The Sounds of Travel

It seems as if wherever I travel I can count on most if not all of these sounds:

church bells


the bell sound before a public announcement

the whoosh of subway cars entering and leaving stations

the clatter of dishes and silverware in restaurant kitchens

police sirens

elevator doors opening and closing

voices through the walls of hotel rooms

hawkers selling tours or junk

people talking on their phones

exhausted children crying

the cacophony of voices from a crowded bar

But there is one sound  unmistakably associated with travel for me.  There’s a particular way luggage zippers sound  it’s not like jeans or jackets, which are lighter and higher in tone, but a deeper, more resonant sound, almost like a sudden intake of breath.  When I am packing up, there are so many zippers on my bags and backpack that it seems like a repeated call of a bird. I guess it’s  the  song of the migrating traveler.  First that, then joyful flight to whatever is next and new.




Yesterday I visited Herculaneum, the other city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii. It’s much smaller, having been buried not by ash but by volcanic mud, which dries like concrete and makes excavation much more difficult.  It’s also smaller because it is under a suburb of Naples, and enlarging it would require tearing down the structures above it.

It’s a sobering place, especially for the heaps of human bones found in the boathouses along the old sea wall—people caught by toxic gas as they frantically tried to escape by boat—Or perhaps just made a futile attempt to hide.

The excavation goes down thirty meters or so below the current ground level of the city built over the centuries atop the cooled and solidified mud.  Since it has been a very wet spring, rain water has pooled, forming a temporary moat in the space between the restored site and the unexcavated mud rock.

As I stood looking at the bones and skulls protruding from the chalklike substance in each of the boathouses, at my back from the moat, I heard the mating calls of thousands of frogs that hopped and swam among the grasses of the moat.  Such a strong disconnect between the living and the dead, although, of course, the frogs have no idea of the significance and gravity of the place they inhabit.

As well it should be.  Their world is the water and the grasses.  Their sense of time does not go much beyond the desire to mate as soon as possible.  Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Italy—none of it matters, nor do these brightly clothed creatures (including me) watching them.

I was reminded of one of my favorite writers, naturalist Loren Eiseley, who once wrote of hearing frogs at night while camping. “Every spring in the wet meadows and ditches I hear a little shrilling chorus which sounds for all the world like an endlessly reiterated ‘We’re here, we’re here, we’re here.’”

That’s exactly what the frogs were singing at Herculaneum. Eiseley adds,  “I suspect that to some greater ear than ours, man’s optimistic pronouncements about his role and destiny may make a similar little ringing sound that travels a small way out into the night.”

The frogs have their song and I have my own, which sounds much like his.  The people whose bones we honor at Herculaneum, whose world we do our best to uncover, were once intensely here, making their calls into their world, to be noticed, cared about, chosen. Their desire to matter went out as wishes into the universe, as ours do.

“From the heights of a mountain, or a marsh at evening, [the frog song] blends, not too badly, with all the other sleepy voices that, in croaks or chirrups, are saying the same thing.”

Like the Ancient Romans. Like me. Like us.


The Persistence of Memory

I visited Florence yesterday for the first time in fourteen years. I so appreciate the opportunities life has given me to live there for five months at a time—twice!— once on sabbatical and once teaching in an education abroad program.  Still,  Florence has very mixed memories for me, since I was rocked by some of the lowest moments of my life there.

I hadn’t really been thinking about the significance of Florence in my life until I set eyes for the first time on the bus stop where I stood late on a freezing December night in 1999, pummeled by the worst news any parent can hear, news that even today I cannot bear to put down in words here.  On my second stay, I dealt with several days of news that pales by comparison, but is still awful to remember—the wildfire that seemed certain to destroy my home thousands of miles away. That time, I got luckier.

I am indeed blessed to have the life I have now, but sometimes, like yesterday, one gets ambushed with things that seem safely put away, but are never as far from bursting out again as we may think.  All we can do is acknowledge what we cannot change, and honor our memories, even the ones we most wish we did not have.



it ambushed me


The Laws of Travel, Part 3


Here is the final ( for now) installment of my observations about travel—the kind that never make the guide books.

—Looking at one’s phone on a busy street causes pile ups just as  it does while driving, although the matter is usually resolved with an apology rather than a hospital stay and lawsuit. 

—Animals don’t realize they live in a country. They have stayed out of a lot of trouble that way. 

—Nationalities have less to do with politeness than does setting. Paris gives the French a bad rap, but in truth it is a lot like New York or Rome. Nice is a lot like Mykonos or Sorrento, or tourist areas of San Diego (I think—hard for me to judge). Urbanization leads to indifference and impatience. Tourist areas lead to superficial pleasantry .  Outside those areas one has a better chance of authentic glimpses of people’s true personalities, and perceptions of you. 

