Under the red awning funky multicolored lights twinkled, music thumped, and the restaurant bustled with activity. Servers carrying precarious trays of beer squeezed in between large groups of friends guffawing at each other’s tales, families laughing at the fathers who were trying to get down with the beats, women on girls’-night-out leaning close together to be heard over the din, and… me sitting by myself in the center of it all. After the hostess faltered after I held up the “number 1” sign to signal that I was dining alone and her attempt to seat me at a table off to the side by the kitchen, it became apparent that at Spiler’s in Budapest’s trendy Gozsdu udvar that people never ate alone. Or, more specifically, no one went to Gozsdu udvar, an alley of funky cafes, hip bars and eateries, alone. But I had selected my own company, and I had selected this place for dinner, and I was determined not to be cowed by the raucous environment and the fact that in my solitary state, I did not belong.
After I gave the hostess a look saying, “no one puts Baby in the corner”, she seated me at a table for two in the center of the action. I could watch everyone. Everyone, I realized, could watch me. I had a decision to make: sit there in discomfort or decide to own it. It was my very first solo vacation in a foreign land; I was supposed to be having fun. Instead I was like a shrinking violet, apologetic for bringing a disease that one wants to get: the prospect of loneliness. But I was alone by choice and I wasn’t lonely. I decided to own it.
Squaring my shoulders and leaning back in my chair, I looked about the room like I owned the place. I ordered my food with confidence and selected the Magyar Vandor Ale as if I did it everyday. I took out my journal and wrote. People who are writing look important. They have thoughts. Important ones. So much so, they should be recorded. So I wrote down my very important thoughts of what I ordered for dinner (salmon with cucumber salad). I made eye contact and directed the servers to me when I needed important things. Like dessert. “See?” I projected to everyone, “I eat dinner alone all of the time and I like it.” Yep. Everyone could watch me.
If they wanted to. It took me awhile to realize that nobody wanted to. They had other things to focus on: their companions, their food, beer, and trying to hear over the noise. The only one watching me was me.
The problem wasn’t the restaurant or the atmosphere or the other diners. It was me and my decided lack of self-confidence. It didn’t matter if I was alone; I was a paying customer, and everyone treated me well and were very helpful, including sharing what they thought I should see in Budapest. I alone had the problem with my act of being alone. Dining at Spiler’s reminded me that everyone has their own concerns; that if I had friends or my husband with me, I would have never eaten there– it was too loud; that I chose to be alone, chose my own company, and therefore, in order to feel like I belonged, I needed to accept myself; and that when I need confidence, I could always fake it.
Looking south across the Danube under the grey clouds sat Gellerthegy (Gellert Hill): dark, dead, unwelcoming. Budapest in March, unlike California with its early buds and blossoms, still slept in its winter slumber. Although it sits atop both the city and the “things to see” list, I wondered if it would be worth the climb. Was really now the time to see it in its barren tree glory?
Six months before I decided that I would visit Budapest. By myself. Partly to satisfy a life-long dream of exploring a foreign place alone and partly just as a personal challenge, could I do it? Could I handle a language as complex as Magyar that added numerous “k”s and “z”s to words? The forint whose bills started at 500? Could I navigate my way through streets that were unpronounceable? Could I spend a week in my own company?
Budapest was easy. Ridiculously so. First, basically no one else in the world speaks Magyar, but almost everyone in the world (it seems like) speaks English. English was their default. Most Hungarians were fluent, and if not, knew enough to get by. The menus were translated. At first I felt the thrill of ordering off a menu I couldn’t understand and then my waiter came by and flipped it over– to the English side. On the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I acquainted myself with the Hungarian Forint, and by the time I reached my destination, I had the amount ready to pay him, tip included (10% as is customary). Because I spent so much time researching my location and mapping out how to get places beforehand, once I checked in I set off to the Chain Bridge and Buda Castle without assistance.
My own company was a bit more complex. If Budapest’s default was English, mine was go, go, go, plan, plan, plan, do, do, do. My energy lately had been spent outward, unfurled in all directions. Solving problems, planning lessons, listening, cajoling students, cajoling adults, grading papers, leading, following, going to meetings, commuting, organizing, and on and on. Just “being” fell to the bottom of the list. More frightening was looming feeling that I was not enjoying basic pleasures anymore. Everything felt like something to do, as if I was on autopilot through my life. My creative zone eluded me and even sinking into a good novel seemed out of my grasp.
