29 May 2008

and more pictures




Home after my last major commitment here in Wellington. Here you have Patsy at krispy Kreme at Paddington, and me with Paddington at Paddington and then appreciating the rain in front of Big Ben. There's no place like home...

28 May 2008

of monuments and memorials

The mention of the words April and May have made me nauseous for months. Too many airplanes, too many days away from my new house and my family and friends, too many things that make me nervous. And now, they’re all behind me (well, nearly—there’s still a workshop on Thursday evening in Wellington that I have to be well prepared for). I’m more than 20 hours into my journey, two airplane dinners and two airplane breakfasts behind me, and the window next to me glowing dusky orange in the sunrise over the island nation I love so much. I’m nearly home.

On Monday, Patsy came to collect me from my Oxford B&B and took the train to the misery of the London rain. Of all the rains I’ve been through in Europe, London was the most like New Zealand rain in its combination of piercing drops and wicked wind. We could have done without that combination. To fortify us for our journey, I spied the perfect blend of Patsy’s Englishness and my Americanness—a Krispy Kreme doughnuts in Paddington station with a sculpture of the playful bear right in front. I treated Patsy to her first Krispy Kreme (which cost, like the rest of the things I ate/bought/slept in on this trip, three times more than I’m used to paying) and we stood moaning outside the shop. Thus calorie-laden, we hopped on the tube.

When we popped up again, we were inside a London snowglobe—all the sights ordered neatly around us as though designed for tourists like me. In one panoramic shot, I could get Big Ben and Parliament, the London Eye enormous Ferris wheel, and Westminster Abbey just around the corner. The rain pelting down didn’t have quite the charm of the glitter in a snowglobe, but it was authentic London weather nonetheless. We were off to Westminster Abbey. Here, Patsy treated me to an admission ticket (a ticket for a church—we won’t even talk about how much that cost!) and we headed out of the wet and into the crowded and magnificent abbey.

I have been inside an amazing variety of churches on this little trip. The gothic elegance of the Milan cathedral, the Baroque gilt of the Bergamo church, the ancient frescos of the old church in Lugano. In these Swiss and Italian churches, I have been awed by the scale, the grandeur; even the tiny church at the top of the hill near the closED casTle was ornamented and lovely, a doll’s house of a church. It wasn’t until I walked through the Litchfield Cathedral with Patsy’s husband Steve, though, that I realised that I had been missing a huge part of the experience. All the plaques in Italian on the walls and floors had been images rather than words, and seeing the words in English changed my entire relationship to them. Not just plaques with vague scratchings, but monuments to something—to people, dead and missed, and soldiers lost in battle. In Litchfield, I was moved in an entirely different way by the epithets, the tiny pieces of a memory of a life carved into stone. There was the woman who described her dead husband as a stern friend to those few who deserved his friendship. He sounded like a joy to have around, eh? And there were others with descriptions of perfect lost husbands and wives and beautifully-sad images of serious mourning. There was a statue of two children, curled up together—sleeping? dead?—that filled my eyes with tears. These walls were history pages sculpted in granite, marking love and death and mourning and status. In a little village church outside of Oxford, the floor was covered with tombstones, sometimes with an actual skull and crossbones and a warning to those reading the words of the “good man mouldering here” and the certain knowledge that “all ye shall follow him to the grave.” I thought that was just in pirate stories!

So it was that I was used to the twin gifts of magnificent sculpture and architecture along with touching epithets when we took our damp bodies into Westminster Abbey in the first place. And this is the grande dame of all such combinations. Goopy swirling carving, gilt everywhere, long and flowing praise and listing of accomplishments—these were CVs more than anything else. I was awed by the opulence, and also, I have to say, numbed by it.

But then, after passing the tombs of kings and queens, statesmen and soldiers, we came to the whole reason I went to the abbey in the first place, Poet’s corner (click here to see pics--no cameras inside) . There, on the floor, Chaucer’s name, and there was Milton, and there Shakespeare and Tennyson and Dickens. I got down on my hands and knees and traced their names with my fingers. I found I was suddenly crying, tears rolling down my cheeks—I tear up again at the memory of it. All these other people were buried here too, nobles, kings, just general rich folks. But it was the writers who captivated me. Those people I know; I’ve learnt from their stories and I’ve taught their words. Their characters have been my friends, their ideas on love and life have been my guides. Their images are my images, and there I was, close to them in this totally unexpected way. I cannot explain the power of it, cannot know why it was that the tombstones and memorials of these story writers would move me more than the tombstones and memorials of the history makers. But I know that after I touched these stones, the rest of the abbey was done for me. I wandered, reading nothing more, until we were back in the rain together, off to see Buckingham Palace.

And now I’m here at the Auckland airport, one tiny little flight and I’ll be home. I need a shower and a change of clothes, and I need to walk on the beach and stand in the sun. It’s sunny here, and warmer on this autumn day than any of the spring days I’ve had in the last two weeks. These two months are over. Now all that’s left is figuring out what the ripples of these months will do when they wash over into my regular life.


(Pics today random--more soon: the first two from Oxford, the other from the Litchfield cathedral)

25 May 2008

light rain



Would you believe that now it’s raining in England? True, it hasn’t rained here the entire time, but it has rained here or been grey on each day. My B&B outside of Oxford has wireless in the main house only, and I’m in the annex, so I stand outside in the chilly spring wind to talk to my family on skype. I haven’t thought before that I would need to determine how much rain is really too much on my screen, on my keyboard. This morning, it’s too much, and I have to wait for the hosts to open the curtains, the sign that I can go hover in the dining room and log on. Travel requires great flexibility.

