The sheer quantity of art in Rome is unfathomable. Quite aside from all the museums and the grand churches, every time you turn a corner there's another little church, and inside that little church is more incredible art. Art that an American museum would protect with guards and high-tech security systems and state-of-the-art climate control—all at the mercy of curious tourists and the Roman climate.
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, however, has taken a step to protect its priceless artworks from one assault: smoke from the many candles burning nearby.
I'm sure it's better for the paintings. But it seems so wrong.
We spent a week in Rome this September, including a day in Vatican City. We saw fountains and pines, museums and monuments, art and history in overwhelming quality and quantity. But we did not see the Pope. Strangely, he never invited us to a private audience!
I don't consider that much of a loss, although we'd have been thrilled if he had, just as we would have been thrilled to be invited to visit almost any head of state. But seek him out? Never occurred to us.
The strange thing is how many people asked, after we returned, "Did you see the Pope?" When I visited England, no one asked me, "Did you see the Queen?" nor "Did you see the Emperor?" when we went to Japan.
It's a slightly more reasonable question with respect to the Pope, since we did go to St. Peter's Square, and the Pope has been known to address audiences there. But if he had done so when we were in Rome, we would most certainly not have been at the Vatican during that time, any more than we would be anywhere near Times Square on New Year's Eve. Not even for Pope Benedict—for whom I had a great deal of respect until he abdicated—would I brave such crowds. Certainly not for the man who might be a nice enough person but makes me rethink those exchanges that end with, "Is the Pope Catholic?"
On the other hand, Your Holiness, if you really want to meet with us, we'll be happy to consider a return visit to Rome. I still have an unused bus ticket as my version of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain.
As I've written before, we enjoy watching Rick Steves' television shows about travel, and make extensive use of his guidebooks when visiting unfamiliar places. Another resource that we found invaluable on our recent trip to Rome was a Great Courses series, The Guide to Essential Italy.
Neither, however, advises what we discovered for ourselves on our visit: Do as much as you can in the morning. For us, Rome was at its best before noon: the weather was pleasant, and the streets were delightful to walk through, with more locals than tourists in sight. Except for the most popular attractions, e.g. the Colosseum and the Vatican, crowds were low, and we were able to visit museums and churches relatively unjostled.
By noon, the crowds of tourists had begun to take over the city, and Rome under the afternoon sun suggested that we were back in Florida. The early evening mobs reminded me of taking Boston's Green Line buses during rush hour, and the threat of pickpockets became a much more serious issue.
As for eating, we found late afternoon to be a delightful time to relax in a restaurant after a hard day of walking and museum-browsing. Perhaps because Rome must cater to tourists, we found most restaurants open for a four- or five-o'clock dinner, with plenty of available tables and attentive staff. It was also still light, for better views, and relatively quiet—as it gets dark, the music gets louder, a correlation without obvious causation.
No doubt "night people" have an entirely different view of Rome, but this worked very well for us. Our only later-evening excursions were short walks down the street to the local gelato place, which soon became our nightly habit before falling into a deep and exhausted sleep.
When visiting Rome, we prayed in far more churches that I can possibly remember, from the incredible St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, to the personal chapel of the popes at the Scala Sancta, to the little churches everywhere on the streets of Rome, each filled with museum-worthy artwork.
But we only attended two services on our trip, both in Switzerland, both official state churches, one Reformed and one Catholic. The way I figure it: on average, we were Anglican.
The first church was just about what you'd expect from a Reformed church: a pulpit, a cross, an organ, and some chairs. Scripture, a long sermon, and a little music (no choir). I'm told there's sometimes more music than we experienced. Of course it was all in German, but it's amazing how much you can understand of Scripture readings if you know the Bible well enough, and we even figured out a tiny bit of the sermon. Singing in German is almost easy if you (1) have the words and the music, and (2) know even a very little bit about German pronunciation.
