“I authorize you to be like a bird … as described by the zoologist Norman J. Berrill: ‘To be a bird is to be more intensely alive than any other living creature. Birds have hotter blood, brighter colors, stronger emotions. They live in a world that is always present, mostly full of joy.’ Take total advantage of the soaring grace period ahead of you … Sing, chirp, hop around, swoop, glide, love the wind, see great vistas, travel everywhere, be attracted to hundreds of beautiful things, and do everything.” Rob Brezsny
So now let’s go back to our original question. What is freedom in the abstract?
Two key factors involve space and time. There is plenty of both.
This was beautifully expressed by John Muir:
“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom . . .”
So what definition covers all the bases? I finally boiled it down to the following:
“Freedom consists of depth and breadth of available choices.”
In order to clarify what is meant by “depth”, I submit that all choices are not created equal.
Physical freedom and freedom from serious obligations are much more fundamental, having more depth than freedom from trivial obligations. If I am physically paralyzed or responsible for a disabled dependent, my freedom is much more curtailed than if I am obligated to pay consumer debt. Still most of us imagine our freedom is most limited by financial considerations. In this I think we are mistaken. It is much more likely that we are lacking mental or emotional freedom, inhibited by what William Blake calls “mind-forged manacles.”
Once we have a grip on these fundamental “deep” freedoms, we can focus on breadth of choices. Let’s take my RV idea for example. A friend disabused me of the notion that the European vacationers I had been watching with such envy had a great deal more freedom than I did. Sure they didn’t have the expense or hassle of staying at hotels and eating at restaurants but they were extremely limited in where they could take an RV and the nice RV parks were far from cheap. Generally, in order to visit the sites in local cities, they would have to unhook the car and travel miles in heavy traffic to fight the crowds and spend the day without any of the conveniences of the comfortable RV, then return, tired and hungry, fighting traffic on the way back to the park where they would face cleaning up and getting dinner. As a backpacker staying at hostels which were generally located near the train station, I had none of these worries.
This is when I started thinking about stealth camping in a van. A normal cargo van could easily be tricked out with a fan vent, comfortable bed, and a desk and still accommodate camping equipment and supplies. It could be taken to an RV park for tent camping or provide a safe place to sleep whenever conditions seemed unsafe or prohibitively expensive. Classified as a vehicle, a van could go anywhere a car could go and, due to the high wheel base, it could often go further off grid to places where neither an RV or car could be driven safely. Parked at a Casino or a Walmart it would look like any other white Chevy Express working cargo van. The purchase also wasn’t a huge commitment since a working cargo van holds its value and is easily sold when compared to an RV or boat. If not used for camping, it could be used as normal transportation or as a mobile office.
I chose a current year lightly used Chevy Express with a V6 engine, paying cash. I didn’t see any reason to take the depreciation hit on a new van or any reason to finance and pay interest when I didn’t have to. Insurance and the extended warranty were expensive but not as much as it would have been for a heavy truck and trailer combined.
At this point, I considered my breadth of choices with the van camper idea. I could still drive the van to somewhere with long-term parking and take a cruise, or catch a plane or train and return at my leisure. I could still stay at a hostel, B&B, or hotel if I chose to do so. I could shop for groceries and cook at a campsite or rest stop or eat at a restaurant.
About the only limitation I could imagine involved going to places so rugged and off grid that a V8 engine and four-wheel drive would be required. While there was certainly a possibility that the “future me” would wish to visit such places, it seemed unlikely since I had never fantasized about roughing it to that extent, at least not alone.
At this point I felt that I had managed to maximize choices for my future self. Now I only had to get my present self healthy again in order for the adventure to continue.
Last year, I truly believed that I was teetering on the brink of achieving a major lifetime goal, that being the opportunity to enjoy period of relative freedom as compared to a life centered around a forty hour a week office job, home ownership, bills, and endless repetitive tasks.
I had retired from my career, sold most of my possessions, satisfied all financial and familial obligations and literally set sail across the Atlantic to explore the world at my leisure with no one to please but myself.
Certainly the first few months trekking around Europe with a backpack were novel and exciting, but as time went on, I gradually became aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t feel free and this worried me. I had that gnawing sensation of having forgotten something like going to work and wondering if you’ve left the stove on. Even worse, I began to wonder if perhaps I’d carelessly thrown the baby out with the bath in my eagerness to unload materialistic things and obligations.
Certainly I had to worry about my itinerary. Nothing was taken care of for me. I had to concern myself about my next train ticket, where I was going to sleep, and local bus routes. For this reason, I couldn’t help but feel envious of the Europeans buzzing about in their cars pulling caravans, shopping in super markets and having cookouts and picnics in luxurious RV parks or rustling up dinner in the kitchens of local hostels. Often they’d have bikes or kayaks attached to their vehicles or camping equipment and scooters. They seemed to me to have far more choices than I about where they went and what they did and how they spent their money. I was convinced I had to stick to a rigid schedule I had planned out the year before knowing this would be high season and one couldn’t just wing it unless one was very rich or very experienced in traveling cheaply. Upon returning to the states and staying quiet while dealing with what appeared to be some sort of parasitic intestinal infection, I thought long and hard about freedom in the abstract. Generally we speak of specific types of freedom such as political freedom, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly but those are only small patches on a vast territory which is probably why so few people truly enjoy a feeling of liberty, spaciousness, and choice. They aren’t seeing the whole picture.
