Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/books/item_id/857755-Jottings-From-Journeys
by Joy
Rated: 18+ · Book · Travel · #857755
Travels, places, and roadside thoughts
earth gif free clipart

On a plane, in a car, internally, and through life, why do we journey? If minds of travelers can be figured out, it may well be that we want to catch our own sun.

When I am on a journey, since I am always on a journey on this spaceship called earth, details that are important to me are sometimes different than the ones I think that might be important. This can influence what I write, how I write, what I give away or how much I give away of myself.

Planet Earth is our home to be loved, cherished, and enjoyed. Exploring back alleys, places few tourists would go, watching people who are usually unnoticed are a few of the things I like most about traveling. When I remember places, things, or people, I mostly remember the effect or the contrails of what I've witnessed. A smile, a shrug, the freedom or the boredom I felt, the way rubber boots squish the slush or a thick coat rustles against the wind, the color of a dress reflecting in a pool, a foreign word or gesture I haven't understood but deemed friendly nevertheless.

Sometimes things I remember do not seem to be connected, until suddenly they bloom forth all together at once in an emotion as if sixth sense, through a touch, a smell, a sound to explain my experience, my life, my internal poetry. So I say what I feel, what I remember as having felt without having to convince anyone, just to get a sense of it all, without the fear of leaving things out. Also writing moves in only one direction, deeper, no matter which route it takes, and while doing that, it makes me be able to look at things in a different way.

Some of the reasons why I write at all spring from thoughts like these; therefore, the most important thing one who has this craving can do is to put down at least a few words each day. Nearly all of what I'll write here will be from recall. Some will be from others' oral accounts. Let's see what happens as I go along.

I'll keep adding to this journal whenever I find the time. *Smile*

August 2, 2009 at 1:55pm
August 2, 2009 at 1:55pm
NY Images-- From my daily journal-- Some of the photos in:

At PBI, Ned makes me laugh. There was a clowning employee at the ticket counter. Ned takes what the employee says for real. The man is joking when he says they have all the seats free and we can go with any flight we choose, whereas we had online reservations already. Ned turns around and asks him if we can change our tickets for an earlier flight. Then the man gets serious and tells him it will cost eighty bucks extra, and we'll have to sit separately, to boot. Ned complains to me later. Funny!

Flight-- Bumpy ride, lucky I have earpods with me. They charge two dollars per person for earphones that they used to give for free, seven dollars if you want pillow and blanket. The hostess Teresa keeps joking, too. What is this? Is Jet Blue teaching its employees to fool around with customers or what! Bumpy Ride. Some people are scared.

Airport-- Lighted but it is dark outside. Crowded. Walking down out to the street. Going for the taxi stand the wrong way then turnng around to stand in line.

People comment on how little we carry.

In the Taxi: Too noisy but I try to call because I promised Ana, my daughter-in-law. Kids worry about us. They worried us while growing up, now they worry for us. I find a voice mail from G. Obviously he tried to call while we were in the plane. He says he'll call the next day. It is impossible to talk to Ana from the noise. Taxi's window is open; no AC. All the street noise is inside on the outskirts of the city, but when we enter Manhattan, the noise, remarkably, subsides. When we are at 23rd and Park, Ana calls back and we talk. She'll call again the next day.

As soon as we enter the city, I feel happy. I am young again. This city always does something positive to me.

Hotel: Great hotel, clean.good rug, perfect rooms, king-size bed, modern wood furniture, leather armchair, desk. I wonder if I can get online.Very pleasant. We're on the 41st floor, looking over two streets. Neat view! Watching the streets from the window feels like looking from the navel opening of a beast. I still have to raise my head to see the sky and the tops of the surrounding buildings. Then I have to really look down to see the streets.

Ned's hungry. We leave our things in the room and go down to walk on the street. So many places to eat. A deli on 44th street across from the hotel, a Mexican restaurant, then on Broadway life throbs with food everywhere. They have cordoned off the street where Howard Johnson's used to be.

We walk to Roxy's. Oh, how I have missed the place! We sit in the back in a booth. It is not crowded since it is after 11PM. We order milk and hot pastrami on rye. What else! I have missed this food and this place so! I glance at the cartoon photos of the celebrities on the wall, the large mirror in between them. Our waiter is a tall, good-looking, black man. Very pleasant. Another waitress with yellow hair tied in back leaves. A few minutes later another young cheerful woman walks in to take over her job. Shift change, I guess.

The waiter brings a box for our leftovers. I don't know where we'll keep them. Probably we'll get ice and keep it in the ice-box.

Then the chef walks by. (Description) Short, large moon-face, plumb, belly walks before him, Charlie Chan beard. Thick eye-brows meeting in the middle.He has the white chef regalia with cap and everything. One look at him and I find my favorite chef figure.

Ned pays with a credit card. I don't want to leave here. Roxy's is Broadway, is NYC.

The Avenue Broadway is crowded. Side-walk artists, so many of them, draw portraits of people. Some are pretty good in finding a physical resemblance. I had studied portrait painting. Our main discussion was resemblance versus art or rather capturing the person. They do well with physical resemblance. The rest I am reluctant to comment on.

Artists are not the only ones. Tourists are taking photos; young boys skateboard on the closed part of the street. What a novel idea to close up a part of the city street for skateboarders! We slither through them and walk back to the hotel. I should have taken my camera, but if I had, would I have enjoyed and noticed so much? That is my pet peeve with the camera. While you note the moment, you take away from the enjoyment of it. Photographers have to be the least selfish people. I opt for the enjoyment, well....mostly.

Day Second

Early in the morning G calls. He says he's coming over as soon as possible. In the meantime, we go to the Deli on 44th St. and get breakfast stuff to eat. I get a fruit cup and water; Ned gets a banana, watermelon cup, a muffin and water. He doesn't want the coffee from there. But then after we come in the room, he wants the coffee anyway and goes back for it.

G shows up around 11, his old self. We go out altogether. We walk on the street several blocks to Lincoln center, where I take pictures.

My leg bothers me and my feet, too. The right foot is a new event. I worry about it getting worse, but we keep going finally we get a taxi and go to Lincoln center. We first want to eat. Actually I don't because I have already eaten twice the food I normally eat, but G is hungry and we want to feed him, as usual. So we sit at a sidewalk part of a fancy restaurant. The price for lunch for three of us is over a hundred bucks. The food is not even good, and all I had was a burger and coffee.

Then we go to the Lincoln Center Cinemas because they bring foreign movies, which we lack in FL. We end up watching Easy Virtue (typical Noel Coward), which Ned finds so so, but G doesn't like it. I do. The characters are very good and the plot ends with an interesting twist.

When we get out, it is raining. We walk some under the rain. Ned wants to get a taxi; G wants to go to the Barnes and Noble bookstore, like once before. My kid is like me, bookstore crazy. Ned wants to sit. So we take the escalators to the top floor, but all the seats in the coffee shop are taken. So we come down without looking at the books or sitting down anywhere to rest.

We get out and walk a bit more and get a taxi. When we come to 44th., the rain has stopped. We come up the room. We talk a bit. G asks us what we want to do the other two days. He doesn't like the idea of us going downtown,. He doesn't want anyone he knows to see him. Weird. Then he says he wants to take a walk. He comes back after a while and tells us he'll come to see us all three days. Hallelujah!

G leaves around five o'clock and I start writing. Too bad about the internet but there is little I can do about it.

After G leaves Ned goes to the deli to buy water. The water from the tap is undrinkable. NYC used to have great water. What happened?

Ned comes back with two big bottles. Then he sits at the edge of the bed, watching TV.

He says he'll go to a pharmacy to get some shaving cream because they took his Fusion at the checkpoint in West Palm Beach airport.

Then he doesn't go, and I am so tired and cold because he's made the room too cold, the exact opposite of what he does when we're home, I go to bed and sleep at 7:30 until about the same time next morning.

Day 3: Thursday

I wake up. I am still so tired. I take a shower. Do my hair and everything. I take all my medicines at the same time. Due to sleeping early, I forgot to take my nighttime meds.

In the meantime, Ned goes to buy shaving cream. He took a huge shaving cream, his favorite Fusion, without telling me, and they confiscated it at the checkpoint. He told me he'd use soap or something. If he had told me he was going to take it anyway, I'd have stopped him. Well, one experience is worth thousands of advice. Alla el! As the Latinos say. It is 8:15 now, and he just came in carrying a package.

Okay, he bought a cheap shaving cream and two bottles of water. Great! While he's out, G arrives. G wants to constantly go somewhere, but we're old and get tired easily. Ned does not decide easily. So what's new! G gets flustered and goes for a cooling-off walk.

I do not offer any opinions. Three different minds will be more confusing than two different minds. At the end we leave it to Ned who opts for going to the Macy's like we don't have Macy's in the Treasure Coast Mall at home.

The taxi driver is an odd man with a speech impediment, and he is talkative. He says, "What? You don't have any Macy's where you are? Why don't you ask me to take you to Gimbels?" Gimbels was around during the sixties or seventies, and we all remember that. It is one of those no-more stores. The taxi driver is a character. I try to put a mark in my mind for him. He'll make an excellent character in a story.

Ned walks around the men's department, all three stories of it. G is getting bored and so am I. We both roll eyes. Ned says he doesn't want to buy anything; he's only looking. I find a long-sleeved shirt on sale. We buy it. Now he's happy and we can leave Macy's. What G doesn't understand is that Ned is a buyer from Macy's at 34th. Each time we visit Manhattan, he has to buy something from Macy's at 34th, be it a pair of socks. That is the only place for him. It makes him happy.

After Macy's we go to Dervish at 47th between sixth and seventh avenues and have a spectacular lunch. G and Ned have doner and I order chicken shish kebab. With eggplant salad as appetizer. Near the chicken I get rice pilav and Hunkar Begendi, another eggplant dish that I love.

G. is impressed with the restaurant. And we're all in high heaven. Then we come to the hotel, G and Ned have a discussion about G's work situation. Then G and I go out of the room to get ice for the ice holder to keep Ned's leftover doner. G says "You know I work all the time. I'd like to work with other people but I can't stand them." "I know, Honey,"I say. "Don't worry about me thinking otherwise."

Afterwards G leaves. Ned falls asleep and I write a story. When G comes back, Ned is still sleeping. G. goes again; comes back at 7:30. We sit around the room and talk a bit. Then G leaves hugging me twice. He says he'll come back the next morning.

After he leaves, Ned and I walk to the Marriott Marquis. We sit at the promenade area but we don't get served. So we move further up. We call the Japanese waitress.

Doggone! They are all Japanese. They don't talk English some not well, some not at all. She says she'll serve us where we are at the promenade, although they only serve where we are on the weekends.

That's new! Anytime we used to sit there, some waitress used to show up. She says they only serve in the lounge. But the lounge is too noisy, besides it is dark and I can't watch people. I take some photos. The waitress brings us the menus, all Japanese. We are not Sushi people.

But it doesn't matter. The waitress has her eyes set on the newcomer, a handsome young man, who goes to sit at the bar in a nonchalant manner. She twirls around him and forgets all about us. We wait close to half an hour. Ned says, "Let's leave."

We get up to leave. The waitress runs to us. "I'm so sorry. I forgot about you. I totally forgot about you." Well okay. She is young and seems really upset. Far be it from me, to upset young people. "Don't worry about it; it is okay," I say and pull Ned down to sit.

She serves us our drink orders. I have a Guiness; Ned has milk. Usually it is the other way around. Except Ned is a Heineken man. We order Angel Hair pasta and cheese fondue. Delicious! Since the food comes from Encore in the atrium. Encore is one of our favorite places. We always go there. Even during the times when we stay in Long Island, if we come to the city, we stop by Encore for a meal as we do with Dervish.

I have a great time here, even if I just sit someplace and people-watch.

We walk to the hotel and miraculously my head is clear. Ned's isn't. Now who drank the Guinness?

Just when I am about to go out to get some ice. G calls to say he won't be coming the next day. He tells me to call him when we get home. Okay. I know why he doesn't want to come. He is still traumatized by 9/11, as I am, and Ned wants to take us downtown to the ground zero, although he says where he wants to go is NY Stock Exchange.

I know what Ned is up to. He wants us to face the pain. It has been eight years since and we have come to the city countless times, but I never wanted to go there. I know I can't stand it, but I more worry about the hate that man Osama put in my heart. My hate is not against a religion or a nation, but against all terrorists. I see them as cut off from the same cloth, even though reason tells me there may be innocents among them who could have been fooled by false promises. Still, turning the right cheek is a chore.

We get in bed and I can't fall asleep for a while. The last time I see the clock near the bed, it is 12:20.

Day 4 Friday

I get up at eight thirty with difficulty. My right foot hurts like hell. It will probably be a cortizone shot or worse, an operation. I'll have to see the podiatrist as soon as we get home.

We go down to the restaurant, I think, called Charlotte. I have a one egg breakfast. Orange juice is freshly squeezed and generously offered twice. eggs and potatoes are great. The toast is too dry and cold. Coffee is good but not hot enough. I think I truly dislike that person who sued MacDonald's for the spilling of hot coffee. Now no place sells really hot coffee.

Yet, I am happy, even happier that we didn't opt for the breakfast and theater package. People who got that package have to get up and serve themselves from the buffet. We got served by a very nice waiter.

Day four, last day of July

Although I am complaining about the lack of internet in the rooms, I really like this hotel. Our room is large. Bed is comfy and there is a leather armchair and a nice desk with chair. The TV is modern and big probably 36 inches; my guess it is LCD from the way it shows everyone fatter than they are. It is a treat to see the newscasters of NBC and CBS again. They have aged like us, but I think they look much better than us.

We come up to the room. Ned says we'll take a taxi to downtown. I don't object although my heart beats somewhat.

In the elevator, we meet with two young women. We talk. They are from Miami. One of them is Cuban. I tell them my daughter-in-law has family from Cuba in Miami. Now they are even friendlier. Maybe we'll meet up again with them somewhere in the hotel. They were really friendly.

We find a taxi almost right in front of the hotel even though the doorman is nowhere in sight to call us one. The driver tries to tell us where anything is. We know where everything is. We lived here so many years. The taxi leaves us near NY Stock Exchange.

I take pictures like any other tourist, even if I am nervous. The place is full of tourists and people who work. Also construction workers. Construction is all around here. Some buildings are brand new. Obviously rebuilt after the disaster.

We walk to the ground zero site. Something clogs my throat. I hope I don't have an asthma attack. They closed off the viewing platform. We get up a few stairs on a nearby building and I take photos. I can't believe I am doing this. Ned watches me. "Are you okay?" he asks. I nod. But I am not. I am near the disaster area. The disaster that marks the worst day of my life, although it is not a personal disaster, but a more profound more universal one. The kind that marks one's disappointment and anger at mankind.

My older son and I can't get over this. Probably we'll never get over this.

We walk a little more and find downtown Marriott. We use their facilities and sit there some, then we go have something to drink in Starbucks inside the hotel.

We had talked about eating lunch near the Hudson River and going to the Battery Park, but this is all we can take at the moment. We get a taxi to the hotel, but we don't go in. Ned wants a newspaper, not that he'll read it, probably he wants to get rid of the heaviness from seeing Ground Zero. I walk with him. They have gotten rid of the kiosks at every corner, but we still find one on Broadway. Broadway is happy; sunshine and smiles, people enjoying themselves, tourists all around. I have always loved Broadway, and now, it consoles me.

Ned gets his paper and we go to the hotel. He looks at a few pages and closes it. I take shower, my second for the day. Could this one clean out the disappointment slash hate for 9/11?

We look at Broadway openings. Most shows we have seen already. I am not going to a show whose plot and even script I already know.

After we come in Ned falls asleep, and I write only to lose what I have written to this quirky net-book.

When he wakes up, at 4:30, after two hours, we walk to Marriott Marquis to Encore. It used to be Encore would be open all the time. Even though it is Friday and about five PM, they don’t have the dinner menu and they don’t have everything from the lunch menu. This place used to be so great. It still is, but something happened and their service is not around the clock. That something is the failing economy hissing from every place like a poisonous snake.

The maitre’d is from Europe. He has been here for only ten years. “I am not an American,“ he says. I guess, from his accent and the words that he slips in, he is a Frenchman. He talks to us about his background and about ours. He talks to us as if trying to make up for making us wait and serving us whatever was available.

We go look at the showtimes and prices. No more 300 dollar orchestra seats. They have come down to 126 now.

It is raining outside. We walk back to the hotel. Ned buys some dessert from the deli across the street.

We come up and I pack some of my things because tomorrow is going back home.

Right now Ned is watching CNBC in the hotel room and I am writing what I can remember I wrote before this net-book ate it all up.

Ned had some foreign money with him when we came into the hotel. During the second day sometime, that money was stolen from a bag inside a drawer in the dresser. We didn't want to waste our time dealing with it and almost gave up on it. Suddenly it occurs to Ned to go downstairs to talk to them, and there's no stopping him. So he goes, then he comes back immediately. He says they took it seriously and security will be in the room in ten minutes. Thanks a lot! I am all undressed and in my nightgown, and I have the newspapers, my net-book, and a few other items scattered on the bed. So I get dressed in and pick up a bit. As soon as I am halfway ready, a young official comes in and questions us. He wants to know everything we did that day. Luckily, I have my journal to fall back on. Ned doesn't even remember we were in Lincoln Center and we came back to the hotel after watching a movie. I give him all he needs. He thanks us. Ned says we don't claim anything, since money is hard to trace, but we wanted to let them know for the hotel's sake.

