Thursday, May 26, 2011

When I was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania, my earliest dreams of Europe were defined by Julie Andrews and “The Sound of Music.” For me, it was a place bathed in soft Technocolor, where the mountains were tall and the meadows were green, and where people of a rosy and cheerful disposition wore dirndls and lederhosen as they sang folksongs and ate strudel. Such, it seems, is the power of movies.

Once I grew up and fell into middle age, I finally visited the Europe of my imagination.  In London, I communed with the orphans and scoundrels of Dickens’ novels, and in Bath with the heroines of Jane Austen.  In Paris, I walked the damp streets and cafés once haunted by Hemingway, and in Italy I breathed in the Rome of Julius Ceasar, the Florence of Michelangelo, and the Venice of Casanova.  Along the way, I thought—more than once—that it was time to see the Salzburg I had longed for in my youth, but for five long years other scenes had beckoned.  Now, at last, it is before me, and I feel a familiar thrill of anticipation as I page through an itinerary that will soon be filled by Alpine lakes, medieval villages, and fairy tale castles. To quote Julie Andrews, these are a few of my favorite things.

It’s a Thursday evening in late spring and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Frankfurt, which will be the start of my 20 day trek through Germany and Austria. We depart the gate on time and as we taxi to the runway I find myself amused by the bilingual admonition against the use of portable electronic devices.  For weeks, I’ve been practicing the basics in German—ja and nein, bitte and danke sehr, guten morgen and auf wiedersehen—but the words “computer,” “laptop,” and “iPod” are all the same in German as they are in English, which makes for a comically disjointed translation.

Once in the air, we are served a late dinner on tiny plastic trays with impossibly tiny plastic utensils, and I listen in as two strangers behind me causally begin to flirt.  I’m sitting next to a socially inept engineer with a stack of blueprints and a bad head cold, but all things considered, things are blessedly uneventful and for this I feel fortunate.  I look out the window at the nighttime sky, where there are flashes of lightening arcing in the distance above the clouds.  As I pull the shade, close my eyes, and pray for whatever sleep may come while sitting upright on an airplane, I feel big and small in the world all at the same time, which is as it should be at the start of a great adventure.

Monday, May 31, 2010

It makes me smile to think that I can close my eyes and remember the moment exactly.

I made the decision to go back to Italy almost one year ago on a rainy afternoon in Paris, on a day that was—like so many others on that trip—unseasonably cold and damp. I was at the Musée d’Orsay, a stunning space on the banks of the Seine where 19th century art is displayed in an old railway station under a soaring ceiling of paned glass. I had been to the museum before, on a pilgrimage to see the Monets and Manets, the Van Goghs, Renoirs, and Cézannes. This time, I was drawn to a special exhibit called Voir l’Italie et Mourir, which in English means “See Italy and Die.”

At the time, that struck me as a strange motto for a country best known for its zest for life, but I was assured that the sentiment, with its “lofty hyperboles” intact, could be traced back to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a journal entry about the city of Naples he wrote in 1787. As I stood contemplating the round robin translation from von Goethe’s original German, to Italian, to French, and finally to English, I knew only that I understood its meaning, deeply and instinctively. I had been to Rome, Florence, and Venice the previous year and I could no more quarrel with the old adage “See Italy and Die” than the generations of other travelers who had been to the Colosseum, the Ponte Vecchio, and Piazza San Marco before me. As melodramatic as it might sound, once I had witnessed the beauty of Italy with my own eyes, and felt myself transformed by it, I knew that was possible for someone to breathe their last, happy and content in the memory of such a place.

As I wandered that day through rooms full of Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from the golden age of The Grand Tour—that venerable trek that aristocrats used to make across the European continent—I felt strangely distant from my surroundings. Here I was in Paris, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but all the while I yearned for the sea and the sunshine of Italy. Standing before a Friedrich Nerly painting of Venice in the moonlight, the sky breaking just above the column of St. Mark, I resolved, right then and there, to return.

After a few sodden weeks in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I came home to Vermont and settled back into the quiet routines of life. I watched the months slip by, as autumn leaves fell and were buried by blankets of soft, white snow. And in the darkest days of winter, I bought a fresh Italian guidebook, sent away for maps, finalized airline and hotel reservations, shopped for a new camera, and prayed that an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name Eyjafjallajökull, wouldn’t ground my best laid plans with its plumes of drifting ash.

Thankfully, it did not.

So now, with the arrival of lilacs and spring irises, it is time to pick up where I once left off, to fulfill a promise, to have an adventure.

It’s a Monday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Rome. I bide the time by recounting the plan for the next seventeen days in my head. Itineraries are complicated affairs, the endpoint of a tug of war between reality and desire. I had a long “wish list” for my return to Italy—one that included Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan and Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi and Padua, as well as a hike along the cliffs in the Cinque Terre, and a stroll through the villas and gardens that line the shores of Lake Como. Through a herculean effort at planning, I’ve managed to fit nearly everything in, including the timing of several key events—the Republic Day festivities in Rome on June 2nd, a major exhibit of paintings by Caravaggio at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a weekend antiques show in Arezzo, and the procession of the Holy Blood in Orvieto on Corpus Domini.

