Thoughts From Behind the Wheel

A long drive through the French countryside today gave me lots of opportunity to reflect on what this trip, now nearing an end, has taught me.  

 I can’t say I have had any earthshaking revelations about things like the meaning of life, but there have been moments that fall into the category of  things I already knew but appreciate more fully now.  Foremost is the fact that the only space for authentic life is the present.  I think travel helps with this realization because we are aware that we will not be in the same place tomorrow.  We need to see, feel, hear, taste everything now.  Tomorrow will bring new opportunities and yesterday offers the chance for reflection, but only today can actually be lived.

I am still learning basics from being in cultures foreign to me. My opinion about how they do things in other countries is absolutely irrelevant. In fact, I am irrelevant.  I am just passing through. It’s a good thing to practice not expecting to be seen as important.  Americans as a rule just don’t grow up with much of this perspective.

I have been forced to acknowledge a few things about myself too.  The first is that I really have to watch my tendency to be scatterbrained. Case in point, leaving my phone on a train last week.  The train was in the station, so I got up and walked off.  Should have turned around to check the seat.  Simple. But I was ready to move on to the next thing, so I did.  Bye bye phone.

I also noticed that I am really very stubborn and this gets in the way of thinking flexibly.  A case in point is that I decided I was going to do the entire seven weeks of this trip using only public transportation.  This was partly because I dread driving in unfamiliar cities, but mostly because it pushed my boundaries, and I liked the idea of doing that. It took a long time for me to have the simple thought that maybe it would be more enjoyable to rent a car for a few days and have a different kind of experience.  I don’t feel as if I didn’t succeed at the challenge I set for myself.  I did.  I could have hopped on a few more trains and buses.  I just chose not to because I had a better idea, one I almost didn’t let myself consider.

The other thing I have had to acknowledge as a not particularly stellar trait of mine is impatience.  I decided I wasn’t going to make hotel reservations for the four nights of this road trip because I wanted to stay flexible about what I would do each day.  I just assumed that around 4PM I would cruise into a cute little town and get a room.  Wow, was I wrong.  

The first day’s drive was long and I did end up where I thought I might. I had gone on some booking sites the day before to get a sense for what would be there, but when I got to the town I was really tired, and there was not a single hotel in sight.  I drove around for probably about forty minutes, even following a couple of signs for hotels and only succeeding in getting lost or finding them closed.  I was so angry I just wanted to blow out of the town and go someplace else, but my last few calm brain cells said “Solve your problem here.  Don’t go storming off.”  I went to a cafe with internet and found something, drove around for another fifteen minutes at least unable to find it, and finally—well, let’s just say eventually I calmed down, and no, I didn’t sleep in my car.

Today I swore I would make it easy on myself and just take the first thing I found in a much larger town, and the same thing happened.  The only two hotels I saw were both closed, and signs pointing to others all showed them as being on one-way streets that I couldn’t find from the direction I needed to go down, or up little alleys without car access at all.  I went through the same mental blowing of my stack, pulling over to see what other towns were nearby because I quickly had developed a hatred of this one.  That was obviously going to be a very bad idea—towns are few and far between in this part of France—so mature Laurel pointed out that I might want to try the neighborhood I could see just across the river.  I am now in a really nice hotel with a view of the Lot River from my balcony.  Here it is.

I didn’t like what i saw in myself either day, that “Oh, I give up” default position.  I know that is true about so many things—electronic devices spring to mind, or jar lids that won’t open, or phone holds that are too long.  Maybe I can change, maybe not, but at least I may be able to observe myself a little better now.

It’s interesting how these two qualities are mirror images. Isn’t stubbornness a kind of overpatience, and isn’t impatience a lack of stubbornness? It doesn’t seem as if they should both be present so strongly in the same person.  But as Walt Whitman said about himself, “I am large.  I contain multitudes.”

Things to work on, for certain, but I have also liked some things I have observed about myself.  For example, I notice I am growing more compassionate.  But this post is already too long, and to illustrate my compassion I won’t ask you to read any more.


Changing Seasons, Changing Plans

Tumultuous times in my head. I am almost six weeks into this travel adventure and it feels like a shakedown for my next chapter. Living on the move like this leads me every day to evaluate what still works for me, what I am done with, and what my priorities are. 

Yesterday was lovely in the ways a well chosen day in Europe is lovely. I took a day trip to Montreux and Vevey, two must-see spots on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to locals).  My first reaction to the lakefront promenade in Montreux was “I want to stay here forever!”  Things didn’t stay perfect, and I won’t explain because that’s not the point here.  I then went the short distance to Vevey, and thought the same thing.  Indeed Charlie Chaplin thought exactly that and lived his last 25 years in a villa above the town. He is buried nearby. 

