Five Decades and Holding

50 Years! My good-natured (the explanation for this longevity) husband and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in California last week. I still can’t grapple with that number, but it was fun to mark it with the SoCal branch of the family.

From their house we drove north to a rented house in Montecito, (right near Santa Barbara) for three days. Cars and people a plenty, but the beach is perfect – white sand, hard-packed by the water and fine for walking. We picnicked on the beach, watched Sweet Baby love holding on to her dad’s shoulders as he caught waves near shore on a boogie board, walked along Butterfly Beach and goggled at the mansion built by the emperor of Beanie Babies, visited Ganna Walska’s Lotusland (built over decades with an astounding collection of tropical and sub-tropical plants, some 20 different gardens filled with stories of horticulture and history, never just one of anything but mass plantings of giant trees), played a lot of UNO and JENGA, and ate a celebratory meal at a Montecito restaurant (featuring fantastic plant-based food) to mark the actual event.

We laughed a lot about that blustery day 50 years ago, when we married in a cabin on Kenai Lake in Alaska – and I thought about how lucky I’ve been and how grateful I am.

Most often these days Sweet Baby draws mermaids – complicated aquatic creatures with elaborate clothing, curls, and crowns crowded onto a page – but she took time out to draw us on our special day in 1969!

OPG

Kinds of Courage

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage. So I noticed when Bill Nighy, a character in the movie made from Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, “The Bookshop,” told the heroine, the young widow Florence: “You possess the trait I admire above all in a person – courage.”

Florence has a courage born of her essential goodness, her tolerant nature, her assumption that others are as kind and accepting, as she is. But the residents of the village where she sets up her new bookshop in an old house are not, and she faces petty-minded meanness meant to defeat her. The movie tries for a little redemption lacking in the book, but this is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the story captures a moment, a place, and particular people.

To me, this movie was perfect, but I am in a distinct minority. A friend thought it wasn’t good, another said the reviews were terrible. (I’d be so curious what you thought if anyone watched, it’s streaming on Amazon.) The cast is stellar – in addition to Nighy, Patricia Clarkson is the softest-spoken evildoer ever, nearly whispering her potent threats. And Emily Mortimer as Florence, wounded by the death of her beloved husband, brims with the courage and enthusiasm of a new venture. Courage calls to mind wonderful words – pluck, mettle, spunk, spirit – those are Florence.

So one can have courage in the face of emotional or physical pain or in the case of Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, as told in her memoir, “The Salt Path” – in the face of both. The Winns are an ordinary couple in their 50s with children in college, living in a house they’ve restored in Wales with rental cottages providing their income. And then, in nearly unimaginable circumstances, through a bad investment and a failed legal case, they find themselves losing the property. Hoping the marshal come to evict them will leave, they huddle in a closet under the stairs, and Raynor’s eyes fall on a book at the top of a box – Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path around Cornwall.

Their next blow comes just days later when Moth receives a terminal diagnosis of corticobasal degeneration. And so, why not, they embark to walk the coastal path (it makes a sort of desperate sense) – a 630-mile trail stretching over headlands rising above the Atlantic, dropping to sandy coves, and repeating – again and again and again. They walk through blistering heat and rain, “shards, thundering against waterproofs,” heavy pounding rain, a drumroll without conclusion,” rain – furious and horizontal,” “sheets of grey falling from cloud to sea, a visible cycle of water.” Campgrounds being out of financial reach, they sleep “rough,” surviving on noodles and rice, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

The book is a meditation on homelessness (they learn to not reveal that fact to people), and fine writing about their experiences and about the natural world – dolphins, sea birds, and seals, cliffs, hedgerows, and weather – in this most beautiful area (Poldark country). I loved this hard-to-put-down memoir of courageous survival and growth.

Ireland Part Three – Last Days on the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle tips uphill from a busy marina on a large protected harbor with just a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. Once known for smugglers, Dingle is now popular with tourists for seafood, still-spoken Gaelic, and lively pubs with Irish music.

On our day there, we made wet trips (the storm hadn’t finished with us) to and from our guesthouse to see the town, to do laundry, and to purchase practical Irish wool hats (and a dear fisherman’s knit sweater for Baby brother). The Bob received a thorough bike shop repair of its front wheel. Cold wind and rain discouraged a walk to the harbor entrance, but Lady B and I visited the local aquarium. I’m always curious to see her take on things, what will puzzle her, what will engage – penguins being the highlight here.

