted a much larger carafe than we ordered. When we asked for an empty water bottle to carry away the extra she never returned. We finally borrowed an empty bottle from the next table. As we were leaving the owner brought us a complementary dessert of melon and we appreciated the effort but would never go there again.

The queen-sized bed felt wonderful and we slept with the French doors wide open. The soft pounding of the wine-dark sea put me right to sleep. The Retsina-flavored wine and Mythos Beer probably didn’t hurt either.

October 3, 2006, Wednesday: St John’s Monastery

Slept late, missed the early bus and decided to walk up the mountain to the Monastery. Georgia had walking directions from the web printed out. We were to start from the “iron monger’s” shop. Evidently he’s gone to that great forge in the sky so we couldn’t turn down the alley by his shop. We had to start where we thought his shop might have been. I said it seemed to me that we couldn’t go much wrong as long as we kept moving upward. Georgia didn’t agree. Whichever way I suggested she didn’t like it. When I sweetly suggested that she pick the direction she declined, but did reserve the right, nay, obligation, to cast aspersions on any choice I might make.

When our winding path emerged from the alleys into a construction site she mutinied: “We’re going back to the dock!” As you might expect that order didn’t really set well with me but I didn’t say anything. I just followed silently as she fulminated about how much she hated being lost (where have I heard that before?), how stupid it was for us to just take off walking up a mountain, and how I should have listened to her when she told me I was making a mistake. I believe that these were the three basic themes but they were connected in an infinite loop and kept playing over and over and over as we made our way back to the bus stop at the dock. I could feel my eyes bulging. I was pretty sure my head would explode if I had to hear the loop again on the bus so I decided I needed a nice quiet walk in the mountains, alone. I handed Georgia 10 euros and told her I would meet her at the top. The last thing I heard was “We’ll never find each other up there!” I was willing to take that risk.

There are two basic routes up the mountain from Skala. We’d started up the narrow central road last time so I started up the wider shore road this time. It quickly became pretty steep and the temperature was climbing as well. About 500 yards up I found a place where a path joined the road. I took it and cut inland. It was haphazardly paved with those large volcanic stones and bordered by chest-high dry stone walls of the same material. Eventually the path just petered out into what appeared to be a concrete water run-off. I scrambled up this chute and popped out puffing and sweating at that same construction site that had overcome Georgia an hour before. I was pretty sure that this must be the path but construction traffic had evidently obliterated the track. Remembering my best childhood Tonto and Lone Ranger training I looked around for signs of a trail. I thought I could see where the grass was trampled right through the center of the site so pressed on.

Another couple of hundred yards of climbing and sweating and I wasn’t so sure. There wasn’t any wall bordering me and though I could see that people had been walking here and there I couldn’t see a “path,” just dry grass and scrub-brush in all directions. I ended up in what was clearly the overgrown and gone-to-seed backyard of a dilapidated stone house. Oh boy. I channeled Tonto again and noticed a locked gate with a low wall on either side. What does a gate signify? A PATH! I walked over, expecting to hop over the low wall and be back on my way, but when I arrived I saw that the wall wasn’t low at all. It was about six feet tall, only about 18 inches showed because the path on the other side was sunken! Either my side had built up over the centuries or the path on the other side had been carved down to the bedrock over the centuries. In either case I had to swing my leg out over the top of the wall and climb down to the path. Volcanic rock is very sharp. But that’s okay; I didn’t cut or scrape myself too badly. But I was very grateful my sweetie wasn’t with me. I don’t even want to think about trying to help her over and down that wall.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and started back up the mountain, very slowly, but it was clear I was going to arrive at the monastery. I could see the path winding back and forth above me as I was traveling along the ascending rim of a huge bowl. To my right the valley opened up all the way to our little apartment by the bay. To my left the main bay at Skala opened onto the broad Aegean. There was a beautiful four-masted sailing ship at anchor and I could see a string of tourist boats arriving and departing in a steady stream.

The path was clearly ancient but didn’t look as heavily traveled as I had expected. There were truly wicked-looking nettles and weeds sprouting up from between the rocks. Even with the heat I was glad to be wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

“Clop, clop, clop.” I looked up in surprise through the stinging mist of sweat to see a little donkey coming down the mountain picking his way over the rough stones and nettles. A tiny little leathery man in a Greek baseball cap was perched placidly on his back. “Kalei Miera,” I said, surprised at the apparition. “Kal’ Me’ra” he replied with a toothless grin. I motioned a question whether or not I could take his picture. He nodded vigorously and brushed off his shirt-front to spruce himself up. The donkey didn’t say anything, but didn’t seem especially happy to be just standing there. I only managed one sun-drenched photo when the donkey decided that the photo op was over and brushed past me on the narrow path and clopped around the corner.

Ahead, rising out of the barren rock and dried vegetation was a beautiful little sparkling white chapel. I knew there was a church built over the cleft in the rock where John heard the voice of God and dictated to his disciples standing nearby but this little building, about 10’ x 12, just didn’t seem big enough so I trudged on for another 20 minutes or so, eventually popping up on the road again, this time just outside the parking area for the monastery where the tour buses would park. MORE steps and winding streets through the little town of Hora and I stood, dripping sweat, outside the monastery door. The second person I saw was Georgia, who looked very relieved to see me. I think she was dreading trying to organize a Greek search party, though I’m sure she would have been up to the task.

What fun it was walking through the monastery taking photos of the lovely walls, amazing views of the sea all around, and cats. They were everywhere. They obviously had the run of the place and virtually owned the streets of Hora. The iconography we saw was stunning but I didn’t understand why it didn’t translate into painted glass windows. Virtually every inch of each Orthodox Church was covered in glass or stone mosaics but we saw maybe five colored-glass windows and they were boring! Just pieces of colored glass installed in place of clear glass in some small standard window. The sacred spaces were always so dark, maybe that’s why clear glass was always preferred. It’s too bad; the icons show that the artistic talent was certainly there.

A young postulant from New York City showed us around and expressed pleasure that I’d actually walked up from Skala: “A real pilgrim,” he said. We asked where the church housing the cleft was located. He lead us around a knot of tourists to the edge of the precipice and pointed it out, way inland from my path. I pointed out my route up the mountain and he said incredulously, “You walked up that way?” As always, I screwed up, but it came out okay.