Sure! My foot!

The hotel, honestly speaking, is a great hotel, but the wi-fi biz gets to me, and also, they charge us something we didn't get from the bar in the room. Plus the stealing of the money is too much. Maybe it is the economy pushing people into things like this.

Will I stay there again? I guess not. The room is great though and the location. Darn! Next time, I'll do more research.

Aug 1, Saturday

We pack our stuff. Go downstairs to Starbucks. Ned takes a table and tells me to get him a muffin and a cup of coffee. I go in line. Just when my turn comes, someone pulls my arm. I turn. It is Ned. He says, "Don't buy the muffin. I don't want it. Instead get me a bagel, no a croissant, no one of those things...I wonder which?" He's so funny. He keeps pointing to stuff. In the meantime, the person in front of me has stepped to the side to wait for her order; the guy at the counter is waiting for my order; there's a long line of people behind me, and Ned is going through a weird I-don't-know-what-I-want phase. I don't usually get impatient with him, but I do. "Make up your mind. It is my turn," I say annoyedly. Then I don't wait for him, and I order a croissant for him, plus the coffees and my juice drink. He says, "Okay, croissant is good." We hear people giggling. He tells me later that when I told him it was my turn, a couple laughed out loud, almost doubling over. Well, at least we brightened up some people's day.

Then we leave. They give us the hotel's limo for the price of a taxi to take us to the airport. The drive is smooth and the driver is very nice. Sure beats the taxi.

They had closed part of the airport in the morning, because some nincompoop threatened. They did find a contraption like a kiddy toy with batteries attached or something. The man must be demented, but because of him, most flights are delayed. Ours is on time, but we have to go to the ticket counter twice to get our gate assignments. While we are waiting on line for the gate assignments we talk to some young people from Miami. They ask us, with apologies, how long we had been together. When we tell them, they ask us for relationship advice. We give them what we know. "Accept the other person as is." We must have been married much longer than they have lived so far.

I try to go online in the airport. Darn it! No internet. Actually there is one, given by a Chinese company. If you pay 59 dollars. The company's name is Bo-ing. Wasn't internet free at the airports earlier or am I in a parallel universe?

Please God, I don't want to hate the Chinese!

We sit in some place together with people sitting in wait for Jet Blue at Gate 5 to take us to PBI. It is crowded. I bet it will be a full flight. A young man with a cap is wearing ear-pods. Is he listening to something or does he not want to have to acknowledge anyone’s glance or smile? It must be cool to be so detached.

A few men read newspapers. Some sit staring into space lost in thought. I wonder if their thoughts will give them wings. I write on my pieces of paper anything that grabs my fancy, lists, some simple poetry of few lines, words to describe whatever I can see, etc.

But we are hungry and there'll be no food in the plane. I get up to buy a couple of great pretzels -Annie's Pretzels or something like that, the best I ate anywhere- and two bottles of water. That is lunch, together with the orange juice and munchies package they'll give us in the plane.

They take us in first because we are sitting in row 11, the exit row which costs more, and we'll have to open the exit door, should something nasty happen. We pay extra and promise to do the work. It must be our luck to have to pay to work for other people. But then, don't we have to pay for everything!

Jet Blue has TV but they take money for earphones. We have our earphones with us. So we're okay. Since it is Saturday, there isn't much news except on Fox channel and I'll be darned if I watch any Fox channel ever again. So I keep switching from Food channel to HGTV to Animal Planet to Travel Channel to National Geographic to Discovery. They all have just too many ads on the weekend. It doesn't matter though, because the flight is very smooth, unlike the bumpy one on the way to NYC.

We get out of the plane and find our car easily where we left it, waiting for us. On the way out, we go to the pay-by-credit-card checkout, which is unmanned, and there are no decent instructions anywhere. We push the button for help; no one comes. Thank you, PBI parking! You forgot old people live here.

So we back out of there and go to the pay-with-cash line, which is manned. It costs only 63 bucks for five days, which is half the price had we taken the shuttle. You win some, you lose some.

As soon as we get home, I cook us supper. Tomato soup, Spanish Omelet, baked potatoes, and tomato salad. Not bad!

Then I put in my photos and copy this mini travel journal from my net-book, in the wee hours of the morning, today.

October 4, 2004 at 10:20am
October 4, 2004 at 10:20am
Today, I’m going to write about our stay in a lodge in the Ecuadorian jungle during a Christmas vacation in the early eighties.

It wasn’t that the lodge was so fantastic but it was a shock to find it inside or rather to the side of the seemingly endless rainforest, after we traversed the Andes in a small Cessna that shook and sputtered and spit death threats at us every few seconds.

We had left Quito early in the morning to arrive at Coca or actually the town of Francisco de Orellana, a kind of a frontier town, to be met by a guide at an airport with dirt airstrips. (In the last decade or so, due to the oil boom, Coca has exploded in tourist business. An acquaintance with family in Ecuador says that Coca now has a decent airport and several luxury hotels. Also more rainforest lodges for tourists have been built.)

While we were inside the Cessna, we saw no habitation from the top except for a lone-standing chalet, which surprised me immensely. It might have belonged to somebody of the upper echelon in the society or to someone with a questionable background. There might have been thatched huts or other dwellings as we were told, but probably the green of the forest hid them from our sight.

From the airstrip we were shuttled to a canoe with motor where we were given lunch wrapped in leaves. The canoe took off immediately and we traveled down the Napo River for about two to three hours. Then we came to a small stream where we were transferred to smaller dugout canoes propelled by paddling.

All through our motoring and paddling down the river we saw only one thatched hut on the side of the river. Maybe there were more but we didn’t see them.

This branch of the river led us into a lagoon where about a seventy five yard boardwalk from the water led to the front of the cabanas. There were, under the screeching noise of the macaws and toucans, less than twenty single thatched-roof cabanas with rough wooden floors, flushing toilets, a lukewarm water shower (it was heated with some kind of a crudely trapped solar-energy), electricity, screened windows, beds with mosquito nets, and some fantastic porches with hammocks. The “office” cabana was the largest with lounging furniture, a bar, and a selection of local crafts for sale.

“Would you like some beer?” our hosts asked everybody.

“Thank you, I don’t drink,” I said. Lucky for me.

“How is it possible to bring beer here?” someone from the group asked.

“It is locally made,” was the answer.

An Indian waitress with braided hair brought a pot with a milky liquid in it and a few gourd bowls. With her bare hands she stirred the pot and grabbed some stringy things (I later learned that they were chewed out root masses) and threw them out on to the chicken coop, which was another small porch on the side with chicken wire stretched over it. I saw the chicken coop much later. At the time, I only heard the excited clucking of the chickens and wondered what that was.

The waitress dipped the gourds into the pot and gave one to each guest minus me, Thank God! Sometimes lack of vice is a good thing.

As people took small sips and wondered how to get used to the taste of the beer served to welcome us, it was explained that this beverage was made from manioc root which was chewed and spit out into a pot by the women who prepared it. Then, to ferment it, it was left out several days. So that was how this Nijiamanch Beer was made. After this local beer lesson, while a couple of guys took to the beer rather fast, some people dashed for the bathrooms to lose the beer and their lunch as well.

I also learned that this style of beer making is common from central Americas to the far south and this type of a beverage is not only made from the manioc root, but also from corn and yucca. The one made from corn is called chicha and it is given to the children as well. Except the version for children is only fermented for two days, whereas the chicha for the adults is fermented for at least five to seven days.

Soon the sun started setting and we all crowded into the Office Lodge’s porch. It was one of the most fantastic Christmas Eve sunsets I had watched in my life. Among the darkening silhouettes of stately trees with different shapes, as the diminishing light erased the water hyacinths and strange water grasses from view, every color imaginable reflected on the sky and the lagoon. When the water turned totally black, I saw some flickering neon lights on the lake’s surface. They were in pairs and with an orange tint in color. “They are Black Caimans,” someone said. “You’ll hear them splash in the night. Sometimes they swim or rest under the cabanas, but don’t worry, they are usually harmless.”

And all I was worrying about were the insects and the snakes. Stupid of me. Oh, well...

The evening meal consisted of a deliciously prepared fish, rice, some very original custard-like desert. What I liked the most was Ecuadorian coffee afterwards, after which we all retired to our own cabanas.

I found the hammock inside the bedroom to be more comfortable than the bed but the bed had the mosquito netting. I can’t complain too much because there weren’t that many mosquitoes during daytime but at night I heard them tapping at the windows. Even though the windows had screens, a few managed to squeeze in from wherever. I don’t blame them for coming in because while we were there, the weather got truly chilly in the evenings, although it was very hot in the mornings and rainy in the afternoons.

In higher places on the Andes, they said there weren’t any mosquitoes, but also they didn’t have lodges either. I don’t like to be around mosquitoes too much but I also don’t like to sleep on the bare dirt floor of a hut without a bathroom. Here, we thought we had to be careful with the mosquitoes, although there weren’t many malaria incidents reported. Something not reported doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The Quinine supply we had with us was of little consolation, for once you’re bitten by a malaria carrying mosquito, you’re bitten for life.

True, I did hear caimans under our cabana in the night but they didn’t faze me or maybe I made myself believe that. What more occupied my mind, however, was whether to go to the Cuyobeno Reserve with the group next day, which meant hiking through the jungle for some hours or to go to the market with Guadalupe, one of the hostesses who had invited me to accompany her in the morning. This was an “either or” choice. Plus, for the day after, another shorter rainforest hike was planned. So after I decided on going to the market and the shorter hike later, I slept as if I was in my own bed at home.

Guadalupe and two local men who were her helpers took me to an Indian outdoor market which spread over a large area, in sections. The produce section was inundated with tropical fruits and vegetables and the variety of potatoes -purple, yellow, red, black, of all sizes and shapes- stunned me. There were also food stands selling roasted boarheads and fried dough dipped in all kinds of spices.

Next, they took me into the textile section, more to please me than for Guadalupe. I’m NOT a big shopper, especially for clothes. Actually I dread shopping but to make them happy I acted as if I was enjoying myself. Then eventually I did, because this market was not like a department store and they had some really far out sweaters, shawls, and small rugs. I bought a couple of items for gifts and a hat for myself. I was ready to pay what the vendors asked but Guadalupe didn’t allow me to talk; instead, she did all the talking with the vendors. There I learned what made these markets tick. It was the hassling. If you didn’t hassle, you weren’t “one of them.” Some even took not-hassling as an insult to their trade.

Most women shoppers carried their purchases on their backs. Some had children added to their backloads as well. One local woman, I remember, had a huge basket filled with food on one shoulder. On the basket, on top of the food, sat her small child probably two or three years of age and the same woman also carried a huge sack of potatoes on the other shoulder.

The clothing of the local ladies was very original and colorful. Most of these women wore hats resembling the one Gene Kelly wore while dancing but with very short brims and dark colors. All women wore long thick socks, wide long dirndl skirts, shawls, amulets on their necks, and sometimes earrings. Ever since that day, I grew a liking to shawls, imagining how handy and sensible they could be for they covered up what you wore. They could be used as blankets and they could be used to sit on. In order for the shawls not to slip away, some did something with them I’m still not too sure of, but I think they tucked an end or both ends of their shawls into their skirts.

There were sections of the market under tents that sold odds and ends from radios to pots and pans, even some broken machine parts. There was even a section especially for souvenirs for tourists.

In the animal section of the market were pigs, cows, llamas, lambs, goats, and chickens. Guadalupe selected several chickens and a boar. Then she said something to one of her helpers who saw to it that the chickens were put in a crate and the boar slaughtered right there in the market just before we set back on our way to the lodge.

People were very friendly in the market and probably all through this country, although I saw a small section of it. The highlanders and indigenes seemed to be reserved and they didn’t like their picture taken, but if you looked their way, they usually responded with a smile.

It was a good thing we had started out early because on our way back to the lodge from Coco, it started to rain and since the canoes we were in had open tops, we got soaking wet. This was part of the adventure. Anybody who sets foot near a rainforest had to be ready to get soaked at a moment’s notice.

In the canoe, on the way back, Guadalupe said, “I know your days are scheduled but I wish you were staying another day; I’d take you to Don Ignacio.”

“Who’s he?”

“The curandero (shaman). He’s something else. He knows everything.”

Somebody who knew everything... Hmmm. Well, it must have been in the stars because someone else back in the lodge wanted to see him also. So, within the first rain forest excursion, we squeezed a trip to the curandero’s hut.

Don Ignacio met us on the road to his hut, carrying a pail filled with leaves. He was a man of about sixty or maybe older, of medium height, sun-darkened skin, slanted brown eyes and he wore his long grey hair in a thick single braid behind his back. He had on a plaid, long sleeved shirt and cut-up shorts. On his feet he wore plastic flip-flops. I couldn't believe my eyes. We all had high top boots on because of the snakes and such.

The group leader told us to stay in line and not move until a certain ceremony was performed. Don Ignacio, mumbling some words and chanting “Ho!” in between, sprinkled some leaves on each one of us; then, he embraced us one by one, welcoming us into the selva (rain forest).

I later learned that this was called Ceremonia de Limpia, or cleansing ceremony for stepping inside the selva, so the selva would accept us as guests and no harm would come to us. At the time -or even now- I didn’t believe any of this, but with all those snakes, mosquitoes, biting plants, and what have you, nobody in the group got hurt during the time we were traipsing through the jungle like bungling Tarzans.

We walked up the wood planks set side by side leading to Don Ignacio’s one-room shack, which resembled a log-cabin. The shack was placed on stilts and several -steps of a stairway led to its door.

We entered the shack. Two wooden cots had been aligned against the wall, in which the wooden door was set with hinges. Alongside another wall was a longer cot. In the middle of the room stood a table covered with heaps of jungle greenery. At the wall opposite the door was a metal stove with three burners that resembled a very narrow Franklin stove. Near the stove, was a stand for food preparation and also for Don Ignacio’s blackened pots. On the fourth wall were shelves and handmade cupboards.

Don Ignacio offered us different types of tea and told fortunes with some small things he called tabas which he threw unto a handkerchief like dice. I drank something made up of yucca roots and twisted liana that tasted sour but not unpleasant. Don Ignacio told me it would deepen my inner vision and I would never panic no matter what. Oh, well... no shaman is perfect.

To me, visiting Don Ignacio was the highlight of this trip although one person called him a crazy old man afterwards because of the strangeness of the things he said about the spirits of flora and fauna.

The next few days passed with us trampling around in the jungle as if headless and jumping out of our skins with every rustle and fleeting shadow. I could go in great detail here but it would be like science fiction mixed with a scientific treatise, and I am good at neither. The thing that impressed me the most was the blue morph butterfly and the denseness of the jungle. Imagine a Tarzan movie. The jungle was like that, only much denser. If they were to shoot a movie in the Ecuadorian rain forest, they wouldn’t be able to get enough light or space from the thickness of the brush, branches, and leaves.

Having said as much, now, maybe I’ll leave Ecuador alone to go on to the next place and time.
October 4, 2004 at 9:57am
October 4, 2004 at 9:57am
The other night, I made clam chowder for my son who was visiting and my husband drank a little, only out of courtesy since he hates fish soups. His face -as he drank it- brought back the memory of Bouillabaisse.

During the seventies, with our two children we stayed in a seaside village in southern France for a couple of days where a sandy beach with small eateries full of tourists cupped the sea. There were steep, rugged, and probably granite hills in the background cutting into a wide stretch of beach. The second evening we were there, we managed to pay our way into a beach-barbecue or rather Bouillabaisse cooked over a flaming fire.

This summer ritual of sorts took place with waterfront lights echoing on the Mediterranean and paying guests sitting around a somewhat primitive fire on the sands, beneath a crescent moon. The fire was lit with wood, some charcoal, and crushed papers under an iron grid. The flames leaped over the grid all the way to the second iron shelf with the large round pot over it. The cooking of the soup took probably 20 to 25 minutes, tops. It wasn’t so much the soup, but the ambiance created around it, which the French know how to do best. This made the evening an evening to remember, especially when our untamed little ones sat quietly nestling to us, watching the fire and the meal cooking over it.

“In memory of dear old times.
Welcome the wine, whate'er the seal is;
And sit you down and say your grace
With thankful heart, whate'er the meal is.
Here comes the smoking Bouillabaisse!”
by William Makepeace Thackeray

It was a ceremonial occasion. The basic idea was to boil everything fresh to make a broth of a soup and eat the boiled solids as the main meal with a glass of white wine. A few minutes before the soup was served, the chef put several lengthwise sliced baguettes to toast on the top iron grid shelf near the pot. Then he spread butter on the toasted bread and put a piece of toast in each bowl. After that, he grated some cheese on each bowl with great showmanship, since “no theatrics, no food,” must be the French cuisine’s motto.

Two young French women clad in beach attire passed the bowls around to us customers. I took a sip and I thought I am in Heaven. It tasted so delicious to me.

My husband, however, almost gagged, with the soup about to come out of wherever it went -his nose or stomach, I’ll never know. Luckily, because we had little kids with us, I had a load of Kleenex tissues in my bag. So, to save face, I lied. I told everybody that he was allergic to the fennel in the soup.

