Letter from a Vagabond 16 November 2018 On the elasticity of time…

November 16, 2018

The first nor’easter hit New York and I am sitting in what I now think of as my writing room observing the snow as it lays unevenly across the landscape; heavy winds left some ground completely exposed while in others there are three or four inches of accumulation.  The cold is bitter, with a wind chill driving the temperature down about fifteen degrees.

So, warm and cozy, with a big mug of coffee, I am listening to female jazz vocalists and letting my mind wander across the wintry landscape to catch what thoughts it might.

Having promised Jeff Cole, head of the Digital Center for the Future, I would write an article for him, I successfully put it out of my mind while traveling and, now that I am back, must face the music and think about it.

If anyone has ideas for a good article, please let me know.  I have a couple floating around but this won’t be the last of my articles for the Center, just the first.

The sun is almost blinding off the snow, now that it is coming out.  I had to figure out how to lower the shades – everything works off electronics here and I am still figuring out how to turn on and off the lights.

It’s a good afternoon; I’ve put laundry in as the housekeeper didn’t make it over this week and Lionel is arriving, so I am getting clean sheets ready for him.  I am feeling like I am back in America again and ready for the next adventure, which seems to be a trip back to the Vineyard to help out at Edgartown Books before Christmas though I am still waiting on final confirmation on that.  If not, I might go to Nashville to visit friends who are cranky I have yet to make an appearance since I have entered the vagabond phase.

One of the things I have noticed since I began traveling is the elasticity of time – a few days in St. Malo felt like a few weeks and seven days at sea felt like seven hours.  Two days in Heidelberg seemed two hours.  Five days in Wiesbaden felt like five weeks.

It reminded me of times in my youth when I felt a lifetime was lived in a few days, especially if romance was involved.  Alas, today, no romance but time hasn’t lost its ability to confuse and thrill.  It is now five days I have been at the Keene Farm and I feel as if it were only two and I find the rhythms of each place I go different and interesting and singular.

The day is mostly drear and yet I am happy here, with my very strong coffee and my laptop and my thoughts.

Letter from a Vagabond 15 November 2018 Home again…

November 15, 2018

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There is a little round table in a corner of the guest house at Larry and Alicia’s, where I sit with my laptop and stare out, with sweeping, unobstructed views to the Catskills, shrouded all day by grey clouds, scudding busily across the sky, portending a winter storm which has been predicted.  Here, I gather my thoughts and think.

There was a young man on the crossing, Ed, thirty, an admissions officer at a business school in England, near Luton, now wandering New York as a solo visitor.  He is a very nice young man and I hope he is having the best of times.  Before we parted, we exchanged emails and I will write him next week to see how he liked his time in New York City.

On the flight back to the UK, he will be with two other people from our dining table, a couple who spend much of the year on their boat in Holland and when the weather gets rougher, such as now, they travel other places.  Four others at our dinner table of eight were crossing on the Queen Mary 2 and immediately returning to Southampton on the next crossing.

At the last night, we all discussed how quickly the week had gone.  Was it possible for a week of doing nothing to go so quickly? It did.

The seas were rough for the first three days, confining many to their cabins and cancelling some performances as performers were seasick. It did not affect me too much.  One gentleman told of almost being tossed from bed one evening but I seemed to have slept through that night, as I did all nights on the ship, the best rest I have had in years, sweet and dreamless.

Now I am in America again, embracing the vagabond life.  From now until after Thanksgiving, I will be here at Larry and Alicia’s house on the Keene Farm, a mile or two down the road from their house, then to Baltimore, back here for a doctor’s appointment and then off to help out at Edgartown Books for a bit, a few meetings in New York, then to Boston for Christmas itself and then we’ll see where next.

Every time I entered a church or abbey in Europe I lit a candle to reach out to God and the universe to help me see what the next phase of my life might be.

The journey I took was not a vacation in the sense of going off and seeing things for the sake of seeing things.  It was a journey to touch my soul and history, which I certainly did.

My time in Verdun will live with me until I die; it was as affecting as my friend David suggested it might be.

