Fear of Flying

This morning, Wyatt told us that human beings come into the world with just two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. The rest we learn along the way. This afternoon, my mother has decided to face her fears, beginning with the beginning. It's a noble pursuit, for sure, but as we walk to the zipline tower in Miraval’s desert challenge course, I can’t decide if she’s propelled by courage or peer pressure. Her smile is a little shaky as we introduce ourselves to the other 6 women who will take the plunge with us less than an hour from now. Talking and laughing with the group, she seems to relax for a bit, but by the time our guide Connor is showing us how to fasten our harnesses, she’s back to looking terrified.

Meanwhile, I’m totally cool. Although its true I acquired a moderate fear of heights after bungee jumping in New Zealand several years ago, I’m careful not to mention this fact or to show any signs of uncertainty. I’m the one who got us into this.

It occurs to me that my mom has already remembered my bungee-jumping experience when she volunteers us to be the second of the 4 couples to jump. Rather than risk watching another jumper have a panic attack, she opts to go after the self-proclaimed thrill-seekers from San Francisco, but before the women from Georgia and Alabama who are as terrified as she is. Most importantly, she doesn't want to be behind Eileen, who tells us she fell victim to the Quantum Leap challenge yesterday and had to climb back down the 25 foot pole in tears.

With our jump order set, our guide snaps himself “on belay” and skims quickly up the 45 foot pole. It looks deceptively easy. Watching the risk-takers make equally fast time, I add insecurity to my growing anxiety. I’ve been known to get a little freaky on a 10 foot ladder, but today that will be the easy part.

In just minutes, its my turn. I climb the ladder quickly and then hoist myself onto the pole using the first of many 4 inch steel rods, which are spaced about 3 feet apart all the way up the 45 foot pole. “Hand, foot, hand, foot”, I tell myself. “Don’t look down.” I climb quickly despite a growing fear with each step that my running shoes will slide off the rod. When I'm finally I’m up, I say to team risk-taker, “Wow, that was scarier than I thought it would be!” For the first time, I’m seriously worried for my mom.

My worry is short lived. Within minutes, my mother is up the pole and standing next to me on the podium. No muss, no fuss, no drama whatsoever. I’m shocked. Although she assures me she was trembling with each step, I’m not sure I believe her.

For the next 10 minutes or so, we congratulate ourselves as each woman joins us on the podium. When Eileen makes it, we cheer loudly and take pictures and promise to meet up in the bar later for prickly pear margaritas. We regret not bringing tequila with us. When all 8 of us are up, our guide’s new instructions are a grim reminder that we must now get down, and that the 1,000 foot zipline is our only escape.

A new, deeper anxiety sets in. After some brief instructions, team risk-taker is snapped to the zipline and planning their 3-count. Naturally, “one-two-three-and-then-go” is the winner. (Isn’t it always? ) Standing in position on the edge of the platform, Cindy declares on the count of one, “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can do this. I’m really, really sorry” she tells her friend. ” Mom’s eyes are like saucers.

Then suddenly over my right shoulder I hear my mom say “We’ll go.” Not only am I shocked, but I instantly start to panic. I know why she’s doing this. Standing on that bridge in New Zealand all those years ago, I remember finally finding the strength to fling myself of the platform, knowing it was the only escape for the feeling of sheer terror that had consumed me.  Here in the Sonoran desert, my mother is doing the same thing. Before I know what to make of it, we’re both snapped onto the zipline and my mother is counting. “Holy shit,” I say on the count of one. As I release the words, I see a change wash over my mother’s face. In just those tiny fragments of seconds between the one and the two, I see the terror that had been pushing her forward more quickly than either of us could believe instantly fade away. All that remains is confident, cool, determination. I may have gotten us into this, but she’s getting us out.

And that was that. On “go”, we both step off the platform. Unlike bungee jumping, on the zipline the feeling of falling quickly turns into a smooth, easy glide. We are flying. Holding onto my harness I look ahead and see my mom with her arms spread open wide, a huge smile on her face. I follow her lead, and my arms spread wide as we fly across the desert sky at 35 mph.