I had thought at the beginning that I was coming to a conference and using the SOI workshop in Oxford to fund the conference. It turns out that I was coming to do a fantastic SOI workshop and using the conference as an excuse to be in this part of the world at this time. I have met fantastic people in this workshop and enjoyed it enormously. We have had exactly the kind of conversations I was wanting to have at the conference and I have been in very good company. This is yet another in long train of examples about how we just can’t know the outcome of any one of our choices. Three days ago I was wishing I hadn’t come on this trip—not because the conference didn’t have lovely moments, but because there weren’t 36 hours of travel worth of lovely moments. Today, I’m delighted I’ve come, because the package of conference plus workshop is easily enough to feel good about the travel. Tomorrow I’ll be both sad and over the top with joy to be going home. I working on holding lightly on to all of these things, knowing that I might look up and find them all different. So that’s me, lightly holding my computer in the Sunday morning drizzle of Oxford. Pictures and stories from a fantastic tour of Oxford and a lovely village nearby still to come.

(pictures of the famous Patsy in her garden and me finally getting my castle tour!)

23 May 2008

Costs

I am in a bus in Chaisso on the Italian/Swiss border. I have just passed from the Swiss side to the Italian side of town an I swear it looks different, grittier and more crowded. Even the police at the border (who waved us through, although everyone had their passports in their hand in response to something the bus driver called out in Italian) are scruffy on the Italian side and polished and stiff looking on the French side. National differences are funky anyway, but national differences on border towns even more interesting, I think. I could have made my career studying just that. I’m on my way to the airport to catch a plane to England. The conference is behind me, like Switzerland, fading into the distance. A Subject-Object Interview workshop is ahead of me. We’ll see how I go with it all.

My days here at the conference have made me think about opportunity costs. On the one hand, this has been a perfectly good way to spend three days. I have had interesting conversations more times than not. I have reconnected with a friend from grad school and met really interesting people. I have stayed in an old villa and eaten food so beautiful that it was hard to believe it was connected in any way to any kind of institution.

And I’m wrestling with regret, which I think of as one of the big toxic emotions. The conference was a decent way to spend three days, but (in the business jargon I have learnt to speak) I think the return on investment will be low and the opportunity costs are high. I have not in the past given lots of thought to the idea of opportunity costs, but for some reason, right now my mind is full of the idea. Why this focus on what I gave up in order to have what I have? Is it that I have missed out on two weeks of Carolyn and Jim’s last month? Is it that I have missed out on two weeks with my kids and family? Is it that I have spent oodles of money at a time when we own an entire house more than we want and we can’t seem to sell it? In any case, I’m noticing the way choices I make to do something good are choices I make NOT to do any number of other lovely things. That idea is making me unhappy right now.

My birthday is next week and perhaps that has made me more aware that each thing I do means limitless things I did not do. I have had dark and spinning moments over the last several days about that limitless set of things I cannot do. Three days with academics makes me wonder about my choice to not currently be an academic. Three days with American intellectuals makes me wonder about leaving the US. Three days travelling through beautiful towns in Italy makes me wonder why we picked New Zealand and not Europe. And so on. I spin about the children I will never have, the places I will never live, the jobs I will never do. And somehow as the regret floodgate opens around this trip to Europe to come to this conference, the rushing river of all the choices I’ve ever made washes over the island of my life, leaving me muddy and wet in the aftermath.

I have a life that is pretty fantastic. If I had known this was what 38 would have looked like, I’d have been in less terrible turmoil in my teens. But with all of that, there is a ticking of the clock that is somehow louder than I’ve heard it before. It is both a celebration—look where you are!—and also a warning—don’t let me get away from you. Choose wisely because you will not have this time back again.

The Buddhists think that attachment is the root of suffering. I am attached to notions of what else I could have done these weeks, and I am suffering because of that. I am attached to the idea that this conference was going to a chance for developmentalists to talk to one another, and I am suffering because the many different theoretical perspectives in the room meant we did a whole lot more wheel spinning than theory building. It has been what it is, and now it is over. I do not yet know how my life will be different because of my time here. I have made the decisions I have made to be at this place in my life at this time in my life. I spend most of my time with people I love doing work that I enjoy in the most beautiful place in the world. It seems almost inconceivable that I could harbour regrets about this, that I could be so spoiled or self indulgent as to look across the landscape of my life and think maybe there’s something to not feel good about. Ah, but this is the hidden majesty of the human brain, one of the pieces that separates us from other animals, that builds in us the ambition that has changed the shape of this planet forever. We hold to both now and then—and we have images of a real past, a possible different past, and all these multiple futures. I am noticing those possible futures crowd around me and be replaced by one actual present. The root of suffering is to be attached to alternate visions of what might have happened in the actual present. I am in Italy now, in suburbs that combine old frescoed buildings with ugly bland modern ones, with the mountains in the background and graffiti in the foreground. I am in Italy in its gritty fullness on a day clothed in a thick grey coat. I am a single English speaker on a bus of Italians travelling through suburbs. Where I have been and where I am going are contested and changing. Where I am is Italy. Vive ora.

21 May 2008

3000 words?




More pictures from Switzerland as I finish my conference (wish me luck today) and head to England.

Conference blues

It is still raining. Now it is Swiss rain and it falls on the Swiss lakes and the Swiss mountains, but I have to say that it is still just as grey, and just as wet.