Even on a trip by myself where I could be my own boss, I fell into this default mode. Following my itinerary, I made sure I saw the sights that were “worth it”. My first day of exploring Buda Castle, St. Matyas Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion was quite nice, but my second day making the trek to City Park, going to the zoo, walking around the Jewish Quarter, and then going to the Opera left me feeling flat. These were things that I felt like I “had” to do. Maybe it was because all of them were on the Pest side of the Danube: the flat, more developed and trendy area devoted mostly to hip clubs and shopping.
Gellerthegy called to me, but I resisted. There were other things to do and see, like take a tour of the stunning Parliament building. Surely this was more important than climbing a barren hill. Then I thought about being part of a tour group and following close behind the guide to hear. Then I thought about other people in the tour. Then I thought about the time schedule. Then I realized that I didn’t want a schedule, other people, or a guide. In fact, I was perfectly happy looking at the outside all lit up at night from across the river. That was enough for me. What I really wanted to do was walk up a hill.
The next morning was cloudy as I struck out down Karoly Utca to cross over to the Buda side via the spare, white Elizabeth Bridge. Before I could reach it I was distracted by the shops on Vaci Utca and meandered down the narrow street of knick-knacks and souvenirs. It deposited me in front of the Grand Central Market, Budapest’s largest market. The first floor was rows of fresh fruits and vegetables, rich-smelling smoked meats, cheeses, pastries galore, and paprika stands. Tucked in the back was a dairy stand selling fresh yoghurt, my favorite treat. I purchased a cup of yoghurt and a cinnamon apple strudel and had a little picnic on a park bench. The yoghurt was light and creamy with just a hint of tang; the strudel was warm and crisp, just sweet enough. Sated by my treats I made my way upstairs to the maze of shops selling wooden products, Rubik’s Cubes (invented by a Hungarian), dolls, purses, glasses, every kind of good that could feature the word Budapest on it.
Because of my detour I crossed the Danube on the green Liberty Bridge that placed me at the base of Gellerthegy. I began my ascent at my own pace. The hill was quiet with only a few people about. The trees naked limbs cast a sharp silhouette against the clouds. Vista points along the way allowed one to stop and soak up the panoramic view of both sides of the city: the bridges lacing the Danube; Margaret Island parting the river; the hills rolling into Slovakia; Parliament and Buda Castle just dots on the landscape. My pulse quickened as photo opportunities revealed themselves to me. Slowly with heightened awareness, I let my surroundings speak to me as I photographed the scenery. Time, people, concerns all fell away as I entered a quiet space of focus. Everywhere, it seemed, called to me. Shyly emerging from scattered branches, flowers dotted the hillside. I walked up to the Liberty Statue at the top of the hill of a woman holding up a palm leaf to the sky. The clouds dispersed to allow the sun to streak though, shining gentle rays of light upon all, revealing the hill, the flowers, and myself coming back to life.
It was quite a scene inside the Notre Dame Cathedral. Artisans carved stones, men sawed wood, workers lifted beams up with pulleys, others stoked the for for iron work, and the horse pulled carts across the workspace. Out of sight were the artists assembling the stain-glass Windows and beginning the multitude of paintings. The diorama showed how people worked together to build this great landmark; there were centuries of these men. As a twenty-first century visitor snapping pictures of it on my iPhone, I wondered, where are they now?
The men who helped build Notre Dame are long buried along with the world that needed skilled artisans. Today’s world has little need of men who wield tools and know their craft to create things of beauty. Much of anything now can be pre-fabricated and made with machines. Yes, we need people who know how to fix machines and build houses, but what do we have for our artisans? What roles do we have in our society that fosters this creativity and hands-on knowledge? Paris abounds with work from another time, but where did their descendants go? What legacy did they receive beyond a big, beautiful, buttressed cathedral?
Some things never change. Montmartre, for instance. It’s always been a home to the bohemian set and rough around the edges. The first shots between the Communards and the Versailles government were fired there in 1871 after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War. Escaping Baron Haussmann’s demolition and redesign, it holds on to its old world Parisian charm of quaint buildings; some of its inhabitants make one hold on to her purse. Tightly.
On top of the Montmarte Butte sits Sacre-Couer, the stark and majestic cathedral that overlooks the city: the church of the clouds. Majestic and otherworldly, it provides a sharp contrast to the gothic scrolls and spires of Notre a Dame and St. Chappelle. It’s power is hidden from sight as you exit the Ligne 2 Anvers station and walk the narrow cobblestone streets lined with souvenir shops and falafel places. At the base of the hill young men spread their wares on the ground hoping for a gullible tourist. The stairs that ascend to the church are littered with Heineken cans, orange juice containers, and drunken reveled playing loud music. Beneath them lies the Paris skyline– pinkish gray in the setting sun; above them, behind heavy wooden doors, a haven of calm.
