Sweet Baby Travels – England

After a little more than a two-hour flight from Sevilla to London Gatwick, we exchanged T-shirts for sweaters, sandals for umbrellas, tapas for pub food, and formal gardens in dry terrain for the lush gardens of England.

By this time Sweet Baby expressed definite opinions about tolerated confinement, whether pack or stroller, car seat or high chair. But she is always glad to ride in her pack on her dad, the family gardener, and we planned three garden visits with lawns and space for running.

In the Kent countryside we stayed in tiny Biddenden Village (a pub, a post office, and a smattering of other buildings smack beside a busy road) in a 400-year old Tudor house – low ceilings, creaky floors, steep staircases, and comfortable rooms.

At Great Dixter (made famous by garden writer Christopher Lloyd), in spite of borders of glorious color and meadows of wildflowers, we loved the house best. Built by Lloyd’s father and the architect Edwin Lutyens, it combines two 15th century dwellings to reimagine a medieval manor. A great room with vaulted ceilings and leaded windows downstairs, and a solar upstairs, with worn rugs, bookshelves, and lived-in chairs cozied up to a huge fireplace. A little hungry for home comfort by now, we might have settled in.

The day of our Sissinghurst visit we woke to cold rain, but after Sweet Baby’s morning nap the clouds lifted. Sissinghurst (my favorite garden) is romantic and full of story, and in spite of summer solstice and the full bloom of Vita’s famous roses, weather kept the crowds down. We walked paths through the white garden, the herb garden, the cottage garden, and climbed the tower. For lunch we ate ratatouille made from produce grown in the Sissinghurst vegetable garden.

The threat of Brexit had begun to color things even before we left Spain, and in the UK tension was palpable. In the village, angry Brexiters complained to us about Obama’s statements to remain, and in London the night before the vote, vocal supporters of each side lined tube station entrances. Our old friends were divided, he to stay, she to leave. And the day after the vote, people looked stunned as they carried on.

Founded in 1673 as an apothecaries’ garden, the Chelsea Physic garden is a tranquil, walled space overlooked by buildings, full of labeled medicinal plants from around the world. On the same day as the huge and sad memorial for Jo Cox in Trafalgar Square, I walked the paths, pushing a sleeping Sweet Baby in her stroller, thinking about the commonality and continuity of plants, looking for solace in the centuries-old garden.

On our last day – a final walk through London and history. From our place near Covent Garden, west through Trafalgar Square (setting up for the Gay Pride Festival), along the Mall to St. James’s park (many visitors, a polyglot of language), ate waffles sitting on a bench, and watched the crowd gather near Buckingham Palace. Then we circled back past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, toward Parliament (posters and stickers littered the sidewalk). We turned onto the Victoria Embankment along the Thames, and crossed the Millennium Footbridge (a bride and her wedding party walking in the midst of the crowd). We spent time in the Tate Modern (Sweet Baby running the ramp in the Turbine Hall), then walked on to the Borough Market for lunch.

Sweet Baby took her parents home for the afternoon nap, but the two old, true London lovers finished it out – back across the bridge and up to St. Paul’s, along Fleet Street and the Strand, and through Covent Garden.

Overhead a jet plane flyover trailed tricolored smoke and thunderous noise – and a downpour began, wilting feathers and costumes and melting face paintings on passersby.

That evening, in the midst of post-festival crowds, Sweet Bride miraculously found us a table at a Thai restaurant where we ate and replayed Sweet Baby’s first big trip.

“Wow!” we said.

Sissinghurst I

Sissinghurst II

 

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Sweet Baby Travels – Spain

In the old part of Sevilla, streets are so narrow it seems like you could touch hands from one wrought-iron balcony to its opposite. When a car passes, pedestrians on the skinny raised sidewalks flatten against buildings. The day we arrived, building shade gave some respite from 100° heat, and we found welcome cool inside our hotel. Our adjoining rooms with a little hall between pleased the Sweet Baby.

