Sometimes, planned adventures happen exactly as planned. Sometimes there is some faint resemblance between planned and actual experience, it doesn’t mirror but it rhymes.
Occasionally when we are blessed with serendipity, our adventures take on a life on their own and we are like a leaf in a stream; we go wherever the current takes us.
My latest adventure was the latter. As I reflect on it, the richness of the spontaneous surprises was more than adequate compensation for the complete departure from the script I had laid out many months previous. Improv can be awful or awfully good but it is always thrilling; it’s watching someone working a high wire without a net.
Life proves again that I have little or no control; my best strategy is to accept, adapt, improvise and take advantage of these fresh surprises. We may not control our lives; we do control how we face what life throws at us.
The first part of my adventure went according to plan. A wedding in Whitstable, a village on the east coast of England in Kent, a short train ride from London. It was picture perfect framing for a joyful event.
At my stage in life, it is vital to attend these ceremonies. It’s a validation of rituals and traditions we value as we experience the passages of our lives. Moreover, it is essential that we congregate with our dearest friends to witness and affirm their joy as their children take these iconic steps.
Besides, I’m an unrepentant romantic, a softie, a mensch. I wouldn’t miss a chance to sigh and blubber a bit, discretely of course.
We ended our shared time with a small dinner. The big event was a success, we could relax with our friends, bask in their joyous glow and gossip to our hearts’ content. We recognize that these sweet spots in our lives are fleeting, valuable and valued.
We chose one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants – NOPI in the chic SOHO district of London.
Yotam Ottolenghi is no Gordon Ramsay – and, for that, I am grateful.
Rather than yelling and cursing across endless faux-drama, cooking soap operas, Ottolenghi has been revolutionizing the way we cook and enjoy food.
Vegetables take center stage, he finds ways to use spices, herbs and untraditional ingredient pairings to celebrate vegetables.
This is high cuisine, worthy of attention – even for a grain-fed beef lover from the prairies. He surprises even the most jaded palate.
Our NOPI night was one of those delightful evenings; perfect location, perfect dining companions, lively conversations.
NOPI and Ottolenghi set the stage; Laura, John, Ann and John made the evening memorable. And, as even Anthony Bourdain is quick to note, sometimes it’s not about the food at all.
The tender mercies of life are everywhere….
Here’s where the rest of the plan falls apart. Instead of a week’s walking in the English countryside and a short visit with Kristen and Chris in Dresden, I head straight to Dresden; a few days with the kids becomes more like a few weeks.
I’m delighted. Any time I have to share with my children is precious; especially when I’m invited.
The unintended consequence of ditching the old plan is more time to explore their new home and its environs. Last August, I’d done my serious tourism; the Zwinger Palace and its top museums, the Fraunkirsche and the Royal Palace, architectural masterpieces restored after the WWII firebombing.
Now I could do what I love best; explore off the tourist track, search out the smaller, more interesting spots, the one-trick-ponies, the away places, the ironic, the oddity.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of my favorite movies. An all star cast, the crazy genius of Wes Anderson and a zany plot driven by superb writing, I’ve seen it many times.
Well, guess what? The building that provided the set for the Hotel is in eastern Germany in a city called Gorlitz just on the Polish border. We took a train ride to see the aging Department store transformed into THE Hotel Budapest.
The store has seen better times; it’s one of many that flourished in the 30’s, an art deco extravaganza for upscale shoppers. It is now famous and is being renovated. Its a delight.
Saved from wartime destruction, Gorlitz is an architectural gem, churches, houses, streets that seem straight from a history book. It’s also a starting point for those who wish to walk the Camino de Santiago. The Polish route is only 3152 kms.
We even encountered a makeshift concert, a man lovingly playing an instrument I have never seen before, a hammered dulcimer – I had to look it up.
A quick walk across the bridge of the Lusatian-Neisse river and we are in Poland. Lunch is superb, cheap like borscht and tasty. The schnitzel was as big as my head, more than even I could handle.
In 1945, at the end of the war, Germany was divided into French, British, American and Russian zones. The Russian zone, the DDR, was a major Communist satellite country for 45 years; in 1990 the two Germanys were reunited.
During those 45 years, East Germans lived a completely different experience; ideology, politics, work, education – everything was different.
K&C like to tell the story that East Germans seldom had drapes or blinds – to have them meant you might have something you were hiding, attracting the attention of the Secret police, the infamous Stasi.
There is a little museum in Dresden that shows the common day-to-day artifacts of that period. It reminds me that, amazing differences aside, people still lived their lives.
Tiny, boxy cars, Trabants, with baby engines and a maximum speed of 50 km/hour required a 10 year waiting list and mechanical wizardry to keep them going. Much of the body was made of a sort of shellacked cardboard. They were not serious competition for BMW or Mercedes.
A friend described the DDR as gray, grim and dark. As this little museum attests, i t certainly wasn’t a consumer mecca!
There is a small museum outside the tourist zone that is haunting. The Dresden Panometer has created, by stitching together photos of the aftermath of the February 1945 firebombing of the city, a huge 360 degree panorama of Dresden after the firebombing. The visual stuns one into silence. It is an assault on the senses, a graphic reminder of the horror of war. It takes minutes to view and lasts a lifetime in the imagination.
The Elbe River flows through Dresden. it has been a commanding, geographic pivotal element of Germany since recorded history. European focused Germany lies west of the Elbe; the Germany east of the Elbe has followed a different course. Unconquered by Rome, it has been forever less European, more unruly, more Prussian, more Slavic, more influenced by Russia.
The Elbe was the demarcation line, the fault line; it still demarks strong differences within German civil society. We had a chance to wander the valley of the Elbe, now a picture perfect tourist attraction for hikers, cyclists, river boats and day tourists.
To discover the existence of, and visit, all these off beat, quirky places it is important to consult locals, or the next best thing – Chris. He’s as local as I can find, speaks pretty good German, likes to poke around and enables my poking around by being my guide.
It is easy to picture how the Elbe could be so transformative of the cultural evolution of the region, its valley and the surrounding cliffs offer both barriers and buttresses against unwanted incursions, whether they be Romans or west German industrialists.
It is important to venture outside my comfort zone on these serendipitous adventures, to take advantage of oddities. Our last oddity is a visit to the Opera; Semperoper in Dresden is worthy of a visit for its architecture and beauty alone. But we are blessed, a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute allows us the chance to see an opera in the theatre built for opera. Now, those who know me will understand that this does meet the out-of-my-comfort-zone test. It was delightful; made more so by being able to share it with my Dresden guides. I’m good for another five years.
There was much more improvisation in my few days that became a few weeks; I am yet again reminded that flexibility, adaptability and a willingness to see the positive opportunities of upset plans can make a big difference. The English countryside walk can wait; shared time with two of my favorite people trumps just about everything else.
If I need further proof, I apply my two tests of joyful travel; every night as I lay quietly reviewing my day, I ask myself two questions. Did I enjoy my day? YES
Is there any other place I would rather be on that day? NO.
Improv wins; forget the plans, go with the flow and make the best of it. Simple advice, important to remind myself of it whenever serendipity throws my best laid plans out the window.