The priest intoned his service and prayer as nuns sang behind him. The congregation made up of visitors and locals peppered the pews. Visitors walked quietly around absorbing the understated beauty. Unlike most European cathedrals, the colors and decorations were muted. The mosaics represented biblical figures as common men– people like you and me. These scenes inspired comfort and compassion; the God that ruled here was a compassionate and forgiving one who realized our humanity. He did not inspire fear, damnation, and guilt. Everything prompted reflection and care– from the careful placing of the tiles in the mosaics to walls of blank stone. It allowed space for one’s own thoughts, a space to process the narrative of guidance, support, and becoming better people; how can we make the world a better place?
These thoughts weighed on my mind as we walked back into the night.
Our hearts dropped when we entered the Metro. She was huddled on the seat, face tear-stained and turned to the window, her extensions falling from her hair, her boots and fishnet stockings ripped and disheveled. It was clear that she was not in a good way. As the doors closed and we pulled away, she sat motionless.
At the next stop a man and two women entered our car, they looked at her as they walked by. A few seconds later the man walked back wearing a look of concern. He knelt to her and asked if she was okay. She didn’t respond. The two women came over to her, gently placing their hands on her shoulder, quietly talking to her without judgement. One went to the box to contact the conductor; we could hear the conversation, but we couldn’t understand what was said. But at the next station a Metro worker was waiting for our car. He, too, bore a look concern and was ready to assist. She did not want to get off the train, and the train moved on to the next stop. The women and the man stayed with her, a stranger to them. At the next stop they walked off together, and one of the women used the emergency phone to call for help. They were still with her as we pulled away.
At the open air market in an esplanade near the Bastille monument, I purchased a bouquet of miniature daffodils to emulate the French who are often seen carrying flowers. They were bright against my teal coat as we walked down Rue St. Antoine to the Ile-St. Louis to the St. Regis, our lunch destination. As we entered, a waiter greeted us and smiled at my flowers. “Ah! For me?” he asked. “Oui!” I responded, holding them out to him. He took them and lovingly placed them in his front shirt pocket, patting them for safe keeping. We laughed and he returned them back to me.
We entered the Luxembourg Gardens, and even though there were no leaves on the trees, the park was full of families enjoying the bright afternoon. Parents spent time with their children who were playing with the boats, climbing on the playground, playing soccer or basketball. The kids were smiling and laughing and shrieking with glee. None was having a fit or misbehaving or on a cell phone; the parents were present and doting, but overall unconcerned. None hovered. Parisians visited on park benches, played pétanque or tennis, others read in the quiet corners. The feeling of community overswept us.
The Church of St. Sulpice differed from other cathedrals; it was care-worn and showed its age. We wandered from alcove to alcove until we were approached by a tiny elderly lady in a purple cap. She scurried toward, eager to show us, complete strangers, the alcove for St. Joseph. Religious paintings depicting Joseph learning that he should wed Mary surrounded the sculpture of him holding the baby Jesus. He differed from the rest as his face beamed with light. “I asked the church to put a light on him, and every night I prayed and prayed.” She pressed her hands together, looking up towards God. “Then my prayers were answered. They put in a light for him.” She left us quickly as she came. We realized that this was the first time we had ever seen Joseph with the baby; it’s always Mary. Would we have seen it if she didn’t surreptitiously share her joy with us?
This is the story of Paris: a city full of people enjoying life, being present, and taking care of one another– even those who they do not know. Everywhere we have gone, we’ve been met with kindness. The city has been shaken with the recent attacks, but they have responded with generosity of spirit. Instead of striking them with fear, it has given them greater impetus to live the way life should be lived: with care, concern, and compassion.
Our waiter was abrupt and dismissive, frustrated by our lack of French. If he knew English, he refused to speak it and barely looked at us. After our drinks, I handed him the money for our bill, giving him my best, “C’est bon.” He stopped, looked at me, smiled, and said, “Thank you.”
More often than not, I will come back from visiting a place and then read a random book that turns out to be chock full of information about the place I just got back from. This is typically followed by lamentations of “Why? Why? Why didn’t I read the book before I left for the trip?!” And then a reflection on life’s unfairness: “How was I supposed to know that a Teddy Roosevelt biography would tell me so much about New York?” Or “I was that close to the Jardins des Plantes?!”
Fortunately, the gods of Amazon took pity on my poor soul and deluged with my inbox with recommended reading about Paris, where I am headed today. That is how I ended up with a copy of Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. It was with great joie de vivre that I tore the book out of the box, ready to devour its contents. I flipped open the book and noticed the print was… small. Sigh. C’est la vie.