The next morning we woke to glorious and welcome sunshine! The van dropped us at the beginning of Ventry Beach, with its miles of broad, hard-packed sand. The little people ran and ran, chasing each other, and pausing to examine beach discoveries. Narrow metal bridges lifted us out of a marshy area, and just before the trail headed inland, we stopped to eat our sandwiches.

After crossing the busy main road (road encounters are few but sometimes scary), we climbed uphill for the rest of the day, skirting the side of Eagle Mountain and approaching Slea Head. We negotiated a narrow, rutted path, climbing up and down and around rocks and over stiles (a tough go for the Bob’s handler). Contained by stone fences outlining a patchwork of fields on the hillside, sheep kept us company.

Sweet Baby walked and talked the whole seven miles, pretending to be teacher or nurse, helping and encouraging student or patient (her mom and me) over rocks, close to sheep, and informing us that the farmer had given permission for this trespass.

As we rose above the coast, the views grew ever more spectacular. We were so lucky with the sunshine, clouds hovered at the horizon, but the day stayed dry and clear, and we could see the beauty of this part of Ireland. Gorgeous vistas of sea, sky, and distant mountains spread out behind, beside, and in front of us, and, one after another, the largest Blasket Islands come dramatically into view.

The next day, our last on the Dingle Peninsula, we toured the Blasket Center – a stunning modern building with exhibits giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life. Long isolated from the rest of Ireland by wild ocean and distance, the culture and language of old Ireland survived on the Blaskets for far longer than on the mainland. In good weather you can visit the islands now, but residents had all left by the 1950s.

We walked another great beach in the afternoon and built a structure of stones to leave behind. We ended the day in the wrong pub for pickup, but another cozy, fire-warmed, inviting space.

I’m grateful for all these days and our intrepid family! You could spend much longer in this way, way west of Ireland where only the wild Atlantic lies beyond the shore. You could hope for the Camp to Inch route with clear skies, for Dingle days without rain and wind, and sail to the Blaskets on favorable seas. And for sure you could eat more delicious vegetable soup in pubs along the way (in any weather)!

Ireland Part Two – The Epic Bit

The morning brought gray skies, and we tucked rain gear and lunches into our packs – hopeful we wouldn’t need the former and sure we’d find a lovely setting for the latter.

The day’s route wasn’t long – by the end we’d walked just under eight miles – but the first hill was described as “steepy.” Steepy indeed! Straight up for an hour or so along a little used, narrow road, bordered by hedgerows full of crocosmia and tall shrubs of fuchsia. Blackberries slowed Sweet Baby, as she stopped to pick and eat. Beyond the hedgerows, dotted with grazing sheep, lay fields divided by stone fences.

Scattered raindrops and strengthening wind, beginning to shake the fuchsia blossoms, should have been a warning, but focused on the rigors of uphill, we reached the top before realizing the weather had turned.

Exposed, no longer protected by the hedgerows, rain and wind hit us. With a broad open valley ahead, lunch turned into a sandwich gobbled while donning extra layers. Trying to wrap plastic bags around packs, my hands quickly grew stiff with cold. Baby Brother and Sweet Baby loaded up into their packs, and to buffer the wind, their moms tucked blankets behind the dads’ heads.

One step in front of another, heads down, we spread out in smaller groups along the valley road, ruts rapidly turning to puddles. Bedraggled sheep regarded us stoically.

Water ran down our faces, as fat, soaking raindrops borne on a lashing wind drenched us. The Alaskans, Lady B in the Bob, soon pulled ahead, tiny dots disappearing into the distance. The Sweet Bride and I trudged along together. When I fretted about the trail boss bringing up the rear with his dad and Sweet Baby (long out of sight), she assured me, “don’t worry, he can handle it.”

The thin wool hiking skirt I wore above soggy leggings was soaked but still warm to my knees. But a layer of nylon pants added when we stopped, now funneled rain directly into my boots. Pushed by my hood and drenched, my hat kept rolling down and covering my eyes. None of our rain jackets provided any barrier to this deluge.