300,000 dead; 700,000 wounded in a battle that changed nothing.  That sobered me for the rest of my trip as did the trip to Pont du Hoc and Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.  At Pont du Hoc, I had trouble not breaking down in sobs at the thought of the bravery of the Rangers who took the first sliver of Europe back from the Nazi war machine.

There was solace in walking the windswept streets of the walled city of St. Malo, destroyed in WWII because, erroneously, the Allies had been told it was armed to the teeth and a munitions depot.  There were only a hundred Germans there and no ammunition.  The rebuilding officially ended in the 1970’s when the spire was replaced on the Cathedral.

It was made special by the attentiveness of the staff at my hotel and their generosity in caring for me from the moment I entered until the second I left, and I would return to the Hotel de France et Chateaubriand in a heartbeat.

In Wiesbaden, I ate my way through town with my friends Lionel and Pierre, not missing a spot.  The scrambled eggs at Maldinger’s are sublime; not to be missed and a reason to visit.

Plus, I had time with Erik, met in Bayeux, who spends parts of every year in Wiesbaden at their family home.  He’s the one who frets about America.  And I could empathize.

When young Ed and I were talking at dinner one night, I quoted something I had written in my journal.  “A tourist seeks, a traveler finds.”

This last trip, I was a traveler, not a tourist.  And I found many things, inside and out.  Surrounded by a continent full of testaments to the wars men have created, I have found a deeper support for feminism.

My love for home was strengthened even as I grew comfortable with being away, touched often by the kindness of strangers as I moved through across the European countryside and doing my best to be kind in return.

Letter from a vagabond 11/11/2018 Written at sea…

November 11, 2018

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It is Friday afternoon, less than 36 hours out from New York, and I am, finally, putting fingers to keyboard; laziness has won every moment since I stepped on board. It has been a long and languid crossing and I have softly surrendered to slothfulness.

Outside, the sea flows by and I struggle to find an adjective that describes the grey the mid-Atlantic owns, a grey so dark it borders black.

We have had days of rough seas; Dramamine has been handed out like candy at the Purser’s Desk and I have sailed free of the need.

There is a television in my room; I have turned on only once, to check the time. The mid-terms came and went with my only reading about them.  The strum und drung of cable news is more than I could bear.

For months now, I have only read the news, cherishing my NY Times, Washington Post and WSJ apps.  It is enough; the strident voices of the cable pundits too much for me.  Down that road lies madness…

 

Saturday, our last full day at sea.  Some of my companions have gone into a pre-partum funk over the ending of the crossing.  I woke this morning, very early, with a slight edge of anxiety for the first time in weeks as I step back into American life after five and a half weeks of traveling in Europe.

While I have been gone, there were the mid-terms, pipe bombs, shootings, fires and floods.  From all of it, I have felt cocooned and now I am exiting the cocoon of travel and hotels and food to the reality of America.

In Wiesbaden, I had lunch with fellow traveler Erik, who told me, as if he had never before confessed this, that he was afraid in America.  Not just of random violence but because of something deeper, a rent in society he could barely articulate, but which informed his understanding of America, of something very wrong, not just politically, but societally, a civilization no longer understanding civility, on any level.

That conversation lingers in my mind.

 

I am returning.  This ship will dock.  I will pack today for departing tomorrow.

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In every cathedral or abbey or church I entered in Europe, I lit a candle, asking God and the universe for guidance in what more I could do in this world, for this world, against the backdrop of One Tree Hill, the photo of the now dead girl who galvanized the world about the famine in Yemen, of the restaurant in Thousand Oaks, California where twelve died, of the African-Americans who died in a Kroger because they were African-American, against a world that seems roiling with hate on every continent.

That is my anxiety, that on returning, I will not know what more to do any more than I did before I left, and I feel the universe is counting on me to do more.

 

 

 

 

Letter From a Vagabond 29 October 2018 Tell me what more, please…

October 29, 2018

 

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Alvin Berkun was, for many years, a member of the Board of NICC, the parent organization of Odyssey, which was, for many years, my client.  We met at various functions; I didn’t know him well.  He seemed an amiable chap, a rabbi from some congregation somewhere with some kind of reputation which had put him on the Board.