The small type was compensated by lots of fascinating pictures and many big ideas. It is the perfect kind of book to read before visiting a city– especially Paris. When I think of how Paris became Paris, I think of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III and the tearing down of old Paris and building the one we know and love today. But DeJean takes us out of the the 19th century and firmly places us at the dawn of the 17th century to show us how Paris went from a cramped, dirty hovel to being the City of Light that set the trend for how all cities should be. Baron Haussmann just improved on the design.
We take for granted everything that makes a city a city: public spaces with park benches, promenades along river fronts, places for people of all classes to mix, streetlights, distinct neighborhoods, the sense of style, shopping, and postal service. This mode of living is commonplace to us now, but four hundred years ago they were a part of a French revolution: a revolution on what it means to live in city. This was not a grassroots movement as it stemmed from forward thinking monarchs who realized that Paris itself could be a crown jewel and a reflection of their status as rulers.
The Pont Neuf bridge serves as a metaphor for the effects of all of the Parisian innovations. Built in 1604, it defied the typical bridge purposes by being made of stone instead if wood and not having any homes or stores built upon it. It was a connection between places, with nature, and ultimately, with people. Traversing the Seine through the the Ile-de-Cite, it was built to allow both carriages and people across. The stone construction allowed for heavier cargo and brought more trade through the city; to allow pedestrians safe passage, it included new raised paved walkways. This design was so new that there wasn’t a word for it. Today we call them sidewalks. The lack of buildings encouraged the public to stop during their walks and enjoy the view of their meandering river. Parisians flocked to this bridge; it became the epicenter of news, performances, commerce, and a place to just be. People from all walks life could meet together, to see and be seen.
Each innovation, in its own way, succeeded in this endeavor. The open spaces of the Tuilieres and Place Royale, the quais along the riverfront, expanded paved roads, mixed use buildings all brought people together. The use of streetlights enabled people to stay out after dark with less fear of crime; shops and cafes stayed open later. Since it took its counterparts in other countries almost a hundred years to fully implement lighting, it gained its moniker “City of Light”. As Paris became the fashion capital, newspapers and the advent of fashion magazines and fashion plates helped export Paris to the world. Plate glass windows, textiles, and a new level of commerce brought about boutique stores and a new hobby called shopping. Visitors from around Europe flocked to Paris to partake in its unique, cultured city life, and other cities worked hard to catch up to its modernity.
How Paris Became Paris is not just an enjoyable read for anyone heading to that city, but for anyone who is interested in how civilization turned the corner from Medieval life to the modern world. For this traveler, I look forward to enjoying the sidewalks, the boulevards, the bridges and parks, knowing how these simple daily pleasures helped transform the world we live in.
London’s Tube reminds us to “mind the gap” so that we may get from St. Pancras to Green Park with our life and belongings intact so we can enjoy a soft serve with Flake as we stroll to Buckingham and then through St. James’ Park. The gap between the train and the platform is obvious; we see it. But gaps exist everywhere and are not acknowledged. Currently I am experiencing a watercolor gap. I’m teaching myself how to paint and have watched many beginner tutorials on YouTube, but they all start with painting a picture, and the host starts painting away describing his technique while the brush disappears and reappears on the screen with fresh paint. The gap is what happens off-screen: What kind of paint is he using? How much water does he use? Is he blending colors? This is common knowledge and routine to him, but not so much for me. I would really like to know the paint to water ratio. Even though I paint pictures anyway and am developing my own unique “style”, I know that there’s a lot I’m missing.
This is true for traveling. There are those who want to get away but just aren’t sure how. Let’s be honest: planning a trip can be daunting and for many travel is limited to a finite amount of time and is a big investment. How can they best spend their time and their money to gain a priceless experience? Fortunately there are many resources out there to help a budding voyager get from point A to any where on the map.
I am fortunate enough to be from a family that values traveling. I have clear memories of reading the AAA hotel and dining guides like novels, my mom teaching me how to read a map, and many family adventures that allowed me navigate new places. I learned to make the most of small towns and conquer big cities. However, it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I felt like I was a traveler. In 2010 my friend Jessica and I decided to hike the Cotswold Trail in England. I had been overseas once before for a school trip, but I didn’t have to do anything for that except show up. This trip required research and preparation. It was daunting; it was intimidating; it was empowering. That trip taught me two things: how to do it and that I could do it.
