An afternoon in Madrid and other surprises

There are always ideas that unnerve me when I consider taking a trip.  A number of things cropped up on this one, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges ahead of time, trying to plan how to manage them.  One was the trains, which I would be taking on my own.  The other was the language.  When we went to Italy,  I worried for months about how little Italian I understood, and I kept thinking about how badly I spoke French (and how disdainful Parisians often were even when I did try!) and despite the months I spent practicing basic Italian phrases, I felt utterly paralyzed when it came time to ask for something even as simple as a glass of water.  I had the words in my head, I could approximate the accent (well, sort of…I’m pretty sure I speak Italian with a Spanish tint), but I could not get the words to my tongue and out of my mouth.

To avoid that syndrome this time, I gave myself permission to speak Spanish as badly–and as earnestly–as I wished.  I wanted to rely on others as little as possible. I wanted to be brave enough to at least try.

The main worry on this trip was the fact that I would be taking the trains on my own, first from Neal’s mother’s house in Kent, through London and a change of stations, up to York to see my friend Jo.  Then I had to return through a different station, navigate stairs and streets, find the Eurail station, and get to Paris.  In Paris, I would have to change stations again, and the time window was only two hours.  Which theoretically should be enough time to take a cab across the city, but you never know.  I fretted.  I thought about it a lot.

Finally, I knew I would be arriving in Madrid before the rest of my group, and I would have to get to my hotel and check in by myself, with my not-great Spanish.  This, too, made me fret, though I don’t think I even had any scenario in mind except embarrassment.

One thing I knew from navigating the Tube in London, and the train stations in Italy, is that there are a lot of stairs.  A lot of stairs.  There are some escalators, but not in all stations, and not in all areas.  I didn’t want to have to be lugging a heavy suitcase through all those mazes.  My goal was to take only a carry-on size suitcase, and my smallish backpack, and a sturdy, smallish purse I could wear close to my body while looking so touristy.   At least I could give myself that gift ahead of time.

And it turned out, this was a gift. I did end up going up and down hundreds of stairs through those many stations.  Not having a big bag was worth the small sacrifices I made (uh, basically living in the same three t-shirts for nearly two weeks, and they were all misshapen by the end, having been washed by hand in basins across the Camino. In retrospect, I would spend the (more) money to get quick dry tops).


I had assumed that I would take a taxi from Paris Nord to Paris Gard to save confusion and worry.  When I arrived in Paris, relaxed and well fed from the extraordinary day of travel with plenty of leg room and the niceties of tea and biscuits, with the loveliness of an English summer countryside passing by the windows, then the French countryside, and a full meal complete with wine on the EuroStar that I felt brave.  I looked around for the Metro signs and thought, “How hard can it be?”   I knew which train I needed and which direction to go.  I just had to get a Metro ticket.

Well, it turned out that there was no English on the ticket machines, so harder than I expected.  I tried to watch others to see if I could figure it out.  As my anxiety started to mount, I remembered the translator on my phone and I could program it to tell me how to ask for something. When I pulled out the phone, however, it didn’t get a signal.  I started to feel that fretting paralysis rising, but recognized in time that it wouldn’t do me any good.  I joined the queue for tickets and when I got to the window, I greeted the man with a polite “Bon jour. Parlez vous Ingles?”

He said, “I am South African, madam, and I speak Africaans. How may I help you?” He gave me a ticket in two seconds and I was so relieved that I was giddy. I found my train (up stairs, down stairs) and waited.  It was busy and I had to go through a busy tourist station (Bastille), but it was fine, and all the way, I was thinking, hey, I did it!

I still had to find my train in the station, and this particular station was the site of a place where I stubbed my toe so badly that I ended up losing a toenail, but this time, I found the train, the man spoke to me in Spanish, and I relaxed.  Immediately.  I found my sleeper car, made myself comfortable, and in the morning awakened to Spain passing by outside the windows.  I ate breakfast watching fields tumble by in the mist, seeing cows and a man walking down a road in a landscape that looks very like my own….except for the walled medieval city there on the mountaintop.

Which left the last, scary bit—getting from the train station to the hotel, and then checking in without my group and explaining that they would be coming later.  Remember, I had been thinking fretting about this challenge for a couple of months. It took two seconds to walk out of the station, find the taxi line, give the man the address I had written down, and get in the car.  He drove through the morning light in Madrid, listening to the radio and I drank in the sights.   At the hotel, I paid him, he took out my bag, and I went inside, bracing myself to navigate the check in, reviewing the words and names I would need. He spoke English.  He had been expecting me.  The main group had been delayed by plane issues, and I would have time alone. In my room.