For all of that to happen in an order that works using public trains and buses, this particular Monday night happens to be Memorial Day. While others are grilling hamburgers at backyard picnics, I’m playing musical chairs at the airport, until flight 718 finally settles on Gate A20 and we begin to board.

I’m in seat 14A, a window seat next to a globe-trotting Sicilian grandmother named Josephine. She’s a charming woman whose conversation lives up to all that description implies. I find myself enjoying her company, and before long dinner is served and stowed, the cabin lights are dimmed, and passengers are queuing at the restrooms in preparation for bed.

I close my eyes in satisfaction, knowing that in the morning I’ll be a world away.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cursed.

Try as I might, that’s the word that’s repeating in my brain as I head off to Europe this year.  It’s my fourth solo trip.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, so the apprehension I feel seems odd and misplaced.  First there was London in the summer of 2006, then a wider swing through the UK in 2007 ending with a week in Paris, and then last year Italy. Fourteen days spent living la dolce vita in sweet, lovely Italy. This time it’s a return trip to France to explore parts of Normandy and the Alsace, followed by a journey north and east into Belgium and the Netherlands.  It all sounds wonderful on paper—perfect, really—so it’s a shame that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start.

I’m not entirely serious when I say that, of course, but there is something to it. Unwittingly, the dates I locked in last fall in order to use my frequent flyer points conflict with my nephew’s high school graduation. That’s guilt-inducing enough, but to make matters worse I’ve developed a lingering foot problem that makes walking distances rather like stepping on a nail (over and over), which should make climbing into German bunkers near Omaha Beach and, quite frankly, all of Mont-St-Michel, interesting.

Weeks before I leave, an outbreak of swine flu has me worried about restrictions on international travel. In a mad and quite possibly vain attempt to stay well, I start carrying a bottle of Purell with me everywhere I go. Then, with just days to go, I find out that United Mobile, the company that operates the SIM card on my cell phone, is suddenly out of business and has taken with it all of the money I recently added to my pre-paid account in preparation for my trip. And finally, hours before takeoff, comes the surprising news that my “window” seat on Lufthansa, booked seven months ago, is actually—and ironically—in a row without a window. When I make a mental tally of these things, I know it could be far worse. In this economy, I’m fortunate to be able to travel at all, and yet it feels like a premonition of things to come. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Literally.

So let’s just cut to the chase.  Let’s get to the bottom line.  I’m writing this as a retrospective at home in Vermont in mid-winter, so I might as well say that this is going to be the story of a road trip that is filled with rain, transportation detours and delays, more rain, scaffolding and other forms of obstruction, a broken camera lens, and still more rain.  Really, a ridiculous amount of rain.  So, let’s just thank God here and now for Parisian tartes and café cremes, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pancakes, before rewinding to the start of the story…

Amen.

It’s early on a Sunday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  This is what happens when you try to use years of accumulated points in your Dividend Miles account.  You get a tight connecting flight on a partner airline, although I suppose the upside—if I follow the Sarah Palin school of thought on foreign travel—is that I now get to include Germany on the list of countries that I’ve visited!

There is a general moan among the passengers on flight 427 when a short delay is announced for “cleaning and catering.”  Within minutes the crowd grows antsy and it is clear that there will be little patience for boarding etiquette.  Despite the usual invitation for families with small children to board first, everyone begins to press towards the door in an undifferentiated mass.  The Lufthansa employees seem to know it’s a losing battle, so they resort to social admonishment instead.  In a stern German accent, a man says: “I dit not know vee had so many children onboard dis flight!”

Filing in, though, I’m feeling a bit smug. We are told that the cabin is filled to capacity, every seat taken, but before leaving home I checked in online and was able to change my undesirable, windowless seat from 32K to 35A, a maneuver at the time that felt worthy of a fist pump.  But as I make my way down the aisle, I’m suddenly perplexed. Row 32 has a window, a perfectly fine window, identical in every way to every other window.  So much for the color-coded warning on Seat Guru’s floor plan.

As I settle into my new assignment, I find myself squeezed in next to a very large and already very sweaty woman.  She’s quiet and not at all inconsiderate, but between shoulder and knee, there’s truly no way to avoid full bodily contact.  It’s going to be a long and uncomfortable night.  I crane my neck to the right and for a moment stare wistfully at the nice-looking man sitting in the aisle seat of row 32, and the woman resting peacefully by the window next to him. Ah, fate, what have you done to me?

On the upside, we were scheduled to depart at 6:05 PM, and despite the all the nonsense over “cleaning and catering” it’s only 6:15 when we pull away from the gate, which when you think about it, isn’t bad at all.  But the delay has forced us far back in the queue for take-off.  It’s 7:00 by the time we lift into the air.  My one and a half hours of leeway in Frankfurt—an overly optimistic layover from the start—is shrinking into nothing…