Here are a few tips that I hope can close the gap between wanting to get away to actually going:
Know Thyself. What do you enjoy doing? What do you want to see? Experience? How far are you willing to push your comfort zone? What is the purpose of your trip? What is your mobility? When Jessica and I decided to go on a hiking trip overseas, we had to assess our comfort level. We knew we were going to be out in the boondocks where we might get lost and need help, and to mitigate our nervousness, we decided that we did not want to face a language barrier. Hence, England. England is a hiker’s paradise; there are a multitude of trails spanning the country. We knew that we would be hiking for about eight days, and since we are not hard-core hikers, we chose the Cotswolds. In the Lonely Planet guide to British Hikes, the Cotswolds were ranked as “moderate” (which does not equate to the American meaning) and that we could hike from pub to pub (and we earned our ale). The Cotswolds also appealed to our love of all things British: sprawling countryside tucked with little villages and steeples; hedgerows and sheep; charming stone houses with thatched roofs; cosy pubs with hearty chowders and oversized utensils; English breakfast replete with broiled tomatoes, mushrooms, and beans on toast. Because we knew our abilities and what we wanted to get out of the trip, we had a great time.
Know Thy Destination. The key word here is research. It bears repeating: research, research, research. Learn the lay of the land. If you are going to a new city and need to figure out where to stay, look up the sights you want to see on Google Maps. Search the directions from one sight to another. Find out how far it is and look at the car mode, the public transportation route, and how far it is to walk. If there are different neighborhoods, read up on them. Use this information to help determine where you want to stay, what kind of transportation you need, and what kind of experience you want to have. Where ever you decide to stay, read the reviews. They not only tell you if that place is going to be a good fit for you, oftentimes reviewers will share places they enjoyed eating, how they got around, what to see, and other helpful tips. Jessica and I needed to learn how to get from London’s Heathrow airport to Bath and back again for a couple of days in Town. We read up on information about Heathrow and the English rail system. We learned that the Heathrow Connect train would take passengers free of charge to Paddington Station. From there we could buy a train ticket to Bath. We also researched train stops near the end of the trail so we could get back. Since we needed to get back to Heathrow and wanted to use the Connect again, we booked our hotel in London near Paddington. Paddington is also a major Tube station and allowed us to get any where we wanted to go. On the hike we had maps, a compass, and the little pink Cotswold bed and breakfast guide. (We called a day ahead to make reservations based on how far we wanted to hike the next day. We went in the off-season; I wouldn’t recommend this approach in the summer.)
Know Thy Budget. This is huge. How much money do you have to travel and what do you want to spend it on? Again, research is key here. If you are planning a trip, start looking at how much airfare is, the going rates for hotels, transportation, and the cost of things in general (for example, you can go to TripAdvisor and look up restaurants in your destination, read their menus and look at the cost of food and drink). Start doing a realistic estimate of how much it’s going to cost you and think of the things you might want to buy. Then start saving. Jessica and I had ten months to plan for our trip. Looking at airfare, bed and breakfasts, transportation, food, and the supplies I had to buy beforehand (boots, a pack, hiking clothes, special socks), I estimated what I would need, divided it by ten, and I saved that much more extra each month. When all was said and done, I didn’t need as much money as I thought I did, but my trip was paid for ahead of time, I didn’t have to worry about finances during the trip, and I learned that I could save for travel. On the trip Jessica and I didn’t live large. We found ways to stretch our pounds: we shared a room and split the cost, B&Bs provide breakfast, and we found a clean budget hotel in London. But we had everything we needed, and when I found a hand-crafted wooden clock made from the wood of a yew tree by a local craftsman, I bought it.
Know Thy Resources. We live in a great time for travel. We have the internet, Pinterest, Uber, and Airbnb. Traveling has never been easier, but you have to know where to look. One of my favorite things lately is to google flights. Literally, type in “flights from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg” and google will pull up the cheapest flights for you. If you go to the calendar, you can see the cheapest flight everyday for months. How cool is that?! You cannot book through Google, but you can go to the airline’s website and book there. Pinterest is not only for arts and crafts; it also allows you to get crafty with your travel plans. Type in your destination into the search bar and all kinds of articles about that place will pop up– even for places as far flung as Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Uber was a life-saver in New York during peak taxi hours on a Friday night, and can easily get you to where you want to go. And Airbnb has revolutionized the way that I travel. Trips that would have been out of my budget because of hotel costs were made feasible by Airbnb. I stayed with a couple on the Upper West Side in Manhattan for $76 a night– unheard of in that city. The hubs and I stayed in apartments in London, Paris, and Rome, where we had a kitchen and laundry facilities for way less money than a hotel. I have used it in Savannah, St. Paul, Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. Next month I am staying in a room in Budapest for only $43 a night– and it includes breakfast. Again, though, the key word is research. Make sure the place will suit your needs and location and read the reviews. If it doesn’t feel right, then don’t book that particular place.