Then, the annoyed chef who probably didn’t buy my lie took the bowl away from him and dumped its contents inside a thrash container nearby; however, he -very politely- filled my husband’s glass with wine and served him some toast with cheese.

Right then, to top it all, one of my offspring asked out loud: “Why is Daddy so weird?” That made everybody laugh.

Years later, while discussing our children’s antics, we told this incident to some friends. One of them happened to be of French origin. Sounding truly defensive, he said that Bouillabaisse was the invention of the Marseilles fishermen and was originally made with seawater and very rare Mediterranean fish. True Bouillabaisse chefs were so incensed over its bad replicas that they have formed a union to protect the exploitation of the Bouillabaisse. Those who created the bad versions were the unscrupulous money-hungry, tourist-hunting cooks who demeaned the authentic Bouillabaisse’s name. Those, the Frenchman claimed, who try true Bouillabaisse never forget the experience.

Well, we never forgot ours.

Let, the French preserve the honor of their Bouillabaisse.

July 19, 2004 at 10:07am
July 19, 2004 at 10:07am
Where in the world can an opera house have the bronze sculpture of a violinist sinking into the floor? Not a clue? Well, a clog is a hint. I mean the wooden clogs people wear; not that they do anymore. The answer is of course Amsterdam.

I suspect the violinist was sinking because the city is below water level. There is a water column in the city hall showing how far under the water the city would be if they hadn’t built the dikes and canals and hadn’t taken other measures.

Yet, water makes this city. Amsterdam consists of 90 islands connected by more than a 1000 bridges. Alongside with water come the greenery and a myriad of flowers. Don’t think tulips only but all the flowers, due to the rather mild climate though somewhat unpredictable.

At the time I was there the whole country was going crazy over sunflowers. The flowers were everywhere, in markets, in parks, and around the elegantly gabled houses leaning over the water as if to catch their own glimpses.

The hundreds of years old buildings have been beautifully restored and preserved in Amsterdam. Their lean and narrow structures lean at odd angles against each other, making their view even more picturesque. Inside, they have low ceilings and steep winding staircases.

Westelijke Elianden (Western Islands), a part of Amsterdam, has the most wondrous waterside views with area-specific façades of the waterside buildings, wooden bridges, canals, marinas, boats that take you on trips along the canals and water taxis.

Our trip to Amsterdam was simple. We got on the plane in Kennedy and got off in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. As a city, however, Amsterdam is everything but simple. Having two cousins living there also helped us greatly.

At this time, I wanted to walk about in Amsterdam, in memories though it may be, because I feel I’ll be peeking into a Pandora’s box again, for the picturesque Amsterdam shocks, arouses interest, and in unexpected ways opens one’s eyes.

With Amsterdam, we broke with our routine and visited several museums. I loved the Van Gogh Museum, maybe because I have a special bias toward crazy painters. Having opened to public view during the seventies, the museum is rather new. It has hundreds of Van Goghs, several Lautrecs, a few Gauguins, Monets, and also Van Gogh’s collection of Japanese prints. Exquisite is the word here.

The Rijksmuseum was the spectacular one. Its star painting with a throne room of its own was Rembrandt’s Night Watch; although, I felt many of the other Rembrandts in the museum carried a higher artistic quality. The other Dutch Masters, Hals, Steen, Ruysdael, Vermeer were also wonderful. I can’t possibly recall all the painters represented because the museum is so vast. If I go there again, I’m putting aside three full days for this museum only.

The reason Rijksmuseum -- its Gothic façade, two towers, and those entrance doors-- looks familiar to a New Yorker is because it resembles the Grand Central Station. There is a reason for this. Both places were designed by the same architect, Cuypers, during the nineteenth century. Maybe because of that, most of the things in the museum are from the nineteenth century, although every age from medieval to modern times is represented to some extent.

Paintings and drawings aside, the most amusing was the doll house collections. Having read Ibsen’s “Nora, a doll’s house” at an early age, I wasn’t interested in doll houses before, but this treat was something else. There was a seventeenth century doll-house with every minute detail that was a delight to watch. It made a grown woman resort to little girl dreams.

After the dollhouses, what enchanted us were the scales of model ships dating from the seventeenth century when Netherlands was a naval force in the world, and this made the grown man walking around with me turn into a little boy.

Very close to the Rijksmuseum, is the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, a proud street showing off the city’s antique trade. Walking along this street right after coming out of the Rijksmuseum felt like I had entered yet another museum. Actually, some pieces were just as much if not more interesting than those of the museum pieces. The problem was, we weren’t allowed in the shops. Their ritual required ringing the door bell and then getting the guided tour, which was, if we were interested in a purchase. Nevertheless, we had some fun peeking through the windows.

Rain always caught us somewhere in Amsterdam and it came down abruptly, but rain was not the only wet stuff that took us by surprise. My first shock came when I saw the public urinals in the streets where men used them in open view. Can you believe it!

There are, however, in existence public toilets called WC or toiletten. There is a person who sits at the entrance of a WC near a table that has a saucer or a cup collecting entry fees. There’s no set amount for this and a few coins will do. Once, I put a nickel among the other coins by mistake instead of their currency and I got really bad looks. Since I don’t know Dutch but just some broken German, I used all the German words I knew to say, “Sorry, I made a mistake,” which wasn’t much help at all.

The bathrooms in some of the houses are poles apart from what we call a bathroom. The toilet is separate from the bath and in a very small room with very poor ventilation. They also have a strange toilet design with a platform to hold the waste to be clearly seen and examined before flushing it away. All of these things make the WCs stink, I'm sorry to say.

People in Amsterdam have a different understanding of things compared to the rest of us, such as a very wide acceptance of some drugs and paid sex.

There are two museums in Amsterdam that felt very odd to me. One is the Museum of Cannabis and Hemp; the other, the Sex Museum. We entered neither, but according to my cousin they house some historical details of thousands of years on their individual subjects.

The drugs are officially illegal but they are not illegal if people carry a certain small amount on them for personal use or smoke the stuff in coffee shops. Yes, you read it right. Coffee shops are for smoking dope, but they are also for coffee and some space-cakes with questionable ingredients. Some people claim to have gotten high from just eating those cakes. For that reason alone, I hesitated to eat or drink anything on the street. It was a good thing a couple of family members were nearby and someone accompanied us while we went sightseeing.

What I also came to learn in time was that the green triangle sign in front of the coffee shops means that they serve both weed and liquor inside.

Everything is taxed in Netherlands, even the prostitution industry in Amsterdam where prostitution is legal. Yes, prostitution is considered an industry. The prostitutes undergo regular medical checkups and pay taxes. The red light street of the city with scantily clad ladies is called Walletjes. It is okay to stroll down this street but not okay to take photos. I heard that some people, by taking photos, got in trouble with the police for “causing disruption to the working class.”

Is Amsterdam a safe city? There are two opposing sides to this issue. To us, it wasn’t unsafe because we had its residents who took us to where we needed to go and alerted us to possible dangers, but I can see how it can be a dangerous place for other tourists who go there expecting the best. Even with the tolerant attitude to drugs and sex, there are still pushers of both things on the streets. Amsterdam residents claim that most of the crime comes from outside. They may be right, but surely Amsterdam provides fertile ground for such behavior to take root.

In Amsterdam, in contrast to other wild cities, I don’t think any person is in danger of losing his life or getting raped; however, there’s a very good chance that most anyone can lose his goods, money, or papers, if he is not careful, for this is a city where pickpockets -zakkenrollers- abound and flourish. There are even signs in strategic places warning against pickpockets. “Let op zakkenrollers!” the sign meaning “beware of pickpockets” is sometimes written in several languages.

Some of the goods and luggage are stolen at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport or the train and subway stations. My husband never put his wallet, money, or credit cards in his back pockets; I wore a light safari jacket with four front zippered pockets just for the sake of being safe and carried my purse next to my body to the front of me with one hand placed on it. There are many people on bikes and sometimes a speeding bike can serve as a pick and go vehicle, depriving an unsuspecting victim of his bag or other belongings. Most of the time, thieves work in groups of three or four and create a commotion; then they make use of the distraction to run away with whatever they can.

Once, we were in the train and a man was sitting with his laptop on his knees opposite us. Several people talking loudly stood in front of us and all exited suddenly at the stop. They had made it out with the man’s laptop. I didn’t even notice what had happened.

Being on guard all the time is the best advice to keep in mind when visiting Amsterdam. They say straying out of the center of the city (centruum) and going out alone after dark or too early in the morning to iffy places may invite thieves, muggings and such. Though the Amsterdam police are very strict in keeping the public harmony by not tolerating vandalism, noise, or any other visible public nuisance, it is said that they are slow looking after individual complaints. Yet, the law-abiding residents of Amsterdam are wonderful people, and if approached with politeness, they are truly good Samaritans.

Shopping in Amsterdam has to be a favorite pastime because in most places we found street vendors and traffic free squares where temporary businesses open shop under tents. Cuypmarkt a place like a white elephant sale and Waterlooplein flea market are popular with the residents. In the prices of anything, cafes, restaurants, beauty shops, and even taxies, (BTW) taxes and a standard 15% service charge are included. Still the waiters expected tips, even a small one, when they waited on us. I don’t blame them at all, since Amsterdam is not a cheap city to live in, especially if you keep losing your goods to pickpockets.

If you are in a hurry and want to grab a bite in Amsterdam, there are Febo stores, a Dutch type of McDonalds, so to speak. They have a self-service where you put in the money and get fries, burgers, sandwiches, or whatever. Here we got fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup. This was, surely, a new one for me.

A favorite fast food for the Dutch are the croquettes, deep fried mashed potatoes and gravy, tasty enough but I wouldn’t go for it again.

Amsterdam is full of pavement cafes, despite its sudden rains. As soon as the sun comes out, tables and chairs appear as if from nowhere and are filled with people in a few minutes. There are also bars that serve beer, wine, and simple snacks any time of the day.

Beer is the usual Dutch drink since Heineken and Amstel are situated here. It is usually served with a huge frothy head in small iced or wet glasses with handles. Most of the Dutch dishes “Neerlands Dis” are made with meat, cheese and vegetables. Sausages, ham pea soup, bisque soups, herring are some favorite Dutch tastes.

Once we went in a restaurant with a hawker, a person in front of a restaurant hired to invite and actually goad passers-by inside. The food was awful. No wonder, if they needed a hawker the food had to be bad. Stupid us!

The best place we ate was the Cafe Van Gogh with excellent sandwiches and goat cheese salads. For me, Amsterdam was not the best place for eating, although they had quite a variety of fish prepared in different ways that I enjoyed. In general even their light snacks are not light for they usually are tostjes -grilled cheese and ham sandwiches- or doughnuts and pancakes.

On the streets of old Amsterdam all the way into suburbs, we were quite taken with ice-cream vendors, who were mostly Italians. Most sell their very fresh ice-cream in vending carts with umbrellas or awnings on top of them, as the outlets of nearby ice-cream factories. One funny vendor made his sales in Dutch but cursed in Italian. When I understood and laughed, he offered me extra ice-cream.

Amsterdam houses are different in the way that they have been preserved for at least two to five centuries. Some have paintings on them, some have coat of arms that can be of wood. The houses are usually built from dark red bricks and their large windows are white and the doors are different colors. Most doorways are detailed and old warehouses have wooden hatches. The façades of the houses are pretty narrow. They were built like that on purpose because in the olden times the owners had to pay taxes according to their houses’ widths facing the street. Courtyards called hofjes hide between the houses and are usually filled with flowers to the brim.

In the old part of Amsterdam, there are numerous colorful plaques set in the walls of the buildings as advertisements and some of them display some beautiful artwork in scenes and figures. We were told that most have the family name of the inhabitants or original owners of the buildings. For example, as advertisement, a baker had a fresco-like representation of an oven with a person feeding the fire and a few other figures around him with the words “de gloyende oven” meaning “the glowing oven” written in the bottom of the frame. These plaques also sometimes show the year when the building was completed.

One place I didn’t (couldn’t) enter was the Anne Frank House in the middle of Amsterdam. First there were too long lines in front of it, second I was afraid I’d cry and make everyone miserable. The house is a regular (I think) four story house with three windows at each floor after the first floor, an attic room window, and a red-tiled roof, one could pass on the street and not even take notice. Close to the house, a statue of Anne Frank stands. We heard later that the museum was renovated again a few years after we were there.

My husband went inside the Anne Frank House with my cousin’s husband while my cousin and I waited for them outside. When they came out, my husband said it was too crowded inside but he got to see a piece of her diary on display. He also said he was glad I didn’t go in, for the annex was tragic.

Afterwards we went to the Dam Square to feed the pigeons and disperse some of the sadness we felt. Dam square is a cobbled square with pigeons and out of work people selling pigeon feed.

There was a man there who said he was a school teacher by day and he was selling pigeon feed after hours. Actually, his eight year old daughter was selling the grains and doing everything else. He just sat there watching her. I don’t know the rules in Netherlands about making the youngsters work, but this young one -for better or worse- was doing all the work. My cousin said the man was probably a refugee or an immigrant and his being a teacher was probably not true.

There are many immigrants from other third world countries in Amsterdam. Some of them, like most of the pizza store owners, work very hard; others are here because of the so-called freedom and the lax laws this country offers.

Some of the immigrants are vendors of some thing or other and start their work with stalls in open markets on market days. Many citizens of Amsterdam do their food shopping in these markets because the prices are a bit lower and the produce is fresher. Lots of used or antique books also are on sale in these markets.

One thing positive about Amsterdam is its public transportation. A person living in this city might never need to own a car. They have a circle tram line that connects to all of the touristic sights and if a five day ticket is bought, the sightseeing tour becomes very cheap. Also the trams are a sight to watch with their unusual shapes and colors. My favorite way of transportation was the “Museum Boat,” a shuttle service that went to all the museums and other attractions. Also the canal cruises provide wonderful experiences for people who like to be on water and watch the antique buildings on the sides of the canals.

Once, my cousins took us to a casino by a canal after making us dress up (since the casino was considered a high class place), I think it was called the Holland Casino. Of course, we were urged to gamble but I never do and my husband hates to lose any money unnecessarily, so we waited for our hosts to lose all their money inside and join us by the cafe near the canal. I think we had more fun watching the canal traffic than they did losing money inside.

Canals have houseboats on them where some people live and work. Some of those houseboats serve as tourist inns and hostels. They told us that sometimes in winter the canals freeze and the people cross them on ice skates.

Like most cities, Amsterdam is overcrowded and housing is a major problem. In the recent decades, the city built modern apartment houses with multiple units wherever empty space was found. It is now possible to see huge apartment buildings among centuries old houses and this bothers many Amsterdam dwellers who are bound to tradition.

The city’s largest park is Vondelpark and it used to be where the hippies of the seventies hung out. Still it has its share of bohemian free spirits frequenting it. Also, it is very close to the museum of modern art, but we didn’t go to that museum. Those who went said they didn’t like it as much as the Van Gogh Museum. We went to the Rembrandt House and the Historical Museum just before leaving Amsterdam.

Rembrandt House is the place where Rembrandt lived for 20 years, until he went bankrupt and had to vacate the house. The reason for the bankruptcy was that he painted “The Night Watch” on commission and the people who ordered it didn’t like the results. Night Watch now hangs in the Rijk Museum. Here, lots of Rembrandt memorabilia are on display as well as his etchings and artwork.

I was surprised to see a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in this city. It seems, wherever we go there is a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. In Amsterdam it occupied a major corner of the most famous Dam square to where important streets and avenues open.

Dam square is usually crowded not only with pigeons but also with business people, street artists, ice-cream vendors, preachers, musicians, shoppers, and tourists. The Royal Palace dominates the square where they told me that the Queen is often present for official receptions.

Next to the palace is the gothic Nieuwe Kierk (New Church), except it is not so new, since it is from the fourteenth century and it has a tower that people never got around to completing. It made me feel good that there were more efficient procrastinators in the world than those I have come to know. I don’t know what is with these churches. In several different cities of different countries and continents, we came across a few incomplete antique churches.

The best thing about Amsterdam, when we visited it, was being with family members and being taken care of in a rather tricky city. They showed us whatever they could show us and what we were willing to see and were wonderful hosts. Since then, they have moved to other places and like us when we said good-bye to Amsterdam that summer, they too have said, “Tot ziens!” to a unique city they loved to complain about.

June 14, 2004 at 7:27pm
June 14, 2004 at 7:27pm
The word Alp comes from the Celtic Alb meaning white or height. Some claim it also may come from “elf” meaning dark and otherworldly. Seven major European countries, plus others, split the Alps among them: Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Yugoslavia, and Austria. In local lexicon, Alp is the high pasture where the herds can feed in summer.

Talking about herds, the fattest yet the healthiest cows I have ever seen were at Switzerland. The sheep too, here and around French Alps, were well-cared for and every sheep in each herd was marked with red-dye, the mark consisting usually of a circle with a letter inside. So when the herd moved nibbling grass, we saw a white blanket with red design moving over the pastures.

People in Switzerland experience not only Alpine Festivals, William Tell plays, yodeling, Swiss wrestling, beer sausages, but also they conduct direct democracy with 25 sovereign states and enjoy great diversity from village to village. There are places in Switzerland where the language is French, there are places where the language is German. There is even a Canton around the Italian Alps where they speak Italian. Not to worry though, most of the Swiss know several languages and quite a few of them are fluent in English.