Cowboy Therapy

We all have our issues. Mine is balance.

But I’m not sure I really understood it, until a horse showed me how.

There are 8 of us sitting together in a circle of chairs in the warm desert sun, as Wyatt Webb tells us a little of what he knows of horses and life and why men aren’t wired to ask for directions. He has a big warm smile and a folksy, matter-of-fact way as he explains how a little horse sense can go a long way towards better living. With his cowboy hat, full white beard and round belly, he looks like a Western Santa..

When it’s time to meet the horses, I’m surprised to learn we won’t actually be riding them. Instead, we'll spend the next 2 hours learning to see the world from their perspective and trying to communicate with them without words or sounds.

As it turns out, horses are exceptionally sensitive creatures who respond to body language and energy. In order to get a horse to raise his foot so you can clean his shoe, you must approach from here, and squeeze his foreleg there and grab the underside of his foot like so. If you don’t project intention with each step, he simply won’t budge.

In fact, it turns out horses are best led from behind. Instead of pulling them from out in front, the its better to lead a horse from behind – pushing him forward using just your body language and energy. Turn your energy up from your core and walk towards the back of the horse and he walks forward with you. Turn that energy up a notch and he’ll speed up to a trot. Dial the energy down and he’ll slow down. Send mix signals and he’ll stop, or turn, or do pretty much anything except what you want him to.

Sitting on a bench in the outdoor arena watching Caitlin demonstrate how this works, I was skeptical.  Not only is this horse well-trained, but surely he’s used to having people chase him around in a circle. He just knows what to do, right?

Actually, no. To my surprise, each of us succeeded or failed at the task in our own unique and personal way. One woman gave mixed signals, another quit too soon, another got tired after putting way more energy into the exercise than the horse did. When it was my turn, I dialed up my energy and started to push the horse forward, almost immediately sending him into a full-on trot. Each time I slowed down, the horse came to a stop. Maybe it should have been obvious, but I was a little startled when Caitlin walked up and asked me quietly, “It seems like your energy is either way up or its almost non-existent. Do you find that to be true, that you’re either all in or your all out?” I laughed. It took 2 more circles around the arena before I finally found the right balance to keep the horse walking at a steady pace.

It's one thing to know your issues. It’s another altogether to see a horse holding up the mirror.

24 Hours

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Today is Saint Patrick's Day and if I were home, there's a good chance I'd be on a patio somewhere drinking green beer. Instead, I’ve just seen a mom and baby calf on my walk back to the room after an afternoon of Thai massage, acupuncture and craniosacral therapy that’s left me with a mild chi buzz and craving fresh juice. I’m feeling positively, well, positive. I barely flinch when I discover the juice bar has closed for the day.

It’s been a day since my mom and I arrived at Miraval, a wellness spa we heard about when it made the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things last year. I’m sitting on the terrace outside our room listening to the rustling of leaves in an afternoon breeze and enjoying our view of the Catalina Mountains under the umbrella of a big, clear blue sky.

24 hours ago I was grouchy.

“I hope we’re not the fattest people here.” I said to my mom as I changed into my workout clothes a few minutes after we arrived.

“You know,” I said later, as we waited in line for our dinner reservation, “people out here are pleasant, but they’re never as friendly as a friendly southerner. Don’t you think so?”

“This place is nice, “ I said on the moonlit walk back to our room after dinner, “but its no Ritz.”

Amazing how your perspective can change after a great night’s sleep and a little bit of space to just be. My insides are quieter. My yoga pants look better. When a rabbit ran across our path this morning, it occurs to me for the first time, "Oh. That's why they called him Peter Cottontail."

Excited to see what discoveries the next week will bring.

Giving + Receiving

For every picture I took in Haiti, there are a hundred better ones I missed or chose not to take. I felt guilty taking pictures at all, especially when people were the subject. Pointing the camera felt like stealing.