So here they are, some of my tips for planning a trip. Travel can be daunting, but it is also a great time to spread your wings, challenge yourself, and see the world.
There they were, the choices. At first glance they seemed identical: blue ball caps with red “B”s. But one was not as vivid, it’s “B” lacked flourish, but it was fifteen dollars less expensive. The other was the official hat for the MLB. The salesman wanted me to be informed, but I knew I wanted a bona fide Red Sox cap. I didn’t fly across the nation, knowing nothing about baseball, for a less pretty hat.
He seemed pleased with my choice, and as he cut off the price tag and removed the card stock from inside the cap, he taught me how to speak Bostonian. “See this word?” He slid over a piece of a paper with the “khakis” on it. “This is how we say car keys.” He handed me my cap and nodded in approval as I put in on my head to head back on the tour of the Freedom Trail with my friend to try out my new lingo.
We arrived at Bunker Hill shortly after the time they stopped letting people in to climb up to the top of the monument. I asked the guard, “Are we too late to climb up?” He looked at me, looked at my hat, “How can I say no to someone wearing a Red Sox cap?” and let us up. At Louisa May Alcott’s house, the tour guide complimented me on my hat, as did other people in and around Boston. I was confused. This was Boston; didn’t EVERYONE have a Red Sox cap? What was so special about mine? But then again, everyone in Boston is really nice.
But a part of me thinks that they must have seen that I was not from around there. I was too bundled up (it was below freezing most of my trip) or my hat was just too new or I pronounced my “r”s. Their kindness and recognition of my cap may have stemmed from their appreciation that I took pride in their city. People are generally nice and want to be helpful, but when you show that you are enjoying their home, that’s where we get into what it means to travel.
This played out to almost comedic effect in London last fall. Steve wanted to eat at some top-tier restaurants, and we chose Pollen Street Social, a recipient of one Michelin star (a crazy hard achievement). I wore white jeans, a teal sweater, and pink loafers while Steve wore a short-sleeved plaid button down shirt, untucked with jeans. I kept asking him if we had on the appropriate attire, and he assured me that it was “semi-casual”. However, I suspected that London semi-casual is a whole different thing than America’s version. As we entered the posh and modern dining room, we knew we were quite underdressed.
Floor to ceiling windows separated the kitchen from the dining room revealing master chef Jason Atherton and his team working away at their creations. Our server showed us our seats among men in sharp suits and women in fancy dresses. We explained that we were from California. We tried to mask our discomfort of sticking out like sore thumbs. We had been to nice restaurants before, but this was something else entirely. I felt like a novice trying to play in the big leagues.
Servers came by with our wine and amuse bouches of mushroom tea with cream, goat cheese churros with truffle oil drizzled honey, polenta muffins, and black olive crackers. One asked me if I had food preferences. Finally Steve ordered the fourteen course tasting menu while I stuck with a regular entree of the red mullet with black and green olive purée.
Steve’s little courses started to appear at our table, and they surprised us by bringing me tastings, too. One of Atherton’s signature dishes is the Deconstructed English Breakfast– an eggshell filled with finely chopped sautéed mushrooms, a tomato purée, eggs made into something like a cream, and ham. Mine was made especially for me without the ham. Throughout the night various servers stopped by our table and chatted with us about the food, European wine versus Californian, and our homes. They wanted to know what they could convey to the chef, especially when I couldn’t finish my dinner. What was my reason for not cleaning my plate?
At dessert, they brought me out the tastings even though I said I was full. We had frozen caramel corn over sweet cream and creme anglaise, cucumber yogurt foam with strawberry coulis, frozen banana dark chocolate Grenache, and white chocolate sorbet with lime. One of the desserts was was topped with blueberries, and I told Steve that I hoped they didn’t bring me a taste since I dislike blueberries. I wondered if we were being recorded, because when that dessert came out, they only brought one for Steve.
We observed the other diners. They talked amongst each other; the food, the service, the ambience seemed to be an afterthought. This was just another Monday night and another dinner for them. They took it for granted that they could just go such a restaurant and have such a meal. All received good service, but none garnered the attention we received. We were there for the experience, and everyone who worked there responded in kind and seemed determined to give us the best experience possible.