The highest Alp is Mont Blanc. Yet one of the most photographically reproduced is Matterhorn with the village of Zermatt at its feet..

When I first saw Matterhorn from the ground up, I felt as if I was looking at a solidified ardent flame. A native who saw me look at it with awe said: “You can climb it,” as if it were nothing. I laughed... not at him but at me. I wouldn’t even dare to think of trying it.

In Zermatt, or in other places as well, locals show off their skill by the number of times they have climbed the Matterhorn; although, many fall numerous times. A local had climbed it more than 300 times. His wife shrugged: “Useless to say how many times,” she said. “The mountain is going nowhere. It stays there and only the workless (also means worthless) do the climbing.”

There are no cars in Zermatt. Transportation is possible by using the cog train and horse-drawn sleighs. Sitting in a horse drawn sleigh with a lap robe, which is a folded small blanket, with all that eternal snow around is one of the most romantic things I can think of.

Zermatt has narrow streets, hotels and inns with a relaxed air of history, sports shops, boutiques, jewelry stores and rows and cases of world’s finest watches. One wonderful thing in Zermatt is the food. No matter how big, small, cheap, or expensive the cafe or restaurant we stopped in, the place was spotless. Everything was spic and span clean with flowers at each table. The food was of very high quality and some Swiss wines were at least at par with that of the French. Most lunchtime fare among the natives though consisted of soup, salad, sausages and potatoes and of course “Bier” in long thick mugs topped with thick foam.

Unlike the other little towns I knew from before, Zermatt has a large tourist population probably year-round, with a good number of young people. You have to be young and agile like a mountain goat to dare climb anything.
No wonder the natives took to clock making in Switzerland. Somebody had to count something in the whitened solitude of the nights.

The winter in Switzerland is a fairy tale, especially at nights. The falling snow flakes blur any other light while they accumulate everywhere, even on steep roofs. Everything is softer, magical, and gentle.

Like the snow blanketing mountains, rocks, boulders, ridges, and crags, maybe people too need to deal and work with hard things, sharp things, puzzling things, to soften the edginess inside themselves, especially when a mountain’s magnetic draw pulls them deeper and deeper, and forces them to create something, anything for a feeling of elation and a pride of accomplishment.

Swiss women used to be as accomplished with the needle and thread creating laced and embroidered clothing as their partners still are with making clocks. Nowadays, it seems old handiworks and homemade fashions are becoming a thing of the past and off the rack mentality is contaminating the mountain passes. It would be a shame if the weather blackened woodwork and carvings on the chalets were to be exchanged with cheap plastic or some other ungainly invention.

The best resorts in Switzerland for me, since I am not a climber or a mountain goat, are the lakeside towns and fishing villages. Since most of the Alpine lakes are carved by glaciers, the water inside the lakes sparkles like a gemstone, be it a blue topaz, emerald, or lapis lazuli, and the lakes are edged by fancy gardens and all sorts of greenery.

In nice weather when the strong sun shines on the mountains and the area, compassionate peaks embrace the lakes and send cool breezes down on their protégés. These are the times to live for, whether one takes a short hike through the woods or by the lakeside or moves higher up to climb.

One climber asked me to accompany his group at least during the first part of their climb, which consisted of nothing else but hiking, and told me I could always take the cable back.

I told him I was too old for that and it would be risky. His eyes lit up. “But it is just the point,” he said. “Risk is great. Risk is the healthiest thing one can do for himself.”

So I let myself be convinced, although I had no idea how far the walk would be. From a distance, the place he pointed to didn’t seem too much. Little did I know that to go there, we had to take a serpentine path and even do some rock climbing, which I had never done before. Very soon after we started out, I was feeling tired, beat-up, and clumsy. Worse yet, what little dignity was left, I had to give it up for during the climbing part; I had to let the people pull me from above while others pushed my butt up from below.

In hindsight, I think, by accepting his offer I did push things (like asthma) a bit, but I got a sense of satisfaction from dealing with fears and hardship. A lesson like this one is applicable beyond the mountains and beyond any hikes even if one wheezes a little.
Once I asked a climber what was the hardest in climbing a mountain. He said, “The last few hundred feet to the summit, because you have to step across from the snow patches on to the loose rock.”

This made me get a few mountain photos and look at them carefully. He was right. As snowy or icy a mountain seemed, its top ridges could be detected as bare rock, sometimes as a solid line, sometimes as broken rocks.

In the Alps too, the only things that whiten the top ridges are the clouds. This may be because the highest heads do not wear crowns.

Talking of crowns, the Alps have quite a few castles built on them. The most interesting ones are those that King Ludwig built in Bavaria. We visited it on one of those trips when we went to see one of my cousins. For an only child, I have scores of of cousins most of them scattered around Europe. It must be the family luck, in some cases the family curse, that people of most of my generation married foreigners.

Coming back to the castle, it is an ivory castle on a solitary peak with majestic spires called Neuschwanstein. To enter the castle we had to wait in line, buy tickets, and then wait in line again because tourists from all lands come to visit it. It really is a very pretty castle. My cousin’s husband told us to come back and see it in winter if we could, because then it looks really like something out of a fairy tale.

Although it was summer during the time of our visit the castle looked magnificent, like a place any princess would want to wake up in. I could only imagine what it would be like in winter. The entire façade of the castle was of limestone found near Swansee (Swan Lake) nearby, and the walls that supported the stones were of brick. Against the backdrop of Bavarian Alps, this white castle with red trim (because of the bricks) stood like a dream.

Once we were inside, I couldn’t believe the splendor I witnessed; neither could I believe all those spiral stairs we had to climb. An old lady (at least a lady older than me) just stopped and sat on one of the steps and waved us past by her. I didn’t blame her one bit. Since the staircase was narrow, we were tripping over as we tried to walk around her.

The castle was built during the second half of the nineteenth century, as an imitation of a medieval castle. Then this castle itself was imitated by Walt Disney for his sleeping beauty’s castle.

King Ludwig was said to be homosexual and had a special relationship with Richard Wagner as the musician’s patron. Rooms on the third floor are based upon the legends of Wagner’s operas. For Tannhauser a winter garden and grotto and for Lohengrin a chamber and a throne room with a vaulted ceiling supported by columns and decorated with stars. The throne room surprised me because it was almost exactly like the inside of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which I have seen inside out. Also there was another place on the fourth floor dedicated to Parsifal.

King Ludwig was a romantic. Besides his fantasy of the third floor cave built for Wagner’s Tannhauser, the king had a love for swans. The motif of swans repeated itself in small statuettes throughout the castle. There’s a life size porcelain swan which is said to be the king’s favorite. Even the tap in the kitchen had a swan head.

All through the castle there were breathtaking chandeliers. King Ludwig’s Bed had the most intricate woodcarving and the bed covers were embroidered in the most glitzy fashion.

The kitchen was large with a vaulted ceiling with a huge stove in the middle of it. There was a basin near a window. We were told that it was for keeping the king’s fish fresh.

There was another castle nearby, which was yellow in color. It was the castle where Ludwig grew up. We were too tired to visit that one. Anyhow, I believe all the castles in Europe are good to look at from the outside, walking around inside them is really interesting but too tiring.

Neuschwanstein Castle was also equipped with the best technology of its times. The toilets were flushable at each story and there was running water on all floors. The castle had central heating system and a winter garden with glass sliding doors.

King Ludwig built other castles too. Another one people said was interesting is Linderhof, to the east of Neuschwanstein. These castles cost so much that even after they were just finished, they were opened to the public for money, to cover the expenses. To this day, that tradition continues.
I learned that during the last few years they have built a separate ticket place before entering the castle and also tickets can be bought beforehand, I don’t know if online or by mail. When we went there, about nine years ago, we had to wait in long lines just to get inside.

To me, King Ludwig seemed to be a character created to inspire any writer. Known by many nicknames as the Swan King, Dream King, Mad Ludwig or The Mad King of Bavaria, Ludwig was an extravagant spender who became king at the age of 19 and never fit in with the royal crowd. He had serious problems relating to all people in general and to women in particular.

Even as a child of 12, King Ludwig was fascinated by the legends and Wagner. After becoming king, when he couldn’t stand Munich’s society, he withdrew to the Bavarian Alps where he met Wagner and began a long but very stormy friendship with him until Wagner’s death.

It is said that Neuschwanstein was built in Wagner’s memory and Ludwig irritated the builders and craftsmen by showing too much interest and getting on their nerves by his constant intervention while his palaces and castles were built.

Ludwig’s death was a puzzle also, for he died under questionable circumstances three days after he was declared insane. Some think that he might have been murdered. His death was by drowning in a lake to the south of Munich.

Yet, in our day, the legendary king Ludwig’s fairy tale castles are a huge tourist attraction and they are said to be a very important source of income for the state of Bavaria.

I was very much impressed with the environs around the Neuschwanstein Castle. Although the place had become too touristy, the landscape, the mountains, and the colors were breathtaking. There was a bridge at a distance where, from higher up looking down at the scenery, we could see the castle in all its grandeur. Maybe grandeur is the word to use for the Alps surrounding it and gaudy grandeur for the castle’s insides; although, to me, the castle looked cute and charming from far away.

A question I still ask is, would this same castle capture so many imaginations, had it been situated elsewhere other than the Alps? For the same token, would we have the same exact study of psychology today had not Jung visited these mountains with his father in his youth? After all, he considered mountains and trees as symbols of the self. He believed that all knowledge about the world, understanding, thought, dream, opinion, philosophy, peace, and courage existed inside a mountain. Maybe he was right. In any case, don’t people look up high for things of quality?

Especially since Europe has such a dependable train system, the best way to see the Alps is by train (or tram) for they climb up higher than I ever could and also go faster without losing breath. There are several rail lines such as Swiss Rail, Inter Rail, Euro Rail, but it is better to check all these things before setting off, because so much change comes about and additional lines spring up each year.

A good option to consider is a rail pass that can be purchased to use practically non-stop over a number of days. Plus some train stations have wonderfully clean restaurants and viewing platforms higher up. So even waiting for a train, one might consider himself as sightseeing.

Some hikers took the train to a higher point and then hiked down, which made the most sense to me. Downhill has to be easier than uphill, but then mountaineering is a strange process all around and it is not for me to pass any judgment on the issue.

The best part of Europe where to really experience the Alps is in the middle of Switzerland, in Bernese Oberland region. Bernese Oberland region is the place where cows graze on high pastures during the warmer seasons. Plus, Bernese Oberland is the starting place for the hiking trails, excursions into the higher Alps region, rail and cable cars lifts, and many more activities. Here one can savor the natural world while enjoying the most modern creature comforts in addition to undertaking some very daring adventures.

While in Switzerland and taking tours in the region, visiting the capital city of Bern by the river Aare is always a wise decision. Here’s a tidbit for us writers. Bern is the city where first international copyright laws were passed during the late nineteenth century.

The city of Bern, at 1800 feet altitude, snuggles into a U shaped arm of the river Aare, extending its reach to the other sides by historical bridges and railways. Surrounded by densely wooded areas and mountains, Bern is not a crowded city, except for tourists.

A walking tour in good weather starting along Hauptbahnhof (train station) and stretching along one street, which doesn’t even take two miles, gives the traveler the feel of this old city with its cobblestone streets, famed clock tower (no, not as tall as Big Ben but its clock is more visible), many flamboyant ancient fountains still with water, monuments and a cathedral. On one of the fountains --I think it is called “Justice Fountain”--the figure of justice steps on the heads of criminals.
Bern’s train station has three levels of shopping, introducing bear paraphernalia here and there. The bear toys, bear figures, and everything about bears, were to be seen in the city as well. There were even two real live bear pits with automatic carrot dispensers or human carrot vendors to feed the bears.

We were told that bears were Bern’s symbol since the twelfth century. The legend (or fact?) so goes that a duke who founded the city said he would name the city after the first animal he shot. (Nice guy!) He shot a bear and thus he named the city Baren for bear which became Bern. For that reason a bear figure is on the state flag and also on the coat of arms.

Talking about Bern’s astronomical clock tower, it is situated at the east gate right around the marketplace where one can buy Swiss goods at a much lower price than buying them here at home in USA at the imported price. Every hour on the hour when the clock strikes, there is a four minute performance by many moving figures. Under the watch of father time, a jester rings the bells; there is a parade of bears, a knight in armor and a crowing rooster, and this has been going on since the sixteenth century. Imagine!

In Bern, each fountain has a story or depicts some kind of imagery. The weirdest one, I thought, was the fountain of the child-eating ogre.

What we saw was an ogre eating a child while holding other children to be consumed later. Maybe it was the despotic feudalism that produced such gory ideas. Someone commented that the ogre represented the Jews of Europe, which made my hairs stand at end. For a continent that prides itself in being civilized and open-minded and lords that thought over to US and many other countries in the world --Switzerland-- actually Europe sure has a nasty, shameful past.

Many people climb the 270 steps of the huge church tower of the famous Cathedral of St. Vincent in Bern and they say the view of the Alps is fantastic from the top. Well, I didn’t. I had climbed the Statue of Liberty in NYC, and even though I was 23 years old then, that was enough to teach me a lesson on climbing tower stairs. But the inside of the Cathedral is lovely with antique stained glass panels, though the tympanum at the west front of the Cathedral is overly decorated with nearly 250 figures (somebody must have counted it, since they told me that) portraying the Last Judgment.

Right around the Cathedral, stands the Moses fountain and after that is the place where Einstein lived and probably developed his theory of relativity while he worked at the University of Bern. Now, was that such a good thing? (I don’t mean E=MC2 but what it led to.) I bet Einstein doubted it himself when he looked back on it later. Yet the Swiss take great pride in Einstein’s having lived there and also in their higher education that led the world at least for a while.

The main street, lined with houses and shops built several centuries ago but kept in good condition, is called Marktgasse, which has the famous prison tower, which now serves as some kind of a museum.

There are quite a few museums in Bern. Since we feel that museums do not reflect the city they are in, usually we avoid them unless they contain something that may be of interest to either one of us. Yet, we went inside the Swiss Alpine Museum which had ancient maps of the Alps, mountaineering equipment used through the centuries, models of mountain huts, and anything belonging to the exploration of the Alps. It was interesting enough, but could not match the beauty of the mountains themselves.

The disorderliness of what I wrote so far is because it has been some time and the images come to me haphazardly. Bern, on the contrary, is a very tidy and pretty city. Passages lined with vendors connect the streets; the streets are filled with small shops and small, clean restaurants are all over the city. Many varieties of flowers to enjoy are present everywhere and along the windows of almost every house flowerboxes are filled with geraniums and such.

A walking tour in Bern is great because a weary traveler like me can always take a delicious Swiss coffee and chocolate break, and if she can stand the fatigue of walking even more, the horse and cattle market is also a sight to see.

One other thing that was interesting to me was the many flags hanging and waving everywhere in Bern. I thought they had a national holiday but they told me that the flags are there all the time.

Most people visit Bern first, then they go to Zermatt. We did the opposite, but as my husband says, we always do the opposite. It didn’t matter though, for wherever we went we were comfy inside down beds and enjoyed an excellent variety of Swiss cheeses and wine. What I would have liked would be to visit one of the many chocolate factories, but we were told only the business groups were given such tours but it was possible, to talk your way into one; however, pushiness not being one our virtues, we gave up on the idea, and went to Hershey’s in PA instead when we came back to USA.

During the last trip that I was talking about, after Bern, we traveled further north into Germany from the southern tip of the country to high North; however, I don’t want to leave Switzerland just yet since I’d like to rave about one of my most favorite places in the world, Lugano in Ticino, situated in southern Switzerland just before the Italian border, a place we had discovered in an earlier trip.

Switzerland is a multi-language country. German, actually Swiss German, during this certain time we were in Switzerland, was the language we encountered as the language spoken mostly. Switzerland’s written German, however, is like the one spoken in Germany.

During our earlier visits to the country when we have been in cities like Geneva and Neuchatel, French was the main language, but --surprise of all surprises-- to the south, we have also met some very warm-blooded Italians who talked Italian in the pleasant coolness or rather warmth of the Swiss canton Ticino situated just before the Italian border.

“Benvenuti, benvenuti!” Everywhere we went, in Lugano, we were welcomed by open arms.

We first witnessed Lugano from Monte Lema, a southern Alp with a modern cable lift. You didn’t think I would hike up there, did you? Besides, sitting inside a cable lift is almost like flying, although I am not into flying either unless I am inside an airplane.

I am also not into paragliding. Yet, we enjoyed the sight of many paragliders in most places over the Alps and we saw even more of them around Ticino.

Monte Lema has the most splendid view of Lake Lugano, Lake Maggiore, and southern Ticino. On Monte Lema a terraced restaurant, actually more like a self-service take-out, offered us a variety of simple lunches. The terrace had a wood planked deck-like floor and long picnic tables with benches where we sat to eat our lunch, watching the magnificence of the view with mountains, lakes, and cities in the distance glowing in glorious colors.

While admiring Lake Lugano from the top of Monte Lema, we met a couple from New Jersey who told us that they went on a day cruise on the lake. I just had to experience that. If there is water with a sightseeing cruise on it, be it a lake, river, or an arm of the ocean, something impels me to that cruise. My husband, I bet, will remember but will not want to bring back a few boat and water related adventures I pushed him into, under not so agreeable (but hilarious) circumstances. Yet, to the contrary, our boat trip on Lake Lugano was a pleasant one.