The Montreux Promenade
Charlie Chaplin sculpture in Vevey

I hate to put this in writing, but I am noticing I am getting older. This was illustrated in Ljubljana a while back (it’s a blur now exactly how much time has passed), when after a full day tour, I practically fell out of the van from exhaustion and another younger couple on the tour went off to keep their day going with time in town. That used to be me. Today’s version of me is usually done by 4PM. In Montreux yesterday I planned to walk the 45 minutes to the castle of Chillon, but my hips and legs protested so loudly, (after 70 miles on foot in the last two weeks), that I turned around

I didn’t really know,  as I set out with enthusiasm yesterday morning, how drained I really am.  Add to this the sad news  yesterday that I have lost another age mate to cancer.  The day felt heavy with thoughts of her. Our relationship had been fraught with tension and conflict when we worked together decades ago now, and only resolved in the way it can when people have time to reflect and grow, appreciate and  reconnect.  I am sorry we didnt have longer to enjoy our genuine affection. We both became better people than we were then. 

Montreux and Vevey offered me all their charms, but I brought only part of myself to them yesterday. I think maybe I peaked ( no pun intended) with the Matterhorn, and now it is all denouement. But that’s not exactly right.  I’m feeling more of a zig, wnen I was zagging.  Now I need to figure out what that zig is calling me to do. 

When I decided to structure this trip around public transportation, I knew I would be staying in cities for the most part.  I used them as a base, and went out to see the natural beauty and smaller towns, but with the exception of Zermatt, since I left Montenegro it has been an urban experience overall.   And I’ll be blunt here: there is a sameness about cities, even charming European ones, more so now with global commercialism.  At this point I am feeling as if I don’t really need to see any more.  I know that may sound like a problem born of extreme privilege, and indeed I am very spoiled. That’s my reality, though, and thus my starting point in reevaluation.  

One of the pivotal insights in Hinduism, Samsara, is that we can’t get over cravings by ignoring them or willing them away.  We get over cravings by getting what we think we want, then discovering that we were wrong about what would make us truly happy. I have known for a long time that travel wouldn’t plug any holes in my psyche.  I wasn’t looking for thiat.  It was fun, and stimulating, providing new opportunities to learn and do new things. I still need life to be all that, but I recognize now that maybe I need to find new sources for continued reinvention

So was seven weeks on the road too long? Not at all. This has been an awesome, incredible six weeks, and even the disappointments have been instructive, but I won’t end up wishing it could have been longer. That is a first for me. I got exactly what I asked for, and  It had to be a bit more than I really wanted, because I couldn’t otherwise have had the insights that came with piling it on a little too thick.  

The good thing about being on my own is that insights can be acted upon. I have changed the plan once again for my last week, deciding that I really should visit Avignon and Perpignan when I am not tired of cities. It took a while to figure out how to make another plan work out because I had gotten my thinking locked in to using public transportation.  Then the simplest of thoughts occurred to me: I could rent a car and spend my remaining time in the countryside. What I really need now is a walk on a rural road, and vantage points  that are not rushing by as I travel by train or bus.  

So I cancelled everything for next week. Tomorrow, I take a train to Montpellier, where I will immediately rent a car and head out for a few days into the beautiful hill towns in that region of France. I really don’t know yet where exactly I will go, and I think I may try the experiment of not having a plan at all except to see and do what moves me as I go. I will slow down, rejuvenate, and then move on refreshed after a restorative dose of rural autumn and country air. 

Yes.  Sounds like a good way to keep the growth going. 


The Meaning of Mountains

As I write this I am about as high in the alps as one can get without mountaineering. I am at Gornergrat, the end of the cog railway going up, up, up from Zermatt, already high in the alps. 

I have been brought to tears twice already since arriving in Zermatt yesterday. The first time was when I saw the Matterhorn for the first time. Am I the only one who sometimes has to look away because the sight is just too much? Too beautiful, too powerful, too much of a bucket list suddenly fulfilled? That’s what it was like. I walked through Zermatt to a lovely park, just as the setting sun created a halo around the crooked shape of the mountain. And that’s when I choked up. “I did it,” I told myself. “I’m here!” It wasn’t just the mountain. It was the me that brought me to the mountain. The me that has made this whole trip happen. 