A list of types of freedoms combined into manageable groupings might look something like this:
- Physical freedom – I am not paralyzed or ill or incarcerated; I can walk out the door and propel myself to wherever I need or wish to go.
- Financial freedom – I can easily support myself doing work I enjoy from any location or without having to work at all; I have savings and little or no debt. My bills and needs are quite manageable.
- Freedom from obligations – I have no legal or moral commitments that require me to work or stay in any particular place.
- Mental freedom – I have no mental or emotional limitations that prevent me from going where I want to go or doing what I wish to do – I am not agoraphobic or socially uncomfortable or otherwise overly inhibited. I do not feel obliged to follow someone else’s expectations nor any rigid plan or schedule of my own making.
I have emphasized the last statement because that appeared to me to hint at my problem while in Europe. If you think about it, when we make plans for the future we are making arrangements for a person who never existed and never will. To insist on thinking otherwise, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, amounts to willful disregard of the evidence and a flight from self-knowledge. There simply is no continuous “self” that endures through time. I realized that my (then) current self didn’t want to leave Europe for India as planned. This current self dreamed of an RV and traveling around the scenic parts of the U.S. exploring National Parks and such. In Europe I felt like I was being chivvied about by a rigid tyrannical past self but this was merely an extreme example of what we all do. We scarcely think a single thought from one minute to the next that doesn’t serve to reinforce our prison walls limiting our future choices.
Occasionally we may sacrifice in a way that expands future choices. I went to college, not to train for any particular profession, but to remove barriers thus expanding my choices. I worked for the government in order to ensure an adequate pension at a relatively early age and I’m grateful to my past self for doing so since this greatly expanded my choices. But what if all decisions were made on that basis? How would that change things?
After Durham castle, I took the train to York which was very beautiful as well. I was greatly looking forward to exploring when something strange happened.
In a single week I lost my keyboard, hotmail, Skype, and my ability to charge my ipad.
I had failed to download the latest version of my IOS on my ipad even though I knew it had been sitting there on my “software settings” giving me gentle reminders to download.
I realized I was low on power but whenever I tried to charge my ipad, I would get an error message stating that the “accessory” was unsupported.
When I contacted Apple support using Google Hangouts since I was locked out of Skype. They said to download the latest IOS.
When I tried that, there was a message stating that I had to have at least 50% power to download the fix.
Then I went looking for an Apple Store. York didn’t have one.
I was so low on power by now I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to fly home if that was necessary to take care of all my technology issues. Microsoft Security had locked me out of Hotmail and Skype for some bizarre reason which I seemed unable to fix. This made me unable to access my accounts using a borrowed computer. What’s more, you are not allowed to take an uncharged device on a British or American plane. They either confiscate the device or you don’t get to fly.
I found out something about my “basic needs.” While I’m sure I could have dealt okay with much more serious issues, the mere thought of traveling the world without my ipad was enough to cause me foresee an imminent meltdown. The technical issues were just too much for me. It just seemed like the universe was telling me it was time to go.
So next thing I knew, I borrowed the hostel’s computer and booked the next flight to the U.S.
I took the very next train to Kings Cross in London. From there I took the metro to Heathrow, then a cab to a nearby motel and tried to sleep a few hours.
The next morning I took the shuttle to Terminal 3 at Heathrow (I didn’t think any airport could be bigger than Dallas/Fort Worth in Texas, but Heathrow was just mind blowing.)
I checked in through security five hours early to make sure my ipad had enough charge to get through (5%). We made it – hooray!
I shopped the duty free shops for 5 hours when I should have been collapsing in a heap on the floor, but by now I was high on adrenaline.
What seemed about a year later I boarded my American Airlines flight leaving at 3:00 pm and watched every single movie they had during the 10 hour flight to Dallas/Fort Worth (still buzzing on adrenaline I guess.) “I can sleep when I’m dead” seemed to be my new theme song.
Upon arriving at DFW airport (as big as an average city), I rented a car and headed to the nearest airport motel for a few hours of sleep (didn’t get any!)
At daybreak, I started the three hour drive to Austin.
In spite of serious jet lag, it felt absolutely wonderful to be driving again. I couldn’t get over the feeling of what I can only describe as “openess”.
Once home, while I was able to solve my technology issues, I seemed to have run out of steam. I had enjoyed good health and vigor throughout my months in Europe but now my body collapsed into several months of illness. In hindsight, I realized I needed this downtime without the necessity of catching trains and locating accomodations and public transportation.