I guess that’s why it’s important to try to give something back. Some people have already asked how they can help. I'll be collecting supplies and shipping them directly to Ralph or Mona in Haiti on an ongoing basis for at least the next few months. Once some of the immediate needs are satisfied, I'll likely make a return trip with my group to evaluate other ways we can help. To start, though, this list is pretty easy and straightforward:

The school at Fond Verrette needs rain boots and rain coats for 300 kids grades 1 - 6, plus book bags and supplies. Remember, most kids walk several miles each way to school, where many of them get their one and only meal of the day. Without rain gear, it's not only a miserable commute, but it poses dangerous risks for flu, malaria and other infectious diseases.

The orphaned kids at Mona's house need pretty much everything, but clothes and shoes are a great start. Hygiene products like soap, toothbrushes, shampoo, tampons, and diapers are also needed. The boys asked me for soccer balls and when I gave a few girls some sparkly strawberry lip gloss, they responded like they’d won the lottery. Of course, the most basic need of all is housing, so large tents are invaluable. If you’re interested, I’m happy to provide more details.

On behalf of Mona, the kids, teachers, and parents I met on this amazing trip, thank you for your help and support. Any donation is appreciated and will be delivered by me, directly to the people you've seen in my pictures.

In gratitude,

Mary Frances

Bucket Bath

Eddie and Ralph both lost their homes in the earthquake. When we visit what's left of Eddie's place, he shows us where his parents had been sitting when the roof came down. Eddie's entire block is devastated. Like so many in the middle class, his neighbors have set up their tents next to where their homes had been, instead of in the mass camps that populate every public park and open space down in the heart of the city. Some live out of their cars. Still more have fled Haiti completely, and are now living with family in The Dominican Republic or the U.S. (Eddie's own parents, in fact, both escaped the falling roof with relatively small injuries and are living temporarily with his brother in New Jersey). Eddie is eager to rebuild but to date hasn't received city approval to even clear his lot. Similarly, we witness a minor confrontation between Ralph and a man from his neighborhood over ownership of Ralph's mother's home, which is also collapsed. The original deed to the home is lost in the rubble, and -- like every single government building in downtown Port Au Prince -- the Deed Office is completely destroyed.

Eddie and Ralph have rented a house for guests of their 2Care foundation in what was previously the wealthy area of town, up in the hills of Patronville, looking over the city. For the last 3 months, the house has been Ralph's primary residence. It is large but modestly appointed and needs a lot of general maintenance, not to mention a woman's touch.

Janis and I sleep in bunk beds and share a bathroom at the end of the hall. Since water and electricity are only sporadically available, there is a large bucket in the shower filled with water from the reservoir on the first floor. When there´s no running water¨, Eddie explains, ¨We go Indian-style¨, though only later to I realize that means we bathe from water in the bucket (which come to find out can be surprisingly effective, as a well-travelled Facebook friend noted, and I soon validated.) I also learn a lesson in physics  when Janis explains that when the toilet pumps aren't working, dumping a small bucket of water in the bowl actually triggers a flush.

So there is scarcely little electricity or running water, no air conditioning, no other modern conveniences. But given the circumstances that exist on the other side of the walls that shield us from the sun and rain, we choose to be grateful that there are also no mirrors in our part of the house.

Mona's House

When we arrive at Mona's house this morning, it's been almost 48 hours since Janis or I have seen another white person. In the heart if the city, in the rural areas, in the remote mountain village of Fond Verette, we've seen thousands of Haitians and one Spanish aid worker who stopped to chat while we were stranded, waiting for our tire to be fixed. But we have seen no white faces, and certainly none of the fresh-faced missionaries like those in the matching t-shirts that filled up our flight from Miami. It's a remarkable thing to realize, but it takes on a special meaning when we walk into Mona's courtyard this morning. As Janis and I step over the threshold into the courtyard full of a hundred or so children, one small boy literally runs out of his sneaker in terror at the sight of us. The other children roar with laughter at the boy, who we suddenly realize has never seen a white person before.

A half an hour later, his father will carry the boy -- who's a little shy of 3 years old, I'm guessing -- over to us as the child shreeks and buries his face in his father's shoulder. I hold out my hand and his father touches his hand to mine to show the boy it's okay. He is not convinced. After repeated attempts, I try a new tactic. I take the boy's picture and show him the image on my camera's LCD screen. Finally, I get a smile. A few pictures later, when he thinks no one is looking, the child finally finds the courage to poke my arm with his tiny index finger. Soon I have a new friend.