As we walked the streets we found a very nice bakery and bought a cheese and tomato sandwich made from a long baguette. Georgia got a spinach pastry and we shared another Mythos beer with feet swung over the wall. No wonder pilgrims had come here for millennia. Except for the occasional wave of tourists disgorged from the boats and buses the whole scene was full of peace. We saw a young German couple wrestling a baby carriage up and down the stairs trying not to waken their little charge. We felt very grateful to have our children grown and flown.

On the way down, just above the parking lot, we found two stone masons repairing a part of the pathway torn up to lay a pipe of some sort. The man in charge was carefully rolling jagged stones the size of basketballs around looking for flat areas, and measuring with a practiced eye how deeply the ground would have to be dug out to “plant” each. Both men worked very slowly about the speed I walked up the mountain, “but their work is also going to last for a very long time,” I said. They didn’t mind having their picture taken and in broken English wanted to know where we were from. They seemed genuinely pleased to think of their picture in Lex-ing-tong Ken-took-kay.

We crossed the parking lot and started down the path in earnest. Ahead of us making very slow progress was the German couple with the baby stroller. The father was trying to roll over basketball-sized stones some other workman had buried a millennium or so ago. Given that he was at the edge of the precipice it didn’t look safe to me.

(to be continued)


Our Patmos Burro

Georgia & Zig

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10/4/06 - Greece - The Cave of the Apocalypse

I handed Georgia the camera and said I was going to see if I could help them. After a few polite protestations the mother took one side of the tray in front of the sleeping baby and I took the other. The father lifted the handles and the three of us carried sleeping Melina down the path. We were having such a good time learning about them and their little town in Switzerland (!) near Zurich that we walked right past the turnoff to the Cave of the Apocalypse. We were about 50 yards downhill when we discovered the mistake. There was some debate about whether or not to go back but I couldn’t imagine coming this far (about half-way around the world!) to give up because of a 50 yard detour! But the mother, Yvonne, and I switched sides to relieve our arms.

I’m really glad we went back. The chapel was dark and mysterious, with only candles and two small windows to light the 20’ x 20’ room. It was absolutely packed with tourists, so packed, in fact, that it was difficult to move, but they really do come and go in waves. We had only to stand in a corner for a few minutes and they all cleared out. The crevice in the wall was round and at floor level, just big enough to put your head in while lying on your back. A solid silver filigreed corona had been attached to the stone arching over the hole and a smaller corona encircled a small niche 18” away that tradition says was used by the elderly beloved disciple as a handhold to help him stand again after a dictation session.

The whole scene gave me chill bumps. There were two orthodox nuns, dressed all in black, sitting on benches in the back of the holy gloom. I almost stepped on them as they prayed. The Greek pilgrims were exquisite as they moved from icon to icon. The low murmur of prayer, the slight sheen of perspiration from the heat, the bobbing and genuflecting. There was an open gospel displayed on an ornate lectern. It was covered with plastic because each and every pilgrim had to bend and kiss the book as they progressed around the room.

Very moving. However the Gospel of John or the Book of the Apocalypse came to be written, this very 20 x 20’ obscure Greek piece of rock, known only as a place of exile in the ancient world, became one of the centers of the world. I’ve always known and loved books and my belief in the power and importance of the written word has only been increased by my years in publishing. The fragility of books and many pitfalls in the writing process itself are often overlooked. We somehow imagine that books and writing should be everywhere. But it’s not always been like that. In early centuries little was written, and much was lost. Could there have been a book more influential than the Bible? And yet, had it ever fallen out of favor for a generation it too could have been easily lost. And here, in this very room, at the edge of the civilized world, somehow by the grace of God, two very important parts of that book were born. One man, trying to hear what God was saying, and trying manfully, to commit it to writing, wrote things so important that nearly two thousand years later we were here paying our respects.

Little Melina was awake now and what a captivating 18-month old she was! She’d had a great nap and was now everywhere at once and into everything. We sat outside the chapel on a wall and just visited for 20 or 30 minutes while she explored her world then we all started down the mountain again. This time it was easy for Dejan and me to carry the empty stroller while Yvonne carried Melina and visited with Georgia.

Both of them spoke English very well though not quite as well as Daniel and Sofia but I enjoyed hearing the story of Dejan’s family escaping to Switzerland as refugees from Croatia and how he now had a great job with a company making medical stents, catheters, and pacemakers. They asked if they could buy us a drink when we got back to Skala before they caught their ferry to Samos. I told them my theory about jokes that you can tell a lot about a culture by what makes them laugh and what makes them angry. Different cultures find different things infuriating and hilarious. We all had a good laugh at the fact that Daniel and Sofia hadn’t been able to think of even one weak joke. That seemed pretty illustrative of the Swedes.

I told them the joke I heard from a Chinese couple: A grandfather was disciplining his grandson by making him stand out in the hot sun. This made the boy’s father furious, so he decided to get even by punishing the old man’s son the same way; he went out and stood in the hot sun beside the boy! Hmmm? Interesting subject for a culture where family ties and respect for elders is so dominant. Dejan’s joke left us in stitches, as much because he was having such a difficult time with the translation as because of the joke itself. We all helped make sense of it through pantomime, German, English, and a sprinkling of French: “Three naked men are sitting in a sauna when they hear a phone ring. One of the three pulls back a flap of skin on his chest and removes his pacemaker. He talks into it to the surprise of his companions. He hangs up and explains that since he was going to have a pacemaker installed anyway he decided to combine features and have it double as a phone. Just then another phone rings and the second man lifts up his towel and pulls a phone out of a pouch on his hip. ‘I was having a hip-implant anyway and you know how hard it is to have a convenient place to keep a cell phone.’ Just then another phone rings and the third man drops his towel and walks into the bathroom. He comes back in a few minutes with paper trailing out from his bottom. ‘You have some toilet paper stuck to your ass’ the friends tell him. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘but that’s just a fax coming in.’” Evidently Switzerland is becoming the center of a European Silicon Valley and it both loves and fears the pace of change.

We sat in the largest outdoor bistro at the dock in Skala, enjoying our beer and moving our chairs periodically to avoid the sun, which was brutal, even in early October. Hard to imagine what it would be like in July and August. No wonder the old men have skin like fine leather. After exchanging email addresses we said good bye so they could do some shopping before catching their ferry. We wanted to explore the castle ruins at the top of a nearby mountain.

