There is a Polish author, Ogla Tokarczuk, a Nobel Prize winner. In her book, Flights, she mentions the idea of synchronicity: “evidence of the world making sense. Evidence that throughout this beautiful chaos threads of meaning spread in every direction.
On this adventure, I have been feeling the synchronicity.
I feel it every morning when I arise before dawn to head out for another day of walking, carrying everything I need on my back and comfortable that I have a destination and a guide to get me there.
I feel it when I see the parish priest arrive at the weekly market to buy his provisions for his meals.
I feel it every afternoon when I arrive at my destination and sit in a cafe in the central square for another delightful meal.
After almost four weeks of walking, 19 hotel rooms, many photos, innumerable exquisite guilt-free meals, dozens of accumulated stories and numerous surprises large and small, I am now 500 kms closer to my final destination – Rome. I can only claim about 70% of those kilometres as mine, done the Sigeric way – on foot, but I feel pleased with the progress. The completion of my 2000 km pilgrimage to Rome will wait till next spring.
I arrive in Lucca; finished with my pilgrimage for now, I become a tourist. Lucca is a sweet transition town. I stay in the walled old town, walk the walls, visit some churches, go to an evening Puccini concert, eat some good meals and stop being a pilgrim.
Florence, my next stop, is a jewel. I have gained a bit more knowledge and appreciation of renaissance Florence, through some SFU courses on Italian history. The Uffizi is infinitely more interesting as a result, especially since I manage to find my first painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli, a fifteenth century nun/paintress I had studied as part of my Renaissance history course. Self-taught, she managed to develop her talent and be recognized at a time and place where artistic excellence had reached a zenith.
Santa Maria Novella housed the main object of my interest, a 20 foot by 6 foot painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli of the Last Supper (featured photo above). I studied her for my history paper and, through her life, studied art and life in renaissance Florence. I now have the privilege of seeing her paintings, some 6 of the 8 or so that have survived. That alone is worth the trip.
There is always the David, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Carrara marble, iconic purity of form and substance. You enter the room, look right, see the David and, for a moment, your heart stops.
These are the sweet spot moments of any journey that we cherish, they are never forgotten.
Only Rome can match my Florentine experience. I have forgotten the proliferation of antiquities and the magnitude and impact of their individual and collective displays. It is impossible to ignore the Colosseum, even though two little ones in rain ponchos on scooters who refuse to let a little rain spoil their adventure can distract and amuse me.
There’s a church on every lane, each trying to outdo the other in ostentatious displays of artistic excess glorifying the builder, usually a corrupt Pope. But I verge on digressing into a polemic.
Rick joins me and we play walking tourists. We find the Barberini museum, a gem – small but filled with iconic art. These museums are empty of tourists, full of great art, small enough to be truly enjoyable and memorable. I prefer them.
We cap our Rome adventure with a food tour in Testaccio. Our guide is brilliant, walking with a local is the way to experience the various small communities of any city especially once one is outside the tourist zone. It is a delight. Samples of food, small insights into local life, tips on cooking and many tiny anecdotes and stories, all perfect for conversation starters at dinner parties back home.
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I ask myself why I do this?
Every time I go on one of these adventures, the question resurfaces.
The Greeks framed my internal discussion by asking the only question that matters. What is the good life? And the corollary, how does one live a good life?
Philosophers and others have made it their life’s purpose trying to answer this question. I don’t have an answer, even now; yet I have a few ideas about why I do what I do. They may not work for everyone but they seem to help me.
I need a purpose in my life, a reason to get up in the morning, get off the couch and go out the door. These adventures give me that purpose. The cycle of my purpose-driven adventures starts with the idea. The planning, thinking, sorting out the pieces of the puzzle, the training, gear selection, the testing of options with family and friends can happily consume months of my time before I embark. The actual adventure is the culmination of all this purpose-driven activity. I am alive.
Adventures ignite and energize my curiosity. Every aspect of the adventure requires investigation. Whether it’s stele, ancient stone carvings found by archaeologists in the area around Pontremoli or the marble quarries of Carrara, I see things that pique my interest in ways that books cannot.
Adventures scare me. Away from everything familiar, on my own, I’m vulnerable. When I’m walking, I literally do not know what is around the next bend in the road. Every night is a new B&B. I know about 10 words in Italian. All this sensitizes me to every activity, every sensory input. It focuses the mind. Every thing is new!
This isn’t all scripted by the happy-ending fantasy movie types. Shit happens. Regularly. One night, overwhelmed by new and fatigued by it, I had ramen in a cup in my room; I felt like crap, needed something warm, and couldn’t stay up till 8pm when the restaurants finally opened. It’s not all ravioli like mamma used to make.
What then will I remember?
First, I cannot let fear govern my life; covid is here, I need to prudently adjust but I need to find a way to live the good life. Living comes with inherent risk and an inevitable result. After more than a year, I needed to re-engage with real people. This adventure affirmed that we are still kind, kindly, sociable, and resilient. There is a profound gap between what social media tells me about the human condition post pandemic and what I have experienced. On this adventure, civility still permeates and defines the human condition. Kindness runs unchecked through the streets. Smiles proliferate and are infectious. People help others instinctively without considering the transactional value of their actions.
Second, technology continues to make travel and adventures easier, but only when I become a master of my smartphone. On the advice of my adult children, I got an unlimited data plan. Everything now is done digitally and online, accelerated by and required by, the new post-covid world. I cannot get into a museum unless I get a ticket in advance online – even if it’s free. Online maps save time and energy; I’m lazy so I learn. The list goes on. I now have another essential travel necessity, almost as valuable as my passport, my credit card and my proof of vaccination.
Thirdly, walking is my adventure portal of choice. It gives me patience, the scenery doesn’t change all that fast when I’m on foot – the pace suits me. Walking requires a certain acceptance to not know – study and research in advance help a bit but it is NEW and guaranteed to not be what I expected. Getting used to not knowing what’s coming next requires a bit of Stoicism. Humility comes with the awareness I’m not able to predict what’s going to happen. I find out how little control over the world I have. I find out how small I am.
Finally, optimism blossoms when I attune myself to the kindnesses I receive. On my walks, I can go for days without any meaningful contact with another human. Perhaps that’s why the Tender Mercies stand out, they’re singular in an uncluttered human landscape.
I style myself these days as a gregarious introvert. These walks seem tailor-made for managing that oxymoronic self definition. I have been the recipient of countless small acts of kindness, tender mercies, over the past weeks, while spending countless hours walking strange paths alone.
I come home with a reinforced faith in my fellow humans, with optimism for the future.
The Appenines are the mountains between the Po Valley flatlands and the famous west coast of Italy – most famously, la Spezia and Cinque Terre.
They’re not the BC Rockies; nor is this the Great Saint Bernard Pass through the Alps. The Cisa Pass on the Via Francigena through the Appenines tops out at just under 1100 m. Still, it’s about a Grouse Grind of up and it’s a stark change from the flat terrain of the Po Valley.
The VF wanders up and down a lot. I don’t like up. I also hate losing hard gained elevation. Wild animals set paths long ago that followed contours, not losing elevation unless necessary. The VF planners have also not heard that the shortest distance from one point to another is a straight line. The VF planners seem to have plotted a path that increases my pain with lots of needless ups and downs and few short-cuts. I plan to speak to them in the harshest terms about that when I get home.
The walk over the Appenines is split into three stages. These stages are obviously based on the fitness of an unusually fit, youthful alpinist. I’ll keep this short. I carefully choose a BnB in the first town, Fornovo de Taro, near the trail so I could drop “the beast” and do a tough first day hike with just a day pack. That day was 20 km with about 1000m of elevation much of it of the aforementioned up and down variety. That worked well. After an early morning train ride, I reached my B&B, checked in with Manuella, dropped the Beast and got started on my hardest day by 9 AM. It was a hard slog but it worked, I managed to make it to make my destination, Cassio, at about 3PM ever grateful that, while I got caught is a brief thundershower, I made it without much difficulty. Dropping my bag was helpful.
Cassio is a village, but it does have a cafe/restaurant and wifi. After several espressos and a pastry I was fit to go again. The local bus arrived, I jumped on and made it home In time for a shower and dinner. Slick! Damn I’m good!
The next day was shorter, 10 km and 300 m of elevation but a bit more complicated. It was a Saturday, only few buses run. After some sleuthing and careful calculations, I decided to hitch-hike to Cassio, do my walk to Bercetto and catch the ONLY bus back home.
Does one hitchhike in Italy? There’s only one way to find out.
After a short while standing on the edge of the road with my thumb out, trying to appear non-threatening, a man stopped, asked where I wanted to go. I told him. He motioned for me to jump in his car and in Italian explained I was in the wrong spot to catch a ride to where I wanted to go. He took me to a perfect hitchhiking location, dropped me and took off.
Within a few minutes another driver stopped, asked my destination, hesitated, then motioned for me to jump in. He drove me to where I wanted to go, pointing out his house as he drove past it to take me to my destination. He dropped me in Cassio, deliberately going out of his way to help me get where I wanted to go. All I had to give in return was a handshake and a very sincere grazie mille.
I muscled through my walk, desperate to make it to Bercello in time to catch the bus back home; there was no Plan B. Arriving in ample time, I even managed an espresso at the cafe by the bus pick-up before boarding. Again, back home in time for dinner. Patting my self on the back, I celebrated my brilliance on executing two perfect days.
“If you want to hear the gods laugh tell them your plans for the future.” – it’s still true, I proved it. When Manuella phoned to find out bus times for Sunday, we were told no buses run on Sunday.
Option A – hitch-hike. On a Sunday morning? The gods guffaw.
Option B – Manuela. She feeds me breakfast and we’re in her car by 7:15. It’s an hour drive to get me to Bercetto to drop me off at my B&B and another hour for her to get back home. Even the gods are struck mute by her kindness. Manuella became my angel. She rescued me in another of the kindnesses, the tender mercies, I am so grateful for.
The gods managed to disrupt my master plan by throwing a bit of weather into the mix. My plan for Sunday was to climb to the top of Mount Valoria (1220 m). It’s not part of the VF but the claim is the view is worth the hike. Bad weather made that a non-starter. I heaved a sigh of relief – bad weather was actually good fortune for me; I heaved a sigh of relief, laughed with the gods and had a rest day.
The final day, my march to the summit, was short and relatively painless. The hard work has been done. After about 6 km of walking an asphalt road I arrived. Ta-da!
Then, to make time, I walked down the A-62 to Pontremoli – another 22 km. But it was downhill and I was blessed with a perfect sunny, cool, traffic free stroll.
Later, sitting in Pontremoli, thinking that wasn’t so bad, I wondered at why I made such a fuss about it.
The last few days of my walk to Lucca are different in tone, pace and focus. The landscape gives way to rolling hills and valleys, rugged forests broken occasionally by pastures and crops, strung together by small villages, all with interesting history.
Once, on an adventure to northern India, our guide said something quite profound that stuck with me: “Unfortunately, India is littered with the relics of its long history.” I thought it odd but it has become more meaningful as I travel. It’s not that we have too many monuments or too much history, it’s that one must decide what to protect and what to abandon. I suspect Italy has the same challenge.
Pontremoli was a fortress town controlling access to the two valleys it straddled and lands above and below. Passage through Pontremoli was in the hands of whichever powerful family that controlled the castle and the bridges. The castle is intact, much of it has been repurposed to house a museum of stele discovered in the area, some dating back to the 3rd and 4th century BC. Slow travelling now allows me to take in the museum. The stele display reminds me that humans have been seeking something and making art to express their quest for meaning for centuries.
Down the road in Filleto, I stay in a Saracen village, a fortress of its own, now apartments, B&B’s and a fancy restaurant. Saracen is another word for Moorish invaders, they controlled parts of Italy and gained a reputation as bandits and raiders, although they settled into many parts of the Mediterranean for centuries. They were never acknowledged as anything more than temporary interlopers, relegated to a footnote in history as vagabonds by people who still won’t acknowledge that Islam dominated much of the Mediterranean for centuries.
Between Filleto and Aulla, I walked a road that dates back to the Roman Empire. Think about that for a moment. In this time where everything seems measured in seconds and sound bites, I find it thrilling to believe I’m walking the same footpath as Roman armies took to cross the Alps more than 2000 years ago. It’s still in great shape, one of the better parts of the forest paths I walked today. These old paths have been used so often and for so long that the earth has grown up around them. The road is sunk several feet below the forest floor.
The next day our path circles an ancient Roman town from the first century BC, Luna. There’s not much there for the history buff, but it offers proof that Carrara marble has been used as far back and Roman times. The best mosaic floor in one building hardly exists. I’ve seen better in England, Switzerland and Morocco. Preserve it, let it decay – the question of too much antiquity to handle?
I stayed one night in Carrara, the home for centuries of the quarries that supply the most extraordinary marble the world has ever seen, famous since the golden age of Rome. Think Michelangelo’s David – a piece of marble from Carrara, the standard has never been higher, the purity of the white marble unsurpassed.
My last day is from Camaiore to Lucca. It turns out to be a most pleasant finale. Weather forecasts were ominous. Thunderstorm warnings accompanied by bursts of rain: however, the weather had cleared and all I faced was a few slight sprinkles. My thrill of the day was meeting volunteers for the Francigena marathon – more tender mercies, this time for deserving runners.
Sitting in Lucca, sipping my Machiato in the square by Saint Michele Paolino, a beautiful cathedral fittingly clad in white marble, with my pilgrim stamp to prove it, I’ve done segment three, 500 KM, I claim 350 of it. Finishing the last leg is for next spring, I hope.
After a somewhat challenging start, I arrive in Italy. My landing in Milan from Montreal via Frankfurt is almost anti-climatic. Having entered the EU and been cleared, there was no one at the Milan airport who had the least bit of interest in me – standing there with my crumpled wad of papers showing my covid free legitimacy.
I catch the train(s) to Ivrea, where we ended our walk in 2019 and where I will start my next stage. My goal is Lucca, about 500 kms and about 4 weeks of walking away. I have deliberately decided to slow down, savour this experience and put off trying to make my final destination – Rome, another 450 kms from Lucca – till next year. It’s also a recognition that I can now comfortably manage about 20 km a day, more than that comes with risk and at a price.
From Ivrea, I walk the Via Francigena across the Po Valley for about ten days. The region is famous for rice, we know the dish as risotto, a signature dish for Italian cuisine. I have been to the source, I have tasted the best.
The Po valley is mostly flat. Rice growing requires flooding; water being what it is, flood irrigation requires flat land to work – really, uniformly, microscopically flat land.
Some of my fellow walkers find this part of the VF boring. I do not.
I am amazed at the complex grid system of canals and ditches and sliding gates which ensure the channeling of river water across vast distances in a pattern of distribution to irrigate such vast vistas. It is a massive engineering project.
It is also obvious that this is complicated big-money agriculture. The farms look like small villages, the machinery is huge and the capital and sophisticated knowledge required to run a rice growing operation are absolute.
I grew up in a flat part of Alberta. This valley is flat and it is big. Days of walking big. I find it quite enjoyable. Especially early mornings. The misty coolness, the scent in the air, surprised little beasties, the dew, the amazing light as it plays across the sky and the land as dark turns to dawn turns to morning. It is the magical part of the walking day. It’s also practical; the earlier the start, the sooner the finish – and out of 30+ heat.
I also like the rhythm. Get up. Walk. Eat. Find home. Wash. Sleep. Eat. Repeat. It is satisfying. The other aspect of this life that I like is that I carry all that I need on my back. I can’t buy anything because I would have to carry it. It’s pretty simple. Rustic, one might say.
There is complexity to it all. Staying present and mindful, staying on the trail, finding my hotel, managing to find water, foraging for food, ensuring I haven’t left anything behind at a rest stop, listening to my body; all require a vigilance, especially for those of us who walk alone.
At this stage of my life, walking these pilgrimages is like meeting up with an old friend.
The high point (pun intended) is a crossing of the Po River by ferry boat, listed as Ad Padum on Sigeric’s list.
Danillo has been running the ferry for 23 years, amongst the pilgrim crowd he is a legend. He doesn’t just ferry us across the river. We get a short history lesson at his home nearby, a certificate of passage and an entry in his Big Book. Since 1998, Danilo tells me 134 Canadians have crossed on his boat. Cool!
Crossing the Po with Danillo is excitement in the pilgrim journey – we do learn to recalibrate excitement, this little boat ride makes me positively giddy as I continue my day to Piacenza.
We’re not done with the Po Valley yet but subtle change are showing themselves. I am a few days walk to the edge, where the Appennine mountains begin.
It takes a more imaginative writer than I to wax more poetic about rice farming and flat stretches of land so I’ll switch to another topic – the kindness of strangers, or as I call them, tender mercies.
Tender mercies are abundant. I am inundated with them. Italian B&B’s have been through hell, yet the owners are consistently gracious. In Ivrea, my B&B host knows I’m Canadian so she cooks eggs for me to supplement the normal Italian breakfast of coffee and sweet rolls. I am often the only guest in a hotel so they automatically give me a big room, I’m not used to windows, balconies and space given my well-documented hotel frugality.
Still suffering from jet lag/dehydration, I knew I would struggle on my second day of walking; the solution is simple, find a taxi, make day 2 shorter. I stopped a man coming out of a shop early that morning, asked him to help me find a taxi. It proved challenging, no taxis, no buses, so he drove me to the next town, dropped me at the town square with a cordial ‘buon Camino’ and went on his way. Such kindness of strangers warms me for days.
In Tromello, a small village halfway through my day’s walk, I stopped for my morning coffee/cornetto. While I was extracting myself from the grips of the Beast, an elderly (it’s all relative) man rolled up on an equally aged bicycle.
“Pelegrino?” He asked.
I nodded again.
He motioned that I should give it to him.
He rode off.
Before we go any further, I did not give him my real Canada passport. Pelegrinos carry a pilgrim passport. We get stamps in our passports from hotels and churches along our way to verify where we’ve been. It’s like getting stars in your workbook in elementary school. I recommend it, it’s oddly satisfying.
In a few minutes he returned. His church stamp proudly displayed in my passport, forever.
We finished the formalities and off he rode.
It’s hard work to feel grumpy after a kindness like that.
The night before Danillo’s epic boat ride I had made arrangements with Giovanni to stay at the hostel in Corte S. Andrea right beside the Po River. I am staying away from hostels for obvious covid reasons – the less contact with others, particularly indoors, the better. This was the only spot to stay so I took it.
Giovanni assured me I would not need to bring food. There was an Osteria close by and he stocked food at the hostel. The question was should I trust him. I did. It worked. As I walked into the village, the first building I saw was the Osteria. Long Sunday family lunches are a thing here. They took me in, bedraggled as I was, set up a table and fed me like the prince I want to be when I grow up. It was a sweet spot moment.
I picked up the key, went to the hostel, sorted things out and, later, met Giovanni and his wife. My guess is they are voluntary caretakers and they do the daily slog that keeps their Via hostel functioning. Both in their 80’s, they do this every time a pilgrim rolls through. Legendary kindness isn’t always large and dramatic, sometimes it’s daily and small. He let me take his picture, she declined.
And, of course, Danillo. Well into his elder years, he boards his boat every morning when needed, pilots it across the Po, fills it with Pilgrims, ferries them to the other side, then offers a history lesson and celebrates us by asking us to fill in his ledger of pilgrim travellers. He doesn’t do it for the money and he is invaluable.
Such tender mercies…
Sometimes in the process of searching for one thing, I end up stumbling onto something else, usually something that has been waiting for me, lingering just off the corner of my vision.
After only a week into my Via Francigena adventure, I’m aware already that there is more going on underneath the surface than I was expecting.
I have recently returned from a big adventure, an international trip to Italy. It involved long flights across Canada and the Atlantic, several interactions with immigration officials from various countries, including my own. In the pandemic nations are trying to insulate themselves from visitors who might bring more covid related problems to their populace.
While I was travelling in Italy for more than a month, I had to learn the new rules of social engagement, interacting with people in a country that was not mine, in which I did not speak the language or know the new mores of post-covid human interaction.
Needless to say, It was a serious decision, unlike others I had taken before with layers upon layers of potential risk, a multiplication of complex factors and a level of anxiety new to foreign travel.
I’ve been walking parts of the Via Francigena since the summer of 2017. It starts in Canterbury. That year Kristen and I finished in Reims. In 2018, my friend, John, and I started there, he walked with me through rural France then ditched me for the bright lights of Paris. I walked into Switzerland, Blair picked me up in Lausanne and walked me over the Great Saint Bernard Pass and down into Italy. We ended in a small city called Ivrea, between Milan and Turin.
Life and covid suspended any further progress towards Rome – 800 kilometers away from where we left off in Ivrea. For the past three years, I’ve carried a burning desire to finish my pilgrimage to Rome – and I’m a certified agnostic!
My desire is to git-her-done.
It’s about breaking out of the covid lockdown without being stupid.
It’s about measuring my years and wanting to make the most of the limited time left for these adventures.
It’s about testing myself and seeing if I’ve got the capacity to do this.
It’s about finishing my walk.
Fun Fact. Sigeric, the bishop of Canterbury, travelled to Rome in the late 10th century to be officially elevated to Cardinal. On his way home, an aide kept a list of all the places they stopped along the way, 83 altogether.
From that one page list we now have a full blown pilgrimage, a defined route where every twist and turn has been marked and way marked, where I now have an app that tells me where to go. Needless to say, with a thousand years between Sigeric’s journey and now, we’ve made a few adjustments, taken a few liberties with a thin set of facts. Like most Catholic beliefs, one needs to remember that while there may be some core facts, much of the rest is storytelling embellishment – myth. That awareness allows me to plan and to take the occasional shortcut and ride the train now and then.
After much internal debate, discussion with family and friends, I decided last spring to do it – Autumn, 2021 – enough time to train, enough time for mass vaccinations to take effect, enough time, hopefully for the risk to be minimized.
I booked the flight well in advance. Weather would be fine, school would have started in Italy, the tourists (if there were any) would have largely gone home – all calibrated to lower the risk. I checked the immunization progress in Italy and throughout the EU, watched the regulations for tourists entering the country, watched my own country’s rules for re-entry. I wanted to avoid being quarantined; that was a deal-breaker, why spend weeks in an Italian airport hotel looking out the window?
As the date approached, it all seemed more hopeful. I gathered my gear and packed my bag carefully – many times – judging every item by a weight/need/price ratio. For several months I’ve been walking everywhere. I’ve monitored the Italian/EU situation – my assumption from the beginning was that getting into Italy, then getting back into Canada were the greatest risks outside my control.
On the morning of September 2, I gathered my wits and my gear and Kristen drove me to the airport.
Check-in at YVR was the first test, Air Canada in Vancouver cleared me through Montreal and on to Rome. My boarding pass to Rome in hand, the vital test, I boarded the plane for my first big post-Covid adventure.
Rule #1, never relax. As I boarded the plane in Montreal, I was given a form asking to confirm my covid antigen test for the trip.
Well. That was a surprise. I had read the Italian regs. There was no requirement for a rapid antigen test.
Unfortunately, the Italians changed the rules starting Aug 30 – two days before I got on my plane. They now required a negative covid test. And they didn’t send me the memo!
I had not taken the test and I decided to take responsibility for my mistake and eat my humble pie while it was hot. I disembarked; not that I had any choice in the matter but doing it willingly made a difference.
With the help of Nadia and Celia, two of the nicest Air Canada agents I have ever met, we built plan B. In about two hours.
We recovered my bag. I got a negative covid antigen test. I got a hotel room. Most importantly, Nadia rebooked my flight to Milan, better than flying into Rome!
I lost a day, thankfully a planned rest day. But the rest of the trip plans survived.
I even managed to spend my day of Montreal penance with my friend John. Not a bad purgatory.
I am exceedingly grateful to Nadia and Celia for helping me build plan B.
Nadia, the flight services agent who stepped in to help me solve the crisis showed remarkable wisdom and kindness in the process.
Celia, her colleague, had started that morning at 6 am yet she stayed with me to get me out of immigration, gather my bag, point me to the covid test site and hold my hand, figuratively of course – it is still necessary to adhere to covid protocols – until all the pieces of my journey had been put back together. (All this after a 12 hour day!)
In small chats with them that night, I came to understand how much they have been through since the before times. Yet, they continued to be kind, cheerful, thoughtful and thoroughly professional.
There are acts of kindness that I like to call ‘tender mercies’. We should honour them; they are the antidote to fear, anxiety and negativism. These small tender mercies reinforce my belief in the essential goodness of people. They are everywhere, they need to be recognized, appreciated, acknowledged and celebrated.
I did make it to Italy, in arriving Milan a day later than expected.
Over five weeks in Italy, I felt safer than if I were in Canada. Why? First, their vaccination rate is better than Canada’s. Second, they take masking seriously. I saw more people masked up in all the appropriate places than I have seen in Canada. Third, I was wandering around the countryside, my only contact with people was limited. I saw people when I checked into hotels or B&B’s, in outdoor patios of restaurants where we all practised some strategic social distancing, and everyone in grocery stores had to pass a thermo/temperature test before being allowed inside. Hand sanitizer was widely available and used by all.
But the primary reason I felt safer was the Italian Green Card – proof of both vaccinations – it was required for any person to enter a public place, museums, restaurants, hotels, stores, trains, buses. The Green Card was checked assiduously. There is no fooling around with nut-bars who think their individual right to choose to be vaccinated is infringed. Go home, you’re not welcome in public places was the rule. It is so obvious that we should isolate the anti-vaxxers and forbid them from participation in public life. No compromises. All it takes is a lot more political spine.
My exit from Italy and return to Canada was much easier. The ArrivCan app was downloaded. My Via Francigena Facebook friends showed me the approved list of providers of PCR tests needed for re-entry to Canada. I found one five minutes walk from my hotel in Rome, booked an appointment on line, showed up, had a swab taken in 5 minutes, payed my 60 Euros, and got the results back in about 12 hours. My hotel printed out the test results, I filed my paperwork with ArrivCan, got my confirmation code and made it through the Air Canada pre-screen in no time. When I arrived in Canada, I moved through the re-entry process in good time. I was home!
So, for those of you who are thinking about international travel in the foreseeable future this was my experience.
Here’s a few observations:
Read the entry and exit rules and take them seriously, you can’t negotiate yourself out of following the rules.
Ask people who have just done what you’re thinking of doing. My friend Norm went to Germany a week or so before I went to Italy. He had practical, common sense advice based on real-life experience and it helped.
Take every precaution that you would at home then be even more cautious.
Be polite, observe the local customs, ask for help and be polite. Did I mention be polite?
Make sure you have lots of band-width on your phone, tickets for everything must be ordered in advance; web based ticketing provides data for contact tracing and manages crowd sizes in interior locations.
Make sure all your insurance coverage is adequate and up-to-date.
I’m not a big fan of the idea that travel can profoundly change my life. I walk a lot of pilgrim miles, I don’t don’t believe in epiphanies. I do however believe that these adventures, by exposing us at our most vulnerable, allow us to see things we might miss or ignore. In more than five weeks of wandering Italy and being a tourist, I was shown more kindness than I had ever expected. The tender mercies of one person being kind to another, with no expectation of return or reciprocity were overwhelming.
If I have a thought to leave with others, it is this. Humans continue to show kindness, civility, interest and empathy with others. The Pandemic has not changed that. The pandemic may change the way we see the world but I don’t think it will stop us from having adventures, nor will it change our capacity for goodness.
Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves, When our dreams have come true Because we have dreamed too little, When we arrived safely Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wider seas Where storms will show your mastery; Where losing sight of land, We shall find the stars.
– Sir Francis Drake
Drake may have been dreaming too little because he felt too pleased with himself; I have not been dreaming much at all lately because of Covid 19. I’ve been trying to break free from some bad habits I’ve picked up during my time of covid.
The first is lethargy. All those months of finding small ways to amuse myself, of jigsaw puzzles, reading and mindless TV watching, have created a habit of whiling away hours with the only goal being to while away the hours while staying out of trouble. Unfortunately, doing nothing is now a habit and my dreams of adventure have disappeared.
The second is fear, anxiety and the desire for safety. I fell into a trap of only looking at the risk, the problems, the downside; I am too-much driven by the negative. The positive side of venturing out has blurred, it’s out of focus.
Oh, and that mindless TV watching – it took over my life for a while. And not in a good way. I’ve been captured by the ‘what if?’ anxiety of news reporting – aimed at raising questions that cannot be answered definitively, concerns that cannot be resolved, fears that cannot be put to rest. It makes me timid, anxious and risk adverse – in the covid environment the world became a scary place.
I forgot how to adventure. I lost the joy of possibility.
What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into these footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men? That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures.
– Virginia Woolf
It has been a struggle to find my equilibrium, to focus on the joy of adventure, to savour again the before-times.
My first tentative moves as the covid crisis lifted, enabled by my two vaccination shots, seem almost laughable now. I ventured out to see friends again, although mostly outside. My circle widened slowly. I actually hugged someone for the first time – leaving us both a bit red faced and skittish. It seemed so strange.
A few weeks ago I flew to Ottawa to see Blair, for the first time in some 18 months. Going into an airport, getting on a plane, traveling across the country; all things I never gave a moment’s thought, now seemed edgy, risky.
And then they weren’t.
I’m now standing on the precipice ready to leap off into the world. I have unfinished business that requires a conscious choice to take some risks and venture out.
I’m off to Italy to finish my walk on the Via Francigena. The Via is an epic pilgrimage, replicating the walk Sigeric made in the 10th century from Canterbury to Rome (and back) to receive his vestments and become a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.
My pilgrimage has taken some time. Thru-walkers do it all at once, from start to finish. I’m not so driven. In 2017, I managed to make it from Canterbury to Reims with Kristen part of the way. In 2018, I walked from through France from Reims, part way with my friend John, to Lausanne.