Before we leave three hours later, I have dozens of new friends, all seduced by my camera at first, then huddled around me like a mob of fans for a teenage boy band, all smiling and talking to me in Creole, touching my skin and hair with absolute fascination. I speak the few words I know in French, which the children repeat in chorus. "Bonjour!", "Mademoiselle!", "Monsieur!", and so on. When I finally tell Janis I don't know anymore French, they shout back in perfect unison, "I don't know anymore French!", although most, if not all, of them don't know what the words mean. So I count to them in English, then in Spanish, and they shout it all back to me with delightful enthusiasm. They even teach me to count to 30 in Creole and don't seem to notice how much I struggle with the phonetics. It's a simple but fun game for all of us. Although we can't really speak to each other, we have connected.

This entire scene plays out in Mona's small courtyard, just before the children line up for their one meal of the day. To back up a bit, Mona is an attorney who took 50 or so children in last Fall, when an old priest running a small orphanage near her home died, leaving no one else to care for them. Mona had been involved with the orphanage before, and stepped in during the moment of crisis, expecting to use her contacts in local government to help find new homes for  the kids. But when the earthquake came on January 12, that plan fell apart. In the months since then, families from around the town have brought new orphans to Mona. She is educated and already has so many, they don't know what else to do. Today, Mona has almost 400 children in her care.

Like most others here who have been left homeless, the children live in makeshift camps, set up on vacant lots near Mona's home. Neighborhood women volunteer to help with daily care and supervision, and men from the neighborhood stand guard over the camps by night. Eddie and Ralph provide supplies, and enough food for each child to have one meal each day. Their goal is to build a school on some nearby land, donated just a few days before we arrived, and to find permanent homes or an orphanage where the children can live.

Later today, we will return to the airport  to pick up Eddie's friend Char who has brought waterproof tents and medical supplies from Michigan. Tomorrow, we will replace some of the camp's existing tents --- made crudely of sticks and bed sheets, with the larger, sturdier new ones. It will be good to get some real work done.

Fond Verrette

Today, I'm hoping against the odds that I can find an ATM or some other way to get cash. I definitely under-budgeted my cash and have almost completely run out after giving Ralph $300 for my half of our 4 day car rental. Things here are surprisingly expensive. Although a US-imposed trade embargo was lifted more than 5 years ago, political unrest, two devastating hurricanes and the recent earthquake have kept the country in an almost constant state of disruption since then, and the old black market system is still the dominant retail culture. Although the minimum wage is $2 per hour, most  things seem to cost the same or more as they do in the States. I spent 6 hours yesterday on the middle hump of the back seat of our SUV, driving the rocky, hilly, unpaved roads/riverbeds to and from the mountain town of Fond Verrette, where one of Eddie´s schools is located. We got a flat tire in a small village about 15 mins drive from the school and it was a thrill to sit still and talk/interact with the locals. I gave $20 bucks each to two school boys who were sweet and spoke to me in English. It's bizarre and difficult to process the sight of someone living in such extreme poverty holding US currency, then walking, then running, presumbly back to their homes to give it to their family. I wonder what they will do with it, how they will even exchange it for Haitian Goudes, with civilization so many miles away.

After 2 hours waiting while the locals work to fix the tire, Eddie pays two guys on mopeds to take us the rest of the way up the mountain. It is a thrill -- three of us to a bike, speeding up the rocky path,  Janis terrified we will veer right and fall off the cliff to the dry creek bed no less than 10,000 ft below. The pictures and video are priceless! :)

When the bikes have gone as far as they can safely travel carrying so much weight, we thank our escorts and hike the last 30 minutes through the mountains to the school, saying bonjour to the local farmers in their rice and bean fields along the way. emaciated cows, goats, pigs and dogs sit in the fields, looking as though they barely have strength to walk.