This was my opportunity to do some serious thinking …
Darn that Bill Bryson – it seems the secret is out about Durham being the most awesome place in England. I am using the word “awesome” in its original sense like when one finds oneself speechless, jaw dropped, in a state of awe.
Although American, Bryson is every Brit’s favorite travel writer and they take his advice seriously when he suggests they take notice of something incredibly fine in their very midst that no one is talking about (Notes from a Small Island.) The place was overrun with vacationing Brits! What’s more the 11th century castle where I was staying was overrun with wedding parties both days and both nights!
As a solo traveler in a castle packed with guests, I was, as usual, offered the Harry Potter death trap room reached by climbing 105 stone steps where the walls were so thick there wasn’t a shred of wifi or 3G signal. I politely declined the room and packed my stuff to transfer to a room in another part of the castle that was very similar but at least had a view of the magnificent thousand year old cathedral and only 52 stone steps.
Alas, I had just unpacked when a red-headed lad knocked on my door and in a broad Yorkshire accent asked if I would mind moving to the “potter’s lodge” since this room had been promised on the following night and I was staying two nights.
With ominous visions of packing up my gear just to find myself in a potting shed, I wearily asked if I could see the room first. The young man guided me through a gaggle of wedding guests in the courtyard (I dressed in a kaftan and flip flops) eventually leading me, not to the potters lodge, but the porter’s lodge at the impressive castle gate. We climbed a mere 30 winding steps and I found myself in the coolest place I could imagine spending a night in Northern England. I was in a big tower with three huge gothic windows. See photo above.
My views included:
(1). The huge, extremely photogenic castle courtyard featuring the exquisite entry of the magnificent great hall,
(2) a view of the keep and the 300 stone steps leading to it (where, presumably, the University of Durham dons live in splendor),
And a view of the cathedral.
I spent the first night just dreamily looking out at the illuminated views from my exquisite tower vantage point. Every now and then I would feel compelled to pull away from a window when I saw someone pointing a camera at me. My porter’s lodge was part of the photogenic castle entry.
The next morning, I discovered that I couldn’t go on the official castle tour which is always canceled during weddings, but in a way, I’d already had one what with my three moves and breakfast in the great hall.
Still I was free to wander about through the public rooms and lovely old chapel. The porter on duty at the lodge told me about a much older Norman chapel (1080 AD) in the castle. When he saw my excitement, he gave me the key so I could run have a peek. What I saw made me feel I had stepped onto the set of The Lion in Winter.
I did get to go on official tour of Durham Cathedral (pronounced by the well traveled Bill Bryson to be “the finest cathedral on planet earth”.) Built in the 10th century, the cathedral was intended to be the final resting place of the bones of St. Cuthbert but was also an important part of William the Conquerer’s “shock and awe” campaign against the northern Saxons, something a little more positive than burning all their villages and poisoning their fields. This was the “awe” part of shock and awe.
This colossal structure had the first stone vaulted rib ceiling ever built anywhere. It was an absolute miracle of architectural engineering then as it is now and there is nothing under that roof to spoil the effect. Our tour guide was a marvelous story teller. He showed us the hidden bricked in window above the sanctuary knocker where two Benedictine monks from the attached monastery would watch for accused criminals on the lam and let them in where they were guaranteed 37 days of safety and care after which they could either face trial or be escorted to the dock and placed on the very next ship headed for a foreign port. Our guide said that the records show that out of hundreds of prisoners, not one opted for trial, so harsh were the penalties for the pettiest of crimes (e.g. losing a head or hand.)
I particularly liked the tales of shenanigans and intrigue that went on over the relics having to do with St. Cuthbert and St. Bede and even the head of a local military hero later known as St. Oswald. Apparently you could kill people and still become a saint; his skull can be found alongside St. Cuthbert’s in the very same coffin. Almost all depictions of St. Cuthbert show him tenderly holding a severed head. While these matters might seem like high comedy to modern day cynics, they were nothing to laugh at in the Age of Faith.
Two items of interest to Americans:
(1) There is a plaque and coat of arms on a wall in the cloister wing of the cathedral that once housed the Benedictine monks. It commemorates the generous support of generations of Washingtons. Six generations later, this same family produced America’s first and greatest hero.
(2) As one exits the great hall of Durham castle, there is another plaque honoring an anonymous “American citizen” who between 1930 and 1939 financed the renovation of the castle foundation which saved the castle from imminent and complete destruction.
I have always thought of myself as psychologically tough and resilient. But when you are on the road alone away from comfortable routines, you’re going to find out some things about yourself that you didn’t expect.
It all started on a rainy day in Paris when I was stuck in my hotel room during the three week French train strike. Upon checking my email I discovered that my brother had unexpectantly died. There was no question of going home since all flights were completely booked due to the strike and my family did not expect me to return in any case. Still I wanted so much to see his wonderful family, my brother’s greatest contribution to the world, I begged my niece to come join me touring Europe. This turned out to be impossible due to her new job. I was disappointed because I knew having Melissa’s company was guaranteed to protect me from feeling sad. No sadness allowed!
