Oysters . . . and other Adriatic adventures

I had never developed an appreciation for raw oysters; nor for oyster stew or oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, for that matter.

I have been known to order Oysters Rockefeller because that seems a “classy” choice at an upscale restaurant, on the same culinary level as escargot or whole artichokes. I love showy foods, and I admit that I enjoy demonstrating that I know how to deal with such dishes. I have, on occasion, skewered a salty, smoked oyster for a cracker.

But as for raw oysters. No, thank you. I do not love oysters.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys oysters any way they’re served, but preferably right in the shell, cold, salty and fresh from the sea.

It was a preference he worked hard to cultivate, ordering oysters on the half shell several times in his early 20s. He initially discovered that the slippery oysters didn’t slide so easily down his throat, no matter how much he tried to disguise them with cocktail sauce and and Tabasco. Those first few times, he admits, were less than pleasant experiences.

But he persevered. At a tiny cafe in Brittany, with a view of the oyster fields just out the window, he ordered an oyster. One fresh-from-the-Atlantic oyster. The lone half shell on ice, accompanied by lemon and course sea salt, was brought to the table with a flourish by an ever-so-proper French, waiter. It prompted curious smiles from those seated at nearby tables.

The waiter stood by expectantly, awaiting a reaction.

I was there, cheering him on.

Other diners also waited, and nodded approval as he downed that first cool slippery oyster. It was a personal triumph. And it started a trend. He has since ordered oysters in Maine, in numerous Gulf Coast eateries, and in fine restaurants in cities across the globe. He does, you see, love oysters.

After many years, we returned to that same restaurant in Cancale, France. It had changed a bit over the years, but the oyster fields are still the same, and this time my husband ordered a half dozen and enjoyed every one. In fact, he considered ordering another half dozen.

Today, he rarely passes on the opportunity to order oysters on the half shell when we’re near an ocean that allows them to be delivered fresh and cold from their habitat. He still asks for extra horseradish and hot sauce.

I resisted for the longest time, until we visited the Adriatic three years ago. Sitting on the open deck of a vessel anchored only feet from the oyster beds, I was prepared to enjoy the local fare along with the white wine promised as part of a half-day excursion from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had planned to say no to the oysters. But I was curiously enthralled as I watched the servers expertly open the shells and plate up the briny treats. Before I took much time to think about it, I was repeating “I can do this” to myself. I accepted my plate with a bit of trepidation, but I knew my mate would help me out if I couldn’t finish my share.

I sprinkled the smallest oyster with lemon juice, added just a drop of Tabasco, and closed my eyes. My first sensation was memorable. I sensed the cold, and tasted the sea. Then I swallowed. It was a whole new reality.

I actually liked the sensation. I was pleasantly surprised by the silky texture, the intense fresh flavor, and the saltiness. I felt close to the sea and its bounty in profound ways.

It was a lesson. It was delicious. It was unforgettable. Not only was it an eye-opening confirmation of the bounties of the sea, but it was the beginning of a love affair with Croatia. The time we spent there was all too short. Last November we returned to see more of the country.

I did not sample any more oysters, but I did partake, willingly, of other Croatian treats! The food is special, as are the people. To say we loved our two short visits to Croatia is an understatement. I still have no great love for oysters, but Croatia captured our hearts. This Thanksgiving I cannot help but think again of those trips.

I am thankful that we took those trips when we did. When the world is once again healed, we will return. I look forward to it.

And I am sure there will be more stories to tell.

Revisiting Rouen

Last May I wrote about a 2018 visit to this city in Normandy against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. We were still in the early days of the pandemic. Two months ago, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today we are engaged in another battle against a formidable virus. On November 11, we honored those who serve or have served in our military. Today, we still await a definitive answer to the question of who will be our next president. Through all of this, I cannot help but remember my visit to Rouen. It serves as a reminder that generations of our forebears survived wars, devastating plagues and years of civil unrest. They endured. And so will we. Rouen adds new perspective to contemporary history. Perhaps we should learn from it.

The heart of a great city

William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066 following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, and the course of history was forever altered for two nations, if not for the entire world. Known today as William the Conqueror, his coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, but soon after his investiture, he returned to the capital of Normandy.

Considered a military genius, he was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, was uneducated, lacked culture, and spoke little English. He returned to England to quell periodic uprisings, but he spent most of his reign on the continent. He died near Rouen at the age of 60, in 1087, and is buried near the coast, at Caen, France, in the The Abbey of Saint-Étienne which was founded in 1063.

Another Duke of Normandy, who also held the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Count of Anjou, was born in England, the fifth son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He led a turbulent life, rebelled against his father the king, and formed an alliance with the king of France, along with two of his brothers.

Richard I was crowned King of England in 1189, but spent little time there. Like William the Conqueror, he may not even have spoken the language, but he was educated, enjoyed music and the arts, was personable but temperamental and quick to anger. He was also obsessed by the Crusades. He reigned for less than 10 years, and is best remembered for his exploits in the Holy Land, fighting Saladin and the Saracens during the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart, not quite 42 years old, died of an infected arrow wound in 1199. History recounts that he had always “held Rouen in his heart,” and his embalmed heart rests in Rouen’s Cathedral, while his body is entombed “at the feet of his father” at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His younger brother John succeeded him on the English Throne, and Phillip II of France gained control over Rouen, assuring that Normandy and Brittany would remain under French control.