I had plenty of time before anyone arrived to…get settled, reoriented, wash underwear and hang it up to dry, take a shower and do my hair, all those things.  Sharyn came and we went to find food, ordered blindly off the menu, which ended up being all right, even if I inadvertently ordered pulpo for us both.   The square was, I think, Santa Ana, where there is a statue of Federico Garcia Lorca, and the bar where Hemingway wrote (also the bar next door, where Hemingway never ate or drank or wrote).

We had a meal and went back and by then I felt brave enough to venture out on my own, so Sharyn went upstairs to rest and I wandered around, seeking a supermarket for yogurt and a transformer for my computer.  The grocery was tiny and I browsed around looking at things, finding no candy but some interesting cookies.  Next door was a bazaar, like a dollar store with everything all jumbled in a dark store with close, crowded aisles and millions of things to buy.  I found demitasse spoons, 6 for 87 cents, and since I’d missed looking for them in England, bought two sets. I also found my transformer for 2 Euros and felt like a big game hunter carrying all my booty back to the hotel. That evening, we went to dinner and got to know each other a tiny bit, but that was really it for Madrid and me.  I liked the wide boulevards. I liked the hotel and the good coffee.  I would like to have seen flamenco.  I would like to have been tourist more, seeing things, but as it is, Madrid is now in my mind lit by early afternoon sunlight, bright and strong, and it is a series of narrow alleyways littered with bars and cafes and small shops.

And sometimes, that too is how it goes.  A day that was meant to be filled with sightseeing is instead spent quietly, taking care of things and wandering around a little neighborhood.  For now, that is Madrid in my mind.

Have you ever spent a lot of time worrying about something ahead of time, only to find it was no big deal?  Or the opposite, had something become a big problem you had not anticipated?


The molecules of my body and brain are drifting home a handful at a time, plugging in the holes left by the challenges of actually moving one’s body thousands and thousands of miles across time and space and cultures and landscapes.  For once, I’m trying to be patient with the process.  I did not get a cold this time, which is often what my body seems to do in protest; instead I’m resting a lot.  Walking the dog is my only exertion, catching up on blogs and posting photographs my only mental activities.
But in the background, there is a lot of processing going on.  The last time I did a major pilgrimage, just before 2001, it took a long time to be far enough away from the event to really understand how I had been transformed, and it will be awhile for this one, too. What I do have are concrete moments, encounters and blips of contact and illuminations that are echoing for me now:

—Ana, our guide, has been walking and biking the various Caminos for awhile now. An American ex-pat who has lived in Spain for 30 years, Ana told me that one thing she likes to do it give away candy on the road, to weary pilgrims who look like they need a little lift.  I saw her do it several times through the course of a day.  A day or two later, I was walking alone when I saw an old, old man making his way down a steep rocky section.  He had two rough walking sticks, one in each hand, and his knees were tied with white strips of cloth.  He labored carefully, one bow-legged step at a time, and it was plainly very difficult work.  I wished that Ana was with me, but she was a long way back on the trail.  I wished him Buen Camino as I passed, but wished desperately for something more.   Then I remembered I had some candy in my pack, so I walked a little further and dug it out, then walked back up the hill with it in my palm, offering it wordlessly since I couldn’t think how to say anything appropriate in Spanish.  He looked at my hand for a moment, uncomprehending, then understood I was giving him candy and he gathered it up in gnarled fingers.  His face lightened and blazed and he said, “Merci! Merci beaucoup!”   I waved and walked back down the hill, suddenly overcome with emotion.   How small a thing, and yet how large!  I loved Ana very much in that moment for understanding that idea, and teaching it to me.

—Walking suddenly beneath a canopy of trees, their joints grown over with moss to make faces like Green Men, the forest stretching out around us in lush, fertile mystery.  Here be the fey and enchanted foxes and witches, called here meigas.  Once we passed a marsh so alive with frogs that we almost couldn’t be heard as we puzzled out what was making that noise. Now and again, we crossed a pond or a stream on old flat rocks, and I couldn’t help but think of the pilgrims before us in their sandaled feet, hundreds of years of them.

–Everywhere a little village, a bar, a church.  All have their own particular sello, or pilgrim stamp. Among our group was a little contest–who had the most? Who had the most beautiful? I kept forgetting to get a stamp, but in the end, I didn’t mind.  You have to have two per day to prove you’ve walked the distance, but that’s all.  Most days, I had more.  Often, I was lost in some other thing when we entered a place–admiring the wall of letters and postcards and messages and bandannas left behind in one; the colors of paint around the door in another; the German shepherd mix creeping up behind the bar to steel pigs feet and ears from the back step; the long limbs of a cyclist in tight shorts.

—an old woman walking up the street with a wheelbarrow in Lavacolla (wash your bottom town–where once pilgrims were required to stop and wash before they walked the last six miles into Santiago). We are drinking cerveza con limon, checking stamps in our passports.  She’s jaunty in a blue dress and an apron, and we wave. She greets us cheerfully, and comes back a little later with a giant, professional flower arrangement.  Beautiful! I cry. She lifts her chin, smiles.  For the graveyard tonight.