So I put on a cheerful face, happy to find myself at Dover after crossing the channel by ferry. I was on English soil at last among kindly people who spoke my language. What’s more, the July weather was absolutely perfect. Still I wasn’t prepared for the tourist mob in London and it wasn’t much better in Oxford or the Cotswolds or Bath until evening when the “day trippers” left.
The tourist mobs were somehow disturbing to me. It was as if they were all desperately looking for the big “WOW!” The idea seemed to be that this WOW moment would occur if one stood or sat or walked in the exact same spot as Samuel Johnson, Pepys, Princess Diana, or David Beckham (London), or Christopher Wren, C. S. Lewis, Sir Walter Raleigh, or Oscar Wilde (Oxford) or Jane Austin, Beau Nash, or Queen Anne (Bath). I amused myself thinking how surprised those tourist groupies would be to learn that the last creature to occupy that particular three dimensional space was probably a dinosaur since it takes 226,000,000 years for the sun to orbit the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Then in a moment of clarity I realized that I was no different. Even if I wasn’t rushing around with a camera trying to visit Stratford-on-Avon, Stonehenge, and Bath all in one day like some Asian tourists I met, I was still desperately looking for the WOW. We all are.
It was in Oxford and Bath that I finally had to admit that, not only was I not feeling the WOW even though I was surrounded with amazing beauty and a great deal of interest, but something was wrong with me which I could only attribute to a delayed reaction to my brother’s death, something I had repressed.
I was starting to have fearful dreams about never seeing my loved ones again, about something happening to them. There were also dreams of losing my grip on reality, seeing looks of horror on strangers’ faces when I mistook them for my dead brother. Sometimes while trying to distract myself with sightseeing, I would start trembling as if very cold. I knew I wasn’t afraid of anything external. I was afraid of me as if I couldn’t trust myself anymore.
Then I met a succession of individuals who, while engaged with life, didn’t seem to be desperately looking for the WOW. Three were at a hostel located in a lovely, peaceful Italianate Villa in Bath. One was a Scottish woman taking a course in Tibetan Buddhism. Her modest goal was to learn compassion. There was a charming seventy-six year old woman who was very well traveled and was researching a book on her family history as a gift for her grandchildren. There was also a tiny very young girl with an enormous backpack on a solo journey. She never went out to see the sights or look for entertainment but spent most of her time alone on the lawn reading.
I didn’t know why but I found myself canceling my week in Penzance and looking for accommodations in Bath since the hostel was booked. I was able to secure a room at a bed and breakfast in a tiny village on the outskirts of Bath. My host, David, explained that he had been recently widowed and was new to the business of taking in paying guests. I soon found that David was the epitome of all things good about the English. He generously gave me full run of the house and garden including the laundry room, a great blessing to one who has been on the road for months. I’m sure he found it strange that I spent all my time in the garden reading and never went to town or wanted so much as a cup of tea but he gave me my space and privacy until he sensed that I was feeling sociable at which times he was a wonderful conversationalist.
Walking or sitting in the garden with all the flowers and listening to birdsong, I was finally calm enough to acknowledge the things that were troubling me, knowing that the only way around is through.
On my ipad I read Emerson, Walt Whitman, E. E. Cummings, James Broughton, and Timothy Freke . . . all high priests of the WOW that requires no exertion of any kind. Slowly that shattered feeling began to diminish. In any case I was no longer running away seeking distractions. Then, amazingly, one night I actually experienced the WOW.
I was gazing out my bedroom window in the early evening. My eyes were focused on a neighbor’s garden. Unlike David’s eclectic easy going garden, this garden was sheer perfection. I was particularly struck by the vividness of the colors of the flowers in magnificent full bloom.
Suddenly I knew something without really thinking about it. We always think we know, or at least should know, what we need. We’re wrong on both counts and if we can only manage a little bit of honesty, vulnerability, and trust, more often than not the universe will compassionately provide what we truly need.
. . . wow
After one harrowing day in London, I saw the wisdom of my original decision to spend my first week in England in the Cotswolds, well-known haven of bucolic bliss and all things English. Like London, this area is chock full of tourists but somehow they don’t ruin it. In fact most of the tourists are English who, like you and I, live in big cities or industrial suburbs and are looking for the home they always knew they should have had but didn’t. That home is in a village built of honey colored limestone with green hills, gardens, quaint shops and tearooms, and charming friendly people who take life slowly, content to relax over tea and scones with homemade jam and clotted cream.
And that’s exactly what you get in the Cotswolds – as advertised. At first you’ll simply rejoice that such things exist, then you’ll start looking for the fly in the ointment or the “worm in the bud” as the British say. Your mind will start doing strange things like pulling up odd memories from old Miss Marple episodes. Agatha Christie was not the first writer to be struck by the fact that settings too good to be true must have a dark underbelly that could profitably be exagerated into a St. Mary Meade rife with greed, envy, revenge, and violence.
Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes introduce a similar concept in response to Watson admiring the countryside from a train window. Charlotte Graham created a setting every bit as lovely and bucolic and violent as St. Mary Meade but added a good dose of sexual perversion to the mix resulting in over one hundred episodes of Midsomer Murders any one of which could have been filmed in the Cotswolds. In fact, every time I went outdoors I found that creepy Midsomer Murders theme playing on a Theremin in my mind on a continuous loop.
Now it’s really not necssary to go running about trying to see all of the Cotswolds towns and lovely views. In fact, due to an injured foot, I wasn’t able to do a great deal of walking and therefore only visited a representative few. But that’s alright. The Cotswolds are not about rushing around and, while each village is unique and qwirky in its own way, they have a remarkable number of elements in common.
My list of modest examples follows.
They will all have:
- cold mornings and a little rain every day
- the oldest continuously operating inn, pub, or tea shop in England
- an inn visited by King Charles I (Either he praised the place heartily or failed to pay his bill.)
- a place that inspired Tolkien and is described in detail in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings
- a place that was recreated in a Harry Potter film
- a pub or inn called The Kings Arms, The Queens Head, or The White Hart.
- a green area with benches from which to view “the old stocks” where you can enjoy a photo op (These are not the original stocks used in the seventeenth century; they have been replaced several times as a fun reminder of a time when one could throw rotten tomatoes at one’s helpless neighbor.)
- a charming water feature such as a stream or river with a low stone bridge, a pond with cute little nesting cottages for the water fowl, or an ancient well
- a street name derived from a gruesome historical event like Digbeth from “ducks’ bath” as in “pools of blood were so deep that ducks were able to bathe in them.”
- a pub or inn with a fireplace carved with “witches marks” to ward off evil spirits
- the oldest tree in England
- a museum dedicated to something qwirky like cricket, textiles, or agricultural tools
- a small coop grocery store on High Street
- a huge Tesco superstore close by but discreetly hidden around a corner behind tall hedges
- a creepy church yard with a side door to the church designed for a dwarf or hobbit
- an old mill or brewery
- a manor house and garden open to the public for a small fee
- a charming walk along the nearby countryside including a photo op of a mysterious bronze age standing stone.
During my weeklong stay in the Cotswolds I never discovered any evil lurking behind chintz curtains or low stone walls, just charming, cheery people enjoying the convenience of a Tesco, Volkswagen, and smart phone in a setting as lovely and dreamlike as any Thomas Kincade painting. It’s like the home you always deserved.
You may have noticed that a recurring theme in this blog has been the pattern of proud accomplishments followed by pitiable humiliations resulting from my tendency to make assumptions.
For example, I thought it odd that the check-in time at my B&B in Pontorson, Normandie-Basse was 5:00 pm which is extremely late considering that the only train arrives in the morning. Still, I assumed I would be able to leave my bags at the train station or the B&B office and go out and explore. Well, there was no train station (or rather a tiny defunct one.) There was only a platform. Furthermore my B&B was locked with the curtains drawn. There was a hand-written sign on the door stating check-in is at 5:00 pm with no exceptions and this was confirmed by the tourist office who said it was no use asking them to phone the owner, Catherine.
This is one of those times when you must turn on the charm and cast yourself on the mercy of the charming young man at the tourist office. They are not supposed to hold baggage but they will if you are sufficiently sweet and imploring. I proceeded to take a walk and was astonished to find that Pontorson was absolutely the cutest French town imaginable, very old, very well maintained, with flowers everywhere and real shops frequented by locals. This was not just a tourist front or a movie set. Residents later informed me that the town had not always looked this way. English people had bought homes here which they renovated into charming vacation cottages. The locals had been shamed into keeping up appearances and were now just as house and town proud as the newcomers.
The weather was perfect with a slight sea breeze and so I decided to take the bus to the island of Mont St. Michel, about a 15 minute trip. I got there just as the last tour bus dropped off its passengers for a three hour visit. I had made a grave mistake in timing. The ancient narrow streets were packed with souvenir shoppers. It was hot and claustrophobic and there was nothing to do but climb onward and upward to the abbey at the top.
At one point I saw a Thai man laughing with his friends. He had just bought a souvenir hat only to discover it was made in Thailand! The craze for finding just the right snow globe, doll (dressed in traditional Norman costume), or painted tray or local cidre (lightly alcoholic cider) in souvenir bottles was just laughable. I walked out to the muddy beach and looked for shade to wait out the two hours until the bus was to arrive.
While waiting, I met two Australian ladies who said that thirty years ago one could stay at a hotel on the island and, after the last 5:00 pm local bus left when the tide came in, the place would be peaceful and charming and mysterious, a pleasure for sunset roaming. The ladies had hoped to recapture that experience but now buses ran until midnight and the streets where noisy all night long. What’s more, the bureau of tourism was now constructing a super tramway so they could bring even more tourists in 24/7. Depressing.