After our altercation over the hike up to the monastery I was surprised that Georgia was willing to scale another cliff but she was game and we took off. As in Santa Margherita climbing up mountains populated for millennia means that you quickly leave roads big enough for cars and quickly find yourself inside a warren of streets and semi-paved paths populated, it seems, by little schoolchildren and large cats. We saw cats of all colors and sizes between nests of tiny un-weaned kittens to solitary black hellcats the size (and character) of dwarf black panthers with eyes that glowed red in the dark recesses.

Soon the paving gave way to loose stone and we were picking our way up the mountain looking for a path of any kind over expanses of softball sized pieces of volcanic pumice and scrambling over and through walls made of large blocks. Another 100 yards of climb and Georgia sat down on a very large rock and said that she would wait here for me. The top was another couple hundred yards of hard climbing and as the mountain came to a point it also became steeper and rougher. Soon the only vegetation was some form of spider-lily that sent up no leaves at all—just a flower stalk covered with nickel-sized pale pink blossoms and that murderous nettle that only a donkey could love.

The mountain had several tops. Each was marked with a cairn of stones. I added two stones to one of them for Georgia and me and started slipping and sliding back down to where she was sitting on a boulder waiting. She didn’t hear me coming and I got a wonderful photo of her looking out over the town of Skala and the bay beyond. I could see water in three directions. Blue everywhere. No wonder that is the color for the Greek islands.

We made it back to town before it got too dark and decided on take-away at a little walkup pita stand. Wonderful yogurt sauce! We picnicked on our patio and watched the sun go down. I broke open my little bottle of ouzo, one sniff of the licorice flavored liquor and Georgia announced that I had the little bottle all to myself and that I’d better plan on sleeping facing away from her!

Another night of getting gently snockered while writing postcards. Washed some laundry and hung it on our clothes line then toddled off to bed. Tried to make sense of Italian television that was all we could pick up but I swear the game shows and soap operas are absolutely impenetrable. And American TV with Italian voices is just too peculiar for words. Must be similar for a Japanese couple watching “Godzilla” with dubbed in English. People’s mouths keep moving long after they’ve said “Oh dear, a big ugly monster!” Tonight we made a real effort to see the stars but the haze was just too dense and the village lights too bright.

October 5, Thursday

We were supposed to catch our ferry back to the Airport on Cos about 1pm so we used the morning to pack and look for a place to go swimming. The rocks in our bay were just impossible to walk on. There was a public beach right in Skala but the huge cruise ships and innumerable fishing boats made me skeptical that the water would be clean enough for a swim. Wrong! It was clear and beautiful, full of minnows and small fish. We had our bathing suits on under our clothes. I’m just not ready for the German habit of changing into trunks under a towel wrapped around my waist. The beach was very hard to walk on barefoot. Pumice, even in pea-sized gravel will just tear your feet up. Hey, I have an idea! Pumice should be used as an abrasive! And flip flops help the bottoms of your feet but when some of the fine pumice gets between your toes and that little toe-strap. Wow! Quick way to sandpaper off a digit. But the water, oh the water. It was like cool silk and so buoyant you could float easily without moving a muscle. Nature’s first waterbed.

Two elderly ladies splashing sedately in the water loved my grabbing a squealing Georgia and dragging her bodily out into chest-deep water. I don’t know that she particularly enjoyed it, but at least I made sure she could legitimately say that she went “swimming” in the Aegean. As I recall, I had to do the same thing in Hawaii, as well as the Island of Elbe. For someone who loves the ocean she sure hates the water. But one trip off shore was plenty for her and she gratefully returned to the shallows to sit on a rock(?) and splash happily.

I returned to my meditative floating, peaceful beyond description. And quiet. Although it’s kind of amazing how sound travels in water. Even 25 yards away with my ears completely submerged I could easily hear Georgia screaming in terror as if she were standing right beside me.

(to be continued)


Child Transport on Patmos

Georgia & Zig

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10/5/06 - Greece - Monsters of the Deep

It is not difficult to distinguish between Georgia’s squealing and her screaming. Because I’d drifted out beyond where I could actually stand on the bottom I rolled over into my best racing crawl and rocketed toward the shore, expecting, any instant, to encounter the shark that had somehow managed to sneak up on her in 6” of water! Instead, when I reached the shallows I heard the gentle laughter of our two elderly swimming compatriots. Georgia was standing in ankle-deep crystal-clear water that had unaccountably turned jet black. She was pointing down in horror. I could only just make out the form of what looked, for all the world, like a foot-long brown slipper zipping around in mad circles. At first I thought it might be an octopus or squid because of the ink, but it didn’t have any tentacles I could see. One of the Greek ladies laughed happily and told us what it was, reassuring us that it was completely harmless. Unfortunately, she spoke only Greek and we couldn’t understand a word. I think it must have been a cuttlefish, second cousin to the squids. Whatever, I’m pretty sure it was much more upset than Georgia, who said she was just sitting on her rock minding her own business when this bunny-slipper snuck up on her and nibbled her toes. That’s another problem with the ocean; it’s got “things” living in it that sneak up and nibble on you. Georgia decided that we’d had enough of the ocean for this trip.

Back at the apartment, we finished packing and headed for the dock, stopping only at our take-away stand for another little bite of something. Georgia got something from the sea to nibble on, for the sake of parity, though it wasn’t cuttlefish. We ate at the dock, sitting on a bench with an amazingly thin Englishman named Keith who’d retired from working backstage in the English theater. He said that Julie Christie was a joy to work with and that the stained glass in the Liverpool Cathedral was stunning. He was dedicating his retirement to traveling from Greek island to Greek island without itinerary. He’d just catch a ferry then decide where to stay when he arrived. He said each island had its own character and like the small towns of the Cinque Terre they even had their own special foods. He liked staying for a week or so to soak up the sun and enjoy the local dishes. He was as brown as a roasted coffee bean and seemed to be enjoying his retirement immensely.

On the catamaran we had a great time snickering at the “almost-English” signs tacked up around the cabin. Our favorite was attached to the back of the padded airline-type seats found inside the main lounge: “Please do not throw your litter at the front seat’s case.” That is food for thought.

Outside on the deck we saw a young French woman hanging on to her 10-year old boy. There was no father in sight and she was petrified that this boy, whose head could only just reach the top of the railing, was somehow going to slip through and plummet the 15 feet to the car deck below, or missing the car deck, drop like a stone into the turquoise Aegean. I don’t think he could have fallen if he wanted to and he seemed a sensible enough blond-headed kid to me, energetic, but not foolhardy. The mother, mouthing prayers and imprecations even went so far as to pick this kid up and help him stand on the railing to protect him! She was not a large woman, and their center of gravity was now dangerously high, clearly above the top of the railing and the boat continued to rock and pitch as it raced over the waves.