If I recall correctly, they had cruises almost every hour or several times during the day. At about lunchtime one day, we boarded a white and turquoise boat with “Navigazione Lugano” written on the side of it. I know this because I have written it down in my tiny notebook.

We went up to the top deck, and as we sailed, the cool lake breeze, the beautiful dark blue lake surrounded by lush, green covered Alps that looked like moss hills, and the lakeside towns and villages, some boasting of colorful flowery patches, made us forget about the lunch served on board. Such extravagant richness of nature and beauty of the sights humbles a person and makes him think how lucky he is to be there to witness it all.

Alps around Lugano, though quite high, seem more rounded at the peaks than those in mid to northern Europe. So were the people who seemed to be smoother, friendlier, and more open in their ways. The food, also, was excellent, but since I am partial to Italian cooking, I don’t know if what I have just said is a fair representation or not.

In other northern Swiss cities, the food is delicious in a local sense, but extremely pricey, especially if one ate all his meals in a restaurant. Upon the discovery of a supermarket type of store called Migros we were able to cut the cost down when we were in Bern and other major Swiss cities.

Talking about my favorite subject -food- again, in most places in Europe that we’ve been to, the evening meal is the slow meal. Waiters really take their time serving the customers because the idea is the last meal should be enjoyed. If the food is arriving too slowly, it is because the waiter waiting on you is a good one.

In my opinion the best food I ever ate was the Italian food in Lugano, more Italian food during another trip at the Amalfi Coast and Turkish food on the Bosphorus. Fourth place is a tie between France and Spain, Spain winning the friendly atmosphere contest, France winning on the variety and perfection of French cooking. Of course, I can’t put away the hearty German dishes and the excellent potato and onion omelet of the Swiss, Bavarian Beer and most local wines they brought us wherever we went. Each locality has its way and means of imbibing its favorite drinks. In Lugano, they drink wine from small bowls called boccalinos and their after dinner drink is a walnut liqeur Ratafia.

Today I’m writing about food, because last night’s dinner was a cooking disaster in the Holiday Inn we’re staying. I had eaten the same dish a week ago and they had it done to perfection. What happened? The dish was like leftover food dumped in salty gravy. When something is not to my liking, I always reminisce the good times.

Coming back to Europe, one thing different from the US is that Europeans do not drink tap water, except maybe in a couple of places in France. If one asks for water, one has to be ready to pay for it.
In other northern Swiss cities, the food is delicious in a local sense, but extremely pricey, especially if one ate all his meals in a restaurant. Upon the discovery of a supermarket type of store called Migros we were able to cut the cost down when we were in Bern and other major Swiss cities.

Talking about my favorite subject -food- again, in most places in Europe that we’ve been to, the evening meal is the slow meal. Waiters really take their time serving the customers because the idea is the last meal should be enjoyed. If the food is arriving too slowly, it is because the waiter waiting on you is a good one.

In my opinion the best food I ever ate was the Italian food in Lugano, more Italian food during another trip at the Amalfi Coast and Turkish food on the Bosphorus. Fourth place is a tie between France and Spain, Spain winning the friendly atmosphere contest, France winning on the variety and perfection of French cooking. Of course, I can’t put away the hearty German dishes and the excellent potato and onion omelet of the Swiss, Bavarian Beer and most local wines they brought us wherever we went. Each locality has its way and means of imbibing its favorite drinks. In Lugano, they drink wine from small bowls called boccalinos and their after dinner drink is a walnut liqeur Ratafia.

Today I’m writing about food, because last night’s dinner was a cooking disaster in the Holiday Inn we’re staying. I had eaten the same dish a week ago and they had it done to perfection. What happened? The dish was like leftover food dumped in salty gravy. When something is not to my liking, I always reminisce the good times.

Coming back to Europe, one thing different from the US is that Europeans do not drink tap water, except maybe in a couple of places in France. If one asks for water, one has to be ready to pay for it.
Coming back to Lugano, English is rarely spoken here, and if spoken, it is very difficult to understand. Something similar happens with my Italian. I can somewhat understand Italian if I apply force on my brain, but if I try to talk it, what comes out of my mouth turns into a distorted Spanish. Despite the language barrier, I met the nicest, warmest people here and if I dare study Italian again, it will be because of the people of Lugano and my wish to visit this fantastic town. Plus, one more time, I'd like to hear a sweet-voiced tenor's singing just for me.

Unless you’ve hit the lotto, it is better to be not too eager to shop on the cobbled Via Nassa in Lugano. Rolex, Gucci, Versace and many other too hot to touch stores are on this pedestrian-only street. Yet, it is great to walk up and down this street if only to dream Cinderella dreams.

Lugano is a great city to walk around in, for there are many things to see and experience. Besides the Via Nassa and the Swiss Banks, there are the lakeside promenade, narrow streets of the old town, St. Mary’s Church, parks, flowers, the sweet smells of oleander, lemon, and magnolia, museums although we usually skip them, outdoor cafes, lake breezes, and the strong cappucino that is served at almost any place. And of course, that divine food: polenta, ossobucco, pastas galore and my favorite crusty bread and formaggini, which is goat cheese topped with olive oil and coarse pepper.

Quite a few years have passed since I’ve been to Lugano but the memory stands shadowless, still delicately injecting its exquisite life into my life.
June 13, 2004 at 6:53pm
June 13, 2004 at 6:53pm
There are some once-seen images captured during my journeys that flash inside my mind for years. They are not photographic so much but more like sense-related and they come at me at the oddest times in spinning images until I have to shake myself to return to reality. These images are the milestones on the backdrop of thoughts, and they direct me to literal and metaphysical places inside myself that I didn’t know existed.

I think at this time I’ll start with mountains.

“What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?”

From the Hobbit series, this riddle’s answer is of course a mountain; however, I don’t agree with it totally. Mountains do grow with the help of earthquakes as plate tectonics dictate. Sometimes they even blow their top worse than an irate driver with road rage and they make breathing difficult for the residents miles and miles away. Just remember Mt. St. Helens. Also sometimes mountains crumble into tiny rocks and dust and fill the beaches with black sand.

I think I better stop picking on Hobbit and come to what I experienced with mountains. Mountains anywhere fill me with AWE. That’s it. Awe. Especially when I view them from the top.

During the late sixties when we flew over the Alps, I took photos of them from the airplane with my 126 box camera. On the way back, having run out of film, I just looked out and drank in their majesty. The photos came out great, and I still have them in some obscure photo album on the top shelf of a closet. What never erases from my mind’s eye, however, is their dignity in their solitude.

At the moment, from my hotel window, I am looking up at the rounded hills of the Allegheny Mountains in the distance and looking down at the greenish brown waters of the Susquehanna River and loving it. Although all my life I have been an oceanside dweller, mountains of any type move me to no end.

I felt an enormous awe for mountains while flying into the Tri-cities Airport in Tennessee several years ago. I was reading a novel when the pilot announced we were nearing our destination. When I looked up I was stunned by the view of a spectacular blue horizon, except what awed me was not the sky but the Blue Ridge Mountains rising dome after dome over each other, in a chain, in the distance. The time was toward the evening, but not dark yet, and the sun must have just set behind the mountains because they looked as if they were made of Steuben glass, airy, precious, and dream-inducing.

Anytime I lift my head to look at a mountain, I feel I also lift my spirit, although I’m not much of a mountain climber. In lack of a mountain, I live in Florida, even a good photo is enough to do the same trick for me. Because of that, I have great respect for mountaineering since I feel climbing a mountain is a great metaphor for life.

Just as in life, there are false summits and official peaks on a mountain. A false summit on a mountain has resemblance to pride, unearned fame, or unsatisfiable greed in life. A mountain climbing enthusiast once complained that he and his buddies thought they reached the top but when they looked up, they saw that the peak they were trying to climb was even higher. The best a person can probably do in this situation is to send good vibes to the mountain and try again.
Whether the climbers follow already set trails or are trailblazers themselves, what they are doing is getting the mountain’s grace and injecting themselves with goodwill and serenity.

Maybe the mountain climbers leave too many footprints and maybe it is argued that they are just as destructive to the environment as any other pollutant. Yet, I don’t think so. What ruins a mountain is not the climber, but the miner and the lumberjack who doesn’t know when and where to stop. Maybe that’s why some mountains blow their tops because they can’t take it anymore, as in the case of Mt. St. Helens.

A good climber will start from the bottom up. Lazybones like me enjoys the vista from an airplane, or as once it happened, get put on a mountaintop by a helicopter. An average person’s mountain climbing from sea level usually consists of driving up in a car to a place 800 to a 1000 ft above sea-level, say Jamestown in upstate NY. Now, that can’t be called climbing, can it?

Another thing about climbing a mountain, probably, is not just climbing up, but rather scaling the peaks up and down until one reaches the highest peak, if possible. From the top the view may be awesome but happiness and satisfaction is in the climbing. So even if one hasn’t reached the top, he may have gained something truly important in the process.

Earth is not a perfect planet and its mountains are not set according to a general rule. Each mountain has its own rule, own trail, own rocks, own crags, own slippery surfaces. Each mountain leads its climber to an individual focus and a different understanding of himself against the universe just as each mountaineer carries his own map.

A hiker or a climber finds his own heart and solitude in the barrenness above the tree-line. Once he reaches the top of a mountain, the scenery is not only spectacular looking down but also looking up, for it’s in man’s essence to look up and try to see as high as he can. If he’s up there in the summit and is camping at night, he is nearer to the stars to dream about them. Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Orion’s Belt, The Milky Way, The North Star, Dog Star and others are all there to make him proud of his purpose but also to make him feel insignificant inside such a vast universe. Even so, despite the clammy mist, blinding fog, the wind and the frigid air, the one who has made it to the top feels his connection to the cosmos outwardly and internally.

I grew up at the seashore, and to this day I reach an internal peace through walks on the beach watching the waves scatter and throw their white caps about. I love to feel the sand under my feet and smell the salty air. Yet, mountains tease me, entrance me, and fill me with awe and curiosity. Maybe it is because I think of them as waves too. Mountains can be the waving of the earth’s crust to the rest of the heavens as if to say hello. Just like the waves, mountains can fold, fault, and become residual. Just like Tsunamis, for miles and miles around, volcanoes blow up and drown everything in sight inside their ashes.

Maybe that’s why their majesty has inspired myths to be crated around them as Mount Meru in the center of the Himalayas was thought to be the axis of the universe as Mount Olympus was where Zeus resided. Hindus and Buddhists believed in the divinity of the mountains and assigned each one as a home to a god.

As well as serving as residences to gods and being the sites of sacred revelations, mountains are also regarded as portals to the underworld and, according to Icelandic folklore, people believed that the Christian priests who took on the role of mythic heroes were able to open these portals. Mountains are also thought of being inhabited by supernatural beings, some of them demons, who send climbers to their deaths. Even today, some consider Mount Hood as the operating center of an alien race and Mount Shasta to be the home of an old race that dwelled in Atlantis.

To the question, “why climb a mountain?” Sir Edmund Hillary answered” “Because it’s there.”

But a mountain can be fickle. A mountain has moods. One never knows when the temper tantrum will strike. A seemingly safe rock with holds, nicks and crannies for the mountaineering gear suddenly will turn slippery with ice; the overhangs on ridges will abruptly break apart sending down stones over once passable routes; a grey mysterious fog will stick to one’s breathing passages; hail and lightning will batter the eyes, the face, and anything else in sight; the word avalanche will make the climber tremble with fear, for it will maroon people and villages for days at an end.

To live and work among the mountains offers a linkage to nature in a truly strange way. Even when one has debts to be paid and mortgages to be settled, mountains are around for comfort, encouraging the dwellers on them to enjoy a hearth and home decorated with Alpine rose, edelweiss, gentian, and anything else that may grow at the foothills or through the snow, to wake up in the morning and lift their eyes and souls to the primeval majesty of high peaks, to watch the plethora of green fir and to go after the timber to be gathered. Wood is put to good use among the mountain dwellers. Tools and utensils, carriages, carts, blades and axle for waterwheels, homes, sheds, weaving gear, cuckoo clocks, sometimes are all made of wood.

While most any place is losing its battle to an uncivilized civilization, inside and around Alpine forests, there are nature preserves where the flora and fauna remain undisturbed. Hiking on or around the mountain valleys in spring to see the roots of birch trees grab a boulder and to listen to the warblers’ and finches’ songs mix in with the hoarse croak of the vultures, to make way for a red deer followed by its fawn on the green tinted meadows and maybe discover a treasure of insect and plant life provides an unaccustomed sense of content.

Yet, the seasons on mountains do not depend on the time of the year as much as they do on the altitude. The higher one climbs the colder and the lonelier it gets. Soon the tree line is gone and what are left are rock, ice, snow and the majestic mountains holding their windy heads inside the clouds.

Resembling mountains, memories come in waves, positioned inside ranges and cordilleras. They come to us without space and time following their own personal laws and just like mountains there are memories too hard to climb and conquer as there are memories to enjoy the magnificent view from. Yet, they also fail and betray us sometimes, similar to what an avalanche does to the mountaineers.

Speaking of memories and mountains, my farthest memories of mountains are of the Alps, though not of snow and solitude at first, but of patchwork of fields surrounding quiet villages, small churches, simple doll houses shouldering steep roofs, freshly mowed hay draped in piles over cylindrical racks to dry and me feeling like Heidi among the goats; then, also, the earth rising to the sun with stupendous force; steep, craggy, brown, black, and purple heights breaking the ground with touches of green toward the peaks; and pine forests at the skirts of the mountains. Why these mountains ever rose with such keenness has puzzled many for centuries. The answers may be hiding in those small quiet villages that have survived, formed and re-formed through millenniums and centuries of mountain building activities of our blue planet. When I was very young those villages and the people in them were the most important to me.

Only later on, I came to witness the white caps, snowy shoulders, and white wondrous splendor of solitude during our early spring and late winter visits. Alps do not span a large area. They could fit with ease inside two East Coast US states such as Virginia and Maryland, but as far as mountains go, they are rebellious, frozen, wild youngsters who haven’t lost their sharp edges. They are also the spoiled brats of history with riches of legend, romance, and majesty.

June 13, 2004 at 6:14pm
June 13, 2004 at 6:14pm
I’ve been to London three times: first, during my youth days; second in 1986; third on our way over to mainland Europe to sightsee and to attend my husband’s nephew’s wedding. The wedding was great, though the marriage didn’t last. What lasted were the memories of a grey, cold, rainy London during late October and on our way back from the Europe tour at the end of November.

The first trip is foggy in my memory for it was just a hop on the way to someplace else and I only stayed in a small hotel near the airport. The second one was in 1986 to visit a cousin of mine who married an Englishman and settled to keep house in Kent for a short while.

Most of what we could see of London at that time was probably the highways around the Heathrow Airport. Then, my cousin and her husband drove us around their area to show us the farmlands, chalk hills, fishing villages, and marshes of Southern UK, but not London. In those days, only ferryboats went to France and the laid-back Britons were only more laid-back.

In retrospect, I find that trip to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable, for we were with family and the sights were stunningly beautiful.

At this writing though, I’d like to focus my attention on London, because it is more recent and lucid in my memory. More than the sights, I remember the experiences and feelings, tastes and smells, and for reminiscing any trip, these things are the most valuable.

The last time we were in London was in 1998, mid October, and then late November because that London trip was made up of two trips. On our way over to Europe we stayed in London for four days, and on our way back we stayed for another three days. We knew it was off season, but the timing of the wedding and other circumstances warranted it, and we thought of ourselves as being flexible and any journey as being a matter of attitude.
We usually travel very light, but this time it was different because we were going to be attending a formal wedding, which made it necessary to pack an extra bag for my evening gown, shawl, light shoes, evening bag, and formal man’s wear with all the details for my husband. Also before the wedding, we would be gallivanting around Europe probably with no opportunity to launder anything. Plus, it was winter, which meant extra sweaters, clothes, shoes etc. etc. So we made sure that the hotels we reserved rooms in had elevators for the several pieces of luggage we had to carry. Then to be on the safe side, we printed out maps for our destinations, so we wouldn’t get lost in any taxicab going from airports to hotels.

It was yours truly who insisted that the lodging in London be not so expensive. I should have known better. I reasoned that, England being more or less like the United States, London’s cheaper hotels would be comfortable or at least tolerable, since I considered us somewhat travel-conditioned; therefore, after finding a hotel on the internet with an elevator, we called the hotel and made our reservations for both of our stays. We checked again on the phone if they had an elevator. They said, yes, they did have a lift and the hotel was just across from Paddington station and we’d have no trouble finding it.

Everything went well while we were in the air and at Heathrow. Our flight with British Airways was fantastic, as it has always been with any British airlines. Since we had our clumsy pieces of luggage, we opted for a taxi from the airport. I don’t know how it happened, but instead of the larger black London taxicabs, we were led into a small yellow taxi. The taxi driver was from Pakistan and had arrived at the United Kingdom only a week ago. He said his father had been in London for several years and was working for the same taxi company and he was hired through his father’s sponsoring. He said he knew the routes because his father taught them to him. Thus, we started on our way into London.
There wasn’t much problem with the taxi driver’s knowledge of the route until just before we arrived at Paddington. He seemed confused somewhere with the one-way roads, so we gave him the map we had printed out from the internet.

