Monday, January 18, 2010

The Trouble With Travel

It's not that I have any regrets about traveling. Truly. La Paz, BC, 1987, may be the only regrettable trip we've ever made and yet it recalls priceless memories. Heat, hunger, illness, flood, boredom, and *"Rosa Salvaje."

No, mostly travel has never been regrettable, and yet it is not without its risks. The trouble with travel is that sooner or later I have to go home, and eventually when I think on my experiences, the new things I discovered and tried, it will stir feelings and desires. And there is nothing to quell the stirrings, the antojo, except more travel, to return... It may be true :: Un poquito de lo que te antoje te hace sentir bien, but having a little bit of Europe is not as easy as I wish it could be. Oh, those cruel cravings.

Maybe because it is breakfast time and I am hungry, I am missing dinner in Bruxelles.

Salad at T Kelderke, Grand Place.
Fruit and nuts and a toasted cheese over a bed of fresh greens.
I miss salad at T Kelderke.

I almost skipped this one, because thinking of it really makes me want to insist to Geoff that we go back. Now. How else to satisfy the rumbling ache of desire? Okay. If you get to go to Bruxelles consider sitting for a slow dinner. Never mind the slow part... bring a book or just sip your beer and gaze at the crowds in the Grand Place. Just be sure that you order this soup. It is so good. So good. It's all about warmth and cheese and stuff... whatever. I don't need to take it all apart. Whatever they put in there works. Geoff and I shared a bowl the first time and we managed to be dignified, but the second and third time we definitely ordered two bowls.
I miss this soup.

I miss this beer.
Stunning. I am not a big drinker. For one thing it does not take a big drink to effect affect me, and otherwise few alcoholic drinks really hold my interest. My brother Hans said good things about Belgium beer, and I have found him to be a dependable guy, so I made a point of ordering beer our first night in Bruxelles. Maybe it's being on vacation, sitting amidst beauty and history, and next to my sweetheart, maybe I was super thirsty... or maybe Belgians really make awesome beer. Whatever. I drank two Grimbergens that night. I miss this beer. Solely for scientific purposes, of course, I would like to research this point, to better understand the deliciousness and thirst quenching satisfaction of this particular beverage.

Moving on.

I miss slow dinners. The T Kelderke easily takes the prize for slowest service in Europe. Oh. So. Slow. And yet... oh, so good. So, who cares? The waitstaff looks indifferent? C'est la vie. No one comes to take our order? That's fine. We can outlast them. It's worth it. And initially it does feel like some kind of contest: Our will and patience vs. their neglectfulness. But eventually we learn to go with it, relax, sit back. Bring out a book, start a conversation or several conversations. Make new friends. Organize the backpack. Scroll through pictures in the camera. Sip another Grimbergen. It gets so mellow and... and ... what's that word? Relaxed. Yes, I missed relaxed, slow, delicious dinners, with cranky waiters.

I miss Belgium. Even the waiters.

I miss red geraniums. And flower boxes. And Paris. There were red geraniums all over Europe and flower boxes too. I noticed flowers everywhere. We come from an area that prides itself on its flower heritage, but our town needs to step-up, because the flower gardens and borders and beds and windows and corners of Europe were more abundant and lovingly tended than any place I have ever seen. I miss the alpine flowers in Switzerland and the miles of sunflowers in France. And I miss the hundreds and hundreds of window boxes I saw, everywhere we went, overflowing with brilliant, red geraniums.

I miss this dancer. Well, not really. She's here, in the next room, and she still dances. All the time. Everywhere. It was so sweet and amusing to be in the Louvre, at the Eiffel Tower, in the Alps, on a train... anywhere and see Maria overcome by a song, a melody, a distant tune, and begin to dance. She cannot help herself. She dances all the time. Unless she is talking. Or drawing. Or making wishes about God sending ponies to her, over rainbows. So even when the Venus De Milo was in the room, I could not keep my eyes off of Maria.

I miss sailboats and Jardin des Tuileries, and Max's away smile. It started in Paris, and maybe that is because we had finally shaken our jet lag... Max started smiling. He works so hard during the school year, trying to exceed his own rigorous expectations of himself, that I think the vacation part of our vacation really did him a lot of good. I love that I have dozens of smiling Max pictures, more in those three weeks abroad than in a whole year of at-home-time photographs. It's an away smile, at ease and confident. He loves Paris, and Rabbit Hill, and he mastered all the metro systems and switching languages. He had a good handle on Euros, gladly calculating exchange rates for me. He was no chicken abroad. He excelled and exceeded all of my hopes for him.