—Some restaurants in Europe still don’t provide WiFi. My better self says “good for them.” My living-in-the-present self appreciates this because I actually do some high quality looking around and people watching .  The rest of me wishes they would join the modern era  because I want to check my mail.


The Laws of Travel, Part 2

Wine over lunch on my own makes me quite the travel philosopher.  Here’s some more things about travel you probably won’t see in guidebooks:

It is very hard not to see foreign currency as play money. Retail in France?  Oui, bien sur!  Retail at home?  Almost never. 

It is easy to spend more than you need to when you aren’t familiar with a place, because you are usually just so glad finally to find what you want.  

Your GI tract won’t always be happy, since it is more of a homebody than the rest of you.

When you address someone in a foreign language and you get a torrent of really fast words in reply, you probably sounded more fluent than you actually are. Flattering, but usually the reason you spoke was that you had a question, and you still don’t know the answer.

If when you say something in a foreign language, and you get a compliment about how well you  speak, that’s probably not what they’re really thinking. When people stop saying that, you are doing much better. 


The Laws of Travel, Part 1


Relaxing over lunch today, I started thinking about some of the axioms of travel I have picked up over the years  Here are a few:

The longer you stay somewhere the fewer photos you take

Despite how much you have packed, if you don’t unpack you will wear the same thing until you can’t stand it any more

It is much easier to find  a place for coffee when you are not looking for one. Likewise gelato.

It is amazing how much shorter return trips from unfamiliar places will seem.

There is a huge difference between what you need to bring and what you bring.

You will bring too much of some things and not enough of others. Unless you are Carol, a friend I met on a recent cruise, who brings next to nothing and manages just fine.

It is a learned skill not to see a nap as a waste of time when you are in a new place.

That’s about half what I came up with.  The rest next time.  Feel free to use the email link to tell me what I should add to the list!


Sent from my iPhone


Breathe, Sort of….

I am resting in my hotel room in Nice after a trip by train to Monte Carlo today to visit the enrichment manager for Silversea. I find bus and train stations more stressful than airports for some reason I can’t quite put a finger on (Fewer information kiosks? Poor signage? General grimness? I’m not sure. ) But how  utterly luxurious it was to travel somewhere without my suitcases, and with a ticket that worked not just for a specific train, like airlines do for planes, but for any train between Nice and Monte Carlo that day.  Easy?  Travel can be easy?  I had forgotten.

That appointment was the only thing I had to do at a specific time while in Nice, except go to the airport to pick up my partner, Dan, on Sunday night, when he joins me for our long-awaited cruise from Monte Carlo to Venice.  Until then,  there’s no need to watch the clock, or put together much in the way of a plan for my time.

My “breather,” as usual, includes work, since I am not quite done with all my lectures for the Baltic in July.  Here’s my plan:  work until late morning, play through lunchtime until  mid-afternoon, then work again until I don’t want to anymore, sometime in the evening. That’s about all the structure I need.

So tomorrow, I will jump into the roughly half-hour segment I need on Copenhagen, then go poke around Old Nice, then back to work on Copenhagen again. Two days, and that talk will ( I hope) be ready to go.  Then if I do the same for the next two days, Stockholm will be in the bag just as Dan arrives.  That would be perfect, since those  cities are the last two things I need to finish up for the Baltic.

Breathe then? Well, a little, but those really deep breaths, the ones that turn into happy sighs and melted limbs, will have to wait till the bags are packed up, transported, unpacked again, and the ship has set sail.


UPDATE:  Got all the work done. Drove myself pretty hard, but ready  for the Baltic!  Dan arrives this evening. Let the vacation begin!


Senior Brain


Alzheimer’s is the source of both the greatest fears and the most frequent jokes in my generation. Any time we forget something, we laugh (sort of) and claim brain fog. 

Yes, in my case, it’s true that my complete inability to remember numbers is as bad or worse than ever, and when I was really on top of things, I often remembered people’s names the first time around. Though my numbers thing I suspect really is a brain mis-wiring, the lessened ability to remember names is largely laziness on  my part.  I think if you actually listen when people introduce themselves, you are more than halfway to remembering, and if you repeat it to yourself while looking at the person, or play a name association game, you are up to way more than a 75% chance, which will rise to 100% if you repeat the above when you have to ask a second time.  

I am thinking senior brain has some positives to it as well. A few years back, when I was traveling in Italy and France, I found I couldn’t “code switch,” as linguists refer to it, meaning turn on the French in France and the Italian in Italy the way I used to do.  I used to be pretty good at both languages, being able to carry on fairly lengthy and complex conversations, and rarely having to work around words, idioms, or grammatical constructions I hadn’t learned yet. I thought those days were over, and I would be reduced from now on to asking for the bathroom or the bill and little more,  so it came as quite a surprise to me in Marseille yesterday that I was handling everything in French with ease. 