The visit to the school is incredible and surreal. We give our rain boots to the children in each class with the best grades and take pictures of each class on the school steps. I want to pluck the smallest boy and the smallest girl right up from the steps and put them in my backpack. For the first time, I have empathy for those Baptist missionaries. :)

Today we're going to buy food and supplies for the kids at the site in Port Au Prince, which Eddie hopes will be his next school.  He says we will have our hearts broken before the day is done. I believe him, as what I've seen of Port Au Prince already is unimaginable, nevermind that I have seen it with my own eyes. Think of an imaginary intersection between Iraq and the Congo -- thousands and thousands of homeless people living atop mountains of debris and trash and waste. Craziest of all is the sound of children laughing and playing amidst it all. I hear them now as I'm writing.

Like every other incredible thing I've ever taken a picture of, my pictures are sure to be disappointing to me, but still amazing for anyone who hasn't seen it themselves.

Entourage

When we arrive in Port Au Prince,  Janis and I are the last to deplane. Eddie waits for us at the entrance to customs and give us instructions on how to proceed. ¨Have $5 ready, but don't let anyone see you with your money. Wait for me right there. DO NOT go into the baggage area.¨ It will be like this for the next 5 days, Eddie leading us around like ducks.

After a short wait, we’re the last to enter the hot, crowded, chaotic hanger to claim our baggage. Immediately, a large, intimidating man greets Eddie with a friendly, rowdy bear hug. At Eddie’s cue, we hand the man our claim tickets and he turns and disappears into the dense crowd. Within minutes he emerges with our bags and we all head outside, where Eddie's business partner Ralph is waiting for us.

On the short walk along the crowded street outside the airport, men hustle to help with luggage, trying to make a buck. Others line the gated wall at the edge of the exits, looking worn and sullen, their hands loosely gripping the iron bars.

At the car, a handful of men and teenage boys greet Eddie and Ralph with much glad-handing and happy shouting. As I'll witness countless times on this trip, money changes hands discretely.

On cue,  Janis and I hand our $5 bills to the man who carried our luggage and climb into Ralph's SUV. Ralph and Eddie are in front. Two other men, who we will come to know as Kents and Fatahl, pile in behind Janice and me and politely say hello. This will be our entourage for the next 5 days.

Team USA

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The American Eagle flight that brings us from Atlanta to Miami is the smallest plane I've ever been on. That's why it's a surprise when the connecting flight from Miami to Port Au Prince is a jam-packed 737. Fresh-faced teenagers and young adults in brightly colored t-shirts are everywhere. Red is TEAM MISSION from First Baptist Church in El Dorado, Kansas. Mission of Hope has opted for gray with a smartly designed logo on the chest, while Forward to Health is in Chartreuse and Vermont Medical Response Team is in yellow. When it's finally time to board, Janis and I poke fun at Eddie as he finds his seat in business class. We make our way back to our center aisle seats in the back among a handful of Haitian families, who sit quietly, in stark contrast to the polite but lively teenagers up front.

The flight to Haiti is just 1 hour and 40 minutes, closer to Miami than Atlanta. I've never been to a third world country and as much as I’ve anticipated this trip, there's no way I can be ready for the world I'll walk into in under two hours.

Who's Eddie?

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After a CARE meeting early this month, Janis glances over between sips of coffee and nonchalantly asks, “Would you like to go to Haiti with me and my friend Eddie on April 21?”

“Sure.” I say.

“Great.” she says after her next sip.

¨Who´s Eddie?¨, I ask a few days later, trying to be as nonchalant as she earlier, not wanting to let on that I´m nervous about what I´ve signed up for.

Eddie is Edwidge Armand, a former pro soccer player turned dad, soccer coach and CEO of Tropical Salt Corp, his family’s salt mining business. Eddie was born in Haiti and runs a private foundation doing humanitarian projects there. He’s been especially busy since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the island 2 months ago, turning Port Au Prince into rubble.

But Janis tells me none of this at the time.

“He's a friend”, she says. ¨He exports salt an runs some schools in Haiti. We´re going to see how we can help.”

Ökay, ¨I say.