Speaking of Rabbit Hill, I really miss the Netherlands and Landal GreenParks. I miss bunnies frolicking with bunny abandon. I miss the total rest and ease of feeling at home, while traveling aboard, that one can enjoy at Rabbit Hill.

I miss our cute little home and the fun modes of transport at our disposal. I miss the respect and space given to cyclists and pedestrians. Sure, I would love to see new places and have other adventures, but ooh... ooh, I could totally spend another week or two here again. Maybe like an annual thing, or every other year.

I would have no trouble at all convincing the children.

I miss the places we went, the things we did, the fun we had... I miss Europe. All of it.

Okay. Maybe not all of it.
But enough of it, that I would even face three weeks of doing this by hand, if we could go back. That's the trouble with traveling... it makes you miss a lot of stuff and then you gotta figure out how to go back. I did have my doubts, but that's okay. I like to keep it true.

*The World Wide Interwebs are amazing. After twenty three years with the theme song and basic narrative haunting the recesses of my cerebellum, there she is: Veronica Castro and the whole telenovela outline. Bill... hey brother, can you still sing the song? Want me to make you a Pinesol-lemon-lime margarita, hold the ice, so you can have total recall? Good times.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Very Full Year

So much has happened in 2009. So much that was good and memorable. I would be remiss to leave out a special day in July when us Chickens were Abroad, enjoying our first family European travels. Some years Chickenblog has done a retrospective, highlighting the special events that made up an entire year. Today I will recall just one special day, as a favor promised to a favorite aunt... this one is for you Carol.

Before we resume our Chickens Abroad travelogue, please be advised: This post is a doozy. Get a snack. Brew some coffee, find the lumbar pillow, stretch. Don't hesitate to schedule an intermission.


We were in the Netherlands and thoroughly enjoying the restful and full days after the big city days in London, Paris and Bruxelles. Even our one day braving Amsterdam traffic was lovely and worthwhile. Leaving Rabbit Hill was hard. We had had a lot of fun there. From this very central part of Holland we were heading south, to an area that is a narrow slip of country nestled snugly between Germany and Belgium. Our GPS, flakey yet indispensable, was aiming for the little town of Valkenburg and a certain castle.

It turns out this is not the Kasteel we were looking for.

Not the moat.

Not the cows.

I suppose if we had brought guide books with us, or if we had bothered to learn to read and speak Dutch, then finding the ancient Kasteelruin Valkenburg would not have been so challenging, but then we might not have discovered this beautiful spot. That would have been a shame.

We aimed for town again and realized that the elusive castle was actually right in front of us, or more accurately: Right above us.

Of course. One of the highest points in Holland would be up.

But first, before any more climbs, we stopped for some local brew.

Then we climbed. The most sacked castle in Europe on the right and the entrance ahead of us...

Or so we thought. Even without our GPS, we managed to find the longest route to our destination, so our walking tour of the town was extended as we circled the base of the castle.

If Alex were writing this you would be enjoying fascinating details about castle construction and history, the lives and means of castle dwellers. He was an ideal companion on our self guided tour. His enthusiasm was infectious and his knowledge extensive.

Up we went.

I am not going to provide detailed analysis of the the layout, the features, the history. No time. Besides, it's been done.

Alex was making sense of all of it. He understood that cut stones and crumbled walls were once whole walls and actual rooms. He painted a picture for us, told us stories that filled the space with voices and possibilities. I could imagine dark, cold winters, long sieges, daily life, order and labor.

Narrow passages and medieval justice, made me grateful to have been born in the twentieth century.

There is something stirring and indescribable about standing in ancient places, seeing the hills and trees that were seen hundreds of years before and sensing that somehow there is still a connection between then and now, us and them.

We felt reverent. We were surprised and engaged. It's not a polished site, with everything reconstructed and served up for simple consumption, but I think we preferred it this way. We were on our own to detect the quieted, yet real history all around us.

It was beautiful.

It was neglected and old and messy and interesting. It was great to be there and not have a guide telling us what to think and which direction to look. We touched the walls, and deciphered the purpose of rooms and corridors. We saw the flowers growing between ancient floor tiles.

Looking up or looking down, our eyes met stories told and untold.

It's good to know history, to feel familiar with local culture and language, but there is a pleasure in wondering too. I do not mind mystery, quietly reflecting and enjoying my own experience. A lot of places and sights that we found in Europe were new to me and I have since been inspired to learn more, to read and research, but I am happy to have made my own first impressions as well.

Kasteelruin Valkenburg inspired reflection.
I think this was a baptismal font. The stone was very different from the walls. It was in the chapel.

Here is a chapel arch.