That was the only time I thought the boy might actually be in danger and I began the mental preparation for a quick dip. I’d certainly need to take off my shoes but what was the etiquette for modest heroism? Should I hand Georgia only my wallet before diving over the side? Or hand her my pants as well? Should I dive headfirst like Tarzan from the waterfall, “Aaaa-eeee-aaaah!” or just execute a pragmatic feet-first jump? Much less likely to sprain my back or knock myself out hitting the water. Should I shout, “Call 911!?” Probably wouldn’t mean anything to the Greek crew. “Man overboard!” may or may not mean anything either but the distraught mother would probably raise enough alarm to get the ship stopped. Hmmm. What if she jumped in the water too? She might not trust me to save her little boy and then I’m going to have to contend with saving both of them. I don’t think my French is up to explaining to a distraught mother bobbing in the water that her attempts to save her son are probably going to drown him and me and her as well. What’s the French word for “drown” anyway? Why didn’t I pay more attention in high school? They must have covered drowning the afternoon I completely blew away daydreaming. That’s the trouble with high school kids, they think they can tell at sixteen what is and what is not going to be useful to them when they get to their 50s. Mrs. Atkinson, I’m sorry I dozed through your class on “saving drowning French kids while explaining to distraught mothers bobbing in the Aegean that their efforts are only making a bad situation worse.” I just didn’t know I’d need it.

Luckily the kid had more sense than his mother and asked to be put down. All of us were relieved, I’m sure. When we docked at Kos we intended to walk back to the Koala (a pretty good hike from the docks) but that dockside entrepreneur who forced his card on us “for next time you visit Kos” met us again and wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer this time. He dogged us on his motorbike: “only €40, my hotel is right around the corner!” I told him Koala was only €25 and pretty close to the bus stop. He said “OK! I’ll do €30 and call you a taxi in the morning to take you to the bus stop. I asked how much the taxi was going to cost us. He said maybe another €25. I told him we weren’t interested, walking from the Koala was much cheaper, like free. He disappeared. “Free” is a better talisman than the evil eye (which we saw everywhere in Greece) for warding off evil entrepreneurs.

We stood at the intersection of four or five streets trying to determine from our little island map which road we wanted. Suddenly, our motorbike mogul was back, this time in a beat-up four-door jalopy. “Come on, I’ll show you my hotel, Hotel Marie, €30, and I’ll give you a ride to the bus stop in the morning.” I gave up and we got in. His hotel was just around the corner and it wasn’t bad. He bounded up the stairs without even checking us in, handed us the room key, showed us the view from the balcony and showed us his mother’s door. “Just knock on it, tap tap tap, in the morning and she’ll drive you to the bus stop. He pointed out his mother and an elderly aunt sitting at a round patio table out front then sprinted for his motorbike to catch another tourist or two. “Kalei Meira,” I told them, completely exhausting my Greek vocabulary. “Kalei ______” they corrected me because the sun was clearly going down. We smiled at each other uncertainly, and I pantomimed my admiration for her son’s “go-gettum” spirit. The universal hand sign for “talk, talk, talk” made them both laugh. We all knew that Kaliel will someday own most of Kos.

Georgia had already booked our flight to Athens so we knew we didn’t have time for any snafus in the morning. I suggested we walk from the hotel to the bus stop so that we could time it and then know how long we could wait for Mama before we had to hoof it. If we missed the early morning plane there wouldn’t be another until the evening and I was anxious to see Athens. It was a very pleasant walk through the oldest parts of the city, right through the center of the Agora, or public market, always the center of Greek civic life. What a bedlam of families and children, fruit stalls, souvenirs, olive oil, nuts, cookies, honey, and exotic spices. Completely a pedestrian area. It only took us 15 minutes to walk to the bus stop, so even if we added time for pulling the carry-ons there wasn’t likely to be a problem catching the bus, even if Mama let us down.

Satisfied with Plan B, we headed back to the Agora to shop but ended up on a spooky side street while looking for a restaurant. A very bedraggled homeless man was setting up his bivouac in a vacant lot. Heading back toward a more well-lit thoroughfare we happened on a The Restaurant Emelie with a tempting menu. That is to say it advertised octopus and Georgia, still incensed with her earlier run-in with that clan, wanted more toothsome revenge on the octopus world. We shared a bottle of local wine, and I had roasted chicken. It came with rice and potatoes. What’s with this Greek love-affair with starch? We were the only customers and when I made motions to leave the owner brought us dessert and coffee to keep us from going. He, meanwhile, was spending every available moment trolling for tourists on the street. I decided that he, too, would someday own most of Kos. But Kaliel definitely had the age advantage. When both of us got up and looked longingly at the exit the owner decided he’d have to let us go, he’d snagged a party of five after all and didn’t need us anymore, we’d become expendable.

Back in the Agora we pinched fruit and smelled smells and watched the families taking the air. Glorious.

10/6/06: Friday: Kos to Athens

Seven a.m. sharp we tapped on Mama’s door. She popped out immediately, smiling so brightly the sun blushed in shame. We hopped in her Mercedes (!) and made a quick dash up a one-way street the wrong way. It didn’t even take us five minutes to get to the bus stop. We still had 30 minutes to wait for our bus so we walked to a nearby coffee-shop for more “take-away.”

When the bus arrived it was the same driver as before and this time I noticed that he crossed himself extravagantly before we left and crossed himself as we passed each little roadside shrine—and there were a lot of them. Like the worst stretches of some of our country roads, but not content with just putting up a cross and a teddy bear, the Greeks build little play-house-sized chapels. Then I noticed that his seat and dashboard were chock full of icons, family pictures, prayer beads, and memorabilia. And he nodded to each bus we passed on the road. There were obviously many threads in his life, woven into complex patterns with those around him, both living and the dead. I suspect that his world, though it looked dry and brittle to me was actually very lush and rich. We miss a lot when we judge others by what seems normal to us.

The plane ride to Athens was somewhat depressing, only because each island was covered by its own little bowl of “volcanic smoke.” It should all be crystal blue and white, not hazy sooty gray.