We planned an Andalucia sampler. Two days in Sevilla, two in Granada, then back to Sevilla for two. Traveling with a baby requires equipment these days – stroller, backpack, front pack, car seat – a mountain when added to handcarries with toys and snacks and our regular bags. Somehow the Trail Boss made fun from seeing how quickly and efficiently we could organize ourselves to move between curb and check-in, or onto elevators and trains (always about to depart).

We walked early in city quiet and cool – past the Seville Cathedral, along the Guadalquivir River, into the beautiful María Luisa Park (with playground), and, because of the late Spanish mealtimes, returned in time for breakfast. We ate many tortillas de espanol – eggs and potatoes – sometimes in a baguette, sometimes wrapped in wax paper, and tapas that turned meals into feasts. Sweet Baby, an adventurous eater, dove into tapas on offer, murmuring her “num, yum!” of approval.

On this trip Sweet Baby put it together that her little palm out wave and friendly American “Hi!” made life interesting. She’d fix on a person, begin a program of wave and “Hi!” till a stranger engaged – then she’d sparkle her sweet smile. Restaurants provided a particularly target-rich setting. A big tattooed guy responded with caio several times, and then in a friendly way suggested she eat her pasta. After many “Hi!” and hola exchanges, a handsome, ponytailed waiter brought her a tiny dish of chocolate chips. She warmed up everyone.

Before a meal, one of us would take her outside to the nearby piazza or plaza – she turned bollards and chains marking off some part of the square into playground equipment: under, over, lift, and repeat. She watched little girls turn cartwheels or kick a soccer ball, and kids race bicycles. When music played, she stopped and swayed back and forth – her dance moves. I liked to watch the Sweet Bride talking babies with other traveling parents, whenever Sweet Baby encountered a person her size.

Each day we walked for miles, and Sweet Baby rode in her backpack above the footsore crowds. We marvelled at the Alhambra, the Generalife, the Alcazar – structures and gardens so complicated and glorious and old. Sweet Baby uttered a perfectly timed “Ooooh” or “Wow!” expressing wonder at the Queen’s Bath or the Court of the Lions.

In Granada (higher than Sevilla and cooler), we spent a day wandering the grounds and buildings of the Alhambra and Generalife. Having read about a famous view point across from the Alhambra, the Trail Boss led us the next morning (clutching our hot drinks and bag of gofres, sweet waffles) aboard a tiny city bus (a school bus for many children) as it snaked uphill through a tilted neighborhood of houses with peach or lavender walls, green gates, and magenta bougainvillea.

We sat on benches in a little plaza to eat, across a forested ravine from the Alhambra on the opposite ridge, and identified the buildings we’d seen the day before.

“Best breakfast ever,” the Sweet Bride said.

Alhambra tile

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Sweet Baby Travels – Italy

To reach the Tuscan hill town of Pitiglano, you turn off the highway from Rome onto a narrow twisting road. Around a final bend and across a deep ravine appear the tumbled together medieval stone buildings of Pitiglano.

When Sweet Baby arrived there this June (as part of a multi-country adventure), she brought her parents and paternal grandparents for a walk from Pitigliano in Tuscany to Orvieto in Umbria. (Route booklet and baggage transport provided by an Australian company called “Hidden Italy.”)

Deposited at our hotel just outside Pitigliano’s main gates, near the arches of an ancient aqueduct, we ate dinner in the café out front as the sky faded and swifts soared along the city’s steep walls. Sweet Baby tucked into her pasta.

After breakfast the next morning, she sat in her backpack carried by her dad, and we walked through Pitigliano, gathering foccacia, cheese, fruit, and chips from tiny shops.

This La Tuscia route reveals much about the predecessors of the Romans, the Etruscans, a civilization once dismissed and now (because of archeological discoveries) greatly admired for art and culture. For more than 2500 years, people have used the trail linking Pitigliano and our first destination, Sovana.

Tackling daily hikes from seven to 12 miles, we climbed up and down a series of tufaceous hills, wooded and wild. Via cava, distinctive narrow sunken roads (cut into the soft tufa rock by the Etruscans) lead down from or up into hill towns, providing paths for travelers then – and now.