When we went to Simpson’s so Steve could have the prime rib, we had a similar experience. Simpson’s is a London landmark; it’s been there since the 19th century and was even featured in Downton Abbey. They are famous for carving the prime rib table side. Steve researched the restaurant beforehand and learned that it is customary to tip the carver. When the carver came to our table, he and Steve got talking about prime rib, and he carved him an English cut, an American cut (thinner), and the much coveted end cut. When Steve tipped him, he smiled and said, “You know the tradition.” When he could, he stopped by our table and chatted some more, and before we left the manager stopped us to talk to us about our meal and the speech David Cameron gave that day. Again, they wanted us to have a good experience.
It felt like we had on London’s version of the Red Sox cap; everyone responded to our enthusiasm. People take pride in what they do, and they want to share what they know or their skills. It seems to come down to the fact that no one wants to take the other for granted. We don’t often have dining experiences like these, and it also appears that they don’t get a plethora of diners who are there for the experience.
Two thoughts come to mind as I write this post:
1. I realize that I am preaching to the choir. My readers (who mostly consist of my friends and family– Hi, friends and family! Thank you for reading!) are those who would enjoy everything a place has to offer.
2. Much of this joy that we experienced is a result of being present in the moment. We were paying attention; we weren’t diverted by our phones or other concerns. In my quest of focusing on how to “be”, these moments provide a good lesson on how to give attention.
Now the question is how to create this sense of wonder here at home. How can I break out of taking my hometown for granted?
It’s true. I confess it. There’s another man in my life and there has been for quite awhile. This affair transcends time and spans two continents. He’s always been part of my life– in the background, waiting– but it wasn’t until 2010 that we were properly introduced, and it seemed fated that we should meet.
Although I’ve met him in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and London (and oh, what a time! But I missed him Boston.) and have spent much time trying to peer into the depths of his soul, he remains a mystery to me. There’s so much about him that I don’t know, that nobody knows.
His name is Johannes. And you might know him: as Vermeer.
If you haven’t met him, he’s the 17th century Dutch painter from Delft known for painting mostly quiet, contemplative indoor scenes of people engaged in an activity from reading letters, mapping the world, making lace, making music. He’s most famous for a painting a woman doing nothing at all, just looking over her shoulder as if to respond to something you’ve said. She’s known for her pearl earring.
It’s through her and the author Tracy Chevalier that I became acquainted with Vermeer. I read the novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and frankly, was not that impressed. The plot was dark and creepy, few characters were likable, and the only part I really enjoyed was when Vermeer explained how clouds are not white– instead they are yellow, pink, blue, brown. It changed the way I look at clouds, but it didn’t really compel me to look at a Vermeer.
Shortly after, as fate would have it, one of my friends invited me to join her art book club. Knowing nothing about art, I decided to give it a try. The first book I read for it was Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell, a nonfiction work about a 20th century failed Dutch painter named van Meergen who forged Vermeers. He even came up with a way to paint and bake the canvas so when the painting would be checked for authenticity, it would act like an “old” painting. Vermeer presented a perfect opportunity for forgery. No one knew how many Vermeers were in existence because a random one would pop up every now and then in someone’s barn or wherever paintings are stored. They were also quite rare. There are only 36 in existence; compared to the copious output by Rembrandt and Rubens, Vermeer seems quite reticent. van Meergen’s success was so great that he fooled Goering and Hitler with his work, and it wasn’t until after WWII that he was discovered. In retrospect it is amazing that he fooled anyone at all. His work next to a real Vermeer is flat, awkward, and dull. How could have so many people been fooled?
If you look at a Vermeer, you cannot help but notice his use of light and keen attention to detail. Textures are vivid and rich; the people look as though they might look out of the painting and straight to you. In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window the oriental rug bunched on the table invites your fingers to touch it, to feel the roughness of each fiber. The Girl with the Wineglass looks directly at the viewer as if to share some secret joke about her two apparent suitors. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vermeer did not have a workshop of understudies who mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, or in some cases, painted the majority of the paintings for him. He did it all himself; this limited his output.
However, it is not his rarity that makes his work so special; it is that he doesn’t necessarily tell you what to see. In so many pre-Modernist/Impressionist paintings, the subjects allude to the bible, history, and myth. They tell a specific story or present an event or person in a prescribed way. While Vermeer does have a couple of religious and mythological works, most reflect Dutch life. On a recent flight, my seat mate who was a stranger to me and I discussed Vermeer and what made his paintings so special. I suggested that he gives us a story, but does not provide the narrative. For the girl reading the letter, we know she is reading a letter, but from whom? What are its contents? What is its affect on her? He allows the viewer to create the story.