And there is a festival that night that begins at midnight.  Everyone is out in the streets.  There is a band playing, loudly, singing, and everyone is dancing and singing and talking all through the town, until four or five.  My roommate is grumpy.  I keep thinking it would be fun to go join the party, but in truth, I’m too tired after seven days of walking to rouse myself, so I drift in and out of sleep, listening to the party pouring in through our open windows, and it makes me think of nights when the children were little and we played cards and drank beer with friends, when the children fell asleep in puddles on the couch or the floor.   I had no idea that I would miss those days so much.  We were poor and the food was simple, the children barefooted and everything I thought I wanted  seemed far away in the future on the other side of some magical line.

–the astonishing, impossible grandeur of the cathedral at Santiago.  I have seen many spectacular palaces to the glory of God, including the Vatican (and most recently the splendid York Minster) but Santiago’s abode is tremendous, with wings and stairs and gold and turrets and spires and gold and dozens of entrances and gold and carvings and statues and gold. Did I mention gold?  The entire altar is drowned in gold and jewels, so much gold it is impossible to calculate the cost of it.   The statue of Santiago himself is almost entirely made of gold.  It is a giant thing, much larger than a human, and one of the pilgrim rituals is to “hug the saint.”  Once we had our official certificates, we stood in line to do this, not all of us at once, but in twos and threes, after one had showered, another had found trinkets to take home.   There was in front of me a quintuplet of Spaniards in late middle age.  One of the women paused behind the saint, whipped a baby wipe out of her purse, and wiped it down before she stepped up and gave Santiago a hug, putting her face on the gold between two enormous topazes.  I hugged him, too, but really found pleasure in the glimpse of the church from that vantage point.

Later, at Mass, we had a chance to see the fabled censer.  It’s more than four feet tall, carved of silver, and it swings the entire length of the transcept—hundreds of feet in either direction, pouring out incense to fill the church with fragrance.   It nearly touched the ceiling on one side, then the other, over and over.  It’s hard to describe in a way that captures the beauty of it.

A worthy destination for those long ago pilgrims, and all of us, too.  I was giddy by the time mass started, however, and I will admit that I found myself sometimes trying to surpress a giggle over the lispy Gallegan of the priest.  It was not disrespectful, but joy and weariness in equal measure.

Before I left, I read somewhere that the journey begins when the Road ends (have not been able to find it again, sadly, so if anyone knows, please tell me), and as I sit here now, I can see that’s true.  I will be going back–perhaps to walk the Camino Primitivo, or the northern road, or maybe the entirety of the Frances.   It does feel I’ve only begun.

Buen Camino!

Walking the Camino

I am writing this from a hotel in Rua, Spain. It’s early, and my roommate has headed out for a cooler spot and the possibility of a cafe con leche. If you have been following my Facebook posts, you have had a glimpse most days, but here are some more:

A woman walking her big smooth skinned gold cow down the road. Woman is dressed in calico, bringing a stick. She waves as we pass…Buen Camino!…

A dog comes bolting from the meadow behind a bar (not a bar like the US, but like a very small cafe with beer or sidra and maybe a few trinkets) where we stopped for our morning drink break. She is a big sturdy golden lab mix, trailing her broken chain, and a tumble of seven puppies, yipping in frantic effort to keep up. Mother trots blithely down the road, dives into the trees surrounding a field, pups hurry to catch up, disappearing one by one.

One morning awakening to a rooster crowing, over and over, then opening the windows to see a vista of mist and ancient buildings and a brand new supermercado and windmills on a hill in the distance. Old and new, ancient and modern, all mixed up.

Walking with women on the Camino, talking, talking, talking. Sorting through the confusion of how to choose a career path with one young woman, talking about work and writing and relationships with others. Walking alone, I listen, too, and meander through the past decade, which has been both tumultuous and incredibly rewarding.

Wandering through the Spanish countryside at the pace of…well, a walker. Slow enough to really see things. The chickens in a yard, sable and shiny and hearty looking. (Now these are free range chickens!) There are forests of deep shade, and fields of peppers and corn and beans. Old dry stone walls, a house overrun with vines, a freshly build hacienda with gigantic fuschia and hydrangea bushes. In the evening, the sun stays up until past ten, and we walked around after dinner last night, letting it paint our skin pink.

Almost to Santiago. We will arrive tomorrow. I will be sad to leave my new friends, but also glad to go home to my beloved CR and Jack.

The girls in the basement are waking up, looking with glee at all the stuff I’ve collected for them. We’ll see what they make of it all.

A wander through Glastonbury

There’s a bit of a time lag here…have not had a lot of connectivity to the Internet, but I hope you’ll enjoy the trip ramblings anyway.

Books read: 1 memoir, 1 British WF, 1 American WF, 6 short stories, 1 Australian WF.