Often slippery underfoot, two raised tracks allow purchase for cart wheels. Mules used to walk in the middle drainage channel – as did we. Within these tunnel-like canyons, time has softened the sides that towered over us – foliage and moss dripped and draped, enclosing us in a green and stony world.

Etruscan funeral chambers line the walls of the via cava. We passed a series of caves from prehistoric times, built upon and adapted by succeeding peoples – complicated communities of two-story caves with openings for smoke to escape, “windows” for light, niches and benches, and echoes of people long gone. Once in a clearing outside the square opening to a large cave, we stopped for lunch. As Sweet Baby picked up stones and little leaves, it was easy to picture earlier toddlers doing the same thing in the same spot.

We’d been warned about rain and the dangers of wet via cava. Most days we woke to blue-sky beginnings, but one afternoon during a badly timed cloudburst, we navigated a short but wild link on a narrow road with speeding drivers. Leaving the road, we cautiously descended (gripping our hiking poles) the spectacular Via Cava San Rocco – so beautiful and far less scary.

At the top of the via cavas we often encountered strade bianche and a mile or so of classic Tuscan countryside with gentle forests and meadows for stops in the sunshine. We saw farms with sheep, hedgerows and fields colored by red poppies, blue or yellow asters, and delicate Queen Anne’s lace. You understand the long appeal of this part of Italy – easy fortifications and nearby rivers and fields rich with food.

All the little towns share a hill town nature – but each has a distinct personality. Sovana, continually inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, feels wide open with many restaurants and cheerful with flowers in window boxes and tiny gardens.

The next day, climbing hills so high we could see Pitiglano and Sovana far behind us, we reached Sorano – an Etruscan town built on a Bronze Age settlement, with a Medieval past and a Tuscan hill town present. Our hotel sat at the very top – a military fortress in the 11th century. After hot showers we sat with cold drinks in a courtyard bright with evening sun.

The next town, San Quirico, differs from the others. A German headquarters during WW II and destroyed by allied bombs in 1944, it’s a modern Italian small farm town. We arrived in the rain at the town’s only hotel, drank beer on the veranda, watched the downpour, and then ate dinner in a large and deserted dining room. The resident daughters alternately invited and teased Sweet Baby while they ate their dinner and drove a little bike between tables. She stared in fascination.

Fifteen months old in June and weighing 20 pounds, Sweet Baby was a good-natured and flexible traveler, as we suspected she would be. I hadn’t thought about the joy of seeing her each morning at the door to our room – flashing her big smile and saying, “Hi!,” or how much fun it would be to watch her exploring this new world and finding repeated entertainment in water bottle lids, various zippers, and roller bags (good for a quick ride in a hotel hall).

She adapted easily to naps in the pack, morning and afternoon, sleeping with her head on a down vest or leaned against the sunshade. Sometimes she toddled along strada bianca or climbed tufa rock steps, her little legs working hard.

The afternoon we arrived in Sorano, we paused at a dramatic lookout over the valley, ate a handful of nuts and watched Sweet Baby chase a metal water bottle she rolled down a slope. She’d traded her rain soaked pants for my wool socks pulled up over her knees – worn with her hiking shoes and a diaper. You smile a lot when she’s along.

Our last day we walked out of Tuscany, entering Lazio along a path now known as the Brigand’s Way. Up and up, then down, down – beginning to catch glimpses of the large and beautiful Lake Bolsena below.

We were to rendezvous at a trattoria on the shore for a ride around the lake to a modern resort hotel. We might have delayed a day here – exploring Bolsena’s ancient center, enjoying the pool and the sunshine, and walking on. But we’d elected to forgo this last day of very long mileage and accept a ride into Orvieto, gaining time to explore its renowned cathedral and museums full of Etruscan pottery and sculpture. Now we could picture these objects decorating the cavas, part of ancient, everyday life.

A night’s sleep, the train to Rome, and onward.

hiking boot

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A New American

A new American in our family! The Sweet Bride has negotiated all the steps required to become a naturalized U.S. citizen: she filed her paperwork, got fingerprinted, and proved she was a “responsible member of the community.” She attended an interview and passed a test assessing her knowledge of English and United States history and government. It only remains to take the Oath of Allegiance in a public ceremony.

