Tag Archives: Journeys

Stumbling Past

27 Feb

 

The beginning is always today — Mary Wollstonecraft

 

Early mornings, on my way into work, I’d sometimes venture down the passages off Picaddilly, past the produce barrows and into the narrow lanes of strip joints and sex shops, the half-dressed working girls passing me on their way to breakfast, and then, feeling worldly and dissolute, I would scurry back out, doing both Soho and myself a disservice.

This morning it is all coffee shops and patisseries as I make my way across its square mile.  I’ve learned a little, but not enough to avoid getting lost, for Soho abhors a straight path.  But, being a small place, I eventually find my way to Frith Street and the home of essayist, critic, philosopher and painter William Hazlitt, of whom I know almost nothing.  But, having died in 1830, his home is now mine, at least for the next few days.  Quiet and discreet, I walk past before returning to be buzzed into the hush of this Georgian home.  Mischa, at the desk, greets me warmly, apologizes for not having my room ready hours early, checks me in, takes my bag and sends me on my way to Bar Italia for a cappuccino, and then on into the quiet morning streets.

Reaching the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue I find, to my surprise, Chinatown; the low sun making its way above the buildings and causing the red lanterns to glow above the cobbled lanes crowded with delivery trucks.  Finding my way from Soho to Leicester Square through Chinatown is warming.  A connection made.  For my knowledge of this place is immature, made of fragments gathered in younger years which I’m only now learning to assemble.

*****

The riverside marshes of Lambeth kept it largely undeveloped into the 19th century.  Intervening years have brought changes, but something is said to linger along Lower Marsh Street, the spirit of it’s damp beginnings and the raucous, working class settlement that followed.  And so I head for the Embankment, cross Hungerford Bridge and walk west along the south bank, taking in most of the major tourist attractions on the fly.  The Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, done.  More fascinating are the coffee stands and outdoor bars that have popped up along the way.  I am wooed by the idea of a hot whiskey along the Thames on a brisk winter’s day and, not for the first time, I wish Amy were here.

At Westminster Bridge I hesitate, for the marshes are deeply buried beneath traffic and skyscrapers.  I move back and forth, checking the map until finally, turning down what appears to be little more than a driveway, I pass around an apartment block and through a tunnel beneath the tracks heading toward London Bridge.  There, in the twilight, I find a series of mosaics based on the work of William Blake, who lived out the end of the 18th Century in a nearby home.  Born in Soho, I have unknowingly followed Blake across the river to where I now stand face to face with both his demons and his angels.  Like so much of London, they linger, refusing to be driven out.

Turning onto Lower Marsh, I see neither water nor mud, but I sense a lower elevation, as if the street were a riverbed, along which flows a thriving community.  Shabby but spirited, the businesses seem to feed the lives of the people passing by.

The marshes were replaced, 200 years ago, by pleasure gardens, pubs and theaters.  The Old Vic remains and in the streets behind I stumble across Chaplin Close, named in memory of the little tramp who, the child of music hall performers, lived out his dire, Dickensian childhood here.

Just down the road is the New Vic, where the neighborhood’s historically radical spirit is still proudly worn, and turning into the narrow side streets of small cottages, I pass the home of Mary Wollstonecraft, looking comfortable and unchanged two centuries on.  For a moment we seem to share the same world.  And then I realize we do.

Further on I stumble upon Crossbones, the little patch of land where so many women and children were buried without ceremony.  A community garden, refuge and place of memory, it is open today and I step inside. But for all the greenery, artwork and curious guests, its soul seems to reside along the fence that surrounds it, in the ribbons, notes and remembrances of the struggling and lost.  Looking up I see the Shard in the distance, once again slicing the sky.

Borough Market is crowded, so I move onto Bermondsey.  Like so much of London I remember from thirty years ago, the empty streets and dingy arches have been replaced by bakeries and pop-up bars.  And although I can’t be far from my destination, I still manage to get turned around.  Giving up, I ask for directions and a young woman sends me on my way, traveling further than seems possible to regain the path I had somehow lost.

Jose’ appears on a corner and I work my way in, starting at the window but moving to the bar as things open up.  To my right a couple much older than I share their annual lunch, celebrating their decades of friendship.  To my left three girls young enough to be my daughter drink an astounding amount of red wine.  And before me Stefano, a young man from southern Italy, places jamon, boquerones, patatas bravas and a glass of sherry along with his dreams of New York, where the time is now 8am, which makes this my breakfast.