I knew of the historical ties Rouen has with these renowned English kings, but it was yet another historical figure that beckoned me to Rouen. The Maid of Orleans met her destiny in Rouen in 1431. She was tried for heresy, witchcraft and other offenses ranging from horse theft to sorcery. She was burned at the stake by the English in a square that still serves as the site of the city’s public market. Her bones and ashes were gathered and thrown into the river.

History recounts that Joan of Arc did indeed hear voices and see visions. She believed they were signs, but modern authorities suspect she suffered from a medical disorder, something akin to epilepsy or perhaps schizophrenia.

Although characterized as a warrior, she actually never fought in battle, choosing to simply accompany the troops carrying a banner to urge them on. Nonetheless, she is credited with turning the tide of battle and securing a French victory over English forces in Orleans in 1429.

Joan was originally charged with 70 crimes which were later narrowed to 12; it is said that she signed an admission of guilt in exchange for life imprisonment, but days later violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, once again donning men’s clothing and admitting that “the voice” had returned to guide her. She was subsequently sentenced as a “relapsed heretic,” according to historical records.

Joan of Arc — the name stems from her father’s surname d’Arc, even though she was simply known as Jehanne or Jehannette. During her trial, she referred to herself simply as Jehanne la Pucelle (translated as Joan “the maid”).

The young peasant girl became a national symbol, a uniting influence on French forces during the latter part of the bitter 100 Year’s War that lasted from 1337 to 1453. There actually was no victor in the war; the English simply retreated, finally realizing that the cost was too great, and the conflict ended.

Twenty years after the war ended, Charles VII, the French king who owed his position to Joan, held a posthumous retrial to clear her name, and she became not only a folk heroine, but also a mythic symbol of French nationalism.

As a child I was fascinated by her exploits, and by her brazen defiance of existing norms. I am still fascnated, and I wanted to see for myself the place where she met her fate.

For centuries, there was no monument to mark the spot of her demise in Rouen, just a simple cross in commemoration of the 19-year-old’s martyrdom. Today, a large modern Catholic church stands to honor Saint Joan; it was completed adjacent to the square in 1979.

Joan, by all accounts, never doubted that she had been chosen by God for her role in history, but it was not until 1920 that she was canonized as a saint. Today she is revered as the patron saint of France.

Then and now

Rouen is filled with good restaurants, small cafes and local bakeries. It boasts boutique hotels tucked away on narrow streets, within walking distance of major sites, a newly-redesigned and attractive riverbank that beckons river cruisers and bicyclists, picnickers and artists. Prior to the pandemic, visitors from across the globe arrived in the city during every season, seeking their own fulfillment. Rouen’s cultural appeal is catholic, and it resonates on different levels depending on one’s personal interests.

But Rouen offers something else as well. Visit the city during the off-season, and a uniquely personalized view of the city is your reward. The pace of life in this part of France is easy-going and friendly, surprisingly subdued. Indeed, if you stay in the medieval quarter or the university district, the slice of life that presents itself is distinctively “common.” It’s truly delightful, relaxed and unpretentious.

One can walk seemingly endlessly through the narrow cobbled streets of the Medieval quarter. We marveled at the clock, standing under its archway one dismal, chilly late afternoon. We lingered, snapping pictures, studying the artistry of its face and enjoying the music of its chimes. We knew that darkness would soon descend, but we hesitated there, unwilling to break the mood.

It’s impossible to be in Rouen and ignore its past. Napoleon visited textile factories in the city in 1802, helping to build that industry in the region; he also is credited with commissioning the Corneille Bridge and both Lafayette and Republic Streets. In Rouen, it is impossible to escape the emperor’s historical influence. In numerous ways, the history of France is tied to the history of Rouen.

Seeing it all unfold during a walking tour of the city is spellbinding. The most enduring memory, however, is of being alone in the courtyard of Rouen’s ossuary, the “Plague Cemetery.” It is an experience seared into my consciousness, as the world faces an unknown future besieged by a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Later, we ducked into a small brasserie for a cup of hot cafe au lait, and exchanged small talk with the proprietor and two other patrons who were as happy to speak a few words of English as we were to practice our French. We were immediately transported to the present, and we were buoyed by the charm and vivacity of the city’s modern vibe.

We left, strolling the almost deserted streets in search of an informal place to eat. Arriving too early for dinner, we were led upstairs to a warm, cozy nook that suited us perfectly for an early-evening supper. We sipped good red wine, dined on burgers and fries served in true French style, and conversed with the establishment’s friendly proprietor about contemporary life. It was a perfect finale to a day of immersion in the life of Rouen.

We will long remember our visit to Rouen, for any number of reasons.