On her recent visit here before the test, she brought her booklet of questions to study. We did our best to confuse her with background information about American politics and government to disguise the fact that we, specially I, don’t know all the basics! Do you know all the Founding Fathers? How many amendments to the Constitution? What did the Declaration of Independence do? And when? And how many representatives are in the U.S. House? And why? Sweet Bride knows these things.

She really studied, and adds success with this test to her degrees from Thailand and the one in International Business she received here (classes conducted in English). Two years ago she passed a difficult exam to qualify to be an insurance agent. When I complimented her on passing the citizenship test, she said: “Oh I had easy questions.”

The Sweet Bride amazes me, and I often think about what she’s had to learn after coming to this country on her own. She drives now in Los Angeles on the right side of the road (in Thailand she drove on the left). Not only is English new, but the alphabet and the writing completely different from Thai. Her beautiful hand printing retains a touch of the complicated Thai script she knows. And only the slightest lilt betrays her spoken English as a second language.

Occasionally, when I am chattering on, she looks puzzled so I stop and untangle the paragraph, figuring out which words confuse. Often it is some ridiculously unclear figure of speech – “going bananas” or “barking up the wrong tree.” Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean pretty much the same thing?

And then there is irony. Driving into a completely full parking lot at Huntington Gardens, a native speaker might say: “Well I guess not many people came here today!” She called me on that one – why did I say that? Her efforts at this level of understanding make the communicating richer and richer.

Mrs. Hughes says she makes us cool – adding exoticism to our bland mix. America is lucky to have this new citizen. We are so lucky to have her in our family!

Toonie congrats

 

 

Gertrude Bell

Lately I’ve been longing for another Ferrante or Knausgaard experience, that long abandonment of present to the narrative world. A hefty and engrossing biography, Georgina Howell’s “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” satisfied.

Born in 1868 into a wealthy family from the north of England and one of the first women educated at Oxford, Bell – mountain climber, explorer, historian, archaeologist, writer, linguist – became one of those redoubtable English women of the 19th Century who broke with convention. The Victorian era began to crumble in her lifetime, spurred in part by women who, in spite of still wearing long, tiny-waisted dresses and big hats, began to agitate for education and freedom from male supervision.

Bell’s greatest renown comes from her journeys in Arabia, adventurous by any measure as she crossed empty deserts, explored ancient historical sites, and got to know chieftains of nomadic tribes. Her travels ring with names now sadly familiar in a modern context.

Because of her deep knowledge of the Middle East, Bell took part in the historic negotiations after World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which imposed borders on ancient peoples and lands (a contribution not without controversy). Part of the fascination of the book is to read now about a time before these nation states.

To people back in England Bell probably seemed just a spinster, but Howell uses Bell’s rich letters to weave into her story the two, ultimately sad, but passionate romances of Bell’s life.

We travel so lightly nowadays with our easy outfits, roller bags, and airplanes – the two-page listing of what Bell took on one of her expeditions boggles the mind. Howell writes of a 1913 expedition: “She would take plenty of luggage this time and be ready for anything. First, there were her two English-made tents, one for bathing and sleeping in, one for eating and writing, both with a loose flap that could be tied back, laced shut, or used as a shady canopy. She ordered more of the skirts that she had designed with her tailor for riding horses in the Middle East: neither side-saddle habit nor breeches, but an ankle-length divided skirt with an apron panel. In the saddle, she would sweep this backward and gather the surplus material behind her and to one side, where it looked in profile like a bustle. When she dismounted, the panel fell around her like an apron and concealed the division. She bought lace and tucked-lawn evening gowns for dinners with consuls and sheikhs, for sitting at a dining-table at an embassy or cross-legged on a carpet in a tent.”

There’s more, lots more on her list, from a caseful of shoes and boots, candlesticks and linen sheets to a crate of revolvers.

What a life she lived – and what a great pleasure to read Howell’s book about it.

g. bell color 2

 

 

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Big Magic” is pure Gilbert. It’s crammed with her energy, sense of humor, courage and curiosity, and her desire for everyone to share in the only life she wants to live – a creative life.