What I did not know, until Saturday, was that Alvin had retired as the Rabbi of the synagogue in Pittsburgh that was the target of a horrific shooting.

His wife was not feeling well Saturday morning, so Alvin did not attend services, opting to stay home with her.  So, he was not with the congregation when a man charged in with AR-15 style gun and killed 11 of Alvin’s former congregants.  Allegedly, the shooter is man named Robert Bowers, who allegedly told police, as he was carried out on a stretcher, wounded, after wounding four policemen, that he wanted all Jews dead.

We all sometimes play the game of six degrees of separation; we are only six degrees away from anyone.  In this case, I am only one degrees away from the people who died.  They were Alvin’s people and I know Alvin, not well but enough he knows who I am.

It follows upon a man who allegedly sent pipe bombs to Trump critics and follows a man who allegedly killed two black people because they were black.

The word “allegedly” is used because they have not been convicted so there is a presumption of innocence though it seems hard for me, not a news person, to think it was more than “allegedly” when someone is carried out on a stretcher after a gun fight at the location, calling out for the death of Jews.

But I will say “allegedly.”

This is the message I sent Alvin:  There are no words to describe what I feel and what I would like to say to you.  Just know that you and all your congregation are in my thoughts and in my prayers.  At this moment, I am traveling in Europe.  At my next stop, I will continue a tradition I started when I was a young Catholic — to light a candle for things I want to hold up to God.

I will hold Alvin and his congregation up to God in the Abbey just outside my hotel door.

But the thought plagues me as to what I might do in the real world to stop this violence; it is good to hold up the dead and wounded to God, but I am a human being living in the world in which this is happening and I want to know what action I can take to help stop this madness?

The NY Times posted horrific photos showing the results of the famine that is happening in Yemen as MBS, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, pursues his war there, a proxy fight with Iran, and I recoiled from the truth of man’s inhumanity to man and wanted to know what action could be taken to stop this madness.

The ones most affected are children, twisted by extreme famine into horrors of humanity while in Pittsburgh, another human created another horror and what can I/we do to stop this madness against humanity?

Yes, I have voted.  But what more?

Tell me. Please.

 

Letter from a vagabond… 26 October 2018 Shaking off “the old ennui…”

October 26, 2018

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            Since arriving in Germany, clouds have hovered over the country every place I have been, Cologne, then Heidelberg and now in Wiesbaden, where I have stopped for a few days as my friends Pierre and Lionel are also here.

My spirits are feeling just a little grey, also.  Nothing is wrong I can articulate; I just have a bit of “the old ennui.”  The world has felt out of focus.

Pierre and I wandered over to SAM, the City Museum of Wiesbaden, which chronicles the history of the town of Wiesbaden and there was also an exhibit about Topf and Sons, the company that made both the crematoriums and ventilation systems for Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

There were copies of letters, detailing orders and specifications and warranties and repairs, all normal sounding correspondence for items that were anything but normal.  Each letter closed with, “Heil Hitler!”

There was something very sobering about seeing that correspondence, bringing history into focus in a way that was horrifying.  Men with typewriters did these awful things, organizing the death of millions, at the manufacturer and at the user.  Millions in Reich Marks worth of business in killing and getting rid of Jews, gypsies, gays, “traitors.”

As I moved from placard to placard, my phone went off with news bursts from the BBC, CNN, and NYT announcing that “suspicious” packages had been delivered to Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, not long after a bomb was found in the mailbox of George Soros, billionaire supporter of liberal causes.  Robert De Niro and Joe Biden have been added to the list of bomb receivers as have Maxine Waters as well as John Brennan, former Obama Administration member and now a correspondent with CNN, which is where he received his and CNN had to evacuate its NY HQ.

One of the other news reports I read yesterday was about a white widow with bi-racial children who received a disgusting Facebook message from a young white man in another state she didn’t know, wishing her children dead.  She called the police in her state and his.  He was intercepted by authorities with two hundred rounds of ammunition and plans to shoot up a couple of schools.

Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist [a nephew of Adnan Khashoggi, the notorious arms dealer and second cousin to Dodi Fayed, who died with Princess Diana], was gruesomely murdered in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, and his death has set off a Middle Eastern diplomatic crisis that is much larger than I am sure the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince anticipated.