And as the food disappears, the girls drift away, and a second glass is poured, I think of my own dreams, how life has changed them, and how the magic lies not in their attainment, but in their pursuit.

 

 

 

Whispers in the Distance

4 Feb

None of this was written in stone… — Kate Tempest

Perhaps it’s the photograph in the hands of my childhood neighbor, Ivy.  She and her sister before the war.  No sky, no grass, just a dark world of cobblestone and brick out of which smiles her little-girl face. “This is London, “she says.  “This is where I’m from.”

Heathrow, this morning, is an efficient surprise.  Passports scanned and I’m out the door in a matter of minutes, humming along on the Piccadilly line with its armrests and padded seats in the early morning darkness, blowing past the suburbs, straining to catch a glimpse of a slowly illuminating England.

It’s hours before I can check-in so, traveling light, I hop off the train a couple stops early.  Coming above ground to walk the streets of St. James I am reminded of the city’s scent, which I love.  As a young man it seemed an elixir of European cigarettes and the perfumes of foreign women.  But there’s more to it now.  The vast number of trees, the long standing buildings with their aged masonry and wood,  and the river.  These aromas I recognize, but of course there are others, still deeper, less familiar.

Passing St. James Piccadilly, I see the doors are open.  A sign says Friday prayers: 8:30 am, which just happens to be the time.  Stepping inside I take a seat toward the back and, lulled by the gentle call and response of a handful of parishioners, take a moment to settle amidst the warmth and simplicity of this, Christopher Wren’s favorite church.  I say a prayer of gratitude for this gentle welcome, then quietly leave through the door opposite the one I entered, left open to allow the neighborhood a shortcut from Jermyn Street to Piccadilly.  Passing through the courtyard and its preparations for the Friday market, I step through the gate and into the world.

The great illuminated signs of Piccadilly Circus stand precariously above the famous intersection, the buildings that have long supported them largely gone, supported by little more than scaffolding and cloth.  The world behind has been hollowed out, leaving London’s famous landmark little more than a facade.

Always a whirlwind of traffic and tourists, this has never been a place to linger.  But it has been a shared space, where friends meet and newcomers find their feet.  This morning it is largely empty, and as the gray skies brood and the lonely neon glows above the wet pavement, I feel a little lost. It all seems so small.

I long to be here, but it’s hard to say why. There’s mystery involved, which makes it hard to talk about, tending to exasperate those who, having made a religion of certainty, pretend to answers that are beyond them.  This would be funny were it not such a efficient way of pushing a pin through the butterfly of life.

I head off in search of Air Street, find it, and turn back for the view through the arches.  Life, framed by structure, to create beauty well over a century before I was born.  And here I stand.

No longer lost, I head into Soho.

Climbing the Alto

9 May

It’s an early, gray sky morning and, the streets are empty.  I know where I’m going because yesterday I made a trial run, wandering up the Viale Guiseppe Verdi, past the the empty movie theater and darkened stores before turning to follow the contours of the Parco delle Terme.  Montecatini Terme is quiet and I soak in the gentleness of this unfamiliar town, the morning mist softening the border between antiquity and myself.

I’ve yet to find my rhythm.  Our hotel on the piazza has a grand, sweeping staircase, graced in its day by Verdi himself, but frequented now by my 9 year old daughter, newly fascinated by this introduction to infinity.  Ascending to our fifth floor room by a slow succession of right angles, we climb together this seemingly endless square, twelve stairs to a landing, thirty six to a floor. Over and over again. The challenge I have set myself to never use the elevator wobbles almost immediately as I chase her up and down, growing ever more aware of my age.

But this morning is mine.  My goal is the Montecatini Alto, the medieval village high above Montecatini Terme.  There is a funiculore, but it’s closed for the season and is now only a small station undergoing renovation at the base of the hill, its long stretch of track disappearing into the distance.  But along side is a road; more of an alley really, pavement giving way to gravel as it climbs past the last few houses to what I had hoped to find.  A trail.