I have had two days of this conference, the conference I’ve come around the world to attend. It is, alas, not what I had hoped it would be. I am working to find the positive in it. And the work isn’t so hard, really. I’m meeting interesting people and have gotten to reconnect with a friend from grad school. I’m having some conversations I don’t generally get to have, and I’m sleeping in a villa built just as the American Revolutionary War was begun. That’s pretty cool.

Pics today of Lake Lugano and a chocolate shop in Lugano town (which was CLOSED when I went back to buy chocolates!). Tomorrow on to England, the last country before home. Do you know that I've managed to be in three countries that all have different currencies and different electrical plugs? Disorientation for every reason...

18 May 2008

Castle in the clouds







Yesterday morning in Bergamo, I hiked to the top of the hill to see the old castle high above the town. It was quite a walk—longer than I had expected—and I had to be back to the hotel by 9.20 for Michael and the kids to call before their bedtime. I made it to the castle by 8.30, huffing and puffing from the climb. Alas, the castle opened at 9. I decided not to wait the 30 minutes and miss the call with the family, so trudged down again, disappointed.

Today, in Bellagio, I was not to be dissuaded from my pursuit of a real life (or, er, ruined) castle. The guide book had warned about the climb, and I had checked the hours, so I was ready to go. Up up up I went in the pouring rain. Clearly Italians don’t worry about lawsuits coming from falls on public thoroughfares, or maybe it’s just common sense that you take your life into your own hands when you climb up slippery ancient cobble stone paths.

The path was unmarked and totally empty. As I have had some history of tromping off briskly in the wrong direction on this trip, I had some moments of doubt about whether I was even headed toward anything good, but hey, there was not a soul to ask and it was just me and my calf muscles to consult about it, so up I went.

An aside about traveling alone. I know that there are lots of single people who travel alone routinely, and who are used to the rhythms and loveliness and pain of solo travel. I, who have been with Michael since I was 17, have little experience of what it’s like to backpack alone through Europe or to sit alone at a nice restaurant or to sleep in single beds. I’ve been a mom these last 10 years, and so I tend to know more about what it’s like to ask for children’s menus and mediate arguments about who is pushing whom in the bed next to me. This is a different kind of experience.

I love travelling with Michael and I love travelling with the whole family (and even with other peoples’ families as we discovered with Carolyn and Jim on the South Island). But it turns out I also love travelling alone. I am getting to understand my rhythms, understand exactly what I want and how I like to do things. The thing I like best is that I can be a little bolder, a little more experimental, because it won’t hurt anyone if I really mess up. I can get lost for longer, can turn down streets because they’re interesting and not because I think I know where I’m going, and can change on a dime, deciding to hop on that ferry and not the next one because actually I’m really wet and cold and who wants to walk another block in this little village anyway.

It was because I was alone that I could go and visit the castle. The climb was longer and steeper than I had imagined, and I, who had layered up fearing the cold, was shedding layers in the cold rain half way to the top. The path wove through trees and, more rarely, open spaces with knee high grasses that smelled fresh and green and sometimes faintly of onions. The only sounds were the soft patter of the rain on the leaves and the harder staccato thump of rain on my new umbrella.

Nearly at the top (I hoped), I stopped in at a tiny pottery shop and agonized over whether to buy myself a piece for my birthday. I chatted with the potter in her halting English and decided to buy a present for my mother instead (I think she’ll have a hard time returning this one!). As I was leaving, the potter made a dreadful announcement, “The castle is closed today” (pronouncing every letter, casTle and closED).

“It’s closed?” I asked in disbelief. I had checked the hours! I had walked all the way here!

“There is no roof and so it is closed in the rain so that people do not get wet.”

I looked down at me, dripping quietly on the cobblestone path. Very considerate of the Italian castle minders to not want me to get wet. I asked if I could get closer than this, could get a glimpse of it. Yes, she told me, I could get to the gate. So off I went to the closED casTle.

At nearly the top of the hill I stopped to look at a tiny cemetery, outside a tiny church. Here, so high on the hill, very few people lived or worshiped or died. Chilly again after the shop, I paused in the tiny vestibule to rerobe, then pushed open the door. The church smelt of furniture polish and burning candles. It was dark and lovely, much more ornate than I’d have guessed, with only tiny windows and no lights. I stood there, in this church built in the 1440s, decades before Columbus sailed to America, generations before Cook sailed around the world. People had worshiped and prayed and been christened, married, and mourned in this tiny space for half a millennium. Zowie.

I wandered up the hill to see some part of the ruins of the castle and to imagine the castle dwellers coming down these cobblestone paths on a Sunday morning and praying at this chapel (although the ancient castle predated the old chapel by at least 500 years--who knew how long it was occupied) .

I got to the top and there it was, ruined castle. I walked through the ghost town of a ticket centre: closed cafĂ©, closed gift shop, only an orange cat watching me from the ticket booth. I passed through the deserted entry way, stepping over a couple of little children’s toys left behind—a toy car, a brightly coloured toy lizard—and made my way to the castle.

Talk about alone. The castle and I were shrouded in mist together in the often-pouring rain. I wandered along the outside of it, scrambling up the hill through high grasses that soaked my shoes and pants all the way past the knee. I tried to take pictures of the swirling clouds over the lake far below, but ended up with just grey fog. I walked through a stand of young olive trees and old palm trees. What was planted here a thousand years ago when the castle was built? I clambered up mounds to peer through the slits in the castle walls to look at the inside, crumbled thick stone walls climbing with ivy. I considered scaling the gate and getting inside, and pondered a week in Italian jails.

