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. 

Ode to February

Saturday, in north central Texas, my day began grey and chilly, with a temperature reading just below freezing. The sun appeared later in the afternoon, but I never warmed up. Sunday was sunny and the temperature hovered in the mid-70s. By midweek, another dip into the 30s, with possible snow, was expected. That may be the norm this time of year, but I was happy to hear that Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow Tuesday, giving me hope that soon I can put away my fleece-lined moccasins and go back to flipflops!

My husband and I did just that the end of January as we snuck off for a few days of R&R. I feel as if I’m still playing catch up from November’s travels, but that didn’t keep us from running away to the sea and sun south of the border. Five days aboard Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas, sailing out of Galveston, were a tonic that let us return home refreshed and renewed, even if we did return to cold.

A getaway trip to sun and warmth

It was another of those whims when I booked the cruise several months ago — a deal just too good to refuse, with the benefit of an easy drive to the port rather than the hassle of a flight to a distant coast.

Our quick getaway to Cozumel and Progreso was not timed for lazy days on the beach, but a pampering routine aboard a mid-size cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas, felt good. We came home with a fresh outlook and boundless appreciation for the cruising lifestyle, as always. However, in tiny Cozumel, we were certain that tourists outnumbered residents. There were seven ships in port the day we called at the island! Ours appeared to be the small one!

We delighted in the lack of schedule. We took full advantage of the “luxuries” offered: A dedicated staff to cook and serve, no alarm clock, afternoon naps, and plenty of time to do absolutely nothing. We enjoyed the food, the shipboard shows, and simply walking around the ports. We finished a book each, started reading new ones, and engaged in lively conversation with fellow cruisers. I even squeezed in a few hours of work!

Keeping busy on board

We participated in a sushi-making class offered on board, and enjoyed sampling our efforts for that day’s lunch. We participated in an All-Access ship’s tour another day, relishing a walk through the “belly of the vessel.” The behind-the-scenes activity and inner workings of a large cruise ship are captivating. We learned that there are four full decks below the water line, with ample food and drink stores on board to serve the 3,000 plus passengers and crew for an additional seven days, should it ever become necessary.

In view of the current news about passengers quarantined aboard another cruise ship off the coast of Japan, that becomes an important fact.

We were duly impressed with the high-tech engine control room, the procurement and storage areas, and the ship’s systems, including a busy laundry and highly-orchestrated kitchen. We visited the bridge, where ship’s officers on duty around the clock stand watch, monitoring the course as well as the weather.

The effort expended to make cruising an enjoyable experience for all passengers is truly impressive. Every aspect of cruise ship operation is superbly planned and executed, and it reinforces the value of this kind of vacation.

Looking to the future

Perhaps soon the temperatures will cease pingponging between seasonal norms and unwelcome cold. All too soon, I may once again complain about Texas heat and reset the air conditioning.

I have not forgotten the stories I promised to tell about our November trip to the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. I realized that the days have flown by when I looked over a post I began on December 1. We arrived home on Thanksgiving Day, and somewhere between the pumpkin pie and New Year’s Eve toasts, I got lost.

January passed all too quickly, as had December.

So, to whet the appetite for what is to come, I’ll just post a handful of photos from last week. And then I plan to get busy writing all those other stories, and looking forward to upcoming adventures.

Come along, won’t you? Follow me to receive email notifications of each new post, and visit me on Facebook and Instagram.

The gift of the unexpected

Call it grit. Call it fortitude. Call it experience, acceptance, resignation — any number of descriptive terms can be applied. The truth is that every one of them is appropriate.

We were witness to the pluck and determination exhibited by Venetians during the recent record-setting rainfall, flooding and tides that washed over the lagoon and gained worldwide attention in late November.

Daily life and commerce was affected, to be sure. But daily life and commerce continued apace. Much seemed normal to a casual observer during a time when conditions were anything but normal.

Planes, trains and buses ran on time, waterbuses ran their scheduled routes, and other boats, including barges filled with building and clean-up materials, plied the canals, supplying goods and services to residents, hotels, restaurants and shops. Most gondolas and their gondoliers seemed at rest, waiting for sun and more forgiving water.

Portable boardwalks were repeatedy set up and subsequently removed along the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. Christmas lights and decorations were much in evidence, and shoppers toted bags along with umbrellas, testimony that seasonal spirit and daily life intertwined.

Venetians donned their “Wellies” and rain hats and went about their business. Shopkeepers placed heavy mats inside their doors. Tourists snapped up “fluorescent-colored “cellophane boots with no quibbling over the 10 euro price, pulling them on and wearing them with no embarrassment.

Venice has a full-time population of only slightly more than 50,000, but up to 30 million tourists visit annually. We purposely chose an end-of-season cruise, hoping to encounter fewer crowds at every port, especially in Venice. We succeeded, but the city was by no means deserted!