A day to pay tribute

The world has changed, and no doubt it will continue to do so. However, no matter how much things change, hopefully we will continue to remember our past and to look forward to a bright new future. It is good for us to pause for just a moment to pay tribute to our veterans on this day. One hundred and two years ago, an armistice agreement was signed that signaled the end of what was to be the “war to end all wars.”

That, unfortunately, was not to be, but it was a lofty idea. And, because Veterans Day comes so soon after election day, this seems an ideal time to put our differences aside, and to remember just what it is that makes this country great.

I have written before of Veterans Day. This year, because of a nasty virus we cannot gather en masse, so it is up to us, individually, to honor it in our own ways.

This year, in particular, I believe it is important to look at our past as we look forward to our future — to pay tribute to those who served, and still serve, this nation. Those who don the uniform, any uniform, of the armed forces of the United States of America — deserve our respect. They have our backs. They are sworn to defend us abroad and at home, and they do so with honor.

Now more than ever before, we all bear a responsibility to look at our world with new eyes, with new understanding, with new determination.

This year, I fear, there will be few public celebrations — a sign of the times. But we must still remember — and celebrate — the legacy of the past century.

So, will you join me at 11 a.m. today — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — the exact time that that historic armistice became effective in 1918 — to pay tribute not only to our veterans but also to our country? It’s a small, symbolic request, but an important one.

As we face the challenges that lie ahead, whether of COVID-19, unrest at home or conflict with other nations, let us understand that we are strong, and that together we can respond to those challenges.

For at least 100 years, we have been the hope of the world. America continues to be so today. Believe it! Let’s try to live up to that hope!

A lesson in democracy

San Marino, capital of the European “microstate” of the same name, is not on most lists of “not-to-be-missed” European destinations. However, this tiny nation, founded in the year 301 and reputed to be the world’s oldest constitutional republic, ranks among our best adventures.

We had read, in passing, about this tiny, ancient city-state, and could not resist the temptation to visit a modern-day anomaly. The lure of the fifth-smallest nation on earth was strong.

My husband and I planned this quick excursion in conjunction with last winter’s Mediterranean/Adriatic cruise. Tiny San Marino is an easy drive — not more than about an hour — from the Italian port of Ravenna.

The world’s longest-surviving republic has known its share of difficult times and has been occupied three times, it is said, by foreign powers. But it has survived, and today it enjoys one of the world’s most stable economies, much of it derived from tourism, and is considered one of the wealthiest countries in Europe in terms of GDP.

Its claim to be the oldest existing sovereign state as well as the oldest constitutional republic is not disputed. San Marino’s 60-member legislature is elected every five years, and dual heads of state, “Captains Regents,” are elected by the council every April and October to serve six-month terms. From all outward appearances, the system of government, with an unlimited number of political parties, seems to work very well.

I think of San Marino now, as the calendar ticks down to our own election and wish I had been able to spend more time getting to know the people and learning more about their system of government.

The few hours we spent there are unforgettable. The mountaintop site of the old city is spectacular and the people we met were lively, welcoming and “real.” There is something compelling about a “parliamentary representative democratic republic” that has survived this long!

With a land area of only 23.6 miles, and a total population of just over 36,000, San Marino is completely surrounded by Italy. Its official language is Italian, and the currency is the Euro, although San Marino is not a member of the EU. There is no official border crossing.

The drive along the coast from Ravenna takes one along modern highways and through charming seaside resorts before turning inland to wind through agricultural fields and vineyards. It’s pleasant. The weather forecast was for cool temperatures with a chance of rain. We knew about San Marino’s strategic location, but we were not prepared for the fog that shrouded the peak as we began the ascent.

We had seen the pictures of “The Three Towers” that cap the crest of Monte Titano, and the medieval wall that surrounds the capital, also named San Marino. We had hoped to see them outlined by blue sky, as they had appeared in the tourist guide.

A roadside cafe on the way to the old city beckoned us, and we enjoyed steaming cups of hot chocolate with local workmen and uniformed highway police before pushing onward. It was grey and overcast, and the aerial tramway that would have whisked us to the summit on a sunny day was not running.

Not knowing what to expect, we pushed on and were able to park just outside the gate of the medieval city. Passing through the gate was like stepping back in time, or entering another world. Cobblestone lanes not much wider than a primitive wagon path greeted us, and even though the mist hung heavy all about, we were enchanted.

We could not see the valley below, nor could we see the crenelated towers above, but we were content to walk the steep lanes, peering into shop windows, catching glimpses of gardens and marveling at the statuary and art that punctuated plazas and wide spots along the narrow walkways.

We stopped at the upper station of the tramway, impressed by the engineering expertise it had required, and we looked over the edge of the city wall, disappointed at the mist that still blocked our view of the valley below. We ducked into the nearby Visitors Center to have our passports stamped as proof of our visit.

We strolled to the city’s beautiful basilica, marveling at the skill and endurance it must have taken to construct on top of the mountain in 1836, on the site of an earlier church that dated to the 7th Century. We were enthralled, and could have spent longer inside, but because we were on a strict time schedule, we decided to make our way back to our rental vehicle.