And that was that. Within a week, I'm sitting at the dining table of Eddie´s southwest Atlanta home, talking to his kids and cooly working through the list of questions my mother has prepped me with to assess the risk of kidnapping, murder and infectious disease.

"It will be fine", Eddie and Janis both say. I don't know it yet, but they're right.

The Road Back Home

My flight home to Atlanta departs in one hour. Waiting at the gate, I chat with a couple from Houston on their way home from a two-week cruise. She’s quiet and warm, opening an empathetic smile each time her husband asks me to repeat myself. He’s older and reminds me of my dad, chatty and friendly, but a little grouchy, too. I’m excited to be seeing him tomorrow, and to be home for Thanksgiving. It’s hard to believe this part of my journey has ended. My emotions are mixed but mostlyI feel incredibly satisfied. I’m proud for all the ways I created this experience, and also deeply grateful and humbled by all the ways I stumbled into it with dumb luck. From this leap of faith, I'm more confident about the future, despite so much uncertainty.

A poem comes to mind as I consider my plans after my trip home for the holidays. I saw it in a restaurant the night my roommate Regina arrived in Spain and it's been with me since:

Caminante, son tus huellas, el camino y nada mas;

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.

Traveler, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more;

Traveler, there is no road, the road is made by walking.

-- Antonio Machado

Strangers, together.

There’s something about being a stranger in a foreign place that makes it easier to connect with other strangers. People with different backgrounds and experiences arrive at a particular place at a particular time and make friendships out of necessity and common language. It may not seem so different from making friends in the real world, but it is. What if everyone we met was just presumed to be a friend, right from the start? Not only does diversity help us see things differently, but more than anything, it reminds us how much we are the same. Thanks to Regina, Justin, Anna, Jose, Robi, Nick, Liam, Rich, Kim, J2 and MFC. In each of your big and small ways, you made my experience invaluably richer.

Gratitude

My mom left this morning after a three week whirlwind through Spain, France and Italy. Three weeks. I’m pretty sure it’s the most time we've spent alone together, ever. In the last few years, my mom and I have come to know each other on a much more personal level, finally letting go of some of the old patterns that tripped us up from time-to-time in the past. I’ve discovered she’s an incredibly warm, generous, vibrant, fun-loving and open-minded woman who gets more excited about life the more she lives it. This trip only deepened that understanding.

We did four cities in three weekends – a lavish early birthday present of 5-star hotels, personal tours, great food and mornings spent drinking coffee and eating yogurt with fresh figs while we surfed the web on the couch together. If she had given me the trip to take on my own, it would have been a truly remarkable gift. Taking it with her turned out to be an entirely separate gift all its own.

Thanks, mom, for everything. It was indeed a trip of a lifetime.

Rome. Wow.

IMG_2726Rome shattered my expectations, though I´m not even sure what those were, thinking back on it now. But if Florence left me speechless, Rome left me positively spilling over with words. “Who, what, when, where, HOW?” began the million and one questions unleashed on my poor mother, whose fuzzy memories of Spartacus and Cleopatra were suddenly at a premium. Though I’ve never been to Egypt or Greece, ancient civilizations fascinate me. When I visited the Met last Christmas, I spent the entire time in the Egyptian galleries, stopping for a full fifteen minutes to look at a doll with strands of hair on her head and blue paint on her eyes. She was more than 4,000 years old.

Rome may not be as old as Giza or Athens, but it is the birthplace of western civilization as we know it today. Beyond its contributions to language, art, architecture, and law, Rome’s place in the history of Christianity is pivotal. Around every corner is a statue or a monument or a building or a street offering physical evidence of the battle between pagan mythology and Christianity; the Vatican a literal war chest of trophies.

Like my first drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, every 50 feet or so a new and stunning sight demanded a photo, until my camera’s memory card was filled with small, unremarkable images bearing almost no likeliness to the things themselves. The Colleseum, the Pantheon, the Tomb of Augustus, the Temple of Hercules, the Vatican, St. Peter's Square…everything was just so huge, in both size and importance. Pictures can't do it justice.

