Destinations


Day 351

It was a holiday weekend. I hope you all had a wonderful time.

Me? I was lucky enough to be with my family — sister and nephews included — in a cabin along the Hudson River. We were overlooking a marina. At night we heard the gentle music of the rocking boats and clanging halyards, and saw a tapestry of constellations in the deep summer sky.

Sunday morning Frank and I went out for our big walk along the craggy riverbank. It was absolutely peaceful and quiet. The hawks were circling the treetops in the distance, and the river current appeared to be running north toward the river’s origin even though we knew that all rivers pour toward the equator. Frank and I came to a bend in the Hudson where we could see in both directions. A monastery was nestled on the opposite shore but otherwise there was nothing on the horizon.

We’d already been walking for some time. I had my camera on my shoulder. We stopped on a windswept ledge above a tree that had grown strong and beautiful as it reached toward the sun even as it clung to the shore. I took a deep breath. Everything felt perfect — in motion, and at rest. Rugged, and beautiful.

“Don’t you wish you could stand here forever and forget everything that’s ever happened to you?” I asked. “Forget everything good, everything sad, everything that you’ve ever felt. Don’t you wish you could just be here and not think about anything?”

Frank looked down at the river. He looked at the twisted branch. He looked at me.

“Not really,” he said.

“No?”

I looked down at the ground where we were standing. It seemed like we’d found a lovely pocket of beauty and solitude. A place where we could stand in one place and be happy about it.

“Forget everything — like  who am I? where am I? How’d I get here, where am I going next?”

I was starting to see his point.

“No thanks,” Frank said. “I’ve had a concussion like that, and it wasn’t any fun.”

We laughed together, and he took my hand, and he led me from the windswept ledge. By the time we got back to our camp the coffee was ready. And I was damn glad to have it.

Day 334

Birthday Girl on the RightMy  friend — and BigWalker — Toni just turned 60. Here are her thoughts on walking, family,  friendship, and life:

I flew home to California to walk in my old footsteps. It was my 60th birthday. My parents, both 85, still live in the house where I literally took my first steps.  (As did my seven younger brothers and sisters.)  How could I not do it since I had the opportunity?

My sister Missy was able to fly in too, from Washington State. First thing, before we even ate, or unpacked our bags, we walked around the block a few times.  And then we were really home.

Isn’t it curious? That visceral sense of being back where I belong only overtook me when I was out stretching my legs.

Maybe because it was California, where it’s unAmerican not to love being outdoors. Maybe because we were always overstuffed in that house (a room of one’s own? Hah!). Maybe because my mom is a nonpareil nonstop talker (Fascinating! Still. Breaks required for personal thought.) Whatever the reason, we grew up hitting the street – always, and often.

“Wanna go around the block?”

“Which one?” was the only logical response (left, or right, at the end of Panchita Way?)

You could walk the block alone, or push one of the babies in the stroller, or ride your bikes. Mostly, we walked – as Missy and I did that first night back – in twos. It was easiest that way to establish a pace, and a level of quietude or conversation. Also, two was the best number – better than one, or four, or whatever – if some little miracle made itself known along the way: Pollywogs in the puddle! Apricots on a branch within reach! You could share the serendipity, but didn’t have to share it too much.

Back on the old block, I thought about how my walking “style” developed. And as I strode along with my sister on my 60th, I wondered if what was engrained in me had changed as a result of accompanying Laurie on Big Walks this year to honor her 50th. I took the very first official stroll with my friend last fall, when she wasn’t even yet sure she would really commit to her own Big Idea. Since then, I walked with my pal countless times, on a zillion different routes. (Remember how Laurie wrote about never going the same way twice?)

“Look, Missy! There’s the old apricot tree in that yard! Whoah. That thing looks like it’s been dead for years; kind of cool-looking all twisted up like that, though.”

Toni's Little-Girl Birthday Surprise

“Hey, Laurie, where the hell are we, anyway? Is this even New Jersey? Oh, my gosh, I’ve never seen a sunset like that!”

I don’t think my style has changed much. But I realized, now I know what I know about walking: Ritual has its rewards, so do varied venues, and surprises are for sharing. That realization was a great birthday gift from Laurie. (So glad she gave it to herself first.)

Day 303

We walked from Ocean Grove to Asbury Park last night to see Rufus Wainwright at the historic Paramount Theater. He sang a beautiful walking song that his late mother, Kate McGarrigle, wrote for her husband, Loudan Wainwright III during what Rufus called, “a brief moment of conjugal bliss.”

Maybe because I go walking all the time, rain or shine, blues or joy, this feels like one of the prettiest love songs I’ve heard in a long time. I hate to admit it made me cry, because Pam was on one side of me snickering, and Frank was on the other side…not exactly snickering…but almost.