The Metro train at the Athens airport was built for the ’04 Olympics and un-marked except for “Klark” who managed to express himself by desultorily scratching his name on each and every window pane. Half the 30-minute trip to downtown Athens was spent in the open air and half subterranean. Like other public transportation systems we’d seen it was clean, quiet, and fast. We got off the train at Monasteriki street and went up four or five or six flights of escalators to reach ground level. You felt like you were surfacing from some enormous depth, and you were. I thought we were going to get the bends. And we left behind the clean, quiet, fast, ideal world of security cameras and immaculate security guards rousting sleeping teenagers for the real world of filthy, noisy, grid-locked streets where you had to walk around the dogs cleaning themselves unashamedly on the sidewalks. But the city was alive! I loved it all. The metro felt cold and lifeless and somehow monstrous. You’d never find a can of spray-paint down there. But up here . . .

(to be continued)


Georgia overlooking the bay at Skalla

Georgia & Zig

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10/6/06 - Greece - Athens
Everything the subway system is, clean, quiet, and fast, the streets are not. They are filthy, deafening, and choked with both pedestrians and cars. But they are alive! And the depths of the subway system are not. We surfaced in the district called Monasteriki, on the fringe of the Plaka named for the famous red-tiled roofs.

Our hotel, Attalos, was only about two blocks away and had the appearance of a box of spaghetti standing on end. It was probably seven stories tall and had maybe 40 or 50 feet of frontage on the street. But like Dr. Who’s Tardis or Snoopy’s doghouse it was much larger inside than it was on the outside. Over the centuries they must have obtained the property behind the stores facing the road because once you climbed the flight of circular stairs immediately past the miniscule front desk you were lost in a maze of hallways and stairs and public rooms and rooftop gardens. Amazing, and our room was very comfortable, though the bathrooms still claimed you weren’t supposed to put any paper in the toilet, just this weird little diaper pail beside the potty. Ick.

Because I thought it was threatening rain I wanted us to head for the Acropolis right away. Though pooped, Georgia gamely agreed. The streets, especially the Plaka, were essentially at a standstill as the throng of people surged in both directions at once. It was an artery where the blood was trying to flow in both directions simultaneously. Tiny little stores crammed to bursting with trinkets and restaurants spilling tables out onto a street about the size of a normal sidewalk. Shilling entrepreneurs everywhere, each trying to herd tourists into their restaurant or store. Absolute bedlam, but bedlam in the most picturesque setting imaginable. Cobblestone streets, pastel (adobe?) walls, red-tiled roofs, exotic smells and sounds, huge dogs lazing on street corners oblivious to the crowds, occasional car trying to force themselves through the crowds, and presiding above it all was the serene Acropolis, ancient home of the Parthenon.

Ancient before Christ was born when Alexander offered the philosopher Diogenes anything his heart could desire. Ancient even hundred of years earlier when Socrates cross-questioned his fellow citizens in the futile attempt to disprove the oracle who thought that no one was wiser than he was. He knew that he was not wise and thought that the oracle must surely be wrong. But oracles are never wrong. They may be ambiguous. They may be hard to understand or easily misunderstood, but they are not ever wrong. And my oracle told me we needed to climb today, not wait for tomorrow. So up we went. Oh, my God, what a climb. Like Patmos again, but this time at least the path was smooth asphalt. The Greeks, it would seem, were even more insistent than the Italians that all the really important places on earth needed to be at the tops of the mountains, above the clamor of our petty, mundane, comings and goings, and red-roofed shopping centers.

It turns out we needn’t have worried about rain but here in Athens we were given another of those presents that made this entire trip a trip of gifts. As we rounded one of the many corners on the path we found ourselves overlooking an ancient amphitheater, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. It had been partially refurbished with new marble and a symphony orchestra appeared to be going through a dress-rehearsal of O Mio Babbino Caro, “O my dear Daddy,” by far the most famous and most beautiful melody from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. There must have been two dozen of us standing silently at the flimsy chain link fence looking almost straight down at the stage. And I saw not just a few tears coursing down cheeks, Greek cheeks, German cheeks, Chinese cheeks, Korean cheeks, African cheeks, Georgia’s cheeks.

Diogenes, the philosopher who went about with a lantern “looking for an honest man” sought simplicity and gave away all his possessions except one pot and a wine barrel. He figured he could cook with the pot and also use it to scoop up his water, and the wine barrel would make a perfectly good home. His fellow Athenians ridiculed this “The Temple of Diogenes” and he took the ridicule to heart. One night out under the stars he realized that raw food was delicious and his hands made a perfectly good “cup.” His skin, he said, was waterproof, so he gave away the barrel as well. When his fellow citizens asked him where his temple was he would sweep his arms above his head and indicate the vaults of heaven. “You are standing in my temple!” he exclaimed. And Alexander, conqueror of the world, stopped by on horseback to offer him anything his heart could desire. Looking up from the dust at the thirty-year-old conqueror of the world Diogenes replied that in that case he’d like for him to get out of his sunlight. In only two or three years he was. And his eternal empire didn’t last much longer.

And here I was, standing in the temple of Diogenes, soaking up precious sunlight, walking paths that Socrates certainly knew, and listening to truly eternal music that has captured the hearts of all people without ever firing a shot. It was all so lovely my eyes filled with tears and then I turned and saw the Parthenon behind and above me overlooking everything. It was too many glories for me all at once, Puccini, the Parthenon, Socrates’ pathways, a city ancient when the streets of Rome were first laid out, and a wife hugging me who loved it all as much as I did.

It’s said that being pure disembodied intelligence the angels cannot understand what it’s like to be a human being. Without bodies the innocent pleasures that come through sense experience are lost on them. I’m so thankful to have been born with eyes to see and ears to hear and I’m glad to serve a Lord who also knows the joys and sorrows of having a body.

I knew I would be impressed with Athens but the Parthenon meant more to me than I expected. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate age more. What a cliché, but then something seldom becomes a cliché if it’s false. The unimaginable age of Greek civilization wedded to the even more ancient insights of the Hebrews have guided Western Civilization for many thousands of years. Sometimes I’m afraid for the future. The attempt to divorce reason from “the Divine” can only lead to disaster. Rationality is ultimately just the adjustment of means to ends. It’s a tool; and tools, as we know, can be used for both good or evil ends. Nietzsche even went so far as to divorce good and evil itself from the Divine. We seem to be working out the consequences of a philosophy of radical individualism and separation. As each little piece of “civilization” drops away it must even make the angels weep. They do not know sense experience, but they know God. We have eyes and ears and human reason. We can therefore know the world and the Divine (through a glass darkly) because we bear the image of each in our very selves. Denying either will lead us to be less than we could be. That’s what we seem to be doing. What lies ahead worries me but I know it doesn’t worry God, so I guess if He isn’t worried I shouldn’t worry. And I know that the Parthenon has seen any number of “civilizations” come and go. It doesn’t look worried either.