My dad tells stories of castles in Ireland and I’ve written a children’s book that’s set in a ghostly castle, but this was my first time with my hands on castle rock, my body taking in the scale and shape of them (much smaller than I’d have guessed, with far thicker walls). Finally sated, I took my soaking self and squishing shoes, and made my way back to the gate. There, eerily, I noticed that one of the children’s toys—the plastic lizard—was now gone. I called out to see if there was someone there, someone I might bribe to open the gate, but no one. Just slightly nervous now, I walked down the silent path towards the village, feeling eyes watching me from somewhere just out of sight.

On the way down I passed several groups of North Americans, and I gave them the bad news, each had come too far to go back, so up they went to the closED casTle. I warned them that I thought someone was up there, but that I hadn’t seen that person, and I made my way down down down the slippery hill.

And then, rounding a bend, I saw it, the plastic lizard right there in my path. I reached down to pick it up, and just as my fingers were about to grab it, it raced away. I squealed outloud in the pouring Italian rain, me and my ghostly non-plastic lizard. I slipped and slid down the cobblestone path laughing at myself the whole way down.

(Grey pictures today: of the little village of Varenna and the castle at the top of the hill shrouded in mist; the chapel, the castle, the lovely streets of Bellagio, a nearby fishing village that has been in constant use since Roman times, and, for good measure, my lizard friend.)

17 May 2008

Bergamo

On the bus from Lucco to Bellagio, I caught a glimpse of my reflection when the careening bus narrowly missed a grove of trees rather than narrowly missing another car, its usual skill. The reflection I saw was beaming. I think I’ve had that stupid look on my face since I got off the plane in Milan. I keep saying, I’m in ITALY.

Thursday afternoon, after a day in Milan, I arrived in Bergamo Basso (the lower town, bigger and less lovely) and took a bus to the funicular station to the lovely Bergamo Alta where I’d be staying. I am trying so hard to be the independent traveller and not rely on all these semi-bilingual strangers. So I watched carefully until we got to the funicular station, and I struggled to get my bags off the bus and watched it drive away. I had carried a too-heavy backpack too far on Thursday, and now I’m in silly amounts of pain and am walking a little like my grandmother just after her hip was replaced. So I gimped up to the station, to see a sign in Italian that looked suspiciously like it said that the funicular was closed starting in May. There were folks in there, painting and talking to one another. So I called out. “Excuse!”

“Is closed,” one of the guys told me.

“How do I get to the top?”

“You have to take a bus,” he said, heading out of the station and toward me.

“I just took a bus,” I told him, sighing. “I really wanted to take the funicular.”

He looked at the fellow he was with (who now joined us outside the station), and they talked quickly in Italian for a minute before gesturing to me. “We have to do a test run,” he said. “You want to come with us?” I beamed at him (did I mention that I’m doing that a lot these days?) and followed. He carried my bag to the funicular, and banged around a little on it and then the thing started to move. He noticed something was wrong, we stopped again. More banging, and we were off, up up up to Bergamo Alta, the high, old city.

I was utterly charmed by my test ride and the fellows who offered it, so I was feeling most cheerful when I got out of the station. I stopped short, because it seemed that I had wandered onto a movie scene. I actually swore outloud with amazement, surprising the already-surprised people who had watched me get off of a closed funicular. I was standing in the most beautiful, most perfect town square I’d ever seen. From the cobblestone streets to the high stone buildings to the sweet cafes everywhere. I have never been anywhere like it, and it makes me happier just knowing that it exists in the world.

I checked into my little hotel (coping with the frustration that this little two star place was the same price as the swank 4 star place in Milan). Then I was off, wandering streets little changed in the last four hundred years. The cobblestone streets were just barely wide enough for a single car to go by a single pedestrian. If I had been with a friend, we could easily have held hands and spanned the street (probably even Aidan and I could have done this). In the relatively monotone stucco and rock buildings, there were patches of bright flowers hanging from balconies. A woman shaking out a blue rug from a 3rd floor window made me think of women for centuries shaking out their rugs (and worse) and surprising unsuspecting people below.

I ate alone, my first dinner in Italy, sitting in a curved brick restaurant, eating the vegetarian choice of the fellow who waited on me (and who was maybe the cook and/or the owner). He brought me a big platter of grilled vegetables, arranged in wheel spokes with a lovely centre half-sphere of soft polenta and a big piece of grilled and melty cheese. I sat alone in this room (very early for dinner at just 7pm—the first customer of the night) and drank my Italian red wine (which I wouldn’t have ordered, but he looked so stunned and disappointed when I said only water) and savoured the mix of textures and flavours—smoky and salty and creamy good. There was no conversation, not even a couple at the next table to distract me, so I sat and felt each of my taste buds alive, each moment a taste of Italy on my tongue. I sometimes closed my eyes to heighten the sensation, and once, when I opened them again, there were two women staring through the window at me. I laughed out loud and they laughed too—all of us caught in the enjoyment of my platter of grilled loveliness.

And now that town is behind me and I’m here in the pouring rain in Bellagio, a magnificent little village on the banks of Lake Como. More from here tonight. Bon appetito.

(All pictures from Bergamo except the one on the water from Bellagio. The town square, the view from my room, the restaurant where I ate dinner, and other town shots. None of the pictures do anything any justice because the weather is so grey. But they give at least a tiny sense of things…)








Milano





I am on the top floor of a two-level train, speeding away through Milan’s suburbs on my way to Bergamo, where I may stay two nights. My feet are sore and throbbing from the miles of walking through the muggy streets of Milan today.