Blair joined me at Lausanne; we crossed the Great Saint Bernard Pass into Italy and meandered down to Ivrea. So far, I’ve managed 1200 km, with about 800 km left to go. (You’ll notice I didn’t say I walked 1200 km, there were trains and automobiles involved on occasion).
I feel a strong desire to pick up where I left off and finish this.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
– Mark Twain
I’m not sure I have twenty years so the time is now, not when the world is risk free. It never was. But I’m not into foolish risk-taking, at my age that is unwise. This is not my first rodeo and I think I’m clear-eyed about the risks.
Italy’s vaccination rates are high and moving briskly to cover more of the population (70% have the first shot, 60% have both). I am assured by people who have already traveled to Italy that my BC immunization card is recognized proof by Italian authorities. I will be in rural areas with minimal contact with others; no more hostels, I’m going upscale to my own hotel room! I’ll wear a mask and carry the equivalent of my weight in hand sanitizer. I have some new electronics that offer a communication and information safety net and a real live on-the-ground person (Bless you Shannon) who has volunteered to be my guardian angel should I need it. Needless risk is not smart, minimizing risk is.
So, I’m off.
Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.
– Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain is right. This will not always be pretty. I’ve been walking like Forrest Gump for a while now trying to get in shape but I expect much pain along the way. I also expect moments of pure joy. Whatever happens, I’ll be out there again, open to the possibilities.
In the process of completing a History course on renaissance Italy, I was required to do a major research paper of my choice. I tried to find a relatively obscure topic, I knew I would learn enough of Leonardo, Michelangelo, the Medici’s, Petrarch, Boccaccio, the Popes, etc. Laura suggested a woman artist, rare but interesting; I went further, a renaissance Florentine nun artist. My Prof, Emily O’Brien gave me some leads, some advice and lots of encouragement and set me off in search of Sister Plautilla. It was a worthy diversion for my days of self-isolation. It’s a long piece, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did researching and writing about Sister Plautilla.
Pray for the Paintress; the life of Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588
On October 17th, 2019, a major art event was held in the museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. The event celebrated the unveiling of a recently restored painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli, one of the earliest known women painters of the Renaissance. This was her glorious 7 metre (21 foot) by 2 metre (6.5 foot) interpretation of the Last Supper, with life-sized depictions of Jesus and the twelve apostles. The painting, signed “Sister Plautilla – Pray for the Paintress” was being shown fully restored after a long tortuous 450 year journey, finally casting a bright and admiring light on a long forgotten artist.
The event received world-wide attention, the Guardian described it in its headline; “Restored to glory; How a 16th century nun regained her place in art history.” The journalist, Joanna Moorhead, described the artist as; “a contemporary of Michelangelo, Titian, and Tintoretto; a native of Florence who spent her entire life in the city in which her greatest work has now been rediscovered; a woman who managed to paint at a time when women were effectively forbidden from doing so; and a nun”.
Such a remarkable story easily catches one’s attention. A woman, a nun, an artist, a contemporary of the great artists of renaissance Florence, whose works have been recovered, restored, mounted and displayed after decades of neglect is eye-catching and spell-binding. The Italian renaissance has always captivated our attention, the life of a nun in a convent offers insights into many aspects of the profound issues facing the church in a time of political, economic and spiritual upheaval. It was a time of conflict between temporal and religious forces, the emergence of humanism as an intellectual challenge to christianity, with the plague looming unforeseen and unpredictable, in the midst of a profound transformation of the established order from trade and the growth of the merchant class; all causing the tectonic shifts that led to the rise of the powerful city states and mercantile families like the Medici. Whew, that’s a lot going on.
Plautilla Nelli was born in 1524 in Florence. At the age of 14, she was placed in a convent. She spent her whole adult life as a nun at the convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio, renamed and better known as Santa Caterina de Sienna. She was prioress, head of the convent, three times before she died at the age of 64 in 1588. She was also an active painter who, mostly self taught, learned the disciplines and craft of painting; she taught, encouraged, mentored and collaborated with other nuns within the convent to successfully develop their own artistic talents to the point that Santa Caterina was known for its nun-artist community and the quality of its artistic output.
There are only four of her original paintings still in existence that can be safely attributed to her as well as some drawings that have been assembled from various sources. All, like the Last Supper have been meticulously restored. The Last Supper was painted in the 1560’s.
In the midst of all the turmoil, the unleashing of a burst of creative artistic genius that was the Italian renaissance, this nun painted a 21 foot by 6.5 foot masterpiece, her vision of the Last Supper, for her Convent’s refectory. Surrounded by brilliant art, and influenced by artists who set the gold standard for artistic achievement even today, she found her own style and a large enough canvas to capture and frame her vision. Joining this pantheon of achievement, being recognized with the unveiling of her newly restored piece is Sister Plautilla, whose only plea as she bridged the centuries was ‘Pray for the Paintress’. A humble enough request but perhaps she deserves more than a prayer from us. Does she deserve to stand with Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and the other greats of renaissance Florence?
Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
In 1971, Linda Nochlin, a prominent art historian, wrote a stunning article entitled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
In her words: “…like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”
To Nochlin the question: “…is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idees recues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this.
Nochlin concluded that there were no great women artists! The system of art training, curating, and the paternalistic society for training and judging ‘great’ art precluded any woman from being so designated. “There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s–and one can’t have it both ways–then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.”
She went on: “But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education–education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics and the arts.”
Her penetratingly honest, starkly logical and courageous analysis set off a storm of controversy and a conversation that has not ended, it likely never will. It is not because women suffer from an incapacity of their gender but that an insurmountable set of barriers set by a patriarchal system had made such an achievement impossible. What she called for was a complete destruction of the whole system around the teaching, creation, nurturing, curating, and judging of what constituted art.
How then do we judge Sister Plautilla, is she a ‘great’ artist or should she be celebrated for having achieved ‘so much sheer excellence’ in spite of the impediments and obstacles she had to overcome?
Giorgio Vasari, the first art critic.
Sister Plautilla was identified as one of only four women artists who were worthy of note by the most famous chronicler of art at the time, Giorgio Vasari. Vasari (1511-1574) was a painter and an architect but his enduring legacy was ‘not a building or a painting but a book’, the first book attempting to chronicle and analyze art and discuss what it took to be an artist.
Vasari’s chronicle was described as “ a pioneering work in the field of art history… which laid the groundwork for modern art history…essential reading today.” Paoletti and Radke affirmed this judgement, saying Vasari: “provided a dominating critical and historical framework for understanding Italian art… Vasari’s narrative has been remarkably tenacious within the critical literature and therefore deserves some attention. Vasari championed the individual creative genius view of ‘great’ and presumed that the best way for an artist to learn the craft was through the workshop system; he also preferred the Tuscan style, exemplified by his favorite, Michelangelo, that dominated the renaissance art period in Florence and throughout Italy. And, of course, there was the implicit bias that Nochlin points out: “…it was difficult for most men, not just Vasari, to believe that women could be both creative and virtuous”.
Vasari had written this vast sweeping chronicle of art in 1550, revised in 1568; his revision included Sister Plautilla with a short but glowing commentary. Vasari was the first, or the first we know of, to include Sister Plautilla in a chronicle of distinguished artists and the first to judge her merit as an artist. Vasari describes Sister Plautilla; “… she executed some works that have amazed the artists.” This is high praise given the renaissance artists with whom she was being compared. He went on; “Despite the fact that the artist, being a woman, lacked practice in painting from life, these (women in many of her works) are painted so well that no one could ask for more.”
Vasari said of her: “She made so many paintings for the homes of Florentine gentlemen that it would take too much time to list them all here.” Finally, tellingly, he described her as; “revered and virtuous.”
Vasari was the most influential art ‘critic’ of his time. He lived in a world where women were not allowed to be artists, much less judged as equals of their male contemporaries for their merit. He would understand, accept and take for granted the limitations and constraints on women artists, the life of convent nuns and their place in the complicated interaction between the cloister and the outside world. He would be fully aware of the struggle of a woman like Sister Plautilla to learn the craft of painting, to study and create in a time when art was in high demand by patrons whose status in their community was judged by what hung on the walls of their ‘studiolo’, the Italian equivalent of the modern study.
However, Vasari presumed that women were not intellectually capable of creating a distinctive style ‘a maniera’, that only a man, one who undergoes rigorous training under the supervision of a master artist in a long apprenticeship could develop such a distinctive style. He had a clear bias toward the humanist influenced artists like Michelangelo over the religious themed art of the Savonarola influenced Dominicans. Vasari was primarily focused on Florentine art, on the masters of this never-matched time of artistic excellence and on their artistic achievements; he was attuned to, and was a major proponent of, the growing influence of humanist views on the conventional spiritual and religious themes and portrayals of the pre-renaissance period.
One can also assume that because Sister Plautilla only painted within religious themes dictated by Savonarolan principles of simplicity, piety and spiritual clarity that she would be seen as less developed. It would be fair to say that Vasari saw Sister Plautilla as an artist of unfulfilled potential yet incapable and therefore not worthy of being included with the greats of renaissance Florentine art.
The Rediscovery of Sister Plautilla Nelli – Renaissance Artist.
One of the consequences of Nochlin’s question was the concerted attempt by many to find those women who if they had not been described as ‘great’, had at least “managed to achieve so much sheer excellence” that they deserve real recognition and, more than that, deserved to be hung in galleries and museums and made the focus of exhibits. These art lovers did not necessarily want to prove that Nochlin was wrong or that the whole cultural development system that we call art was completely broken, they wanted to show the world that there WERE women artists worthy of consideration who were overlooked, who could be found, could be revisited, whose art could be restored and re-exhibited; these forgotten women artists could finally be elevated to well-deserved positions of respect based on the sheer excellence of their achievements. They wanted women artists to be recognized – to finally be Visible.
One of the most active and successful groups to undertake the search for these great women artists was Advancing Women Artists.
The group of predominantly American benefactors led by Jane Fortune was organized in 2007 with a specific mission to: “preserve, conserve and restore works by women artists held in the museums of in Florence.”
Sister Plautilla, already identified by Vasari, was chosen as a major focus of the AWA work. At the start, there were only three pieces of art attributed to Sister Plautilla known to still exist, another has been verified and all four have been restored and put on display in Florence.
The AWA commenced funding and organizing collaborative restoration efforts for the Lamentation with Saints now in the Museo di San Marco in Florence. It was a large piece, measuring 288 cm (113 inches) by 192 Cm. (75 inches) restored and unveiled in 2006.
A second piece was restored and unveiled in 2008, Saint Dominic receives the Rosary, 147 cm (58 in.) by 231 cm (91 in.); it is currently displayed at the Last Supper Museum of Andrea del Sarto, Florence.
The third piece, Saint Catherine in prayer, also restored in 2008, was equally large, 145 cm (57 in.) by 235 cm (92.5 in), is also on display at the Last Supper Museum.
The restoration and unveiling of The Last Supper, the final known pieceby Sister Plautilla was documented in ‘Visible’, a book that details the recovery and restoration of the painting. The Last Supper was her most outstanding achievement, yet it might never have survived to be restored and exhibited. The restoration took four years and cost over US$200,000. (Lobo)
Linda Falcone and others describe what is known of the journey, a journey that one writer called tormented, of this now famous work of art. The piece was originally painted for the refectory, the major hall usually used for dining at Santa Caterina, Sister Plautilla’s convent and home. It hung there until the convent was dissolved by Napoleonic edict in the early 19th century. Luckily it was acquired by a related monastery, Santa Maria Novella in 1817 where it was hung until the early 20th century.
At that point, it was removed from its stretcher, rolled up and stored for several decades, not lost but certainly forgotten. Rediscovered in the 1930’s, restoration work was undertaken and the painting was again hung in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella. In the 1980’s it was again removed, again rolled up and put away until it was re-re-discovered by Jane Fortune.
The Last Supper and Sister Plautilla – restored.
Sister Plautilla painted the Last Supper in the early 1560’s; she would have been in her 30’s at the time. She signed it: “S. PLAUTILLA – ORATE PRO PICTORA” – Sister Plautilla, Pray for the Paintress”.
The restoration of the painting not only uncovered the original canvas but brought to light so much more about the artist and this monumental piece of renaissance devotional art. The documentation of the history of the painting’s life, from celebration to storage to recovery to restoration was but one aspect of the discovery process, undertaken to both assist the restoration and authenticate the provenance of the painting.
Visible, a book created to document the restoration process, revealingly called it ‘a monumental canvas saved centimetre by centimetre’. The challenge was complicated and daunting; to remove centuries of dust and grime, made worse by years of accumulated grease and soot from kitchen fumes adjacent to the refectory, to stabilize and secure the original three pieces of canvas carefully stitched together to make the huge canvas, to repair the harm caused by removing the painting from its frame and rolling it up to be stored in a damp, dusty environment, to dig through several layers of previous restoration attempts which were now covering the true painting; all this had to be done centimetre by centimetre. The paints used by Sister Plautilla had to be carefully analyzed and matched to be re-applied to accurately replace those used in the 1560’s in a manner that matched not only the original artist’s paint but her brush strokes and her style. It was an expensive, time-consuming and challenging task of meticulous alchemy, yet it faithfully rendered a vibrant restoration, worthily reflecting the original.
In the process of going through the canvas so minutely, all those involved, analysts, restorers, technicians and art historians had the time and the opportunity to ‘read’ the painting. Their detailed analyses offered some interesting observations.
The composition of the painting reflects the strong influence of Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), the Dominican monk noted for his demands for a return to spiritual simplicity and devotion to the biblical principles of the early disciples and his condemnation of the lavish richness of the church and its new humanist-influenced art which he saw as distractions from sacred themes. His criticism of the church hierarchy gained him many followers but also accumulated enemies within the church. He was excommunicated, then put to death for refusing to be quiet. He was an early precursor of the Tridentine influences on the church resulting from the reformation and the counter-reformation response of the Council of Trent.
Savonarola had a powerful positive effect that opened a space for Sister Plautilla and her convent brethren. Savonarola believed in the power of art to heighten Christian piety and devotion. Painting was encouraged, art was to be desired and it was to be made a part of every convent. Pictures would be commissioned and hung inside convents and monasteries. Her artistic development was encouraged especially since it exemplified her convent’s adherence to Savonarola’s admonitions that art reflect this religious austerity.
The setting of her painting was austere, a simple white tablecloth, a muted background, table settings that reflected the glasses and dish-ware that would have been common in the refectory, with a few pieces that, in a muted way, hinted at the richness of Medicean Florence. The food displayed was both symbolic of the sacramental nature of the last supper as described in scripture – the wine and the bread. She also embellished the menu and illustrated food common to the convent table. Interestingly she even displays a large bowl with a lamb, bowls of lettuce and fava beans, all rich with both allegorical and personal meaning to the convent nuns viewing the painting as they ate.
The curators recognized the artist’s thoughtful placement of Jesus and the twelve apostles, captured at the moment when he announces that he has been betrayed. Each man, life sized, is unique, each carefully depicted. Without any chance to actually learn to paint the male human form from live models because she was both a woman and a nun, Sister Plautilla receives much credit for her depiction of them; “the figures of the apostles are intensely characterized by highly realistic and varied physiognomies, which the artist represented using different poses portraying wide-ranging expressions…a great deal of attention had, in fact, been paid to accurately depict human anatomy…. evident in the precise rendition of many details which, together, contribute to making the composition much more enjoyable to look at”.
Interestingly, Judas is prominent, isolated and unique in his placement on the near side of the table, his proximity to Jesus, the strong colours of his clothing, even down to the telling detail of the money bag in his hands; it was a careful and precise representation of the words from the Bible. Savonarola would have been pleased.
It is again important to note that while Vasari made special mention of Sister Plautilla in his 1568 Lives of Artists, her painting style and her choice of topic were far from the vanguard of new humanist stylists that he admired. Her influences were not humanism and new ways of representing artistic subjects beyond the usual realm of devotional and religious icons, nor was she using techniques that could be considered avant garde for the time. While she most likely was aware of these major transformations in art, technique and subject matter and how to represent them, she was much influenced by the Savonarolan desire to emphasize simplicity and pious adherence to scripture in artistic representation.
She was also a nun (and prioress) painting for the refectory of her convent – her home – seeking to provide devotional encouragement to that audience, her convent nuns; “Art produced for convent environments was judged for its devotional efficacy not for the creator’s originality. The function of art in this context was to support meditation by producing an appropriate state of mind in the viewer, and to induce emotional empathy. Images of saints or deities did their work best if shown, not performing a momentary or distracting action, but as serene, enduring essences.”
A Father’s dilemma
One of the biggest challenges a father faced in 16th century Florence was what to do with his daughters. The constant challenge facing every man was how to manage the family’s property and financial resources, there was no safety net for a man and his family. Daughters were property, they presented an opportunity and a challenge. There were not many options available to fathers with daughters who had reached puberty; it was either marriage or the convent.
Marriage ‘resembled a corporate merger rather than the romantic or spiritual linking of a man and a woman’. His daughter, a prospective bride, offered a chance to build relationships, to move up the economic and social ladder, to expand business networks, to build an extended social network and a more extensive family safety net. But, like everything, it came with a cost. The child had to be physically attractive and well dressed, educated in the skills and arts of femininity, well spoken, musical, mannered and chaste. All this cost money; in addition, the groom’s family required a suitable dowry.
On the other side of the matrimonial equation, the father of the prospective groom was equally interested in advancing his family’s fortunes, a well chosen wife with all the wifely virtues and a solid if not wealthy family to offer a substantial dowry were essential considerations. Both sides sought to protect and enhance family wealth now and enhance prospects into the future.
Dowries in sixteenth century Florence were huge, they reached such highly inflated levels in the late 15th century that in Florence, a special dowry investment fund was created allowing parents to invest money in an account funded by the monies forfeited by daughters who died before reaching marriageable age! And, as Florence became richer and more cosmopolitan, the cost of trousseaus and wedding feasts became prohibitive.
The only other credible alternative for a father who wanted to ensure his daughter lived a safe, meaningful and virtuous life was the convent. Without a husband, a woman had almost no options; working was not one of them, single women were not educated for a profession, were not allowed into the guilds or apprenticeship programs that led to a trade, the options seemed to be to become a lady in waiting or some other sort of servant or wet nurse.
While most convents required some sort of dowry, it was usually much smaller, payments were more flexible and trousseaus/jewelry and other ancillary obligations were not necessary. There was some ongoing obligation of families to ensure that their nun-daughter did not starve but that challenge was not insurmountable and could be solved by other stratagems.
There were other contributing factors to the decision to commit a daughter to the convent, not the least of which was the events of the time. Life in sixteenth century Florence was anything but predictable; these were tumultuous and uncertain times, fraught with dangers for everyone but especially so for women, young and old.
Kaborycha recounts the volatility of the time; the vicious and cataclysmic sack of Rome had just occurred in 1526, news reached Florence a year later. Plautilla was 3 or 4 at the time, her sister a few years older. Florence was a city that depended on banking, commerce, trade, sales of high end and luxury goods – all required stability and peace. The siege of Florence after the sack of Rome under-mined this sense of stability. By the late 1530’s Cosimo Medici, backed by the Spanish took firm control of Florence again. Through all this political turmoil, there was the constant threat of plague which ravaged Florence, destroying families and wiping out large portions of the population.
In these circumstances, placing daughters in a convent, in the absence of a good marriage to a strong and wealthy family, added a margin of safety that could not be found elsewhere.
A child becomes a Nun in 16th century Florence.
Plautilla Nelli spent most of her life as a nun; she grew up in a convent, lived her whole life in the company of other women, all of whom had pledged themselves to a unique religious calling as ‘brides of Christ’? How did this impact her evolution as an artist?
Plautilla Nelli entered the Convent of Santa Caterina de Sienna in central Florence in 1538 at the age of 14, following her sister, Petronilla, who entered the same convent one year earlier, at the age of 17. Their mother had died in 1530 when Plautilla was about 6. Their father Piero Nelli had remarried almost immediately; he died sometime in 1538.
Plautilla’s father, Piero Nelli, variously described as a draper, a merchant and a commercial businessman came from a family with a solid name but he did not live amongst the wealthier of Florence’s merchant class. Piero’s untimely death was most likely the strongest factor in the placement of his two daughters in the Santa Caterina convent. They were orphans with no money, an uncertain dowry and little social status to secure a significant marriage; the best option for orphan daughters was the convent, a large local, well-regarded Dominican convent conveniently located in the neighbourhood, a convent with which he had done business, where his name and that of his two daughters would have been known and carried some value. This convent, Santa Caterina de Sienna, was a large tertiary convent in the Piazza San Marco in central Florence.
Two aspects of their placement in Santa Caterina are worth noting. This was a tertiary convent. Tertiary convents allowed nuns to make vows of chastity, abstinence and devotion without having to live a cloistered life inside the four walls of the convent.
Second, as already noted, Santa Caterina was a Dominican convent and had a long affiliation with followers of Savonarola, his strong views on the importance of art as a celebration of religious piety and devotion opened a space for Sister Plautilla to learn and develop her gifts as an artist.
The Nun in her Cloister – Protected or Imprisoned?
The consequences of becoming a nun could be seen as positive or negative, though many saw it as second best. Marriage was not such a perfect life for women. Wives, like daughters, were property to be managed for their value. Most were perpetually pregnant, many died in childbirth at a very young age, the pressure to keep procreating was pervasive and each birth represented a threat to the mother’s health. Life could be a treadmill of pregnancy, suckling, raising infants and managing (or doing) all the associated household tasks. There were no modern conveniences and necessities like running water, plumbing and heating were haphazard or non-existent.
They were servile to their fathers and then their husbands, with few rights, limited in their movement, tightly controlled in their activities and dependent on their husbands. While there were notable examples of women who pushed the envelope a bit, they were usually well-educated, came from and kept close to their powerful families, had their own sources of wealth and managed to negotiate space for their own growth. They were the exceptions that proved the rule.
The growth and spread of convents supported the contention that convent life was a welcome alternative: “Before the Black Death, the city boasted approximately five hundred nuns, by 1500 that number had increased fourfold to over two thousand before climbing to twenty-five hundred by 1515. Convent populations doubled yet again over the next forty years. Expressed in terms of the urban population, nuns represented roughly 1 out of every 200-250 Florentine inhabitants in the late 1330’s, by 1552, about 1 in every 20 residents was a nun….” – in 1552 about 5% of the population of Florence. Clearly, sending one’s daughters to a convent was considered by many to be the right strategy; Sister Petronilla and Sister Plautilla were reflective of a major realignment of Florentine society.
Nuns in fact were much more than cloistered women who prayed, this was especially true for Tertiary nuns who had much more open and flexible interactions with the wider society. Convents had become a major presence in all aspects of Florentine life.
Tertiary convents opened many opportunities for women, “Convents served the social purpose of providing a respectable place for girls and women to live out their lives when no better arrangement could be found for them in the outside world. Some women welcomed the companionship and quiet pleasures of a convent. In addition to practical tasks such as caring for the sick, gardening, embroidering, preparing foods and pharmaceuticals, nuns also engaged in recreational activities such as singing and acting in sacred dramas. Many convents put a strong emphasis on learning…”.
Because of the size of convents, they became vital to the health and welfare of Florence “at the local neighbourhood level”. Nuns were affiliated with local churches, they prayed for parishioners on request (for a small fee), they cared for the sick and the elderly, they took in widows and abandoned daughters of the poor, and they engaged in local commerce.
Convent dowries often consisted not of money but of bits and pieces of property, household goods of value, buildings which offered rental income, farms and agricultural properties – all requiring management. The nuns engaged in commercial activities managing their affairs, spent money in the local neighbourhood, hired local workers and participated in community events, leading a plethora of religious observances and, through their adjacent church buildings, became a neighbourhood hub, providing meeting places for confraternities. They even sued lessees for unpaid rents.
The convent of Sister Petronilla and Sister Plautilla was Santa Caterina de Sienna. Created in 1500, it was a large tertiary convent in the Piazza San Marco; by 1562, there were 133 members. In addition to its size, many of the nuns came from rich and powerful families with webs of relationships throughout the neighbourhood and the city. Families were able to support the convent, the convent nuns actively participated in the ecumenical and pastoral affairs of the community.
Convents and their nuns became producers of goods and providers of services; “textile activities, book production, education…depended primarily on literate and manual skills, religion and technical knowledge, and significant human capital, which convents possessed in ever greater abundance”. Convents and the work of nuns were ingrained and irreplaceable in the development and expansion of the Florentine silk industry, helping to establish the city as a commercial centre and bringing wealth to the city.
Convents were hubs of learning and manuscript/book production. Sister Petronilla became well-known as a copyist and illustrator of religious texts, even writing a well regarded biography on Savonarola.
While individual women, married or single, were excluded from engaging in any kind of craft work or guild work, inside the convent walls, nuns could develop skills and engage in work and commercial activities even though; “working for the market amplified social contradictions by pitting nuns’ economic needs against gender norms, traditional values of honor and ideals of religious reclusion.” Such work was even encouraged because it provided commercial opportunities for the larger Florentine business community. Their commercial activities were also supported by their extended families since the money raised by convents through these activities took pressure off the families; convents became self supporting, financially literate and commercially engaged.
Monastic poverty was a real issue. Three of every four nuns in Florence experienced some form of monastic poverty. Every family in Florence had a stake in ensuring that convents were self-sufficient or even prosperous, the alternative was using precious family money to keep them afloat.
Finally, it is worth noting that convents became important and influential components of the political infrastructure in Medicean Florence. The convent had built a web of interdependent relationships giving the convent and its prioress power; she was able to wield influence, her voice carried weight, her support could be influential. There is no doubt of her management skills or her extensive web of contacts outside the convent walls.
How did Sister Plautilla become an artist?
It is in this greater context in which Sister Plautilla’s development as an artist must be considered. Her sister was an illustrator of religious texts, only one of many devotional items made by nuns… “inexpensive figurines of saints, angels, and the Virgin using ephemeral materials like glass, paper and plaster….although similar items were produced in lay workshops, the ones produced by religious women probably gave them a special cachet. These workshops formed the historical backbone of later monastic craft collaborations, like the one organized around Sour Plautilla Nelli, ‘the first woman painter of Florence’”. Convent ledgers and extant records of transactions showed “virtually all Florentine nuns can be considered working women who regularly engaged in market activities.”, in startling contrast to all other women who lived outside the convent structure and were prohibited from working!
Producing goods with artistic commercial value required a level of skill that could match that of the guilds, nuns learned and taught each other the crafts. While there is much discussion about the artistic influences that may have guided Sister Plautilla’s artistic development, there is only speculation as to how she actually mastered the craft of painting, especially such large canvasses. Vasari offers clues, “she began to draw and paint little by little until she finally through much diligence….(she) studied the art of miniatures before she began painting panels and works of importance…she copied from others…the faces and features of women are much better and have much greater verisimilitude than her heads of men because she was free to study women at her leisure”. It was also noted that for a time Sister Plautilla worked in the Convent’s pharmacy and would have had access to the materials and learned the craft of grinding ingredients and making paint colours.
Sister Plautilla learned some of her skills as a painter by working on small devotional items first, diligently studied art on her visits outside the convent especially as a prioress, was able to access copies of works of art from the vibrant artistic community and through the transfer of the artistic papers and drawings of several Dominican friars, and was able to practise her painting skills with the encouragement of the convent prioresses, strongly encouraged as a way to show devotion to Christ. According to Vasari she was exceptionally prolific, with ‘so many paintings for the homes of Florentine Gentlemen that it would take too much time to list them all here”.
Serafino Razzi, another chronicler of artists and a Friar in a related Dominican monastery describer Sister Plautilla as “gifted with a genius above the ordinary in women”…who “created works that amazed the leading artists in the city of Florence” noted many paintings which are now lost. Convent records show sizeable financial income from the sale of pieces of art, many attributable to her, one as far away as Perugia.
Since her paintings were mostly devotional, they were made even more valuable in the minds of patrons because they were painted by a nun. While some art historians hypothesize that she learned in the studio, or under the tutelage, of some well-known Friars in adjacent monasteries, the restoration of The Last Supper seems to suggest otherwise; her painting technique, her style, the positioning of the subjects, even the paints she used were singular, a synthesis of all that she learned from other sources, and taught herself to use – not unlike any artist. They were definitely not the result of tutelage by a single master.
Again, it is hard to judge the merits of her skill and the value of her work. The paintings which still exist are all large religious themed paintings for the walls of refectories and other spaces in convents and monasteries. They are not fully representative of her body of work.
The paintings that do exist seem, at best guess to be painted between 1556, when Sister Plautilla was 32 years old and 1560 or so, when she produced the Last Supper. Much of her later work, perhaps impacted by the edicts of the Council of Trent were for other monasteries and convents.
One of the most plausible conjectures is that she rose to mastery ‘sheer excellence’ by being self taught; having entered the convent at 14; “Thus by the time she was thirty-five years old and credited with income from the sale of paintings to outside patrons, she may have had two decades of training and experience behind her. She also had reached the point where she could lead other nuns in the craft.”
This other aspect of Sister Plautilla’s unique talent deserves mention. She was part of and most likely was instrumental in creating and leading, a large group of other artist-nuns that made Santa Caterina notable if not famous. The creation of a group of artists working together at Santa Caterina was first noted by Razzi, himself a Dominican friar whose sister was a nun/artist at Santa Caterina. He cited three nuns by name and described them: “all three, disciples of the said Suor Plautilla, live in the same convent. Their paintings on canvas and panels won them praise and helped support their convent; they did nothing else in their spare time, when they were not praying.”