Miles walked thus far: approximately 30

Date stamp: On the way home from Weston Super Mare. Written on the bus.

Last Wednesday, on our free day with the tour, we went to Glastonbury, to walk up to the Tor where King Arthur supposedly pulled the sword from the earth, and to the ruins of the Abbey, which King Henry the Eighth knocked down in 1539. We took a taxi (which I keep calling a cab and no one understands what I mean) on narrow lanes through the green, hedgerows of the countryside. Farmhouses, square and white with rectangular windows and steep roofs, stand right against the road, so close you could almost touch the walls if you stuck an arm out of the window. The grass in each yard is bordered with flowers—poppies, just now, red and orange and pink, sprays of foxglove and larkspur and delphiniums, pots of pansies—and the blossoms are twice or three times the size of the same flowers at home in Colorado.

The town of Glastonbury is a medieval warren of narrow lanes lined with shops and houses that open directly onto the streets. The taxi dropped us at a triangular plaza with a clock and benches, with the Abbey ruins behind and a hilly street climbing toward the Tor. New Age shops of every ilk sold their indiscriminant sacred relics—baskets of crystals and wands next to tokens painted with Native American symbols next to postcards of the Chalice Well. If one wished to be adorned as a witch or a goth or a yogi, all items of loose and printed and glittering clothing were available, batiked and sequined and gauzy. British and European hippies converged, all ages, with beards and bellies, wrinkles or smooth arms, everything in between.

Between the shops were hotels as old as the streets—one born in 15th century. The church is ancient, and the Abbey, of course, dates back to the 11th century. The Tor is very, very old. St. Patrick is said to have sheltered there before heading to Ireland. The Chalice was supposed to have been buried in the Well.

I loved the vigorous walk to the top of the Tor, and the scenery was glorious, green fields around like a painting of What England Looks Like. Houses in the distance, built along a ridge, fields just below us with a narrow road going between them. Pathways up the Tor itself, one from the main road, one looping behind the town to the top. It might have felt more sacred but there were so many people it was hard to get to the heart of it. It did have a rich silence about it, the silence of time and history and things long spent. The hill was ringed by meditators, facing outward. A boy about five peed into the grass while his mother looked on beneficently.

I sat for awhile, feeling at first like a fake, because the town was such a New Agey jumble of mingled everything, so much that none of it means anything after awhile. I felt a little awkward because CR was with me, but he didn’t mind, sitting down next to me as he does when we’re at church. Finally, I closed my eyes, and there, waiting with a low chuckle, was SPIRIT, big and golden and warm, soaking into me.

Well, okay. So maybe I have to offer an opportunity for communication.

We went back down, and stopped by the gardens of the Chalice Well, which was silent and holy in a way the Tor was not. We collected water at the fount, and I walked in the pool of healing, splashing the cold, cold water over my knee. I would have meditated again at the well itself, but there was a family group sitting there, and it seemed…strange to encroach. I might have waited my turn if CR hadn’t been there, but he was being so patient, I know that’s just an excuse.

Anyway, we wandered into town for lunch at a traditional tiny teashop, where we ate cream teas and I had a bowl of soup, this one cauliflower and Stilton. Last night, it was Cock A Leekie, which is chicken and leek, and Tuesday, it was carrot and coriander. Soup fest this time…the weather has been right for that.

After lunch, we went to the Abbey, which was deeply moving. Huge, obviously once a wealthy pool of welcome and shelter. I have long known about the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry the Eighth, but the vastness of it was not real to me until I stood in the middle of that ruin, feeling the loss of what must have been a glorious church, and abbey….Henry’s act of violence was every bit as ferocious and violent as the Taliban tearing down the monuments in Afghanistan. Wanton destruction.

That’s all for now. The computer wants to restart and I’m going to let it, and drift a little on the scenery.

Anticipation…will you come along with me?

I keep resolving to be better about the blog.  It isn’t that I don’t enjoy it–I do.  It’s just that lately it seems there are a million beautiful places for you to fill the well, and I want to make a post that is meaningful and real and good every single time.   But that hasn’t been happening, and anyway, it’s counter to my entire philosophy of showing up and doing what’s mine to do today.

With that in mind, I’m going to drop the Impossible Standards and get back to just blogging about whatever I find compelling or interesting or annoying on a given day.

Today, I’m thinking about travel.  About Spain and England, about walking the Bristol channel and sitting on trains with my notebook, looking out the window, letting the well get filled.  I’ve wanted to go to Spain since I was a young teen, studying Spanish with the plump, white-haired Julia Child lookalike who was my teacher.  I can’t remember her name, but I remember that she traveled every summer to some exotic place and always brought things back with her for her students.  She was exuberant and cheerful and despite the fact that I was in my utterly anti-establishment phase, I loved her.   It seemed that it wouldn’t be such a bad life to teach Spanish all winter then travel to some distant land each summer.  She influenced me to consider bilingual education as a major in college, and I probably would have enjoyed it.