When we emerged, the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. We could not leave without once again making our way to the city’s encircling walls to gaze in awe at the countryside far below us.

Although Ravenna has its own attractions, we were more than pleased by our decision to forego the eight UNESCO world heritage sites located there and head instead to a tiny nation-state with a long history.

It remains a fond memory.

Confronting history in Rouen

It is impossible to arrive in Rouen without feeling the weight of centuries. Every vista, every dark paving stone, every building carries a past both eerily familiar and somehow ominous. Despite that, Rouen is beautiful, and welcoming in many ways. And it is endlessly fascinating.

Much of Rouen is clothed in the layered green moss and the dark grime of centuries past; some of it chipped and broken or intentionally destroyed by succeeding generations of combatants and conquerors. Parts of the city still reflect the majesty and the mystery of past eras, testimony to times of unrest, when royal intrigue held sway over daily life, and the city was a jousting court for the powerful and ambitious.

The functional and the artistic are intertwined in this capital of Normandy. In the same way, the city’s history is both majestic and mysterious. The city oozes history, and happily unveils a contemporary spirit as well.

Some of it is elegant, some a bit bizarre, and some just quirky.

Situated about halfway between Paris and the beaches of Normandy to the northwest, Rouen is a stopping-off place and a guidebook “must see” destination for first-time visitors to France.

Rouen’s past history fills volumes. It is captivating. Its past imbues its soul. Gaudy tourist trinkets are available, but they don’t detract from its aura. Rouen’s ties are to French royalty, English kings, legendary warriors, beloved artists and esteemed writers. Its history was shaped by Rollo the Viking, William the conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Claude Monet and Gustave Flaubert, among others. It is said that Julia Child ate her first meal in France at Rouen’s La Caronne, the oldest auberge in the country. Rouen boasts a university and the spires of its noted cathedrals stretch to the heavens, punctuating the cityscape.

The reality of suffering

We spent a busy couple of days simply walking the streets of the medieval quarter. We did not venture into the modern city; instead we relished the experience of traveling, at least in our minds, to a time long ago. We were there during the off-season. For the most part, we had the city to ourselves, to discover at our own pace.

Before driving on to Caen and the D-Day beaches, our mission was to visit what is known as the Plague Cemetery. Little did we realize that just two years later the memory of that visit would haunt us. It is not a cemetery in any traditional sense. There are no headstones in neat rows, nor are there any crumbling monuments; there is no statuary. It is, indeed, almost impossible to find. But find it we did, and we entered the grounds of this somber place with more than a little trepidation.

Aître Saint-Maclou is small square not far from the Church of Saint Maclou in Rouen. The massive Gothic structure almost seems out of place amid surrounding half-timbered homes and ancient lanes. Both have slightly macabre carvings that recall the grim influence of the Black Plague that swept through Europe and led to the deaths of up to three-quarters of the citizenry in this parish.

During the plague of 1348, the area was used as a communal grave site for many of the city’s victims. Exterior timbers of the buildings that were later constructed around the perimeter of the site are decorated with skulls, crossed axes, shovels and other reminders of a time long gone.

A second round of plague swept the land about two centuries later, and previously-buried bones were exhumed and stored in an ossuary above the cloisters. During this second round of pandemic, the city required additional burial space. In the 16th Century, two-thirds of the population succumbed to the disease.

It is a sobering experience to stand in the middle of this now peaceful “atrium,” thinking about a time when it had another purpose. Other reminders of those times exist: The remains of a black cat that was entombed in the walls are now enshrined in a glass case. Some say that the cat was plastered into a wall in a superstitious attempt to repel evil.

Originally occupied as homes and places of business, three of the buildings date to about 1526, and a fourth was built in 1651 as a charity boys’ school. The cemetery itself was closed in 1781, and the place became a designated historical site in 1862. It is the only medieval ossuary that remains in Europe, although no bones remain either above or below ground.

In this time of pandemic, I could not help but recall our visit to Rouen, and the startling effect of the place.

Historic Rouen is unforgettable, with many stories to tell. We drove on to the coast, in search of brighter days and happier stories.

This year we are battling a perplexing pandemic. I could not help but think of our 2018 visit to Rouen. It seems there are always lessons to learn from the past.

This Memorial Day, we also especially remember the American Cemetery in Normandy, hallowed American ground with the graves of 9,388 American military dead. There the white markers stand in perfectly aligned rows, in high relief against the grassy landscape, to honor the sacrifice of servicemen and women during a war that ended 75 years ago this month.

Note: This is perhaps the last of what I have called the Corona Chronicles. It is time to move on. Other travel stories remain to be told, and I look forward to a time in a not-too-distant future when we can all travel freely without masks, and without fear. That time cannot come soon enough!

An escape from quarantine

The hills and valleys of central Arkansas seem an unlikely location for the largest gated residential community in the United States, but that’s exactly what Hot Springs Village is. Stretching across two counties and encompassing just over 53.5 square miles, this unique development was begun in 1970, a vision of developer John A. Cooper Sr.

