Saturday, September 26, 2015

Nigel and the Pope

As his eyes slowly opened, he became aware of the faint morning light, the first vague shadows emerging from the darkness. Beyond the gauze curtains, rippled by the warm breeze, he could see sunlight upon the terrace. He sat up and noticed the disarray about the room: his tuxedo, her gown, the empty bottle of Cristál. And beside him, Aliá, still asleep, facing away from him, the sheet turned down to her thighs in the heat, the indentation of her spine and the smooth curve of her hip reviving in his mind the consuming desire of only a hour before.

The .45 automatic, a large and elegant N filigreed into the ebony grips, was on the bedside table. Picking up the pistol, he firmly but quietly pulled back the slide then eased it forward, chambering a round. There was work to do today, payments to be made, contracts to be filled.

He reflected for a moment on the turmoil and violence of his existence, the moments of passion stolen from the days and nights of confrontation and death. How different, how very different, from those simple days on his father’s estate, the carefree days frolicking about the grounds, safe from the world’s terrors. And his dear nanny, Deirdre, always stern and proper when his parents were about, but so affectionate and devoted when they were away from prying eyes. His life had been turned upside down when she left to marry that doltish dustman Archibald. Ah, Deirdre, he thought, if we could have frozen space and time and the farthest reaches of the cosmos, if we could have stayed forever within a world of our own making, if we could have.

But of course they couldn’t. He turned and lightly stroked the small of Aliá’s back. In his mind he again said goodbye to fair Deirdre, then smiled as he thought, if only I had known what was to follow. The reflection ended, the smile gone, he knew it was time to get moving.

An hour later he was quickly pacing back and forth across a large room, oblivious to the elegant furnishings, the ornate wall hangings, the echoes produced within the 30 foot ceiling. He chain-smoked as he walked, hesitating slightly whenever his cell phone rang only to be ignored. “Damn him!” he thought. “He must come through! And it had better be quick!” He could hear the sounds of an immense crowd outside. “Jesus, all those people acting like sheep, crowding into the square, whenever he decides to show his bloody face! Just so they can hear him pontificate some stupid bullshit! ‘Blessed Pontiff’ my ass!”

After several more circuits of the room and not a few cigarettes, he abruptly stopped as the doors opened, and in walked the Holy Father himself, accompanied by three red-robed cardinals.

“It’s about fucking time! Couldn’t you have cut the crap short today?” The pope smiled wanly at this stern rebuke, as the cardinals raised their eyebrows and opened their mouths in silent gasps.

“Tell these guys to beat it; you and I have to talk.” The pope, showing the debility of age, turned stiffly to the cardinals and made a slight hand gesture, bidding them to leave the room. After they had left and closed the huge doors, the pope finally spoke.

“Now, my son, please, let us talk.”

“There’s not much to talk about. It’s quite simple. You, the great and powerful Holy Father, started this mess. You stirred things up with that Papal Bull, you brought back Deirdre to be involved in this harebrained scheme of yours, then you left me in the lurch. I expect you to finish it, and quickly. If you don’t, you’ll need more than that bloody Popemobile to protect you when you go to Rio.”

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Write About What?

Fingers poised above the keys, he was ready to begin writing. Yes, write, but about what? He would think of something, a subject would present itself, some topic would drift into his consciousness, and then he could get down to the real business of writing. He would assemble words and sentences and paragraphs with rigor and precision and even passion, crafting prose that awed with its brilliance and wooed with its ardor.

Politics was out. Everybody talked and wrote and screamed about politics. Not only had everything already been said, it had all been said too many times over and over. Besides, no one wanted to listen about politics, they only wanted to be heard. No, no, politics would never do.

Religion? Pass. He worked all that out in his head over 50 years ago and had nothing more to say.

Art presented possibilities. Everybody loved at least some kind of art, painting or pop music or decorative plates or video-on-demand. Art could be sad or funny, inspiring or insipid, and you could say ridiculous things with big words and somebody somewhere would take you seriously. On second thought, maybe writing about art was not a good idea.

Between art and politics and religion was culture. Ah, modern society. There might be some heretofore unseen insights that he could discover and share. This was a fertile field full of social media, clash of generations, riches and poverty, the –isms of race and sex, the complexities of being human in an increasingly inhuman, impersonal world — he perhaps could make new connections to startle and illuminate.

Yes, culture. His fingers relaxed slightly as he thought about culture. He thought some more as he pulled his fingers away from the keyboard and placed his hands in his lap. Still thinking, he turned to look out the window. It was hot out there, sun glaring, and he had to get up and close the blinds a bit to keep the room cool. That’s better now, he thought as he sat back down and started thinking about culture again.

Culture was really human nature writ large and to do that any justice one needed to write a novel, even a trilogy, or a big heavy book of history or philosophy. Proust wrote a gazillion words and even he couldn’t cover it all. The more he thought about it the more he felt that it was a bit more than he wanted to tackle, not right now anyway. Maybe next week.