It is well documented that at least one other, Sister Prudenza Cambi, was a successful painter and earned money for the convent from the sale of her paintings, though none seem to exist today. Turrill profiles eight women who are known to have participated in the production of paintings, sculpture and other religious icons; “these virtuous and saintly nuns trained in both painting and manuscript illumination, whose sculpted images of Christ, the madonna, saints and angels were renowned throughout almost all of Italy.”
Sister Plautilla the Prioress.
Sister Plautilla was also Prioress of Santa Caterina for three terms, each term for three-years, 1563-65, 1571-73 and 1583-85, the last ending a few short years before her death in 1588.
She was required to manage the complex affairs of a large convent with some 130 nuns; all those mundane issues from the daily challenges of food and rooming, heating and plumbing, work assignments, spiritual training to the larger more complex issues of ensuring that the restrictions of Council of Trent edicts did not destroy the financial stability of the convent, limit the contact of nuns with family, friends and community or even the broader state. The convent succeeded during her lifetime: “By the twilight years of the Florentine republic, these institutions had been irrevocably impressed into spiritual service to the state, transforming brides of Christ into daughters of the city.
Sister Plautilla was prioress before and during the time the edicts of the Council of Trent were implemented and strictly enforced on the larger more influential Dominican tertiary convents; driven by higher powers in the church system, all men, who sought to restrict nuns to the cloister and control contact with the outside world. It wasn’t until 1575 that the Council of Trent’s enclosure system was imposed on Santa Caterina. Sister Plautilla, as prioress, would have faced the delicate and challenging daily negotiations with civic and church leaders who sought to curb the activities of the convent, deprive them of the commercial means to maintain their convent and take care of their nuns and limit their contact and ability to minister to their community.
The resistance of the tertiary convents to erosion of their freedom and individual and collective agency, especially to the implementation of Council of Trent edicts and other reforms, would have been a monumental and complicated task, worthy of a treatise by Machiavelli.
Yet it was vital. In this rare period, nuns enjoyed a considerable amount of agency, the freedom to interact with the world outside the convent walls, to engage in the community, to create and and sell goods, to manage their financial affairs, to be a part of the broader community.
Sister Plautilla and her fellow artists in the convent utilized this freedom to develop their artistic skills. Preserving their hard earned freedom kept open a singular opportunity for her convent and her nuns to practise their art without constraint.
Was Sister Plautilla a great Artist?
Vasari said no. She was a woman, she had not been formally trained in a workshop under the tutelage of a great artist. She had not developed a distinctive style – a maniera, she was stuck in the old ways of religious devotional art and had not evolved to keep pace with his favourite, Michelangelo. She simply did not fit the criteria for greatness that he had established in his Lives of the Artists.
It would seem impossible to contradict Vasari, he was there; he saw the breadth of her work, any attempt at repudiating his judgement today is limited based on the limited canvases that still exist, a tiny portion of her artistic output.
Yet, to his credit, he praised her lavishly.
Sister Plautilla Nelli is a perfect example of Nochlin’s thesis that there can be no women who can be called great artists. The deck is stacked against them. There was no formal training, no family support, no tutelage under great artists, no symbiosis that comes from spending one’s waking hours in the company of other artists, no flock of critical reviewers and admiring patrons to spur and challenge – and yes – reward and faun over the artist. Sister Plautilla had none of those.
Nochlin leaves space for Sister Plautilla to be celebrated; She is the representative icon Nochlin celebrates; “The miracle that managed to achieve so much sheer excellence”.
Sister Plautilla Nelli should be valued and celebrated for her artistic achievement. Vasari’s judgement is flawed by his obvious biases, yet his power to define artistic greatness lives on. Nochlin would say that Vasari was wrong in the construction of his model and the inflexibility of his tests and the unwillingness to test his bias. It is hard not to agree with her.
Sister Plautilla has gifted the world four huge brilliant masterpieces. She managed these works by perfecting her gifts with studious discipline, overcoming impediments unknown to most of her male contemporaries. She somehow made the leap from creating miniatures and religious crafts for sale to support the convent to producing large pieces – as wide as billboards. She sold paintings to patrons – working in direct competition with the most gifted artist ever to populate a single city at a unique moment in the development of artistic excellence.
Sister Plautilla was also lucky, although it is difficult sometimes to see her advantage. She entered a large, well-run convent under the Savonarolan influence. She was encouraged to develop her talent, not only to develop commercial activities that benefited the financial well-being of her community, but because art was a way to celebrate her calling as a ‘bride of Christ’, a reverential Christian. She was a tertiary nun at the right time, moving relatively freely in Florence on behalf of her convent, building relationships, talking with craftsmen and other artisits, getting to know patrons, even it seems forging a mutual respect with Vasari himself.
She had time, a lifetime, to focus solely on developing her skills and she had access to the greatest artists’ works to show her the best one could aspire to. She had found a window in time to enjoy that the two things denied women mostly memorably identified by Virginia Woolf centuries later, a room of one’s own and 500 guineas a year. Sister Plautilla had a supportive environment, peace, quiet and time to practise and experiment and develop her art and she was ensured the basic provisions of life so that she could focus on her art and not worry about finding food, paying rent, serving a husband or minding children. It wasn’t quite a sinecure at a famous artists academy but it was significant and transformational. It gave her space and agency.
She was obviously gifted to have achieved ‘so much sheer excellence’ but, as we all know, gifts take an artist only part way; she was clearly organized, energetic, focused and diligent in perfecting those talents. Nochlin is right, achieving greatness may be impossible when the deck is so stacked against one, but her sheer excellence demands to be recognized for the barriers she overcame and the accomplishments she achieved.
Sister Plautilla used her talents to teach and develop others. She is acknowledged as a catalyst and leader, training and advancing the artistic efforts of her whole community of nun-artists in the Santa Caterina convent harnessing “the collective nature of the creative process that defined the way in which nuns practised art in convents,”.
“The heroic individualism of High Renaissance art would not have served the social interests of the nuns of Santa Caterina. Theirs was a communal society, grounded in a spiritual sisterhood that transcended blood ties, whose goal of communal harmony was supported by the images the placed around them. Sour Plautilla did not work in creative isolation, as Vasari described her, but as a part of a vital artistic community that she guided.”
I prefer to think of her in the process of painting the Last Supper:
“Picture the nun in her holy garments, mixing her pigments and stepping up onto scaffolding to brush enormous strokes of paint onto a canvas taller than her and wider than a contemporary billboard. The physical undertaking would have been immense, requiring great strength, focus and discipline – to say nothing of the will required to take on this sacred subject attempted before only by the male greats.”
In the fall of 2019, I became a student again. I attended my first class in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Simon Fraser University. http://www.sfu.ca/gls.html
I wore my brand new Doc Martens shoes to class, partly because, as we all know one needs to choose proper footwear before embarking on an adventure, partly from a foolish belief that if I wore them, I wouldn’t look so out-of-place at the university but mostly because I had never actually owned a pair of Doc Martens and I felt unfulfilled. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
The program has been a life-saver in this time of Covid stay-at-home orders. My courses have given me structure and purpose. They have filled my mind, mostly with questions; still, that’s better than vacant stares out of my window. I have met an interesting diverse group of fellow students, my professors have been universally superlative and I am now known on a first name basis by several independent book stores, a group that specifically excludes that scourge of modern life called Amazon, a rant I’ll save for another day.
One of my classes was a writing class. We were required, amongst other creative writing tasks, to produce a long piece of original writing with the hope that our final result would be published in a literary journal – the Ormsby Review. https://ormsbyreview.com/
I never imagined being published in a literary magazine, but in this time of covid, anything is possible. And, before I start to think of myself as a member of the literary intelligentsia, I remind myself that I still cannot seem to pronounce Nietzsche to the satisfaction of anyone, although I do think I have mastered how to pronounce Freud.
Sometimes, the spirit of this season is crystallized in a small moment, a gesture, a simple kindness, what I like to call a Tender Mercy. I had one two days ago that has blessed me with a renewed faith in the human spirit.
I have mixed views about this holiday. I’m not a Christian, but I have a belief in what I have learned to call a higher power. I settle somewhere in the realm of aspirational secular humanist. I can give a long blah-blah-blah about the commercialization of this holiday as one of many other digressions but I am a softy.
I’ve never made it through any of the cheesy seasonal movies without tearing up a bit at the end – even Love Actually. Forget I ever said that, I’ll deny it.
But I struggle sometimes, capturing the spirit of the season can be a challenge, especially this year with Covid hanging over us all.
This year is different.
There is a woman binner in our neighbourhood. I’ll call her Jane, not her real name. For anyone who believes that being poor is a result of laziness, I would suggest they spend a day with Jane. She pushes her trusty shopping cart loaded with cans, bottles and plastic through our neighbourhood every day. She has a route, checking the bins, the dumpsters, the recycle containers for our cast-offs, which she then exchanges for a pittance. I don’t know what she makes a day but I’m told $15-20 is a good day.
She is at it every day, except maybe Sunday.
I started to chat with her whenever I met her. One thing I learned from my friend Susan and others at places where I volunteered is that people like Jane are seldom recognized or spoken to, we make them invisible. It isolates them, dehumanizes them and robs them of their humanity, their individuality and their dignity.
So, we chat. Each time, I learn a bit about her. A few months ago, she got a place of her own, an SRO somewhere near here. Her biggest joy, she said, was that she had a freezer to put a carton of ice cream in, she didn’t have to eat the whole thing when she spent some hard earned money on a little treat.
She had a boyfriend who died a while ago, it saddened her.
Two day ago, I asked about the holidays, did she have some people to spend Xmas with? She said she was still grieving over her ex-boyfriend’s death so she was going to spend some time alone.
Then she volunteered a bit of information. She had been stopped by someone in the neighbourhood a day ago. They had given her a check for $1000. Out of the blue, a gift of the magi; she teared up as she told me, so did I.
I could not imagine what that meant to her, so stumbling around for something to say, I asked her what she would do with that gift. “Well,” she said, “I think I’ll take tomorrow off.”
I wished her a happy holiday and we went on our separate ways.
Attached is a modified version of a paper submitted to my SFU class on the history of Rome. In this time of covid, my Liberal Studies courses have kept me busy, given me purpose, structure and discipline. This one also allowed me to dream about and learn more about my next great travel adventure – not quite the same as actually traveling but good enough for now.
In 990, Sigeric, Abbot of St. Augustine’s Canterbury and the highest ranking member of the Anglo Saxon Catholic hierarchy in Britain, received word that Pope John XV wanted to elevate him to the role of Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tradition required that Sigeric journey to Rome to meet the Pope and receive his pallium, a white woollen scarf embroidered with six black crosses that represented his seal of office.
It was not a journey to be taken lightly, covering some 1900 kilometres. Sigeric was not the first to make this walk, it was a pilgrimage route that traced its pathways back to the 4th Century, after Constantine I proclaimed the Edict of Milan and made it safe(r) for Christians to celebrate their faith openly and to embark on pilgrimages to Rome to pay tribute to and pray before Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Pilgrims from all over Europe travelled to Rome finding ways to traverse sometimes hostile lands and navigate some challenging terrain, which for most involved making their way through a few manageable passes across the Alps. Perilous, long and fraught with danger, such journeys were not to be taken lightly.
On July 16, 2017 I left the gates of Canterbury Cathedral to follow in the footsteps of Sigeric. My journey so far has occurred in two phases, the first took me as far as Reims, in France; in the second phase in July/August 2018, I managed to cross the Great Saint Bernard Pass and descend the Italian side of the Alps into Ivrea. The next and hopefully final phase will follow his path into Rome.
Sigeric’s trip to Rome is unrecorded, most authorities presume he and his retinue walked the same path he used on his return journey. What is known is that his trip to Rome took some 79 days. Of the days he spent in Rome, 3 days are recorded, he returned to Canterbury shortly afterwards. The trip home required more than 80 days.
What makes his pilgrimage notable is that one of his secretaries kept a careful log of his visits to 23 Roman churches over three days and recorded a daily log of his trip from Rome to Canterbury, a ‘guidebook’ in Latin of the stages and stops along the way.
That book has been preserved and currently rests at the British Museum (MS. Cotton Dominitan A. VII). The route has become immortalized as the Via Francigena. It is unique; the only list of Roman churches between the eighth and twelfth centuries the only daily chronicle of stops on the pilgrimage between Rome and Canterbury from that period.
The Diary only chronicles three frenetic days of church visits, there is some conjecture as to whether Sigeric would make a perilous journey of almost three months duration and stay in Rome only three days. Most assume he stayed much longer.
There is nothing like walking a route traveled long ago to get some sense of what Sigeric experienced. While it was fraught with challenges, the route had been traveled for five or six centuries, Roman roads existed and continued to prove the remarkable and enduring talent of Roman engineering (we actually walked for part of a day on an old Roman road – straight as an arrow and still solid and passed an ancient Roman waystation that was part of a major Swiss archeological site).
In addition, monasteries, local and church sponsored charitable ‘hospitals’ purpose-built to serve pilgrims on their journey had been established that provided some rudimentary level of food and lodging along the way. (we managed to stay at a much refurbished hostel – now a Michelin starred destination restaurant/hotel – that sets its origins back to the 13th century)
The Church and Rome were anxious to do everything in their power to encourage pilgrimages to Rome, it seems the monetary benefits of pilgrims was not lost on either the Church or the entrepreneurs of Rome. They encouraged Catholic fraternities, monasteries, and congregations to support pilgrims along the way, it made sense as did the encouragement of road and path maintenance, bridge building/maintenance and provisions for safe passage for pilgrims. Unfortunately for Rome, several other pilgrim destinations of note were beginning to become famous; the Santiago de Compostela in Spain to view the remains of St. James became a popular destination in the 9th century, and Jerusalem always beckoned, though the city was under the control of Muslim caliphates for much of the time in question.
The geopolitics of Europe seemed to have been a bit more settled in 990 than in previous decades of the 10th century. Traveling across France, Switzerland and northern Italy was less fraught with danger. In Rome, several major Roman families had emerged, jockeying for position and exercising control of the selection of popes and the actions of the Papacy made local politics more uncertain, The active interference of the German nobility in church affairs and the general decline in the Roman economy made a visit to Rome itself more eventful and problematic.
There were serious risks. Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass is physically challenging, potential inclement weather adds more risk; it is not a day hike for the uninitiated. To add to the risk, there was an ever-present risk of bandits and thieves, it was, after all, called the ‘dark ages’ for good reason.
What was Rome like when the pilgrim arrived at the final destination?
It was not idyllic. Rome was small, run down and far from the centre of trade and commerce. Population estimates vary but one estimate placed Rome’s population to be about 30,000, a far cry from it’s size at the height of Imperial Rome when the city dominated the world. Venice, for example, was larger; it had become a major economic force in Italy because of its aggressive development as a trading centre.
The ancient Roman ruins were that – ruins. Major sites had fallen into disrepair, their stones cannibalized for church building, aqueducts had failed from lack of maintenance, the baths were dry and used more for itinerant housing, already less luxurious than in Rome’s halcyon days; even the Colosseum had become a large housing complex, filled with squatters. One of the few remaining sources of revenue seemed to be the thriving commerce of pilgrimage.
There was one thing in abundance when the pilgrim arrived in Rome – churches. Sigeric’s journal affirms the proliferation of churches, he visited 23 while there. Other sources suggest that there were at least 117 to choose from.
Several reasons are suggested for his choice of churches to visit; the desire to see the major basilicas and large cathedrals such as the Lateran Palace, the home of the Pope at the time, but also those dedicated to favourite saints of the English, St. Peter and St. Lawrence. One of the more interesting criteria for pilgrim visits was to see and worship the reliquaries, objects said to be directly associated with Jesus and his followers or specific saints and martyrs.
Interestingly, the most likely first stop for Sigeric would have been an English institution, the Schola Saxonum. Ideally located near St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s function was to provide support and accommodation for English pilgrims. Peter’s Pence was a tax raised across England to help fund St. Peter’s and the Schola Saxonum.
Of the 23 churches visited, 21 are still in existence and are identified, although most have been through such significant modifications that Sigeric might not well recognize them.
The first day starts not surprisingly with a visit to St. Peter’s and Santo Spirito in Sassia, both inside the walls of Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica in the year 990 was quite different, first constructed in the 4th century, only small bits remain but the basilica at the time is described in detail. Major reconstruction beginning in the mid 15th century supplemented by additions and renovations has created the Roman Catholic Cathedral we see today.
Santo Spirito in Sassia, adjacent to St. Peter’s, was the church associated with the Schola Saxonum. Built in the 8th and 9th century, it was relatively new at the time of Sigeric’s pilgrimage, rebuilt in the 16th century after the sack of Rome by Spanish mercenaries under Charles V destroyed it.
The rest, churches 3-15, were outside the walls, required a tour of some 25 kilometres and were assumed to have been done on horseback.
San Lorenzo in Lucina goes back to the 4th Century and contained reliquaries of St. Lawrence who seemed to be a saint of particular interest to Sigeric. It was rebuilt in the 12th and restored in the 19th century.
San Valentino a ponte Milvio no longer exists, falling into neglect in the 13th Century, except for some excavated ruins.
Sant’ Agnes fuori le Mura, was built on the site of ancient christian catacombs in the 4th century; it was named after a christian martyr and was an important pilgrimage stop; it has been much restored and is part of a major basilica complex.
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, a basilica, was the center of the cult of St. Lawrence. Built in the time of Constantine, it was merged with an adjacent church, an attached cemetery and is now a major religious complex.
San Sebastiano Via Appia was built on the spot where Peter and Paul’s remains were said to be first put to rest in catacombs below. It remains, much restored.
SS Vincenzo ed Anastasio alle Tre Fontane was a church of the monastery of Tre Fontane now a baroque church near the Trevi Fountain.
San Paolo fuori la Mura was built over the tomb of St. Paul in the time of Constantine, much rebuilt and expanded especially after the sack of Rome by the Saracens; destroyed by fire in 1823, it was rebuilt.
SS Alessio e Bonifazio (Santi Bonifacio e Alessio) is a 5th century church housing the remains of Alessio and Boniface, two early christian martyrs, later connected with asceticism of Greek abbots who had a monastery there. Rebuilt in the 18th century.
Santa Sabina was founded in the 5th century and restored as late as the early 20th century.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin was founded in the 6th century on the site of the city’s food market, restored to its original simplicity in the 19th century.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is a 5th century church built over catacombs where early christians hid to worship; the church is dedicated to Saint Cecelia, patron saint of music, and holding a statue of her modelled on her preserved remains.
San Crisogono, a 4th century church which at the time of Sigeric’s visit also had a monastery dedicated to St. Lawrence.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is believed to be the first officail christian place of worship to be built in Rome, it was a must-see for every pilgrim, although mostly rebuilt in the 12th century,
San Pancrazio is a 6th century basilica erected on the tomb of St. Pancras a 4th century martyr and huge catacombs of early worshippers.
The first day’s visit ended here according to the diary and Sigeric and his party returned to the Schola for the evening.
The second morning was spent closer to the centre of Rome.
Santa Maria della Rotonda, known to us as the Pantheon consecrated as a church in the 7th century, it is an iconic, must-see for any tourist in Rome regardless of station or religious persuasion.
Santi Apostoli originally built in the 6th century, dedicated to all the apostles, it has been rebuilt and restored many times since, with pieces by Canova, Fontana and Muratori.
San Giovani in Lateran (St. John Lateran) was built in the 4th century and restored in the early 10th century before Sigeric’s visit. The adjacent Lateran Palace was home of the Middle Age Popes, except for a time when they relocated to Avignon in the 14th century. It has been rebuilt several times after fires.
While at the Lateran Palace, Sigeric had a luncheon audience with Pope John XV, when he presumably officially received his pallium. After lunch he visited the last churches on his itinerary.
San Croce in Gerusalemme was a must-visit basilica dating to the 4th century to see an important reliquary – reputedly a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Santa Maria Maggiore, another basilica originally built in the 5th century and much expanded and altered, it was home to another famous reliquary, the cradle of Christ,
San Pietro in Vincoli, first built in the 5th was another home of a venerated relic, the chains of St. Peter.
San Lorenzo in Panisperna was the final stop, built on the spot where St. Laurence had been martyred.
And, with that, the record of the pilgrimage journey in Rome ends.
In an amazing feat of investigative academic research, there is almost universal consensus on the 23 churches noted in the diary of Sigeric’s visit to Rome, not a small task given the age of the document, the many possible interpretations that might have been given to some obvious mis-spellings and the destruction and sacking of Rome and its churches over 1000 years. Virginia Ortenberg, a British historian, has even reconstructed a map of Rome at the time marking the churches visited. She has also managed to provide some valuable descriptions of the state of the churches at the time and major artwork, architectural features, tombs and reliquary within the church.
The diary is a small document; it immediately begins to record the return journey to Canterbury. The places named on the return journey are more open to debate and interpretation, Ortenberg has attempted to chart the pilgrimage home on a map. As noted, this one pilgrimage by Sigeric in 990 AD and the few pages of diary entries chronicling the stops on the return trip to Canterbury has become the wellspring of the Via Francigena, a route that has guided untold numbers of pilgrims to Rome for 1000 years.
These two documents, the visits to Roman churches, and the log of stops on the journey home are the best available information for the time between 800 AD and 1200 AD, 400years. Sigeric and his pilgrimage, indeed even his time as Archbishop of Canterbury fade in comparison to the value of the journal he left behind. The information adds immeasurably to the insight gained by all subsequent pilgrims, I for one will find it valuable as I attempt to finish my pilgrimage on the Via Francigena and celebrate the end of the journey with a more meaningful tour of Rome.
Both Kristen and Blair have walked with me on parts of this long pilgrim walk adding immeasurably to the joy of the adventure. Now all I have to do is walk to Rome.
Kristen and I arrive in Reims, France at the cathedral, July 29, 2017. Blair and I meet a St. Bernard dog, fittingly at the summit of the Great St. Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy, August 13, 2018.
In these covid times, it is easy to feel sadness, grief and a sense of longing for what might have been or what we feel we are missing. It can be more difficult to see the joy in life or recognize the depth and breadth of the goodness that surrounds us.
For me, the difference between just barely surviving this period of Covid dislocation and thriving – well that may be an exaggeration – is having things to do. We can call it having a sense of purpose, I just need to keep busy; there is nothing more demoralizing than waking up in the morning with absolutely nothing to do. I’ve found that it isn’t a matter of having one purpose or a particular passion, I need something more concrete, a collection of tasks that fills my vacant calendar.
Meals on Wheels is the latest in my grab-bag of things to do to keep me busy.
I became aware of Meals on Wheels – MoW for short – in the ‘90s. My father passed away in 1991 and for a while, my mother was adrift. My siblings and I were worried because her daily meal, when she ate at all, was tea and toast. We ordered Meals on Wheels, available even in my small rural town of Taber, population of about 4000.
Each day, some wonderful volunteer would drive over, check in on Mom and drop off a hot meal, complete with a dessert. It worked for her and it worked for us, she had food and daily contact, we had peace of mind.
Last Spring, my friend John signed up to be a delivery driver for Meals on Wheels, his positive reaction to the shutdowns of Covid and a desire to do something positive about it. Magpie-like, I saw a ‘bright and shiny’ and decided to copy him.
It required a bit of work, contacting the agency, filling out forms and getting a police background check; a few weeks later, I got a call, they needed drivers for the Chinese Meals on Wheels, delivering a different menu to clients. Sure, why not, should be fun.
My first day was October 21. I joined a group of a dozen or so drivers show up in a back lane off south Granville Street.
Here’s where the real magic starts.
First, there are these drivers, a mixture of ages not just retired folk like me but every age group down to twenty somethings, about equal in gender, I’m guessing from the cars in the laneway that there’s a surprising breadth of socio-economic representation – all volunteering to drive meals to those who need.
Then there’s the food. My coordinator, Abby, tells me there is this magic place in Chinatown, where staff and volunteers get up way too early, Monday to Friday, to make about 180 hot meals. Two small containers of soup, a container of rice and an ever-changing entree, piping hot as they say, packed four each into an insulated carrying bag.
Then a volunteer drives them to us. At 10:30 am or so he arrives, It’s exciting!We are given the route directions for the day by Abby, my first route had 12 stops and 15 meals. We grab enough meals for our route, wrap them in a plastic bag for hygenic delivery and head off to our appointed rounds.
The next hour is all-consuming. I find my first drop-off, a house with an apartment around the back. I dig out my meal bag, adjust my mask, double check the address and the drop-off instructions, find the door, ring the bell and wait. I’m told that I may wait a few minutes, people are deaf, slightly immobile or slow to the door. Quite the opposite, I find most people waiting for me. I hand off the meal, we smile (unfortunately smiles don’t work as well with masks) we say a few pleasantries to each other and I’m off to the next one.
An hour or so later, I’ve managed to drop off all my meals, although once, I had one meal left over and had to figure out who I’d missed – a panic attack that I never wanted to repeat.
I take the insulated bags back to the drop-off point to be be washed for the next day. I’m set free, it’s about three hours of my time, one day a week.
There is a vast unseen network of people, ordinary heroes who go out every day to take hot meals, a smile and a how-are-you to people in need. They’re backed up by people who gather the names, sort the routes, make the system work flawlessly every day; every day, hot, nutritious meals are cooked and packed for us to deliver. Meals on Wheels has been around for a long time helping people like my mom with a meal and a smile and a message that they’re valued; they’re not forgotten, even strangers care. I’m delighted to be a recent addition to this army of carers.
I am almost embarrassed to speak of it; there seems to be a disproportionate distribution of benefit. I am getting more out of this than I should. On my MoW day, I’m busy, I have purpose, I have a JOB. In this time of isolation, I have joined a community. It forces me to stay active, and justifies my afternoon nap. Ifeel at the end of my shift that I have done something; I am grateful for the opportunity this simple task has given me to stay balanced and find some hope and some joy in this dark covid time. I feel like I’m getting more than I’m giving.
It is part of what I like to call Tender Mercies, small acts of kindness. I’m grateful that Meals on Wheels was there when I needed it. I need those Tender Mercies.
In the past few days, I experienced two events worth marking in time; I had my first haircut in over two months (sorry, photographic evidence will not be forthcoming) and I had my first sit-down coffee, a double espresso machiatto, in a proper glass cup in a new local coffee shop, one that will probably become my new home on Denman Street.
These were memorable occasions, worthy of marking, forever memorializing their significance. It reminded me to document this time; recognizing my capacity for hyperbole and my sometimes comic desire to make myths out of ordinary events in the near past, I should try to get the facts straight. I can thus preserve a more honest recollection of events and the lessons I have learned of my experiences adhering to Bonny Henry’s rules of safe conduct in the time of Covid – 19.
On March 14, I arrived home from a weekend in Edmonton celebrating my brother’s birthday. Within days, the idea of being in an airport, flying on an airplane, hanging out in a restaurant seemed bizarre and otherworldly. We are in the BC/AC times, before coronavirus, after coronavirus.
What did you do in that dark time when the restrictions descended on you, people will ask.
To be honest, even though we are only through phase one of what may be a long process, it hasn’t been that tough. So Far…
I walked a lot, sometimes with a friend, mostly alone. While the physical aspect of the walk was much needed, freeing me for a few hours from the safety of my sanctuary, the metaphysical was far more valuable. I witnessed spring! For two months, I watched plants grow and flower, trees bloom, the forest turn innumerable shades of green.I watched tulips blossom, reach their peak of springtime beauty and then fall into the soil again, a daily reminder that the wonders of nature have been around me forever, they just require patient observation.
I saw birds and beasts, a coyote, a woodpecker, a river otter, eagles, rabbits – all enjoying the quiet desolation resulting from our retreat from their habitat. Slowing down and mindfully observing has its benefits.
I participated in the great tribal ritual of celebrating life by barking at the moon; in this case I joined my neighbours every night at 7 PM to clap in appreciation of the helpers, the health care workers, the checkout staff, the first responders, the garbage truck drivers and the barristas that risked their lives – yes their lives – to serve us. We were inspired and led occasionally by a lone piper whose solemn piping sometimes brought me to tears.
I worked on jigsaw puzzles when I got to restless, unable to sit still anymore. It kept me from the Television and the train wreck south of the border that was so mesmerizing yet so demoralizing. Putting one piece in place gave me a sense of accomplishment, instant gratification and power in a new world where I had little of any of those feelings.
I talked on the phone. My first Koodo bill after lockdown recorded 1300 minutes of talk time; an astounding increase over my normal 50 minute average. People were home when I called them; I was home when people called me. We had time to chat, the chats became conversations, free ranging, sometimes surprising, always enriching.
I sat in my favourite chair and watched the great Blue Herons return to their nesting ground, conveniently at eye height stationed just outside my window. I saw sunrises and sunsets I know I would have missed had I not been committed to sitting still.
I read. I read a lot. I managed to finish my GLS course – the last five classes were on Zoom; not the best but better than expected. After months of disciplined close-reading, I consumed thrillers and whodunnits, historical biographies and sci-fi novels, wallowing in their lightness and diversity.
I missed parts of my life and allowed myself to grieve them. My adventure calendar is a vast desert of nothingness, Japan, Finland, France, all gone – pre-covid dreams of the before times.
I missed travel to see Blair, my post-covid travel opportunities of the after times need to be re-imagined and carefully built on a new risk reward profile. I was joyful to have Kristen and Chris close by and I’ll sort out the whens and hows of seeing Blair soon.
Likewise for many friends spread outside my immediate neighbourhood, not forgotten and certainly not lost for anything more than the temporariness of the current construct.
Serendipitously, my research focus for my GLS course was the Stoicism of ancient Rome. it’s hard to whine when I read what Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius learned to endure; more of value, they learned to turn that endurance into a sense of purpose. I learned from them, philosophy is for all of us, for the here and now – not a bad lesson to be learned. Some things we control, somethings we don’t.