His works also quiet the mind; they offer a sanctuary away from the noise and hoopla of everyday life. Within his frames everyone speaks in hushed voices. In Soldier with a Laughing Girl, the girl softly laughs at the soldier’s quip. The loudest of his paintings, The Procuress, is loud from the subject matter– a young woman being fondled by a man as he pays her for what is to come. They are flanked by an old woman who seems to egg the man on and by another man holding a glass of wine who looks at the viewer with a knowing smile. All of their mouths are closed and the only sound you hear is the clinking of the coins.
Slowly Vermeer became part of my life. It started by seeing his work at the New York Met and the Frick Collection. It continued as my friend Julie invited me to the Legion of Honor to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring in an exhibit of Dutch masters. It is quite possibly the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen and clearly outpaces the other woman with a mysterious smile. My travels have brought me into contact with more of his paintings, and I have seen 22 (sort of) of his works. To be officially clear, I’ve seen 21 paintings and one frame. In March of 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole many artifacts and knifed a few paintings out of their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert was one of them. The frame is still on display as a remembrance of what has been lost.
Unwittingly, I became part of a group of Vermeer hunters: people who travel the world to see Vermeers and the exhibits around his work. There are more travels ahead as I continue this affair.
Yesterday I wrote about the struggle of finding the balance between “doing” and “being”. My thoughtful readers chimed in reminding me that some times life just asks us to “do” more at certain times; that busyness is not necessarily bad but we need reminders to slow down; and that for some of us “doing” is a way of “being”. As I reflected on this dichotomy, it occurred to me that I can just “be’, but in order to do this, I have to be somewhere else.
The places that came to mind where I have been the most calm, aware, and in tune with my environment are visiting my parents and lying on their couch, hanging out with my grandma in Michigan, morning walks in Palm Springs, walking on the beach with my friends in St. Augustine, or wandering through Central Park. It’s even better if I have a camera in my hand and my senses become attuned to sights of beauty. Being away means that there’s nothing really required of me. I just have to BE there.
But one memory stands out the most for constant, sustained BEING: Rome.
Rome is an attack on the senses; it is a perfect place to “be” because it is unapologetically itself. It calls on you to be aware as the past and the present are melded into one. Our modernized apartment in the ancient Monti neighborhood revealed its past as brickwork peeked through the paint and the stairs leading to our door followed antiquated building codes. At the piazza down our cobblestone street, barely wide enough for a Fiat, bright young things continued the tradition of congregating around the fountain at all hours of the night drinking wine and solving the world’s problems. Make a right at the piazza and you find yourself facing the Colosseum surrounded by vendors selling cold sodas and tourists toting selfie-sticks. Ruins, art, and churches are everywhere. Rome startles you as you daringly try crossing the street on faded crosswalks, praying that the drivers will either stop or drive around you; yet it lulls with its umbrella pines, sidewalk cafes, sunny warmth. It asks you to slow down and savor the moment.
Steve and I landed in Rome after having spent two weeks in London and Paris, respectively. Unlike the other two capitals where we had planned what sights we wanted to see and where we wanted to eat and had our time determined by reservations, we hadn’t done much prepping for Rome. After the orderliness of London and Paris’s refinement, we found ourselves in a city that followed completely different rules and no plans. The first day set the tone as we explored our large apartment that beckoned relaxation and wine drinking. We set out to find our wine, cheeses, artichokes, and olives. The afternoon was spent enjoying our bounty before heading off to explore the piazza for a late dinner.
We did what you expect travelers to Rome to do. We saw the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley House. Since we had no set plans, we went back to the Forum again. However, we took our time. We lingered. We ate gelato. We drank wine. We had late dinners.
None of these quite compared with our experience at the Borghese Gardens. We planned on going to the Borghese Gallery, but tickets have to be purchased in advance and they did not have any extras. No Old Masters for us that day. Instead we eyed the pedal carts that people rode around the park. Soon we were off and away, Steve pedaling our cart (my feet didn’t reach), laughing as we coasted down a hill narrowly avoiding tourists. After almost three weeks of walking, it was freeing to explore on wheels. We rode around the park as I hopped off with my camera to snap whatever caught my fancy. Soon we passed a stand renting out golf carts. You can imagine what we did next.
“I’m driving in Rome!” Steve called out as we zipped away to explore another part of the park. The next we knew we were racing against a group of teenage boys.
After we returned the cart, Steve found a place to sit down and have a beer, and I found a quiet garden with a boat pond. I made my way through this sanctuary and enjoyed the stillness of the afternoon and watched the ducks and turtles lounge in the sun.
This place, this city’s only request that we just “be” and be present.
Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.
Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.
Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.
These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.
Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.
It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.
The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.
Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.
Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?