It’s easy at first.  True, it is steep enough to affect my breathing, but there are wide, long steps running alongside a stone wall adorned at intervals by small shrines to the holy mother.  And there, far above, is the ancient fortress of the Alto.

The path turns and continues on its way as the ground slowly disintegrates into a wilderness of reddish stones.  Aspiring to gravel, it remains, at this point in it’s decay, a severe threat to the ankles.  Carefully, step by awkward step, I slowly make my way.  Looking upward, I think of my son.

He would hate this.  It would madden him with it’s pointlessness.  A phantom at my side, he proclaims to the hills:

“This sucks!”

“I know that, but here’s the thing,” I gently reply.  “Look up.  Is that not amazing?  In a matter of minutes we will be in that ancient town.  The views will be breathtaking.  This is how life works,” I say.  “You do something hard, and it makes you feel good.”

He is silent as we continue on.

“This is the secret,” I say, winded now.  “I’m trying to give this to you.”

The wind whispers through the surrounding trees.  I pick an olive from amidst the rubble, and then notice they’re everywhere.  Inedible, though.  Hard, uncured.

Almost as tall as me, I wonder if he will ever be as strong.  As patient.  I wonder if my father thought the same.

Slowly the way begins to ease.  Rocks become pebbles, the path takes a turn, and, surprisingly, I arrive, following the soft dusty path rising to the street that leads into the town.

It is early, few people are about and nothing is open.  Built of stone, the streets are narrow and veer off in precipitous directions.  A lone car passes slowly and after a moment disappears into this sinuous cobblestone world.  I follow, weaving my way, taking every upward turn as I continue to ascend, the fun house streets climbing and dropping all about me.

And then the world levels and opens a bit.  The sky and the surrounding countryside reappear, and I stand atop the remnants of this failed fortress whose alliances shifted with each new battle between the surrounding powers until being finally overrun by Florence and left in ruins by the soldiers of the Medici who, in all likelihood, had marched up the very same trail as I.

How many lifetimes ago?  In how different a world?

The trip down is harder than the ascent, gravity adding a new level of danger to the outsized rubble.  Also, I’m running late and promises have been made.  So I stumble along at speed.

The mist remains as the world levels and I descend into town.  Traffic’s picked up, dogs are being walked, a bus hisses past in the the morning gloom.  Two women in bright yellow windbreakers appear in the distance, out for a run, making their way through the streets I have yet to explore.

But there’s time for that later.  I need to keep moving if I’m going to make it on time.

On time For Heath, his complaints and concerns.

On time for Hallie and her games on the stairs.

On time for the coffee, which, truth be told, is the main reason I’m here.

And on time for Amy, her laughter, and all the joys of this journey shared.

 

Little Town

18 Sep

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I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.  — Laura Ingalls Wilder

Morning comes early, and South Dakota is empty.  Pull off on the side of the road, stand in the middle and take all the pictures you like.  No cars to the east and none to the west.  Just the sky, luminous and new.  But I’m hungry, and the diners are not leaping out at us.  Few people means even fewer restaurants and on this crack of dawn Sunday morning they are hiding themselves well.

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Thank god for Huron, home of the worlds largest pheasant, behind which Mom clocks a combined bowling alley/VFW hall with a little clump of cars parked out front.

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The Plains Dining & Recreation Center, whose breakfast menu includes The Haystack, The Hot One and of course, Klazy Eggs.  My diner instincts are good, but Mom’s the master, and sometimes the best cup of coffee is the only one you can find.

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A few miles further along we come to De Smet, South Dakota and the home of Laura Ingall’s Wilder.  The family’s final home, De Smet is the setting for Little Town on the Praire, The Long Winter, and These Happy Golden Years.  The house they rented upon their arrival is getting a new coat of paint this morning.

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While a couple streets away the house Pa eventually built stands quietly amidst more contemporary neighbors.

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But the land they homesteaded, just outside of town, is breathtaking.

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A memorial to the family and their times, it has a quiet dignity and a strong sense of the beauty to be found in everyday things.

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And the world they exist in.

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The Graveyard is not far, and we stop for a few minutes.

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We’re quiet, separating to explore.  The wind rustles the leaves, and after a time I follow Mom up the hill where we look beyond the graves to the surrounding farms.  And then, remembering the distance before us, we get back on the road, heading across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, where dinner is waiting with family of our own.

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