I was also struck by the many small acts of kindness shown by one person to another. In a time of stress, a time of uncertainty, a time of fear, these small acts of kindness, tender mercies I call them, stand out. The after-times show we have not all lost our humanity or our basic goodness.
There are no profound Ah-ha moments in all this, yet there are a few blinding flashes of the obvious; be safe, listen to the experts, appreciate the helpers, celebrate beauty, be optimistic, recognize that all trouble is temporary, don’t be driven by boredom and restlessness to take unnecessary risks, persevere, have some fun, smile – even if it has to be at your own expense – all good lessons. Let’s see if any or all of these take hold, they’re seeds right now, they may grow into permanent habits.
By the way, I spent some time with another woman these last few months. She wants to make me a better person, one of many in my life who have had that goal and taken me on as a project, a fixer-upper – promising but needing a bit of work.
I knew I would need help back in March, so I actually reached out to her.
She came prepared, she had a plan. All I had to do was follow her every dictum every day. She gave me a sheet of instructions, I did what I was told… well mostly.
She’s been reasonably successful; where others have failed in making me the better person they knew I could be, she has somehow managed to persevere. If I have any lasting memory of my life in the time of Covid, my guess is that it will be of her and her contribution to my time in isolation.
It is hard to see anything positive in the midst of this pandemic. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; the only likely short-term solution is more social distancing; that means no dinners with friends, no live sports, arts or theatre entertainment, no nights out and no relief from the nagging worry of infection from this silent unseen threat. The real lasting solution, a vaccine, seems a long way off.
The Stoics offer some hope through this dark time. Marcus Aurelius is my guide.
Marcus Aurelius is the third and perhaps the most famous Roman Stoic. He was groomed for leadership and greatness, in his early 40’s he became Emperor. History judges him as an outstanding leader, a stark contrast to Caligula or Nero.
His most famous work, Meditations, was a journal, a cross between personal improvement notes and a reminder of his goals in his lifetime pursuit for betterment.
Epictetus was a slave, Seneca was plagued with bad health from an early age, Marcus was confronted with daunting leadership challenges and personal loss – only 5 of his 13 children survived.
Fortune showed them all her power – they were not in control of their lives. Stoicism offered them consolation for these limitations, these burdens, these challenges.
Marcus had perspective. He was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire yet he was humble:
Matter. How tiny your share of it
Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it
Fate. How small a role you play.”
He also accepted with unreserved magnanimity the power of Fortune:
“But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful – and hence neither good nor bad.”
Throughout the Meditations, Marcus refers to his relations with others, recognizing that man is above all a social animal. I find his approach most surprising. People can and do harm us; in fact they surpass fires, floods and plagues for doing harm to us. People also bring forth the best in us, love, compassion, fidelity, community. Here is but one description of what he sought to be:
“Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you.”
Surprising humane language from a Roman Emperor and seasoned warrior!
Socrates’s famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ is further underlined by all three Roman Stoics. Marcus believed that the study of philosophy was the key to the good life:
“Then what can guide us?
Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from.”
Marcus was a responsible citizen, a decent man. He honoured those in his life who taught him the virtues of compassion, decency, loyalty and compassion. His book is filled with constant admonitions to treat his fellow human beings with dignity and grace. He cautioned calming his passions and responding to others with understanding. For a leader with something approaching absolute power, for a warrior who bore the burdens of power, he was remarkably modest.
What is the over-arching lesson from all this Stoic philosophy?
It is, for me, that there is hope. The Stoics faced challenges greater that I face today, yet they were able to meet those challenges with dignity and grace and humanity.
There is also accountability; we are responsible for our actions to our family, to our friends, to our loved ones, to our community.
I see examples hope rising like spring shoots out of the soil. Here’s one small one. I got my monthly bill from Koodo yesterday, it was five times as much as usual. I was working myself into a lather when I decided to check what brought on these charges before finding some poor customer service rep to yell at.
The charges were all related to overages on my phone calls. I had a maximum in my plan of 500 minutes a month; I seldom use a tenth of that. This month I blew through 1300 minutes – all spent talking on the phone to friends.
Covid – 19 has turned me into Chatty Cathy!
I reflected back over the month and realized that it was about the best money I have spent in a long time. People are reaching out, the chats are longer, warmer and more meaningful. I am reaching out, people are home when I call and they’re happy to chat.
There is hope, we are connecting. We are capable of meeting this challenge and growing as human beings as a result of this.
I’ll leave the last word to Marcus; he was a man who found beauty and spoke of it as a poet who is filled with hope;
“The Pythagoreans tell us to look at the stars at daybreak. To remind ourselves how they complete the tasks assigned them – always the same tasks, the same way. and their order, purity, nakedness. Stars wear no concealment.”
A man who sees beauty in the stars and draws life-affirming lessons from them is worthy of consideration in these difficult times.
If Stoic philosophy offered only the consolation of acceptance, it would be fairly dismal. To me, acceptance alone is justifiably interpreted as fatalism. All is lost, we accept the capricious fate delivered by Fortune and await some turn of events when Fortune touches us again, this time favourably. It’s pretty bleak.
Stoicism offers more than that. Acceptance matters in powers over those things outside my control but Viktor Frankl offers more.
Frankl was an Austrian Jew who was captured by the Nazis and managed to survive three brutal years in concentration camps until he was liberated at the end of the war.
He emerged, convinced that his strong sense of purpose had given him the strength to endure. He quoted Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’
Frankl wrote a book about his experience and his theory; Man’s Search for Meaning. I discovered it many years ago and have used it as an emotional and spiritual north star for decades.
Frankl saw power in his predicament: “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So, here it is; I can face the corona virus by shaking my fist at the gods, feeling sorry for myself or poisoning my mind with worry. Or I can decide that there is a way to turn this into an opportunity by deciding it is an opportunity. I have that choice.
That power to choose my response to those things over which I have no control and my sense of purpose give me the power to choose my future.
This is a another central tenet of Stoic philosophy since Zeno started developing Stoicism in Ancient Athens.
Epictetus was a Roman Stoic philosopher whose teachings were preserved in two tracts called the Discourses and the Enchridion. It’s hard to miss the point:“…the gods have given us the most efficacious gift: the ability to make good use of our impressions.” …The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do. I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled, but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?” Discourses I.1
We have that final freedom – the freedom to choose how we deal with Fortune’s whims.
The Stoics recognized that we were not just corks bobbing on the ocean of life – pushed this way and that by the whims of tides, wind and currents. There was much of our life that we controlled – we did control our lives.
Throughout his teachings, Epictetus emphasized this; it is another defining principle of Stoicism: “Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”
I have now moved two steps forward. Yes, I do have to accept those things over which I have no power but now I now have power, the power to control my attitude and response to Fortune’s actions – capricious, favourable or benign and I have the power to control a large portion of my life. Much of my life is completely within my control.
Things are now not so bleak. I have agency, the capacity to make wise or unwise choices.
…to the Stoics, the freedom to choose came with the attendant responsibility to choose wisely. Epictetus has a two part story to drive home his point:
“I keep an iron lamp besides my household shrine. Hearing a noise from my window, I ran down and found the lamp had been lifted. I reasoned that the thief who took it must have felt an impulse he couldn’t resist. So, I said to myself, ‘tomorrow you’ll get a cheaper, less attractive one made of clay. A man only loses what he has.”
“…. the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price; he became a thief for its sake, for its sake he lost the ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead.”
Epictetus could replace his lamp but the thief paid a greater cost – he lost his integrity, his reputation.
We too have some choices and we take responsibility for those choices.
How do we want to respond to the Covid – 19 outbreak?
Anger, fear, defiance, isolation, science, belief that a diety will protect us, hope – we have a whole range of options and an infinite combination of choices.
Are we going to choose wisely?
Right now, I’m choosing to listen to the experts. I have not survived a pandemic. I’m not an expert on viruses. I can’t see the little buggers but I can read the statistics; they’re dangerous.
I am staying away from crowds, it’s called social distancing. No one enters my bubble. I’m washing my hands a lot. I wipe down most everything that comes into my apartment, it’s my sanctuary.
We’ve all got the information needed to minimize our risks. We need to choose wisely.
These may not seem like life or death choices until they are. I believe they are and I am treating them that way.
Again to end on a lighter note, I found a greeting card, obviously designed by a Stoic with a sense of humour, to show me what’s at stake.
I have never thought much about philosophy, much less about how the study of philosophy could give me valuable insights into the meaning of life and how to make the best of my short time here on planet earth.
In the course of my study at the Graduate Liberal Studies programhttp://www.sfu.ca/gls.html at Simon Fraser University, one of the books on my assigned reading list was The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. He is a well-respected philosopher whose goal is to link philosophy with our daily lives.
One of his chapters links the Stoics, a branch of philosophy that dates back to Athens in300 BC, to the issues we face as we deal with the Corona virus pandemic.
We are all inundated with talk of the virus. I have to self-isolate not only from the virus but from the constant negative chatter on the news. It can lead to irrational fears and errant behaviour, I’m at risk of losing my emotional equilibrium and my sense of perspective. It’s depressing.
People are dying; within days people go from vibrant human beings with loves, jobs, family and friends to become another victim, one of a growing deluge of victims to an unseen predator.People are losing their jobs, their small businesses, their careers; their dreams; their plans and hopes for the future are dashed. Life as we know it has been cancelled, we stare into the void of tomorrow with no idea what comes next.
Covid – 19 is indiscriminate; rich or poor, famous or faceless, pious or dissolute, we all face the same risk.
The world has turned upside down; none of us feels safe. And this is unlikely to end soon. It is hard to imagine a return to the good old days of last month.
How do we cope?
I never expected to say this but there is comfort in philosophy, I am finding comfort and practical advice from the Stoics – three in particular – all Romans – Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
It comes down to this, Botton says that Stoicism offers the consolation for frustration. Why am I frustrated? Because the corona virus has shown me yet again, how puny, how powerless and how insignificant I am. There’s an old Jewish proverb: man plans and God laughs.
The first stage in sorting this new world out in a common sense practical way is to be realistic about exactly what my situation is. What’s going on, where do I fit in, what can I do about it?
The Stoics were clear about one thing, it separated them from all the others. They asserted in stark terms that much of life was outside our control. Stuff happens. Yesterday it was the black plague, today it’s corona virus.
Seneca is one of the three most famous Roman Stoics. His book, Letters from a Stoic, is required reading for anyone interested in this philosophic tradition. Seneca emphasized the capricious nature of Fortune; all that Fortune provides can be snatched away in an instant;
“Nothing is durable whether for an individual or a society:..
…Terror strikes amid the most tranquil surroundings, and without any disturbance in the background to give rise to them calamities spring from the least expected quarter…
…all the works of mortal man lie under the sentence of mortality; we live among things that are destined to perish” Letter XCI
How do we handle the indiscriminate nature of Fortune? Seneca, the Stoic, offers acceptance:
…So the spirit must be trained to a realization and an acceptance of its lot. It must come to see that there is nothing that Fortune will shrink from, that she wields the same authority over Emperor and empire alike and the same power over cities as of men. There’s no grounds for resentment in all this. We’ve entered into a world in which these are the terms life is lived on – if you’re satisfied with that, submit to them, if you’re not get out, whatever way you please.” letter XCI
This seems a harsh and bitter pill. Is that it?
Yup. That’s it. Because until we accept the awesome power of those things that are outside our control we will waste a lot of time and energy, uselessly fooling ourselves about the nature of the problem.
The folks walking on the seawall in my neighbourhood here in Vancouver have not understood this simple fact. Lady Fortune doesn’t care if they are young and full of life and optimism that makes them think they are invulnerable and invincible.
Nor does she care if I am pious and upstanding and worship every Sunday in close proximity with my fellow believers.
Complaining won’t help. Acceptance, realistic acceptance, will at least give us a chance of figuring out what to do to survive this pandemic intact. That’s the focus of Part 2.
To end on a lighter note, this even works when it rains. In Vancouver, for four months it rains a lot. it’s lining-up-two-by-two-to-get-on-the-Ark rain. Here’s the first step in how we survive what we call winter.
This the first academic paper I have written in some 40 years. It was a part of my first course, started in September, in the Graduate Liberal Studies program at SFU. Having passed the course, I now feel comfortable sharing it.
Needless to say, this is way out of my comfort zone, both the course and the paper; having said that, I am enjoying it immensely.
Be gentle, dear readers….
I’m concerned that as I age, I will lose my curiosity, my openness to new ideas and my willingness to try new ways of approaching life. We call it hardening of the attitudes. It seeps into our lives with the hardening of our arteries, the stiffening of our joints and our slowing response time to external stimuli.
I fight it in many positive ways; traveling to foreign countries, committing to new exercise regimes, reading different books, dining at newly-launched restaurants, viewing foreign and foreign sounding movies, the list goes on. I call them adventures.
I also avoid negative reinforcement, especially the aging male coffee clatch. They’re called ROMEOs – really old men eating out. I see them everywhere, befuddled anxious-looking men who gather at the corner cafe to read the newspapers together, express their shock and amazement at the current state of affairs in our city/province/nation/world, inevitably shining up the good-old-days, complete with our biases and privileges. It’s backward looking and hermetically sealed, dusty and dead, self fulfilling and incapable of admitting new experiences or insights.
Change is hard work, staying current, open-minded and curious.
GLS is my latest antidote – my wonder drug – for staying open to the new; meeting head-on the uncertainty, change and unfamiliarity that comes with shaking up my deeply-held beliefs and challenging my preconceived notions.
The focus on reason and passion with a curated choice of reading over the two semesters is obvious in its intent, to challenge our existing paradigms – our ways of knowing – about how we view the world.
The task is not inconsequential.
My particular paradigm (when I thought of it at all) has been to view reason and passion as a polarity; one pole is reason, the other is passion. There is a rheostat between the two poles that I move to find the appropriate balance to understand and deal with the particular circumstance. The rheostat moves back and forth on a sliding scale, a little more reason this time, a little more passion for the next, allowing me to calibrate which balance of reason and passion will meet the situation. Obviously in a business meeting, my reason index is dialled quite high; at a museum or a live play, there’s not so much reason, more passion.
The other implicit factor in the rheostat model I have constructed is that reason controls passion.Passion is to be managed – it is impulsive, it is potentially dangerous; the default setting on the rheostat is to err on the side of reason.
My paradigm is one dimensional and utilitarian. It’s a reflexive part of me; I’ve had it for a while, don’t really know its roots and have never bothered to question it, much less challenge it. It hums away in the background working its magic.
It’s early days in this program and every session is rich with surprises and insights. I am challenged; my paradigm, the model I carry around in my head, seems inadequate, not quite up to the challenge. The level of comprehension and insight demanded by our readings and discussions is upsetting, slightly confusing and challenging.
I have a growing awareness that I may have to challenge my assumptions, test my paradigm.
Somehow, I decided that Anne Carson is going to help me.
The Autobiography of Red gripped me and discombobulated me in ways that I am still sorting through. It is complicated, inflammatory and rich with ambiguity, much of which I feel I’m missing. I need more – of something, I’m not sure what. Moving my rheostat isn’t helping much.
Who is Anne Carson? I search for clues.
Anne Carson is an academic; in my world and in my unidimensional paradigm, that makes her a person grounded in reason. Yet The Autobiography of Red burns with passion.
I am more confused. How can that be? What can I learn about Anne Carson and how can it help me examine my reason/passion paradigm?
First, She’s Canadian, so we are at least grounded in some commonalities. Second, she’s a prolific writer giving me a rich motherlode of her work to study. Third, she has contributed to, and commented on, some of the material we have studied, She can stay with me in the shallow end of my new GLS literary pool. Finally, she is gifted; a 2000 MacArthur Fellow who offers an Everest of achievement for all to seek to emulate. She’s no flash in the pan, no bright-and-shiny, she’s earned her credibility.
In 2002, Anne Carson published If not Winter, a collection of the fragments of Sappho. Aha! We had read Sappho.
I’d written of my first – Aha – my teachable moment of experiencing Sappho rather than understanding her. My initial attempt to experience her poetry was to read everything in our assigned textbook, Stung with Love by Aaron Poochigian, before actually reading Sappho’s words. I was dialled in at about 90% reason on my reason/passion rheostat. I would find context and understanding through Poochigian before I read Sappho’s poems.
When I finally read Sappho’s words, I had my Aha moment. Her poetry was profoundly moving; I paused for a moment, awestruck that a fragment, a small two lines of Sappho’s brilliance, could reach across 2500 years and touch me. I realized later I had almost lost the moment – that purity of discovery – by dialling up too much reason on my analytical rheostat. My conclusion was that reason got in the way; passion was what was needed.
In contrast to Poochigian’s 50 dense pages of notes and explanatory miscellanea, Anne Carson’s introduction notes for If Not Winter are all of 5 pages long.
“I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through.” she comments, surely the most modest statement I have heard from such a serious academic.
Aha, I think, I’m right – read the words, let passion take over and immerse myself in the experience.
Her translation of Sappho is different from the ones I have read; comments and reviews laud her skills as a sensitive, informed and insightful translator.Obviously, it takes deep knowledge to choose the words that best illuminate Sappho’s brilliance, to let her show through. Aren’t these the skills acquired by reason, intellect and hard analytical skills? Aren’t they fundamental to Carson’s ability to share the beauty and passion of Sappho with us? Doesn’t reason therefore matter?
Eros the Bittersweet, one of Carson’s first books, published in 1986 reflects extensively on the elusive attraction of…well…attraction – Eros. It is no ordinary book; the Modern Library selected it to be one of the 100 best non-fiction books of all time.
Luckily for me, she focuses on Sappho and Plato’s Phaedrus. How convenient, another book we have covered in class, I’m still in the shallow end of my pool.
The richness of Anne Carson’s writing cannot be underestimated. It is enthralling and deeply challenging, for here is an academic who writes intelligently and sensitively about that most elusive and powerful of all emotions – love.
Reason informs passion? The most passionate and illusive of passions, love; how can that be?
Carson’s academic credentials are on full display, the breadth and depth of scholarly research allow her to explain the richness of Sappho’s poetry, the complexity of Sappho’s thinking, the wisdom of her exposition of emotion. Carson also brilliantly illustrates the contradiction between the pursuit of love, the longing, and the emptiness of the actual capture of the object of one’s desires. Bittersweet is really Sweetbitter. The triangulation of love, the lover, the beloved and some impediment between them and consummation, becomes self evident; when she explains it, it is a blinding flash of the obvious.
These complexities are not possible in my rheostat world. They should not be able to happen.I know that reason and passion can exist simultaneously, my model sees one gaining power at the expense of the other. My paradigm says reason and passion are in conflicted balance, either or, the only variable is how much of one or the other.
Can they be both simultaneous and complementary? Can there be synergy or symbiosis or catalysis?
Eros the Bittersweet is compelling proof that intellectual scholarship and academic rigor combined with emotional intuition add immeasurably to the richness of our comprehension of Sappho’s poetry.
Carson also brings her intellectual insight to bear on Plato’s discourse on Love and the challenges of the written word. She examines Phaedrus, Plato’s examination of love and his critique of writing.
This is a different challenge, for who is Plato speaking through Socrates, but a brilliant rhetorician who seeks truth through dialogue and dialectic – the ultimate test of reason? From the passion of Sappho to the logic of Plato, Carson not only transits the two but links them, a masterful job of segue and connection.
Again my polarity/rheostat paradigm seems inadequate, more or less of one or the other is too one-dimensional. Through her considerable skills of logic, reason, rigorous academic research and just-plain deep thinking Carson blends reason and passion to link, explain and expand our understanding of two brilliant pillars of the Greek literary canon. In the battle of their rhetoric over my rheostat, Carson and the Greeks are winning.
In the midst of these two works, in 1998, Anne Carson published The Autobiography of Red. This is not the kind of work I would expect from the scholarly, cerebral, intellectually rigorous academic I had imagined Anne Carson to be.
It is a wild ride, far beyond a re-imagining of a Greek mythic character. Red is a wild, imaginative fairy tale for adults; it demands full attention from the first line. It is challenging on so many levels, from Geryon, the gifted, tortured, deformed, resilient angel to Herakles, our Hercules, not exactly depicted as heroic. Her command of offbeat imagery and discordant metaphor further disorients; it is an unsettling story.
I need to make my progress report.
My thoughts after each class are unpredictable, depending on whether I emerge confused or enlightened from the evening’s discussion.
If I am confused, it seems my long-held mental model will not map the complicated landscapes of all those elevation contours we call reason and passion. I may have wandered into terra incognito; I may have been there all along and the old mapping process has been erroneous. I am lost, am I lost?
If I abandon my rheostat paradigm, I must construct a new way of looking at the world. The prospect obviously is daunting, if for no more obvious reason than that I may need to re-evaluate the last several decades of my life through this new lens. What happens when my rheostat doesn’t control passion?
Does this disconcert me? Of course.
Alternatively, if I emerge into the night with some sense that I really am getting this new world, that the doors are opening, I think more along the lines of what I need to do to make the most of the experience. After all, I signed up for this adventure to challenge myself. I should be and I am getting what I hope for – a challenge. Of course it’s going to be uncomfortable; of course I’m going to feel inadequate. Maybe the model is okay, I just need time to adjust.
I am comforted by one grounding thought. This is early days in my GLS adventure, my education in the subtleties and nuances of reason and passion. Maybe I just need to give it time.
It’s also not inconceivable that I will never ‘solve’ or resolve the tension. It’s not as if some of the best minds in the history of thought haven’t wrestled with this challenge.
There is a paradox in all this, it is complex and multi-dimensional.
Anne Carson proves by her writing and her ability to cross genres and mash-up intellect and emotion that this reason/passion thing is more messy than mechanical. Carson cuts through boundaries, not just of prose and poetry but all sorts of literary and artistic boundaries.
It’s obvious that I will learn more over the balance of this semester and the next. One thing seems clear; a one-dimensional model with a simple either/or rheostat is probably not up to the task of this adventure. It is not likely to handle the richness, the ambiguity, the nuance and the interconnectedness of the works we are studying or the complex ideas they seek to illuminate.
I can rest assured that I’ve just started on my reappraisal. I’ve done this often enough in other facets of my life to know that it is a start and most often the start is the toughest part of the adventure.
I also know that I resist; I resist new, I resist change and I resist that which makes me uncomfortable.
The prize is usually worth the effort to push through my resistance. As Pogo, the old cartoon character said; “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”
On September 4, I walked into the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University as a student, a real bona fide student. I had my own student card, I had a student account and a password that helped me navigate the labyrinth of rules and regulations guarding entrance to this august body.
I’m now into week nine of the first semester; a progress report felt due.
But first, a recap. Last year, I managed to stow away on a field trip organized by the Graduate Liberal Studies program at SFU. We spent three weeks in southern Spain, half doing it as a course for credit in the program, half as spouses of students, alumnae, itinerant vagabonds and other riff-raff. Truth be told, I was the only riff-raff.
The course was a study of the Islamic influence on Spanish culture; the Moors as they were called, ruled most of Spain from the 7th to the 14th century, in an uneasy relationship with the emerging Christian population and a significant Jewish community.
It was a delightful experience, enthralling history brought alive by our professors and guides and filled with constant conversations amongst my fellow travellers. I was hooked.
I applied to become a student in the Master’s program, was accepted and became a student on September 4th.
My week starts on Wednesday. I walk to the downtown campus for a 5pm dinner with my 15 classmates and our professor, Dr. Colby, for the first semester. The dinner is integral to the process, a freewheeling discussion on past classes, readings, interpretations of readings, off-topic insights and other matters that facilitate bonding.
We then adjourn to the classroom across the street for a three hour seminar on the topic of the evening. Yes, three hours. I know!
At around 9:30 pm, I’m spun out into the street and off into the night. I wander home, dodging the nocturnals, most important of which are the skunks out foraging. I have to be careful because I’m in a bit of a state; the evening’s discussion can leave me gasping for air and feeling a little light-headed and therefore distracted, I need to remember to watch for the skunks. They do not like surprises!
The rest of the week is filled with getting ready for the next Wednesday. Some of my classmates work; I do not know how they survive.
The requirements for the degree start with the two mandatory courses; Reason and Passion – I & II. The curriculum has been built, refined and tweaked over some twenty nine years by Dr. Stephen Duguid, the first Director; his stamp is still evident.
This semester our reading list ranges from Sappho, an enthralling Greek poet (her powerful words touch crusty old men across 2500 years of time), Plato (who knew he wrote important works other than the Republic?), Anne Carson (a Canadian, a McArthur fellow and author of a book designated as one of the 100 most important pieces of non-fiction of all time!), Virginia Woolf (I regret not having discovered her earlier in life, who knows how things might have been changed?) and Tompson Highway (another distinguished but often overlooked Canadian).
It is a tough reading list, the three hour moderated discussions are even more challenging.
Some nights, I emerge from the building feeling almost bereft, certainly adrift. How could I have missed so much of import in the readings, how could I have ignored the subtleties, the nuances, the oblique references, the true meaning of the work?
I have chosen not to google-inform myself, if I find meaning I want to do it on my own. So far it isn’t working, I’m not finding as much meaning as I should. Is it true that deep down I am really shallow? Should I even be here?
On other nights, I am positively giddy with excitement, excitement that comes from getting it, an Aha moment, a fruitful discussion in which I am a full participant, where I have understood enough to even be a contributor.
It’s early days but I am sure of one thing, I’m getting my money’s worth. I’m getting some exercise, I’m meeting new and interesting people, all of whom are radically outside my circle of friends, I’m reading works and discussing ideas that are provocative, and generally insoluble and I’m learning again. It sure beats some of my present distractions and, as they say, it keeps me out of the pool hall.
There is one other aspect to this decision to become a student.I bought my first pair of Dr. Martens. I’ve always wanted a pair but thought that my time had passed, my false sense of propriety in fashion precluded the purchase. but being a student has opened the door to new fashion possibilities, so I jumped.
Now, they’re not the big flashy high top ones that scared me when I first saw them, they were too much. But I have the iconic black lace-ups and I wear them to school every Wednesday night.
They’re not exactly Dorothy’s slippers but they’re mine and i’m wearing them. So there!
Ten years ago, on June 29, 2009, I walked into Chef Patrice’s kitchen at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. I had just turned sixty and learning how to cook, really cook, seemed like a good idea; maybe a little late in the game but still full of possibility. Besides, it was my birthday present to myself.
Chef Patrice, and later Chef Johannes, would become my kitchen gods; true chefs who had mastered the culinary skills, run successful restaurants, clawed their way to the top in a world where one bad review can destroy years of effort.
I was their student for 6 months, 1000 hours of kitchen service in recognition of their decades of skill and experience.
The kitchen is a dangerous place; sharp knives, open flames, boiling vats, machines of various kinds with a capacity to do damage in an instant, they surrounded us – our fears that first day were legitimate and well founded. They saved us, nurtured us, taught us and, yes, yelled at us.
Our chef walked us through the basics of the French culinary tradition; knife skills, stocks and sauces, even a bit of baking. Our classroom was the kitchen; Chef demonstrated, we replicated – as best we could.
After eight hours, I wandered home in an exhausted stupor, filled with more information than I could digest.
Yet we survived; one of my personal success markers was my first creme brule, perfect in its creaminess, covered by a thin delicate patina of golden molten sugar.
The pain was worth it, we graduated in December of 2009. I knew from the start that I would not seek full time employment in the hell-hole of some restaurant kitchen so I took my new-found skills and put them to use in my way; I cooked for friends at home and, when invited, at the homes of friends.
A surprising unintended consequence of my adventure was a new adventure; a book about my experience. I knew I would never work in the culinary industry so, when I left culinary skill, rather than find a job I pursued my second passion, writing.
It was a transformative experience; I learned new skills and my confidence in cooking surged as did my respect for the culinary industry. When I go to a restaurant, I tip more and I make an effort to walk back to the kitchen to thank the chefs for a memorable meal. More aware, I am more appreciative, of the food, the flavor, the presentation, the experience. It’s tough running any restaurant from Joe’s diner to a Michelin star aspirant, I came to respect the energy and effort that is required to successfully serve a meal.
There are a few learnings that stood out for me and hold true a decade later.
First, sharp knives are an absolute necessity. If you want to enjoy cooking forget the do-dads at Williams Sonoma and get a good set of knives (you actually only need two, a 9 inch Chef’s knife and a 3 inch paring knife). Then keep them sharp. I take my knives to be sharpened by a professional at least every six months. Forget the at-home sharpening machines; good knives deserve a professional’s touch to give then their edge. It is amazing how much more fun it is to cook with sharp knives.
Second, always buy the best and freshest ingredients you can afford. A marinara sauce consists of garlic, canned tomatoes, red pepper flakes and olive oil – each of those ingredients matters, even the canned tomatoes. For example, most marinara recipes call for genuine DOP San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. Do it, go find the right canned tomatoes, it does make a difference. It is impossible to hide a weak ingredient in a simple recipe and expect a robust sauce.
Third, always complete your prep -ALWAYS – before turning on the stove. The French term is mise en place, everything in it’s place. It reminds me to do all the gathering of ingredients, all the chopping and cutting, all the accessing of pots and pans, all the advance work possible before starting the process of cooking. Serving food at its best only works if I can concentrate on what’s going on in my saute pan without being distracted by the need to chop another ingredient that isn’t ready for the next stage yet.
Finally, shop small and local. I may have been in a Safeway store three or four times in the last ten years but only when I cannot avoid it. I much prefer the little Lebanese green grocer around the corner, the local butcher, a few shops at Granville Island for specialty items, a small place where the arugula is fresh and reasonably priced. It is axiomatic that to keep these businesses thriving in the neighbourhood, we need to shop there. I’m retired; putting on a dinner party is supposed to take some time, shopping, prepping, and cooking.