When I finally got to my B&B at 5:00 pm, Catherine could not have been more welcoming and I was delighted when I found my room was actually an attic with several airy sunny views of gardens, the church, and cute shops. It had two King beds with perfect shabby chic decor (the table had tea cups and Russian chess set.) The room was large enough to hold a square dance.
When you are a lone budget traveler in Europe you get so used to staying in rooms that you could swear are converted 19th century broom closets, these lucky breaks are a great pleasure. Even though it didn’t get dark until midnight, I just stayed in the room reveling in luxury.
Breakfast the next morning was extremely well-presented with Catherine entertaining the guests in her perfectionist hostess way. She had been so shocked at my hanging my washing to dry in the bathroom and window, she had substituted her own rotating drying rack and rearranged the clothes. I found out why check-in was so late. Catherine works nonstop. She only has four rooms and they are constantly booked. She does all the work herself and the neighbors say she never gets out for leisure activities anymore. She is a slave to the B&B and her own perfectionist standards.
After breakfast I decided to rent a bicycle and ride the eleven miles to Mont St. Michel before the tour buses arrived. The only bike rental place was at a nearby extremely plush campground that was more like a country club with lovely gardens, fountains, stunning swimming pool, and every amenity imaginable. I was fascinated by this look into a certain lifestyle that is very European and fairly common among the retired middle class. I would see these people shopping in the grocery stores, picnicking with friends in lovely scenic spots, riding bicycles which they had brought on the back of their campers, playing games, and hiking with light day packs. To me this appeared to be a delicious lifestyle for those who could pull it off with style. While their campers were state-of-the art and somewhat expandable, I doubted that any of these people were wasting money at expensive restaurants or buying absurd souvenirs.
The bike ride along the river on the auto-free greenbelt was simply glorious and I could see Mont St Michel in the distance most of the time. On the way back, I stopped at one of the towns between the island and Ponterson where prices at seafood restaurants weren’t quite so high because they had no view of the Mont (trust me, you pay for views at restaurants). The food was wonderfully fresh and delicious including cold snails and prawns and a fabulous hot grilled fish accompanied by the local “cidre rose” which I loved.
I ended this perfect day with a long snooze for I was exhausted after about thirty miles of bike riding. I woke, refreshed, to a glorious bright sunny morning and quickly dressed for my brief walk to the train platform. Catherine seemed surprised when I checked out and I was wondering why she hadn’t laid out the fancy breakfast.
I walked to the train station and waited patiently. French trains always seemed to be late. A man came by and asked in French what time my train was to arrive. I told him 9:00. He remarked that I would be waiting twelve hours. It was now 9:00 at night. Once again my unquestioned assumption (in this case that it was 9:00 am in the morning) had done me in.
High season in Paris is intense but add in a two–week train strike and you’ve got pure madness. While I had booked a hotel for six days, I was unable to get to Paris on the first night. I knew I would be charged for that day as a no show but was stunned when Booking.com canceled all six nights without even asking me. The hotel manager instantly rented out my room to desperate people unable to get a train or a flight out (all flights were booked all week.) I emailed the manager during one of the rare moments I could get 3G on the one train from Cannes to Paris. I typed three words:
“Help me, Madjid!!!”
They must have been the magic words because the next cancelation he got, he gave me my room for the remaining five days and I didn’t have to camp out with hundreds of other hapless travelers in the train station. The hotels made out like bandits with all the cancelation fees and raised rates with waiting lists. Needless to say, I am no longer a fan of Booking.com considering how they botched the situation knowing full well what was going on.
There were a few wonderful blessings that week. The weather was spot on perfect – sunny and cool with azure skies. My room, situated in a women’s clothing district between Pere Lachaise cemetery and the Bastille, was more like a turn-of-the-century rooming house than a hotel. It was tiny with a bathroom shared by everyone on the fifth floor. Still it included a huge window, a sink, tiny fridge, and microwave. If the microwave had been a hot plate it would have been the perfect setting for a fifties Paris beatnik.
The clothing shops in the neighborhood seemed to be wholesalers dealing in fashions imported from China. They all had an Asian man smoking in the doorway when he wasn’t unpacking huge crates of clothes delivered in vans. The clothes displayed in the windows were rather wild and extremely colorful. This seemed odd since I never saw a single Parisian, male or female, wearing anything but blue or black or grey (usually denim or leather) with color limited to shoes, bags, scarves, or hair ornaments. I have no idea who buys all these crazy clothes.
Most of the tourists I observed seemed to be French. Their appearance and behavior were no different than small town folks from Ohio visiting Manhattan. Real Parisians were quite easy to spot. For one thing they wore way too much clothing. They seemed compelled to pile on sweaters and jackets and scarves as if expecting a blue norther whereas the tourists were dressed much more appropriately for the weather.
During my five days in the city, I played at being a Parisienne, buying fabulous food for my tiny fridge and microwave at Monoprix and Franprix supermarkets and taking the subway or walking everywhere. The exception was the first day when I hopped on the wonderful local bus #38 that cruises through some of the most interesting areas of the city for the price of a subway ticket.