Our second service was Catholic, and it's not really a fair comparison, because it was a special day for the church, a celebration of the saint for whom it is named. Therefore the music was special, and included the choir, which doesn't always sing for the services. (That's not all bad, as it allows Stephan to sing in the choir and still attend most of his usual church's services.) It's a modern building, but not nearly as bare as the Reformed church.
Once again, we could pick up a little bit of the Bible readings and the sermon, but of course it was mostly lost on us. On the other hand, if only we had been provided with a written transcript of the liturgy, we could have participated in most of it and known exactly what was going on, even if we didn't understand most of the German. It was recognizably very much like our Episcopal (Anglican) service. (To be fair, the Catholics would say the Anglican service is very much like theirs.) At one point, Janet leaned over and asked, "Do you say this at your church?" referring to a part of the liturgy not used in the Episcopal churches of her experience. "We do now," I replied (thanks to our current priest). I could tell you what the priest and people were saying, but I couldn't join in without the German words to read.
Here's one fun hymn (#95) we sang, fun for me because I knew the tune as that of The Glory of These Forty Days. Close enough, anyway. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Note that the Catholic hymnal attributes the music to Martin Luther, while Hymnary.org to Johann Sebastian Bach. It actually is Martin Luther's music, but Bach did base a famous cantata on it.
When it comes to travel, I'm a huge fan of Rick Steves. Not of his politics, but if you avoid his more informal, off-the-cuff broadcasts, such as the ones you'll find on Facebook, you can mostly avoid that; his shows and guidebooks have the advantage of better editing. We've found his products enormously helpful in planning a visit to an unfamiliar city, from finding hotels to organizing our days to learning about the sites and sights we are seeing.
That said, we differ from Rick on sightseeing almost as much as on politics. If he says a museum visit will take an hour, we know to count on three. And we are simply not the least interested in the nighlife of a city, which he finds vital and stimulating. Neither his television show nor his guidebook mentions our great discovery about visiting Rome: Do as much as you can in the morning. (More on that in another post.)
Then there's people-watching. Apparently that's one of Rick Steves' favorite activities, as he frequently mentions it as a highlight of a trip. I've never seen the attraction, so I made a point one night, while enjoying gelato in the little shop down the street from our hotel, to try the exercise.
I couldn't do it. I couldn't remain focussed.
I'd start out taking notice of the people around me: the man carrying his crying child, no doubt exhaused from a day of sightseeing; the fashionably-dressed women accompanied by scruffy men; the customers who thought a single cigar worth the €20 price tag. I noticed with appreciation a woman whose grey purse exactly matched her grey suit—I've never in my life bought a purse to match an outfit. Then I noticed another woman whose bright orange purse exactly matched her bright orange outfit ... and my mind was off down a rabbit hole.
That purse can't be useful with very many colors. Does the woman wear nothing but orange? Does she have a purse for every dress she owns? I can barely handle three: something I need is inevitably back home in another bag. And I cringe at the cost every time I need to replace a worn-out purse; I can't imagine spending money on one that is useful solely for one outfit. She doesn't look wealthy. Then again, what does "wealthy" look like; how can I presume to judge her financial situation? How, for that matter, can I presume to judge her spending priorities? Why am I staring at her anyway? Seems downright rude to me.
Reluctantly, I hauled myself back to the nightlife around me, but soon my internal voice (a.k.a. Li'l Writer Guy) took over again. After about twenty minutes of such struggles, I gave up on people-watching.
Perhaps it's a sport for extroverts, who apparently do not engage in this constant internal dialogue. (I can't imagine that, but I'm told it's true.) At any rate, I found the exercise moderately interesting, but nearly as exhausting as a three-hour museum experience.
Last Sunday, our church celebrated the Feast of Michael and All Angels. Also known, it turns out, as Michaelmas, a term I had only known thanks to a murder mystery in which "Michaelmas daisies" are featured.
The sermon included a short dissertation on the difference between actual angels and our popular conception of those beings, which reminded me of the observations we made during eight days of bingeing on Italian art while visiting Rome.
