Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On the Road Again

This morning I woke up to find Beaven pouring over maps spread out next to his laptop and a huge smile on his face. We had just received confirmation that our trip to Europe this fall is a “Go.” Our next decision was whether to add an extra two days in Paris at the beginning of the trip to accommodate for jet lag. That took about 3 seconds to think over and we began our day with a flurry of emails to arrange it. It may not have been spending a romantic Valentine’s Day in Paris but it was close enough for me.

I guess you might say that one of our hobbies is travel. We have done a surprisingly lot of it without any kind of grand master plan. We often see a scene in a movie where the heroine is racing down an avenue in Rome or a couple strolling a familiar cobblestone street and find ourselves saying “We’ve been there.”

You can read all you want about a place but until you set your body in it you don’t have the full experience. We’ve stood atop a clear blue-green glacier in Alaska and hiked the Appalachian Trail (OK, just a few feet of it.) In November of 2001 we passed the still-smoldering mountain of rubble in New York City on a trip that had been confirmed on September 10th. We’ve toured Windsor Castle where, as perfect as the restoration was, I could tell the difference between the burned part of the castle and the untouched part. The recently rebuilt floor still squeaked while the original floor did not . This is the worth of being in a place: the best photography will never be able to tell you what actually standing in a place can.  Pictures didn’t tell you what the World Trade Center smelled like after the towers fell. You had to be there in person.

We know a great cafeteria in London so far below the radar that we’re usually the only Americans there. I’ve been lost in the Uffizi galleries twice looking for Botticelli’s iconic painting of the naked chick standing on a clamshell. I think the people who actually understand art call it the Birth of Venus while I know it as the painting that is two right turns after the row of statues. Or something like that. If I could remember these details I wouldn’t need to take an hour to find the one painting. But it’s gorgeous and huge and I love to just stand and look at it. It’s kind of like seeing Van Gough’s Starry Night at the MoMA in New York. You have to see it in all three dimensions for it to count. You just have to be there.

Just like you don’t go to church just once in your life in order to have a relationship with God, travel to a place is something you need to do more than once to get the full experience. I feel the same way about  gelato.

We’ve done a lot of the standard things two or three times, which is when you start feeling an ownership of the experience. This trip will be my third time to see Michelangelo’s David. And I plan to savor every minute of our time together. David and I are old  friends and I don’t expect I will ever tire of spending time with him. One year they had taped a motion sensor to his butt to check the effects of the traffic on the sculpture. I have seen David at his most vulnerable and still find him captivating. Real love is like that.

I’ve perfected the art of taking a picture without museum officials knowing what I’m doing. The only hard part is when Elizabeth starts hissing at me, “Mom, what are you doing? You can’t take pictures in here! It’s against the rules!” She is very distracting when she does that. The key is remembering to make triple-dog-sure your flash is turned off. Then you can hold the camera loosely by your side and snap the picture. You may not get it framed perfectly but you can always crop it to suit yourself later. It doesn’t hurt anything and no one is the wiser. It’s the other damned tourists with their flashes going off all over the place that disrupts things and probably damages the artwork. I have a great shot of the Sistine Chapel ceiling using this technique. And, of course, David.

Probably the most exotic place we’ve been was the black sand beach of Montericco, Guatemala where we found ourselves just as broke as the only ATM in town was. When we checked in we found out you had to pay extra to have the air-conditioning turned on in our room. We could pay to sleep confortably or to eat that weekend but we couldn’t afford both. We simply didn’t have the money; nobody took credit cards and the only ATM in town was broken. It was hot and humid and I had a headache. It was a very sobering position to be in. We finally reminded ourselves that we could probably live for a month just on stored fat alone and chose the air-conditioning. Once the decision was made we miraculously found enough quetzals to pay for two hamburguesas. That’s about as hardcore as our travel has ever been.

In exchange for the sparse living conditions of Montericco we were treated to one of the few untouched beaches left on earth. You could stand at the edge of the water and look out at the sea and see absolutely nothing man-made. There were no ships anchored off-shore and no oil rigs in the distance. You could look out at the water and see the horizon exactly as God left it on the morning of creation. There are not many places like that left on the planet.

We try to get to the meat of a place when we travel. We don’t just drive by the Eiffel Tower in a cab. We get subway passes and travel as temporary locals, as our travel mentor, Rick Steves, has trained us. Many times we have been part of the afternoon or morning work commute as people sat reading or listening to their iPods.  We became part of their culture not mere observers. Beaven understands the tube system in London so well that the locals will occasionally ask him for directions. And, here’s the cool part: he always knows the answer. It’s fun to watch their faces when they hear his answer delivered in a Texas accent. You can tell they’re wondering if should they trust this hayseed from America.  But he’s so confident in his answer that they usually head in the direction he sends them.

I’ve even had the “complete experience” of having my pocket picked in Pisa. Luckily, just as we were leaving our house we both emptied our wallets onto the copier and made copies of the front and back of all our cards and documents. Canceling the credit cards was a breeze back in our hotel room. Beaven even seemed a little too happy to cancel my Visa card. It taught me a valuable lesson first-hand and made me feel like a real veteran. It didn’t however keep me from having my camera stolen a couple of years later in Guatemala. That day my mistake was in taking flash photos in a crowd then putting the camera in a huge pocket of my bright blue Columbia jacket. The only thing missing below the bill of my bright pink ball cap was a neon sign on my forehead that flashed out: “Stupid Gringa here with big pockets.”

Sometimes I have to remind Beaven to slow down when we travel. His impulse is to see as much as he can in the time allotted. One year I rebelled against his “Sherman marches to the sea” style of tourism. We were on our way to tour yet another Roman site in England and found the entrance to it a little past a small square where a guitarist was playing for a lunchtime crowd of locals eating sandwiches. I sat on a bench to listen to the guitar and enjoy the beautiful, relaxing weather. He sat patiently for a few minutes then announced that he “didn’t come 5,000 miles to sit on a bench all day.” Well, I did. So we split up and each had our own version of a wonderful time.

Now that the basic arrangements for our trip in September have been made we can sit back and monitor the value of the dollar. We’ll download the latest subway map of Paris and practice our favorite phrases like “Je voudrais chocolate negro” and “Coca light, s’il vous plait.” I’m counting the days until I can visit my favorite market in Florence and get a mozzarella caprese sandwich to take on a hike to the cafĂ© overlooking the city. Hang tight, Dave I’m on my way.

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