Sunday, April 22, 2012

The View From Here

Marina at Queen's Way, Gibraltar

It is a hot day in Gibraltar, there are numerous pinwheeling black kytes and seagulls riding wide-shafted wind turbines that allow the migrating birds to float rather than fly across the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa. I have a glass of iced Diet Coke next to my right hand and the sound of long barges belching their way across the water, the shrill peeping of numerous birds, and the twanging stringy sighs of sailboats in the marina are my orchestra while the sun sets.

This time one year ago, I had just quit my job and just started planning this trip. I had a meeting that lasted late into the night, followed by karaoke, and then pancakes at Seattle’s incomparable Hurricane at four in the morning. I woke up at eight the next day to put on overalls and paint a one-of-a-kind bar against a wildly inappropriate deadline.

Or let’s go back further almost a decade ago when a group of friends living in a dorm called South Highland (THAT’s where the email address comes from, by the way) threw me my first surprise birthday dance party in our common room there in rural Meadville, Pennsylvania (home of Dad’s Dog Food factory, the birthplace of the zipper and a college called Allegheny). I ran upstairs to put on some appalling 80s dress and stayed up until four with my friends back when we never got tired – before there was Facebook, before Bush got elected (again) and before we all thought an evening of Battlestar Gallactica was the height of recreational entertainment. I thought then that 30 would be a quiet time. I thought I would have a family, maybe a book published, I thought that I would have a career and a dog. None of these things have come to pass.

Instead, I’m speaking to you at the precipice of three decades in what has been the most peculiar and extraordinary year of my life.

Main Street, Gibraltar
Gibraltar is an eccentric and beautiful place. I’ve had some of the strangest encounters of my trip here. And if you’ve been privy to the behind-the-scenes of this blog and this voyage, you know that’s saying something.

For a few billion years, the 1400-foot limestone hulk that is the rock of Gibraltar was largely ignored. It was unpopulated apart from monkeys, birds, and wild buzzing insects moving between sea and sky. It’s just 2.6 square miles of coast, the north of this small spit of land sharing its border with Andalusian Spain.

Yesterday, A took me out of Gibraltar to Castellar de la Frontera – a small municipality in the Cadiz province over the border in Spain. Crossing into Spain itself was about the easiest border crossing I’ve ever done. Basically you open your passport as you roll slowly by a guard’s window in a line of cars to cross the border into La Linea – the line of traffic, of course, has to pause entirely whenever one of the flights to Gibraltar airport arrives from London since the runway actually crosses the highway leading over the border. There simply wouldn’t be enough space unless they multi-purposed their road.

Castellar de la Frontera, Spain
Castellar is centered around an old medieval castle-turned-town on the top of a hill. In the 70’s, the town became a hippy colony with a few well-bearded German bohemians still living there today, selling soda pop, ice cream, or ashtrays with cannabis leaves hand-painted in their recesses. There are inbred stray cats climbing orange trees on the ramshackle little roads around the ruins and we stopped into a white-washed stone house where we ordered Tapas in the early afternoon.

Castellar de la Frontera, Spain

The entire countryside is spread out beneath the castle with views down the coast to the Rock along “the Med” (that’s what the locals call the Mediterranean). The whole rolling hillside and the wide, white rippling lake look like a Goya landscape. The view from here is tremendous and I had one of those moments where you feel like you’ve been brushed into a painting.

Today, we used the 70-degree weather to tour the Rock that is Gibraltar, beginning with the “Ape Den” (which is actually a misnomer, since it turns out that they are actually “monkeys”). The Barbary Macaques though, are actually a much-prided point of interest on the island and are considered to be Gibraltar’s unofficial national animal and the only primates on the entire European continent. There are about 300 of them that roam all over the rock throughout the day – these shaggy creatures that are this dusty rug color with ballooned and wobbling leathery butts that waggle a bit as they amble from one point of shade to another. And although every few feet another sign tells you not to feed the apes, the animals seem not to have taken any interest in this rule and are very insistent. As we came around the corner, one jumped on the hood of A’s little red mini and tried to crawl in the window searching for grocery bags from Morrison’s.