Since I had already seen most of the tourist must-sees (the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Montmartre, Arc de Triumph, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, Luxembourg gardens, etc.) I decided to adopt a leisurely pace and attitude, focusing on the few truly wonderful places that many tourists miss. What’s more, none of these places required waiting in a line. My suggestions:
1. Cross Pont Alexandre III – go at sunset taking a small bottle of wine and real wineglass to enjoy while gazing at the view from what may be the most beautiful bridge in Europe.
2. Meander around Pere Lachaise cemetery (not fabulous but a shady place to stroll on a hot afternoon and contemplate mortality and the brevity of human happiness.)
3. Visit the Opera Garnier (self-tour this stunning structure for ten euros. The interior is not to be missed!)
4. Stroll down Boulevard Haussmann and visit the lovely Musee Jacquemart-Andree, a true gem of an art museum housed in the collectors’ private 19th century mansion.
5. Walk through the magnificent Tuileries garden and visit the amazing Musee de l’Orangerie.
6. On Sunday, be sure to visit the Marais district between the Village of St. Paul and Place des Vosges followed by a cruise through the enormous open air market at the Bastille. The breadth of food and merchandise available at this market will take your breath away. This is real Parisian life at its best!
For me, the challenge of Paris was not staying well-fed or getting from place to place nor making myself understood. Rather, it was the psychological challenge of dealing with space. Paris is an extremely crowded city and outside of Haussmann’s grande boulevards, the sidewalks are narrow. Parisians do not routinely move out of your way or pass on the right. I can’t say anyone bumped into me but I usually felt in danger of a collision. I tried to counteract this anxiety by going to large open spaces like the Tuileries or Place des Vosges. I truly believe these places are what keep Parisians the least bit civil.
And they truly are civil despite what one hears. Civility and a carefully guarded privacy are their armor. Yet they rein nothing in when it comes to showing public affection for family and close friends. As a lone traveler, these sights may give rise to poignant moments when you will very likely seek out a quiet spot where you can Skype a loved one.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel. As the French say, “Tu as le droit.”
Yep, I was starting to think I pretty much had this traveling thing down.
Hadn’t I stayed in a gorgeous historic pallazzo in the shadow of the duomo in Florence for thirty-four euros? Wasn’t I clever making an advance reservation for the Uffizzi gallery and breezing past the long lines waiting in the heat?
Hadn’t I stayed in an ancient monastery in Lucca for twenty euros and walked the entire circumfrance of the city walls observing the natives enjoying real Tuscan life in one of the loveliest places in Europe?
Hadn’t I stayed in a lovely villa in Cinque Terre with a sea and garden view? And hadn’t I successfullly completted the treacherous three hour hike (it had rained the day before) from Monterrosso al Mare to Vernazza?
Naturally I was feeling pretty good gazing out at the deserted beach at six in the morning sipping my cappucino and chatting with some American ladies as we waited for our train in Monterosso al Mare. The ladies were going to Milan while I would be changing trains at Genoa to head up the coast on my way to Marseilles where I would catch the fast train to Paris. I felt pretty smug knowing I would get to see the Ligurian coast (Cinque Terre to Ventimiglia) as well as Nice, Monaco, Antibes, and Cannes without having to pay for the pleasure.
The American ladies and I enjoyed the train ride and lovely views on the way to Genoa. They congratulated me on traveling light and I chuckled as one told me she could easily post a blog on how to do everything wrong on a trip to Europe while I obviously could give advice to the clueless. We merrily shouted “safe travels!” as I hopped off at the Genoa station. I distinctly remember this because it was the last happy thought I experienced. Genoa has five train stations and I had descended at one of the four incorrect ones.
At this point the dreaded travel gremlin was just warming up, rubbing his palms together with relish, licking his claws and chortling in anticipation of the glee that was to come. I had just arrived in traveler’s hell.
I discovered that if I waited twenty minutes, I could still get to Ventimigia but it would take much longer since this was a commuter train that would be stopping at any place with a beach umbrella and I would surely miss my connection to Marseille but I really had no choice.
After three hours of the Italian Ligurian coast the thrill was gone and I gratefully trudged into the Ventimiglia train station almost on French soil. I vaguely heard someone sighing “greve de train” but was not concerned until I looked up at the departure board and saw the word “CANCELED” next to every destination. Quelle douleur!
Just as I was about to collapse into fetal position in the train station cafeteria, I met my personal role model, an American woman about my age traveling with her daughter. She was an extremely experienced traveler and had raised all five of her daughters to be great travelers. She assured me that, when there is a train strike, they are required to have one regional train run around six o’clock in the evening to allow all of the workers to get home. The train would be packed solid and would stop anywhere there was a beach umbrella to let people on and off but we’d at least be in France where they usually have buses.