Some of the miles were intentional, but many of them were because I spent so much of my time quickly lost and slowly getting found again. I had a harder time in Milan than I do in most places (and let's face it, I'm no directional genius ordinarily), because there’s no orienting feature, no giant skyscraper, no harbour, no grand avenues bordering a central park. Instead it is a criss-cross of streets that bend in every direction and often change names, just to keep things interesting. I knew that Venice was a place where people spend most of their time lost, but I didn’t know that Milan would be that way too.

Still, I did the three things I set out to do. I visited the cathedral, lit a candle and prayed for those who are sick or hurting, and climbed the steps to the roof. Being on the roof amongst the hundreds of spires and statues was like climbing across an enormous wedding dress, lacy marble carved so delicately you could almost see it sway in the wind. I was struck by the gratuitous beauty up there on the roof, in this, the 4th largest cathedral in the world (and largest Catholic church). I balanced on marble roof tiles high above the city, and marvelled at the carving there, little statues which would never be visible to anyone except those who climbed the 165 narrow stone stairs. What were the craftsmen thinking when they carved the bas relief stories onto roof supports? How do you get the energy to carefully sculpt a statue that peers out over the city far below it? What was their rationale for investing their time and resources in this way? I, having just paid for a renovation myself, would no more decorate the roof than I would hire artists to paint the underside of the house. But I didn’t spring for the gargoyle downspouts, either.

Just as powerful but utterly different was another marble carving—this one at the Castello Sforzesco. In the interesting museum that fills the Ducal rooms, there is the last statue Michelangelo ever carved, the one he was carving when he died. It’s a pieta, the standing Madonna holding a dead Jesus. But it’s not at all finished. Out of a lovely carved block of marble stretch Jesus’ perfect legs, the marble rippling like flesh. But as your eye moves higher, the carving is more and more rough, until the faces show as indications of what Michelangelo hoped he’d carve. You see the artist’s mind at work, too. Christ has a third arm, delicately carved and perfect except for the fact that it’s just barely attached to his body and was clearly going to be removed—maybe next week. The replacement arm, hanging at an entirely different angle, roughly dangles behind. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, and brought the artist into the room in a way that no finished carving every could. I could see the thousands of chisel marks in the stone, almost hear the process of chipping away at layer after layer of marble. [Oh, and now, on my train, my first glimpse of Alps in the grey distance—yea!] I could almost hear him sigh at the end of the day, putting down his tools and complaining that his eyes weren’t what they used to be, his imagination not as sharp as it had been. And then he shuffled off to bed, expecting to tap off that extra arm in the morning, define a little of the Virgin’s left leg. Instead, hundreds of years later I stood in an empty room in a nearly-empty Castello, and felt Michelangelo with me, right there in the room. I stayed there and watched him a long, long time.

And now that’s behind me, and the suburbs have given way to fields. The Italian version of the McMansion pops up now and again as scars in these fields, but so too ancient brick buildings, marking their place in the swath of green these last 500 years. Tonight I’ll catch my first glimpse of this walled medieval city, and tomorrow, in the rain, I’ll walk it. I feel both guilty and delighted that my jetlag doesn’t seem to be much of a problem, and mostly my mouth waters at the prospect of my first real Italian dinner. Vive Italia!

15 May 2008

Anchors away

It is amazing to watch the anchors disappear on a long haul flying day like this. I woke up 15 minutes ago in this bright cabin and was totally disoriented: what does the light mean? Are they about to serve breakfast? Did I sleep away the flight? Then, a glance at my watch. Twelve. Twelve what? Noon or midnight? And where was it noon or midnight? My watch was set to California time, although I’m not even sure why. I have no clue about how California time relates to NZ time or to UK time, the two ends of this airplane ride.

And suddenly it’s all relative, all absurd. Time doesn’t mean anything at all. On the ground, where people are going about their days, there are kids to pick up from school, reports to write, operations to have and recover from. Here, in this enormous flying tube, there is only an odd rhythm of dinner and breakfast, dinner sometimes at midnight, sometimes at 5pm. At breakfast (when? Yesterday? What day was that?), the steward offered my seatmate cognac in her coffee because it was 1 in the afternoon. This most recent meal, a dinner, the stewardess was surprised that I didn’t want a drink. A quick glance at my watch told me it was closer to ten am than dinner time. Ten am where?

Hours, if you can count them, are stable. I have been traveling, on and off airplanes, for nearly 25 hours now. That makes me still seven or more hours from my destination. We’ll land in Heathrow and I’ll have to collect my bags and clear customs (because there’s an issue with which terminal I’m arriving into and departing from). Then I’ll board one more plane to Italy. One more two-hour flight across the English channel and south. Nothing, really, compared to what’s come before it, only my tolerance is seriously low.

My body, unanchored in time or space, has also been unanchored in health. I had a lovely first dinner in my premium economy upgrade, chatting with the really interesting woman next to me. Then, an hour into my first sleep (1 am in New Zealand, long behind us in the Pacific), I woke shaking in a cold sweat, light headed and with waves of nausea. I was instantly back at Ocean Road six months ago with a stomach flu, caring for Naomi and Michael who threw up every hour until they stopped throwing up just as I began. Was this a cruel joke, a stomach flu at the beginning of 13 days in Europe, at the beginning of 35 hours in transit? I tried (unsuccessfully) not to throw up as I fixated on what I would do: would they let me back on the flight after LA? Would I have to catch a flight home? What did my travelers insurance cover? I fell into a fitful sleep, shaking and miserable.