Barbary Macaques
They loiter along a stone pullout, at the end of which there’s patio area littered with fruit scraps and feces and this seems to be where the monkeys are fed each day. And apart from maintaining the tourist attraction that is one of the four stops on the “Rock Tour” of Gibraltar, there is also some mythology surrounding the monkey that encourages the residents here to take care of them, which states that as long as the Gibraltar apes reside on the rock, the British will hold Gibraltar. This mythology was actually threatened in the 1940’s after the second world war when their numbers dwindled to a mere seven and Winston Churchill ordered that the numbers be replenished and the population nurtured. So they were there today, in the brutal heat as I wandered up to sit next to them and then shrieked when they came too near, these monkeys that pre-date the trading stations we’ve set up now, whose families stretch back to Africa and are far more comfortable in the company of strangers than I will ever be.

We climb back up the steep rock road and head towards St. Michael’s Cave, passing the Pillars of Hercules at the National Reserve check point. The Pillars of Hercules is really just this oversized golden medallion placed between two columns, but its legend lends so much more romance that the stalwart monument implies.

Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar
The Pillars of Hercules are threaded throughout various  mythologies. When Hercules had to perform his twelve labors, the farthest west he ever made it in the effort to complete his tasks was supposedly to the two “pillars” that span the strait of Gibraltar – one of which stands sentry on the north face on the rock of Gibraltar. The Romans said that Hercules had to cross a mountain in order to complete his tasks, but in order to cheat the task of climbing the mountain he just busted right through it (such a dude…) and created the Strait of Gibraltar to connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. According to Plato’s re-telling Atlantis was just beyond those pillars (meaning that as far as they knew – nothing was beyond those pillars) and in the Renaissance the pillars were said to warn “Nec Plus Ultra” (Nothing Further Beyond). This used to be the end of the world.

The road leads us up a few more steep paved hills until we reach a slope that is host to what appears to be a shanty town of cement and wood buildings. Upon closer inspection, I find that they aren’t really as ramshackle as I originally thought them to be, but it seems appropriate that the ticket entrance to a cave would somewhat resemble a mine shaft. And this is how you enter in St. Michael’s Cave.

St. Michael's Cave (which my phone doesn't
really photograph well)
St. Michael’s Cave is a hollowed out network of limestone stalagmites and stalactites housed within the Rock of Gibraltar 300 meters above sea level. Its dripping and deep ceilings glow with multicolored dappled hues of green and red and vibrant rooster comb gold. There are steps ranging all around the cave – the first cave I can ever remember being in, incidentally – that lead you up and then down and the whole thing smells damp and vaguely acidic and the sound is incredible. They actually use a section of the cave for concerts and have full auditorium seating because the acoustics are so sweet and heightened. They’ve hosted jazz concerts, cellists, vocalists and have another event coming up at the end of May. At one point, all of the tourists had gone from the cave except us and I settled down in one of the plastic red seats in the hall just listen to the water drip.

Highclere Castle, England
And that’s just two days of castles and caves. It speaks nothing of a solitary ten-mile walk through sun and sleet to and from Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey). It doesn’t tell you how in a subterranean kitchen in London, two women gave me a make-over (from the styling of my bangs to my new pen name). It doesn’t tell you about my detour to Devon and homemade chocolate fondant. It gives you no sense of the vast amount of life changes I’ve made seemingly without realizing it in the past year: the job I’ve left, the job I’m taking, the rainy city I’m leaving and the foggy city I will try and make my home, the lovers lost, the boots I’ve worn clean through, this trip that has taken me 6,000 miles away to re-acquaint me with some of my favorite people from my past and introduced me to some of the most deeply gracious and intelligent people that I had yet to meet in my life.

Everyone said that it gets better at 30 – all of the things that troubled you: the flailing gestures at directing your life, the stumbling romances, the watery sense of self – all of that gets better after 30. That’s what they say anyways.

But it turns out that it really doesn’t matter to me whether or not this is true. Not as much as I thought it would. I am happiest, it turns out, when I have no idea what things will look like; when things like being jammed up against a vintage, foot-smelling Samsonite suitcase on a train while traveling on Easter Monday are coupled with the bristle-brush, yet velveteen feeling under the pads of my fingers when I ran my hand down the back of a monkey this afternoon. When there is no accounting for what comes next or the combination of events that are possible. I don’t know what the view looks like from the future. And I don't mind.