We sat in the chapel for a family portrait.

This is an embarrassing admission: There were plenty of markers and signs that detailed specific aspects of the architecture and some history, and the castle is being restored, but I rarely read plaques and history markers. Isn't that wrong... wasteful or something? I don't know. Maybe I am too absorbed in being there. Facts and dates don't last as long for me as feeling and experiencing. For me reading info can come later, when the real place is far away.

So, if you go there and want to know how many times the castle was under siege and sacked, or when the Wolf's tower was constructed, it's there. You can read all about it. You can study the detailed models too. This one shows an earliest version of the castle. (Very Monty Python, I thought. Peasants packing mud etc.)

At its best, when the paint was fresh and all the light bulbs were working, it must have been amazing.

And when I was thinking of the castle walls tall and intact, the gardens tended, the wells full, I marveled at what people accomplish, what nature erases, what time takes away. And I am still trying to understand why, after all this time, I still felt something living there, something from then, when it was a working home, a real place. What is that intangible, elusive sense that history is present and its voices are still around us?

So much to ponder.

Even when historians can fill in the gaps and I can read all about it in a book, there is a tremendous privilege in seeing it and exploring it for myself.

Alex believes this must have been the great hall.

And Max knew these were the arrow loops. He took aim. He was there.

She was there.

We were all there.

And we are looking forward to this new year and the new places we will go.

Happy New Year dear friends.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What We Did This Summer

Presently we are immersed in back to school adjustments, and Blue House blues... it's not that the Blue House is undone, it's only that the cosmic farces are determined to see us prove our determination and resolve, which has left me feeling undone. So, recalling the age old tradition of sharing highlights of Summer, I am posting about our day in Avignon, France. Honestly, this trip of a lifetime, our family vacation in Europe, will serve me with good memories for a lifetime. What a blessing.

We drove from Brienz, Switzerland all the way to Avignon, in one day! And that was after spending the entire morning absorbing every last charming detail of Ballenberg, the Swiss Open Air Museum. That was a long drive. We arrived quite late and of course it was still light out and I was anxious to share the first place on this adventure that I actually knew. Remember, my Mom and I were the scouts, sent in advance to figure out all of this abroad business? Well, this was finally my opportunity to show Geoff and our children that I really did learn something!

We checked in to our little hotel, with fragrant lavender growing by the door, then we headed directly to the old part of the town, to the Pope's Palace or Palais des Papes and the bridge.

I'll never know if it was good timing or a missed opportunity... we arrived in Avignon before the official start of their annual Theater Festival. The town was abuzz, even late at night or maybe especially late at night, since it was cooler at night. Everywhere were people trying to get the word out about their theater, their performers, their contribution to art. And I do mean everywhere. No surface was too private or too sacred to be exempt from theater posters and announcements. We saw what I will think of as warm-up acts... some dancers, a juggler, people in costumes or simply colorfully dressed. It was fun. It was exciting to see the preparations and feel the anticipation. It was fun to walk all over the town late at night, to hear the cicadas and recall the cold and windy days and nights when my Mom and I were there.

We ate at the same "touristy" cafe where Delia introduced me to the most delicious salad ever. Locals may insist they know what is best, but sometimes we must be who and what we are and so we were tourists. Travelers from America, looking for something new and French and good and we found it in the brasserie... L'Hôtel de Ville. It was magnifique! Those olives and that bread, the warm night and long-slow service and all the sights strolling by. It was touristifical.

The boys left the table a few times to push their way through the crowd and see what the jugglers or the dancers were up to. And I pinched myself, finding it hard to believe that I had been here before, that we were this fortunate!... all of us here together, just as we had hoped and planned for!

The next day we came back and we walked. We walked and walked. I took the children across the town and to the very same boulangerie where I had my first ever taste of pain chocolate... or chocolate croissant, as we preferred to call the flakey, fresh, delicious bread baked with a modest yet decadent bit of chocolate in it's buttery center. It was worth the distance we covered, it was worth passing up the other bakeries and waiting for the place I knew would be as wonderful as it was last March.


Ahhh... breakfast and lunch!

And a promise kept... Maria rode once the night before and this was her happy reunion with the carousel, so she could ride in the sea shell.

And for the rest of the morning we walked all around the ancient and walled town and we tried to imagine what it would be like when every corner, every theater and every bench and plaza would be filled with performers and patrons. Probably it would be amazing and certainly crowded. It would be something to witness... maybe next time?

Was it funny? Did their humor please the crowd?

Will we see the movie?

I like to think they sounded merry.

I like to think we would have got good seats for this show.

We had a good Summer.

Very good.

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