On the Road.. er, Ship


Water travel is always so broadening, especially in the hips. Especially if you’re spending nine days on a Viking Riverboat cruise where the food never stops, even at breakfast, what with the stout coffees and delicate teas; the fresh omelets and smoked fish and sausage; the veggies both raw and cooked; the breads and rolls and croissants; the cereals both hot and cold; the bowls of berries and the platters of sherbet-colored melon; not to mention the juices from every kind of fruit Eve ever thought to toss in her Garden-of-Eden blender.

This tour I set out on last month made its way through the Netherlands and into Belgium. Some of us also took the optional excursion as well, to visit World War I battlegrounds near the border of France. (After such indulgence on board, it felt only right to bear witness to the suffering the people of these lands endured during the bloody century just before this one, and I can say more of that in another post.

There in Amsterdam on that first full day, I learned about this old, old city that, staggeringly, saw over 17 million visitors last year. While threading through some of its 165 canals I learned too that it is home to people from 181 nations if you can picture it. I can’t, as my own list of the world’s nations stops at around 40.

It has a population of 850,000 people, 40% of whom are under 30 and there’s a frightening thought. I mean, what if these youth kick off a real virus of a border-crossing movement to take out all us oldsters, wallowing in our nifty AARP benefits and discount movie tix?  What then? Oh, admit you’ve considered the possibility. I mean can’t you sometimes just feel them behind you in the subway stations, waiting ‘til no one’s looking and shoving you in front of the train, Frank Underwood style?)

Still, they’re pretty adorable, the young, and here in Amsterdam especially where they’re all the time wheeling past on bicycles like so many American tykes in the great era of Hot Wheels. Sure, they drink and get high and amble over to the Red Light District to check out the patient ladies sitting bare as newborns in their cozily furnished display windows. And yes, in a typical year the city has to fish some 12,000 bicycles out of the canals, tossed there in moment of youthful high spirits. Nonetheless I am heartened by the sight of them. At the AnneFrank House there are at least as many young people as older folk waiting in line to get in. At the Rijksmuseum too where all the Rembrandts are kept. They are not innocent of history, the young people here. They know what has transpired here in this fallen world.

One crisp morning I stopped for coffee at a Starbucks with a whole plaza of outside tables. It was a place overflowing with both older people like me and with the younger too in their practical backpacks and their jaunty scarves, and as I sat among them all in a freshening breeze, I thought this is what peacetime looks like. For if this isn’t what people the world over don’t want I’ll eat my hat as the old fogies used to say: What we want is only to sit together, the young and the old and the in-between, the babies, the dogs and the toddlers too, and feel the blessing of each passing moment.

I thought all this. Then, it being almost time for another storied meal onboard, I trotted the quick mile-and-a-half quick back to the ship.

bikes in amsterdam


Russia from on Board Ship

At 6 o’clock every night as we sailed along on our route from St. Petersburg to Moscow,  we passengers would be gathered like baby ducklings for an update about what we’d soon be seeing.

One night the talk went like this – and I should say I purposely pointed my camera outside at the ship’s deck rather than at the speaker’s face so that I could better focus later on the cool throaty sound of his Russian-accented English:

Our man was talking here about the Moscow By Night tour, which I turned out to skip, on account of how wiped out I felt after our Moscow By Day outings. By that point I had been marched through so many civic buildings, monasteries and churches I’d begun to feel that if never again saw another icon in my life I would still be able to draw half a dozen of them from memory, because there are just so very many images of New Testament apostles, Old Testament patriarchs and members of the Holy Family lining the walls of all these holy places: a whole race of sorrowful-looking, skinny-faced folks with improbably dark tans.

Here, for example, is a typical Mary-and-Jesus pair: russian icons

And here below you will see  one of our party, my own mate in fact, walking in the tourist’s typical ‘let’s-get-this-done’ fashion through one such sacred space. (I speak of the man facing away, the man with the white hair – and you may also note that all the women wear requisite scarves while even some dopey guy with a mullet gets to go bareheaded.