UncaMikey visits Marcel

Technology is a popular topic and people always seemed eager to learn about the latest gadgets and trends, but he didn’t own a smart phone and wasn’t quite clear on the concept of Twitter. Thirty years ago one could make jokes about not being able to set the time on the family VCR but that was child’s play, today it’s all a blur, clouds and streaming and hashtags and trending topics. He wasn’t ready to write about technology but was open to reading about it. Tomorrow, maybe.

He noticed it was late afternoon and that he was getting a bit drowsy. His fingers were no longer ready to pounce on the keyboard and his brain had given up the search for a suitable subject. His passion for words had waned as his body felt the inexorable pull of the couch. Creativity yielded, as always it must, to lethargy. It was time to lie down and take a nap.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Travel Season

As the Northern Hemisphere enters the peak travel season, all of our stuff is packed away for the summer. Rollaboards, airplane pillows, passports are in the back in the closet, waiting patiently for the fall.

Our spring trips were pleasant. I've already blogged about traveling to Portugal in March, a leisurely itinerary through Porto, Guimarães, Aveiro, and Ovar. (I also told you about the entertaining variety of hotels one encounters on a trip.) Then in April we returned to Italy, once again flying into and out of Milan but this time going to Parma, Brescia, and Bergamo.

Arriverderci, Milano!

Click on the images for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Our most recent vist to Milan was last December and Parma we knew, slightly, from a visit long ago, in 2001, while Brescia and Bergamo were new cities for us. We did what we always do in Italy, gawk at old buildings and churches, look at art in museums, ride buses and subways and funiculars, walk around aimlessly, and eat. I don't know of a better way to spend two weeks, especially the eating part.

Fried Bread and Cured Meats

I've been using a new camera for these latest trips, a Fujifilm X30. So far I'm very pleased with it, but you can judge for yourself by looking at my Flickr album for Milan 2015.

Besides these outings to Italy and Portugal we went to Washington, D.C., twice, in January and May.

It was very cold in January, so we stayed mostly inside. That's not a bad thing in D.C., what with all the museums. For example, we got to see the painting of Stephen Colbert in the National Portrait Gallery, hanging in the entrance to the restrooms.

Stephen Colbert

It was much warmer in May, so we stayed mostly outside. That's not a bad thing in D.C., what with all the monuments and parks. For example, we spent a whole day with our friend Maureen at the zoo. Oh look, a panda!

Oh look, a panda!

I posted a few more D.C. snaps on Flickr: here's the album for January and here's the album for May.

So that's it for traveling, for us, for several months. No more trip reports, not from me, but maybe I'll catch a glimpse of something else to write about before then.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

White People

Despite the recent violence in Waco, I think that most whites are law-abiding, productive citizens. But it would be nice if white leaders would step up and condemn and disavow these thugs, and reassure us that the gangs' criminal activities are not representative of the white community as a whole.

Before you judge these sad fellows too harshly, realize that they are the product of a white culture that encourages, even glorifies, gun ownership and war.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The (Im)Perfect Hotel

We've stayed in a lot of hotels, yes indeed, quite a lot of hotels. None of them were so good that we didn't find something amiss, but then none have been so bad that we couldn't find something praiseworthy. Oh, there was the tiny place in the wilds of Le Marche that made Terri cry, the one where we almost froze to death, and then there was the place in Umbria that made me cry but we had to stay one night anyway because no other hotel had a vacancy, but then there was that fantastic place in Ghent with a huge room and an incredible breakfast buffet. Crepes!

Mind you, I'm talking about Europe, so forget the well-known chains. When visiting a large American city we stick with the usual (Hilton, Omni, Kimpton, Marriott, and so forth), but crossing the Atlantic usually means sleeping in small, independently owned hotels. And independent hotels can be quirky.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, there's our recent trip to northern Portugal, during which we stayed in five different hotels over the course of two weeks. We liked them all but each one had something lacking, some annoyance that kept it from being perfect. This is not an official review so I won't be mentioning names. By the way, every hotel was very clean, but we've come to expect that in Portugal.

Hotel #1 was very small, with only enough room around the bed for one person to get by. The shower was very good but it was in one of those raised tubs you often find in Europe, way above floor level because they stuffed all the extra plumbing underneath. Climbing down out of the shower made me afraid I'd slip and fall and crack my head wide open. The bathroom sink was one of those modern designs, square with a flat bottom, that looks daring and edgy but the damn things don't work properly -- the water won't drain! Perhaps that explained the occasional whiff of sewer smells. There was a mini-fridge and a safe, and the breakfast was pretty good.

Hotel #2 was inexpensive and a great value, a balcony room on the top floor with a charming view of a small river below and the city beyond. The bed was the largest and softest of the trip (Portuguese hotel beds tend to be very hard, essentially box springs with no mattress) and there was plenty of space. There was a safe in the closet but the hotel had lost the key. The bathroom was large although a bit dark, and then there was this sink.

The hotel sink

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Look at that sink for a moment or two. Don't see the problem? Look again. I didn't notice anything wrong until I tried using it: the edge of the sink is about a foot from the edge of the counter. You have to lean way over to brush your teeth, wash your hands, or shave. I laughed every time I used the sink and wondered out loud, what were they thinking? Did anyone actually try using this sink when they installed it? The shower wouldn't keep a constant temperature, causing me to dance around as I was alternatively chilled and scalded.