And unlike so many other ancient cities, modern Rome is right there in the midst of it all, very much alive and moving forward. (The shopping, btw, was absolutely incredible though I had neither the time nor the funds to partake.)

Before we left, I threw 2 coins in the Trevi Fountain, which is supposed to guarantee my return someday. In the meantime, don’t be surprised to find me saving for shoes and adding Sparticus to my Netflix wishlist.

Vive la différence

“Vive la différence between sojourning and touring” my Aunt Reba recently wrote in response to a post about my mom’s discomfort with my freestyle approach to traveling. It was clear our weekend tour of Florence was over when we spent the last 4 hours of the trip sitting in traffic on a bus and then trudging our way through the dank and dirty metro, carrying our suitcases up and down and up and down and up and down the stairs.

This morning, as our trip to Rome begins, my mom looks content as our driver loads our bags into the trunk of his black Mercedes. There will be no sojourn today. Instead, we will spend the 75 minute drive to the Girona airport drinking wine, eating almonds, apples, and the cheese mom bought on her day trip to the Montserrat monastery yesterday. “Admit it”, she says as  she switches the season finale of Mad Men to full screen view on her laptop.“This is way better than the bus”.

It’s hard to argue.

Top Ten Things I Learned in Florence

We're leaving for Rome tomorrow -- Woohoo! My writer's block on the Florence experience is still nagging at me, and I feel compelled to make one more go of it before we begin leg 3 of our journey. Forgoing the burden of writing prose, I've decided to do this short and sweet, David Letterman style:

Top Ten Things I Learned in Florence

  1. Italians are better-looking than the rest of us.
  2. Every once in a while, the luxury of a 5 star hotel is worth working overtime to pay for.
  3. Medieval history, architecture and religion are now on the long list of things I wish I’d paid more attention to in school.
  4. Though I appreciate its importance, aesthetically speaking I don’t care much about renaissance art. With the exception of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, I’m pretty sure if you’ve seen 200 renaissance paintings, you’ve seen them all.
  5. My map skills are surprisingly poor.
  6. I've come to believe that the systematic subjugation of women by the Christian Church must surely be the greatest human rights abuse in all of history.
  7. Architecture can bring inspiration to everyday life. A boring building is a wasted opportunity.
  8. Bicycles shouldn't be just for kids.
  9. The perfection of one porcini pizza may have destroyed my chances of ever enjoying a NY-style cheese slice again.
  10. If I'm ever stranded on a deserted island, please send a lifetime supply of homemade pasta, arrabiatta sauce, good cheese and Chianti Classico. I'll be fine, trust me.

Writer's Block

Ok, so apologies to my regular readers (Hi mom! Hi Aunt Reba!) for the lull in posting. It’s ironic that a trip to Florence -- the one place I’ve wanted to visit pretty much my whole adult life – would trigger a terrible case of writer’s block from which I still haven’t recovered. I suppose it has something to do with the sheer bigness of it all; the surreal feeling of walking through a Tuscan travel poster in 3D; the daunting pressure of adding words to the thousands upon thousands already written about the city at the very heart of Italy's renaissance.  After turning it over in my head for nearly a week, I’ve decide it’s a futile enterprise.

I will simply say this: Florence inspired me. Seeing it moved me in an almost startling way, like reading a great poem for the very first time.

If I ever buy a villa or have a honeymoon or become an expat retiree, you can be sure I’ll do it in Florence.

Machismo

Machismo! The lift in my building is broken. My apartment manager Sylvia said it would be repaired shortly after I arrived, but the workmen just showed up two weeks ago: working class guys in stained boots and white t-shirts, often taking their first smoke break as I leave for work in the morning.

As they drill and hammer in the elevator shaft, the sound of their music echoes up the stairwell into my apartment. Instead of rock or hip hop, they play classical Italian and Spanish music with dramatic instrumentals and powerful female vocals. The ambiance is near perfect.

 It's striking, the way masculinity is so different here.