They thought I was nuts, but if there’s somebody you really love (who won’t laugh at you), go walking, and bring this song to play on your Ipod. I know I’d love it.

(The bootleg video’s pretty bad, so here are the lyrics):

The Walking Song

Wouldn’t it be nice to walk together
Baring our souls while wearing out the leather
We could talk shop, harmonize a song
Wouldn’t it be nice to walk along

I’ll show you houses of architectural renown
Some are still standing, some have fallen down
Farm houses buried under Canada’s snow
Spanish villas on the Boulevards of Mexico

And I’ll learn to tell the ash from the oak
And if you don’t know I wont make no joke
Well climb to the top to view the world from above
Or carve our initials in the trunk like teenagers in love

And when we get hungry well stop to eat
Gotta think of our stomachs and rest our feet
If we get thirsty well have a drink or two
In a mountain top bar with a mountain top view

And when we get tired we’ll stop to rest
And if you still want to talk you can bare your breast
If it’s winter and cold we’ll take a rooming-house room
If it’s summer and warm well sleep under the moon

And we’ll talk about the sports we played
Bout the time you got busted or the time I got laid
Well talk blood and how we were bred
Talk about the folks both living and dead

This song like this walk I find hard to end
Be my lover or be my friend
In sneakers or boots or regulation shoes
Walking beside you I’ll never get the walking blues.

Day 298

The Leopold Museum, Vienna. July 2010.

So you go across the ocean and live out of your suitcase and see lots of wonderful places and feel the sadness in some places and the joy in other places and eventually you come home and you unpack and you look at all your pictures and you realize that while you were away you thought your life was breaking wide open and about to change and that everything would look different when you got home and you realize it does — it does look different — and that sort of scares you.

So what do you do?

If you’re me, you sit down at your desk and you comb through everything you’ve written in the last few months and look over all the notes about all the places you went and the things that you saw, and then you find a nice piece you wrote about feeling gracious and grateful about life and peace and you remember that walking makes you feel peaceful and so you walk and then you walk some more and then when you’re all walked out you sit down and write a little note about life going on and on and on when you’re home and going on and on when you’re away and when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake and even when you’re not watching it carefully, life keeps coming.

And then you remember that you started walking in the first place because on some days you have trouble sleeping and concentrating until you’ve gone out walking and so you go out and walk some more and  you look around at all the places that are familiar and comforting to you, and you go back home and you take off your sneakers and you go to bed and you think, Man, I am glad to be home.

The John Lennon Wall. Prague, July 2010.

Day 293

Zsofi and Rosemarie, near the national gallery.

Hungary is a country of strong passions and long history, much like my friend Zsofia.

Zsofia lives in the USA with her daughters now, but she grew up and went to school in Budapest and was there visiting when Rosemarie and I arrived. For an entire day, Zsofi walked us through her home city.  It was the first time in fifteen years that she’d shown anyone around, and she was tireless and open.

We started with a boat ride along the Danube. The ride had a narrated tour in about fifteen languages, but it was much more interesting to let Zsofi point out the “ugly block apartment houses the Russians built,” and listen to her mom, Eva, tell my mother-in-law about her family’s (terrible) experiences during WWII.

With Zsofi’s spunky daughters, Maya and Nina, we walked around Margaret Island and had ice cream. Then we had some more ice cream.

Nina, listening to the boat tour in Hungarian.

We went to the huge local market and ate a lunch of stuffed cabbage standing up at the counter, crossed the Chain Bridge, breezed through the  Hungarian National Gallery and saw a handful of gorgeous modern paintings. We broiled under the 100+ heat.

We were with Zsofi when we saw the riot police out in full force, preparing for the “warm” — aka Gay Pride — parade.

“Why are the police here?” we heard an Aussie ask her city guide.

“Because in our country we hate gays, and the people will beat them.”

“They hate gays here,” Zsofi affirmed. “They also hate black people and Jews, too.”

At our apartment that night, Rosemarie received an email from someone back home. It was one of those tasteless chain mail pieces casting aspersions on Obama and his heritage — that is, one of those “jokes” about Obama being an alleged Muslim.

“Tell her this _________,” I said. “Or how about _________.”

Maya, listening in English (or maybe Japanese?)

But Rosemarie had a better idea. She posted her own dateline: Budapest July 2010. She wrote about the riot police, the bullet holes (think Russian tanks) that we saw in buildings all over the city, and about Eva’s run from the Nazis in ’44. She repeated what Zsofi told us: although she’s now the widow of an American journalist, and has the option of returning home to Hungary, she’ll be raising her daughters in America.

“They have a better life in the States,” Zsofi said.