Since then, it has mushroomed into a thriving “small town” with a population exceeding 13,000, characterized by individual communities that center on a network of lakes and golf courses. Hot Springs Village has the feeling of a leisure-oriented community, but it is not age-restricted. Indeed, yellow buses transport approximately 1,000 children to one of two school districts outside the gates during a normal school year.

One enters the village, situated approximately 16 miles from historic Hot Springs, through one of two main gates. Visitors are issued temporary dashboard permits, and are immediately introduced to another world. Tall pines, lush greenery and an abundance of birds and wildlife dwell here in the Ouachita National Forest. There are deer, squirrels and chipmunks, occasional bears and red fox, and a resident bald eagle. Humans live in harmony with the creatures, and fishermen routinely pull large fish from the recreational lakes. It seems far removed from touristy Hot Springs.

Hot Springs Village is an incorporated township with paved streets, city sewers, dedicated water supply, its own police and fire departments, and many of the advantages of an urban lifestyle. However, within its gates, it has a distinctly rural feeling and an ambience all its own.

Churches, banks, restaurants and a handful of small businesses exist within the gates, along with healthcare offices and other signs of modern life, but they do not scream their presence. There is no neon. Residents can gather for morning coffee and doughnuts, but must venture outside the gates to shop for groceries. However, a thriving farmers’ market operates during the season, and additional commercial development is part of the master plan for the community.

My husband and I had an opportunity to visit old friends in Hot Springs Village for two brief days last week. Both Texas and Arkansas have begun to relax the Coronavirus quarantine procedures somewhat. We did not know what to expect, but a break from “stay-at-home” orders was in order.

We drove our own car, booked two nights in a thoroughly sanitized condo, wore masks in public, toured the village, and enjoyed our meals at properly-spaced tables on outdoor decks, attended by congenial masked and gloved servers.

We had wonderful meals, reminisced about old times with our friends, enjoyed a leisurely pontoon boat ride around the perimeter of Lake Cortez, one of 11 within the boundaries of Hot Springs Village. We shared our concerns and perspective about Coronavirus recovery, and acted somewhat like children on holiday.

We visited golf courses and watched socially distanced players practicing their swings , drove past now-mostly-empty tennis and pickleball courts, watched the antics of friendly chipmunks and listened to birdsong. The community’s indoor pool and fitness center, library and performance venue are still closed, and the restaurants that have reopened are limiting hours as well as patrons.

It was a much needed break from the quarantine routine, and a temporary glimpse of “almost normal” lifestyle. Normal is still unattainable in the here and now, but it seems even more vital now to move beyond the fear. Back in Texas, we are again aware that these are unusual times for everyone, but the reality of the past two months has begun to feel overly restrictive.

We learned, once again, that faraway can be a matter of mindset as well as distance, and that two days spent in an out-of-the-ordinary manner can be a much-needed tonic. We both look forward to scheduling that first haircut, and to more excursions to places both near and far. We returned home with a sense of hope and a renewed purpose.

Hopefully, the time is not too far away that we can travel unrestricted, give family and friends real hugs, and get on with the business of living well.

We’ve been here before . . .

. . . and, no doubt, we will be again.

The last global pandemic did not occur a century ago. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” was epic, but there have been more recent versions that were widespread and devastating, causing more than one million deaths worldwide and upwards of 100,000 deaths in the United States. But hardly anyone remembers.

It is important to point out that the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 is not without precedent; only the actions we have taken are unprecedented.

Dr. Deborah Birx said as much in the Good Friday Coronavirus Task Force Briefing. “We’ve never before taken a national, or a global, approach to mitigation. This is unprecedented,” she said.

Dr. Birx did not specify what was done during the 1957-58 Pandemic and the 1968 Pandemic. I cannot help but assume that, during her career, she studied those health crises, and that she is familiar with the statistics. Granted, the country was not shut down, and widespread stay-at-home orders were not issued.

However, schools and businesses in some states were closed, makeshift hospitals and treatment centers were mobilized in some cities, citizens were urged not to travel if it was not necessary. Fear and uncertainty were widespread, and the number of infections grew steadily over the course of several months. In the fall of 1957, at the start of the school year, localized outbreaks resulted in high absenteeism, and businesses reported that between 10 and 20% of the work force was affected.

In 1958, there was a second wave in the United States, more devastating than the first the previous fall. There are normally second, and even third, waves of infection. Some, like AIDS and Ebola, never go away but are ultimately controlled. They are hardly newsworthy, but they are often devastating.

News coverage, however, was very different in the mid-20th Century, described as “low key,”  and social media did not yet exist. There was no daily death count reported by the media, even though it is now conceded that about 40,000 Americans died in the fall of 1957 due to the flu. The first wave of infection was more deadly for children and young adults, while the second wave in 1958 seemed to target people over age 65.

A Century of Pandemic Experience

The 1957-58 pandemic is known as the “least deadly” of the three major 20th Century pandemics. Statistics vary, but the official estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 1.1 million deaths globally, with approximately 116,000 in the United States. A vaccine had been made available in late August 1957, but it was deemed to be only 45 to 60% effective. Officials still recommended that Americans take advantage of the “flu shot.”