In Paddington, the streets, most of them one-way, formed a grid and the hotels on them were stacked against each other like a row of sardines. They looked kind of cute to me for most were of red brick or painted white with red brick chimneys, elongated windows and before-the-war style entrances. I thought with so many hotels in this place, nobody could be left out at any time.

Here again, the driver got confused. Some of his confusion was with the name of the hotel we had made reservations in, because there was another hotel with exactly the same name with a different ending; one of the hotels ended in “Plaza,” the other in “Towers.” Thanks to me, ours was the cheaper one.

Our driver took us to the expensive one first. Then he couldn’t find his way back to where the cheaper one was because of the one-way streets. So I gave him our second sheet of paper, which had the more close-up map of the streets around the hotel. Then we had to direct him through the streets and signs whether they were one-way or not, since he couldn’t keep his mind on driving and read the signs as well. In retrospect, maybe he didn’t understand the street signs as well.

When we finally stopped at the door of our real hotel, he said he wouldn’t charge us for the last part of the trip, because the confusion was his fault. We felt sorry for him and paid him in full anyway. When my husband asked for the maps back, the driver asked to keep them. He could use them and he’d like to study them, he said. So we let him keep the maps.

There were several steps leading to the swinging, thick glass entrance doors. There was no doorman or anybody by the door to help us up. The taxi was long gone. I stood by the luggage while my husband went in to get help. He came out empty-handed, saying there were only two little fragile looking girls at the desk and he would in no way ask them for help.

At this time, the unspoken “help each other” code of all American tourists came to our rescue. Two young men with backpacks helped us up into the hotel. One of them held the swinging glass door open, since it wouldn’t stay open on its own, while the other hauled the one heavy piece inside and we managed to carry the smaller lighter bags. We learned later that these nice people were Texans.

Inside, to the right, two young women barely through their teenage years, both with dark straight hair and black dresses, sat chatting at a desk that seemed smaller than the one I have at home. Both girls strangely resembled each other almost like twins. I surmised they might be sisters. Behind them a half glass door was left ajar, showing shelves and files. Neither girl stopped talking to the other while we stood in front of them for a few minutes and waited.

“Excuse me, Miss. We have a reservation,” my husband said finally.

“Please, sit down over there.”

One of them pointed to the only corduroy covered sofa and armchair. “I’ll look for your reservation,” she said, taking our paper with the reservation number. Then, while one girl stood up and reached in from the door that was left ajar behind them, the other sat at the desk opening a large file folder, still talking.

“It must be a British dialect. I don’t understand anything they are talking about,” my husband whispered.

“They are talking in Spanish about us,” I whispered. “They just made fun of the way we lugged ourselves in, wearing rumpled raincoats.”

He didn’t argue for he knew that I understood enough Spanish to not misinterpret. “I wonder what these Spanish girls are doing here,” he murmured instead.

“European Union. Remember, the continent is all one country now.”

Since the plane had landed after the break of dawn, 6:30 AM in London time, despite our taxi driver and his circling around the place, we were inside the hotel too early, which was about 12 noon.

It took the girls quite a while to find the reservation, but when they did, they wanted to be prepaid because their papers said so. We told them we had already paid for the entire stay with our credit card before. No, they had us pay them again. Luckily, we put the bill on the same credit card. When we returned home much later, we found that we were billed twice for the same stay and it took several overseas calls and the intervention of our credit card company to straighten the matter out.

The girls told us our room would be ready at 3:30 PM and meanwhile we might leave our luggage in the luggage room right by the lift and we might go lunch or something.

We dragged the luggage toward the pointed direction. What they called the luggage room was a not-too-large walk-in closet. Truth is, you couldn’t hold its door open because if you did, the people coming out of the lift (elevator) couldn’t get out since the corridor in between was probably no more than three or four feet wide. The luggage-room, rather closet, was of bare unpainted, unfinished wood with large splintered shelves inside. I thought I saw a tiny shadow streak by the opposite wall and almost shrieked. Was that a mouse?

We had no choice but bring in the luggage, consoling ourselves that at least, except for our softer carry-ons on wheels, we had solid Samsonites no vermin could break through. One of the terrific Texans, without being asked, rushed to our aid again and lifted the softer bags on one of the wooden shelves.

At the other end of the hallway where the lift and the luggage room was, we saw another half-glass door. When I looked through it, I saw a stately hall with dark cherry-red wall-to-wall carpeting. On that huge hall, long winding stairs appeared to be imperial with wide, also dark cherry-red carpeted steps, boasting of polished cherry wood banisters. Maybe there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Jet-lagged, hungry, tired, and not yet with a room, we walked out of the hotel to the corner where the restaurant, highly recommended by the young women at the hotel desk, was situated.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to see if the room was ready. It was by now 2:30 in the afternoon. No, the room wasn’t ready and it wouldn’t be until after 3:30. It was suggested that we take a tour or go for a walk.

We opted to walk around since what I ate was making me queasy. Across from the hotel, at the corner where two streets met, was an entrance to the famed Paddington Station. Opposite the hotel, there was a small grocery with fresh fruit, like the small delis in New York City. As we ambled around, we saw several stores resembling that first one. Most of them were operated by Orientals and people from other ethnic groups. There were also pubs and small shops for different needs. We saw a large steak pub where we thought we might eat sometimes and never did, because inside, it looked foggy from cigarette smoke. Wouldn’t that be perfect for the asthma I have, which always waits to receive the slightest encouragement to squish me?
While we strolled under the on and off drizzle, one thing immediately grabbed my attention. People in London walked very politely and this wasn’t only on that day but during our entire stay. Londoners are very civilized when they are on the street. The only place in my memory that came closest to this London behavior was in the town of Marion, Virginia, where, during our two-month stay, the people always made way for us, and while driving in traffic, they would stop to let us pass even if it was their turn. I had truly loved Marion; therefore, I had to bet then that I would love London.

It was four o’clock when we got back to the hotel. By this time all I wanted was to get in bed and sleep. At the desk were still those two girls who spoke Spanish. When they saw us, one of them arose and said that the room was ready. She gave us the room number and accompanied us to the luggage room to unlock its door. After we got the luggage out, I turned around at the door and pressed on the elevator’s up button.

“No, no, no,” she said, “You have to take the stairs. The lift doesn’t connect to that side of the building.”

Then she explained. “This hotel is two separate buildings that don’t really connect.”

“What?” I asked, “We asked on the phone if the hotel had an elevator?”

“Yes, it does,” she said. “Here it is, but it doesn’t connect to the other side. You’re on fourth floor on the opposite building. If you insist, you can take this elevator to the seventh floor on this building. Between the two buildings there is a metal bridge but it isn’t very sturdy. Only one person at a time can walk over to the other side. Your bags are heavy and there are two of you.”

She stopped and stared at us, assessing the situation. Then she continued. “If you want to, go ahead. Don’t forget that the top of the bridge is open. It is also windy and rainy outside.” She smiled politely.

Out of curiosity, I asked.

“Suppose we crossed that thing. Didn’t you say it connects to the seventh floor? How do we get to the fourth floor then?”

“You have to take the stairs down to the fourth floor.”

Was she joking? I looked at her dumbfounded.

“I said that because you asked.” She was apologetic.

“All right, forget the elevator. We’ll take the stairs,” my husband said.

We carried the luggage one by one into the dark cherry-red carpeted stately hall to the bottom of the imperial stairs with the regal banisters.

“They are not bad, those stairs,” the girl commented. “Everybody uses them.”
Sure enough, two men with small beards --one older, the other younger and both with well-developed muscles-- walked down the stairs carrying their lightweight carry-on bags with wheels. Obviously people who stayed here used the tube (London metro) to and from the airports; therefore, they used one or two small bags.

My husband asked, “Is there a bellboy or somebody to help us carry the luggage up?”

“If you want to wait, the night watchman comes in at 11 PM,” the young girl said hesitantly. “But I can help you.”

“No thank you,” my husband said. “We’ll manage.”

My husband went for the big piece of the luggage, but the girl took it from his hand and started walking up without listening to our pleas. For a second there, visions of her tumbling down those stairs with the big bag on top of her crossed in front of my eyes, but she was already halfway up the stairs.

I have difficulty going up any stairs, thanks to asthma or whatever; now, besides myself, I also had to lug a bag, my purse, a raincoat, and an umbrella. The stairway stopped at each landing, and at each landing, to find the next stairway up, we had to go through some heavy doors that threatened to close on us and narrow winding hallways that twisted, turned, and gave us another up or down step.

This hotel was a labyrinth of narrow spaces and doors, the kind Sherlock would get lost in. At least, my curiosity was aroused and when curiosity is aroused, discomfort fades.

Our room was at the end of a corridor. It had a platform with extra three steps to get to its door. Inside the room was a small partition at the entrance which hosted a tiny shower with a door, and a small commode without a door. That is, except for the partition wall, the commode was open to view.

I laughed out loud when I saw this, because it reminded me of a hotel room in South America we once occupied where the commode was smack in the middle of the bedroom and open all around. That room had always come up as a joke in our conversations.

When she heard me laugh, the girl said, “We have rooms with totally separate bathrooms, but they are all occupied now. I promise to reserve one for you for your return trip.”

She was really so sweet, trying to please the customer, yet also doing a job in a place with limited options.

I looked around the small, sparse room with tiny cot-size twin beds with one nightstand in between them. There was lamp and a telephone over it. A small wooden desk with a bare top and a wooden chair were the only other pieces of furniture. The two tall, narrow, rectangular windows had the view of the street up front, which we had walked on while waiting for this room.
One of the beds was adjacent to the wall where the windows were, with little space in between anything. Once we put the luggage down there remained no surface to walk on. I took the bed near the window, hoping I wouldn’t wake up at night to use the commode, for there was no way to get to the other side without stepping on a piece of luggage.

“Were you speaking Spanish when we came in?” my husband asked the young girl who had carried the big bag.

Her face turned ruby red. “Yes,” she answered meekly. “My cousin and I are from Spain. The other girl is my cousin. Do you talk Spanish?”

“No,” my husband said. “I don’t. We just guessed it from the accent.”

I said nothing about knowing Spanish or having understood their gossiping about us and she seemed relieved. After all, with all the carelessness youth bestows, she was kind-hearted. When I looked more carefully at her face, I saw how pretty she was with white creamy skin like that of a china doll large pretty dark eyes and straight black hair to her shoulders. She was petite, probably five feet plus a couple of inches only, and she moved with grace, although she acted with abandon.

When she turned around to leave, my husband wanted to tip her, but she refused the tip. She said she did it as a favor, since the hotel didn’t have the night manager in yet or the boy who worked as the handyman.

“Great, so you do have a guy downstairs,” I said.

“Yes, except today he’s off-duty. He’s fixing a faulty door knob at the owner’s house,” she said, as she opened the door to go out of the room. “The breakfast is served in the dining room at the second floor. Just follow the golden arrows on the corridors. They’ll get you there,” she added as she left.

By this time, it was dark outside, for in fall it gets darker earlier the further up one goes to the north. “Let’s get some fruits or something for supper and eat here,” I said, since for all the travel I have done in my life, I could never get used to the time change. At that moment, I only wanted to hit the bed and sleep.

“I want to eat something decent. I am hungry,” my husband complained.

We dragged ourselves to the corner restaurant where I ordered fish and chips since I was dying for tasting fish and chips English style again. The last one I had eaten was in a small fishing village when we visited my cousin a long time ago and I never forgot that taste. This one seemed quite delicious too, with pieces fried crisp on the outside; yet, when I bit into my first piece, oil oozed on to my chin. So, after cutting the food into the smallest pieces, I squeezed the oil out on the plate. Still, the flavor of the dish was fine. It may have been just that cholesterol tastes good.

Later that night, inside the dark of the room, I looked out the window from my bed. The lights from the still open stores reflected on the sidewalk and I could see well into the small deli across. Two men with white aprons were carrying the boxes of fruit at the entrance of the store to the inside. The street looked a luminous slick grey under the probable drizzle and the tops of a few opened umbrellas sailed over the sidewalks. Even those people without protection from the wetness walked with no hesitation as if they were supposed to get wet.

During all the time we were in London, in harsher weather or under a downpour, I never witnessed anyone snap their umbrellas open and close with harsh motions. Truth is, I noticed no crude motions coming from Londoners. Probably, the breast plate of the empire still protected its subjects from discourtesy.

In the morning, breakfast was a pleasant surprise. As instructed by our little Spanish lady, we followed the arrows to the dining room. Here, rectangular tables were covered with starched white tablecloths. Around the tables wooden high-backed chairs stood in a row like soldiers. Not one chair was misaligned. We saw several tourists get up and leave. As soon as they were out the door, a waiter rushed to straighten and align the chairs, even before clearing out the table. Then he turned around and looked at us questioningly. We were standing there waiting to be seated. Understanding the situation, he looked directly at my husband and talked.

“Take any seat you wish, Sir.”

We sat ourselves at the nearest table by the window. Since breakfast was uniform for everyone, there was no ordering. The waiter poured water on our glasses and asked if we cared for orange juice. “Coffee or tea?” was the next question. I went for tea, husband opted for coffee. Then, when cereal and milk was served, we were asked how we liked our eggs cooked. With eggs came two pieces of toast with butter and marmalade, tiny sausages, a slice of tomato, and surprise of all surprises, baked beans. This was enough food to last until the late afternoon and probably all the way to supper and the price was included in the room’s charge.

After breakfast, we wanted to take a bus tour. Since it was early morning, people had crowded around the desk but there was a young man who stood by the door and opened it for the tourists to pass inside or out. Assuming he was the handyman mentioned by the young girl before, we asked him where we could take any sightseeing tours. He brought a few tour pamphlets and showed us the way to a bus stop outside the post office. In a short time, we found ourselves inside a red bus with an open-top second deck. Since the weather was insanely cold and wet, we stayed downstairs in the covered part.

I can’t recall the name of the tour, but we could get off the bus at any one stop to eat, shop, walk around, or do whatever we wanted and hop on the next one, since these buses came one after the other and the same ticket covered everything.
Here are some of the places I wrote down from the recorded tour guide, not necessarily in any order: Fortnum & Mason store, Buckingham Palace, Royal Academy, Downing Street, Piccadilly Circus and Eros Statue, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, The National Gallery, Nelson's Column at Trafalgar Square, The Tower of London, Big Ben & The Houses of Parliament.

Most of the buildings in London were bombed during World War II but were later rebuilt exactly as the originals. Was this another example of the cool and gentlemanly British ways? Or was it, "we don’t want to remember the awful stuff"? Or, "if it’s just as before, it didn’t happen"? Or was it out of politeness to the Germans that they wanted to cover the mess the enemy made?

When something burns or is destroyed, the reaction I notice most of the time is “We’ll do it better, stronger, fancier etc.” When my son’s school burned down when he was in fourth grade, people built a bigger, better, fancier school. Ever since we came back from UK, these questions keep popping up inside my head and I wonder about the British psyche, since emotions have a public function. What made them rebuild exactly as before?

Small talk aside, after the tour, at least we knew where anything was, more or less. From the bus stop we walked a block to the hotel. Since it was late fall, people were dressed in coats. The more one ventured into the city the darker the coat colors became, mostly in the shades of black.

When we returned to the hotel, we met a couple who said they were going to the theater. Being Broadway Bums, we checked what was being shown. Unfortunately, we had seen most everything at one time or another. Some of the plays on schedule, if I remember correctly were: Rent, Annie, Oklahoma, Sweet Charity etc. The only one I wanted to see was Whistle Down the Wind but that one was sold out. (Little did I know that if we had attempted to go the last minute, we might have found tickets at half price.) Having ruled theater out, since Paddington Station was so close, we decided to explore the British subway in the afternoon.

The stairs going down into the station from the corner of a building, which I later learned was built in mid nineteenth century, were steep but not too many. The interior of the subway, the British call it the tube or underground, was arched and well-lighted like a greenhouse. Between the two platforms we saw a war memorial with the figure of a soldier in battle gear. Also I remember a statuette of a seated figure with funny shoes and above the ticket office ornate leaf designs.

On one wall, they had a map or rather a chart of the lines, the most clear and understandable map of any underground system probably in all Europe. The zones and lines, all interchangeable, were drawn in separate colors. We could buy a day pass or tube pass and travel the tube as much as we wanted. Tube trains ran from 5 AM to midnight. One thing to remember was which direction we had to be going and if we were on the right platform. I think all the time we were in London, we goofed only once and went to Victoria Station instead of someplace else we were planning to go.
Once inside the train, the ride was easy, and my favorite pastime, watching the passengers without really staring, was the fun thing to do. Each person minded his own business and was untouched and nonchalant when something unusual happened. “Pardon me,” “Sorry,” were just about the only words of conversation heard even from those who traveled together.

I used to ride the Long Island Railroad a couple of decades ago and there even strangers ended up knowing each other’s story, especially if they traveled the same route same time everyday. What a difference!

I recall the names of the tube stations still, since each station was announced inside the trains. They are, without any logical order: Waterloo, King’s Cross, Marylebone (pronounced not like Mary-lee-bone but more like Marla-bun), Liverpool Street, Euston, Charing Cross, London Bridge, and of course Paddington Station.