Had wine that evening up on the rooftop garden of the Attalos, where there was a beautiful view of the Acropolis by moonlight.

Saturday, 10/7/06

Finally found directions to Notis Art Glass in Athens. It was off the bus line and the first time we visited Rome we were completely intimidated at the prospect of visiting anywhere that required navigating local streets, but being old world travelers now we set off without a care in the world. Well, one of us was careless. One of us was much more careful. Between us we make a good traveling pair. The hotel had a free Internet connection and we were able to print off a map. It looked like Notis was within walking distance. They had a phone number too, but there was no way I was going to try to call anyone on the phone. Phones in foreign countries require actually being able to converse without pointing and gesturing and pantomiming. I’m just not up to that yet.

The walk was a piece of cake. Athens’ city streets are just like those of any really large city. That is to say they were filthy. The walls of the buildings were all tagged with graffiti. There were occasional knots of homeless people and beggars. There were mysterious little alleyways, and tiny little gardens tucked into impossibly small spaces. There were window boxes on the windows, chewing gum on the sidewalks, birds twittering in trees, parks with monuments to people I’ve never heard of, and horns beeping on the major thoroughfares. But we were on one of the much more quiet side streets. We passed charming little bakeries and had to stop for samples. The display cases were filled with delicious-looking and beautiful pastries. The smells were heavenly. We had no idea what we were pointing at, but everything we sampled was scrumptious. Have I ever told you how much I love wandering in the places where the people actually live, away from the tourist areas? I really love wandering in the places where people actually live, away from the tourist areas.

Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, with no hint of rain. We walked through an enormous park that seemed more like a botanical garden, stopped at a garden café for a little bit of something, then emerged across the street from the Government House. Saw a wonderful changing of the guard, with very macho military guards wearing little tutus and red shoes with tassels the size of fuzzy car dice. They stood immobile, like the guards outside Buckingham Palace, and like the guards outside Buckingham Palace they were constantly annoyed by tourists wanting to be in photographs with them. Whenever one would become too pesky they would slam the metal-jacketed butt of their rifle on the sidewalk, much like a horse will use its tail to shoo away bothersome flies. This “bam” would also summon the captain of the guard who would lead the offenders away. A bus full of Japanese tourists reminded me of the clouds of gnats that used to worry us almost to death in Savannah. The poor guards would disappear in a swarm until an occasional “bam” would temporarily send them scattering.

The sidewalk cafes were populated by the early morning sidewalk superintendents, who passed judgment on all the women walking by. They used whistles and appreciative catcalls as impromptu score cards. I was very proud to be walking with a definite “10.”

Notis was down a short flight of stairs in what would have been a brownstone basement in New York City. Here it was a chalky color. The owner was chain-smoking in front of very modern, very powerful computer. I introduced myself, showed him a brochure, and we talked shop as best we could with his limited English and my Greek limited to “Good day.” We looked over each other’s websites for 15 or 20 minutes. He doesn’t do very much traditional glass, preferring installations where the pieces of glass are laminated together with modern polymers. That lets him have panels with colors touching each other with no intervening dark line of lead or mortar. It gives you opportunities you can’t have with traditional glass and you can make some truly monumental glass sculptures. We saw a gigantic man striding down one of the main boulevards. He must have been 60 or 70 feet tall and made entirely of huge sheets of plate glass glued together to make an enormous transparent lamination. It was, unfortunately, very dirty and not really transparent any more. Huge pieces of dirty glass don’t look any better than small pieces of dirty glass do. Gargantua badly needs a shower. Maybe a fire-fighting helicopter could bomb him with Windex?

Anyway, one of Notis’ major installations was located at the President’s Hotel, a few miles down the road. Georgia was not thrilled at the prospect of taking a bus even farther outside the little tourist enclave but Greek bus schedules and times are no more confusing than Roman ones, so we survived, though we did get off the bus two or three stops too soon and had to walk a long stretch in the hot Greek sun. We did, however, find the President’s Hotel and the bar where the glass was installed in the ceiling. The lights were not turned on and you really couldn’t see the design well. I asked the bartender if he could turn them on for us. He said he couldn’t, as he didn’t know how to. I showed him one of my business cards, explained that we’d come a very long way to see this particular piece, and gave him a sizeable tip. He somehow found the light switch, figured out how to work it, and we sipped our cocktails under the light of a very modern variation of Van Gogh’s Starry-Starry Night accomplished in laminated glass. Very lovely.

Our European trip was definitely beginning to wind down. Tomorrow we would leave for Milan where we’d catch the plane home to Kentucky, but we’d seen all the things we’d really wanted to see and decided to just ease ourselves gently through our last day of sight-seeing. I had no idea that there was one last gift waiting for us.

(to be continued)


Gianni Schicchi practice

Georgia & Zig

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10/7/06 - Greece - Athens to Casa Nuova

We had such a good time meandering back up the Acropolis (yesterday’s ticket was still valid) and visiting the spectacular museum there, then back round and round in Plaka grazing on various treats and buying souvenir trinkets. Pictures of everything. Georgia standing in front of a wonderful wall of handmade sandals. Some of the graffiti, as I’ve said earlier, is much closer to public art than territory-marking. It’s always bizarre and post-modern but nevertheless very beautiful and exotic. Very different from what we saw in Italy. There needs to be a book dedicated to the regional variations in this most idiosyncratic and personal of art forms. We visited several of the outdoor museums of antiquity that were outdoor museums of antiquity when Napoleon’s army came through about the time the United States was born.

At a Gyro Restaurant a group of Canadians told us to order from the take-away window to save a lot of money. I recognized them from the computer room at the Attalos, so we invited ourselves to join them on the roof garden there for an al fresco picnic. We shared our collection of international jokes and they had to make a contribution: “Q: What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A: Canadians don’t tip.” Bob thought that was funny because, as a matter of fact, “Canadians are very good tippers!” he said.