When I look back over the last ten years, I am filled with warm memories of sharing food at my table, food that I have prepared and served. Sharing food is an intimate event that is deeply embedded in our DNA. Food is the bait; occasionally it’s the center of attention but around my table, it’s the people who are joined together who really matter. I have been able to share what little I know with friends by offering to cook with them; it adds a whole new dimension to spending an evening together.
I spent many years unsure of my ability to pull off a decent dinner party, serve food that was going to be enjoyed by my guests. So, I chose to entertain in restaurants. Fun, lively, expensive but ultimately less convivial.
My six months at cooking school gave me the tools and the confidence to invite friends into my home, serve them food that I was proud of, and enjoy the warmth and intimacy of conversation and communion. That was the real benefit of slaving under the temporary tutelage of Chef Patrice and Chef Johannes. They opened the doors to a decade of bliss around my little table.
My good friend Bob, observed one day that the first sign of aging is a “hardening of the attitudes.”
The phrase has been around for decades but it was new to me. It resonated.
There have been a few too many times lately when I say something about a current issue that is patently ridiculous. A disturbing pattern is emerging. It speaks volumes about a certitude that is too loud and ill-informed, a resoluteness that is unnecessary and an infallibility that is too noisily and abashedly defensive. Hardening of the attitudes indeed.
At it’s core is a been-there-done-that belief that I have gathered enough wisdom and my brain is full. It also means that my brain is closed to new information, new ideas, new points of view. There is no dialogue with certitude, no negotiation with resoluteness and no modifications to infallibility.
In an effort to fight this hardening of the attitudes, I am reading things I have never read before. I am discovering writers who are brilliant, exposing me to ideas and points of view that have never entered my conscious realm. It has a bit of a randomness to it all but is nevertheless refreshing and humbling.
I came across a small book by Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, in a discount bin at Munro’s Books in Victoria last weekend.I’ve never read Virginia Woolf so it was worth a try (especially, I thought, at the discount price).
It is an extended essay resulting from lectures Woolf gave to two women’s colleges affiliated with Cambridge University in 1928. I won’t try to summarize it, it would not do her justice. I can only say she is brilliant in laying out her case for gender equality, surpassing any modern feminist writings in her logic, her calm reasoning and her eloquence.
I wish I had read it when I was 20, or 30, or 40, or 50… or anytime in between. I am convinced it would have changed me and my view of the world.
The fact that there are writers like Woolf, and books like A Room of One’s Own that have eluded me at this stage of my intellectual and moral development suggests that maybe I don’t know everything there is to know, that my certitude is misplaced, that my resoluteness is fragile and my sense of infallibility is tragically flawed.
Fortunately, in a bit of serendipity, I have found a possible way out.There is no cure for stupid but there is an opportunity to push back on the hardening of the attitudes.
There may even be other benefits to discarding my certitude.
Einstein is quoted as saying; “Once you stop learning, you start dying”.
My solution to all this is that I am going back to school.
It’s too long a story to describe in detail but, last spring, I managed to talk my way into a study tour of southern Spain run by a small program at Simon Fraser University, the Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) Program. It involved a mix of students who were taking the course for credit, alumnae who were meeting up with old colleagues and a few strays like myself who had wandered in off the street.
It is a Master’s degree program, part-time and geared for adults. The curriculum for the two mandatory courses is a survey of the classics around the two themes of reason and passion. Then I must take more course options or a thesis option etc. to qualify for a degree.
The program is run out of the downtown Harbour Centre campus, I can walk to classes. The place hums and has the feel of a downtown university. The first two mandatory courses are held one night a week; they consist of a dinner and a three hour session, a discussion led by the professor.
The reading list is diverse and intimidating; there is not a single book on it that I have read. I like the idea of reading and discussing a serious work of literature, that seems to be my favoured learning style these days.
If my Spanish sojourn is any indication, I am going to spend time with some truly special people. There are only 20 students admitted to the course every year so the cohort will be small. The people I have met so far are all interesting, curious and come from diverse backgrounds; people outside my normal and narrow social contact groups.
Why, at my age go back to school?
It seems I have a choice. I can remain aloof in my certitude, comfortable in my rut, and unassailable in my resoluteness and my infallibility – and as Einstein says, I can start dying. You see us everywhere, huddled in coffee shops, muttering to ourselves over the latest edition of the daily newspaper, looking and feeling left out and left behind. Like we’ve been weaned on a pickle – sour and un-nurtured.
I can also lift the veil a bit, without getting too far out of my comfort zone and rummage around in the remainders piles of bookstores – quality bookstores mind you – in my attempt to expand my horizons. But I will choose to do it only on my terms. I will acknowledge my failings only in the quiet of my apartment and the comfort of my reading chair. Being the intrepid explorer I fancy myself to be, I will continue to attend the theatre, visit museums and galleries and go to the opera occasionally to prove to myself that I still don’t like opera.
Or I can admit to a monumental lack of knowledge and awareness and set myself onto the stormy seas of learning. I love this quote by Sir Francis Drake; the problem is I have and irrational fear of water and have tipped many floatable vessels over at inopportune times. On the other hand, even drowning in new ideas is preferable to the other two options.
“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little,
when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery, where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.”
This is my story about learning – again – to receive the gifts of others, about recognizing our vulnerability, our inability to go-it-alone through any and all circumstances and our need, our profound need, for a community of others.
I grew up fed by a stew of manly self-reliance, old fashioned prairie pride where one never asked for help, spiced with a dash of virtuous superiority that I could and would help those for whom I cared but would never deign to ask for, much less receive, help even in my darkest moments.
Confronted with a stark reality, I really did need help.
This time it was an operation at Vancouver General Hospital.
About six months ago, an alert doctor inadvertently but alertly found a potential health issue which required a specialist’s attention. I underwent a number of tests and was told that I was a candidate for elective surgery. I had no symptoms, the procedure was intrusive but not particularly risky so I was put in the queue. I volunteered to be on a 24 hour cancellation list.
The call came four weeks ago, on a Tuesday afternoon. Could I check in that evening and be ready for an operation the next day?
I didn’t hesitate; when the call comes, go!
One of life’s little surprises; it meant I needed help. My plan to go it alone was deeply flawed. Luckily, providence and serendipity worked on my behalf – my better angels showed up in the form of my children, Kristen and Blair.
Kristen happened to be visiting in Vancouver on spring break from her position at an International School in Dresden. She was with me as I swung into action, helped me navigate checking into VGH, was with me in pre-op and – most important of all – was waiting for me when they wheeled me out of post-op to my room in the ward.
Every time I awoke that first night, confused, drugged, tied to tubes and beeping/blinking instruments, prodded by nurses for vital signs, she was there, sitting calmly and quietly by my side exuding comfort and support. She was my guardian angel; a memory that will stay with me forever.
Blair had just finished his winter semester at Grad school at Carleton. He dropped off his dog with his mother, jumped on a plane and headed to Vancouver. They spent a few days together with me and even managed to enjoy some sibling time before Kristen had to depart.
Blair took over, cancelled two weeks of his life and managed my transition back to my apartment and steered me through the first weeks of recovery; medication, nutrition, laundry, groceries, my first tentative walks through the neighbourhood and my constant search for a comfortable place to catch a few hours of sleep; the list could be longer but you get the point. He was invaluable.
Other friends pitched in before and after Blair left and they have been pitching in constantly, daily since his departure.
It has been four weeks, recovery is exactly as outlined by my Doctor and I’m returning to normal. The meds have been put away and the fog has lifted a bit. Already, I’m searching for deeper meaning.
More blinding flashes of the obvious? Yes but they are mine and they’re meaningful to me.
What is abundantly clear is that Canada’s medical system functions extraordinarily well. There is not a single instance in the last 8 months since and including my diagnosis that I could imagine might have gone better. Not one! No bills have arrived at my door. The dozens of health care professionals went beyond professionalism; they were at all times caring and kind. We should be forever proud of our health care system.
Most notable, was my role reversal; instead of noble giver of kindness, I was the recipient of the abundant kindness of others. It is this generosity of others that I have been blind to, oblivious of its breadth, power and strength.
John Steinbeck, chronicler of the great depression, summed up the challenge:
“It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well. it requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.”
I would fail Steinbeck’s test.
I need to face the folly of wanting to do it all myself; the absurdity of going it alone. I need to recognize and embrace my vulnerability, to allow my needs to be known by others who stand ready to help.
I must do so in the honest recognition that relationships and community are essential to the human condition – to my humanity.
I need my community, we all need our communities; not just for support but for mutual support. Giving to my community is but part of what cements relationships in my community; receiving, receiving gracefully, humbly and with integrity, is also a bedrock of community.
I was trying to articulate this with a friend; how asking for and receiving help was half of the bond we have with people. Her response was insightful; even the act of receiving is an act of giving.
It allows someone’s generosity to find a home. It is these tender mercies that bind us to each other – both giving and receiving. Kristen and Blair helped me see that these acts of kindness were expressions of love from both giver and receiver. For all that I’m grateful.
One final insight. I discovered the tremendous healing powers of PJ’s. I now have several pairs. They may not be fashionable and I doubt I’ll wear them in public like I did when I was released from hospital but, at home….
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.
Fast approaching my seventieth birthday – my soixante dix, I try to think of a way to celebrate this event in a meaningful way while avoiding the consequences of achieving this milestone.We’ll face all the ‘growing old is fun’ cliches later; suffice it to say that it is better than the alternative.
I finally stumble and bumble my way to the ideal celebration. My visit to Ottawa morphs into a road trip to visit my family and old friends.I will take along an older friend who by his very presence would allow me to be the young one. Everything is relative.
It works perfectly.
I drive to Calgary, drop the car at the airport and fly to Ottawa. Phase one is a visit with Blair. Blair has a well deserved Reading Week – he spends it reading the snow conditions at Lake Louise and visiting friends in Calgary.
I spend the week visiting friends and taking care of his dog Austin.
That involved long walks – outside. Austin gives me a concentrated stare that made me feel guilty. He’s hard to ignore.
I bundle up, we venture outside and brave the biting cold of an Ottawa day. The good part about our walks is that they leave us both pleasantly fatigued. We sleep the deep sleep of the just.
My Blair returns. Blair the elder, my friend of more than fifty years, and I fly to Calgary. It is chilly, a bone-numbing -20 degrees Celsius.
A brief visit with Bob and Linda, my favorite older sister, is a perfect start to our epic adventure. In one of those coincidences that go beyond serendipity, my brother-in-law Bob and Blair realize that they had both been sent to Red Deer to finish high school; it’s where rascals and miscreants went after ruffling the feathers of their local school officials. Small world and a few seldom-told stories; sorry road stories must not be divulged.
In Red Deer, Blair’s nephew Russell takes us on a tour of RCMP headquarters, where he serves. We return to a sumptuous Korean dinner that SunJa, Russell’s wife had prepared. The evening’s entertainment is provided by their three delightful, energetic and talented children; Jaden, Leisha and Neven. Sometimes, traveling sweet spots appear when least expected; it is there on this night in the city of Red Deer.
My brother Marvin lives in Edmonton, no one understands why; but his roots are deep in the city. He raised his son Michael here, managed a small but vital child service agency, Chimo, and still now in his 70’s contributes to his city as a board member of the Boyle Street Education Centre – https://www.bsec.ab.ca – a charter school aimed at helping aboriginal at-risk youth stay in school. He’s a pretty cool guy; and knows some of the most interesting street kids I have ever met.
We return to Calgary for a night, meeting Marion an old friend for dinner.
Next day, a long drive through the mountains to Silver Star, a sweet little ski resort near Vernon.I spent the evening and the next morning swapping stories with my first two bosses, Blair and Judd. I cannot imagine two better role models. They, more than any others, shaped my business and work habits, my skills at interpersonal relations, my capacity for communication and my confidence. I was blessed by their collegial guidance and leadership.
We return to Vancouver and another round of visits. A spirited discussion of current Ottawa shenanigans spice up dinners and lunches with friends near and dear.
We even manage to make it to Victoria for a delightful lunch with Blair’s former Concordia colleagues.
So, just another travelogue, or is there something more going on?
I have known the value of the relationships with friends and family for some time but never was it more obviously on display.
Our lives are defined and immeasurably enriched by our relationships. Our family – both the family we are given by birth and the family we choose as we live our lives – are fundamental to our well-being.
We are blessed with family and friends, doubly so when we measure those relationships in decades.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that close meaningful relationships add enormously to the quality of our life, extend our life and improve our social, emotional and physical health.
These relationships need nurturing but the benefits are abundant.
So, the valuable lesson in life of this trip is simple; I can gracefully accept my advancing years by recognizing the abundance of the gifts I have received, foremost of which are the friendship with all the people who are a part of my life.
Friendships measured in decades; people who have shared the joys and challenges that life throws at us. We can’t control these events but we can face them more courageously with the support of our friends.
If friends extend our lives, I’m here for a long, long time.
Sometimes, if we are lucky, even when we make choices for the strangest reasons, the resulting joy eclipses the consideration given them.
Garbage in, wisdom out.
Single people know that life doesn’t just happen, nor does it queue neatly to fit our expectations; it has to be orchestrated. We initiate to fill our days, waiting for things to happen can mean waiting and wasting.
My friend self describes as a single combat warrior – she alone must plan her day, her week, her month, her life.
We singletons live in first person singular; I shall, I will, I must.
So what does this have to do with Samuel Beckett? Not much at the start.
I seek to fill my days, my weeks, my months, my life with interesting things to do.
Sometimes I start at the wrong end of things, I face empty Mondays; they must be filled, otherwise I will do little but pretend to be a boulevardier, a flaneur; sauntering down to Delaney’s for a coffee and an elegant, slightly patronizing scan of its inhabitants.
While mildly amusing and distracting, it is thin sustenance. I need more.
So I cast about. Previously, I would have filled those Mondays with a hard, long, forced march around the city, but it is winter, better to find something indoors away from the unpredictable weather and its cold rain.
Something indoors. Luckily, I have discovered senior’s learning; there are kinder words, plus 55, lifelong learning etc. Simon Fraser University has a program at its downtown campus for me and thousands like me.
I scan the program for Monday’s events; the only offering to tickle my fancy is a course on Samuel Beckett.
I have met Beckett once and didn’t like him. Years ago I took Kristen and Blair to the Stratford Festival for a weekend of what I styled “Shakespeare boot camp”.
Dublin, IRELAND: The Criterion Theatre programme of the 1955 presentation of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot”, (Photo credit; FRAN CAFFREY/AFP/Getty Images)
To break it up a bit, we went to see Waiting for Godot, a Beckett classic. There was a brief intermission; nothing in the play made sense. Kristen and Blair explained the play to me as dark existentialism; I limped through the second act still scratching my head and they managed to help me in our inevitable post mortem over pizza at a local restaurant.
Then it was on to the evening’s main event – Shakespeare, my favorite. I immediately forgot Beckett.
Now here he was, my best option to fill my winter Mondays. Waiting for Godot or something else is not an option.
I signed up.
It has been a surprise, remarkably thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating. I look forward to my Monday class.
Our professor is cheerful happy, smiling, laughing – not my expectation of a Beckett enthusiast. She is quite the opposite; instead of the Grim Reaper our prof is Mary Poppins.
I won’t bore you with my analysis of Beckett; I could not credibly pull it off. He did deserve his Nobel Prize even if he is bleak; a person so gifted that he had to write in French to slow down/dumb down his writing to be even hopefully incomprehensible.
He was a troubled Irish genius, inflicting his dark foreboding on generations of readers and theatregoers. He created a treasure trove of question marks, rivalling James Joyce in puzzling critics, academics and art lovers.
I was always told to read the black part of the page; attributing meaning to the white part was presumptuous interpretation, wild speculation, surmising – guaranteed to be wrong. Read the words Beckett said.
My class loves to read the white part of the page, to speculate; what did he really mean. They are very creative and profoundly optimistic. I enjoy the discussion, the thoughtfulness, the passionate explanations and exclamations. Whew! Who knew he meant all these things.
The course is another example of the obvious; I can sit in my warm bath of familiarity, doing little, waiting for Godot or I can be a ‘single combat warrior’ and go out and challenge the world, even if my objective is merely to fill my empty Mondays.
I have no fear of falling down the rabbit hole of trying to dissect Beckett. His dark view of the world does not interest me. But I am challenged to think, to accept again that others have different ideas and points of view, that I haven’t learned it all.
What better way to spend dreary Mondays? Better than waiting for Godot…?
I have found that fear is a powerful motivator for me; in my running days I had a fear based training program. Set an impossible goal, then use fear of failing to motivate the necessary training.A few sleepless nights drives serious training and it usually works. The pain is always worth the joy of crossing the finish line.
My latest application of the principle is crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass; I spend several months walking every day around Vancouver, motivated by a self-generated fear that the famous Saint Bernard dogs would have to rescue me because I couldn’t make it up the Pass under my own steam.
There’s another powerful motivator – the prize; if I complete a task, I get a prize. I dangle it like a carrot in front of me.
This summer I created fear and manufactured a prize. I turned the Great Saint Bernard pass into Mount Everest in my mind – fear.
I created a bright and shiny prize; when Blair and I finished our walk, we would reward ourselves with a visit to Kristen and Chris in their new home in Dresden, Germany – the prize.
Five years ago, Kristen and Christopher embarked on a grand adventure in life; this was not a holiday, not a temporary adventure for a few weeks or a few months but a full life commitment. They moved to Basel, Switzerland where Kristen started as a counsellor at the international school.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for both of them. In her first years, Kristen faced an evolving set of assignments; in her last two she found her ideal role as a full-time counsellor. She made an enormous contribution to the people who mattered most to her – students who needed her wisdom, advice and support.
Chris faced daily life in Basel, managing a host of tasks in a different language, a different culture; untold numbers of ways to make things complicated and add multiple twists and turns to even the simplest task.
He also managed in his time there to make big strides in learning German, became an accomplished cyclist and weekend adventure planner. He became an aficionado of stylish European ways; at times he seemed more European than the locals.
They also took advantage of every long weekend, school holiday and vacation to explore all of western Europe. I know because I got to tag along occasionally – Lisbon, Rome, Paris, dozens of postcard picture-perfect spots in Switzerland carefully researched and curated by them for our enjoyment. We even managed to spend some time with Bruce Springsteen on his final European tour stop in Zurich.
To call it life affirming is obvious; from my vantage point, it has been a profoundly enriching experience for both, not without challenges but worthy of celebration on so many levels.
And now they have moved to Dresden, where she is school counsellor for theinternational school.
Our prize starts when we meet them in Prague.
The prize for the next days and weeks is worth all our sweat and toil. Prague is delightful.
I have never visited central Europe; Prague is a delightful place to start. The architecture is fascinating; the city is steeped in a history unfamiliar to me, there’s an enervating exoticism to everything.
We share an eight course tasting menu that is as inspired as any I have tasted in Paris; the wine pairings, all local, have both Kristen and Chris asking where they can find more of the sampled wines.
I walk the Charles Bridge in early morning, the only time free of pesky tourists, and am convinced of the merits of returning to Prague soon. We board the train and, in less than two hours, we are in Dresden.
Kristen and Chris have found a charming two bedroom apartment near a trolley line just a short commute from her work and city centre.
Dresden is universally known as the German city that was firebombed by the Allies in the last months of the war, despite it’s marginal strategic value. Kurt Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, witnessed the destruction and wrote of its effects in his acclaimed fiction, Slaughterhouse Five.
Unlike most European cities that rebuilt their torn infrastructure with new modern buildings Dresden, once called the Florence of the Elbe, laboured for decades to recreate the astounding 17th, 18th and 19th century architecture for which it was rightly renowned.
With the support of governments and private donors from around the world, such building as the Frauenkirche, a Lutheran cupola Cathedral and the Zwinger, an 18th century Baroque palace now hosting three separate museums.
The bombed out centre of the city is restored using whatever materials were able to be salvaged from the absolute destruction of the war, augment with modern building materials, leaving an ever-present reminder of the devastation of war. It has become again the Jewel Box of Europe.
Situated on the Elbe River, it is now a modern, bustling city with one of the largest technical universities, a diverse economy and a vibrant nightlife – we managed to survive our first biergarten under the landmark bridge, the Blaues Wunder – the Blue Wonder.
Having moved just three weeks before our arrival, they have been busily starting a new job, exploring the city, setting up their new apartment and unpacking boxes.
Like all adventures it’s not always easy; getting everything set up takes time, negotiations are in German and it all requires a secret sauce of patience and persistence.
Blair and I want to be welcomed back so we set ourselves to being useful and lighten the load.
There is a list….
Job 1 is making the apartment Matisse safe. A new bamboo skirt for the balcony successfully installed by Chris and Blair takes one item off the list.
Blair and Chris make a productive team. My challenge is to stay out of the way. Its tough work but I try.
Of course, we get a chance to see K’s workplace – even after school, it sparkles with youthful energy. Her office is warm, comfortable and easy to relax in – her students are lucky to have her as a resource.
I find it comforting, even now, to see where my children live and work. It adds immeasurably to my future conversations to have a mental image of their kitchen, their office, their favourite patio, their quiet spot to decompress, their best biergarten.
This is a completely new adventure, Dresden, so long inside the Iron Curtain, is different from the western Europe they have seen from their old base in Basel. The opportunity to explore central Europe, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic, Denmark, northern Scandinavia, Hungary, the Czech Republic are all waiting their arrival.
I am overjoyed. They are true intrepid explorers. I have high hopes of tagging along occasionally, using Dresden as a base for my own explorations and living vicariously through their adventures.
We ended my summer adventure with a celebration, of their tenth anniversary, of their courage in drinking avidly from the firehose of life and for the future of their adventure in Dresden. An end to my summer adventure and a start to their new adventure in Dresden.
The Via Francigena is not for the easily distracted or for those who desire instant gratification; it’s a 2000 kilometre path that starts in Canterbury, England, traverses northern France then wends its way through Switzerland and crosses into Italy over the Great Saint Bernard Pass. That’s the halfway point; it ends in Rome after another 1000 kilometres of walking.
The Great Saint Bernard Pass demands attention. Well known, the Romans used it as a gateway to Europe before the birth of Christ. Napoleon took his invading army over the pass to attack the Italian city states in 1800. At 2473 metres (8114 feet), it is formidable; snow has been known to fall in any month, travel by foot is recommended only in July and August, the only road is closed some 8 months of the year.
John and I had been walking for two weeks across France when we parted in Besancon, less than 70 kilometres from the border. After a few days of R&R, I start walking alone towards Switzerland.
The Jura range near the border of France and Switzerland requires crossing; 1300 metres of elevation that I have not exactly planned for, a preview of things to come.
It’s beautiful walking and I’m on my own; the weather has cracked a bit and I’ve lots of time to walk and look with abandon. I come across some farm art, the French farmers’ baleful-looking equivalent to our Vancouver west-end Inukshuk.
The border to Switzerland is a small building, I walk across; no checks, just a wave from the guards. The Swiss trail signpost system is clear and comprehensive; it is almost impossible to get lost and their route TP 70, charts the Via Francigena from the French border to the Italian border. All I have to do is walk; I arrive in Lausanne a few days later.
Along the way, I pause to visit a Roman ruin; some of the most incredible mosaics I have ever seen, preserved and now exhibited in this remote location; again proving that walking offers enrichment unavailable to those in cars whizzing past on the autoroute.
I have some R&R in Lausanne, an emotional visit to the Olympic museum, complete with artifacts from both Calgary 1988 and Vancouver 2010. I must admit wiping a bit of something that got caught in my eyes there, occasioned by fond memories of both. Again, taking my time pays off.
Blair joins me in Lausanne and we are off. We haven’t done any walking together since his teenage years; it’s good to have him with me.
We face five days of walking to the top of the pass, it doesn’t seem right to call it a summit when it is the lowest point around.
The last two days are each 13 kilometres long with an elevation gain of about 800 metres – yes friends that is almost one kilometre of up.
He manages my slower pace by stopping to take photos while I trudge on; more importantly, vitally, he offers to carry all our water for the last two days, several extra kilograms of weight all day, all the way to the top.
I’m struggling and grateful for his presence, his support and his encouragement.
There’s little use dwelling on my suffering, we all pay for french fries in our own way; as compensation, the views we are blessed with are magnificent.
The elevation brings cool weather and a few challenging hours of rain; my enthusiasm drips off me with the rain.
The last day is a struggle of will over wish; I wish I was somewhere else or at least done this uphill trudge.
Finally, in late afternoon, within sight of the summit, Blair announces that he has a surprise for me; we can stop anywhere. The sun comes out, we find a flat rock and he pulls two Astronaut-ready freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches from his pack.
He found them at MEC in Ottawa before he left; knowing of my legendary and boundless enthusiasm for ice cream (I have always held the belief that ice cream is definitive proof that there is a god), he couldn’t resist buying them.
So. we sit on our rock, basking in the sun and our success at climbing to the summit of the pass and eat our ice cream bars.
The extra joy of his unexpected thoughtfulness is another tender mercy for which I will always be grateful.
We finish our treat and are off to the summit when, straight from central casting, a young woman appears with three Great Saint Bernard dogs to welcome us. She says she always takes them for a walk about this time of day; I’m convinced that it’s all planned – the gods have sent those wonderful beast to personally welcome us to the Great Saint Bernard Pass.
Tender mercies indeed!
It doesn’t get better than this you say?
Well, it does. It’s called Italy.
To be honest, we are expecting little; the Pass was the prize.
To further be honest, we hitchhike down the other side, I’m not interested in further punishment to prove a point. Our driver drops us at the front door to La Cluzas, a hotel restaurant built on the site of a 13th century hospital. We celebrate, belatedly, Blair’s birthday with one of the best meals we have ever experienced. We celebrate his birthday, our success, our camaraderie, our gratitude for this moment.
Walking in the north of Italy is a perfect end to my Via Francigena summer. Fruit trees are loaded, the villages are picturesque, the people are kind and helpful, the food is glorious. We slow down and walk with a keen eye for photos and a reluctance to see our shared adventure end.
I have expressed doubt about my willingness to commit to the long trek to Rome; Blair voices an interest in returning; his new idea is enough to keep the door open. Walking in this part of Italy offers a compelling logic of its own.
The future cannot be predicted. For now, we enjoy each and every day.
We board the train in Ivrea, to fly to Prague for our next adventure. Life is good.
Last summer, I started a major walk; the Via Francegina, from Canterbury to Rome. It follows the path of Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury who made the trek to be appointed Cardinal.
His return trip was documented; he finished the return trip of some 2000 kilometres in 79 days. He was obviously a hardy soul, the journey crosses the Swiss Alps and a few other minor inconveniences.
There have been a few changes to the landscape but there are signposts showing a path across France, Switzerland and Italy for those of us willing to follow in his footsteps.
It’s not the actual walk that requires a strong sense of purpose, it’s the tedium, boredom and hard work of the six months of getting ready that requires motivation and commitment a sense of purpose provides.
Most of my pilgrim walks have been solo affairs. I have liked the solitude. Last year I made an exception. Kristen joined me for a week; it was such a positive experience that I decided to try it again.
This year’s walk began where I finished last year, in Reims. I have a new travel companion, John will walk with me for two weeks.We meet in Paris, catch a train to Reims and find our hotel.While we suffer from jet lag and a slight disorientation we recognize today is an important day – France is playing the final of the World Cup in Moscow so we scurry down to a pub to catch a meal and the action. We win! The city celebrates under our window till dawn – loudly!
Our first day starts late; we need photos, SIM cards and other essentials before we leave the city. The day is long, hard and hot. Whether it be jet lag or the late start, dehydration and fatigue set in.
The walk is beautiful, through Champagne wine country, down a long arrow-straight Roman road that is still functional as a farm track, through a major forest and finally out into open country. We manage to replenish our water, hitch a bit of a ride and arrive at our first lodging.
As we recover, we decide to tweak our plans; in the heat we may not be able to safely cover the 25 or so kilometres between each night’s stop. We form a rules committee which will meet nightly to decide how much walking we will undertake the next day. We seek out alternate means of travel, asking politely of our hotelier for a ride, hiring a taxi, whatever is necessary to shuttle us to an appropriate start point.
We are mindful that the test is not whether we can make our destination today but whether we are able to make a whole series of destinations. Blisters, chafing, dehydration, fatigue and just plain-old enjoyability weigh on the minds of the rules committee.
We have hosts who bless us with a ride down the road. We learn to pace ourselves, finding the occasional tree to rest under. And we consume rivers of water, before, during and after every walk.
The rules committee also decides that we should allow a certain amount of cultural enlightenment to occur, under appropriate circumstances. We happen upon a museum in a town where Napoleon attended Military School, surely a cultural event cannot be missed even if it requires a cab later in the day to achieve our destination.
A few days later, at a scheduled rest day John, who has a bit of a magpie memory – he gathers up bright and shiny factoids for later use – recalls that we are near a museum honouring Charles deGaulle in nearby Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.
It is delightful; if I was in a car or in a hurry, I would have gone right past it without blinking. We are invigorated and enlightened and I have seen a new dimension added to all my future walks.
The two weeks remain obstinately hot; we are averaging 15-18 kms a day, respectable given the circumstances. we develop and set our routine; we rise as early as socially acceptable, we caffeinnate and eat whatever is set in front of us, we load up on water and our packs and set off. Since every kilometre is new, we enjoy the walk, stopping occasionally if we find some shade. We arrive at our destination, gratefully accept our lodgings (some require more acceptance than others), forage for food, wash up, nap and find a decent meal for supper. The rules committee meets to sort out the next day’s schedule and we retire. It is a full day.
Everything every day is, by definition, a surprise, most are pleasant. We stay one night with the Mongy family; they offer free dinner/lodging/breakfast to pilgrims in an area where no other alternatives exist. they are famous along the VIA for their hospitality. the next day they drive us out to our start point. They even send us off with a sandwich for lunch.