Once, in Paddington Station, something so weird happened to me that I’m hesitant to write about. I don’t remember if this occurred during that first day or later, but I remember the beige and white with light-bluish tinge of the tiles (Were the tiles marble? I don’t know) coming at me while walking on the platform. I was puzzled.

In discomfort, I raised my head to overcome the dizzy feeling and saw the arched dome overhead and its sides where the alcoves and balconies were and noticed a clock with roman numerals. Adjacent to the clock, I saw something pulsating. It was a gruesome scene, as if on a movie screen, showing a train collision with blood spurting out of the windows. I abruptly pulled on my husband’s arm, saying loudly, “Look!”

He was suddenly taken aback and was so annoyed that he yelled at me. “Are you trying to push me down? Watch what you’re doing!”

An Englishman passing by gave him some nasty stares and moved his hand to his forehead as if to greet me in consolation.

I looked at the wall again. Nothing! There was no scene, no screen, but just archways and the clock, and a little further down a sign saying “babycare, first aid, accessible toilet, Station reception.” I stood there dumbfounded, thinking maybe I needed first aid.

“What came over you?” My husband was still annoyed. “Why are you looking there?”

“Did you see that?” I wasn’t going to tell him anything, unless he’d seen it too.

“You mean the clock? What’s so special about it?”

“Nothing,” I said, growing timid. He wouldn’t understand even if I told him. “I just wanted to show you that.”

“Don’t do things so suddenly. You’ll make me fall down.” He was really annoyed.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

We had been such a spectacle to the well-dressed, serious, proper, and so chivalrous British subjects.

I’m not sure of what happened there at the Paddington Station then, but I had my blood pressure medication changed as soon as we returned to the States. For a long while after this incident, I doubted my head and never mentioned this to anybody until now.

A year later in October 1999, two trains collided somewhere around or just before coming into the Paddington station. There were deaths and injuries. Was that the scene I had seen? I’m not psychic, and at that time, I hardly believed such things. Sometimes I have had dreams that came true and I still do, but I give that to a mixture of coincidence and intuition. This one was far out. My husband who believes nothing of this sort would have me committed if I ever told him of this. So I never did.
Some people told me recently that they splashed in the water on Trafalgar Square because the weather had turned out to be so hot during the summer they visited London. For a long while, I couldn’t remember the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Neither could I envision anyone in a bathing suit or even shorts in the middle of this so proper a city.

I remember, however, sitting on the wall of a fountain somewhere but with nothing splashing, probably on our return trip, because on our return trip in November the weather was warmer than in October so we could sit out, but I’m sure that fountain was away from the lions and the Nelson’s Column.

The walls of the fountain didn’t seem to be so high, probably three or four feet. They curved around into forming triangles next to circular sections and perpendicular corners succeeded each other. I just don’t know why I don’t recall any water splashing in the fountain. Yet, there was water all right, all around, on the asphalt, coming from the sky, in drizzles, in puddles.

What I remember of the Trafalgar Square where we went repeatedly are the way the façades of the buildings curved at the corners as if appeasing both streets, Big Ben and the Houses of the Parliament in the distance, the National Gallery, and the tall Nelson’s Column with four huge lion statues around it, also statues of several generals plus the statue of King George on horseback. Talking of statues, London certainly has to be a sculptor’s paradise with no lack of statues. We saw so many statues everywhere that I am having a difficult time remembering them.

Once we had lunch in a restaurant at Trafalgar Square. There was a buzzing noise inside the restaurant with people conversing as they ate. At the table next to ours, businessmen in business suits with sleek attaché cases sat across from each other discussing, I surmised, serious things and occasionally taking out papers and passing them to each other. They hardly ate. We, on the other hand, had a full lunch and even asked for desert watching the waiter’s shocked face, but then, neither of us was young and working in the city.

People like me who are used to big cities such as New York, where people interact so brusquely, feel out of place in London expecting to be pushed, shoved, and talked down to. Yet, London is civilized, gentle, and the most chivalrous of all the cities I have visited. Even during the rush hour, nobody ever pushed me. If they touched me ever so slightly, a “Sorry!” or if, heaven forbid, stepped on foot a “Terribly sorry!” --even when it would be my fault-- was offered easily. After London, once in a while, I keep wondering what Londoners think of other cities when they visit them.

In addition to courtesy and statues, another asset London can boast of is its parks. Small and large, nestled on the squares, there are parks everywhere. Buckingham Palace itself is situated in between large parks. St. James’ Park, Regents Park and Hyde Park are some of the names in the memory.

What little I saw of the parks were the leafless rusty branches of trees etching the grey clouds as the taxicab we were in passed by and the friendly black taxicab driver pointed to the place and told us this was Hyde Park, saying that a squiggly lake runs through it and at the end of it, there is a place for horseback riding for the elite. Also, he said, come spring, Londoners stand in the middle of the park soapboxes and give speeches to their hearts’ content. Maybe some nice summer or early spring day, when the rain takes a break and stops chiseling the city, I’ll return to London and visit its parks to my heart’s content.
Another thing that attracted my attention in London, where the second floor of a building was called first floor, was the telephone booths on the sidewalks. In addition to the red ones, I guessed as being the originals, they had green phone booths and even blue ones. I think people used special cards or tokens for each color but we couldn’t tell which was which for whichever call. We opted to make our calls from the hotel but paid the price later.

Since it was so cold to walk outside, although Londoners didn’t seem to mind the weather, we decided to go to Harrod’s one day. I’m not much of a shopper but to shop or in our case act like it in such a magnificent place was rather funny, and of course we couldn’t leave without buying something. Since our bags were already full, we bought food in Harrods’ food halls where they sold delicacies from all over the world, cheeses from Europe, patés, sushi, baquettes, assorted pastries, hors d’ouvres, finger sandwiches (or what I thought were finger sandwiches), and lots of other things. We ate some of it in the hotel and threw out the rest before we left for Europe.

I think it was in a place close to Harrods or Regents Square maybe, where my husband bought an alarm clock because ours had stopped working and we couldn’t depend on being “knocked up” by the hotel clerks in order to catch our too early flight. A few times, we went to Piccadilly circus and Leicester Square, but there, the stores were American stores or their imitations.

A taxicab driver, sensing our interest in food, recommended us Albert’s Pub and took us there. The place had an authentic feel to it with cut-glass windows and original gas lights and we learned that it had been in operation since 1806. Inside, Albert's Pub isn’t a big place, just a few booths, tables, and a snack bar with old-fashioned swivel stools in front of an open grill. Since too many tourists go there and the place is packed, they make people sit next to each other whether they know each other or not. I even saw them move a lone customer from one table to the next -after the customer had started eating- just to make space for larger parties. I remember having the real fish and chips there and shepherd’s pie; also we sat at a separate table and from where we sat we could see the Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey is across the street from the Parliament buildings. This is where coronations and weddings of royalty take place and where noted people are buried. The structure of the Westminster Abbey is the combination of a few different styles of architecture. Its West Front View is best known, because the two classical towers are there, although the lower section is Gothic. Over the door there are niches with figures of saints and martyrs in them. Inside the huge interior, we were told that taking photos isn’t allowed.

Westminster Abbey began as a monastery and we were shown to the tombs of historical people, kings, queens and even other simpler people. I remember the tombs of Mary, Elizabeth I, Handel, and Richard the lion-hearted. They had to have the world’s largest cemetery of famous people here. Among the writers and poets buried in the cemetery’s poets’ corner are Chaucer, Spenser, Byron, Robert Browning, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Kipling, Samuel Johnson, Milton, and Tennyson, We also visited the back abbey where treasures were stored and monks used to pray during the black plague.

For some reason, as we walked around this overwhelming place, a song kept repeating itself inside my head. I just couldn’t think of the words until later but they were for the wrong place. “Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringing me down...” Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me, but someone later told me that they did have a song for Westminster Abbey.

“Westminster Abbey, the tower of Big Ben
The rosy red cheeks of the little children”
On our return trip to London, they gave us a different room on the sixth floor. This time the room was accessible by the “lift.” The clerks boasted of the room as having more space and having a separate bathroom with a commode.

When we saw the room, it seemed just fine, though still cramped but larger than the first one. Also there was space to stand between the wall and one bed and the other bed didn’t abut the wall where the windows were. Happy with our final conquest, we thanked the clerk and walked in.

The bathroom was in the corner. One had to climb three steps up to the bathroom. What we found out was a joke. The shower space was squeezed into the commode. We couldn’t get into the shower without stepping on top of the toilet seat. Yet, the toilet seat was of flimsy plastic and crackled even when putting it up and down. Also if I stood by the sink to wash up or brush my teeth, I had to be very careful so that my nightgown or skirt wouldn’t dip into the toilet. My husband couldn’t shave without bending because the ceiling was so low. I estimated it to be about or less than five and a half feet. Yet, despite the late fall weather and the cramped hotel space, we were enjoying London so much that we took this little inconvenience in stride.

Next time I go to London though, I’ll either stay in an American hotel or I’ll rent an apartment and stay much longer so I get to see the East end, Chinatown, the museums, Covent Garden Market, and Billingsgate, walk inside Hyde Park and take a cruise on the Thames. Maybe I’ll add in a few excursions outside the city also, to the Globe Theater and the Roman Baths. This is one city I would like to visit again when I have another opportunity.

Usually we explore cities by taking walking tours, but at this time, we could walk less than we thought we could. Still despite the cold and the rain, when staying outside was nearly impossible, we enjoyed London. London in rain boasts of a different kind of splendor, especially when one is inside a taxi or a bus. The drivels of water soften the view of the street from the windows, as if looking out of something frosted but liquid at the same time. The edges of buildings, people, vehicles, street signs blur into each other and the city seems as if one framed piece of art.

On one of those really rainy days we took a bus somewhere. Since people wore bulkier clothes, the size of the seats were smaller, the aisles were tighter, and the railings too slippery to hold. Once we sat down, it was the view of the people from the back.
We saw people around us checking their bus route maps. The tube is easier to figure out than the bus routes and even Londoners themselves carry these route maps with them.

The bus felt jerky as we pulled out of the station. The floor inside was wet and the windows fogged up. The driver was having difficulty stopping and starting. Yet the people knew where they’d get off by the sheer sense of the road from the movements of the bus, just like time travel.

Even though it was such a rainy day, when the bus slowed down at some place, we heard Bible verses penetrating the interior, reminding me of Broadway preachers in New York City. I wasn’t so far off. When I wiped the window with the back of my hand, I saw a guy under the eaves of a shop with a Bible confronting the passers-by. He had a megaphone in his hand. From their body language, I understood that the people were not very happy about this because the flow of the crowd parted and left this man in the middle as if he were stranded on an island.
I don’t know where London got its foggy reputation, it must be the burning of the coal in the olden times, but I didn’t see any fog. Rain, drizzle, cloudy skies, mist, a slight haze, yes; but fog, no.

The things that are foggy in my mind are the ghosts in the Tower of London. Yet, the Tower itself didn’t start out to be a supernatural undertaking. Since erecting castles meant marking the Normans’ territory (wild animals come to mind), Norman the Conqueror ordered a castle built by the Thames during the eleventh century to provide a base for his power. The Tower first was a palace for the royalty. Later it was turned into a prison and served as the backdrop for royal murders to take place.

What I saw when we walked through dim hallways and up and down the spooky stairways was not ghosts but excited yeoman warders drumming up the tourist business with titillating ghost stories. Still, it was a very entertaining though a very tiring trip. The architecture of the buildings and the view of the Thames and the bridge from the Tower were breathtaking, and the stories told by the warders grabbed everyone’s attention. Listening to them, I thought, “No wonder Shakespeare erupted from England. These Brits know how to ham it up.” To add to the aura of it all, inside the buildings, it was freezing cold, and if we weren’t dressed warmly enough, we’d surely have left no matter what the expense.

Not that I’ve witnessed them, but let me see if I can remember the bits and pieces of the ghost stories I heard. Sir Walter Raleigh’s image was supposed to be visible on a wall in the Bloody Tower overlooking the Traitor’s Gate. He was held prisoner here and tortured. At the base of the White Tower Ann Boleyn was decapitated by a Frenchman and her ghost pays visits there. There is another Countess whose ghastly murder didn’t quite go right, for the axe-man missed the mark and panicked. So he hacked her to pieces. Now her ghost screams on the windy nights but especially during the night of the anniversary of her death.

Since the Yeoman Warders live in the buildings with their families, they seem to have become buddy buddy with the ghosts. There’s a ghost smelling of saddle soap, a cavalryman for sure, who joins the residents to celebrate all the events like birthdays and such.

At the Martin tower where the crown jewels used to be housed, resides Mary’s ghost who opens doors and climbs stairs. If treated kindly, she’s an easy ghost to live with.

The Salt Tower is the toughest tower to be in, they say, because here Catholic clerics were incarcerated and people have reported feeling pressure on their chests and not being able to breathe. Here, there were words scratched on the walls by the inmates. Although I usually suffer from asthma in cold and damp places, I could breathe just fine.

As St. Thomas’ Tower, where St. Thomas a Becket was kept and murdered, was being built, the tower kept collapsing due to bad workmanship. So the workers blamed it on St. Thomas’ ghost. Once we climbed to the top of the stairs in this tower, we entered a very impressive room with a fireplace, candelabras and a chest. The chest stood by a descending staircase. This used to be St. Thomas’ room.

People swear seeing many ghosts dressed in Tudor garb and Yeomen of the olden times with spears inside Traitors Gate, the most disreputable entrance to the Tower. Allegedly, the wives of Henry the VIII, after being brought down the river by barge, entered the tower from here.

This tour really started from the West gate but I wrote down what I could remember regardless of the tour’s progression. The funniest thing was the beefeater with the fur hat standing in front of his black hut without blinking and teens jumping up and down and waving, trying to make him move or blink. I don’t know who was more ridiculous, the soldier doing his duty or the crazy teens.
The Tower of London housed lions, bears, and until recently, flightless ravens. Flightless because of a ridiculous prophecy. If the ravens flew away, it would mark the end of the royalists in Britain. So they are kept there, fell fed and well cared for but with maimed wings never to experience freedom. Maybe Poe’s “ungainly” Raven had its wings clipped by the British and he ended up “perched upon a bust of Pallas just above Poe’s chamber door” and that’s why the raven kept saying: “Nevermore.”

The day before we boarded the plane back home, we went to Piccadilly Circus. As luck would have it, the weather was tolerable enough to walk. So we strolled along some elegant stores and BBC’s headquarters. I made a mental note of coming back to see the inside when we passed by The National Gallery. Some day, I'll go around the world just to see the artwork in the museums. Tour organizers should take note.

Afterwards, we ended up in Leicester Square where the London Film festival was going on. The good thing about Leicester Square was that it was totally a pedestrian area. Leicester Square is pronounced as “Lester’s care” really fast by the British. It took us a while to recognize that. The Square is a large busy place with a park-like grassy center with lots of park benches, pigeons, and a fountain I fell in love with. I wanted to walk there a bit. Since the rain had stopped and it was a bit milder than before, lots of people were sitting on the benches and giving free lectures here and there. We stopped to hear someone tell everybody why the distant stars were not distant but they were the mirror images of earth in space. According to him, the entire sky was a gallery of mirrors and what we thought we were seeing were distorted images of ourselves. So he went on and on. I was having a pretty good time actually, until my husband pulled me by the arm with a tsk tsk. While we watched an entertainer doing tricks, somebody warned me: “Take care with that bag, Madam.” Could there be any purse snatchings here? I didn’t think so. Actually I never heard of anything like that happening in London at all, especially because we had stuck with the West End.

The Swiss Centre with is Glockenspiel Clock is also on the Leicester Square. The square was named after an earl who lived there during the mid 17th century. Circling the outside of the square are multiplex cinemas, clubs, cafes, and bars. I counted seven bars then lost count. These Brits certainly love their stout beer, Guinness.

Toward the south where the road leads back to Trafalgar Square, there is whitish small pavilion or a building like a kiosk, the Half Price theatre ticket booth. There was a chalk board with that day’s deals on it. None of them were the hit shows. A theater that shows films is called a cinema. If you say theater for a movie-house, they look at you funny here because a theater is where plays are shown on stage. Also it is not the schedule you look for but a programme.

Movie premiers are usually associated with Leicester Square and there’s a statue of Charlie Chaplin here. Some names of cinemas I remember are Odeon with a fenced-off path I surmised for the celebrities to walk through. We were told a premiere would be showing tonight and if we stayed to watch we’d see celebrities maybe even royalty. There was a cinema building with large white archways in front. I think it was named Empire. Quite an impressive building, I thought.

Just two years before, 101 Dalmatians were filmed here around Leicester Square, which would make the film’s shooting date 1996 since we left London in mid November 1998.

We didn’t want to see any shows because of the flight early next morning and my husband didn’t care too much about hanging around the park area and watch people as I would have loved to. So we walked back to the Piccadilly area, to Oxford Street with shops and department stores.

We saw a few traffic jams but no private cars. There were buses and taxis though. The Oxford Street was very crowded since the Christmas shopping had just begun. I’m not much of shopper for many things but when it comes to books and music, I’m there. So I remember big music stores like HMV and bookstores like Dillions and Books Etc. My husband remembers Evans Marks and Spencer and also Selfridges which was a huge store near the tube station where they gave us a printed floor plan at the entrance.
One thing that attracted my attention was the way the traffic lights worked in London. They still had red, green, and yellow, as we did in the US, but when the yellow light came up before it turned green, red light stayed, so we ended up looking at red and yellow together.