Hotel #3 was a huge room! Fantastic views over the city! More than enough space for everything, a table with four chairs, easy chairs, a safe, an extra bed, a large bathroom with an extra room just for the toilet. All perfect, except they had recently renovated the room and it reeked of paint. The smell was so bad I sniffed and coughed all night and we ended up having to change rooms. The breakfast was OK, nothing special, but one morning my day got off to a horrific start -- the breakfast room was packed with about 70 ten-year-olds making a horrendous din as they gleefully stripped the buffet clean.

Hotel #4 had the tiniest room of all, with barely enough space to squeeze around the perimeter of the smallish double bed, but with a great view of the center of town. Terri did some negotiating and got us moved to a larger, comfortable room but the only view was of a big pipe and a blank white wall. The shower was tiny with no room to put soap or shampoo. The breakfast was fine but lacked hot items and the coffee was icky.

Hotel #5 was almost perfect. Small but efficiently arranged, somewhat like an Ibis, with a comfortable bed; the shower would get a 'great!' if it were not for the curtain attacking now and then. (We love Ibis, a French chain of hotels throughout Western Europe offering small, well-designed rooms at bargain prices.) There was enough room for us to do our final repacking and we could look out the window and see the airport across the street where we'd be leaving early the next morning. There was no breakfast but we didn't need it.

As I said, nothing especially wonderful but nothing terribly bad, either. Each stay contains a surprise, either good or bad, and it's up to us to find it.

Click here for the Flickr album from our trip.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Still in Portugal

We're nearing the end of our visit to Portugal. After stops in Porto, Guimarães, and Aveiro, we're spending a couple of days in Ovar before heading back to the Porto airport.

I may have some stories to tell, but until then you can take a look at my Flickr album.


Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Destination Fixation

Ever since we married in 1999 and honeymooned in Florence, Terri and I have enjoyed traveling. Before retiring in 2006, we usually fit one or two international trips a year into our work schedules. Nowadays, being gainfully unemployed, our annual travels include four or five trips outside the U.S. as well as a few shorter visits to our favorite big American cities.

For all that traveling we haven't gone to very many places. Oh, we've been to some famous world capitals everyone's heard of: Brussels, London, Paris, Madrid. But there are vast swathes of the world not yet seen by me: Germany, France beyond Paris, the UK beyond London, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, South America beyond Buenos Aires, Asia, Africa, Australia. Even casual tourists, those who might make it to Europe once or thrice in a lifetime, have probably been to more countries than I have. It's overwhelming to consider the places I've never traveled to and, truth be told, are not even on my 'to go to' list.

In fact, the more we travel the more we have fixated on certain destinations: Italy, Portugal, and Buenos Aires.

I'm not sure why this is so. It began, I suppose, when I fell in love with Italy on our honeymoon, my first trip ever to Europe. I wanted to keep going back but not always to the same places, so each time we went further and further afield. Then in 2011 we went to Lisbon for the first time. Again I fell in love with a country and again wanted to keep going back. And Buenos Aires? It's like a second home, the Southern winter keeping us cool while Texas swelters.

We've been to Italy 11 times now: Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, the Marches, the Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Umbria. Bologna, Verona, Venice, Mantua, Ravenna, Parma, Modena, Rimini, Urbino, Corinaldo, Rome, Sansepolcro, Perugia, Padua, Florence, Siena, Vicenza, Ferrara, Pesaro, Cortona, Osimo, Turin, Milan, Genoa, Pavia, and a bunch of little towns in Le Marche that I can't remember right now.

In four years, we've been to Portugal seven times, three times last year alone. Flying in and out of both Lisbon and Porto, we've been to Pinhão, Guimarães, Viana do Castelo, Braga, Évora, Viseu, Coimbra, along with day trips to Sintra, Queluz, Matosinhos, Vila do Conde, Foz do Douro, Pocinho, São Martinho do Porto, and Cabo da Roca.

Then of course there's Buenos Aires. What began as a ten-day escape from the Texas heat in 2006 -- remember that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere; late summer in Texas is late winter in Argentina -- has become an annual pilgrimage, a month-long temporary residence in our familiar Recoleta neighborhood.

We have two more trips scheduled to Europe in the coming weeks. Where do you think we will go? Surprise! In a few days we fly back to Portugal, for our eighth visit. After enjoying a few days in Porto we'll ride the urban train out to Guimarães, Aveiro, and Ovar. Then in mid-April it's our twelfth journey to Italy, flying to Milan and then on to... I don't know yet. Bergamo? Cremona?

Are we in a rut? Perhaps so. Travel is hard work made slightly easier by going to places where we know the general routine, and there are still many things to see in both Italy and Portugal. I love both countries, the people, the food, the wine, and no matter how many times I go, I always assume I'll be back.

Maybe after we return from Argentina in early fall we'll plan a trip to someplace new and different. Lyon? Awash in a sea of Beaujolais and Burgundy, known for great food, halfway between Italy and Portugal... Who knows? It might be time to fall in love with a new country.