So there was this aspect to our trip, where it was all your typical foreign-visitor stuff, with hordes of tourists jostling one another to snap more pictures than even Mother Teresa would lack the patience to look through later. One night we Viking Cruisers got hand-carried in our fancy coach into the heart of St. Petersburg for a cooked-down performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and were the only people in the little jewel-box of a theatre. Another night we were transported to the hills above Moscow for an evening of music where again the passengers on our ship constituted the entire audience.

Here are some of our shipmates waiting for the curtain to rise and those long-legged tuu-tuu’d swans to skitter out onto the stage.


So as I say, it was all typical tourist stuff. But then something happened. At some point, very slowly, there surfaced, for me, another aspect of this two-week trip.

And that is the part I’ll be writing about in the days ahead.

That’s MISTER Jackass to You

fullsizeoutput_446cHeard onboard ship as four individuals find themselves lingering for a moment in a stateroom corridor:

Passenger One, pleasantly, after introductions: So what is your husband’s name?

Passenger Two: Jackass.

Passenger One, not having heard quite right:  I’m sorry? You say your husband isn’t traveling with you?

Passenger Two:  Nah Jackass left me years ago for his secretary.

Merry laughter all around.

What’s HAPPENED to Hotel Rooms?

room service

I’m thinking today about the hotel room I stayed in last week. Looks like the days of sending down for ice and whole bottles of Scotch are OVER, whatever those novels by Ernest Hemingway had you picturing.

On first arriving at that Florida hotel, I felt pretty pleased, if just by the promise of free breakfasts that would turn out to include scrambled eggs and hash browns, waffles and bagels, toast selections galore and many countless combination of sugar, cinnamon and chocolate. “This place really WILL be cushy!” I thought to myself  – right up until I opened the door to my room and was instantly ushered into a state of mystification.  Had an occupying army come through and decided to detain their captives here? The last time I stayed at this place, the floor of my room was covered in soft carpeting, and delicate, cone-shaped fixtures above bed, desk and closet sent warm soothing pools of light down over all. Plus there were enough bureau drawers to billet ten separate mama cats giving birth to ten kittens each.

But what did I see now? Under my feet a prison-worthy stretch of concrete that stretched from the door to the where the bed began, then gave way to the kind of thin, tough industrial carpeting you could take a blowtorch to without doing any damage.

There were no bureau drawers whatsoever, though I did finally find four small wire baskets behind a cabinet door. AND to top things off, fluorescent lights and only  fluorescent lights casting the same sickly greenish hue you see in cop shows featuring interrogation sessions.

interrogation room

Thus over the last few days I’ve been blaming this hotel chain for what I regarded as a real betrayal. But it came to me just this morning that hey, the room I took in New York back in December cost three times more than this one,  AND was three times more bleak.

This was the view out my window at the Wythe Hotel ….You’re supposed to think it’s cool.


And this was the bed, which to me looks an awful lot like what the Pilgrims slept on in the 1620s.


Note too the rickety piece of junkyard crap that served as a bedside table. And… see that window to the right? Maybe that doubles as a two-way mirror for the interrogators.  Because, come on, what hotel designers would come up with a room that allowed any and all other guests present to watch you when you shower? A big picture window, looking in on the bathroom? Really?

There was no carpeting anywhere in this place, but rather wall-to-wall concrete. And… there wasn’t a bureau drawer in sight.

The hotel said they would bring up a pastry and a tiny pot coffee for a mere eight dollars, but my family and I, with a four-and-a-half hour drive ahead of us, told our host in this fair city that yes, we’d love to take him up in his offer to meet us downstairs on our final morning for the hotel brunch.

Only he didn’t actually come to the brunch, which turned out to cost us three hundred and thirty dollars. THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY DOLLARS and we’d even said no to the mimosas!

But maybe travel was has always been a challenge when it comes to accommodations. Remember the two crafty innkeepers in Les Miserables? Then OR now, I guess it’s always been about that old bottom line.


The Getaway

cold cold dudeYou know how it is when you try to cheat winter and grab a few days in warmer climes. You stay up late and get up early every day for weeks, to shoehorn in just a few days when your ears won’t feel like a couple of frozen shrimp pinned to the sides of your head.

That’s what I did, fretting ceaselessly over the question of how life would go on without me. ‘Who will do all the driving?’ I obsessed. ‘Who will collect our papers and our mail? Never mind that, who will make sure the moon comes up with me gone?’