This I witnessed while we were in a cab on our way to Charing Cross Road. I was the one who had insisted we see that place because of the books; my husband would have opted some other place like the Tower of London again, but since we had already seen that, he couldn’t object.

Charing Cross Road is a London street which runs north from Trafalgar Square to St Giles' Circus and then becomes Tottenham Court Road. Charing Cross Road is not just any street with bookstores, it is THE street of bookstores in London, as each town should have one and those that do get visited by me to the exclusion of anything else.

On Charing Cross Road, bookstores stand side by side like wallflowers at a dance wearing different colors. Above them, acting like their chaperones, are old brick buildings. Maybe these are separate edifices, but they look as if they are one massive structure because their bricks appear to be in similar colors showing the same age and wear and tear. As little as I understand from architecture, I think, the long rectangular windows with white tops and tiny sills point to the same style.

If you go to the Charing Cross Road take the tube. You’ll save a lot of money. We could have taken the tube very easily but for some reason we didn’t.

That day, the black taxicab left us at one corner where the reddish brown Zwemmers’ beckoned us to its large window, boasting art, film, and photography books. We didn’t go in that store but wandered into the one painted in blue near it. This was Al Hoda, an Islamic bookstore with quite an impressive selection of books on art and architecture of the Islamic world. Plus they had other books pertaining to Middle-eastern culture.

Next to Al Hoda was Smith and Sons, an old-fashioned pipe and cigar shop in red. We looked through its window and wondered why people would spend so much time and energy carving fancy figures on elephant tusks just to smoke dangerous stuff from them.

Next, there was a store where they sold graphic, web, and commercial design books. After that came Shipley Specialist art books and then Silver Moon Women’s bookshop. I wondered why they would have a separate women’s bookshop. Were we being talked down to as if in a harem or were we being revered? I opted to choose the latter idea, since the books inside were not all that different from any other store’s.

Then, adjacent to a shop called “Any Amount of Books,” stood “Henry Pordes Books” with a large white sign covering its whole façade. Next was a used book store “Charing Cross Road Bookshop.” By the way, “antiquarian” and “2nd hand books” are the names given to used books. They don’t call them used books.

The most interesting shop to me was the “Scot Centre” selling everything Scottish from books to pipes to tartans. After the Scot Centre, another used book store curved into the Great Newport St. I know all this because I wrote down the names of these stores in my tiny pad. Seeing me do this, some people in those stores gave me their cards and promised a discount if I ordered from them. Is it possible to hassle on book prices?

Then, there was an elderly gentleman at the Scot Centre who volunteered to enlighten us about Charing Cross’s history. Charing Cross was one of 12 “Eleanor Crosses” erected by the grieving Edward I when his wife Queen Eleanor of Castile died at the end of the thirteenth century.

At each place where Queen Eleanor’s funeral’s procession stopped for the night, Edward built a memorial cross in her honor. Charing Cross was one of them. Later this cross was removed and replaced by the statue of Charles I. Much later, a replica of the cross was placed at the rail station. Since most of London was demolished either by fire or by Hitler’s bombers, many authentic looking things are only excellent replicas of what has been.

As to the name “Charing” there are many interpretations. The most romantic one is “Chere Reine” meaning “dear Queen.” but the word could also come from “cierring” which means turning or bending, which might refer to the Thames River.

In London, all the lines painted on the roads are white. There are no yellow lines like we have in US. I was surprised when the cars and buses stopped while we were waiting to cross a major street. Later we realized that we had stopped at a “zebra” crossing and annoyed the British drivers. A zebra crossing is when they paint slanted parallel white lines on the street where all traffic has to wait for the pedestrians to cross.

For crossing the street, sometimes there are warnings for pedestrians saying, “Look Right.” We thought that this had to be because they drove on the left side of the street, but then we saw signs saying, “Look Left.” Go figure! "Beware of loose CHIPPINGS" on the side of the road meant loose gravel. “Instead of “Exit” we saw “Way Out.”

“Offside” of the car is its left side. A “tarmac” is the black top when paving the road. “Verges” are road shoulders. A “Zed bend” is the z shaped bend of the road, similar to our s curve. An overpass is a “flyover.” When you pass another vehicle on the street, you “overtake” it. If you “undertake,” that means you are passing on the left, which is illegal.

You have to “dip” your lights if you need to lower them. If your car has a “drop head,” it is a convertible. A “transport cafe” is a truck stop and a “casualty entrance” is the emergency entrance of a hospital. Plus, surgery doesn’t always mean surgery; it may mean a meeting or another event.

More words and usages that surprised us (some I later got from a book): To a Brit, pants means underwear but women’s underwear is knickers. What we call pants are “trousers” and pant cuffs are “turn-ups,” as “Wellies” are rubber boots.

In many stores, our “custom” (patronage) was appreciated. Also the Brits “hire a cab” “see telly” and offer you an “American dinner,” which is potluck food, or “bangers and mash,” which is sausages with mashed potatoes. While “Chinky nosh” is Chinese food, “crisps” are potato chips. “Faggots” are duck sausages. Their “French Dressing” is our Italian dressing. I don’t think they have our kind of French dressing, not that I minded it.

Also, never ever ask for a napkin in a restaurant for it means sanitary napkin or baby diaper; instead ask for a “serviette”. By the way, my husband did just that and asked for a napkin. The waiter didn't even blink; he was probably used to oddball American ways. Also one mustn't say, “I’m stuffed” after eating too much, since being stuffed has an off-color connotation.

If someone tells you, “That takes the biscuit,” he’s meaning “That tops it!” or “That beats everything.”

A “tannoy” is a public address system. “Crackers” are firecrackers or small Christmas gifts. A “hooker” is not a prostitute but a member of a rugby team and Europe is referred to as the “continent.”

The apartments “flats” may have “mixer taps,” which are the faucets with cold and hot water but since there’s a law (a great law in my opinion) against mixing them inside the tap, they are mixed in some way outside. If your appliance’s electrical wiring is grounded, it has an “earth wire.” If you “hoovered” your carpets, you vacuumed them. You tea-cart is your “tea trolley,” since any cart is a “trolley.”

A thumb tack is a “drawing pin.” Scotch tape is “sticky tape” or “sellotape.” A “rubber” is an eraser. A “dustbin” is a trash barrel. A “waste bin” is a wastebasket. A garage sale is a “jumble sale.” A “lucky dip” is a grab bag.

“Nevermind” doesn’t always mean “don’t pay any attention”; instead, it may answer any question no matter how shocking. “So sorry, you cut off your finger. Nevermind.”

To the English, a tabby cat is a “moggie.” A “nappy” is a diaper. A “push chair” is a stroller. A “natty dresser” dresses in fancy clothes. “Noughts and crosses” is tic-tac-toe.

If a business is “off sales,” it is operating without a license. If your sales “come a cropper,” your business might be ending badly. If in the bank, you have a savings account, you have a “standing account” or a “deposit account.” If you’re “on the rag,” you’re angry. If you “hump” something, you’re carrying a heavy load and you’re too tired, that is you’re “whacked” or “shagged out.”

A “Charlie” is a stupid person and a “Wally” is an idiot. Something “sharp” is suspicious.

“Loo,” “Toilet,” “Cloakroom,” “lavatory,” and "WC" (water closet) are the names given to restrooms. A bathroom means a room with a bathtub but not necessarily with a commode inside as we had witnessed.

Your bathrobe is your “dressing gown,” and if you “wash up,” it isn’t your hands and face you wash but pots, pans, plates, forks, knives etc.

Oscar Wilde said, "The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language." If I may, I'd like to imitate him in reverse: “The British are identical to Americans in most respects except, of course, language.”

June 13, 2004 at 6:10pm
June 13, 2004 at 6:10pm

In Spain, one thing I heard from friends that left me agape was the El Camino. Somebody once took me to a hilltop and showed me the direction from where the pilgrimage started. I listened to what they said, but didn’t pay much attention to the idea at that time. Much later, I read Shirley Mac Laine’s book about the excruciating voyage she made through this road on foot. It was an internal pilgrimage of sorts for the actress and she believed she came out of it for the better.

Would I do it? I doubt it. I’m rather protective of my creature comforts and I believe I can get the same results just by a short walk on the beach or on the pier where my troubles leave my mind and my body alone.

Coming back to El Camino de Santiago, El Camino for short, this road stretches through 800 miles (thousand if you somehow manage to get lost) from Somport or Roncesvalles to Compostela. According to legend Virgin Mary has appeared twice on the two starting points. The belief is once you’ve walked the Camino, you’ll never be the same again.

The preservation of history on this road owes its endurance to its travelers with religious fervor. The more than a thousand-year piety of the pilgrims on El Camino has left its Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art untouched. Here history has blended with legend to such an extent that where one starts and the other leaves is difficult to figure out.

El Camino de Santiago, in other words St. James’s Route, has been traversed from one end to the other by emperors, kings, important leaders, tradesmen, singers, writers, painters, artists, romantics, mystics, riffraff, and criminals, who were attended, helped, and housed by volunteers, farmers, and innkeepers.

The prize for this journey is the town of Compostela with its prestigious cathedral and the idea that says, “Whoever is sad, becomes happy.”

June 13, 2004 at 6:06pm
June 13, 2004 at 6:06pm
Did you know there’s a Chinatown in Barcelona? Friends said it used to be a leaf torn from the past centuries with its dirty, urine-smelling roads, call girls crouching on benches waiting for customers in front of shabby buildings, and even a black or a Moroccan lady hanging from a window, attentive to passers-by.

Yet, the Chinatown in the Gothic quarter that I visited during the nineties was different. The one relic from the past in that same neighborhood was a church with the dilapidated exterior, but a clean and refurbished interior.

It was a beautiful church surrounded by tenderly restored grey stone buildings. As a matter of fact, the color grey seemed to be dominant on all of these cobblestone roads. Such a contrast to the rest of the city!

On those stone buildings with their rough surfaces sticking out of the facades of the edifices, some of the stones were as big as boulders. The winding narrow lane, which the church was situated on, opened to a larger street with a bar-lounge where, I imagine, many Spanish and French poets and thinkers of the past sat to drink their absinthe, beer, or sangria.
All that grey color here had a shine to it even on the pale faces of the residents. On the narrow, crooked lanes, grey was also more accented by the bridge-like overpasses from building to building. Those ancient cobblestone lanes appeared to be subterranean, as if carved out of one long tunnel, with sunlight coming from above the overpasses. It was dark against light, shadow against sunshine, eerie yet with poetry. This melancholic panorama almost seemed to come from an artist’s charcoal rendering.

A few steps later, things changed completely, for the other roads of the Barrio Chino were comparable to the ones in New York City. Here the streets were wider with many buildings stacked against each other, hosting many businesses and shops with colorful signs in Chinese, some also in Spanish and Catalan.

“The ice on the moon is much more abundant than they thought, did you know that? Si Senoras, inside the craters to the north of it,” he said, folding the daily El Pais.

I was surprised that Pepe, the tall, dark, handsome owner of the interiors store, to where I had accompanied our hostess Delia to buy fabric, would suddenly come up with a remark like that, but then they were acquainted with each other. Delia worked on the same street where Pepe’s shop was.

“At the moment, I’m interested in Barcelona but moon may be my next stop,” I tried to say with my broken Spanish, hoping the words didn’t come out crooked to mean something else. Sensing my hesitation, Delia nodded in approval.

“In that case, I’ll tell you about Barcelona,” Pepe said, pulling a bundle of folded fabrics down a shelf to reach to the green and blue damask cloth Delia had requested.

Pepe said that Barcelona was built about 200 years before Christ, believe it or not, by Hamilcar Barca, a general from Carthage who invaded the Romans by passing through the impassible mountains but he failed at the end.

I commented that I remembered from my high school reading that the Romans had invaded Carthage and razed down the city with salt.

Pepe laughed. “Women always like the gossip part of history.”

After he cut the fabric, he handed it over to Delia. “I held it with my fingertips, so I wouldn’t contaminate it for you,” he said in a serious tone.

“Cut it out, Pepe,” Delia replied, her face changing suddenly.

I didn’t say anything because what happened between them seemed private at that moment.

Pepe had to be interested in churches, since all he talked about afterwards were the churches in Barcelona, especially the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, the one built as a monument to Columbus. He said another cathedral that was the most enormous but still under construction since the nineteenth century was the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia but he called it la Sagrada in short.

From the tour bus a day before, I remembered seeing the curvy, ornate, and titanic La Sagrada. To me it looked scary and horrendous like a giant towering over its surroundings with its tall spires; it didn’t seem to be the fantastic building everyone raved about. Not that there is anything wrong with La Sagrada but I just prefer small churches. The smaller they are, the cozier they seem.

Listening to Pepe, I had an uneasy feeling. He wasn’t even speaking in Catalan but luckily in Castillian to us; yet he was talking of something else other than the church’s architecture. Probably he wanted to mention the importance of churches to the city. I haven’t read the Bible in Spanish but I believe his speech was interspersed by quotations from it.

“Pepe knows so much about churches,” I commented to Delia once we were outside. “He seems to be so religious.’

“Almost fanatical, but he wasn’t like this always. Pepe has become a dedicated church goer; he never falters. The truth is, rather than a shop attendant, he’s an artist. He works with gouache and is quite famous,” Delia said. Then, she added hesitantly, “He started up with the churches after the illness.”

“He didn’t look sick to me,” I said.

“He has Kaposi’s Sarcoma, Sida (Aids) you know.”

“So awful!”

“Pepe’s gay,” Delia said. “He, unfortunately, thinks the end of the world came for him. So now he’s addicted to religion.”

Barcelona is a lovely city with hills on its sides and the Mediterranean Sea just in front of it. The old city is surrounded by a fortress and is darker and older inside. The modern Barcelona with a happy, peaceful feeling is romantic like a fairytale basking in sunshine.

The daily life I witnessed was prosperous, dynamic, and enchanting, full of contrasts and delightful surprises. Yet, according to our hostess, there had been a lot of bloodshed here in the last century even up to our time due to terrorism.

During the short duration we were there, people seemed to be serene and to be having fun, for there are lots of public parks and outside cafes where one can sit, eat, drink, or just enjoy life watching and petting the stray cats begging for food around the cafes.

Talking of food, I put on several pounds enjoying the immense spread of food on the tables. My favorites were the tapas somewhat like appetizers. In the evenings, you can go to a tapas bar and enjoy your drinks and an unbelievable variety of food.

Some of the evening wanderers top the tapas by going to a restaurant afterwards. No wonder dinnertime never finishes in Spain because people start around six or seven in the evening with tapas and bar hopping, and finish at a restaurant with main courses and deserts, eating late until after midnight.

A kind of sandwich they serve at tapas bars is called a montadito, which can be a slice of French bread with a gourmet topping of ham, tortilla, tunafish, anchovies, etc. The array of montaditos are served together with drinks and just the view of them are more than enough to fill any person.

The tapas bars are meeting places for poets, writers, painters, musicians and artists. That is where the real action is and where the heart of Barcelona really beats.

The most popular multicultural meeting place is Plaza de Catalunya with the well-known El Corte Ingles department store, which reminded me of Macy’s on 34th and Herald’s Square in New York city, except this department store was less shopping oriented and more sociable for its clients.

The most magnificent street equivalent to Park or Fifth Avenues is the (spelling?) Passeig de Gracia. On this street, several designers, such as Vincon and Cartier, as well The Majestic Hotel are situated.

Since I refused to go to the bullring, deflating some of my Spanish friends’ egos, the Picasso Museum was refused to me. They politely said the Museum was very close to the Monumental Bullring and it wouldn’t be wise to go to one and leave the other.

Instead they took me on tour to Gothic Quarter, the one where the Barrio Chino was, which I talked of earlier. They even managed to get a Spaniard in costume with a scary base voice to guide us through the medieval streets of grey cobblestones, talking of true ghosts and old legends that remained to haunt the imagination and folklore surrounding Barcelona. The Spanish are a very demonstrative sort.

When we travel, we find out that the world is different. We can also travel without moving from where we are, by reading. Reading is not just for passing time but it is also for breaking the iron bars of thought and dogma the society has enforced upon us. So when I travel I look for bookstores and libraries to get the feel of the intellectual capacity of the town I’m in.

From that point of view, Barcelona really impressed me. Aside from being an artist’s city, I also found Barcelona to be a reader’s city.

A book store named Laie had to be the haven or rather a heaven for a book lover, because compared to its small size, it had everything in it that would make a person not want to leave it. In Laie, everyday, they had an event, a jazz or a musical performance, a cultural meeting, a lecture, a debate. The store even had a cafe upstairs, and of course, it had quite a few books.

So did the others. Once I came across a small bookstore that sold all English books. Later I found out that there were many large or small bookstores that catered to the English speaking readers.

There were larger bookstores also. One was borne from a church built in the seventeenth century and it had books in several languages. I think its name started with Libreria.

Each bookstore had a theme. Where one would be well stocked with travel and adventure books, another would have all the current titles, yet another would have lots of historical books on its shelves.

Yet, all the stores had one thing in common. They carried art books or books about Barcelona and how this city fits into the art world.

Barcelona had been a delight.

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