I stuck to this woman like glue as she regaled me with wonderful stories of her travels and reassured me that everything would be okay. We did get on the evening regional train and it was a nightmare with all the crowding and pushing and shoving. Even the thought that this was great practice for India did not comfort me but the sight of that woman sitting across the aisle, so alert and calm, did. Her daughter was totally unconcerned with full confidence her mom could handle anything.
In this case, there was nothing at all glamorous about the French Riviera. With standing room only, about fifty people got on at Monaco because most of the people who work there don’t live there.
I got off at Cannes, having had about all I could take. I had been able to book a last minute reservation there because other travelers couldn’t get in and had to cancel. The people at the Hotel Florian were kindness itself. Of course they had reason to be pleased. They could collect a charge of one night for last minute cancelations and still fill the rooms with people who were stuck in Cannes. Still, Christian is my personal hero. When I couldn’t get a train or a flight out the next day, he gave me a huge apartment next door designed for a family of four for the same price as the single room I had occupied the night before.
The first night, after calming down with a Spritz Campari, I walked the block to the beach. All of the territory around the hotel was covered with designer clothing shops, Prada, Ferragamo, Chanel, etc. The streets were crowded with French tourists. The women were dressed to kill with bleached cropped hair and dark tans, their skin looking like well-oiled leather. Rock bands were playing all over the beach and cafes that charged sixty euros for six escargots and a French roll were packed. It was a David Lynch scene for sure. I was in the French version of the Hotel California!
The next day, Christian gave me advice on how to deal with the one regional train that would take people to work at eight o’clock the next morning. He said to go to the Monoprix grocery store and buy enough food to make a couple of sandwiches for the six hour trip to Paris, taking at least two water bottles. Get to the station early and board as quickly as possible taking the first available seat and sticking to it like glue the whole way.
I thanked him and asked if someone would be at the front desk so I could check out at six-thirty in the morning.
“Alors . . . ”
I don’t know what he actually said but what I heard was:
“You can check out any time you like but you can never leave . . . ”
Il buono, il cattivo, il brutto (the good, the bad and the ugly) – that’s what I’m going to tell you about the Veneto. If you intend to make a relatively thorough job of exploring Italy, you should not leave Venice without checking out a few of the nearby cities that shared in Venice’s heyday and decline, specifically, Padua, Vicenza, and Verona.
You are going to see some thrilling art and architecture and I’m not kidding. Padua is the home of the Scrovingi Chapel (aka Arena Chapel) where Giotto changed art forever with his 13th century frescos. Although you must make a reservation and only get a fifteen minute peak before they shoo you out and proceed to clean/dehumidify the air for the next twenty visitors, you will not be sorry you went to the effort. From there it’s only a short walk to the Baptistry adjacent to the Duomo. The frescos there were done fifty years later and definitely show Giotto’s influence. The dome interior is truly magnificent and they won’t shoo you out until six pm when they close.
Giotto – Judas Kiss
Vicenza is Palladio-land where large signs show where you are on the pilgrimage to visit all twenty-three of the buildings he designed there. But first, you should go straight to the Palladio museum where you can examine huge models of all the buildings with cut-away sections so you can see how Palladio brilliantly solved various structural and aesthetic problems.
Palladio’s Villa Rotunda
Verona may be Romeo and Juliet territory, but you can always skip the touristy stuff (Juliet’s balcony, Romeo’s house, their tomb, etc. Hey, folks, these are fictional characters!) and visit the Basilica of San Zeno and Sant Anastasia church. These are simply incredible places even if you aren’t into saints’ relics and such.
San Zeno cloister
The Veneto is hot and humid in June. By comparison, Houston, Texas and Calcutta, India are cool and dry. What’s more, there is almost no air conditioning or fans or airy open spaces until you hit the piazzas for a cooling “spreetz” around eight pm. If you keep your passport and global pass next to your body in a safe pouch, both will be soaking wet with perspiration as will the water-resistant pouch and any large bills you put there for safe-keeping. You will feel ridiculous staring at some of the most beautiful places on earth when all you long for is to take a shower and hang out an open window in your dreary hostel dorm. Females should wear sundresses and comfortable walking sandals. This is one place where men can freely ignore the guideline to eschew shorts in Europe.
While Rick Steves may merrily traipse around the Veneto hopping on and off regional trains with his global pass, that’s not really how it works. Most of the Italian trains these days are from the Freccia line and they all require reservations even for a fifteen minute ride. That’s ten extra euros in spite of your global pass. Even the intracity trains require reservations although you can chance it and hope for a seat. If you didn’t get all your reservations by mail before your trip and if you do not have a credit card with a four-digit pin for the automatic ticket machine, you are out of luck. You will have to stand in line at the ticket office for a long, long time and you better be prepared to tell them exactly which train/time you want or they will send you to wait in the customer service line to get a printout of the possibilities – no multitasking here!
Leaving Venice I shared a train car with an American tour group on their way to Florence with their competent American tour guide. I studied their faces. They were happy, relaxed, and trusting. For a moment I was envious of these travelers who were completely cared for . . . but then, that’s not what this around the world trip is about, is it?