Biblical angels apparently feel the need to begin their encounters with humans by words like "Fear not." I'm guessing it's a pretty overwhelming encounter.
Angels in art? All too often they look as if they are about to announce, "Aren't I adorable?"
Since 2010 I have kept a list of the books I've read each year. It began as a New Year's resolution, when I realized that although I was still reading a great deal, the percentage of books included in that reading had declined considerably. In the spirit of "what gets measured, gets done," that resolution was highly successful, and I've kept up the practice of logging my books because I still find it useful.
Last year was my best year ever (108 books read), and this year is on track to be good as well (67 by the end of August, which was ahead of last year's pace).
And then came September.
After a steady reading diet each month from January to August (6, 15, 11, 10, 7, 2, 9, and 7 books), I completed zero (0) books in September. In my 10 years of keeping track, that has only happened once before, in November 2011.
So what did I do in September, if I couldn't even finish one book?
Oh, yeah. We prepared for a hurricane. In the end, it didn't hit us, for which I'm exceedingly grateful, but for a long time it looked as if it would, and the preparation is largely the same whether the hurricane hits or not. And Porter was distracted and out of town until the threats became truly serious, because of his father's death and his subsequent executor duties.
Then we spent three weeks in Switzerland and Rome, where we played with grandchildren and hiked and travelled and visited museums from morning till night.
I could have made a better showing in September if I had thought about it. Some of my favorite times were sitting on the porch swing, reading side by side with our granddaughter, who turned from a self-described non-reader into a confirmed bookworm practically overnight while we were there. I could have been sharing her A to Z Mysteries as she blew through them. Or I could have been reading the new-to-me Life of Fred books that I noticed too late on their shelves. Instead, I tackled a longer and more challenging book: Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I should have known I'd end up needing to borrow it and bring it home for completion.
Plus, I have plenty of fairly short books on my Kindle that I could have completed on one of our transatlantic flights. If I'd had a new Brother Cadfael book, I probably would have. Instead, I did puzzles, watched cooking shows, enjoyed a movie about J.R.R. Tolkien (that's another post), and slept.
There are no real excuses for having left September a blank in my reading record. As with many things in life, if I'd put my mind to it, I could have done better. But neither are there regrets. We had an exciting and fulfilling September, and October is another month!
The life of a Transportation Security Administration inspector is not an easy one.
I had packed my suitcase efficiently and well, everything neat and tidy and protected as much as reasonable from potential damage. It was full, closed, and ready to go.
Then, my eyes roving over the bookshelves, I discovered that I had left something out: my Ovomaltine spread. (It's sort of like Biscoff cookie butter, but crunchy, malted chocolate.) Fortunately, Porter had plenty of room in his suitcase, and was planning to fill it up with our bags of dirty clothes.
So I wrapped the (glass) jar in plastic wrap, inserted it into a plastic bag, then another plastic bag, and then wrapped that in a dirty shirt. And another dirty shirt. and a pair of dirty pants. And then placed the whole bundle amongst the rest of the laundry in the dirty-clothes bag. This, I was sure, would keep the precious contents intact during the long journey from Switzerland to Orlando.
Intact—but not, as it turned out, unmolested.
My suitcase with its varied contents apparently set off no alarm bells for the security inspectors, but Porter's was selected for special treatment in New York City. Those poor TSA inspectors dug through our dirty clothes bag and unwrapped all those smelly shirts and plastic bags to get to the gold. At least the seal on the jar was unbroken; they didn't bother to taste it.
Thank you for your service. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
What do you do when you're hiking along in Switzerland and a big Bernese Mountain dog runs up to you, leans against your leg, and sits on your foot, stopping all forward motion?
Then rolls over, exposing a furry belly and pleading eyes?
And you're allergic to dogs?
You give thanks that he's not a cat, and give him a good tummy rub using one hand only, promising yourself you won't touch your face until you get home and can wash.
Because who can resist such trusting love?