As we sat on the veranda we could see a thunderstorm moving in off the water. No wonder the Greeks thought of Zeus as a hairy thunderer. The lightening flashes and distant booms were very impressive, especially with the Acropolis as a backdrop. After 30 or 40 minutes of preamble the rain let go all around us. And what rain! Buckets of rain. We moved, naturally enough, into the bar and continued visiting over many Mythos beer. One of the ladies was a breast-cancer survivor and shared a pink bracelet with Georgia. Awareness of death not only adds spice to life, it reminds us that life is short and we can either spend it on the couch in front of a football game or (if you seriously save up money) sipping Mythos beer on an Athens hotel rooftop in a thunderstorm with lightening flashes and peals of thunder all around the Acropolis. Very impressive, but still not our last gift.

Sunday, 10/8/06, Athens to Milan

The Alitalia jet from Athens to Milan served the best coffee! And the food was actually delicious, far better than the Aegean Airlines’ “Cheez Whiz covered Spam in a Blanket.” We spent the trip working on our trip journal, you forget things so very quickly. Even jotted notes can help you remember glories, so we quizzed each other on what happened where and tried to write it all down.

When we landed in Milan I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how to call our nearby hotel to ask for the shuttle bus. It was really embarrassing. I couldn’t tell how much the phone cost. I tried to ask at the information booth but she didn’t speak English well and thought I just wanted to use her phone. Like people everywhere she couldn’t believe that I didn’t understand how to use something that was so very familiar to her. All I needed to know was how much it cost and what numbers I needed to punch into the phone. After about four or five tries with the credit card (six or seven dollars eventually showed up on my bill!) I stopped a pedestrian, explained what I wanted and she showed me what numbers to punch, and showed me the slot where I was supposed to put my €.25, about a quarter! No wonder the information clerk thought I was an idiot. The hotel sent their van in about 10 minutes and five minutes later we were unloading our suitcases in a very comfortable room at the Hotel Ristorante Cervo, in the little village of Casa Nuova.

It was now about three or4 pm, but we were hungry and asked the desk clerk where we could get a snack. He said he doubted the café was open this early but showed us the little road into the center of town. Actually it was the only road in sight. You would have to work to get lost in Casa Nuova. We walked the four or five blocks and found the café, but it wasn’t open yet. At the next corner the road turned, and went through the house walls as if into a medieval castle, and we found ourselves walking toward the village church a half block away down a dusty little street.

I thought we’d see if there was an afternoon mass. We’d somehow not been able take mass as often as we had during our last trip and I was feeling somewhat guilty about that. The little church was dark and cool, with only the red candle by the ark winking in the twilight. We saw some other ladies also looking around and asked them if they knew of a mass. They directed us to the parish bulletin board where we saw a notice about a “Festa Castagnaccio” I recognized the word for “festival,” but wouldn’t recognize a castagnaccio if I tripped over one. Whatever it was it was happening today. To the right of the bulletin board, beside the church there was an empty parking lot and at the back of the parking lot someone had set up a large tent, rather like a circus tent. Under the tent we could see a food booth being assembled. I immediately started walking toward the tent. Georgia, careful one that she is, grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?” she demanded, as if there were alternative destinations in sight. I gestured toward the tent as obvious. “I don’t think we’re allowed in there” she said. As I’ve said somewhere before, I’m somewhat the “careless” one and Georgia is somewhat the “careful” one in our little bobsled team of life. There are times I just scare her to death, and there are times I can only look at her with amazement. Terror and Amazement: the two keys to a successful marriage. “Here we have a church ‘Festival’ obviously intended to raise money and we are people with money . . .” “Not much money,” she interjected. “How much money?” I asked. “We have €30,” she said, “and we ought to save 10 for incidentals at the airport tomorrow.” “Ok, that means we’ve got €20 burning a hole in our pocket,” I continued “and they, I’m sure, would love for us to leave those €20 with them!” She wasn’t listening. Whenever I start one of my witty and erudite pieces of badinage she tunes me out and hears only “Blah, blah, blah, wah, wah, wah.” Terror, Amazement, and the ability to tune out your spouse when they get pompous. “What are they doing?” she interrupted, looking at a group of four or five people sitting around a picnic table with tiny little short-bladed knives. They were making short cuts in lumpy, black, oversized acorns. At another table a couple were apparently eating these same nuts from a small brown paper bag. We tried to ask a lady behind the make-shift counter what was going on. Her English was no better than my Italian so she called over a high school girl to translate. The high school girl knew how to say “Good Morning” and “Good Afternoon,” but if you wanted to say anything else you were pretty much at a standstill. She must be paying as much attention in the English classes as I did in French. But she did gesture toward the back of the tent where a hairy-armed sweating man was stirring a huge witch’s cauldron with a canoe paddle.

Before we went to investigate we thought we might need a little fortification. “Vino roso?” Georgia asked. “Si, e bianca,” she replies. So we get a glass of each, and were surprised to see that they drew the wine directly from some little wine barrels. No bottles at this festa!

We wandered over to see what’s in the cauldron, probably stew of some sort. But no, it’s the mysterious little lumpy acorns. We asked what they are called and are told that these are the mysterious Castagnaccio I wouldn’t recognize if I fell over them. Chestnuts! Roasting over an open fire. Very cool, and Jack Frost isn’t even nipping at our noses, though it is getting cooler and we didn’t wear our jackets to the festival. We didn’t expect to be gone from the hotel very long.

We sat at one of the tables and sipped our wine. The high-school girl brought us a bag of the chestnuts hot from the fire. The little slits give you a way to open the nut without chewing through the husk like a squirrel. Interesting flavor, but very dry. Kind of nutty, but softer than I expected. Dryness was the main thing. You could almost feel the nuts sucking all the water out of your system. They were not salty, of course, but definitely increased your thirst. They wouldn’t begin serving food for another hour and a half. I chased my wine with a large mug of beer also tapped from a large keg. Mmmm! I thought it was only the Germans who knew how to do beer. Wrong! And beer does a really good job of moistening chestnuts. We finished our free bag and bought another. Another beer or two and it wasn’t just the weather that seemed to be getting a little nippy. “We’d better go get our jackets,” my careful sweetie said. Made sense to me. It was still thirty minutes until they started serving and a brisk walk back to the hotel might clear my unaccountably fuzzy head. Must be all the chestnuts.