John is an ideal companion; he is flexible and gets the everything-is-a-surprise concept quickly. He is happy with a simple hotel; neither of us complain much, we settle for what we receive and move on. We concentrate on the small kindnesses extended to us. The kindness comes, the tender mercies abound and accumulate.
We have removed ourselves from the toxicity of the 24 hour news cycle; it helps our detox and our disposition.
Our last night is spent in the village of Gy; our hosts out-do themselves – lodging, dinner prepared for us, breakfast and the all important ride to John’s train station. We are dropped at the TGV station; say our goodbyes and I head into town while John heads for the bright lights of Paris and then home.
I am sorry to see him go; I’m coming to see that a walking partner offers some serious benefits. It’s like working with a net. If any number of events happen while solo – say losing a wallet or having a credit card cancelled – it is a catastrophe; when traveling with someone else it is a minor inconvenience.
We’ve covered some 350 kilometres; my best guess is we’ve walked 250 of that. We have walked in temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, usually on tarmac with little shade with no access to water along the route. We’ve had fun, we’ve seen some sights, we’ve met some truly kind people and have benefited from their simple acts of kindness.We’ve regained our faith in humanity and our optimism about the human condition.
Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize winning economist, a past chair of the US Council of Economic Advisors and a past chief economist of the World Bank. I may be going with my gut here but I’m thinking he has the credentials to be a credible commentator on how economic policy affects our life.
I first became aware of Stiglitz when he predicted that George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2002 would cost Americans a trillion dollars. At the time, the neo-cons around Bush scoffed – a few hundred million max, and Iraqi oil would pay for it. Guess who was right – the tally has passed a trillion dollars and is still mounting. The real cost in deaths, shattered lives and permanently disabled veterans is even more horrific.
So, when I saw an anthology of his columns called The Great Divide, I had to buy it.
It is a chilling read. Stiglitz provides a litany of cautionary advice about the growing concentration of wealth in America. He is the intellectual godfather of the 99% movement in the US.
He is a clear, concise and engaging writer. Most of the pieces in this book are short, forcing him to communicate clearly, to use startling examples, to make his points easily understandable to those of use whose grasp of economics is tenuous. He succeeds.
Stiglitz believes that the growing concentration of wealth and income in the top 1% of Americans, the greed that propels this continuing aggregation of wealth and the complicity of policy makers and elected officials to make the rich richer is the biggest challenge Americans face.
He’s amassed some pretty powerful evidence.
The top 1% now owns some 40% of America’s wealth and about 25% of America’s income.
The incomes of the top 1% have doubled over the past 25 years; over the last decade, their incomes have risen almost 20%. The rest of us are not so blessed. Incomes remain stubbornly flat; in fact, median incomes have been flat for 40 years.
The six members of the Walton family, the owners of Walmart, now own more American wealth – some $130 billion – than the bottom 30% of the US population. That’s more than 100 million people!
Almost all – 95% actually – of the increases in income after the recovery from that cataclysmic events of 2007-08 went to the top 1% of Americans.
More than a trillion dollars was spent bailing out US banks in the aftermath of the economic meltdown that almost destroyed the world’s economy; little was spent helping millions (yes millions) of ordinary Americans keep their homes or fight illegal foreclosures.
The bankers kept their bonuses, investors kept their dividends, bondholders got their interest; the 99% lost their homes, their cars, their jobs, their future. No one went to jail; no one was punished.
It is my personal view that the current turmoil sweeping across America is directly related to the economic disparities that are cleaving American society. People are coming to understand that the American dream is available only to the 1%.
Stiglitz shows that this concentration of wealth is the result of policies that were designed to deliver benefits to the wealthy. Tax cuts and public policy were designed to benefit the rich.
The American tax system feeds the concentration of wealth. Tax deductions for capital gains are generous compared to those for wage earner’s income; other tax deductions reward the rich and burden the 99%. Higher education has been made too expensive for any but the wealthy, health care is beyond the reach of many and the relentless dismantling of the Affordable Care Act is destroying health care plans for millions.
America is falling in rankings of many indices which measure quality of life, mobility and well-being. Child poverty, poverty, food insecurity, growing unemployment in specific demographics, lower social and economic mobility – all indications of the dramatic impacts of the inequities – are growing.
Stiglitz quotes Warren Buffett; “there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.”
Buffett does not say that proudly; he has been quick to point out that he pays less tax on a percentage basis than his secretary and he has pledged to give his accumulated wealth to charity. His enlightenment is not emulated by the rest of the American 1%.
Leonard Cohen saw the game, way back in 1988.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
An engaging melody and Cohen’s incredible voice could not hide the cynicism of the lyrics.
Stiglitz is clear; inequality is a choice that American policy makers have made and continue to make. In the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United, they have ensured that money rules the US political process. It almost guarantees that policy will ensure the rich get richer; everybody – even Leonard Cohen – knows.
Stiglitz knows that the dry world of economics cannot capture the importance of trust and fairness as bedrocks of society, of myriads of financial transaction, of the hope that one can advance through hard work and playing by the rules, of the belief that there is justice for all. Without these beliefs and a strong set of rules and regulations that govern the excesses of capitalism, society itself fails.
As Canadians, we should not be too smug; our levels of inequality are almost as drastic as those in America. Many of our public policies help the rich stay rich and force the poor to remain poor.
We cannot be too sanctimonious, nor can we rest. Our unique Canadian successes are more fragile than we might expect. The disparity of income and wealth is not inexorable or inevitable, but pressure from powerful interests is relentless.
And, here is the point dear friends. As we celebrate Canada Day, we cannot take anything for granted.
Our challenge as Canadians as we celebrate our 151st year as a nation is to constantly make the right choices.
When we pay our taxes, we make the choice to sustain our unique Canadian way of life.
We live in one of the safest countries in the world, we are supporting one of the best health care systems in the world, we have access to a whole range of public services that are the envy of the rest of world.
We live in an open society where social mobility is possible, where equality and egalitarianism exist, where the fight is not fixed.
We have a remarkably good public education system and a post-secondary education that is still accessible to all.
These social norms do not come cheaply; they require vigilance, an engaged thoughtful electorate, a fair tax system and a smart well educated public service.
We must consciously choose to support an equality of opportunity for all Canadians, an equality of access to basic public services, an openness in our society, a willingness to include everyone in the public discourse and a shared responsibility for each other’s wellness.
When we participate in the public discourse we need to be ever mindful of the importance of trust in others, of reasonableness and civility, of the necessity to respect others, of the need to not fall prey to a sense of grievance or of the easy path to demonize the other.
We cannot inoculate ourselves from the current malaise working its way through America, but with vigilance, conviction, faith and trust in each other, we can avoid the inevitability of their choices.
What’s history? In my schoolchild days it was a long, complicated series of dates and names to be memorized; kings and queens of western European countries, battles and maps and heroes and villains. It was dead white men of privilege exploring and conquering the world. While it could be exciting stuff for a child with an overactive imagination, it was pretty dull and boring.
Later it became more serious. In my pipe-smoking undergraduate and graduate school days, the study of history was important because it gave us insight. I was in love with politics and policy, constantly admonished by my professors quoting George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I repeated that saying like a mantra as I read history, mostly the biographies of famous/infamous men, looking for insight – my own crystal ball into the future.
Not so today, somehow while I was off doing other things, history has become more complicated, more subject to more debate.
Nothing so clearly points out the complexity of interpreting history than a book that formed the basis of my latest adventure.
I was fortunate enough to join a travel study course offered by Simon Fraser University focusing on a book by historian Maria Rosa Menocal: Ornament of the World; How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.
It has caused a bit of a stir amongst scholars and historians.
Three weeks on my study tour that would take us to Cordoba, Seville and Granada in southern Spain and offered an opportunity to explore this somewhat controversial assertion further.
I was only tangentially aware of the Moorish domination of southern Spain. I encountered it on my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella.
The Camino pilgrimage honors Santiago de Matamoros – Saint James the Moor Slayer.
The myth of Saint James defies credulity. Saint James’ remains were said to have been found by a Spanish shepherd following a star in the 9th century. Pilgrimages were promoted to honour Saint James and support the Catholic attempts to drive the Moors from Spain.
Saint James became the moor slayer in a revised Catholic myth created in the 12th century when he is attributed to have miraculously appeared on the side of Christian forces to defeat the Moors in the legendary battle of Clavijo.
While historians have proven the so-called decisive battle never actually happened, one historian noted; “While this event is based on legend, the supposed battle has provided one of the strongest ideological icons in the Spanish national identity.”
Saint James is celebrated with in art and sculpture, with a prominent position of honour in the Santiago Cathedral. I came across another Santiago de Matamoros statue in Granada while on my study course, trying to assess the impact of 700 years of Moorish domination of large swaths of what we now call Spain.
Such is the power of building a narrative that attempts to create, write and use “history” for other purposes.
I, like some millions of others, have walked 800 kilometres on a pilgrimage based on fantasy, myth and centuries old propaganda!
My study tour was a delightful re-entry into the world of Santayana and his bold assertion. Along with some 20 others, I was confronted with the reality that history is messy.
Menocal asserts that Muslims, Jews and Christians were able to live in relative harmony in southern Spain for centuries. She celebrates the achievements of that golden period in Spain’s history – the introduction of new plants and fruit to Spain, the widespread development of agriculture and irrigation, the explosion of trade throughout the Mediterranean of Spanish goods, improvements in manufacturing, mining and industry – all creating a robust economy while the rest of Europe stumbled.
She describes a culture of architectural innovation, poetry, an explosion of learning, a multiplication of libraries and a reverence for intellectual discovery in science and medicine. She credits the Moors with the vital transfer of the ideas and philosophical debates of the Greeks to Europe. In the 10th century, Cordoba was one of the five largest cities in the world – London and Paris were riverside towns.
It is a positive and optimistic portrayal of a time when history was being made. To Menocal, the Muslim willingness to tolerate, engage and integrate Jews and Christians into their governance and society was the cause of this Golden Age, a renaissance that preceded and set the stage for Europe’s emergence from the dark ages.
I wish it were so.
Many historians have pushed back, questioning her bold assertions.
There’s not enough data, knowledge or information they say.
And that is the problem with writing history. It’s like buying a picture puzzle that promises 1000 pieces. When I open the box there are only 200 pieces. With 800 pieces missing, I am left to imagine, intuit and interpret with what little I have.
It’s not for lack of trying, Archeologists, anthropologists and historians have worked prodigiously to help us learn from history, for we do intuitively believe in Santayana’s maxim.
Now we add the second challenge – trying to sort various interpretations of the scanty evidence, trying to sort myth from reality, trying to conclude with only the evidence we have without taking it too far into conjecture.
There is plenty of room for conjecture. Santiago de Matamoros is but one example of propaganda widely accepted as history. Millions of pilgrims believe in the alternative narrative.
Past historical writing is under some attack these days from other quarters. We all know that history is written by the victors; losers don’t control the pen that writes history, hagiographers are in charge.
We all know that history has been written by and about men, that it is focused on conquest and war, ego and the glorification of aggression, that the post colonial world is awakening to a new narrative for their history, that women have made history without being acknowledged, that too little has been written about slow moving events that don’t follow a story-like narrative.
I’m pleased to say that my study tour raised many questions and answered few of them. We debated the interpretations of fine and grand points of Moorish influence in Spain amongst many other issues – such as what to have for lunch that day. I came away confused but pleasantly so: life is confusing, why shouldn’t history reflect that.
Santayana may be right, we should study our past, our many histories, our various perspectives on what happened, how and why it occurred. I am coming to believe that history is plural; it is a conflicting set of stories we tell ourselves. Stories will change over time, with new information, new insights, new voices claiming a share of the narrative.
We need to be critical in our reading of history; it is messy.
If we don’t we are likely condemned to repeat our mistakes.
I’m not an historian, I’m an opinionated blogger, an undisciplined student of whatever is on my mind and an itinerant traveller with a superficial grasp of the facts.
I have a thin patina of knowledge, enough to make me dangerous in my self delusion. I like to say that deep down, I’m quite shallow – soreader beware.
To me, Spain seems to have a problem reconciling itself with its history.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for more than 35 years yet It is difficult to find public evidence of his regime. The last Franco statue to be removed from public display was at Santander in 2008; continued attempts at reconciliation are ongoing and painful.
Similarly, the unbending repressive strain of Catholicism exhibited in Spain since Ferdinand and Isabella united the country in the late 15th century seems to be an uncomfortably sidelined part of Spanish history. The only reference to the infamous excesses of the Inquisition that I could find were in side-show ‘museums’ that duped unwitting tourists into parting with their Euros to see depictions of blood, gore and torture.
This summer, I came across another example of how Spain’s collective psyche seems to find it difficult to reconcile itself with its history.
In a thoughtfully curated and reputable museum in Malaga, I came across the attached. Here’s part of the quote;
…“effectively dismissing the long centuries of Islamic occupation as a mere hiccup in the otherwise smooth course of Spain’s Christian history.”
It’s tough to stuff 700 years of history under the rug but Spain has tried.
This spring, I was part of a travel study group focused on the seven centuries of Islamic rule of southern Spain, generally agreed to have started in 711 with the invasion of Spain by Muslim Berbers. The conquest was swift and pervasive.
It lasted for some 700 years until the final capitulation of of the Muslim city-state Granada in 1492 to Ferdinand and Isabella.
These seven centuries of rule profoundly influenced the evolution of renaissance Europe – of that there is general agreement amongst scholars of all persuasions.
In those seven centuries, the Islamic influence permeated medieval Spain, influenced intellectual thought in the rest of Europe and advanced knowledge and civilization in architecture, art, agriculture, irrigation and water usage, science in all its emerging forms. Libraries were created book-by-book that brought the greatest intellectual thoughts of Greece and Rome to Europeans for the first time. Through Cordoba. By Muslims.
Maria Rosa Menocal described the vast positive influence of Islam on Spain and the emerging societies of Europein her book The Ornament of the World.
On our tour we visited three major sites of Moorish Spain; Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. I also enjoyed a pre-tour visit to Malaga, an ancient port on the Mediterraneancoast.
It is hard to describe the impact of visits to the remnants of Moorish influence in these cities of Andalusia. Most of what we saw was architecture, much of it replicated.
Malaga has two major monuments, the Castillo de Gibralfaro – the fortress – and the Alcazaba – the adjacent fortified palace. The Castillo, a fortification since Phoenician times, was turned into a major Muslim fortress in the 11th century, conquered by the Christians in the late 15th century and used as a military fortification for most of the last centuries. The illustrations and explanations of the Castillo’s history at the on-site museum begins with the conquest of the site by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1487; one has to search for references to Muslim rule prior to that date.
The Alcazaba is treated more honestly. Built mostly in the 11th century, it was home to Muslim Kings and Governors starting in the Taifa period; some 500 years of continuous Moorish governance of the region. The Alcazaba, even what little is left, is a beautiful place. Distinctive Moorish arches and decorative features are balanced, delicate and enticing. Water features, plants, green spaces and shaded areas cool the air and calm the mind. It is a pleasant respite from the streets below, an excellent first encounter with Moorish architecture.
It is estimated that, in the 11th century, Cordoba was one the five largest cities in the world; dynamic, cultured, economically robust and relatively calm. Calm enough for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work in close proximity to each other somewhat peacefully (for the time) and important enough for the Moorish ruler, Abd ar-Rahman III, to declare himself Caliph (leader of the Muslim world) with Cordoba as the capital of his Caliphate.
Cordoba’s Mezquita is unique jewel and a stirring example of Moorish architecture; it is unlike anything I have seen. Built over a period from late 8th century and expanded continuously through 200 years of Cordoba’s Moorish Caliphate, this was the largest mosque used for Muslim worship in Cordoba. At its zenith, the Mezquita measured 140 metres by 85 metres, the roof supported by more than 1000 pillars.
The good news is that the Catholic conquerers did not destroy the Mezquita when they captured Cordoba in 1236. Like all other conquerers, they choose to assert their dominance and redecorate. They consecrated the mosque as a Christian site and in the 1500’s chose to build a cathedral in the middle of Mezquita.
When Emperor Charles V viewed the almost completed Church in the middle of the Mosque he is said to have commented: “You have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”
Seville provided another perspective on Moorish Spain. We arrived on a very hot sunny day; our first visit, the Seville Cathedral. Built on the site of the mosque, it is the third largest cathedral in the world; overwhelming does not cover my reaction to this is a need to sit for a few minutes – it is an assault on the senses.
The Gothic structure has been built upon and altered so many times that it is now an unreconcilable mish-mash of a host of evolving architectural styles; add-ons offer a dizzying array of chapels, stalls, aisles, walls, altars, side attractions, all further confused by dazzling golden altars, bas-relief art, figurines, monuments, columns and pillars. It is dazzling – living up to a quote found in a guide book – “When they see it, future generations will think we are mad.”
They certainly succeeded in convincing me they were mad; in fact, they nailed it.
I had also finally discovered where all that confiscated Incan and Mayan gold had been spent.
An hour later, we entered the Alcazar; the contrast to the Cathedral was profound. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I immediately felt calmed, almost serene.
The gardens, the shade, the respite from the heat, the lightness of the architecture, the simplicity and integrity of all features of the buildings design, the use of water and plants, the placement of doors, windows and the size of rooms – all contributed to a sense of harmony and peacefulness.
It was one of the most enriching hours of my visit to Seville.
The contrast between the two religious sites could not have been more stark.
Granada was, fittingly, our final visit; it is known as the jewel of Andalucia. It was also the city where the Moorish rule of Spain ended for it was in Granada in 1492, that Isabel and Ferdinand formally received the keys to the gates of Granada from Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler in Spain.
The Alhambra jewel is spectacular. The complex, almost 700 metres long from the Alcazaba the fortress to the Generalife, the private residences and extensive gardens of the ruler.It is surrounded by almost 2000 metres of imposing walls. It sits above Granada, framed by the snow-capped Sierra Madre mountains in the distance, a city within itself built over generations starting in the 9th century.
Isabel, the Spanish monarch who led the final stage of the Reconquesta, was so taken with the beauty of the Alhambra that she was buried there for a short time until her remains were removed to the Royal Chapel in the Granada Cathedral. Such was her judgement of the beauty of the Alhambra.
The grounds are extensive, the palace buildings the most necessary of many attractions in the 13 hectare site. Here a succession of small rooms, pleasingly sized and each in its own right a marvel, open to more rooms, larger and more ornate. The effect is to induce a greater sense of awe as one moves through each passage. It works.
The rooms are captivating, walls covered with stuccoed designs including Arabic calligraphy in praise of Allah. Brilliant mosaic tile patterns adorn walls, pillars are carved with delicate lattice capitals imparting a sense of fragility.
The use of light and shadow, the constant presence of water and the specific placement of windows for views and to catch the breezes ensures that the temperature is moderate. Even in the mid-day heat, we were cooled. Even in the cacophony of the never ending stream of tourists, we were calmed; the rooms were more peaceful, quieter than they should be.
I have never understood the effect of architecture on the human spirit, mostly I’ve considered it the hype of architects. The Mezquita, the Alcazar and the palaces at the Alhambra changed that impression. The Moorish command of architecture and building adornment, the use of light, water and views, the decoration of walls, halls and rooms proved that there is a difference. My mood is uplifted, my demeanour is altered, my perspective shifts.
I cannot claim to have more than a superficial impression of the centuries of Moorish dominion over Spain. I know that the jewels in the crown of Spanish history that may be the least favorite are also the most dazzling – the architecture of three sites in Cordoba, Seville and Granada are all must-see wonders of the world. If, even in a small way, they represent the impact of the Moorish ruling period, the Spanish people should be grateful for such enrichment. Menocal’s book, Ornament of the World is subtitled How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.
It would have been a rich and interesting time to be alive.
Over the last five years, I have enjoyed the warm hospitality and my very own bedroom in Basel, Switzerland courtesy of Kristen and Christopher. A few weeks ago, I made what is likely my last visit to Basel. They are moving this summer to Dresden to start a new adventure.
When they were deciding to throw all the cards up in the air and play 52 pick with their lives, I was privileged to be included in their discussions.
They were changing the course of their lives.
It was a brave and bold decision and they thought about it a lot. They were moving a long way away – nine time zones to be exact.
At about this time five years ago, we gathered to send them off; reminding them constantly that home would stay where it always was – in our hearts and in the hearts of our family and friends. Home is a feeling not a place. We could and would visit back and forth; Vancouver would patiently await their return.
I’m grateful that they decided to embark on that adventure five years ago. It made a huge difference in my life.
Their courage gave me courage; courage to expand my own capacity for adventure.
It happened quickly; I used Christopher’s world triathlon competition in London that year as a jumping-off point for my first pilgrimage, an 800 km walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He finished his triathlon and went on to Basel and I left to start the Camino.
Somehow it seemed more doable knowing Kristen and Chris were close by; I had a safety net, our quick text messages at the end of every day gave me comfort.
The prize I dangled in front of myself was a visit in Basel, complete with my first fondue and a few days of R&R in my new home after a month of vagabonding. It worked so well, I did it again a few years later in Portugal.
Over the years there have been so many visits with so many wonderful adventures – the one constant was knowing that I had a home in Basel,a greeting at the train station, a welcome mat at the door, a bed to sleep in, two friends to share the joy of life, a cat who tolerated me.
It was base camp Basel, a place to drop my pack, to relax and feel safe and secure and so much more.
Base camp Basel was the jumping off point for our African safari and the place we returned to when we had finished our glorious adventure.
It was base camp for Blair and me; we could land in Basel and nip over to Zermatt. He skied and I snowshoed under the shadow of the Matterhorn.The Matterhorn!
Base camp that allowed us to experience the total insanity of Swiss Fasnacht, the only time the Swiss drop their massive stuffiness and go crazy, worshipping fire, parading through the streets at odd hours; a long stream of weird fife and drum bands, the oddest parade floats, even odder costumes fuelled by the consumption of vast quantities of alcohol. Carnival in Rio is choir-like by comparison.
Chris taught me about European football. I’m now a fan; I’ve dropped the NFL completely, it’s crude, dangerous and thoughtless.
Kristen walked me all over Switzerland, winter and summer. We rode sledges down steep ski slopes, we wanderwegged through the Jungfrau in the shadow of the Eiger. We hiked up to Heidi’s village. Wedid everything but yodel.
We ate magnificently at the end of every hike ; sausages and cheese and mountain macaroni – guiltless extravagance. In fact we ate well every time I visited.
We celebrated Christmas there – twice. The uniquely joyful European Christmas markets will forever define the holiday now ; north American consumerism is shallow and uninspired by comparison.
We stood in the stands cheering a pickup team of Canadians playing in various European leagues who come together every year at the Spengler cup in Davos, more pure joy in one game than in any I’ve seen in the NHL lately – Gary Bettman are you listening?
Base camp Basel became the meeting point for adventures all over Europe. Italian Espresso and a foodie tour in Rome, the final Bruce Springsteen European concert in Zurich, Lisbon for the best Pasteis de Nata ever!, Paris and more Paris, Varengeville for dinner, and Krakow in winter.
There was always a constant; a chance to fly into Basel and get settled then head off in any one of a multitude of directions to find an adventure. Base camp Basel was my geographic center for five years, a landing pad and a launch pad that made all of Europe more accessible, more friendly, more enticing.
I also saw my daughter grow into a woman who had met a complex professional challenge, who had mastered each successive iteration of a constantly evolving position and who had contributed to a school environment where she will be sorely missed.
I remember being somewhat sad when they announced their decision to move to Basel; rightfully so, I don’t see them as often. Facetime, WhatsAp and phone calls help but frequent visits are the best; each visit is an adventure. I am almost embarrassed by the rich rewards that have come my way from the unintended consequences of their decision.
Basel is one of those places that could be described as a town that fun forgot. Not for me. To me it will always be Base Camp Basel, a place where I‘ve shared lots of laughs, lots of talk, lots of shared adventure, big and small.
A place to jump off from and to return home to. Base Camp.
I signed up for Twitter about a month ago; Trump tweets were the catnip for joining. I NEEDED to see Trump’s tweets directly; news casts blaring BREAKING NEWS and showing me the feeds were not enough.
I wanted to go to the source – Twitter itself.
I finally folded like a cheap lawn chair and signed up.
Last week, I closed my account and unloaded it from my smartphone.
What a let-down! Twitter was a monumental waste of time.
A perfect example of the oft-quoted Shakespeare nugget;
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I doubt that every person who uses Twitter is an idiot but there are enough idiots tweeting and retweeting – shouting their nothing with sound and fury – to poison it for me.
I walked away from Twitter. I don’t need the company of those idiots.
Deleting Twitter opened the door to a more serious internal dilemma.
I’m a news junkie, I like to think positively: I have an active curiosity about the world. Information is important; the source of my information and the veracity of it profoundly affects my view of the world.
Over the years, I developed a reliable pattern for accessing news. In the mornings, with my coffee, I scan emails, read items that interest me from a few news aggregators:NationalNewswatch.com, https://qz.com/.
I check theglobeandmail.com and CBC.ca to see what’s happened overnight and then read through the US and International news on the NYtimes.com. I have slowly given up on print and magazines; I now find digital sources of information more convenient.
I glance at the CBC and CTV morning news, finish my coffee, check Facebook and go about my day. All this consumed about an hour of my time.
In the evenings, I catch BBC, PBS and sometimes the National on CBC.
I am well aware that I live in an information silo of my own making; to compensate, I deliberately try to read opinions that do not conform with my own.
I’m trying to forestall the inevitable hardening of the attitudes that come irrevocably with age.
I am also well aware of the polarization of society into factions – discourse and dialogue are smothered in the shout-out of inflamed opinions. The fools are winning.
Bertrand Russel predicted our dilemma;
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”
Lately, my prurient need for more, stimulated by watching the freak show called the Trump presidency has subverted and perverted this pattern. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.
For the moment I have deleted Twitter from my life. I have suspended Instagram but am reconsidering; it seems benign if I control it.
I was digging myself out, then Facebook hit the fan. With Blair’s help, I have immediately tightened my privacy settings and blocked all the apps from accessing my information. I have never knowingly allowed Facebook or any of my digital tools to access my address book or my contacts. Knowingly is the key word in that sentence. I’m convinced now that, like millions of others, I am not very KNOWING.
The privacy thing is long gone; everyone tells me that the digital universe has enough data on each of us that we are an open book. Data doesn’t disappear apparently.
I doubt that deleting Facebook is going to retrieve my privacy but I am debating how I can best take back control of my digital life while still being an active, responsible and informed citizen.
I also recognize that I am my own worst enemy. I write a blog for goodness sake. I’ve written two books. I post all these musings on Facebook so more people will benefit from my wisdom ( a dubious rationale but it’s all I can cling to at the moment).
Much of my privacy is truly gone, never to be retrieved. Yet, I can be more conscientious about what I say, write, record and distribute and where I choose to do those things.
I can also put on my big boy pants and recognize a few realities.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and every other site out there are NOT free. We pay a price to use these facilities.
Facebook and the like are not benign, they are businesses trading in our data.
They are not worried about us or our privacy, they are resolute in their pursuit of profit. Forget their high-minded statements of purpose – follow the money.
I am the one who punches in the info; they are happy to seduce me with free shipping and instant access to much that I desire – with instant gratification delivered to my door.
I could go on but this much is clear. There will be much more self awareness and self censure in the future. And I may yet delete Facebook.
I have decided, despite knowing that this will be a pain in the butt, I’m moving my bank accounts to Vancity, a British Columbia credit union with more than 500,000 members. Vancity is everywhere in my community; sponsoring local community events, offering innovative business partnership opportunities, supporting environmental initiatives and stimulating the development of affordable housing. Vancity also returns part of its profits to members. They WORK at being a positive member of my community.
So what? Is that worth spending the next few months rearranging every account I have to transfer my banking to Vancity?
My answer is yes, an emphatic and hopeful yes. I’m a little late to the party, thoughtful people have been doing this for years – rewarding positive behavior with their consumer dollars.
Again, I’m late but I have come to the conclusion that the largest threat to civil society is the enormous gap between the rich and the poor – the obscene aggregation of wealth by a small percentage of people and the growing impoverishment of the rest of us. This aggregation of wealth is fuelled by the growth in large corporations, the power of these interests to dominate markets and dictate prices, wages and government policies to benefit the richest few – owners, senior executives and shareholders – whilst impoverishing other stakeholders.
Permit me one example; Walmart. The Walton family’s net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine to be in excess of $140 billion – yes, that’s right BILLION. Bernie Sanders describes it this way, the Waltons own more than the bottom 40% of Americans – about 130 million people. In exchange for convenience and cheap goods, consumers have created a behemoth that rolls over competitors, overpowers suppliers, kills local business wherever it goes, impoverishes it’s own employees, and hollows out communities while making its owners fabulously wealthy.
Every time I shop at Walmart, I contribute to this economic carnage, to the hollowing out of my community, to the impoverishment of workers and the enrichment of the Walton billionaires.
Add any number of famous brands to the list; Amazon, Google, Apple, Costco, the warehouse food-stores, the big banks, big oil, the Hollywood film industry… the list is endless. Monopolies are in, competition is out. Unrestrained capitalism is turning ugly.
Such a concentration of corporate power fuels the concentration of wealth and income for the top 1%. The impact on others is obvious; 40% of workers are now “independent”; piece work, gig work, projects, part-time hours – no job security, no bargaining power, no health care, no benefits, no security.
The middle class is shrinking, poverty is growing, the stresses on civil society are becoming more and more evident. Governments around the world are less willing to legislate, regulate and control these monsters; the 2008/2009 world financial crash showed starkly that banks and other large institutions were too big to fail and, even in the face of obvious legal culpability, were immune to prosecution. Even Obama blinked when he faced Wall Street and the banks.