It’s one thing to hear that for yourself. It’s another to walk the city and know exactly what she means. If only Rosemarie’s ‘friend’ could have seen and heard what we saw, she might have pushed the DELETE button rather than the SEND button on that e-mail.

Moszkva ter (Moscow Square), Budapest

Day 292

I walked (and lugged my luggage) all over the capitals of the Hapsburg Empire in Eastern Europe – you already know that. But what you probably don’t know is that everywhere I went, I bought books.

What an ass! In Vienna alone I bought four books; not to mention all those reporter’s pads with my carefully-penned scribbled notes. Each place, another book. I even bought lovely decorative notebooks for myself, Ro, and Melissa, in a little store at the base of the Charles Bridge in Prague.

It got so bad that I had to ask Rosemarie to slap me if I tried to buy another book.

“Slap you?” she asked.

“Yes – if I try to buy another book.”

“Oh! Don’t worry, I will slap you.”

My resistance was made all the more difficult by my editor at Shelf Awareness (aka MyBigWalker Just-So John), who agreed it was a great idea for me to visit English-language bookstores in each city, and write up some pieces for his magazine.

Which I did.

Here’s the one I wrote from Vienna.

***

If you stumble into the inviting International Bookstore on the Naschmarkt in Vienna on a rainy July morning, you’re likely to find manager John Mayer overseeing two floors of extensive English language books and magazines. This indie bookseller stocks much more than the requisite travel books and genre paperbacks. In addition to the plump train/plane read, the stacks here include Bolaño’s 2666, Stockett’s The Help, and Verghese’s Cutting for Stone in paperback, surprisingly deep classics and philosophy sections, and a shelf of Obama baseball caps (just in case?).

Business is changing every day. Yesterday it was bad, today it is excellent,” Mayer said. Could be the rain, he said – then again, maybe it’s not. “I did a lot of statistics and I can’t determine any reason one way or the other.”

His customers are changing, too, Mayer noted. This summer has brought more Australians and Brits into the store, while his year-long customer base has grown to include many Americans who’ve moved here to work — often for the United Nations, which established an international office in Vienna in 1980.

One of six International Bookstore locations in the city, Mayer’s store is situated along Vienna’s most popular outdoor market, where a good book can be followed up with a perfect glass of chilled Grüner Veltliner wine and any number of specialty meals. The great Viennese café tradition of reading, eating, and drinking lives on.   (This piece ran in Shelf Awareness July 16, 2010)


Day 284

Having walked for two absolutely glorious weeks through Prague, Vienna, Budapest — and back to Prague now — I have a few questions and a couple of suggestions for this  triumvirate of Habsburg Empire capital cities, which I offer with complete modesty to their rulers and general citizenry:

CONFUSING!

So Much SIMPLER!

1. Why does your money all look alike? It’s very confusing to Americans who come here and want to spend it! Color coded money would be s-o-o-o much simpler (and dare I say more considerate?). How about green for Austria, Blue for Prague, and Black for Hungry? If you can’t do that, then would you please advise your wait staff not to cringe (or growl) when we offer Hungarian forint to pay the bar bill in Prague? Because after a few drinks, it really all looks the same!

2. Your money looks alike, but your languages sound so different. What’s UP with that? And what do the Hungarians have against vowels?  I xzcyuzii! you should zcxpvoiuOK?

3. Since the communists punched the joy out of Hungary  but apparently left Czech pub life intact, I think it’s only fair that Prague  send some of their happy tourists and students over to Budapest on a rotating basis, where they can drop forint like pennies for big fat mugs of beer. What about a 3-day Prague-Budapest pub crawl. From what I’ve seen here in the morning,  any kid drinking Red Bull and Rum doesn’t need to sleep anyway.

Your Tuition Dollars Hard at Work in Prague

4.HOWEVER, those students and visitors will have to be accompanied by a translator, or maybe a body guard, until the Hungarians warm up to them. How else will the tourists be able to avoid being stopped in the metro stop just below the international bus terminal, and instructed to pay a 23 euro penalty before leaving the underground and going home — as we were forced to do!?

Caught on my camera phone! What's up with those ARMBANDS!?

You’ve never been strong-armed until you’ve been swarmed by metro police and grabbed by a Hungarian woman in a blue arm band, saying “your passport lady, your passport!”

5. Which leads to my final proposal: I think we should all admit that while Vienna has unbelievable arts and culture, Prague has a history that requires frequent use of the word BOHEMIA and a cityscape that looks like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale, and the Turkish baths in Budapest are an AMAZING way to spend a day, when it comes right down to it, American’s civil rights are the best in the world (yes, yes, if you are middle class and white,  but that’s another story isn’t it?). Which is why I didn’t hand over my passport – and I never will.

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