Perspective

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.

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

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.

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!

What doesn’t kill.

Today begins leg one of the Mary Jones European Travel Adventure. My mom and I have never traveled alone together and we´re both excited for what lies ahead. There´s no way for us to know that in a little over one hour, my mom will utter these words: “Sometimes it takes an experience like this to fully appreciate the joy of traveling with a man who has severe OCD.” Her chin will quiver slightly as she says this.

But we can´t know about that now, as we giddily begin our walk to the metro, where we´ll soon board a train to the Barcelona airport. We won´t really anticipate it when we have trouble using the ticketing kiosk at Sants Estacio just minutes before our train departs. Nor is it blatantly obvious when we board – and then unboard – the wrong train, avoiding a near fatal mistake in terms of our weekend itinerary by just a few seconds.  But as we arrive at airport Terminal 1 and have to board a commuter bus to reach Terminal 2 where our flight is departing, I think it hits her.

“What doesn´t kill you…” I say.

I feel slightly vindicated when we end up waiting more than half an hour for boarding to begin. When I score seats on the emergency row, she seems to consider forgiveness.

Still, something seems slightly different about her. For the next two days, at the mere mention of my father, I swear I think I see her chin quiver.

Ten Things

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Its Saturday and Amanda and I are wrapping ourselves in jeans, sweaters, boots and scarves, knowing the cool, crisp air will be downright cold once we head out for a day on bikes. Amanda’s mom, Missy (who arrived from Tallahassee yesterday), digs through a suitcase full of bathing suits, colorful tops, capris and sandals until she finds the one, lone sweater in her suitcase. If she’s irritated by the optimistic weather report she got just four days ago, she graciously hides it. After all, it’s a gorgeous and sunny weekend, nevermind the fact that its downright cold outside. So much for my endless Mediterranean summer. The weekend is a blast. In fact, it gets me even more excited about my own mother’s visit, which is coming up in just 3 days!! A big thanks to Missy for reminding me of some important tips when traveling with mom:

1)   A perfect fried egg makes a great breakfast.

2)    Sometimes shopping is more fun than a museum.

3)    In answer to the question How’d you sleep?, “I was in and out” is mom for “Like crap”.

4)    Letting someone else make decisions is part of the fun of vacation.

5)    Some destinations are better reached by metro than by bike. Taxis are also good.

6)    Pictures are more fun with people in them.

7)    Long walks are fun, as long as you’re not trying to get somewhere.

8)    Even red wine spills don’t have to be fatal.

9)    Sometimes, southern charm really can melt the heart of a cranky European. (Sometimes, but not all the time.)

10) Moms care more about seeing their daughters than the Top Ten Things on the inside flap of a guidebook.

Thanks again, Missy. I hope the rest of your trip is fantastic! Please eat a Double Texas for me, and don't forget -- It ain't over 'til its over!!

Cravings

Having a craving is one thing. Having a craving you can´t satisfy is something else altogether. I won´t say its hell, but its pretty close. Its just one of those comforts of home, I suppose, knowing what you want and  being able to go out into the world and get that exact thing. Today, I wish I could have 45 minutes on the Arc trainer, the one good yoga class at the Y, a walk in the Old Decatur Cemetery, a grand slam, a cute pair of heels, brunch with Lucky and Minnesota, a debate with Lauren, dinner in my parents´ kitchen, a grey-haired date with Jeff, a high octane beer with Carol, martinis with Nicole, a watershed cheeseburger, a NY style pizza, an indie film at Tara, my cat Bailey and my bed.

Blog as Confessional

8PM School Night in La GraciaIt’s 7 p.m. on Friday night and I’ve just ordered a café Americano in hopes it might jumpstart my flow. The sun is getting low and there’s a fantastic breeze rustling through the trees around Placa de la Vila de Gracia, just two blocks from my apartment. The square is somehow peaceful, despite a virtual tornado of 100 or so children between the ages of 3 and 13, who seem positively jubilant to kick-off their weekend. In fact, as I type there are two small girls playing with chalk under my chair, prompting me to chuckle out loud when their tiny heads tap the underside of my seat. (I’m distraught I don’t have my camera, btw.) Its been a week since my last confession, and I’m feeling a little guilty about it. This blog has been a thoroughly worthwhile enterprise: sometimes hobby, sometimes therapy, sometimes merely a way to avoid repeating myself. Whatever the case, it requires time and energy and focus and this week I’ve been a tad lacking in all three.