Creative life has a broad and inclusive definition for Gilbert. She believes “the universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” “The courage to go on that hunt in the first place – that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.” She says: “I believe that this good kind of arrogance – this simple entitlement to exist and therefore express yourself – is the only weapon with which to combat the nasty dialogue that may automatically arise within your head whenever you get an artistic impulse.”

And then there’s the subtitle: “Creative Living Beyond Fear.” For someone now so successful, she knows fears – “fear you are a one-hit wonder,” “fear your best work is behind you.”

She lists two pages of fears (for why one might want to, but not attempt to, live a more creative life). Everything from “you’re afraid you have no talent” to “you’re afraid somebody already did it better” or “you’re afraid everybody already did it better.”

Engaging Gilbert stories fill “Big Magic” – the tales from her timid, fearful childhood with a resourceful, loving mother. (Ultimately Gilbert realized that fear is boring, and she wanted an interesting life). In spite of talk about fairy dust, Gilbert is a magical thinker who works really hard with what she calls “stubborn gladness.”

Gilbert says authenticity “has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me.” And she pleads with us to follow our curiosity, not the oft-counseled and uncertain “passion.”

She encourages you to get to it, if you haven’t yet. “It’s never too late.” And her book makes you want to do something – “…any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.” “The work doesn’t have to have a purpose and you don’t need an advanced degree.”

December is a great time to give a copy to your favorite person who isn’t hunting to uncover their buried jewels. And treat yourself to “Big Magic” – it’s full of treasures.

Pink Astronaut

The Broad

Tickets are free to The Broad (rhymes with road), the brand new contemporary art museum in downtown Los Angeles. Sweet Baby’s dad made reservations before we arrived on our recent trip.

Built by Eli and Edythe Broad to house their collection of postwar and contemporary art, it’s an appealing museum with a concerted effort by the staff to welcome visitors. Just two floors, the inaugural installation is arranged a little chronologically and a lot by artist (with early and late pieces from the same person).

The building itself is a Gaudi-like grotto on the inside, while a “veil” of fiberglass-reinforced concrete panels and steel, penetrated by slits allowing daylight, floats over the entire structure. The corner of the veil lifts over the entrance. Loaning the collection is a big part of the museum’s mission, and the building celebrates the huge art-storage capacity sandwiched between its floors. The stairway, glass elevator, and escalator tunnel through this storage “vault,” so visitors glimpse art on giant steel racks.

The first floor installation of up-to-the-minute pieces features giant chromogenic prints by Thomas Struth, including three floor to ceiling photos of tourists staring up at “David” in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. A huge photo of the Ferguson riots is the latest acquisition.

I love the out-of-proportion everyday things that make you look anew: one of Jeff Koon’s puppy dogs, Robert Theirren’s huge stack of ceramic dinner plates near the entrance, and his Alice in Wonderland-like gigantic wooden table and chairs you can walk under (echoing Sweet Baby’s reality with the undersides of tables).

The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s hour-long, nine-screen video piece entranced us. In a graceful old house musicians each perform the same piece of music but are filmed separately. We cold easily have stayed the whole hour in this thrilling room full of sound and image.

We didn’t have a reservation to stand in line to see ourselves reflected in Yoyoi Kusama’s experimental artwork “Infinity Mirrored Room: The Souls of Millions Light Years Away” – but next time!

Wheeling around in her stroller, Sweet Baby took it all in. Fellow visitors interested her most, children, babies, tall people and wide – beards and hats – every entertaining possibility. In the elevator going in, a fellow passenger greeted Sweet Baby. Her dad smiled and said, “It’s her first museum.” (I love to observe our sons respond to people who speak to their daughters when they are out and about.)

We ate lunch on the museum’s plaza – near an improbable grove of 100-year old olive trees – gnarled and twisted, full of story – how do you transplant a 100-year old tree?

Lunch outdoors in warmth, under an umbrella with a happy Sweet Baby (she tucked under her mom’s scarf and had a snack herself), shared experiences to talk about, feeling “recalled to life” (meds for weird pneumonia aboard and working) – moments to savor.

Sweet Baby at Broad Museum