I woke 4 hours later, still woobly but no longer particularly nauseas. Instead, I was sneezing constantly, my nose running like a train. I vastly prefer this to the stomach flu, and so spent the first several hours relishing each sneeze (and there was lots to relish). Now, though, 18 hours into the sneezing, my nose is sore and red, and I am ashamed to say that I’m thinking about what a terrible sight I’ll seem in Milan. I don’t think the Milanese have sniffles and sneezes; colds are seriously out this season.

I decided when I booked these tickets that I would fly around the world. So I headed out east over the Pacific and landed in LA. Next I’ll fly to Heathrow and then Milan, then Milan back to Heathrow after the conference. After the workshop in Oxford, I’ll head out of Heathrow towards home, still traveling east. I’ll have a layover in Hong Kong, and then back to Auckland. A circle. This idea appealed to me because I’ve never done it before, and because (geeze, more petty thinking right here in one blog) if you fly through the US—even if you don’t stop over there—you get twice the bag allowance. I didn’t need two bags on the way to Europe (in fact, I have packed the smallest bag ever), but I want to reserve the possibility that I’ll need two bags on the way out!

Transiting through LA, though, turns out to be something I’ll work hard not to do again. From the plane they directed us away from the long and irritating customs lines where foreigners get their fingerprints taken and their irises mapped like high-tech criminals. We went instead into a holding “sterile” gate, where the customs agents checked our papers and told us to have a seat. The shops and food and sunshine—limited though they may be at LAX—were separated from us by a frosted glass wall. I asked how to get to the airport proper (I needed to buy a book). “You can’t get there from here,” the attendant told me, with a totally straight face.

“I’m sure there’s a way, I assured her. I can see it. Do I have to clear regular customs in order to make it happen?”

“It can’t happen. It’s impossible,” she asserted. “Next customer.”

And so I sat, trapped in a little room and suddenly craving the luxury of an airport I had always thought of as a pit. The food places were terrible, true, but they sold food; I had thrown up my dinner and declined breakfast. The shopping was over-priced and the service was rude last time I was there, but the guide book to Italy I needed was right through that glass wall, right over there. It is unanchoring beyond belief to wish to go to LAX.

Unanchored is what I am. It is 7:30 Wednesday, on a cold winter’s evening, in New Zealand. My children are eating dinner and getting ready for bed. It is 9:30 Wednesday, on a warm spring morning, in Milan. Fashionable Italians are drinking cappuccino in the sunshine. And I am just one rumpled, sneezing ex-pat American about to eat breakfast. Let the adventure begin?

(ps posting this from Milan, so I must have made it all the way. Ciao!)

08 May 2008

What it is



So we didn’t come to New Zealand for the money. I took a pay cut of about 75% (true, I only work 40% time) and gave up my lovely and beautifully-paid sideline consultancy. Michael got a decent but not enormous pay raise. The house we bought was way less than the house we sold in DC, but we quickly solved that issue by buying a second house, pulling off the roof, and pouring cash into the top.

And now, trying to sell the first house, we’ve hit the global housing crisis and watched the value of that house—like the value of all the other houses in the world, really—plunge. We got our first offer on the old house today—for as much less than we paid for it as our very first house cost (admittedly, the first house was pretty inexpensive for a house in the US, but still…). Now is the time for breathing.

The bid on the house today was a punch in the gut, a little piece of misery in an otherwise lovely day. I cracked a work problem I’ve been fussing over for weeks, had a fantastic meeting with my boss, had coffee with a lovely friend, worked on a leadership development programme that could make a real difference in a vital sector of this country I love. Then, finding out how much money we stand to lose made me dizzy and nauseous. My head spun with tragic implications. Airfares are rising; trips to family in the US could get excruciatingly expensive. The loss from the old house will have to be added to the mortgage on the current house which is already suffering from the hideously high interest rates here. Monthly bills are going to be higher than monthly income unless I get plenty of consulting work. What happened to simplifying our lives? What happened to a less expensive lifestyle that would let me breathe a little? My head spins with self-recriminations. Why did I buy that house in the first place? How is it that I could have bought this second house before off-loading the first one? What was I thinking?!? Ah, the misery, the anguish, the horror of it all.

And then I breathe and look out into the winter-dark evening. This week at least 20,000 people were killed in a storm that their government could have helped many survive. I have dear friends with loved ones battling cancer. We’ve just marked the birthday of my cousin who died 16 years ago as a college student. She'd be in her 30s now. How do you measure tragedy? How do you hold on to perspective in the world?

My life is fantastic. I have beautiful and healthy children who laugh and play and read books and cuddle with me. I have a fantastic husband who would support me to do anything—even buy a fixer-upper on the sea. I have amazing friends who chip in and hang out and sing songs with me. I love my job, my colleagues, even my commute. I have a new house that looks at the sea from every room, where I watch shooting stars from my bed in the middle of the night. I came home from work tonight to find that some unknown person had fixed the steps to the front porch--and my life is so filled with wonderful people that I can't even guess which one it was. I am as lucky a woman as I could ever imagine, so much happier with my life than I would once have considered even a possibility. Where does that factor into the equation that says I’m a moron for buying that house in the first place?