In those days, I desperately wanted to travel to Spain.  Not Mexico, not Argentina, not Ecuador.  Spain.  (Despite the fact that Mexico City is *much* closer to  me than New York City, which I’ve visited many many times, I’ve never been to Mexico, and yes, I do find this somewhat shameful. I would like to go. It just never seems to happen.)  My uncle had spent a year in Spain when I was a child, and I remember him stopping by our house on his way out. He held tiny kittens in his very large hands, and then he was off to the Far Away.  I didn’t know anyone else, even at 16, who had traveled so far without the military.

Those of you who have read The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue might remember Trudy’s passion for Spain and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  That was my fantasy in motion.  Going to Sevilla, immersing in Spain, in Spanish, in the Far Away.  I honestly thought I’d set the yearning aside, replacing it with dreams of India and other locales.  I sent my son there a few years ago, and he brought me a rosary from Barcelona.  When he let it fall, bead by bead, into my waiting palm, he said, “You need to go to Spain.  It’s perfect for you.”

That rosary has been draped around a statue on my altar for these five years, but actually traveling to Spain has been nowhere on my radar.  I expected I would go at some point, but here it is. Now. I suppose I should bring the rosary with me, in my pocket, as I walk the Camino de Santiago–me and my sixteen year old self. I’ll carry my old Spanish teacher with me, too, and my uncle who was so brave to go and study abroad when he was only a teenager.  And my eyes will be wide open, and my heart, and I will see what I will see.

I am so surprised to be going!

Will you come along?

How the wind do howl….

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I’ve been engaged in an adventure with my mother.  We traveled to Washington DC so that my mother could browse the Smithsonians until she dropped and then we would have dinner every night with my son. 

Last Friday, of course, it started snowing.  I nearly cancelled about 12 times, but kept thinking that once the storm was over, it would be okay, and we could go play.   On Sunday morning, they were thinking they might be able to get the airport open by evening, so we took our chances and headed out, laying over in Chicago, with a flight booked the next morning. 

Reagan Airport never did open that night.  We ate in a passably good Italian restaurant called Carlucci’s, where I had the roast chicken in a subtle, lovely broth:

Titanic was on television that night, so we watched that for awhile and then went to sleep early, so we could be up at 3 to catch our 6 am flight.  (Yes, I am a morning person, but my mother is not, poor dear.)  The airport in DC was still closed, but everyone was hopeful, and we uneventfully pased the rest of the day.  Miraculously, our bags actually arrived before we did, and were waiting when we got there.

There was a lot of snow.

but we were so happy to be there, we didn’t care.  We called Ian and he came over to meet us for dinner at  a vegetarian friendly spot called Busboys and Poets (who knows why?) and all was well.  

In the morning, the Smithsonian and the Federal Government were still closed.  There was a threat of snow, and tons on the ground, but it hadn’t started melting yet, so it was pretty navigable.  We pulled on our snow books and layers and headed out into the day.  Visited the International Spy Museum, which is like wandering around an espionage novel or many opening a bunch of boxes of Cracker Jacks.  We had it almost entirely to ourselves, ditto the cafe.  The weather was cold, but not intolerably so, and we headed down toward the Mall, which was quiet and beautiful in the snow.  We wandered by the White House, and along the frozen-solid reflecting pond (I have shots, but can’t show you until I upload the other pics from my real camera, not the cell phone).  We figured out the Metro well enough to find our way to Ian’s side of town and by the time we got above ground again, snow was going crazy.  CRAZY.  We were soaked by the time we got to his house, but I was still glad.  One of my little things is that I like to be able to visualize my kids in their environments, so seeing his house is a big plus.  (Also I got to kiss Hercules, the biggest cat on the planet. )

We ate pizza (New Haven style, which I’d never heard of, but was quite good) and then we headed home.  The Metro station was without power, so dark and creepy and I grabbed my mother close to me and didn’t let her out of my sight.  We were shipped off to the end of the line and then had to make our way back, and then slogged through the increasing snow to get back to our hotel, shed our wet clothes and fall into bed. 

This was the view from our room when we got up:

Yeah. We didn’t end up doing much.  I know you’re surprised. 

And my confession is that I was very irritable about it. I wanted my mother to see the Smithsonians.  I wanted to go with her to Julia Child’s kitchen, and I wanted us to have little conversations over tea and muse about history.    It was a holiday for me, too, and I honestly don’t have time for another one. There was a tiny bit of business worked in there, a single meeting with my editor (whom I adore!), and I had to cancel that, too.   