Perhaps it’s the working. It’s hard to believe that before September, I’d been out of my once cozy corporate box for 9 whole months. Frankly, I’m struggling to believe I was ever a willing party to the cruel, inhumanity of the 9 to 7 grind. It’s nothing to do with the work itself; but rather the slow, dull, mindless routine of it all. Human beings just aren’t wired that way. Hasn’t anyone heard of circadian rhythms, for goodness sake?

Perhaps, too, it’s the fact that I’m still a little worn out from experiencing one of the highlights of my trip so far: La Mercè, the 4 day annual festival that commenced last Thursday and left me exhausted when my head hit the pillow on Sunday night.

Held each year in honor of Mare de Deu de la Mercè, the Patron Saint of Barcelona, La Mercè feels a bit like Independence Day + New Years Eve + New Years Day + St. Patty’s Day, all rolled into one, long party -- sans the streamers and the stale draft beer and the port-a-lets. Four days of cultural events, parades, concerts, and an event called Correfoc, a “fire run”, which the promotional material warns “carries serious risk of burning to all spectators”.  Behind my maiden voyage on the Mediterranean, it’s the coolest thing I experienced so far.

Surreality

IMG_0463Some experiences are so over the top, the thing that surprises you most is that you manage to stay your regular self right in the midst of them. My weekend in Mallorca was like that -- at times so postcard perfect, I had the surreal feeling on more than one occasion that I might be on a Hollywood sound stage, instead of out in the real world. When we weren’t driving through hillside farm towns that looked like Napa, or strolling down cobblestone streets among medieval cathedrals and ancient Roman ruins, we were boating – better yet -- swimming in the clear, blue Mediterranean, drinking cava and eating sweet peaches with sea-rinsed salty skin. Ridiculous.

Thanks to the adorable drunk guy who wouldn’t stop talking to us in unintelligible Spanish as we sat in Placa Mayor drinking Pellegrino and waiting for the sun to come up, we made it to bed before 6 on Saturday morning and didn’t sleep through a glorious afternoon. Thanks to the perfectly executed American diner owned and run by Amanda’s friend Heather (originally from Texas), burgers and nachos warded off our hangovers, which I thought might be inevitable. Thanks to the hospitality of Amanda’s friend Joan (pronounced Joe-awn), who invited us to his family beach house for the weekend, I happily lost a bet over who could be the first to hook us up with a boating connection. I think it may have been fixed, but who cares?  At any cost, the trip was priceless.

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Bitterness & Sweet

MallorcaToday is September 11. Eight years ago this very morning, I was sitting in a cube in a floundering post-dot.com technology company, getting ready to leave for the airport for a 2 day investor meeting in lower Manhattan. So much has changed since then, in the world at large and in my own world, too. If life is a rollercoaster or a symphony or some other oversimplified metaphor, the last eight years have shown me its full dimension. I suppose that’s true for all of us. According to numerologists, we experience life in 9 year cycles of endings and new beginnings, the lows creating a space for the highs around the next corner. According to Jason Lee’s character in the too-harshly criticized Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky: Without the bitterness, baby, the sweet just isn’t as sweet. Sorry, I thought it was a pretty good movie.

Today I’m ready for some sweetness. In just a few hours, I’m heading to the airport for a quick flight to Mallorca to visit Amanda. I’m excited to see her; excited to meet her colorful group of new friends, excited to see first hand the dramatic topography of the island, which is absolutely stunning in her pictures.

Stay tuned.

Showing Up

Pimientos del Padron Last night, the learning technologies department at UOC held a going away party for Alistair, another HCI research intern who’s leaving this week to spend the next 6 months at Georgia Tech’s campus in Lorraine, France.

To be honest, I was a little anxious about it. The truth is, I’d be a little anxious about any work party after just 5 days on the job, but given the massive language divide between my co-workers and me, I knew this one would be mas difícil. Not going wasn't an option, though I seriously considered it more than once.

But I went.

First, a few cultural notes for anyone who, like me, has attended her share of work happy hours. Sure, there was the saltine-eating contest that escalated into the onion-eating contest, and the holiday party at Trois that ended, well, let’s just say it ended poorly. But generally speaking, work events – particularly those obligatory affairs hosted for short-timers whose names you can’t always remember – they are usually, in a word, well, stiff.