Amidst all the evidence and the resulting dystopian predictions, I struggle to find my own strategy to respond. There’s not much I can do but that doesn’t mean I am powerless.
Here’s what I am doing. I am going to try to use every dollar I spend to fight this growing inequality. I’m a bit late to the party but, it is a battle worth fighting.
As Confucius was reported to have said; “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
I have vowed to never shop at Walmart. Instead, I’m going to buy locally – there’s a little hardware store where I can find all I need; and I am welcomed with helpful advice and service by a member of my community.
I’ve just cut up my Costco card. I don’t like their excessive packaging, their foreign ownership and the effect my shopping at Costco is having on my little community – all for convenience and some small saving. Besides, every time I go into Costco I come out with more than I need. I cannot resist buying a year’s supply of some sugary, chocolatey forbidden “treat” and consuming it all in about a week. They give back nothing that I can see to my community.
I’m adding Safeway to my no-go list. Whole Foods was never on my list – that is misleading marketing and empty promises over common sense and always has been.
Instead, I am going to shop locally. There’s a local green grocer in my hood, Aria; a good selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, run by a family – real people who say hello and know who I am. They stock their small store to the top with fascinating stuff; real sardines from Portugal, more interesting breads than I have ever seen, foodstuffs from all over the middle east.
I’m going to the local butcher, Tango’s – sure it’s a bit more expensive and there’s a smaller selection but It is more than adequate for my needs. I can special-order lamb shanks, incredible tenderloins and much more. They pay attention; they are joyful to see me and to serve me.
I’m trying to wean myself from Amazon, my local library branch is helpful and Indigo is a Canadian company. I use Canada Post whenever I can; it’s part of the connective tissue of this country – Amazon never was and never will be.
I don’t buy coffee at Starbucks, my local hangout is Delaneys. Locally owned by nicer people who treat their staff well. The coffee is better too!
I’m going to fewer big Hollywood movies, I’ve found the Vancouver International Film Centre instead; more indies, more international films, more diversity, more windows to the world.
I’m also going to talk to my Liberal Government friends about why they are not taxing Netflix, Amazon, Google and a host of other monopolists that suck money out of our consumer pockets without paying any taxes.
This isn’t going to amount to much; but I work with the tools I have at hand; my wallet and my feet. It gives me some sense that I have control over my actions, that they align with my values and my growing anxiety about the direction we are headed, the future we face.
I’m sure Vancity won’t increase their stakeholder payout based on my enrolment but I will feel a bit like I’m rewarding them for their hard work. At least I’m not helping the Waltons. I am also sure that Vancity plays a more positive role in my community than my current big bank. That means something and they deserve to be recognized for their work.
So, it’s a few small stones that I’m moving but I feel better about it – it is worth the effort.
There is a restaurant called Bollywood at Jungfraujoch, an amazing Swiss tourist site in the middle of the Jungfrau range. It serves authentic Indian food to some 1000 happy customers a day.
An Indian restaurant in the center of an iconic Swiss destination becomes understandable when Kristen and Chris explain that the Jungfrau has featured in several famously successful Bollywood movies, as far back as 1964. Yash Chopra, the famous Indian film director, has shot so many sequences for so many films over the years that the region has become one of the top destinations for Indian tourists – hence the Bollywood restaurant. He’s so famous, a Jungfrau railway train has been named after him.
It isn’t just India, many of the Bond films over the years have featured the mountains of Switzerland. A not-so-good Clint Eastwood film, The Eiger Sanction – based on the best-selling novel – was centred on the Jungfrau. There have even been a few clips from Star Wars with the Jungfrau as backdrop.
We are in Grindelwald for a Swiss Christmas. Nestled below the Jungfrau range, it is a gateway for hiking, mountain-biking and marvelling in the summer and a whole range of outdoor pursuits in the winter. We are attracted for the same reason as Bollywood directors, it is an oasis of Swiss beauty.
Kristen and I first visited the region a few summers ago as hikers. She managed to cajole and bribe me into hiking from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg with the promise of the best Swiss macaroni EVER!!!
The Best Swiss Macaroni EVER!!! got my full attention. It was enough to get me started up the steep slope, pride made me continue. After three hours of the most strenuous yet beautiful walking through idyllic grassy fields appropriately adorned with Swiss cows and their Swiss bells across a valley where ice from hanging glaciers crashed noisily down mountain faces, I managed to make it to the magical place that served the best Swiss macaroni EVER!!!.
After our al fresco lunch of the best Swiss macaroni EVER!!!, we settled into a local hotel and stared at the Jungfrau for hours. Like a poor man’s fireplace, the clouds, the sun, the light and shadows created a panoramic reel of ever-changing perfection, enhancing the endorphins released by the walk and the sublime somnolence that comes from a full tummy.
Now we are back to experience winter in the Jungfrau. If anything it is more entrancing! More beauty, more activity, more liveliness, more energy; the Swiss and those who choose Grindelwald are here to enjoy winter. Ski lifts abound all over the valley opening up the whole area to thrills, chills and spills. Sledding slopes are filled with young and old speed-demons, snow-shoe and walking paths abound, there are even hang gliders dotting the clear sky.
Everyone is busy enjoying winter. As we come to expect, It’s all Swiss watch efficient; we have trains direct to Grindelwald, local bus service every half hour from the village to our rental, a full service supermarket and many excellent restaurants. This is the way to spend Christmas holiday!
I’m encouraged to visit Jungfraujoch. At 3454 metres, it calls itself the Top of Europe. The Jungfrau (4158 meters) is the namesake; aligned with it in a massive wall of mountain that leaps from the lower valley of Interlaken are the Eiger (3970 metres) and the Monsch (4107 metres).
Unfortunately, none of the three qualify as “Top of Europe” mountains – that prize goes to Mont Blanc (4808 meters) in France.
Rare Swiss hyperbole aside, the Jungfrau is justifiably famous around the world, iconic and remarkable in its beauty, so famous it is an international movie set – transcending all boundaries.
This time we take the trains, I’ve walked part of this once, no bragging points in doing it again. The Bernese Oberland Railway is a marvel of Swiss design and efficiency; constructed at the turned of the 20th century, it connects Grindelwald with the funicular Jungfrau railway that takes up to the Jungfraujoch. Most of the passage is tunneled through the granite of the Jungfrau – there’s a stop allowing us to view the valley through a window cut in the mountain face.
Jungfraujoch is a complex built into the mountains in the shadow of Jungfrau itself. At the top is an observation viewpoint allowing a full 360 degree view of the valleys and the Aletsch Glacier. Deep inside the mountain is the funicular station, a state-of-the-art film tunnel, a glacier walkway, an interior ice palace, a chocolate shop and a watch shop and among others, our favorite Bollywood restaurant. Everything the modern tourist needs and a chance to buy Swiss watches, Swiss chocolate and Indian curries.
We are blessed with a clear day, we can see forever in all directions; It is the Switzerland of postcards and tourist posters.
Serendipity has opened the door to Swiss delights; I’m at a place of sublime beauty – following Chris and Kristen on their adventure has opened a new window – a new adventure – for me.
The Swiss Alps in winter are so beautiful they deserve to be background to Bollywood movie stars, James Bond, Clint Eastwood and Princess Leia. To see them on the screen is surpassed only by being there – really being there.
Victor Frankl is regarded as one of the world’s foremost psychologists. His most popular book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was published in 1946. The book has been translated into 24 languages; more than 12 million copies have been sold.
It has been described as one of the 10 most influential books in a survey of American readers.
In 1942 Frankl, his wife, his brother and his parents were arrested and sent to the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp. It was the last he saw of all of them.
Frankl survived the concentration camps for three years until he was liberated in 1945.
The first part of Frankl’s book recounts those years in the camps. It is hard to believe anyone could survive, yet he produced a book of such optimism and insight based on his original thesis and informed by his near death experience.
Auschwitz/Birkenau in the middle of winter, days before the Christmas celebration, is at its worst – the physical embodiment of evil, tangible, comprehensible proof of an incomprehensible period in human history. The atmosphere is cold, heavy, leadened with doom and sadness; taking pictures seems a desecration, an invasion of the sanctity of this memorial. I am only able to take a photo of the entrance.
Even the most warmly dressed of us are chilled within minutes.It is virtually impossible to survive days on end in freezing temperatures, walking kilometers in snow and ice without adequate footwear, laboring outdoors for hours in threadbare prison garb, existing on a few hundred calories, whipped and beaten by sadists, huddling together for warmth for a few hours of sleep in drafty horse barns – only to do it all over again, for days, months, years.
More than 1 million people were exterminated in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex in less than three years. Every day, thousands were stripped naked, marched into the ‘showers’, gassed, and incinerated.
The most heart wrenching displays are the heaps of left behind possessions – gathered by the Nazis for recycling into cash – the amoral, relentless efficiency of it all is staggering. The barns that held this booty were called Canada (some notion connecting our limitless bounteousness to that of the sheds) – our small bitter place in this hellhole of Nazi hate.
These are dark, brooding places, sadness hangs over it all like a shroud – the buildings, the razor wire fences, the gas chambers, the ovens, the mass graves.
We attend; our collective desire to understand, to memorialize, to grasp the magnitude of evil, to seek meaning in the events of the past. Our presence is not prurient; we bear witness to the suffering, we honor the dead. We renew our vow that this shall never happen again.
Frankl found inspiration in these camps. The first half of Man’s Search for Meaning is the recounting of his time in the camps. This time in the camps exemplified the power of his psychological theory developed before the war, it gave him the strength to survive and with it he tried to help others find meaning in their daily suffering.
Frankl lost almost everything in the camps, enduring the most hurtful physical, emotional and spiritual degradation – yet he survived because, he believed that he retained something sacred; ”the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Throughout his book, Frankl quotes another philosopher, Neitzsche; “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
I came across Man’s Search for Meaning decades ago. It carried a powerful message for me. It is on my shelf of must have books; I have given away dozens of copies, highly recommending it to friends and those whose need seems clear. It has been a powerful book in my life.
Frankl’s philosophy is simple; I need meaning in my life and, while I may not be in control of events that occur in my life, I am in control of how I respond to them and how I seek to manage that part of my life that is under my control. I have the power to choose.
Simple but not easy; I sometimes lose my way and forget these ideas. Some combination of restlessness, boredom and bored/restlessness can blind me to these simple guides to living.
There is never one shining beacon that offers total meaning to me, my search usually turns up a patchwork of Whys that make my life meaningful. Life evolves, changes; when times shift, I need to add a patch to the worn part of my quilt of purposes. The meaning of life is not always clear, nor does it stay stable over time.
Frankl is on my shelf with his story of survival, his simple advice – intellectually rigorous, spiritually uplifting, emotionally rewarding and experientially tested. Like millions of others, he has uplifted us all by telling the story of the camps, by offering hope to those who search for meaning and by offering simple advice to help us find purpose and meaning even in times of struggle.I recommend you read this book.
If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk. – Raymond Inmon
My first response to anyone who asks, ‘what do you think about when you walk?’ is always ‘nothing.’
That is true, I think about nothing; walking is meditative for me. It clears my head, it calms me. I am less anxious, my worries fade, my mind slows.
The obvious ‘nothing’ does not explain it all. There seems to be something else going on behind the consciousness curtain. Unnoticed, my subconscious seems to be active; cleaning things up, connecting random ideas and sorting them in new ways.
I have returned from long walks sprinkled with creative pixie-dust, inspired with a turn-of-phrase that tickles me, illuminated by a previously hidden idea, directed to rethink some issue, guided to some new insight that I can only now see.
Obviously, I am not the first to notice the inspirational effects of going for long walks. Many more famous people with a greater capacity to articulate the beneficial effects of walking and inspiration have described the phenomenon.
I have never thought so much, existed so much, lived so much, been so much myself; if I may venture to use the phrase, as in the journeys which I have made alone and on foot. – Jean Jacques Rousseau.
A real writer gets paid for his/her efforts, I have never managed that measure of success. I feel more comfortable being called a starving writer, I’ve never been paid much for my work.
But, having been told that writers write, I write. I have tried to find my own voice. It was tougher than I imagined.
What did I want to say and how did I want to say it? It became a heavy burden. I wrote journals of my travels and adventures, big and mostly small.
I wrote stuff and kept it private; mostly I wrote about issues that I cared about – my sanctimonious pontificals. Polemics are easy, crank up the sense of moral outrage and erupt in ink on a page (or with digital bits and bytes into the ether). They satisfied for a while.
I needed a bigger platform. I began writing the occasional column for the Calgary Herald. I received no money but felt that rush of ego and adrenaline coursing through my veins when I opened the Herald to the op-ed page and saw MY column – WOW! My words in ink!
I was often stymied as I evolved in this voyage of ink and ideas. I was in many cases inarticulate, agitated and unproductive. There was an idea out there in the fog but it only had a vague shape. It wasn’t clear, I couldn’t find the words to express what I had hoped to communicate. The words did not emerge that allowed me to describe this idea. I could not break through.
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking. – Friedrich Neitzche
I found that when I went for runs, sometimes something clicked. An idea took shape, the fog rolled back, the words came. It was an unintended consequence of my new found life of exercise; it didn’t always happen and I never pushed my luck. Yet, it was more than serendipity. Cause and effect.
Running helped break through my inarticulate efforts to write, when I became a walker, the occasional inspiration became regular. There is something about the pace of walking, the slowness, the repetitiveness, the almost boring simplicity of the walk that seems to energize the subconscious – the Muse.
I have read that Wordsworth, Thoreau, Darwin, Hemingway and Dickens were walkers, seeking inspiration whenever they felt unable to achieve the clarity and brilliance of choosing just the right words to create just the right sentence to carry the thought forward with conviction. The walk cleared whatever was blocking their creativity.
Walking allows for the clearing of the brain; the period after, rest and contemplation, opens the floodgates of creativity and inspiration. Newton may have conceived and clarified his thoughts on gravity while sitting under a tree. Could I be so bold as to suggest that he had a bit of a walk to get to the tree?
There seems to be some science to buttress the notion that walking stimulates creativity; more blood flowing to the brain, more oxygen, fewer distractions, the monotonous almost hypnotic regularity of the movements. Common sense tells me that is likely.
Walking should be the tenth of the Greek muses; it truly is magical to my creative process. Whenever I feel confused, inarticulate, uncreative and uninspired I tighten my boots, shoulder my pack, don my cap and head out the door for a long walk.
Perhaps it is this simple; perambulation leads to perspiration, which leads to inspiration.
Over the past few years, I have become a walker, a hiker, a trekker, a wanderer, a rambler and, later in the day, a trudger and a plodder.
I have come to enjoy going off on long walks in various parts of the world, becoming a pilgrim, a peregrino, a pèlerin, a pellegrino and henro. The long training walks and the pilgrimage itself mean that I spend many day walking, not quite Forrest Gump but the miles do accumulate.
I’m not really sure why but I find it deeply satisfying. It is what I do.
My penchant for walking is relatively recent; age and circumstance play their part. I’ve retired from a decade of running, cycling has become inordinately dangerous here in Vancouver, swimming is too much trouble, triathlons are too complicated.
Walking has become the default exercise; minimal skill required, low cost gear, ample possibilities. I can head out my door and go in any direction to some of the best paths and parks in the world. At the end of every walk, there is cake – so I’m provided with ample inducements.
That seems to be an adequate rationale yet, whenever I try to explain to friends why I walk, it’s not enough.
They dig deeper; one of the most common questions is: “What do you think about over those long hours of walking?”
My answer is simple: “Nothing.”
That causes more befuddled looks, yet it is the essence of why I walk. I walk because it is calming; it is almost counterintuitive that vigorous movement iscalming, yet it is the prize, the core of why I get up off the couch and go out the door.
I have been dabbling in yoga for a while now. My favorite part of every yoga class has always been the last moments – relaxation.
The actual yoga class was a struggle, I first approached it as a stretching exercise. I am not very flexible and my sense of balance and my capacity to precisely manage body movement is limited; It’s why I am a reluctant dancer.
“Do the best you can,” Sandra, my yoga instructor would say, “there is no judgement, no competition in yoga.” – which seemed to make it all the more important that I do well; just so as to not be not-judged. I know that no one judging me is the worst of all judgements.
But I digress, where was I….?
….the joys of relaxation. At the end of every session, we would lie quietly on our mats, sometimes warmed by our little blankets. We would close our eyes and Sandra would guide us through steps that led to total surrender, the bliss of an empty mind and a relaxed body.
I liked relaxation – the empty mind part was especially appealing.
Lately, in an effort to capture more of this empty-minded relaxation, this nothingness, I decided to try full-on meditation – imagine a whole hour of ‘end of yoga class relaxation bliss’! How much more satisfying!
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. My meditation attempts have not led to that ‘blissful nothing’ experience even after several sitting meditation classes.
The more I sat quietly trying to think of nothing, the more my mind resisted – leaping about like the much analyzed monkey brain.
It was quite frustrating. It’s hard to describe fighting with my own mind – especially to friends. They tend to slowly move sharp objects out of my reach while nodding agreeably.
Twice now, I have gone on meditation retreats; Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday at the Asian Studies Center at UBC. I work at this sitting meditation during these sessions, not thinking seems to be tougher for some of us.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all sitting; alternating sessions of walking meditation offered the chance to go outside and walk mindfully.
Walking mindfully, walking meditation is apparently not simple – any spiritual quasi-religious canon will be made complicated, especially if it has been around for a few thousand years.
There is even a highly recommended book, How to Walk by the renowned buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s small, with short statements that are either deeply profound or borderline banal.
“When you walk, arrive with every step. That is walking meditation. There’s nothing else to it.” is a typical enigmatic entry.
It was sunny, the weather was cool, the path meandered through a small grove of trees on the edge of the campus, I had a little piece of path to myself and it was quiet. I just walked slowly and enjoyed the experience.
At the end, it was clear to me that I struggled through the sitting meditation sessions and enjoyed the walking outside on my own.
Sometimes I miss insights; this one finally revealed itself as I castigated myself for somehow not learning how to sit and meditate. It wasn’t working but I had read so much about how we have to work to achieve this mindfulness, the nothingness.
Stories abound in Buddhist literature of others persisting for thousands of hours of sitting quietly seeking the fruits of meditation, they hung over me. I come by my guilt-driven personality honestly and I polish it up regularly. It must be me! I am deficient! I am not as smart, driven, committed, insightful, as thousands who achieve a measure of nirvana through meditation.
Self-flagellation in the pursuit of inner peace seemed a bit counterintuitive and, actually silly.
At this point, I went back to analyzing my walking experience and the calm and serenity that resulted. I thought about the exercise that preceded my brief bliss of post yoga relaxation. I recalled actually enjoying running for the same reasons – the glow of endorphin bliss that flushed through my system after the exercise.
It seems clear too that sitting meditation is not working for me. Maybe I’m not a sit still sort of person. Maybe I should just relax and keep it simple.
To quote Thich Nhat Hanh;
“When the Buddha walked, he didn’t seem to be practising meditation…
he just had two feet like the rest of us, and he enjoyed walking…
You don’t make any effort; you don’t struggle, you just enjoy walking.”
So, for now, I think I’ll stop chasing the elusive sitting meditation ‘Nothing’ and stick with the walking ‘Nothing’.
Sometimes more isn’t better, sometimes better isn’t more.
I think I’ll go for a walk and not think about all this for a while.
The secret to thriving in big cities is to become a part of the small neighbourhoods within them. The secret of these small neighbourhoods is people who animate them. Our secret in my hood is Sandra.
When I moved to Vancouver in early January of 1999, I moved into the West End, a small enclave near downtown Vancouver. My backyard, literally, is Stanley Park. The West End became my community, MY hood.
I joined the Running Room in the hood. It became my second home, the gathering place for my running buddies; a decade of running cemented friendships, a decade later, I still call some of those runners my friends.
In the heart of my hood is the West End community center. The community center vibrates with activity; most importantly for us was the offer of yoga classes. We needed a bit of help to stay loose, especially after long Sunday runs.
I signed up for my first yoga class at the West End community center.It was all a big leap for a prairie boy from Calgary; Vancouver, the West End, running, Yoga.
My friends held my hand and nurtured me through the door. There we met Sandra, petite, bubbly, as full of fresh-faced energy as the energizer bunny and as enthusiastic as Pippy Longstocking. She was the ideal yoga instructor; central casting couldn’t have done a better job.
Every Monday evening we joined Sandra in her beginner level yoga class.
She introduced us to yoga, slowly moving us through the Sun salutation, interspersing her examples and instructions with a few exotic Sanskrit phrases and many spoons-full of encouragement. I managed to learn how to stand on one leg, not quite mastering the intricacies of the downward-facing dog but not falling down at crucial moments either. I relaxed a bit, becoming quite content to practice my moves in the dark back corner of the class.
It worked. We recovered more quickly from our punishing Sunday long runs; aches and pains disappeared, tight muscles loosened, recovery was quicker.
Sandra’s classes became an oasis, a valuable and necessary component in our weekly training routine.
I never aspired to move to more complicated classes, being satisfied to just enjoy Sandra’s healing classes. She didn’t exactly encourage me to take the advance classes.
I saw it more as stretching than yoga, it sustained my running career well into my late fifties. I never got any faster but I managed to finish my marathons, half-marathons, and long Sunday runs – upright and usually smiling.
I have been a peripatetic but loyal participant in her classes ever since, now stretching over the past two decades. I keep coming back, usually when I am stiff and sore and need some remediation for my various attempts to remain permanently young. My reach always exceeds my grasp.
Sandra has become an icon for me and a glowing example of what it is to be a member of a vibrant community
I am at the periphery of her life but have had the good fortune to observe as she has grown and developed her personal practice, adapting and expanding the ways she serves this community. She is a staple at the West-End community center.
Over twenty years at the West End community center she has provided Yoga classes to thousands; even now, she continues to offer classes in yoga; Hatha yoga, Dru yoga, restorative yoga by candlelight, guided meditation, kids yoga and yoga for men. She now also offers classes at the nearby Coal Harbour Community Center. She has started a class called Chair yoga – she is determined to keep us moving!
She has mastered the Harmonium, now offering music and songs as part of her Yoga practise, Her yoga practice is now more holistic – not just for body, now also for mind and soul.
My current favorite is yoga over 50. She flatters us, we are not being checked for ID at the door. It is a morning drop in; the room is always full. More than 40 devoted followers find a space for a gentle 90 minute workout she has developed to keep us moving, happy and healthy. The cost is a paltry $2.50, the best yoga value ever.
Her carefully chosen program offers movement, stories, jokes, guidance on everything from nutrition to the circadian rhythms, to the impact of sun, moon and seasons on our physical, emotional and spiritual lives. Her warmth, her inclusiveness, her genuine enthusiasm for life are all contagious.
I particularly like the relaxation stage at the end; as we lay flat on our mats, eyes closed, she sings to us in her sweet melodious voice. We are all refreshed, optimistic, freer, more energized.
Sandra keeps growing; she has come a long way since those first days in 1999.
She has produced two CD’s and has developed a class on the local Shaw cable channel, Yoga Moves for Every Body.
I have watched her expand her talents to teach, to involve and to bring joy to our West End community – she is now a neighbourhood institution.
She is our Fred Rogers, the host of Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. Like Fred, she is a helper.
Fred Rogers said that in times of difficulty we should look to the helpers.
Sandra is one of those helpers. Every community is filled with helpers, we just need to look for them, recognize them, and celebrate them.
She has enriched the lives of West-Enders for more than twenty years. We are all better for her contribution to our community, our hood.We are healthier, we are more engaged ourselves, her involvement is contagious. She has offered her own brand of positive living therapy to us.
In every community there are people like Sandra; they are the glue that hold our hood together. I hope we all pause occasionally and reflect on their contribution to our lives and to our community. I hope we all stop them and say thanks.
PS – Sandra has produced two CDs of music that are quite remarkable. A third has just been released.
For more info and information on purchasing her music go to;
I find a visit to any country ignites an interest and a curiosity to know more.
I’ve read more about modern China since returning home than I have in the months prior to departing. My interest piqued, I’m trying to make sense of what I’ve experienced; it is counterintuitive, I should have done my homework before my visit not after.
Observations by tourists ought to be viewed skeptically; deep down, our insights are pretty shallow. This is especially true for China, since even superlatives do not seem to adequately describe this country and it’s complexity cannot be explained in a blogpost. Having said that…
China must be taken seriously, much more seriously.
China is the second largest economy in the world. The introduction of the “Socialist market economy” in the late 70‘s initiated annual economic growth of some 8-9%. Chinese GNP rose from US$150 billion to US$1.6 trillion.
China’s 1.4 billion people have experienced this economic miracle first hand; more than 500 million people, ten times the population of Canada, have been lifted out of poverty. Growth continues at about 6% annually, twice what it is in the West.
The evidence of this economic revolution is everywhere.
The Chinese have developed a love affair with cement. Apartment buildings sprout like mushrooms after a rain – ten towers each of 20 some stories sprout everywhere. The accusation that some of these instant cities are ghost towns misses the point – they are huge, modern and a step up from the sprawling slums that exist outside most international urban areas. We know that the biggest mass exodus in modern times is the movement of people from rural to urban centers; the Chinese can mostly be accused of anticipating the inevitable and preparing for it.
Modern trains take us places at 300 KM/hr, more high-speed rail tracks are being laid than in the rest of the world combined. Recently built roads are modern and efficient; a bus-ride in India is an endurance test of the vehicle and my spinal system; in China, it’s smooth and quiet.
Bike sharing in China has amazing technology, a robust app for payments, location tracking and usage; far superior to our system in Vancouver.
Infrastructure construction has transformed commerce, exports and the efficient movement of goods, and people. Trains, subways, freeways, apartment towers, futuristic skyscrapers; all this infrastructure is new and technologically up-to-date.
The most profound change unleashed is at the individual level. I see entrepreneurs and business operators everywhere; energy and enthusiasm for making money, for taking charge of one’s destiny, for growth, for MONEY is palpable. Overnight, millions of Chinese have successfully embraced the market economy and the freedom it engenders. They have cash in their jeans and they are spending it; internal tourism, a new phenomenon, is evidence of disposable income.
On our arrival in Mt. Emei for our stay at the buddhist temple at Baoguo, we were met by Patrick (his ‘western’ name). Six years ago, Kristen and Chris had also met Patrick; back then, he was the local agent for the monastery, helped them get settled, rented them a towel, sold some sandwiches and snacks, gave some advice on how to spend their day near this religious site and puttered about trying to be useful.
Now, he is major domo. He’s our local guide, organizes tours, has a fleet of part-time drivers, and ferries us out for our special hot-pot dinner. He’s a human dynamo, his tiny empire has grown; he’s a small business entrepreneur!
He now owns a restaurant where his wife and mother serve up great food and, more importantly, fast wifi! It becomes our semi-official HQ.
His two children are away in private schools, already being prepared to move up the social and economic ladder, a driving aspiration of all parents everywhere. I expect he’s successful beyond his wildest imagination.
We see such examples wherever we go;
my cooking school instructor,
an elderly lady who grinds Sichuan pepper from her front door,
the Chinese ‘wine‘ maker (it is awful hootch that knocks your head off) who hosts an impromptu ‘wine-tasting‘ for us in the street in front of his store,
the elderly tea plantation owner whose son now runs the place, with modern equipment and expanded acreage.
Hustling entrepreneurs are everywhere; they look remarkably like hustling American small business capitalists.
China’s exponential growth has come at a cost; the unintended consequences.
Air pollution is palpable. The sky is brown in every major city, mainly the result of coal-fired electricity generation. Water supply and pollution problems loom, land use and desertification issues are faced daily, inadequate disposal of poisonous wastes turn rivers into sewers, the list goes on. A whole generation of Chinese urban dwellers is likely to suffer the health consequences.
Another poison leaching into the system is corruption on a massive scale; millions have already been punished. Xi Jinping has promised further crackdowns.
Finally, the most serious affliction, the more and more obvious inequitable distribution of wealth; a recent study suggest that the top 1% of Chinese controlled 25% of China’s assets, a concentration that mirrors the problem in the West.
Overarching all this is the challenge of redefining what it is to be a Chinese communist in 2017 and what the Party needs to do to determine the destiny of 1.4 billion people. There seems to be a concern that the freedom genie has been let out of the bottle; the future is not clear.
Xi Jinping, at the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress, set future policy; “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” now officially enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. How this evolves will be interesting, to them and to us.
This may be particularly western of me, but I cannot imagine taking away the freedom of the newly developed entrepreneurs. Once we have tasted market capitalism and have some money as a result, we like it. Tighter controls on the market economy and small entrepreneurs may not be well received.
The mood is buoyant, people have jobs, small businesses, money and hope; we saw an outpouring of pride on National Day, 500 million people have escaped grinding poverty and tasted the good life, they will inevitably want more.
The challenge is as daunting as the challenge of western governments who face low growth, poisonous inequities of income and wealth distribution and volatile polarization of subgroups in an increasingly restive civil society. We all face the impact of the self-inflicted degradation of the global environment.
What is clear to me is that China has joined the world, their problems are our problems, the messiness of life is now theirs to manage as we seek to manage our messiness. As one of the largest, if not THE largest economy in the world, what happens in China matters to us all.
The joy of travel, of adventures, is simple. I see things, I am forced to revise my view of the world. My images, however previously assembled, are shattered. I am forced to reconcile what I see in front of me, try to make sense of it and open myself to a more complicated view of this messy world.
My children promised this trip would change the way I view the world. It did.
My primary purpose in visiting China was as a tourist; to see the sights, taste the food, hear the sounds, experience the reality. It is after all a foreign place.
Is Canadian Chinese food really Chinese? Is the Great Wall really that great? What does Tiananmen Square really look like? Is the Forbidden City really that forbidden or is it just foreboding?Does the bullet train look like a bullet? Is Shanghai as futuristic as it looked in the James Bond movie Skyfall?