I would love to tell you that I’m always a good sport, but that would be a big fat lie.  By yesterday morning, I’d had it with snow and soaking wet clothes and feet and not being able to see a single thing we wanted to see or go to the restaurants we wanted to go to or even have a halfway decent breakfast.  There wasn’t enough space in my room to do any yoga.  Ian was stranded on his side of town, we were stuck in a hotel that only serves breakfast and we were facing the prospect of eating ramen noodle imitations for dinner. 

It would have given me great pleasure to bite off the heads of chickens and spit them out or something.  Something big and violent and disgusting. 

Instead I took my grumpy self to the fitness room and found space for some yoga, then walked (barefoot since I had no proper shoes) on the treadmill.  I told myself we were getting the thing we most wanted: time with each other and Ian.  We could make do with the herbal tea I had in my bag, and our books, and yogurts carried upstairs from the breakfast bar. 

And we would have.  But then some guys staggered through the front doors carrying six packs of beer, and a woman said there were rumors that Busboys and Poets was actually open, so we wrapped ourselves up like mummies and braved the winds to have a hot meal and a bottle of wine.  This is my mother, with the cafe behind her, and below is the cafe itself.  Really cool place.  Check it out if you go.  Excellent for the vegetarians in your world.

I grew quite fond of the place.  Shelter from the storm and all that.

We carried wine back with us, and ordered a movie to watch on the hotel channel, and then this morning we awakened to SUNSHINE! And melting snow.  The airport was open, so Mom’s flight was on time (we had sort of hoped for a bit of a delay).   We bundled up and headed out to see the city coming alive again. But on our rounds we saw this at the National Portrait Gallery:

And my mother shot the photo, laughing, saying she was going to take pictures of every museum she didn’t see.

In the end, I suspect we will remember other things—the utter silence of the mall under the falling snow.  The quiet camaraderie of braving the elements and a trip that turned out to be something other than what we expected.  I will remember our time together.  Me & my mom.  Me & my son.  My son & my mother

Have you ever had a crazy trip?   Tell us about it in the comments, and I”ll choose someone to win a signed copy of The Secret of Everything.

In the Rain

I’m warmly ensconced at an Italian restaurant in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. I came t0 town to hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak and do some focused work away from the distractions at home. But after three days of my own company, I had to get out of the hotel. It’s pouring rain, which means I am the only crazy person traipsing around. I have a borrowed umbrella in a singularly boring brown, and my Italia bag slung over my shoulder, which I bought at a market in Rome, the only place on the whole journey where I finally spoke and understood Italian. ANY Italian.

If you are like me, you are thinking Lee’s Summit is a backwater and you won’t find anything to your liking. I used to come through here on the train on the way to St Louis, pausing at a station that is, as a matter of fact, right across the street from where I now sit. In those days, I would see the Main Street with its hardware store and think …eh.

But this afternoon, in the rain, I have found a beautiful amber bracelet to celebrate the Girls In The Basement. I found it in a shop with fair trade goods run by a woman from southern California (the mosaic is in the sidewalk in front of her shop on Third Street). From a wine shop run by four women who must have been sisters with their matching platinum hair and robust figures, I purchased a local bottle of Pinot Noir (brewed right here!).

I really have not been afoot enough lately, and will have to work in some small trips somehow, despite my rather full schedule.  Ambling around in the world restores and renews me as nothing else can.

Now I have had an exquisite meal of chicken canneloni. I am one of three customers at the restaurant, because it is obscenely early, and it really is pouring outside.  The other two customers are a male couple with white hair, splitting a spaghetti plate. My coffee is here and I’m going to call a cab in a minute , but in the meantime, weve shared a meal. Thanks.

ciao bella

10 little stories about Michigan

4th of July sunset on Lake Michigan by you.

4th of July sunset on Lake Michigan.

Christopher Robin and I traveled to Michigan to celebrate his first 4th of July as a citizen.  Here are a few observations.

10. It is a long way from the Detroit airport to upstate, especially on the Thursday before a Saturday 4th of July, and especially when you’ve been flying since 6 am from Colorado, and you narrowly escape the crash of United computers at O’Hare Airport, where there are a lot of annoyed and exhausted passengers.  We arrived at Lake Walloon at 8 pm, just about as strung out as if we’d crossed the ocean to England.  Luckily, our hosts grilled exquisite fillet mignon and served them with perfect rounds of mozzarella, tomato, basil, and balsamic vinegar with a smooth red wine.

9. Lake Walloon is where Hemingway grew up.  It is surrounded by thick pine and leafy green forest that boasts no snakes except the friendly sort, and I’m not afraid of them.  900 (or so) people have “cottages” around this lake, some that are quite old and made of logs. There are also two summer camps, which made me think of Trixie Belden and my own girlhood at camps of whatever sort I could find–girl scout, High Trails (which is probably a Colorado thing), church, whatever.