This particular influenza, identified as an H2N2 strain, disappeared after only 11 years, according to an article, “Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century,” by Edwin D. Kilbourne.

In 1968, however, another virus would appear, this time a new strain that would prove more troublesome and more deadly. Once again, it spread rapidly, but its severity would depend on a variety of factors. Now categorized as an H3N2 virus, it remains to this day the “major and most troublesome influenza A virus in humans,” according to Kilbourne. First identified in the United States in September, this pandemic also claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans and at least one million people worldwide.

Another flu made an appearance less than a decade later, in November 1977. Although it was generally mild, it was again a variant of the previous H3N2, termed a “juvenile age-restricted, global pandemic.” It appeared first in the Soviet Union, and was initially termed the Russian flu. It targeted children and young people, thought to be susceptible because they had not developed antibodies to this particular strain of virus. About the same time, a return of the H1N1, which was the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, was noted, but in slightly different, mutated form. Interestingly, the 1977 virus continues to confound researchers.

CDC reporting of infections and deaths has changed over the years, but by looking quickly at available statistics, the range of American deaths during the 1977 flu season could be placed between 6,000 and 43,000.

The Reality of Pandemics

Anyone age 70 or older might have a faint recollection of the Asian Flu in the late 1950s.  Some memory of the 1977 Hong Kong Flu should linger with most Americans who have reached about age 50. The Russian Flu seems perfectly forgettable unless a family was personally affected by it. Finally, we should not forget the 2009 flu that circulated the globe in 2009 and 2010. That one, unlike the two previous, was most serious in children and young adults. Older adults, particular those over 65, were more likely to have some immunity from the virus, even though it was a novel strain of H1N1.

Why is it, then, that there seems to be an American amnesia about these previous events? The “seasonal flu” that causes little alarm these days is a sobering reminder that these old viruses are still around. Also, every year, the flu claims the lives of between 6,000 and 70,000 Americans, based on CDC estimates. Every new epidemic has similarities to past pandemics. According to epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, many seasonal viruses are just enough different that previously-developed treatments and vaccines may offer some relief, but they are not foolproof. And no sure prevention or cure exists for any viral infection.

Like everyone else, I have never seen anything quite like this. I do, however, have some memories of 1957, 1968 and 1977. Recently, through research, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about plagues, pandemics and the recurrent spread of virulent viruses.

It’s not the current number of infected, nor even the number of deaths that has me most concerned. I feel for those who become seriously ill, and I weep with those families who lose loved ones to a new respiratory virus, one for which there is no known treatment, and about which little is known. All of us are affected. I know with certainty that our “normal” will never be as it was.

But I also lived through the polio scare, measles and chicken pox, and knew of smallpox and tuberculosis. Even the plague. Yes, it too still exists. Bubonic plague cases are not uncommon, to this day, in the Mountain states, but it is a bacterial infection and it is spread differently, through direct contact with infected fleas. *(There are some researchers who now believe that the Black Death of the Middle Ages was not the plague at all, but a rapidly-spreading, highly-infectious virus instead.) 

Looking Ahead to Post-pandemic life

What is most memorable about the 2020 pandemic may very well be the international reaction to it, the effect on global economies, and the disruption of every aspect of our lives. It was informally tagged COVID-19 because it was first reported to the World Health Organization office in China as a novel form of pneumonia on December 31, 2019. On February 11, 2020, is was officially christened as SARS-CoV-2, because it is a “genetic cousin” of the 2002 SARS virus. 

Just in case you didn’t know, there are only seven coronaviruses that have been identified: Four cause the “common cold,” and three are the triggers for SARS, MERS and the current pandemic. Whether that should make us all feel better or lead to additional worries is debatable.

However, whether there is a second wave of the current novel Coronavirus, or it continues to be a seasonal viral infection much like the H1N1, it’s foolish to assume there will be no more epidemics — even serious pandemics — in our lifetime. They happen regularly. And there may be more novel coronaviruses identified in the future.

To return to Dr. Birx’s statement about global response. No, governments have never before acted even remotely as they did at the onset of this infection. (Well, maybe the Black Plague?)

The response in 2020 is unprecedented not only in scale, but in geography, economic upheaval, and in disruption of normal activity. Self-isolation, mandated shutdowns, cancelled classes and closed schools, shuttered businesses, perceived shortages of healthcare equipment, sickness and death are by no means localized phenomena. But we have become a mobilized and global society, and that allowed the virus to spread quickly throughout the world.

Statistics and Sadness

The truth is that we have been here before, even though we have forgotten. Is it perhaps more normal than we think?

On Wednesday afternoon, April 2, the number of confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19 surpassed one million. The number of deaths related to this new virus stood at not quite 51,500. Nine days later, at about noon in my time zone on Saturday, April 11, the statistics were horrifically different: 1,724,736 cases confirmed globally, and 104,938 deaths.

One week later, according to the daily statistics, there were 2,256,844 confirmed cases worldwide, with 154,350 deaths. On April 18, the number of fatalities in the United States was edging toward 33,000. To my horror, this morning, just one day later, the number of deaths has passed 39,000 in this country, with 742,637 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Global deaths now are over 162,000, with 2,355,676 confirmed cases.