After staying up all night to watch the moon walk, I was glad the next two days on our Girl Scout European adventure included not much more than relaxing at Hemsby Beach. When you realize that I had grown up with the warm Atlantic waters and the soft, sandy beaches of Daytona Beach, Florida, you will realize that the following entry was actually high praise for Hemsby Beach and the North Sea.
Went to beach—nice but sort of rocky. Not nearly as cold as I thought. Pleasant to swim in.
We stayed up late again on the 21st, to watch the Eagle (lunar module) rendezvous with Columbia (command module).
Then on the 23rd we had an adventure that had nothing to do with the moon landing. We waited an hour and a half for a bus to take us into Yarmouth to do some shopping, not my favorite activity to begin with.
Saw a grand total of 2 stores. Didn't see anything I wanted so Mrs B. told Bonnie S. and I to explore a nearby street and meet her back at a certain store at 12:15. We were there, and she wasn't. So we waited and waited. For an hour and 45 minutes. We figured that they must have realized we were missing, and would come back for us. [That was the standing instruction in my family: If you get separated, stop, stay where you are, and wait for us to find you.] We didn't know whether Mrs. B. expected us to go back of our own accord or wait for her. So we played it safe and waited. Finally, we decided to call the camp. We found a phone but oh, what problems. We had to call the operator to figure out how to call. Then we couldn't get the money in the machine. We called the operator and she placed the call. Talked to a panicked Mrs. B. who said to come back via the Wellington Bus Station. When asked where it was she said, "ask anyone." So we did. A very complex story, but the end of it was we ended up in the factory section of town. We finally found it, and arrived at the camp about one and half hours late.
I have no idea what happened, why it was we didn't connect up with the group when we were sure we were in the right place at the right time, nor what directions we were given that had us going through the factory district. In fact, I only remember two parts of that adventure: trying to make that phone call at the British pay phone, and what we stared at while sitting and waiting to be found: a gigantic photo of a singer, and the words, "Englebert Humperdinck," covering one wall of the building in front of us. At the time, I knew that name only as the composer of the opera, Hansel and Gretel. This young singer with the same name was soon to be giving a concert in the area.
Little did I know that fifty years later, one of my friends would be touring the world, singing with that same Engelbert Humperdinck.
On July 24 we paid a visit to Sandringham Palace, the Queen's private residence. Alas, not to see the queen; the building wasn't even open. We enjoyed her gardens, however, and had a picnic. We arrived back at camp in time to watch the astronauts return to earth.
Watched astronauts come on board ship. Laurie and I threw an Apollo victory party just after a TV review of all Apollo. Mrs. B. provided drinks (7-Up and Coke); Laurie, Kathy M., and I bought goodies, and nearly everyone who came brought something. We ate and sang and took pictures.
Even though I didn't experience as much of the historic moon landing coverage as I would have liked, the timing could not have been better for where we were in our trip. We missed very few of the major events, and it was a great week to be an American in Europe.
"Ate and sang and took pictures"—I guess that's been my favorite way to celebrate for at least half a century.
On July 19 our touring Girl Scout group had left London and a madcap sightseeing itinerary behind and settled into a hostel of sorts at Hemsby Beach in Yarmouth, England. July 20 was a day of rest and recreation for us, for which I was grateful, as there was a television set in the camp on which we were able to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing. Not well, because it was a small TV, almost certainly black and white, and the room was packed—but we saw it.
My journal tells me just those bare facts, because I poured my stream-of-consciousness "live" reactions into a letter that I sent to my family. It's possible I have that letter somewhere, and if so I hope to unearth it in my lifetime. But sadly, that time is not now. As a long-time science student and science fiction fan, with grandparents who lived in Daytona Beach and an uncle who worked as part of the space program, this was a big moment for me. I'm glad my once-in-a-lifetime (or so I thought) trip to Europe didn't cut me off completely from the joys and triumphs of the moon landing.