The Saudi story of Khashoggi’s death changes every other day.

MBS, as Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is known, made a point of shaking Jamal Khashoggi’s son’s hand while offering condolences at his “Davos in the Desert Conference.”  Young Khashoggi was pained to do so.  MBS is widely thought to be the man who ordered his father’s death.  But what was he to do?

Looking at those letters, all with their “Heil Hitlers!” made me remember we all need to remember we all have a part to play in history, even a little bit of one, and I did my little bit yesterday, filling out my absentee ballot, giving it to Pierre, who will mail it on his return to America, before the deadline, as I will be on the high seas on election day.

Go, be part of history.  Vote!

And that might help shake off any of “the old ennui” you might be feeling and bring the world into a bit of focus.

Letter from a vagabond 22 October 2018 Whispers in time…

October 22, 2018

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            Friday, I woke, had coffee, and strolled to the Cathedral in Cologne, a beautiful building, much devasted in WWII by bombing, twinned now with Coventry, in England, where that Cathedral suffered from German bombs.  Seventy-three years since war’s end, scaffolding still climbs the exterior of the building and work continues on the edifice.  Inside, it was dark and chill, with light bounding through windows, though the light seemed contained, taunting but failing to bring brilliance to the interior.

At noon, there was a worship service, possibly Mass, though there seemed no Eucharist; I stayed for it after lighting candles, a habit I have had since my Catholic childhood, for things for which I am thankful or for which I am hopeful.  When the service was finished, the Nave was re-opened, and I stared long at the reliquary for the Magi, their relics a gift to the Cathedral from the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich I, Barbarossa, as a thank you for support in the siege of Milan.

The Three Kings fascinated me as a child, perhaps because I was cast as one in a Christmas pageant.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are…”

Once reaching cognizance, I never thought of them as real historical characters; they were part of the Jesus myth and here I was, facing a golden object that contained their relics, an object that suggested a medieval artist’s take on the Ark of the Covenant.

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Next to the Cathedral is the Roman Museum, a reminder that Cologne began as a Roman fortress city, defending the western boundary of the Empire.

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It was somewhere near here that Gaius Julius Caesar, named for his ancestor, Julius Caesar, got the nickname “Caligula,” because as a little boy he was dressed in a soldier’s outfit, including little boots, the Latin word for which came the nickname.

He became the Emperor Caligula and, after suffering some illness early in his reign, seemed to have become quite mad, obsessed with the testing the limits of being Emperor.   Three short years later, the Senate and the Praetorian Guard ended his reign, killing him, so legend goes, with the same number of knife strokes given his ancestor Julius.

Here, you will find one of the world’s most impressive collections of extant glass from the Roman Era.

In another collection, there are the adornments of Roman women, hairpins, jewelry, mirrors.  Somewhere in time, a woman used those hairpins to hold up her hair, the mirror to put on make-up, slipped on a carefully crafted necklace, adorned her wrists with the carefully tooled silver bracelets and went out, to a dinner, to the games?  Did she laugh while reclining on a dinner couch?  Scream with pleasure in the amphitheater as some gladiator met his fate?

Some time, there was a woman who used those things, who lived and whose name we will not ever know but some whisper of her remains in the things she used and wore.   We remember Caligula and not the woman who lived her ordinary life, her whisper unknowingly transported through time.

It is that whisper that haunts me as I move through museums like this one.

An uncovered mosaic graced the courtyard of a Roman villa.  People walked there, on their way, hither and yon; perhaps back and forth through the night, comforting a crying baby or on the way to a meeting with the Provincial Governor.  Living feet walked those mosaics, laid then for the living, not thinking two millennia hence, the mosaic would be looked over by humans, an undreamed of number of generations later.

It is the whispers of the real people, reverberating in time, that makes such a place almost holy, a sanctuary for the ordinary made extraordinary by time.

 

 

 

Letter from a vagabond 18 October 2018 Alone but not lonely…

October 18, 2018

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Robert Surcouf, French Corsair

There is both an aloneness and a sense of exhilaration that comes from traveling alone.  Before I left, I was asked how I could do it? Travel alone?  Mon dieu!