8. On Lake Walloon I read Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and found them dismayingly filled with the N word and had to stop.  I know he was a product of his times.  But I am a person of my times and the casual dehumanization was bothersome enough that I couldn’t keep reading.  Result: my love/hate relationship with Hemingway continues.

7. On Lake Walloon, we ate  s’mores, roasted over a fire pit by two boys in a still night with the lake rippling against the shore in sibilant commentary.

boyne city 4th of july parade by you.6.  At Boyne City, Michigan, the 4thof July parade is an Americana beauty, complete with little girls waving from fire truck windows, and flowers provided by the garden club. There were hats and pants and clowns suits and shirts all made of the stars and stripes, more stars and stripes than you have ever seen in one place, and it was all done without one tiny whit  of irony.  Three times people behind us leaptout of the crowd to join some marching band or float passing by.   Also, the entire downtown was still completely alive, populated with businesses like a hardware store and a fudge shop and whatever else.

5.  In Boyne City the day before, we met a man sitting with his beautiful labradoodle in front of an ice cream store. The dog was so lovely we stopped to admire him, and the man told his sad story of a wife who’d left him with the dog.  We all said, “The dog is a better deal,” but he was still so raw he didn’t know it yet.

4. Our host patiently taught me to kayak, and it was seriously fantastic.  I don’t want big rapids or danger or kayaking on Lake Wallon by you.trouble, but paddling in the smooth waters of the lake was deeply, powerful meditative and I could do it for days unending.  (Note: as with all things, the secret is to relax into the whole thing.)

3. The traffic back to Detroit on the Monday after the 4th of July is also really insane.

2. In Ann Arbor I went with my aunt and uncle, who are practicing Hindus,  to a Guru Purnima celebration, which commemorates our teachers.  My aunt produced a flowing yellow outfit for me to wear, and we meditated and chanted and I loved being with them on such a sacred night. 

lisa's shelves by you.1. The next day, we visited Zingermans, a foodie heaven, where they have things like chocolate sourdough bread and exquisite olive oils, and my own particular reason for visiting:Balsamic vinegars, and I tasted several before deciding upon the 20-year-old.  My aunt, who is a foodie from before it was cool, naturally had a couple of bottles at home, along with her shelves and shelves of great ingredients and drawers full of utensils.

All vacations should be so filled with love, friendship, and the pursuit of passions.  I’m refreshed, renewed and ready to get back to work!

How was your 4th of July? Do you find it corny or uplifting? How do you celebrate in your corner of the world?

A writing escape

As you may have guessed, I’ve gone slightly underground to finish the book-in-progress, 100 Breakfasts, which is due in six short weeks.  Last weekend, I spent three days in Pasadena, mostly holed up with the manuscript, combing and combing, unbraiding and reweaving.   In the spirit of my friend Anne Stuart, who often keeps track of her writing marathons, I logged my progress, and thought you might be interested in the back-scenes process.

First, a little background.  While I was in Australia last year, the Langham Hotel in Melbourne was giving away B&B packages around the world, one each day, in honor of the Olympics. They have six hotels, two in the US, and to my great delight and amazement, I won a package.  To Pasadena, where my eldest son had just moved for a year-long clerkship.  The hotel was approximately a mile and a half from the hotel.  

Serendipitous on so many levels.  There is the weird and obvious benefit of landing within walking distance of my child, from a hotel halfway around the world.  I also really was ready for some immersion time in the book, and in fact timed the trip so I could do this work for three days without any phone or other dogs distractions.  Oh, and sleep.  I had the Colorado Plague for nearly two weeks and still haven’t quite kicked the dregs of it. 

So, last weekend, I packed up the laptop, some good walking shoes, and a notebook and headed to the Pasadena Langham Hotel, which used to be the Ritz-Carlton.  It sits in the midst of well tended, California Craftsmans and Frank Lloyd Wright style homes on zillion dollar lots. There are gardens and courtyards and a Painted Bridge that was created in 1932.  In those days, it spanned a gulch.  Today it gracefully leads to the cottages between the swimming pool and the garden pools that tumble down the hill.

Anyway, this is my writing log for the weekend.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I just had a very nice breakfast with Ian and then he took me to Trader Joe’s (the original TJ) so I could lay in some supplies–cashews and apples and a giant pile of very sweet grape tomatoes and cheese.


Pasadena is a beautiful place, and this is a gorgeous hotel, and I must confess I’d really rather do something besides work. Ian is working but I could take a long walk.  But I am here to work and I do need to do that. Write pages, THEN for a walk. 



Walk was very nice, rejuvenating. I am making some hot water for tea and will work now until 4:15, at which time I can take the long walk around the neighborhood that I’m dying to do, and come back to eat my very simple supper of apples, cheese and nuts. And I have to work again after that.

3 pm Edited two more scenes. Pretty sleepy. Will nap for a quick minute.