This morning I took the cog railway from Zermatt to Gornergrat. Old Laurel realized about halfway up, as my breath got shorter, that i really am “ not supposed to” go much above 6000 feet because of borderline asthma. (Did I give this a thought when settling on Switzerland for a week? No.) I thought about whether i should just enjoy the ride up to 10000 feet and right back down and call it a day, and decided wisely against a hike between two stations. But in one of those allegorical journeys over the course of about ten minutes, I went in my head from Old Laurel to New. From “I can’t” to “I can.” Heroine sets out on a journey. Heroine faces obstacle. Heroine conquers obstacle. Heroine returns in triumph. I am stronger than I think. 

I was a downright mountain goat about climbing even higher than the terminal  to the 360-degree viewpoint. The only people higher than I went were on the rocks behind me in this photo.

It was on the way up those last steps that I choked up again. Here is how my inner dialogue went:

Here you are, doing this. You made it happen. You are on top of the world in more ways than one. You remember those days when you struggled just to keep on living. When not turning the wheel of the car on a curve would have put an end to your problems. When you felt so small and invisible that you thought you might disappear altogether. And sometimes you wanted to. More than once you hid in a corner of your closet because the toxic air was just too much. And now, look at you, here on this mountain. You endured. You prevailed. And the life you have made now is your reward for it.”

I mean, who wouldn’t choke up?

I felt utterly restored and renewed, as fresh as the snow that had recently dusted the peak I was standing on. I have a new appreciation of the present, and a new perspective on my past. My story is not that of a victim but a persister. A winner. I was winning the battle even when I doubted it, because I was enough. I am more than up to whatever challenges this latest travel adventure brings.  After all, I am five weeks in and still thriving, still learning, still growing. And the journey will continue.

In the course of a few  days I have gone from being underwhelmed (commercialized, homogenized Italy) to speechless. In two more weeks I will be at sea level, switching into my cruising world.  I have a feeling what happened to me here on this mountain will stay with me in ways I have yet to discover. For now the air is crisp, the sun is bright, the colors are brilliant, and I am present in it.  Here is  a photo I took right after i finished drafting this post. Can you tell I am having a very, very good day? 

Before I took the train back, I stopped in a little chapel to light a candle. I love the idea of candles sending prayers heavenward, even if I am not a believer.  I prayed for everyone I love who is facing challeges, then expanded the prayer to everyone who is not at peace, realizing how astoundingly blessed I am to be exactly where I am right now. . 


Verona, Where Are You?

I visited Verona for the first time about thirty years ago and fell in love with everything about it. I went in November, when the residents had reclaimed the city, and saw for myself the rhythms of life there—the children  walking home from school, the passegiata, the cafes, the storefront displays magical in the golden light of evening.

Verona was the first place I truly appreciated the incredible creativity of Italy’s artisans—how shop after shop had unique designs for everything from handbags to kitchenware. I learned quickly that if you wanted something you needed to buy it right then because you wouldn’t see it anywhere else and you might not ever find the store again. I learned not to navigate by what was in the store window at the corner where I needed to turn, because the love of creative display meant that in the interim the window display quite possibly would have changed. 

This is my first time back in Verona, and I have been —sad to say—quite disappointed. The main shopping street is lined with the same stores you see everywhere—Stefanel, Luisa Spagnoli, Benetton, et. al.—displaying the same clothes on the same blasé looking mannequins I’ve seen everywhere. Not until I got to Bolzano yesterday on an overnight side trip did I see in a scattered handful of stores the kind of originality ( like the yellow boots in the photo below) that once was common everywhere in Italy.

While I was coming back on the train for one final day in Verona, I had a long talk with myself in which I pointed out how, when I was here before, everything was new to me. Even products I wasn’t remotely interested in fascinated me, and every street held new things to get excited about. I told myself if I judged Verona today only by stores on the main tourist streets , or by whether I had ever seen anything similar in the years since, it was my own fault if I didn’t enjoy myself. 

So, this afternoon I set off to wander off the tourist path, and lo and behold, it’s still a great little city! I found quiet neighborhoods, beautiful viewpoints, and every three or four blocks, a proprietor still selling original things from his or her own quirky shop. 

Forget Juliet’s (fake) balcony. There are streets with overhanging timbers and exposed stone walls that look as if they haven’t changed much in centuries.  There are places where the cobblestones are worn with age. Walking these streets in a light drizzle in late afternoon added to the sense that I was in another time, far removed from Hugo Boss and the Nike Store. 

I had a rejuvenating day when I least expected it. I am off to a bucket list destination tomorrow—Bergamo, a medieval town perched on a cliff, loaded with history, and ( based on descriptions) charm. Yesterday I was wondering whether it too would have become so homogenized it would engender boredom more than the wonder and newness I seek from travel. But I know now it doesn’t really matter. Though the Italy of artisan entrepreneurs may be harder to find these days, there are always back streets where surprises await.