So many questions and only one way to find out. The essence of travel is to see and experience directly – time to check image against reality!
Beijing, with 26 million people, has six ring roads, we stayed just inside ring road #3. It is formidable; thick smog, jammed traffic, jumbles of rental bicycles at street corners, masses of people on the subway; more than a bit intimidating.
Tiananmen Square can accommodate a million people for the much-favored mass rallies held on special dates like October 1, the Chinese national Day. Hundreds of thousands are said to attend the morning ritual of flag raising. It is filled every day with thousands in an orderly queue to visit Mao’s tomb.No courageous boys standing up to tanks on the Square this day, only happy ‘ethnic’ Chinese dressed in their finest to pay homage to Mao. Shattered Image.
The Forbidden City, adjacent and two kilometers long in its own magnificent sprawl, dwarfs Tiannamen Square. While the Forbidden City is a must-see, I have to bring my imagination with me; we are allowed only to see the external buildings and read carefully edited signs, we are not allowed access to the interior. There are a few exceptions where doors are open and we may jostle our way to the front of deep crowds of selfie-seekers, an exercise in cultural politeness. Without a vivid imagination, I’m incapable of fully appreciating this icon. There doesn’t seem to be much there there. Shattered image.
The Great Wall fulfills its promise. It is GREAT. It doesn’t make sense; even in its visual grandeur, it seems to aimlessly meander off into both distant horizons. I try to imagine the sacrifice of those serfs, slaves and citizens in building it; I also try to imagine it being manned by an alert army of watchmen and defended from alien hordes who regularly breached its walls.
This section, Mutianyu, has been specifically rebuilt and maintained for tourists. Off in the distance, I see only rubble where wall used to be. It seems more a monument to some Emperor’s fear, hubris and folly than anything. Like other such exercises in hubris, the pyramids for example, it makes for a good tourist attraction. The Great Wall has finally achieved meaningful utility – as a tourist attraction! I guess that qualifies as a shattered image.
The bullet train does shatter my image for another reason; it is better than anything I expected – by a speedy margin. New, clean, comfortable, quiet, easy to board and exit, staffed (yes, and with enough attendants to notice) and fast. It makes the TGV and the Swiss train system look a decade or two out of date. No backward third world nation here – shattered image indeed.
Shanghai’s architecture exemplifies an interesting historical juxtaposition. On one side of the river is the Bund, a long boulevard of 1900’s buildings created by the European colonial powers to celebrate their superiority and their dominance of China for a period; across the river, the new Shanghai – postmodern architecture bursting with the vitality and exuberance of the 21st century.The only image shattered here is that New York, Tokyo and London are NOT the most interesting city skyscapes on earth.
Xi’an is the jumping off point for the most iconic Chinese image of all – the Terra Cota warriors. The display is truly magnificent; now four separate displays, the central one is breath-taking. Words will not do it justice – pictures help but being present and seeing, witnessing is necessary.
After all this, connected by the unexpected but memorable (I can’t think of a more polite descriptor) trip on a Chinese overnight train, we needed a break. Overnight trains are democratic; six bunks per partition, a few seats in the aisle, room to store a bag overhead, a pillow and a ‘comforter’, ample hot water for tea and noodles, one communal sink and Asian style toilet per car. The upper bunk is the most private, it takes a contortionist/gymnast to climb there, and even more dexterity to climb down. An adventure in its own right – shattered image – tourist friendly travel hasn’t arrived everywhere in China.
The Buddhist monastery at Baoguo Temple, Mount Emei provided our oasis of calm serenity. We were permitted to stay inside the monastery overnight – afforded access to the same luxuries as monks, (communal showers open 5:30-9:30 pm every night, ample hot water, comfortable beds, private rooms, shared toilets) and the opportunity to witness morning prayers – announced by gongs and chimes at 5am, prayers at 5:30.
It was a privilege, to some of us at least, and a refreshing change from the cacophony of the past week. Peace. calm, serenity; I now understand the attraction of Buddhism!
Godless communism never succeeded in inflicting itself on China or in wiping out Buddhism. I suspect the Chinese communists conceded defeat before trying, if they had tried it would have been a miserable failure. Everywhere we went, we saw Buddhist monuments, Buddhist temples, Buddhas in museums and practising Buddhists. Shattered image indeed!
The Pandas were, well, pandas. They eat, they sleep, they change positions occasionally to affirm they are alive. Pandas are only found in China; the Chinese have found gold in their exclusivity. I was cautioned that they were hard selling their exclusivity; Kristen specifically told me to NOT join the long lineups that allow visitors to cuddle a panda – for a fee. Shattered image, they have created an enviable parklike setting for their pandas, they seem to have developed a responsible program working with zoos around the world to display and support Pandas, the World Wildlife Fund uses the Panda as their international symbol and they discontinued their ‘cuddle’ program – the poor panda died from too much human contact and kindness. The Chinese have taken responsibility for Pandas, now cherished and protected. Shattered Image.
We cruise down the Yangtze River from Chongqing, a city engorged with the displaced peasants from the flooding of the Three Gorges Dam – now with a population greater than all of Canada. Yes, 30 million people in one “city”.
The cruise is all lemons into lemonade; flood a vast area to create the largest hydro-electric dam in the world and then charge people to see the vast engineering feat! Three days later at midnight we were lowered some 200 meters to the lower dam-site level and sent on our way. Such Chutzpa – image shattered!
Finally, Hong Kong. Glitz and glitter, hustle and bustle. Yet its impressive skyline is rivalled by Shanghai, it’s entrepreneurial activity dwarfed by dozens of mainland China cities, it’s faint hope for special status diminished regularly. Is the rest of China catching up or is Hong Kong being pulled back into the pot with the others?
Whatever the answer, the changes roiling through China are evident everywhere. Last shattered image – over 500 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade. Joseph Stiglitz called China a socialist market economy with Chinese Characteristics. Whatever it is, it shatters images everywhere I go. This is definitely not the third world Toto!
Six years ago, Kristen and Chris returned from their adventure in China astounded. “It changes the way you see the world!” they said.
They were obviously right; I am still wide-eyed and speechless after a three week whirlwind trip through China.
We all carry cliche images in our heads and our psyches about places, things and people. China was the China of movies, Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, the Great wall, KungFu and Tai Chi, Mao and the Red Guard, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the cheap Made-in-China goods that flooded our consumer markets, the recent growing muscularity of China as an international economic powerhouse, the takeover of Hong Kong, the modernization of Chinese Communism; all these hundreds of images filtered through the lens of western, caucasian media jammed into my ill-informed brain.
There is a large, predominantly Cantonese, community in Vancouver profoundly impacting my city’s culture, economy and politics – conditioning my image of China through an immigrant community in my home town.
What was real? Isn’t that why we travel, to find out what is real with our own eyes?
In three weeks, most of my cliche images were demolished. Aldous Huxley nailed it when he said, ” To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” I am among the wrong yet I don’t feel comfortable; I am replacing my wrong images with nothing more than the superficial observations of a three week tourist. Caveat emptor…
China is huge! In a whirlwind journey of three weeks organized by GAdventures, a Canadian travel success story, we barely skimmed the surface of the must-see sites. Fourth in the world in land mass – enough to shock even a Canadian, used to vast distances. But more to the point, the current population of China is estimated at 1.4 billion – four times the size of the United States, 40 times the size of Canada’s meagre 35 million.
Beijing alone has a population of 23 million people – more than all of Australia! Chongqing has 35 million people – more people in one city than the whole of Canada!I could go on but to see is to begin to believe. I am forced to recalibrate my current concept of huge, multiply it manyfold; I am still short of grasping China’s magnitude. Image shattered.
Everything scales up.
Clusters of office and residential towers sprout up like mushrooms after a spring rain – not one 20 storey building but ten to a cluster – in multiple clusters. These clusters sprout where-ever we go. Construction cranes are as prolific as telephone poles. Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing burst with new skylines, energy pulses through their streets; they vibrate! New York and London may be iconic but they are aging vintage villages compared to the cities of China. Image shattered.
Airports are huge, shiny new and efficient. Train stations and subways require confidence, a guide and a map to navigate. Each major transportation hub is a city in its own right. Most transportation is new, efficient, remarkably cheap and bustling. It’s $20 from the Beijing airport, not the $40 it is in Vancouver.
City driving is slow and congested, more funds seem invested in public transportation in cities. The subways are new, huge, efficient, cheap and well used. A subway ride is less than a dollar. Bike sharing is prolific, a generation ahead of anything I have ever seen – efficient, cheap, accessible, convenient – all facilitated by smart phone and location tracking technology that we can only hope to adopt.
Clearly China has had a recent love affair with transportation and mobility. There are many old trains that traverse the country but China has surpassed the world in high speed rail travel. Our trip from Beijing to Shanghai zipped along at 300 km/hour; smooth, quiet, comfortable, affordable. There is more kilometers of high speed rail in China than the rest of the world combined. There is already a 350 km/hour bullet train operating between the cities, the innovation never stops.
Evidence of the Chinese love affair with cement is everywhere. The skylines of cities eclipse all others with new modern buildings of astounding shapes and dimensions. Residential towers commit to density and housing infrastructure efficiency. We see huge highways built to serve the bursting economic growth, designed to efficiently move goods, connecting the huge pods of residential towers to places of work. Roads connect everything everywhere, most outside the cities look overbuilt and underutilized. Bridges span rivers and valleys and rise above cities. It is a transportation surge reminiscent of the interstate highway building program in the US during the 50’s – infrastructure investment that can now only be imagined in the western world. As the west’s infrastructure deteriorates from lack of investment, China’s is all brand spanking new! Image shattered.
China is not, definitely not, a third world country. Since the 1980’s China has promoted a freer market-based economy. Over the past decades average annual growth rates of GDP and PPP have surpassed every other economy in the world. Most years, GDP growth has exceeded 10%, lately the average has exceeded 6-7%. Astounding numbers when we consider Canada’s GDP growth rate is less than 3%. Image shattered.
The move to a market economy has profoundly affected the Chinese citizen. More than 500 million Chinese have been lifted above the poverty line as a result. People have jobs, money, disposable income. There are more billionaires in China than the rest of the world combined. Image shattered.
There is a vibrant feeling of optimism everywhere, entrepreneurship abounds, hard work is evident – as close as the door to my Beijing hotel. On my first morning, I walked out the door of my hotel and found a small hole-in-the-wall place selling baozi – steamed buns. I bought three, for the nominal sum of about $2.50 and sat down on some steps to enjoy them. There was a constant lineup, from 6 am till late in the evening.
The three staff worked hard but they seemed energetic and dedicated entrepreneurs.
Multiplied by millions, these baozi entrepreneurs exemplify the power of the market forces that have been unleashed in China. Whatever preconceptions I had about capitalism, communism and the impermeable screen between the two has been shattered.
A few years ago, I was talking with Tiara, my Buddhist friend, about an upcoming walking trip. I told her I was good on the flat ground but climbing hills was tough.
Tiara offered a suggestion, she called it walking meditation. I should chose a point of focus a few meters ahead, concentrate ONLY on my steps and chant quietly to myself one, two, one, two in time with my steps and the movement of my poles. I should try to think of nothing else while I was walking up my personal Everest. She promised I would find it much easier to climb those hills if I practiced walking meditation.
I tried it and it worked. By concentrating on the repetitive chant, I walked more slowly, more resolutely and more powerfully. I forgot my sore feet, my tired legs, my thirst. I focused my thoughts on the mantra of walking and climbed steadily to the top of several hills, feeling strong and confident.
If this was walking meditation, I liked it. I should look into it more.
Over the subsequent years, I have engaged in a desultory flirtation with meditation and Buddhism. I read a bit, it didn’t help. Buddhism seemed complicated, ethereal and will-o’wispy. Talking to other friends who were Buddhists sometimes made it better for a brief moment, then it slipped back into the mists.
Meditation offered an opportunity that seemed helpful on other fronts – not just walking.
I think too much. I call it my mild case of ADHD. Meditation offered a respite from thinking too much.
I’m somewhat compulsive about planning. Meditation seemed to offer a solution; live in the present, be mindful of now. The past is gone, the future hasn’t arrived.
And, contrary to the logic and orderliness of most modern demands on me, my thinking seemed undisciplined. I have a short span of attention; I am constantly distracted by random unpredictable thoughts and ideas that sometimes make it hard to focus on normal activities – life is much more complicated than it needs to be.
Finally, if that is not enough, I seem to have grown more impulsive over the years; I act too quickly and then have to live with the consequences of my impulsive acts.
Meditation seemed to offer to slow things down, simplify them, keep me grounded. I was encouraged to try it.
In a series of random chats with Buddhist friends, I was given several metaphors to help me understand the purpose and challenge of meditation – the mind as a monkey, the mind as a puppy and the mind as a tiger.
The monkey mind is a powerful metaphor, deeply embedded in Buddhist teachings. The monkey mind – chattering, noisy, never sitting still, jumping everywhere – must be tamed. The metaphor is so clear, I get it.
Another metaphor to consider is the puppy – full of energy, curiosity, always exploring, constantly moving, sniffing, climbing, searching, easily distracted – calming the puppy is a happier, warmer definition of the challenge.
The third is slightly different, the tiger. The tiger of our mind is wild, untamed, constantly prowling, aggressively searching for food and protecting itself from other predators; all its senses alive, constantly on the prowl.
Last week I chose to act. I attended my first Buddhist sponsored weekend meditation retreat – Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday. Silence was to be observed while we were meeting. The time would be spent in a combination of meditative sitting, talks by our leaders, and meditative walking outside the building.
On Friday night, I drove out to the Asian Center at UBC, wearing comfortable clothing as instructed. I had indicated that I was going to do chair meditation, I think my days of kneeling for hours have passed me by; to my surprise I wasn’t the only one, the room was filled with chairs.
We were a mixed lot, all age groups; no one seemed to fit my stereotype of the earnest Buddhist meditator.
The room was cool, dimly lit, with lots of space. There were two leaders to help us with our meditation practice and deliver a series of talks about their insights after years of practice.
Their vocabulary was profoundly different from that which had framed my life. There were no sports/competition metaphors, no winners/losers, no talk of challenges/victory/defeat, struggle/achievement, no targets or measures of progress. The empiricism, the rationality, the standard cartesian western lexicon were noticeably absent.
Their vocabulary was profoundly different; mild suggestions, gentle observations and helpful hints replaced plans and instructions. There were no goals, no achievements. The concepts were vague, ethereal generalities, tough to quantify and nail down. The logic lacked logic, I could nail down nothing. It all seemed so wispy, smoky – illusive and elusive; calm, serene, simple.
In the west there is no try, there is only do or don’t do. Here it is try, do your best.
We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate – slow down our thinking, try to NOT think; tame the monkey mind, calm the puppy, control the tiger.
Over the weekend we had many sitting meditation sessions, most lasting less than an hour. We were also given opportunities to try walking meditations. Amongst these were several conversations, of the softest gentlest variety I have ever experienced. To say we had to intuit our instructions would be too bold and forthright – too strongly suggestive.
I won’t try to explain further, the paint is still drying on the words I’ve just written. Let’s say it is a work in progress. Clearly this is more complex and challenging than I thought. It requires discipline and rigour.
…there was something there, I’m not sure what, but it is worth pursuing. I found the monkey, the puppy and the tiger almost impossible to tame, calm and control. The more I tried, the more insistent they became. Not thinking is tough.
…with my eyes closed, there was no way to calibrate time and without calibration, time seemed to slip past. There were a few oases of calm even as I wrestled with the monkey, the puppy and the tiger.
…I’ve signed up for another weekend in November.
Here’s a postscript.
On many occasions in the past, I have been caught staring off into the middle distance. “What are you thinking?” she would ask.
“Nothing.” I would reply.
This answer seemed to provoke a skeptical response.
“You can’t be thinking about nothing,” she would say. “that’s impossible.”
I may have stumbled upon a community that not only believes that it is possible to think about nothing, they actually encourage it.
Maybe, when asked in the future, “what are you thinking?” and I say “nothing”, I will be able to say it with a sense of accomplishment.
There is no joy to be derived from visiting any war memorial. There is no celebration in visiting the grave sites of the hundreds of thousands lost in any conflict or war. For me, there is only sadness, an unbelievable sadness, a sadness that lays like a heavy blanket over everything.
No matter how beautiful, how moving or how eloquent our memorials are, no matter how well maintained, how lovingly cared for, how graceful our attempt at honouring our dead, there is only sadness, heavy, profound and palpable.
Despite that sadness, I feel driven and obligated to visit these sites. I attend to honour the dead not the war. I am there to bear witness and acknowledge the soldiers who gave their lives not the generals or the politicians who sent them on their mission. I do not celebrate the war but I do honour and respect the combatants.
While it may be counter-intuitive, it makes sense to me. More than 66,000 Canadians gave their lives in the Great War.When I visit the various memorials and grave sites around Arras – Vimy and Beaumont Hamel – I am paying my respects to the bravery, discipline, courage and commitment of Canada’s soldiers.
Vimy is the iconic site commemorating our Canadian soldiers’ epic contributions to the Commonwealth effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare in the Great War. It was the first place that all four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary force fought together, under the command of a Canadian, General Arthur Currie. Some 3600 Canadians were killed during the battle of Vimy Ridge between April 9-12, 1917; another 7000 were wounded.
The Vimy Memorial site itself is part of a much larger complex with guided access to the jaw-dropping complex of tunnels and trenches that were used to ensure victory and minimize the loss of soldiers in the attack on Vimy Ridge.
The massive memorial dominates.The two large columns and the cloaked figure representing the nation mourning its dead are visible for miles. In addition, sixteen granite figures symbolize aspects of our collective remembrance of the war.
It is a solemn and sober work of art and a striking one, perched on the ridge that so many soldiers on both sides fought over. The view from the monument is striking, a reminder of why soldiers since time immemorial have fought for the high ground.
Opened in 1936, it was restored and rededicated in 2007; the 100th anniversary of the battle was remembered in April of 2017. Canadian flags still fly throughout the area, a reminder of the enduring recognition by the French of Canada’s role in the defense of France.
Beaumont Hamel is entirely different; it is a flat piece of ground sloping down into a ravine. The Newfoundland Regiment, Newfoundland still a colony of Great Britain, lost 700 men killed or injured in less than 30 minutes in the battle for Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916. Only 68 men showed for roll call the next morning.
For such a small population of about 240,000, the impact on Newfoundland was devastating. July 1, Canada’s national day of celebration, is still a day of mourning in Newfoundland and Labrador.
It is an even sadder and more mournful place of remembrance than Vimy Ridge.
We were fortunate to be escorted from Arras to Vimy and Beaumnot Hamel by our guide Faye, from Living Memory Tours www.livingmemorytours.com
Faye is Canadian, a native of Flin Flon; she worked as a Canadian guide at the Vimy Memorial and has expanded her knowledge base to include the whole region.
We were fortunate to visit, bear witness to the sacrifice the French made to their own defense at Notre Dame de Lorette, the French Memorial and military cemetery.
More than 40,000 French soldiers are buried or memorialized there alone; reminding us that while Canada’s contribution to success in the Great War was significant, the French sacrifice was unimaginable.
Faye guided us to other major sites; Cabaret Rouge, a major British cemetery, Thiepval, a joint French-British memorial and cemetery, the Adanac Canadian cemetery.
All these are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark, maintain, and preserve the graves and memorials of fallen soldiers. The sites are clearly, lovingly maintained on behalf of grateful citizens from every country.
Neuville Saint-Vaast is a large German cemetery near Arras, final resting place for some 44,000 German soldiers who died in the Great War. It is solemn, austere; equally submerged in sadness, a sadness made more graphic by the rows of thin iron crosses and complete lack of adornment – no plants, no flowers, no uplifting icons. It is a reminder to us that Germans suffered along with everyone else, losing their fathers, sons, brothers, and friends.
We are vested with a responsibility, to never forget. We are given a high honour, to show our respect to those who sacrificed their lives in the Great War. We are given a challenge, to ensure that such carnage never happens again.
Our sadness, our sense of loss pays tribute to the loss, to the sacrifice these citizen soldiers have made for the common good. Our sadness should be as boundless as their sacrifice.
The only way I know of to honour these reluctant warriors is visit the sites, the monuments, the cemeteries and embrace that sadness.
Summers are short in Canada. School’s out; carefully husbanded vacation days are spent. We pack them full of activity.
We fill our days with friends and family. We break bread; feasting in the age-old tradition of communion. We barbeque, we dine, we picnic, we drive hundreds of miles to reunions with extended family; summer’s bounty graces our table, sharing food binds us together.
We go outdoors. Hiking, walking, sailing, cottage living, running, cycling, swimming, canoeing. We explore, test our limits and reconnect with our physical selves.
We play; games, sports, live arts, theater, music, concerts, festivals. Our senses are filled with delights.
All these shared experiences build a bank of memories that nurtures and sustains us through our long winter nights.
I have been blessed this summer; my summer is full of shared experiences.
Two weeks in Ontario with Blair were filled with all the best of summer, made better by sharing them with my son.
I finally managed to visit Niagara Falls; we shared lunch and enjoyed the spectacular view from the Skylon Tower, one of Canada’s most iconic tourist sites.The Canadian side of the Falls is spectacular.
The reason for our visit is a family wedding celebration at the Laura Secord Homestead followed by dinner at Queenston Heights, surrounded by our icons of the War of 1812 victories. The wedding was a reunion, provided us both an opportunity to reconnect with three generations of my sister’s family.
The Shaw Festival is summer arts entertainment at its best, The Madness of King George, Saint Joan, al fresco meals and a leisurely pace, Timmy’s coffee in a small town; what could be more laid back? It is an idyllic summer festival in a deliberately quaint small town.
We avoid Toronto and head for Algonquin Park for a few days of hiking in the jewel of Ontario’s park system. This is perfect; long walks through forests, climbs to vistas of the northern shield, Austin (Blair’s dog) and I seem well-matched; we start strong and finish slow. It is a perfect top-up of walking training for my long summer’s walk in France, it certainly beats tramping the streets of Vancouver as preparation, although donating a pint of blood to the mosquitoes of Ontario seems an unnecessarily high price to pay.
We manage to arrive in Ottawa in time for the summer bluesfest, my first outdoor summer concert since…well….forever. What have I been missing? Why would I avoid these celebrations?
The bands we watch are quintessential New York bands – major contributors to the soundtrack of Blair’s years as a student and lawyer in the Big Apple. I forage for food, watch the crowd, take in the music while he is carried to another place, the power of music to remind us instantly of who we are and where we’ve been. It is a gift to step into his world; I’m reminded of how music lays down the unique soundtrack to the movies of our lives. His LCD Soundsystem is every bit as powerful as my Bruce Springsteen.
We finish off our road trip with a few visits with my old friends and a drive to Montreal. I’m dropped at the airport; stuffed to full with two weeks of shared experiences. Niagara Falls, Shaw, Algonquin Park, Bluesfest; interspersed with small and big conversations, road miles, dog walks and movies, breakfasts in diners and an essential visit to Wild Wings. I am blessed.
My latest walk beckons; I usually walk alone. This time Kristen is joining me halfway through my two week pilgrimage in France.
We meet in Arras; I’ve been walking for a week and need a day of R&R. Arras offers an opportunity for us to visit several memorable Great War sites that are meaningful to Canada. Our day-long trip leaves us drained; it is impossible to ignore the pain, the suffering, the loss, the inconsolable grief that exudes from Vimy, Beaumont Hamel, the Commonwealth War Graves, the French monuments at Thiepval and Notre Dame de Lorettte and the German Cemetery – all are a continuing reminder of the folly of war.
The next day we walk. These walks can be challenging; we are walking through beautiful country but we walk some 25-30 kilometers a day, with little access to water, food or other comforts. Hotels are rare, finding lodging that is within reasonable walking distance is the primary consideration in all our plans. We are carrying everything we need, little more, on our backs. One of the joys of walking is the reminder of such simple but profound impacts as weather – we survive a blustery downpour.
There are joys and surprises; we arrive in Bapaume, in the middle of a country fair, complete with carny rides, a parade and French version of Carny food – the local version of mini donuts is infinitely more decadent. Fatigue fades, we find a curbside seat, eat our treats and celebrate our good fortune.
Kristen loves a puzzle, particularly a travel puzzle. We have signposts for the route that seem to be randomly placed, an inadequate guidebook that is 7 years out of date and too many choices – a web of small roads, big roads, tracks and trails that offer too many options.
I want the shortest route to my nightly lodgings; Kristen would prefer a more esthetic path, smaller roads, less auto traffic, pleasant villages, a damp place on a quiet trail where snails meander across the path.
Each day, she finds new resources, the internet offers ideas that I had not discovered in six months of research. She has data and uses it; who knew our I-Phones were such guides. I may be onto something for future walks – no more paper, more robust data plans. It’s lighter and takes up less room in my pack.
We sort it out, actually…she sorts it out. We manage to find accommodation, although a few short strategic taxi rides are needed to make some lengthy walks more acceptable.
We finally arrive in Reims, our destination, a place whose name I still cannot pronounce – don’t get lost near Reims, you’ll never be understood when you try to tell the locals where you want to go.
Reims is on the edge of Champagne country; it seems celebrations are in order.
Our reward for our walk is a train trip to Paris to pick up our resupply of civilian clothing and a further train ride to Dieppe to see ML and the oasis of her home in Varengeville-sur-mer.
Long lunches, long walks, longer talks; much laughter and a few tears, a chance to meet her friends and make some new acquaintances. The days pass too quickly, full and fast paced – well, except for the afternoon naps. A chance to try oysters for the first time.
An oasis indeed.
We welcome new guests and depart the next day. Two days in Paris with Christopher await. Again, Kristen and Chris take over – my holiday curators. We find our AirBnB in the 19th, a part of Paris that is unfamiliar.
Our Sunday brunch overlooks the city, with the Eiffel tower and Montmartre in the distance. We find the Picasso Museum and explore his multi-media brilliance.
The coup-de-grace is a charming tiny bistro off a back street near our home. With less than 20 seats, it is small, intimate and surprisingly good. We manage to chat with the chef; there is an air of celebration – the restaurant is closing this evening for the annual August vacation.
The next day I am on my way home – five weeks of adventure is over.
I am reminded that adventures are only one way of adding purpose and meaning to my life. The adrenaline rush, the activity and the novelty of the unknown can mesmerize. The true and lasting value of my adventures is found in shred experiences with family and friends – particularly Blair and Kristen.
It isn’t complicated; we find something to do, we carve out time to spend together, we make things happen and then we relax into the experience. There is no magic in “quality time” – time together is what matters. Shared experience is what matters. It’s watching my son, lost in the music of his life; it’s watching my daughter joyfully unravelling of the daily puzzle of our walk, it’s enjoying a two hour brunch with Kristen and Chris as we dissect his latest cycling escapade.
It’s small victories, shared jokes, tiny nudges, knowing glances, long comfortable silences and profound insights.
In 990 AD, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, walked to Rome; invited by Pope John XV to be elevated to the position of Cardinal. We know this because his return trip was chronicled by a member of his party – 79 daily stages in all.
He wasn’t the first, the path had been used for years but for some unfathomable reason known only to the deeply devout, Sigeric’s journey inspired others to walk to Rome. It became a pilgrimage. There is now a stone at Canterbury Cathedral that marks the official start point of the Via Francigena, this pilgrimage to Rome.
Inestimable numbers of pilgrims have made the journey across Europe, they ebb and flow; yet through invasions, wars, the plague, predation from two and four-legged animals, scorching summer weather, freezing Alpine passes and other threats, pilgrims have endured.
With only 2500 or so pilgrims annually, it’s a lonely walk; the Camino de Santiago sees one hundred times that each year. Lack of consistent and reliable signage, a paucity of services, poor accommodation and the shear magnitude of the challenge; it’s not for the faint of heart.
Pilgrims walk the 1900 kilometers to seek enlightenment, the forgiveness of past sins, healing – the variety and breadth of motivations is as varied as the human condition. For a thousand years, we have sought some mystical prize that is delivered only with our arrival of the pilgrim in Rome.
I am here only for a test drive. The challenge is too daunting to contemplate as a single three month walk; but maybe if I take it in chunks, I can overcome the overwhelming magnitude of the challenge. One-day-at-a-time is an axiom that applies to many facets of my life. A two week walk from Canterbury to Reims is all I choose to achieve.
Canterbury is a fitting start. Immortalized by Chaucer for a smaller pilgrimage, the Cathedral has occupied center stage for people of faith since St. Augustine established the first church on the site in the 500’s.A Sunday prayer celebration seems a fitting way to start such an audacious journey.
After the Canterbury service, I am off; my first meeting with the signs that will show me the way and my future guide (I haven’t named him yet) is a good omen, at least I can find the path out of town.
England requires two days of walking; in hot weather, I am challenged by jet lag, dehydration and the British ramblers desire to avoid a road at all costs even if it means adding miles of brambly, obscure paths that RAMBLE. Geez get over it already.
After I’ve climbed a stile or two I’m not amused – in retrospect that may have been the jet lag talking. Yet, when my guidebook tells me to walk diagonally across a farmer’s field – unless the BULL is out to pasture – in which case I should walk around the field, I do lose some of my composure. I cross at Dover on a ferry filled with tourists and school groups.
France is saner; my guidebook seems to favor small, farm roads through villages that are hundreds of meters long and one house deep. I’ve been warned; villages do not have services. There are no places for water, food, snacks, no pleasant villagers in berets with anecdotes and easily comprehensible directions (I would not have understood them anyway). Finding accommodation is tough; the logistics of it all present a complicated daily puzzle to be solved – my day depends on making a series of choices. Fortunately, I like puzzles.