We are in the place where we are. My house is worth what it is now worth. My financial situation is as it is. The anguish I feel about decisions behind me and money lost are all wheel spinning, life diminishing. I want to live in a world of gratitude and abundance. Today I found out that someone I don’t know feels joy reading these words. I helped a friend deal with a bad situation. I walked on the beach with Aidan. Next week I’ll go to Milan and to Switzerland. The week after that I’ll teach a class in Oxford. I’ll learn new things, meet new people, see new places. My life is what it is, and there is joy all around.

06 May 2008

Even the not-better days are good...





Ok, so Saturday was the better day. But Sunday was pretty good too. The weather was cold and grey. (An aside about weather predictions: Sunday morning, as the sky was covered in high cloud, the weather service said “sunny all day.” Then, at the end of a totally cloudy day, the weather service said Sunday would be “extensive high cloud, little sun.” I could be a weather person too if I got to predict AFTER the day was over…). But we headed over Takaka hill to be both stunned by the views of different ranges of snow-capped mountains in every direction and dizzied by the endless switchbacks.

We visited the clearest springs in the world and I itched to get my lips to the water (but one of the reasons they’re the clearest is because they won’t let you put anything near the water). Michael thought he was in a fairy garden. We had lunch at a funky hippy place where the building was chilly but the veggie curry was hot and delicious. But probably the best part of the day was in the afternoon when we followed Keith’s directions and made our way to “the Grove,” an other-worldly stand of rata trees growing around water-worn limestone formations. Most of New Zealand’s grandness is in the scale of it all—both in the massive landscapes and the tiny population. Here was another scale issue, but all of the pieces were somehow different. This was a grove that covered a tiny piece of a hill which was otherwise taken up by pasture land, cows and orchards all around. When we walked in, Aidan—already in a pissy mood—was sorely disappointed. “Why are we coming to see a grove of stupid old trees, anyway?” And five minutes later, climbing on the rocks in the secret darkness of the grove, he was laughing and delighted. We all were, really.

Here there were layers of time, all marked out in landscape. In these rocks, high on a clifface, we found fossils layered in the limestone. We saw nikau palms standing tall and soldier-straight mixed with rata trees looping their roots dozens of feet down into the ground from their perch high on crumbling boulders. We walked through a crevice just wide enough for us to move through, to come to a viewing platform that overlooked an expanse of field and sea and snow-covered mountain. The kids, who had been captivated by the sea shell fossils in the rocks, were now taken with calling “Moooo!” to the cows in the fields below us, and interpreting the moos that came back in return.

We were fully engaged in the magic of evolution, the long-term movement of earth and sea and rock. The ghost of water was with us always: in a scallop shell imprinted forever in rocks 20 minutes from the sea and 20 meters above it; in canyons and crevices carved into rock, liquid shadows of a former presence, now held still in natural sculpture, an abstract human form here, a carefully sculpted face there.

There is genius in the trees that start high in the air and reach their roots down down down. There is mystery in rocks that are wide and level at their top, creating a perfect platform for trees and plants, and then tapering down to impossibly skinny bases with swiss-cheese holes worn in to accentuate the effect. All that was missing in this eerie scene was the telltale rumble of the approaching dinosaur, the dinner-plate-sized spiders, the unexpectedly striking pythons. But no, this is New Zealand, where you get spooky and lovely landscapes without the attachment of dangerous animals or other unexpectedly dangerous things (although here, the rushing water and moving earth are the real dangers rather than any creature that roams there).

From the dark quiet of the Grove we went to the open magnificence of the beach at Golden Bay. Even on a chilly grey day, the sands sparkled gold and the ring of mountains across the harbour was breathtaking. Perhaps just as breathtaking was the way the five children all managed to get along on this holiday, eating their meals and feeling carsick over the mountains and tramping through the woods together. And now, after a windy and rolling passage in the ferry, we are back home to the spectacular land that is home for us. And we’ve learnt that while we don’t have snow-capped mountains to look at from our beach (only because they’re not quite high or south enough for snow), we do have a huge and curly dog to chase a ball. That is another form of magnificence, another piece of my delight. Most days are the better days here.

03 May 2008

Perfection, everywhere


I am soaking in the quiet in our little chalet, the light falling over the glimpse of the bay and the mountains in the distance. The sky is a shade of shimmering pink I’ve only seen in evening gowns. The children have gone down to feed the horses and Michael and I are sitting with only the hum of the heater for company. Bliss.

It has been one of those days that defies the vocabulary. This sort of day causes poets to turn to metaphors in order to have words that approach the experience.

We got up in the frosty air to catch a water taxi into the Abel Tasman National Park. This park, on the north tip of the South Island, is famous for its protected harbours and golden sands that shine up from crystal waters. In the pictures we’ve seen, kayakers look like they’re levitating over the sand because the water disappears so entirely. The day before we had asked at the DoC office whether the weather would be good: “Grey and showers,” the fellow told us. “Sunday is the better day.” Then we asked about the weather at the water taxi place, “Sunny tomorrow, grey Sunday—tomorrow is the better day.” This morning, as we got on the boat, we looked at the forecast: sunny for the rest of the trip.

And so it was. The journey begins with a one-hour trip in a motor boat along these pristine beaches, the snow-capped mountains on one side of you, teal water lapping forested hills on the other. We were dressed for the chill, layers upon layers under puffy bright yellow life jackets. The weather was classic New Zealand perfection: hot sun, cold wind, cobalt blue skies. We kept looking at each other and smiling, “Tomorrow’s the better day.”

The task ahead of us was to walk the 8.5 miles in the time between about 10 and 3.30; the alternate plan was to walk half of it and then wait for the water taxi to get us at Bark Bay, the mid-way point between the two bays we were hoping to travel. But the tramp after Bark Bay was supposed to be the best, and so we were hopeful that we could do it. And so we set off.