At first we skirted puddles, then just plowed through, stopping no option. (It must be so beautiful in that valley on a clear day, but now mist muffled the mountains to either side. I’d imagined a walk where I thought about my ancestors tending sheep or farms along this way long ago – instead I thought about their endurance!) Pages from the route booklet, quickly turning to pulp in my pocket, indicated a “forest” a little more than a mile ahead.

At the forest – just a small plantation of conifers – not the sheltering stand of trees we’d hoped for, we caught up with the Lady B and her family, brought to a stop after the Bob’s front tire exploded. Lady B allowed as how she could walk, and her dad could push the Bob on its back wheels.

And so she did. The wind lessened a little as we headed down, but the rain still poured. At a bend in the road, we crossed a river on a little bridge by a farm and headed up a narrow trail (tough going for the Bob), and suddenly we could make out the coastline of Dingle Bay!

But we rounded a bend and found the trail become a watercourse, rushing with strong current steeply downhill. Always intrepid, the Sweet Bride, plunged right through, and Mrs. Hughes as well – while lifting Lady B across. Mr. Carson came back to guide me.

And then we were down! The wind picked up again by the sea, and rain teemed as we crossed a road to see waves crashing on the sandy expanse of Inch Beach – and the welcome shelter of Sammy’s Pub and Restaurant.

Mr. Carson unloaded Baby Brother, stuffed a bar in his pocket, and ran back up the mountain to help the others (arriving just as they reached the washed out trail). The rest of us, thrilled to be out of the storm, commiserated about our new understanding of “soaked to the skin,” ate chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake from Sammy’s large pastry case, drank hot chocolate and pots of tea – and dripped. Mrs. Hughes discovered her waterproof backpack nicely held a puddle of water at the bottom. My cell phone in a small plastic bag stayed dry, but the big garbage bags on the packs proved worthless.

Unexpectedly, Peter Galvin showed up with a pile of dry towels – soon followed by the van for our ride to Dingle. It must be a spectacular drive from Inch to Dingle – wild ocean and layers of mountains in the distance – but invisible this day as the van’s windows fogged from our damp.

The landlady of the guesthouse in Dingle greeted me, disheveled guest, with understandable irritation, “One really shouldn’t be about in this weather,” but her showers were lovely and hot.

At dinner, out of the Dingle rain and warm in a busy pub, revisiting the day (the coldest he’d ever been according to the trail boss who broke mountain rules with a cotton shirt), I learned that Sweet Baby and Baby Brother, cozy in their packs, slept nearly all the way through the tempest. His mom told us Baby Brother sighed and said: “This is nice!” as she placed the protecting blanket. Sweet Baby, when she woke, chatted, made numerous unfillable requests to see her mom or to get down and walk, and cautioned Papa Jim on the steep downhills. Lady B slogged through puddles and mud – resolute.

It was a memorable day!

Ireland Part One – Arrival

My mother’s parents came separately from Ireland to America in the late 1800s (part of the huge emigration caused by the potato famine). My great-grandmother, Kate Barton (only 14 when she left), met and married Thomas Scanlon here. Although unknown to each other in Ireland, both came from the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, from hamlets near a short spit of land in Dingle Bay called Inch.

When I read about the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula, I began to dream of another family walk. Wonderful Ireland Walking Holidays, the company we used to walk on the Wicklow Way last year, offers a route along the Dingle Way (a 100-mile long-distance trail around the peninsula, linking footpaths, beach traverses, and small roads). Peter Galvin, the helpful owner of Wonderful Ireland, tailored a route for us, selecting portions negotiable by the Bob stroller.

We all arrived in Cork on the south coast of Ireland on the same blustery day – the Alaskans via Reykjavik, Dublin, and a tough, three-hour bus ride. The rest of us touched down at Heathrow and flew on to Cork.

By evening, as the first rain in Ireland for months settled over the city, we ate together at a pizza place in the old part of Cork. The reunited cousins were so glad to see one another, and Baby Brother spotted the first of many pieces of heavy equipment – luckily internationally available to please this two-year old. For a jet-lagged crew, spirits were remarkably high.