In the parking lot a teen-aged boy had set up a booth of some sort. Looks like “go fish” to me where kids are given fishing poles and told to drape the line over the screen where they can catch something. The boy rattled off his spiel to us as we walked by. I told him in my best drunken dialect that we only speak “very tiny” Italian. The boy’s eyebrows nearly climbed off his forehead, “English!” he exclaimed wiping his face as if to clear away his own cobwebs. He jumped up and down and turned around in an effort to force his hard-won English proficiency to the surface of consciousness. No use. He looked for all the world like he bit his tongue. His stuttering and stammering augment the impression. He wiped his face in distress trying manfully to force the words out. It’s hopeless. He knew he knows what he wants to say but can’t say it. Isn’t that just the way? The poor Mrs. Atkinsons of the world try diligently to teach us how to say “You just drape the fish line over the curtain and you’ll catch something” and all we end up remembering is that there is some way to say what we want to say but we have no clue what that way is. In mercy, I handed him a euro and he gratefully handed me a fishing pole. On my very first cast he talked to the cardboard waves and we miraculously caught a bag of rubber balls that our granddaughter will enjoy, and a bottle of shampoo that I know we won’t be able to take on the plane. We thank him for the gifts and he proudly tells us we are “Welcomed.” The 10 minute walk back to the motel to pick up our jackets and drop off our booty does help clear my head.

A line began to form while we got our jackets. There’s a menu, handwritten on poster board hung from the ceiling. The prices were all clearly marked but there’s a mistake, everything was written in Italian! Georgia recognized “Calamari,” and still stung by her vicious sneak-attack in Patmos she knew what she wants to order. I’m at a loss so reverted to the “Questo e questo” style of pointing at things, and got a pitcher of red wine. We handed them our money and they gave us a piece of paper with a number on it. Luckily the number was written in “English” but they were calling them out in “Italian.” Sigh. We were going to starve.

A friendly Italian man said we should sit and wait and watch for our number on an electronic sign. It worked! We didn’t starve! Our pitcher of wine came first. First things first, you know. And this pitcher was not a “carafe,” it was a “PITCHER!” What a great appetizer wine makes. Loosens your tongue and everything. Pretty soon we were showing pictures of our kids and grandkids to the people around us, and they were doing the same. We were slipping into and out of Italian and they were slipping into and out of English. It’s like Pentecost all over again. We seem to understand each other perfectly. In vino veritas.

Georgia tells me the calamari is delicious. I’m sure that whatever I had it was delicious too, but about that time a large family group sat down beside us. Mario introduced himself to us. He also introduced us to his Wife, his Sister, his brother-in-law, “My good friend, Mario,” his children, and his grand-children, some subset of which were also Mario. He seems to work for the government in international development but his English was not impeccable and my ears seemed to be stuffing up with chestnut residue. All the sounds seemed to be coming from a great distance. There was a lot of laughter, the tent was now stuffed with people and Mario tells us the dancing isn’t going to begin for several more hours. He insisted we try little bits of everyone’s dishes. Everything was marvelous, unpronounceable, unforgettable, and I’ve completely forgotten them. All, that is, except for the “butter Stew” he insisted we taste.

He had a pile of what seemed to be barbecue or hash in a tomato sauce on his plate and insisted we take a forkful. When I asked what it is he replied that it is “Burro,” which I know is Italian for “Butter.” It certainly doesn’t look like butter so I say “Burro? Mooooo!?” and he laughed, “No, Burro, EEEyah, Eeeyah,” and waggled his fingers above his head to simulate long floppy ears. Donkey?? We’re having donkey stew? Georgia looked surprised. Mario, thinking we might be upset hurried to reassure us that “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s not Italian donkey, it’s from Bulgaria!” For after-dinner Mario goes to the counter for some caffe correcto, corrected coffee, corrected with liquor that is. When he returned he also brings us little glasses of limoncello, the syrupy, lemon flavored liquor that will put you on your backside in a heartbeat even without caffe correcto. I think Mario must be playing a game of “Let’s get the tourists drunk.” He won. Hands down. I don’t remember anything else from that evening except walking back down a little darkened Italian village street singing “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!” and leaning heavily on my sweetie, who seemed to be wobbling a good bit as well. Georgia says she remembers our taking leave of Mario, and his good friend Mario, cordially thanking them for letting us briefly join their extended family. I hope we did. What a gift that welcome was. And I hope we can be that hospitable and kind to strangers.

Sunday, October 8, 2006, the flight home

Up early, with a large complimentary breakfast at the hotel and a quick zip over to Malpensa. As we approached Newark Airport we saw the beautiful fall colors of New York State. Home is a very beautiful place.

So what did we learn from this “trip of gifts?”
  • Twenty euros is not enough pocket-money for the Casa Nuova Chestnut Festival. Thirty euros is perfect.
  • “Family” is a very fluid category, somewhat related to your gene pool, but also intimately connected to where your heart is located, or who steals your heart.
  • “The past” is a very foreign country and why people did what they did back then is almost impossible to determine, as if I could even give the reasons why I did what I did last week.
  • It is a very humbling and yet very exhilarating to walk around in the places where your ancestors walked.
  • You have more than just family ancestors. All of us have spiritual ancestors and philosophical and cultural ones as well.
  • Puccini, Socrates, and the Acropolis, all at once are almost too beautiful to stand.
  • The best kinds of answered prayers are those you didn’t even know you were praying.
  • The ocean is full of things that will sneak up on you.
  • Current German leaded stained glass is wonderful, Italian current leaded glass is okay, and Greek is nonexistent, but they laminate wonderfully.
  • Caffe correcto and limoncello after a PITCHER of wine and several mugs of beer is too much alcohol for one evening, at least too much before the dancing.
  • Two brown bags full of roasted chestnuts will plug you up for weeks.
  • It’s ok to eat a donkey you are not personally familiar with.
  • Terror, Amazement, Deafness, and the ability to selectively over-ride your spouse’s decisions are good for a marriage.
  • Any marriage that survives longer than a weekend is successful. Any marriage that lasts 38 years is both a blessing and a miracle.
(The End)

Places We Stayed
Hotel Landhaus; Altenbergstrasse 4+6; 3013 Bern, Switzerland
Oasi Regina Pacis; #6 Via Dei Pellerano; Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy
Koala Hotel, 21 Harmilou Street; Kos Town, Kos, Greece
Siroco Studios; Chochlakas Bay, Patmos Island, Greece
Attalos Hotel; www.attalos.gr; 29 Athinas Street, Athens, Greece
Hotel Marie; 28 Themistokleous Street, Kos Town, Kos, Greece; www.marie-hotel.gr
Hotel Ristorante Cervo, Casa Nuove, Italy (near Malpensa Airport)

Restaurant Kreuz; 3305 Iffwil, Switzerland


Athens Bakery

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