Becky—at the ripe age of seven—set the pace at a rate that had me quickly shedding layers. And mostly we maintained that pace, Becky in the lead with assorted other children sometime vying for primacy (a competition which was eventually dropped altogether as we discovered that not only Becky but all of us were happier when Becky was in the lead). We scrambled up hills through magical bush, over streams busily making their way to the ocean, and clambered down rocks tumbling to the sea. The children were shockingly free of complaints and the adults were pretty good too!

A couple of hours in, we reached the half-way point, a stretch of golden sand with clear blue water. We had made a tactical error and chosen the low-tide path slightly too many hours before the tide was actually low. With a handful of other badly-timed tourists, we picked our way over slippery boulders to avoid taking off our shoes and socks and wading across the chilly inlet to the higher stretch of beach drying in the sun. When, with great effort, we finally reached the end of the rocks, we stood triumphant and dry on the shore, only to discover one more impassable place. We gamely took off our shoes and socks and waded across.

Once on dry sand, we pulled out the lunch supplies and feasted on peanut butter and boysenberry jam, on tomato and cheese sandwiches, and fresh New Zealand apples. The kids splashed in the water while the adults tried to keep the sand out of the sandwiches, and I’m pretty sure it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten.

And then, noticing the time, we pressed on in order to walk the next two hours and be in plenty of time for the boat which was arriving three hours later to pick us up. Imagine our surprise when we got an hour into the second half of the trip and found a sign telling us it would be two more hours. Not much scope for error there. So we sang and joked and played and hustled along, up steep hills, across a magnificent swing bridge, down through tree ferns and yellow gorse and varied types of forest. The scenery ranged from deep forest dark to tumbling streams with golden slanting sunlight to sweeping ocean vistas all in a single hour. We walked in pairs and threes, talking and listening to birds and brooks, and the occasional (but seriously rare) spat amongst the kids. If there is something closer to perfect, I’ve never seen it before.

And then it was over. Kids on a rope swing over powdery sand waiting for the water taxi, a quick wet walk through invisible (but still cold) water past schools of silver fish) and a fast motor boat ride back to the tiny village where we’re staying. Home to pet horses, write blogs, download thousands of pictures (all the good ones taken by Jim). It’s hard to imagine tomorrow will be the better day, but you should check back, just to be sure.

02 May 2008

Blown through




We are back on holiday on the south island. This holiday is to mark the autumn break (obviously—nothing says May day like autumn break) and we’re actually traveling mostly because it’s our only chance to get away with the Coughlin-Harris family before they leave (argh!). So even though I haven’t quite spent enough time in my own new house in order to feel like leaving it, we have packed our bags, rolled across the strait in post-southerly waves, and now find ourselves in a pair of little cabins at the base of the Abel Tasman national park.

Yesterday was an early start. Because the house Carolyn and Jim and co live in is on the market (still!), they had to clean it for the open house before they left, and they knew they couldn’t do that in time for the pre-dawn start that Thursday morning required. So it was a Wednesday night clean, instead, followed by a massive sleepover at our new house. In the morning, we rolled out of bed in the windy rain and scooted the 5 kids out into the dark—miraculously in time to catch the 7.08 train. We made the lovely crossing, spending most of our time on the blustery deck to admire the views and stomach the swells. And then we were on the South Island, amazed at the long plains of grape vines, leaves stained autumnal yellow against a steely grey sky. This country is beautiful in all weathers, in all seasons.

We wound our way to Nelson, stopping at a lovely winery and taking a magical walk past the tallest, straightest trees I ever saw to a small but roaring waterfall swelled with the recent rains. We couldn’t decide whether to look out for the massive Ents or tiny fairies living in red mushroom houses in the forest.

But then this morning in Nelson we came upon an entirely different kind of magic. A glassblower with a small studio with big windows to watch from the street. And, in case watching from the outside wasn’t good enough, there was a sign: “Make your own bauble, $60.” Now, no one ever actually needs anything called a “bauble” and something I make myself is hardly worth $10, let alone $60. But the idea of getting my hands on molten glass was so exciting that I signed up—with Carolyn—to give it my best shot.

It turns out that blowing glass is the best thing in the world. It was just a little tiny thing we were doing: picking the colours, swirling the clear and the coloured glass on the blowing stick in the “glory hole,” and blowing air into the pipe on the real glass blower’s command. But through the course of it, I saw glass glowing orange and the texture of honey, I saw the way it reacted to heat, to gravity, to air, and then saw it cooling clear and swirled with colour. And with that, I began to see the seduction of this medium—part skill, part artistry, part magic. When we first walked past, the “two day course for absolute beginners” sounded like a chore; when we left, I was trying to figure out how to get back to Nelson for two days to give it a try. I have so little experience making beautiful things in the world. I am hopeless at any number of artistic endeavours. Today I made something beautiful, though, with my lips and breath and hands. And it feels like a magical gift.

And now we are left with the magic of the rest of the trip, with the most beautiful scenery I could imagine, each curve taking my breath away. We’ll walk through Abel Tasman tomorrow, getting an early-morning ride on a water taxi to one cove, and then walking past seals and over swingbridges to find ourselves in another cove in time for the water taxi to bring us home. The biggest danger here is that I’ll die of sheer delight in the beauty of it all.

Pictures from today are of Michael on the ferry and me blowing the bauble. Watch this space for magnificent pictures tomorrow…