From the very start, this event is different. Instead of being hosted at a mediocre bar in close proximity to the office, the location is across town, a full 30 minutes and 2 metro transfers away, at a restaurant called La Esquinica, which is rumored to have the best tapas in the city. I arrive around 7:30 and order my first Estrella as I sit down to a handful of smiling co-workers with an anxious but happy-sounding “Hola!” By 8:00, additional tables and chairs have been added and 19 people are crammed together in a dark corner of the bar. With no menus, and no discussion among the group, a few people start calling out things to our camarero and a few minutes later the table is crowded with bottles of vino joven (a young, sweet white wine that must be shaken before it’s poured) and plates and plates of tapas: sautéed champiñones (mushrooms), octopus, tigres (stuffed mussels), pimientos del padron (fried green peppers), morcilla (sausage) and patatas bravas (Barcelona’s famously fried potatoes with spicy sauce).

Plates and bottles are feverishly passing in both directions. There are no individual plates – just the passing tapas and 19 hungry forks, all dancing together in harmonious chaos as the table grows increasingly loud and boisterous. It isn’t like work at all; it’s like familia.

The conversation is lively and, as David explains, largely focused on “television movies”, which I later discover include Knight Rider, The A Team and The Hulk. Thanks to the sweet eagerness of those around me, I manage to chat a bit and gratefully learn a few new words in the process. Maria makes me laugh out loud when she points to me and excitedly announces to everyone in broken Inglés: “I love her accent! It is like…the sitcoms! It is like…How I Met Your Mother!”

And so that’s that. I guess sometimes it pays just to show up. When we finally head out, just after 10:00, there is a huge line outside waiting to get into La Esquinica. I head back to the metro, buzzing from my first Tuesday night out in Barcelona.

Realism vs. Idealism

My Street In La GraciaBefore I came to Barcelona, I had a picture in my head of what it would be like. I'm a pragmatic realist by nature, but I'll admit the scene was laughably idyllic: Despite its reputation as a bustling metropolis, I imagined a Barcelona made of sleepy, tree-lined neighborhoods, cobblestone streets and quaint cafes filled with stylish urbanites, old artists and happy, colorful children. I knew it was silly, imagining the merchants busy early in the morning, spraying down the sidewalks and singing to themselves as they set up shop carts of fresh flowers and produce and warm focaccia. Pretty hilarious, really. In the real life Barcelona, the merchants have actual store fronts instead of carts, and of course, they aren't really merchants -- they're just regular people working in retail. I haven't heard any of them singing yet, and their corrugated metal doors are often pulled down, revealing a tapestry of graffiti covering the neighborhood before 9 and after 5 during the week and all day on Sunday. Regina says scooter traffic and bar noise keep her up at night, as does the guy above me who sings pop music in the voice of a passionate, operatic tenor, usually late into the evening.

All of that said, in the real Barcelona, the streets of La Grácia actually are sleepy and tree-lined and peppered with quaint cafes that all look and feel just like I imaged them. The architecture is quintessentially European and the shops, which are more often than not actually the size of carts, are beautifully stocked with flowers, produce, books and high end, aromatic tea that wafts like potpourri out onto the sidewalk. There's even a Focacceria on my morning walk to the metro.

Every few blocks, the narrow streets of La Grácia open up to one of 10 plaças (like a small town square), each dedicated to this or that historic figure or event or architectural landmark:

  • Plaça Joanic
  • Plaça de la Virreina
  • Plaça del Nord
  • Plaça del Diamant
  • Plaça de la Revolució de Setembre de 1868
  • Plaça del Sol
  • Plaça Rovira i Trias
  • Plaça Rius i Taulet
  • Plaça del Raspall
  • Plaça de John Lennon (No, I'm not kidding)

Today, Regina and I drink cafe con leche and watch a live jazz concert at Plaça Rius i Taulet. It is a breezy, sunny day and the square is filled with urbanites, old artists and happy, colorful children. It is a perfect Sunday afternoon.

If my imaginary Barcelona is a 10, La Grácia is an actual, real life 8 on the euro-charm scale. Its good to see idealism realized every once in a while.

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