Thankfully, the number of new infections seems to be slowing. American hospitals have not been overwhelmed as originally feared, but in other nations, the outlook has been grim. Still, though, it’s necessary to compare the number of deaths with the totals from other 20th-Century pandemics to gain a better perspective.

It’s a terrible thing to feel quite this helpless in a time so filled with scientific knowledge and modern technology, isn’t it? 

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts I have dubbed Corona Chronicles.” The first was Twists of fate, published February 14, 2020, before the spreading viral infection had actually been declared a pandemic, followed by Faraway and the here & now March 23, 2020, and Look for the silver lining on April 17, 2020. There are more to come.

Look for the silver lining

My grandfather was fond of saying that every cloud had a silver lining. I know now that many of his generation grew up looking for any hope they could cling to during the hard times of his time. He, after all, survived two world wars, the Great Depression, dust bowl and drought, tornadoes and floods, a pandemic, several epidemics, the early loss of brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews to disease and farm accidents, and his own increasingly ill health in later years.

Sadly, his “later years” didn’t last long. I was just barely a teenager when he left this plane of existence. But I remember, as a young child, walking with him on summer days when clouds began to form in the Montana sky. He would point to them and say, “Look now, look up to see the silver lining.”

I believed him then. I look still for those silver linings.

Today, more than ever. There are signs of hope all around us in these difficult times. It gives me hope that, despite this unexpected and unwelcome health crisis, the American people will band together not only to survive, but to flourish. Somehow, I believe it’s not the hard times that have the ability to crush us as a resourceful nation, but rather the easy times. As a nation, we seem to be at our best during times of crisis.

I smile at the countless uplifting social media posts that proclaim “We are all in this together,” and “This will end.” I am buoyed up by the willingness of so many people to sew face masks for complete strangers. I am heartened by the patio chairs springing up on front lawns throughout the nation. Neighbors are getting to know one another again, in this time of social distancing.

I see it in the countless ways that small business firms are pivoting and taking action to survive now, plan for the future and find new ways to protect not only their investments but their employees as well. I am humbled by the commitment of doctors and nurses, and, as usual, of emergency responders.

I understand the push to get back to some sort of normal, and I sense the feelings of loss that are so pervasive. But then I see on the news the pictures – and the sounds – of Italians singing from their balconies, of orchestras and choirs all over the globe in virtual concerts, and of volunteers turning out in force to pass out food and deliver needed supplies. Craft breweries and small whiskey producers have shifted gears to produce hand sanitizers. Other companies have pulled out all the stops to manufacturer needed supplies for healthcare professionals, to deliver lunches to those front-line workers, and to do everything possible to “flatten the curve.”

We are all intent on stemming the tide of despair that is the only thing that can defeat us. No doubt the hard times will not come to an abrupt halt. The economic burden on individuals and small business will last even longer, I suspect, than the stay-at-home orders.

Still, I can’t help but weigh in on the side of optimism. Life will never be the same again. But, perhaps that’s part of the good news. Just today, it was announced that we are on the path to reopening at least parts of the country and of commerce. It was also announced that initial tests of new drugs are promising. Perhaps a treatment for this dreadful viral infection is not far off. Hopefully, a vaccine will follow. 2020 will not easily be forgotten, but if my grandfather were here I’m certain he would point to the clouds, flash me a quick smile, and ask if I see the silver lining.

I have looked up at clouds, and I have looked down on clouds from far above. I have to confess that I am still watchful for that silver lining. This time, I believe I might hesitantly answer, “Yes, yes I see a bit of silver.”

Faraway and the here & now

As a child, I was captivated by people who lived lives very different from my own, and by the sounds of words spoken to a different cadence. The pull of the unfamiliar was strong. I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to experience far away places.  I never outgrew the wanderlust. Today, the sound of a foreign language is still music to my ears and the promise of a trip is reason enough to pack up.

And speaking of music . . .

I knew the words to this popular song from the 1940s from an early age, and I still hum the tune occasionally.

“Far Away Places” has been a kind of theme song for me for as long as I can remember. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the name of of my blog!

And those strange-sounding names; oh, yes! They still beckon, more now that I realize my traveling days have been temporarily suspended by the nasty Coronavirus.

A chance mention recently of Dame Vera Lynn brought back all those early memories. The wartime “darling” of servicemen and their families during WWII just celebrated her 103rd birthday. She used the occasion to take to the airwaves, releasing a video urging British citizens to “keep smiling and keep singing.”

It’s quite extraordinary!

The haunting melodies and poignant words of her music characterized wartime separation, with words such as “Please say hello to the folks that I know. . .” and “don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again.” Also, “It’s so hard to say goodbye.”

Classics of the time include “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World,” along with “We’ll Meet Again,” “Far Away Places,” “Lili Marlene” and many others. So, today, when we face a future with a different kind of uncertainly, and we are newly and unhappily physically separated from family and friends, it seemed appropriate to play a lot of Vera Lynn melodies as I sit working from home — alone — at my computer.