4 pm. Napped 15 minutes, read through the dinner scene and it still sucks but I don’t know what the fix is yet. Still missing information. Going for a long walk now, clear my head. Will work some more later.

So far: edited/read 80 pages.

6 pm
Had a good long walk, an hour or more, around the neighborhood, ate leftover pizza and read a little bit of Alice Hoffman.

I’ve been rewriting all day.  Which is fine. That’s writing, too.  I’m still not happy with a couple of spots, and there are  some quality problems with [one scene in particular] but I can fix them later.    [Deleted spoiler details here. ]

The Amazing Race comes on in an hour, so I’m going to work until then.

Added another scene, worked through some of the trouble.  Finished with edited 100+ pageds and about 1500 new words.  REALLY tired now.

Monday, March 30, 2009
It’s 9:50 am. I had a really good night’s sleep.  I had a shower then a nice breakfast at the Terrace restaurant, and sat with my notebook for a little while.  One character is not coming through on the page as well as I’dThe old hotel looked as if we could go back in time at any second like.  I let her talk through my pen and she gave me enough insight that I have a place to start.

11 am
Scene from Vita POV.  Dozed for ten minutes and they’re doing something with noisy, noisy machines, so I’m going to go write by hand in the garden. Give the computer a chance to cool, too. It really gets hot if it stays up all day.

Oh, hmm. Now the machine is off. Maybe I can just stay here.

So, got the bread scene moving. Feeling kind of restless now. Maybe I’ll go write by hand in the garden simply because I would enjoy it. Have done five pages this morning so far. That’s slow, but I’ll live with it.

5 pm
Wrote by hand and then read awhile. Typed in the pages and feel much better about the scene. Not meeting Ian until 8 or so, and I’ll walk up to the shopping center in a little while, have some supper, get the cobwebs out of my head. Maybe come back and write a little more. We’ll see. 

Feels better, though. That’s a good thing. I’m really in the belly of the book now, and the only thing to do is just be with it.  I’m tired. I’ve been working and working and working!

11 pm
I walked over to the shops and had a very nice combination of salads at the local Corner Bakery. It was absolutely delicious and made me realize there are ten million things you can do with salad that I never think about. I love salads and don’t make them very often enough. Met Ian at his apartment and spent a couple of hours with him and his cats, then he brought me back to the hotel. 

Enough. I am very, very tired tonight. It might not have seemed as if I accomplished a lot, but I was at it the whole weekend, taking time only for walks and Ian. That’s all a person can do.

Ready for bed now.

Tuesday evening, home again.

6 pm
Something broke free in all that work, because the minute I arrived at the LA airport, I started writing in my notebook, scene after scene after scene, and wrote all the way home.  (Until the horrific turbulence–it was scary horrible, and I’m not a nervous flyer.)   A very productive three days and I feel quite well rested, too.

But of course, the best part was seeing Ian. Hanging out. Being able to give him a big hug and feed him the lovely breakfast at the Langham. 

(I notice that I cat-napped a lot during this telling, and almost deleted it, but chose to be faithful to my true process. Anyone else cat nap a lot?)

Writing is lonely work sometimes, that’s the truth. What do the girls want?  Maybe a nice walk around the grounds, or just over to the bridge.

Stop being so cerebral, the girls say.  Just go write the next part.  Rewrite the scene with Natalie and Tessa, then maybe have a little nap and a walk around the grounds and come back and do another scene. I can do a lot of work here. I’m here to work and I love my job so let’s just get to it.

Okay, I dozed for a little while, wrote the scene with photos, and the computer is really hot, so I’m going to take a walk around the grounds and look at the bridge and come back.

Itchy feet

This morning, memories of various travels are wafting through my mind. 

hotel miramar naples by you.


-The clever bathroom in Naples, where the long doors opened on to the street and the bay and Vesuvius in the far, purple distance, a mountain with a bite out of the top. 

–The moppet of a youth who was learning how to lead hikes on Mt. Wellington (Tasmania) the day I went to see what it was about.  A headful of curls, an amiable manner, a climber who wanted to live outdoors.  He told me about all the ants that would would see if it was summer, including a variety that can hear you coming and will jump on you.  It made me glad it was winter, even if the top of that mountain was the coldest wind I ever felt.

–Flying in the quiet of a long overnight flight. The lights low, everyone slumped and trying to get some sort of sleep while watching endless movies on the 4? 6? inch screen on the seat back in front of you. Breathing Thieves Oil soaked into a handkerchief because so many people tell me it works. 

–The shock and pleasure and terror of realizing that no one here cares that your morning routine ordinarily includes cheerios and a banana, that they won’t even know what you’re saying if you tried to say that, and so instead you try the tomatoes which taste like a hundred days of sunshine and rich hot earth; and a reddish fruit that is incomparably delicious. 

Must be getting time to start planning a trip again.  The soles of my feet want to walk in a new place.

Tell me one of your travel memories.