Mrs. B. made us all go back to our rooms at midnight, so I was once again grateful to have my contraband radio. Several of us huddled together in the tiny, one-room "chalet" I shared with my friend Laurie, and stayed up all night following the coverage so as not to miss Neil Armstrong's first step onto the moon.
Fifty years ago a few intrepid adults gathered a flock of teenaged girls and took them on a tour of Europe. What were they thinking??? The group primarily comprised members of a Girl Scout troop from the little village of Scotia, New York. That had been my own troop until my family moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania after my freshman year of high school. But we had been working for this trip for years, and didn't let the move keep me out: I joined the rest of the gang at JFK airport. The longer I live, the more I marvel at the energy and courage of the chaperones, especially "Mrs. B.," an extraordinary English war bride turned American citizen who was our troop leader. What a world-expanding, eye-opening opportunity that was for a group of small-town “innocents abroad.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I was sure. Whenever else would I have either the desire or the opportunity to return to Europe? That’s how little we can imagine what the future holds for us.
While we were walking through lands that were strange and new to us, Neil Armstrong took the first steps of a human being on our moon. The world available to travellers has continued to expand—though not, alas, to the moon.
July 16, 1969 was an extraordinary day. Having already visited Paris, several places in Switzerland, and Lake Como, Italy, we were then in London. The day began with a tour of Girl Guide headquarters, of which I remember nothing except that near the end someone mentioned that it was nearly time for the liftoff of Apollo 11. I still have the little notebook in which I kept a brief journal of our trip.
We entered a room where we could sit down, so I snuck out the earphone of my radio and turned it on just in time to hear, "We have liftoff!" I jumped up, pulled out the earphone, and we all [in my tour group] listened until the station left the Cape, after Staging. Everyone shouted and waved a U. S. flag Mrs. B. had bought. I learned [then] that we weren't supposed to have radios, but no one minded.
From there we walked to the U. S. Embassy. The Embassy visit was my baby, because Robert Montgomery Scott, special assistant to Ambassador Walter Annenberg, was from the town where my family was now living. How my mother persuaded Introvert Me to contact him I have no idea—but she did, and he responded gallantly, inviting our group to the Embassy for a tour. We were wearing our Girl Scout uniforms. Mrs. B., though often relaxed and informal, was firm about protocol.
We arrived about 3:20, changed shoes [from our walking shoes to heels], put on gloves, and entered.
I was embarrassingly naïve, and easily impressed. But it was a fine experience.
I told a man at a desk who I was; he knew I wanted Mr. Scott and said he would get him. A man came later to take me to the Ambassador's Office—at first I thought he was Mr. Scott and shook his hand. Oh, well. He took me up to "hallowed ground." Mr. Scott took me into his office—a very nice guy. We talked over his plans for the group. He got a call from Mrs. Annenberg. He took me on a sneak preview tour of part of that floor, including the Ambassador's office. Very nice. Then downstairs to meet the rest. Another man was to conduct the tour (although Mr. Scott came with us), and it thrilled me no end when Mr. Scott introduced me as "a neighbor of mine from Wayne." Wow! The tour was great but short, and we ended up in the basement for Coke (with ICE) and cookies. It was sweltering, and our first ice since home. We next went next door to the Embassy Auditorium to watch on color television a program on Apollo. Unfortunately, they showed no shots of the liftoff and we had to go. But a very successful visit, I think everyone decided.
But the day wasn't over, not by a long shot.
In other cities we had stayed in youth hostels, and once in a convent, but in London our group was parceled out in different lodgings. My own, with a few other girls and a chaperone, was a small private house. It had seemed delightful, but when we returned around dinnertime the atmosphere had changed drastically. I never did get the whole story, but apparently there was some misunderstanding and/or disagreement between the woman who had welcomed us, and her husband who showed up later. Things got loud and scary, and we were hustled out of there and onto the street with barely time to stuff things randomly into suitcases and coat pockets. We did find another place to sleep that night, though I have no memory of it.