View to Morocco
But the view from here? It’s almost evening now. Streetlamps and green-lit windows all along the hillside and up the Rock are coming on like glittering sea stars and the slow moving traffic of boats, yachts and barges through the water are cutting waves into the heat. The wind is tossing the birds and the entire sky is marbled violet. And through the last of the fog, I can see Morocco from my window.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gifts We Give Ourselves

Sunset in Denens, Switzerland

In the years following the war, Paris was a growing city. In spite of revolts and occupation, the city had escaped relatively unscathed. The brick streets were being re-manicured and the city was reclaiming itself, the business district was just opening up, boats were traveling up and down the rivers, women in low heels and a-line skirts were clacking over the bridges.

JP was a boy born during the war and growing up in its wake. In the high brick buildings of his Parisian arrondissements, the boys played together, hung out each other’s windows, rumpling the pressed short pants suits their mothers had made to stretch for another season. In the evenings they hollered at each other from their apartments while the staticky radio played Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey on low from their sitting rooms.

And before the sun went down, the organ grinder would rumble down the street, pushing the wooden instrument down the alley that was their home. The hooting whistles of his charge echoed off of the residential buildings and ricocheted in little pinwheels of music. JP would dash to his mother’s purse on the counter and withdraw a penny which he folded into a scrap of paper: an old envelope, a corner of butcher’s paper and then tossed the package out the window with as much force as he could muster to pay the organ grinder for his work. JP, with a wicked little boy’s smile would lob the payment aiming for cracks in the pavements, hard to reach fissures between bins, really making the wearied organ grinder search for the pennies that paid for his service, but still the man would turn the crank of the organ for the children in the neighborhood to make that calliope sound peal down their street.

For more than half a century, the pleasure of tossing pennies to hear the street organ has stayed with JP. He associates the sound with dancing, mischief, delight, his youth in Paris.

Spring in Denens
And if you know this, when you enter JP and D’s lovely countryside house in Denens, Switzerland, the beautiful, wood-worked street organ on its rolling cart in the living room, suddenly makes sense.

On his sixtieth birthday, JP decided to give himself the gift of a custom made street organ – decorated to his tastes, made to be able to play the old punch card tunes by crank as well as electronically capable of playing music from his iPod in three tiers of sound: flutes, trumpets, and other woodwinds. He had called D one afternoon and asked if they could put off replacing their old car for a little while longer in order to realize this dream.

And, as with most labors of love, long dreams, and whimsical impulses, JP (even years later) smiles like the six year old boy he once when I ask him if I can get a video of him playing the street organ.

“Nothing else makes him smile like that,” D tells me as JP goes to select a tune from his cupboard to play, “just the dog and the organ.”

At Alnwick Castle (from Harry Potter)
I am a fan of goofy-smile-inducing whimsy. In all its forms. We only get one shot at this life, after all, we must make room sometimes for nothing more than pleasure, delight, and play.

The other night, around the table with my new friends (“the Vicar,” her partner “Lady P” and their two foster kids) we all told ghost stories that we’d experienced or heard about. I told the one about my mother backpacking through Europe and sleeping in the house of a dead woman in a polka dot dress. And the Vicar and Lady P told me a story about a ghost that they once saw in the Lakes District – a place that we were to visit later that week.

A few years back the ladies stopped at Rydal Mount (where Wordsworth spent his latter years) – a large, bright, white-washed cottage with ivy crawling up its walls. They’d arrived early and parked in the car turnout in front of the fenced gate, Lady P wondering aloud if it was the type of place that used period costumes as part of their tours – she hated those.

Rydal Mount (Wordsworth's Home)
As they sat there talking, waiting for the ticket office to open, they looked into one of the top floor windows where a woman in a maid’s pinafore was donning her cap and gazing down the lane at the scattering of parked cars that were also waiting to tour Wordsworth’s old home, “Oh look,” Lady P said with a roll of her eyes, “it is one of those tours.” They got out of the car and they bought their tickets. They were led through the whole of the house, heard more about Wordsworth’s later years, his contributions to the Lakes region – about the yew tree that he planted in the town’s churchyard and how he is now buried underneath it (sidenote: Wordsworth’s grave sits just yards away from the famous Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread shop so that the site always smells of gingerbread with the lightest whiff of citrus from the lemon peel that they zest into the mix). On their way out of Rydal Mount, they stopped by the gate and asked the ticket attendant if the woman in the maid’s uniform that they’d seen in the window was part of a special program since they were wondering why they hadn’t seen her. The Rydal Mount employee looked puzzled for a few moments and then said “oh that woman doesn’t work here,” she shook her head, “what you saw is probably the ghost of Dorothy’s maid. Her room was right off of Dorothy’s (Wordsworth's sister) on the top floor there and she was always waiting for her son to come home from war.”