David and I were to leave before dawn and a mere five hours before that, as Jimmy Kimmel Live rolled its final credits, I was still throwing things in a suitcase.  Then the big day arrived, and brought with it many vivid hours of the blur-and-turbulence that is winter air travel.

frozen plane

Then – finally  – we were in the Caribbean.


Waiting for the ferry to take us to our hotel across the bay, I watched a promotional video about the place. It was playing in an endless loop on an immense super-hi-def TV.

You know how it is: you can’t look away from these big TV’s, even if you want to.

Ten times I must have seen this video. First, it showed old footage from the 1950s, the people moving jerkily in that old home-movie way, waving sweetly and self-consciously at the camera.  (“Oh the past!” I always think, seeing such footage. “Are my parents there? Where are MY parents?”But then this nostalgia bath gave way to the wordless ‘story’ of a modern couple – two actors really – riding bicycles and smooching and getting up out of the hotel bed that floated not near but actually IN those blue ocean waters. (They can do anything with film editing these days.)

The fourth time it looped, I noted a chickenpox scar on the female actor’s face. The sixth, time I saw three small pimples on her neck. The tenth time, watching the actor boyfriend in his filmy harem-pants tumble from the bed and swim off like the Little Mermaid, I laughed out loud.

That next morning, I saw that I’d forgotten to pack my comb, my sunglasses and my hat, my frantic planning notwithstanding, and sure, you could buy all these things at the gift shop for a small fortune, but I thought ‘Eh’ and just bought the comb, deciding to squint for four days and let the sun have its way with my dye job. 

And that was the start of my letting go. By degrees I went from noticing everything in that sharp 21st century way to noticing very little, except the lapping of the waves.

The ocean was almost body temperature. Sitting at its edge, I watched pelicans swoop down to feed and suddenly I WAS a pelican. I watched a cloud billow across the sky and suddenly I WAS a cloud.  

I looked over at David sleeping in a lounge chair that stood perpendicular to my own chair, so that I looked upon him not from the side, as usual, but as if from above.

I saw his still-muscular arm thrown up over his face. I saw his hair, no longer black as in days of old, but as white now as a seagull’s wing.

And suddenly I too was in a video, along with every living thing on this island, all of us in our own home movie, captured for those few seconds, all moving and breathing and as delightedly alive as the folks in this old reel. 

Golly Houston

The sand is gone from my bathing suit, the sunburn from my nose. I guess it’s time to stop talking about that lovely cruise I went on. It’s just that I found Hemingway was right about one thing: you DO see a thing more clearly when you’re away from it. He could see his boyhood in northern Michigan in Paris much more clearly than he could ever see it when he was actually there. In fact it took going to Paris and drinking the many drinks with comrades good and true who had seen war and knew that a man must …. (Ha ha, sorry. It’s hard for me not to parody the guy, especially where I just finished reading The Paris Wife, a fictionalized account of what it was like for his first spouse living. It was like living with a cad of the first order.

“Talk about a thing it and you’ll lose it,” he told somebody once. I was a new writer when I first came across this piece of advice I sensed the truth of it right away. I have always been sorry I didn’t come across it earlier in my life. I’m sorry I told even four people about the time I hunted down my father and sat with him for an hour in my 19th year. Now I can only remember the words I used in the telling and not the reality of the meeting.

If I had written about it maybe I would have described his hands and the way his hair went back in waves from his forehead which was high, like mine.

Instead the thing I sealed inside the melodramatic words of that college sophomore and I can’t get to it. It’s like when you make a document into a PDF. Kind of a mistake, you think to yourself after in that you can’t mess with it anymore.

I almost got to ride on the Shuttle years ago, meaning I was a National Semi-Finalist and one of the youngest and most idealistic of the thousands of journalists who entered that competition. It was cut short by the Challenger disaster though I’m aware that many young people out there don’t know what this disaster entailed.

I entered the contest because I knew NASA needed to sell the idea of space travel to the American taxpayer if it wanted to put anything up there, and they themselves told the society of professional journalists that they needed a wordsmith; that the astronauts themselves, were hopeless at conveying what saw from low earth orbit. The best they could so was say “Golly Houston,” on seeing our little blue earth blinking in and out of sunlight…

I can’t do much better when it comes to saying what this little boat ride was like.