Avignon

IMG_1993Rome, it seems, is wherever the Pope is. Although today Vatican City is the one and only “pontifical state”, there were about 75 years in the 14th century when the Pope lived in Avignon, France. For that period, Avignon was the epicenter of Roman Catholicism, thanks to a civil war going on in Rome. I guess Popes can´t risk getting caught up in such messes. After all, there are statues to guild, churches to build, that sort of thing. Today, Avignon is in the tourism business, thanks to its interesting history and preservation of one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in all of Europe: Palais des Papes (the Palace of the Popes). The modern city is quintessentially French: cobblestone streets dotted with quaint cafes, old ladies walking poodles, men on bicycles and flowery vines growing over rusty wraught iron and crumbly stone buildings with wooden shutters coated in pale blue paint, all against the backdrop of the Rhone river and the sound of La Vie En Rose playing on a scratchy phonograph in the distance. I swear, its exactly like that, give or take a few German tourists buying crap from the tacky boutiques along the busy retail strip in the center of town. Otherwise, honestly, the small, walled city smells like L'occitane and looks like a Vanity Fair photo spread of Martha Stewart’s farm house.

I’m surprised to find there is no palpable feeling of religiosity in the air in Avignon, though it is replete with religious relics: chapels, cathedrals, monuments, ornate facades depicting the crucifixion, eucharist and nativity. The Virgin Mary is everywhere. The architecture is stunning. It all captivates me for a while, until I’m struck by the sheer excess of it all. I imagine the working poor of the city, enslaved by the rigors of so much ritual, taxation, tithing and judgement, while the Popes commission works and decorate rooms in their likeness and taste, each of them surrounded by 25 Cardinals, each Cardinal in turn supported by 50 servants. Coronation feasts for a select few, bountiful enough to feed an entire city. I suppose power and money have always made the world go ‘round.

But enough of all that.

Because of the booming tourism, Avignon is home to some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the world. Thanks to my mother’s generosity, we actually get to enjoy two of them.

For starters, we stay at La Mirande, a small boutique hotel which Conde Naste Traveler named one of the world’s top 10 in 2009. Situated directly across a narrow cobblestone street from the Papal Palace, this former cardinal’s palace is a landmark in its own right. Inside, it’s decorated in flawless English country detail. Our room is wallpapered in beautiful fabric and well appointed in every way. The bathroom features marble floors, solid silver fixtures and Dr. Hauschka toiletries. The bed is made with fresh white linens. Pressed, fresh white linens. Incredible.

Since its chilly outside, Saturday’s breakfast is served in a room overlooking the hotel’s picturesque terrace and garden. A large farmhouse table is filled with baskets of croissant, pains aux chocolat, homemade jams, plates of salami, cheese, poached apricots and figs. Everything is organic.

Breakfast at La Mirande stands in stark contrast to the other 5 star experience of our weekend: dinner at Christian Etienne. Luckily, I’ve read the English version of the prix fixe menu before we arrive, so I’m able to recommend the Grand Palais Menu for my mom and the Fall Vegetable Menu for me. “We can share,” I say.

What I don’t realize is that her menu will include 5 courses: an appertif, followed by sea scallops over spaghetti squash with black trumpet mushrooms followed by panfried John Dory in shrimp jus, then a cheese cart, then dessert. My menu is similar, although – to my surprise -- in my menu the sea scallop dish is substituted with a shotglass of bright green “fish foam”, and the fried fish course is replaced by a raw egg atop artichoke puree in a large black bowl. Only a mother would “share” under these circumstances, and mine graciously does. (Love you, mom!!) Note: “Share” here is used to mean, “She gave me half of hers, while taking none of mine.”

In addition to the 5 courses, there are appertifs for the appertifs and desserts for the desserts and palate cleansers in between. When the last plate is finally cleared, it has been 3 hours since we sat down. We may die from consumption.

In retrospect, I realize Christian Etienne is the French equivalent of my New Zealand bungee jumping experience. Had to try it. Never want to do it again.

As for the rest of Avignon, pictures are worth a thousand words, so visit my Avidnon album on Flickr. I apologize to my A.D.D readers for this terribly long blog post, though I imagine they’ve all retreated to D-listed by now.

Once again, all’s well that ends well. Thanks, mom. It was truly a wonderful weekend!