My life has been spent traveling alone from one place to another.  When I was in college, I travelled alone from one place to another to see people. Then, in business, you are thrust into travel to accomplish something.  One has no choice if you are going to do/keep your job. So, I have become familiar with traveling alone.

This is a trip I wanted to make and to do it, I would have to do it on my own.  And here I am.

In Paris, I saw friends; we had dinner twice.

Pierre Alain, a friend of my friend Mary Ann Zimmer, and I had dinner after that and that was the last conversation I had with anyone for several days.

I am my own companion.

My conversations have been limited to people at train stations, those from whom I order food, taxi drivers who are grateful I am carrying a translation app, hotel attendants…

You get the picture.  And I am sure there are people for whom this would be frightening.  It is for me somethings though apps like Google Translate and iTranslate have made it so much easier.

At my hotel in St. Malo, there was a birthday party and people sang “Happy Birthday;” and even if you don’t know the language, it translates.

On the way from a stroll back to my hotel, a woman had a lover’s quarrel on the phone and, that, too, translates.

As I walked through St. Malo, I passed a school and heard the young squeals of a new generation discovering life’s pleasures and it was reassuring.  For a moment, I stood outside and reveled in their joy.

In the harbor, boats rock, and the town is preparing for the Route du Rhum, a race that happens every four years between St. Malo and Guadeloupe.  It is the race’s fortieth year and everywhere you see preparations.  When the race begins, a week or two from now, I will be gone, off to some other place and will watch the results because, having been here, I feel connected.

Before I left, I had a conversation with my good friend of long standing, Larry Divney, and we parsed the difference between aloneness and loneliness.  I am alone, and I am not lonely, blessed with knowing there are lots of people who care.  They are with me even if not physically and, in that confidence, I can wander the world.

 

Letter from a vagabond 16 October 2018 Thoughts from Omaha Beach…

October 17, 2018

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Two days ago, I booked myself on a tour that took me to Pont du Hoc, the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach.  Because I was in a group, it was a very different emotional experience than Verdun, where I was alone.  The group buffered the pain all of us were feeling, I think.

It was all Americans with one Danish couple.

The tour was led by Mike, who sounded all too British and turned out to be Dutch who had lived in England for a long time, lured to France to work three years ago with a start-up, Bayeux Multi-Media Tours, the company I booked.  The drive to Pont du Hoc was illustrated by a video shown on a flat screen above Mike, as he drove.  When it wasn’t on, he filled the silence with stories.

There were two high school best friends who every five years or so, created a trip just for themselves.  One is a College Dean, the other works in construction.  They live in different parts of America.  One couple was from Albuquerque and another from Philadelphia.  A young woman was from San Francisco, on a side trip before meeting friends in Rennes and then heading on to St. Malo.   We chatted about that.  Riding shotgun so he could charge his phone was Phil, from Chicago.  There were a few others.

We hear about Omaha Beach and know of the American Cemetery but I had never heard of Pont du Hoc, or if I had, had forgotten – which is a shame because this is where it really began, the first place the Allies began to claw back Europe from the Germans.

The Allies thought there were big guns, capable of firing three miles, captured from the French at Pont du Hoc. The Germans moved them away into a field, disguised them and replaced them with their own guns while leaving wooden decoys to confuse the Allies.  The Brits or Americans would bomb Pont du Hoc and never seemed to hit the guns so on D-Day, a group of Rangers were assigned to take out the guns at Pont du Hoc.  Of the 750 Rangers dispatched, only 225 ever reached Pont Du Hoc.

Under the command of Lt. Colonel James Earl Rugger, those 225 men took Pont du Hoc, secured it and took command of the road, cutting the Germans off.  For forty-eight hours, they held their own and when reinforcements arrived, only 90 were still capable of holding a gun.

In the bunkers the Germans built, I stood looking out the slits and wondered how terrified I would be if I had been a young German soldier waiting for the invasion they knew would be coming.

The Desert Fox, Rommel designed the defenses and would have been commanding the Germans if Hitler hadn’t ordered him to commit suicide because he was suspected of being part of the plot to kill Hitler.