All is a few pictures.

I look at them now: this one of Old Dave and me in the dining room.

And the one at the top where the ship itself looks like a baby whale.

And this super-short video of the surging deep. Ah, the briny deep, mother to us all.. Where are my fins? Why did we have to evolve?

What’s Worse?

I’m home now from out west. I put in my five hours on a plane, my knees pressed against my chest and the tray table driving itself into my sternum.

Flying is such a joy.

I should admit that traveling knees in my mouth is my own choice, because I hate to have to use those overhead bins. People vie so for the space in the overhead bins and I’d just rather not do that if I can help it. All jockeying for position makes me uncomfortable. Not enough testosterone in the mix maybe.

Plus what if you need something during the flight and it’s up there in the overhead bin? You then you have to stand up in front of that whole planeful of bored people who are going to WATCH as scraps of luncheon meat rain down on your head because you had them in your raincoat pocket after stopping to refuel your rental car where,realizing how hungry you were, you then bought a package of ham and tore open with your teeth so as to toss most of it down as you zoomed toward the airport and who needs that?

It’s embarrassing to find yourself festooned in half-eaten foodstuffs, like our friend Oscar here.


( I remember that sales trip back from Ohio so vividly! All I needed was a banana peel on my head.)

Anyway, so now I choose to travel right WITH everything I might need stuffed in my backpack.

Which I then jam under the seat in front of me.

Which is why my knees are up so high: my feet are resting on it.

For this last trip I had craftily poured my coffee into Thermos Number One back in the terminal.

I had done a similar thing with Thermos Number Two, filling it with the special brew of lemonade and mint tea I favor.

PLUS, I carry my own food, natch. That day it was two boiled eggs and some black beans for the first snack; a small tub of cauliflower and salmon for the second. (I never do tire of the looks on my seatmates’ faces and when I pop the Tupperware tops and release the scent of these dishes into the air. 🙂 )

So, I reasoned, I was all set. I would eat well and drink my drinks straight from the ‘jugs’ .Then all I figured I might need from the flight attendant was a nice cup of ice.

She served it to me and 20 minutes later I knocked it over, letting icy water spill all over my lap, soak between my legs clear through to the seat of my pants.

Whether or not it worse than wearing shreds of deli meats about my head and shoulders is hard to say but I can certainly attest that it was it was a WHOLE lot lot less comfortable.

Who’da Thunk It?

I’m giving a talk this coming Thursday at the Theological Opportunities Program in Harvard Square. I know I’m doing this because I saw notice of it in the Boston Globe yesterday. Not that I forgot or anything. In fact I’m excited to deliver this speech, which is about that Who’d-a-Thunk-It place you end up in when you dread a thing that then  turns out to have more secret compartments than the lining of a pickpocket’s jacket and each one full of happy surprises.

Take this weekend for example. I went to a college reunion not my own for people just barely 30 and I’ll be honest: I dreaded it. I dreaded sleeping under a thin blanket in a chilly dorm room with a glaring overhead light that looked designed for conducting interrogations.

It took me two trips to drag  all my stuff from my car into that dorm at 3pm on Friday. Then, at 5pm, I dragged it all back out and stuffed it in my car.  “You’re leaving at 6am tomorrow, ” I told myself. “Why not just sleep in your clothes?”  I see now that I was ready for the whole experience to be pretty awful.

In fact it was pretty great.

It was great because I got to see the nice people who work in the Alumnae House. AND I got to play with that infant I was in charge of while his parents went out to dinner. PLUS  got to walk around the campus whose grand old trees still appear in my dreams from the long-ago years when I went to this school myself.

I also got to spend time with my two girls, Ms. A . Marotta and Ms. S. DeYoung,  both of the Class of ’01 , and also with the latter’s husband Kevin who is daddy to that pink-cheeked infant.

I did have a moment of panic at the look of horror on Annie’s face when she arrived on campus Friday morning and I sidled  up to her: “I’ve been to our dorm,” I told her. “They gave you a  roommate.” They did WHAT?” she exploded. I was almost afraid to tell her that the roommate was me in case she would still be mad.