Bamburgh Castle
“A ghost?” they said (reasonably incredulous).

“It’s not unusual,” the bored Northerner drawled a bit, “we get a lot of ghosts around here. Sometimes even Wordsworth himself.”

The Vicar and Lady P told me all of this with an entirely straight face. “We both saw her,” Lady P said, “plain as you’re sitting before me right now,” she pointed at me in the chair across from her and then looked over the to the Vicar, “Didn’t we?”

The two nod and smile to each other, covering not just the day they saw a ghost, but the entire nearly two-decades worth of history that they’ve shared together. Here, in their quaint small town home, I get a taste of the Northern England hospitality, just 30 or so miles away from the Scottish border.

When the Vicar and I went to the Lakes District and dropped by Rydal Mount, I looked to that top window which stayed well-lit and vacant. Not all ghosts, it seems, are meant to be shared.

Me with the Duchess of Northumberland
Which doesn’t matter. While in the North of England, the Ladies took me on a whistle stop tour of the highlights of the area which was whimsical all on its own: five castles (including Alnwick Castle, used in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, where I came face to face with the Duchess of Northumberland and Bamburgh Castle – used in the opening scenes of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves). In the Lakes District we went to Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum, had tea and carrot cake at Beatrix Potter’s world, and walked a waterfall that caught an afternoon rainbow. On the edge of Lake Windermere, there are enormous (and I mean seriously, mutant-sized) swans waddling around waiting to snatch ice cream cones right out of your sticky fingers. As they waddle about the boardwalk totally unafraid, their cluck-quacking sounds strangely like a plot to take off one of my fingers, but still I can’t help but wander out into the middle of them anyways. They’re enormous breathing pillows wearing Batman masks – how could I stop myself?
I can't help myself...

The purpose driven life doesn’t always make room for ghosts, street organs, and threatening clouds of lakeside swans and sometimes I think it’s the poorer for it. Dreams don’t come with budgets and balance sheets, the equation doesn’t always make sense. Which also leads me to a decision I’ve made as a gift to myself. We'll call it my birthday present to me. Even though it’s not in the bank account, I’ve decided to give myself two days alone in the English countryside at a small inn just four miles away from Highclere Castle. What’s so special about Highclere, you might ask? It’s the setting for Downton Abbey. There’s no reason to go there other than to have a small break from company, to write, and to visit a landmark that I’ve only before seen on my TV. The only drawback of going on my own is that there will be no one there to snap a picture of my face as I first come up that drive.

Saying “yes” to yourself even (sometimes especially) when it doesn’t make any sense, allows you to smile like a six-year-old boy sixty years after the fact while playing “La Vie en Rose” for guests at your house in Switzerland.

And just for a little extra fun, here’s The Organ Man by Roy L. McCardell. Please especially enjoy the last stanza.

He often comes when I'm lone and sad -
The organ man, with his tunes so old;
And his presence always makes me glad,
Although other surly folk may scold.

I'm very fond of "popular airs,"
But best I like when the children troop
Out from alleys and tenement stairs,
And gather round him, a noisy group.

He makes them sing to the tunes he plays,
And these old, old children dance with glee;
Why, I know they'd forget their childish ways
Were it not for the organ man and me.

For a penny tossed brings a bow profound,
And a sunny smile to his sallow face;
Then he turns the handle faster round,
While the music quivers through the place.

For here downtown, where the factories
Wall in the tenements dark and grim,
And shut out the light, the air, the breeze,
There would be no children but for him.

So he comes to see me every day,
Starting his tunes at my welcoming glance;
And I'm but too glad to be able to pay
The little it costs, while the children dance.