All that excitement meant that we missed the first half of the first act of Mame, starring Ginger Rogers. It was still a great experience, and I had my program autographed by a few of the cast members, including Ginger Rogers. We caught the last train, missed the last bus, and had to walk a long way—but we were young. As I said, it's the chaperones who impress me.
And the moon landing. More on that later.
There are plenty of times I grumble about Google, but not today.
As I work my way through the nearly 5,000 photos and assorted memorabilia from our recent vacation, I feel nothing but gratitude for the location information embedded in most of the photos, plus Google Maps, Google Maps' satellite images and Street View, Google Image Search, Google Translate, and Google Search itself—allied with all those good people who post images and commentary from their own trips. I could not begin to handle this enormous job without them.
During our recent visit to the Netherlands with our Swiss grandchildren, we enjoyed a visit to the Openluchtmuseum (Open Air Museum) in Arnhem. As far as learning Dutch history goes, the kids might benefit from another visit in a few years. But when it comes to having fun, they got what they came for.
The museum occasionally features concerts and other events, and very near the beginning, the theatrically-minded of our crew were hooked. Not that this sign explained much to us, though our eyes lighted on the word "Annie." The sound of singing drew us like a magnet. Well, most of us. Porter and Joseph spurned the SRO crowd for comfortable chairs and some man-to-man discussion time in the wings.
I'm not much of a fan of Broadway musicals myself, but I was intrigued by the familiarity of the music. Later, I concluded that there's a similarity among musical theater numbers that makes them nearly indistinguishable to the non-initiate, especially when the lyrics are in a foreign language. At the time, however, all we could conclude was that this was defnitely not the Annie we were expecting.
UPDATE 11/12/19 As some point, probably when the old posts were converted from Flash to iframe, a chunck of this post was deleted. As far as I can remember, it explained my efforts to figure out just what the musical was. Very short version: It's Ja Zuster, Nee Zuster (Yes Nurse! No Nurse!), and nothing I've heard about it makes me inclined to see it.
Since the version we saw was designed for children, it was shorter, and presumably cleaner—in any case, even the most multi-lingual of our grandkids doesn't know enough Dutch to deciper the lyrics (and he wasn't listening). This particular song, however, is a powerful earworm, and certainly made an impression. All the children enjoy play-acting, and the three-year-old, especially, treated us to many subsequent performances of her version, in which the title morphed—understandably, for one who speaks English and German—into Jah Sister, Nah Sister. The only part of the original they maintained was this refrain, but it spawned endless variety. You'd think I'd have had the sense to video at least one of the innumerable performances, but I didn't.
We're home after a month overseas, and it's raining.
Europe has been experiencing a drought so severe that our Viking River Cruise devovled into a Viking Bus Tour. Looking over the California-brown land of the Netherlands, Porter—who had lived there for four years in the 1960's—recalled that he had never, ever seen Holland as anything but a lush, green country. His only concern about the weather for our planned adventure there with Janet and her family was that it would be a soggy affair, because "it's always raining in Holland."
Except that it wasn't. We had five beautiful days of almost unprecedented sun, accompanied by almost unprecedented heat.
And then, finally, it rained. The grateful grass took notice and stood up, acquiring a green blush overnight. It also rained some during our subsequent visit to Switzerland.
It wasn't until tonight that I realized why it the experience was somewhat disorienting. It rained in Europe much as it rained in America's Northeast when I was young. That is to say, I relearned what umbrellas are good for, and more than half the time didn't bother with one anyway. I got a little wet; I soon got dry.
But tonight we are back in Florida, and it is RAINING. The water is pouring out of the sky so fast that the gutters overflow before the flood has a chance to reach the downspouts. Any minute now I expect to see the Maid of the Mist cruise through our back porch. Then again, maybe I missed it when a lightning strike, so close that the bottoms of my bare feet tingled, sent us scurrying back inside.
If in the Netherlands we didn't bother with umbrellas because they were hardly needed, in Florida we don't bother because after 30 seconds one is soaked to the skin anyway.
Now that's rain. One night of this and all the cruise ships would be back in business.