The morning brought an uproarious breakfast – if you are six and three and two, a repeated silly phrase brings noisy peals of laughter – in this case occasioned by Sweet Baby renaming her grandfather “Papa Jammy.” (So much fun to hear all that laughter.)

A perfect place to recover for a day, Cork is friendly and unpretentious. The historical part of the city sits on an island formed by two strands of the River Lee, and we walked a circle to see local landmarks. We learned about the history of Cork at a small museum, and at the 17th Century Elizabeth Fort, the youngest three were eager to scale the ramparts (but taken aback by realistic models of heads on pikes). We looked in at the English Market (full of local produce and meat), found a good playground and bookstore, and retreated from rain to a Mexican comfort dinner next to the hotel.

The next day in spite of valiant efforts, we missed our scheduled train from Cork to Tralee. As frequently happens in Ireland, helpful people (train staff in this case) pitched in to help with the baggage and direct us to an alternate train. On the train we ate lunches, played UNO, and saw the first of a multitude of sheep, many vacas, and an occasional crane truck or excavator. In Tralee, a van, pulling a trailer (suitcases, strollers, and backpacks in duffle bags) picked us up, and delivered us to Camp Village on the north coast of the peninsula.

For dinner, we walked uphill to Ashes pub – a 200-year old building welcoming with a real fireplace ablaze, cozy lighting, lots of locals, good beer and food. I asked our server about the names Barton and Scanlon, and she said, “Oh, you’re in Scanlonland around here!”

In the morning we would begin by walking up and over to cross the interior of the peninsula to Inch Beach!

Un Lieto Fine – Roma

In Rome, the Val d’Orcia heat persisted as we joined other tourists near famous sites: an impenetrable cluster around the Coliseum, mobs being shushed in the Pantheon, people packed around the Trevi Fountain. But the eternal sites are still rewarding.

One day we all rode the Hop-On Hop-Off sightseeing bus, and Lady Baby and her family pedaled around the Borghese Gardens in a “surrey” – a family bike. Another day they took a tour of the Coliseum geared to children, while Baby Brother sat happily on a comforter on our apartment’s tile floor. He played with his traveling toys, empty boxes, plastic bottles, and utensils scavenged from the kitchen. The day her parents toured the Borghese Gallery, Lady Baby learned the rudiments of chess from her Uncle Tu Tu and dissolved into private laughter with her cousin.

The Testaccio neighborhood might be the place to stay in Rome – quiet streets, few tourists, lots of interesting food, and a fine playground. On an early morning run, Mr. Carson discovered Testaccio’s Nuovo Mercato, and led us back later. Mrs. Hughes and I sifted through piles of riches in a stall selling vintage linens – white cotton tablecloths and pillowcases embroidered with images of teacups or countryside flowers, with and without lace – deciding who would like what.

Trips usually include the unexpected – but countless warnings predicted our first pickpocket experience: at the Barberini metro station, crazy busy on a Sunday evening, two girls oddly pressing close as we boarded the Metro, then Poppa Jim discovering an empty front pocket.

And that mishap led to another new experience – filing a police report in Rome (not in hopes of recovery, but perhaps insurance). We learned the appropriate agency was not the carabinieri but the polizia – where we were initially turned away from the station, told to sit on the curb and wait, and then finally admitted. A helpful officer took our information, covered a copy of her report with official stamps, and remarked: “You don’t expect us to do anything about this, do you?”

We retreated to Eataly, the enormous Italian food emporium where you can sit at one restaurant, gather food from any other, and eat together. Sweet Baby’s parents bought us dinner and groceries, and we called the credit card companies.

On our last day we set out early, stopped at a nearby “bio-café” for chocolate croissants, then followed the Trail Boss to the quiet neighborhood of Trastevere and the beautiful, 16th Century Villa Farnasina – few other visitors, windows open to the gardens, and walls covered with frescos by masters like Raphael.

The next morning we awakened at five a.m. to help the Alaskans depart for home. As the taxi waited in the early darkness, a sleepy Lady Baby stood still for a hug from each of us, then grabbed her mom and cried. So me too. The rest of us left Rome a few hours later.

It was such a privilege to be with all of these people I love for this long adventure – I am very grateful.

 

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A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.