I don’t know what to attribute this to, but I think some of it might be that my brain has cleared out whatever it was that was keeping me from code switching. It used to be that a couple of glasses of wine could do the trick, but apparently aging has the same effect. Maybe it’s that I care a lot less about being perfect, and will settle simply for being understood. Maybe it’s that I am not trying to solve the world’s problems in a foreign language, but just want to deal with hotels, restaurants, and shops. And drink wine too.  Let’s not forget that!

Whatever the cause, I hope it lasts in both languages, and if it does, I am going to have so much fun, since I love the way it feels to sound words through the nose with a barely open mouth (French), or just let it rip from the chest and throat (Italian). Chissa’.  Je ne sais quoi.  It’s still rock and roll to me.  


Silver Linings

After warning people in my cruise lectures about the problems with pickpockets in Barcelona, I was a victim yesterday, for only the second time in almost two decades of European travel.  Despite how careful I am to hold my bag close and keep my hand on it, and bandolier it across my chest much of the time, the zipper style allowed someone to pull it down along the back side and reach in from behind.

Things like this can reveal a lot about ourselves to ourselves.  We may think we are one way and then stress reminds us we are not what we tell ourselves we are.  Or maybe we discover we actually are.  It’s an opportunity to learn, and for me that is the silver lining in everything.

Some things I have observed from this:

—I am a lot more confident than I used to be.  I didn’t doubt even momentarily that I could solve this  problem

—I never for one minute thought anything about my trip, or even the great day I had had, was ruined.

—It didn’t change my view of Barcelona.  I was careless, there was a thief around who took advantage.  The end.

—I benefited from all the “what if’s” I had thought through before I left—even some I had forgotten about.  I have been carrying around some travelers checks since the pre-ATM era, when that was simply what you did. I had thought about cashing them while there was still anyone alive who remembered what they were, but just always liked the feeling of that back up plan.  I also totally forgot about the couple of hundred dollar bills I had slipped in with them. Dollars from heaven!

—I don’t freak out any more about setbacks.  I just immediately go into the mode of sizing up the problem and what I need to do to get the solution underway.  It helps immensely that credit cards can be sent fairly quickly abroad. They will be overnighted at no expense to the customer, and the only delay can be with getting the mail through international customs.

And finally, the single biggest thing I realized in all this is how many friends I have who would help me out in a heartbeat.  Taking care of relationships, and treating people with respect and kindness is its own reward, and I really try to do that consistently. Still, the best part was feeling  that small army at my back.

So here is my advice:  wherever you travel, have a financial backup plan that will get you, without a debit or credit card, through the amount of time it will take to get replacements.  In Europe, that will be a week  or so as a safe bet. Prepaying as much as you can for  things like hotels and tours might be a plan, if you know for sure where you intend to be, as long as there won’t be penalties you can’t live with if your plans change.

Always get travel insurance. It is amazingly cheap, and policies usually include some way of helping you with cash for emergencies.  Plus, under some circumstances, you may be able to file a claim for any prepaid things you were unable to do.

I am thinking I might set up a separate emergency bank account with its own debit card that I would keep in the hotel safe with my passport and never carry in my wallet.  Sounds a lot better than stashing a week’s worth of cash in a handbag or luggage, or even in a hotel safe.

Put that on my list of things to do when I am home, but for now, it’s morning here, and it is time to go out and enjoy this beautiful city.




Things I Like About Dry Land

I arrived in Barcelona yesterday, and as I wandered around the city I felt myself pleasantly letting down from some of the stresses of my cruising experience. This is very far from “poor me,” and in fact is not even a complaint but simply an observation.  Whenever I am in a public space on the ship, I am “the lecturer,” and though the majority of people onboard wouldn’t recognize me (and a sizable number probably aren’t even aware there are lectures), it is likely that at any given time, someone is finding me of interest to observe. Though I guess being well behaved is pretty ingrained by now, it is still a hidden stressor.  Yesterday, there was no Cruise  Laurel to be, and it felt good.

Another wonderful thing is that it doesn’t matter what time it is. On a cruise one must always watch the clock when ashore, because the ship will indeed, and without hesitation, leave without you.  Yesterday, I just got to drift, taking as much time as I wanted with everything.

Yes, there will be a bill every time I eat or drink something, and no one will pick me up at the door to whisk me away to whatever I have planned for the day, but this is a nice trade off.

In my hotel, the breakfast room is one floor down from the lobby, and it must also be where the equipment for the elevator is located.  I kept hearing this sort of whooshing  motor noise, and I got momentarily confused, wondering, “is the ship leaving?”  Sounded just the same, but I had to smile, because the ship has already left, and I,  quite happily for now, am not on it.