Vera Lynn is still strikingly attractive and, from all reports, still healthy. She’s a remarkable lady, as I learned, topping the UK Albums Chart at the age of 92 with a new release of old favorites entitled “We’ll Meet Again.” At the age of 97, in 2014, her music once again scored a Number One hit with the collection “Vera Lynn, National Treasure.”

During the war years, Vera Lynn had a radio program and toured India, Burma and Egypt to entertain British troops. In later years, she became involved with various charities, including those benefiting ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer. Her last public performance was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 as part of the golden anniversary celebration of VE Day, and she sang again that evening at a public performance in London’s Hyde Park.

If you want to see her in action at a 1990 Royal Variety Performance, just click here.

In addition to a long list of honors for her efforts, in 1975 she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

So, here’s to Dame Vera Lynn for taking me on a trip today, not only down memory lane, but also into a world of hope, just as she did for so many during those long ago war years. Let’s all act with the conviction that all will turn out well, and that we’ll all meet again in better days, to share good times and good food in faraway places.

Twists of fate . . .

. . . and other thoughts about travel to the far reaches of today’s shrinking world

As I have said before, and with apologies to Lee Marvin as well as to Lerner and Loewe, I was born “under a wand’rin’ star.” Wanderlust is real!

I am hooked on travel! 

As a freelance writer, I have convinced myself that it is also “my business” to be as informed as possible about popular worldwide destinations, off-the-beaten-path places, interesting excursions and inviting cruise ship itineraries. I enjoy every minute of it, and I keep a running list of possibilities that appeal to me for my own getaways.

I started out as a working journalist at a daily newspaper, and I remain a “newshound” to this day, eager to tell stories about people, places and events. I don’t regret leaving that part of my life behind, but I still sometimes miss being an active “participant” in major news events.

I have been following the Coronavirus outbreak in China with great interest, for all the above reasons, and also because of the serious worldwide health implications. My husband and I listen avidly to the live reports from David Abel and his wife Sally, British citizens on board the quarantined Diamond Princess. But we have watched events unfold, and remained only interested bystanders half a world away.

Until two days ago

Our next planned journey was to have been a trans-Pacific sailing on the 2,200-passenger Celebrity Millennium, scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan on May 10. We had flight reservations that would have given us a few days in Tokyo prior to the cruise, and allowed us to see friends in Vancouver, B.C. following disembarkation, prior to returning home. We were concerned, but relatively confident that the spread of the virus would be contained during the next 90 days, and that our trip across a vast stretch of ocean would proceed as scheduled without risk.

On Wednesday, we were notified by Celebrity Cruises that the remainder of the Asian cruise schedule for “the Millie” had been suspended. Our cruise and others were to be canceled. The ship would sail early to North America in preparation for a summer season of cruising Alaska. No other details were offered. We shared the disappointment of thousands of other passengers whose vacation plans had instantly been crushed. 

For this single ship of this one cruise line, five sailings were canceled, affecting thousands of booked passengers. Route changes and port cancellations are announced daily by other major cruise companies, and the ripple effect is enormous. Not only is there a huge economic impact on the cruise lines, airlines, hotels and excursion operators, but necessary logistical issues are mind-boggling. 

As we faced the task of canceling reservations yesterday, I ran across some forgotten notes in a travel folder of ideas for 2020 travel. And, to use one of my current favorite expressions, I was gobsmacked.

I had written:

“RT Tokyo — 15 days — Jan 20-Feb 4. Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam. Diamond Princess — cabins available at good prices — air about $925, estimated”

They were just some quick notes that I hadn’t acted upon, choosing instead to begin the year with other trips, lured by the prospect of the journey from Japan to Canada with 10 relaxing  days at sea. I booked another, shorter, closer-to-home trip for early in the year, and moved on.

Reading that scribbled note, I realized that had I made another decision several months earlier, my husband and I would currently be quarantined aboard Diamond Princess in Yokohama harbor. I imagined the weight of the fear that we might test positive for a worrisome new virus, now bearing the name COVID-19.  It was a sobering thought, even though for just an instant I thought about the stories I could tell about that experience!

More news . . .

Earlier today, Royal Caribbean, the parent company of Celebrity, announced that two of their ships will spend the next several weeks offering complimentary cruises to fire-fighting crews and first responders in Australia and California. There are also plans underway to deliver needed supplies to health authorities in China and Asia. We will miss our own time aboard the Millennium, but we are happy to know that the ships will be used for other good purposes.

In addition, I cannot help but smile at the Facebook post of a member of the pastry crew on board Diamond Princess. I know there must be some moments that come close to despair for the quarantined crew, but this is truly an example of indomitable spirit!

Now that I have had another day to consider, I am convinced more than ever that travel is “life-changing.” I still believe that travel is always a good idea; it just doesn’t always happen the way we would choose! 

We certainly hope that all passengers and crew aboard the quarantined ship are able to return home well and resume their normal lives as soon as possible. We will continue to watch the reports, and to follow the mounting efforts to control this virulent virus.