At Pont du Hoc, I stood, alone, looking down at the cliffs the Rangers climbed and nearly doubled over in tears and wonder at the courage of those men.

We arrived at the American Cemetery just as they were lowering the flag.  Taps played, guns were fired as I stared across close to ten thousand graves.  Looking down upon the water, seagulls called, and the waves sounded.  Had it been that serene in the days before D-Day?

The landing at Omaha Beach appeared catastrophic.  As evacuation was being ordered, and a brash American battleship commander ignored the order, plowed his ship forward, turned on a dime, it seemed, and began to barrage the defenders with broadsides.  Four more ships followed, and the tide began to turn.

As I stood on the beach, a young man filled an empty Perrier bottle with sand.  Had his grandfather fought there?  He wandered off, his bottled sand in his knapsack.  Phil from Chicago fought back tears.

Staring out at the water, I felt enormous aloneness and a sense I was standing in history, even as a little girl ran down the beach, her arms flung wide, her blonde air streaming in the wind.

 

Letter from a vagabond 16 October 2018 Conversations happen…

October 16, 2018

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As it happens when traveling, conversations happen.

One of my favorite memories of my first trip to Europe, lo these many years ago, was eating by myself in a restaurant – London, I think, when the people next to me, also young though older than my college self, struck up a conversation with me.  They were from somewhere in America; I have never seen them again and I can still hear her laugh.

Other trips have brought other, similar memories.

My first night in Bayeux the young man who organized dinner seating in the restaurant at my hotel, cleverly sat me at a table adjacent to another man dining alone.  We started a conversation; his name is Eric, from Detroit, a lawyer in Grosse Pointe, actually, also traveling alone on a food odyssey before going to Wiesbaden to visit his cousins there.  His mother had been a German war bride, who, from what Eric says, is still annoyed at the Allies for their bombing.  His reminder that the Germans started the war has limited effect on her views, it seems.

In the bar the last night, I fearlessly struck up a conversation with some Brits, who were working their way back to England from a party in Burgundy.  Eric came in, joined us, and then Eric and I wandered off to one of the few restaurants open on a Monday.  He ate lightly as he had recreated a lunch that a writer had written about when he arrived as the town was liberated from the Germans.  A huge crab, frites, salad vert.  It sounded marvelous.

The Chicken Fricassee tickled my palate and was worth it, accompanied by a little muscadet and made a delightful dinner for me.  As I left the restaurant, I stopped and wished well to a couple from Philadelphia who had been on the Omaha Beach tour with me earlier.

Another set of Brits had arrived at the hotel bar when we returned and long conversations began and then I surrendered to my need to sleep, excused myself and went to bed.

As it happens, Eric will be in Wiesbaden when I am there; we have exchanged emails and he has offered to show me the town where he has spent goodly chunks of his life.

 

Letter from a vagabond 15 October 2018 Where the wind blows…

October 15, 2018

Outside the enormous windows of the train, the French countryside slips by, an ancient stone bridge connecting two parts of a village.  It is gray, with hopes the rain will relent by tomorrow – though it has mostly just drizzled when I have been outside.

Dawn was slow coming this morning and, for a moment, thought my phone was lying to me about the time.  Eventually, as I went down to settle my bill, light began to break across the square outside the hotel.  There, I waited for the taxi which took me to the train station.

It was only fifteen minutes to Pon de Bertagne, a ninety-minute wait for the train to Bayeux and two hours to reach there – a total of six stops between.

Fall is beginning to touch the trees, though that touch is surprising light.

I have now been in France for 11 days – Paris, Verdun, Metz, St. Malo and now Bayeux.  It has never been in my nature [ask my family] to hurry and I am not, hurrying thither and you to see this and that.

At one moment in St. Malo, I thought:  a tourist seeks, a traveler finds.  There is nothing I am seeking, and I am in hope of finding what it is I want to do when I return.  In each Cathedral I light a candle, asking for what good it is, I might still do in the remaining time.  Some kind of wind seems to be at my back.  I am hoping I will know when it blows me to where I belong.