She wasn’t, thank God, and that was the final silver lining in an experience I thought would be so stressful: For the first time in 30 years, I had the privilege of watching all night long over the peaceful sleep of my onetime Baby Annie. 

Purse Panic

Last weekend I went by train to a conference in New York City and was forced to call on that sense of what I’ll call willed calm. “We have a sold-out train, people!” the conductor bellowed. “Keep your belongings in your own area!” Obediently I stowed my suitcase overhead, my purse under my seat and my backpack under the seat in front of me.

And sure enough at the very next stop there was someone at my elbow. “Do you mind if I sit here?” asked this boy in a baseball cap. “Not at all,” I said back.

We exchanged not a word more but traveled in companionable silence, he constantly probing the flat little belly of his iPhone like some old-time family doc on a house call.

So calm did I in fact feel that I somehow came to assume our two fates were actually linked and we would both be exiting the train together. We were docked at Penn Station for a full 90 seconds before I blurted “You’re not going to New York?!”

“Nope. D.C.”

I shot out of my seat, flung my backpack on, clambered over him, grabbed my suitcase down and was carried by the mass of humanity all the way to the top of the two-story escalator before realizing, uh oh—my purse was still under my seat.

I hurried over to an Amtrak official who said, “Go to Customer Service.” Customer service said “Get back downstairs before it leaves again! RUN!”

I ran all right. The train was there still, but which car of the 15 cars had been mine? I knew it was near an ‘Up’ escalator but now all the escalators were ‘Down’ ones, all bearing fresh masses of people eager to board. Where was my seatmate? I ran past twelve 85-foot-long cars, but with the lights so bright in the station I couldn’t see really inside them.

I ran again in the opposite direction, still frantically looking. “My purse!” was all I could think—before remembering: my purse didn’t have my money or my credit cards, which were hidden inside my ingeniously fashioned belt.

What it held instead was my food: carrots and almonds, cereal, fruit and powdered milk. I ‘e been doing Weight Watchers Points Plus© Program since late November and I was darned if I was going to go three days without my fresh healthful food. Plus the purse itself was pretty nice.

I took a deep breath and slowed to a walk. I went up to one window in every single car, cupped my hands around my face and peered in, until, finally, finally, finally I saw the boy. He looked up when I rapped on the glass. With a tragic face straight out of Ancient Greek theatre I pointed downward. He instantly swooped up the purse, ran to the rail-car’s door and with a big smile tossed me the bag just as the train began pulling from the station—leaving me with less faith in my own mental acuity, yes, but a much-increased faith in those angels of travel journeying right beside us.

Travel Day’s Eve

On the eve of every trip-return I’m newly amazed by what feats of compression you can perform to re-pack, since the minute you break the seal on your luggage its contents spill out everywhere. Five days ago I walked into this guest room with a rolling suitcase and a backpack and ten minutes later the place was festooned with my scattered belongings: a diary and an I-Pod on the night stand, a polka dot dress on the chair, another eight or ten articles of clothing in the closet. And more: the pastel corsage of underthings in the bureau and the two books on top of it; three magazines, two silly DVDs bought at the Winn Dixie in case of insomnia and a printout called “When Things Fall Apart” telling how that moment of utter befuddlement is the moment when you’re being given the gift of letting go.

Letting go. What if I panic tomorrow at 4am and fail to stuff everything into that suitcase and backpack and thus end up without my nice soft PJs or my bright-blue metal travel mug? What if I get disoriented in these strange pitch-dark mornings and take a wrong turn in my rental car and land in the Gulf of Mexico? Or if my plane goes down like Tom Hanks’s did in Cast Away and I don’t even HAVE a soccer ball to draw a face on and make a friend of?

These are things I never think of when I travel but I am thinking of them now.

Here, there are palm trees and bright red birds. It was 85 and wild parakeets and butterflies dancing across the bright-green treetops. Tomorrow it will be 85 again here with more bright sunshine spilling on all this plumage. Back home it’s predicted to be in the mid-50s. Dirty mounds of snow loom in the shaded corners of parking lots and our meek robins are still just unpacking their own bags.