Through it all, there was a pervasive air of unexpected good humor.

Venice was the last planned port of our 12-day cruise itinerary. Until almost the last moment, we were uncertain whether the call in Venice, scheduled as a three-day visit, might be canceled. When the captain announced that the water levels were receding and lower tides were predicted, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Disappointment turned to anticipation, even as we were advised that although St. Mark’s Square had reopened, the renowned basilica would remain closed.

Our arrival in the city was delayed by morning fog, its canal-hugging buildings shrouded in mist as our ship slowly made its way to its designated dock. It made for mystical photo opportunities, ship stewards passing coffee and pastries in the early dawn light to awed passengers pushing against deck rails even as the drizzle turned to pounding rainfall. The panoramic windows of interior lounges were equally crowded. The day dawned grey and chilly, but then a rainbow appeared. We had arrived in Venice.

Getting to the heart of Venice

From the port, the trip to the heart of the city involved a journey on foot to the tram known as the “People Mover,” then a transfer to a waterbus, where we joined other people — commuting businessmen, shopkeepers, local residents, office clerks, laborers, shoppers, students and visitors of many different nationalities — bound for stops accessible only by water.

The journey was instructive. We were surprised at how high the water was, still lapping at building doorways and bridge foundations. We were astounded at the visible watermarks that confirmed how much higher it had been in recent days. We remarked on the efficiency of the still-operating pump systems that continued to drain standing water from lower levels of Venetian buildings. We arrived at San Marco station in light drizzle.

As it turned out, the sun emerged as we made our way to St. Mark’s square. This was my first trip to Venice. I was not prepared for the sensory overload of entering the square. Any description seems quite inadequate. I can only imagine how it must feel when crowded with tourists. I am so happy to have had the chance to see it in its stillness.

I was — I still am — spellbound.

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The Basilica defies description

I don’t know how many photos I snapped. Every place I looked, from ground level to soaring roofs, held a view I wanted to remember. I stood in the center of this vast square and was completely captivated. I still have difficulty comprehending the size of the plaza, the opulence of each building’s architecture, and the magnificence of every vista.

And then, the final wonder of the day: Visitors were being welcomed into St. Mark’s Basilica. I am overwhelmed by my overwhelming emotional reaction. I honored the posted signs that prohibit photographs and videos of the interior, although I was sorely tempted to sneak at least one cell phone shot.

However, although many others did take their shots, I hold only my vivid mind pictures of the mosaics, the glistening gold ceilings, the tapestries and the carvings. I also have a sense of how the musty, damp odor combined with the scent of candle wax to heighten the aura of sacred mystery. I am certain that this incredible structure will once again dry out, continuing to inspire future generations of faithful worshippers and curious visitors.

We wandered along the city’s uneven paving stones for a time, stopping for a late lunch at an inviting restaurant. Then, in the late afternoon, we found our way back to our starting point, boarded a waterbus, and settled in with Venetian commuters for a winding canal journey to Plaza Roma. We transferred once again to the train for a quick ride back to the port and our waiting cruise ship, our floating “hotel.”

My husband and I would disembark the next day. Our plans called for us to pick up a rental car and spend a few days exploring Croatia, before returning to Venice.

The introduction to Venice was not at all what we had expected. It was more than we had hoped.

Surprises in the off-season

The experience was reminiscent of our trip to France in late January and early February of 2018. That year we flew into Paris at a time when the Seine was flooded, and departed two weeks later with snow blanketing the city after a paralyzing blizzard. It was a memorable time, for some of the same reasons.

Paris and Venice. Though distinctly different, both cities boast an abundance of architecture, art, history, culture, food and drink — enough to satisfy the appetite of any traveler. But to experience the cadence of life during imperfect times is an opportunity that not every visitor receives. My husband and I treasure that gift.

Coming posts and photos will chronicle our all-too-short visit to Croatia, as well as the “small-ship experience” aboard Pacific Princess, and our impressions of other ports along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts.

Please join me for the journey.

47 years ago . . .

Earlier this year, we paid homage to an event that changed our world. Shortly after Neil Armstrong proclaimed “The Eagle has landed” 50 years ago, he became the first man to set foot on Earth’s moon. Many of us recalled the awe we felt while watching grainy television pictures as he stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, onto the moon’s surface and into history. It was July 20, 1969. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent about seven hours on the surface.

Today marks the anniversary of another event that is not nearly as well known. NASA’s Apollo 17 Mission landed on the surface of the moon 47 years ago. The date: December 10, 1972.

Mission Commander Eugene Cernan, and fellow scientist-astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, lunar module pilot, claimed their place in history. The mission set a number of records, including the moon visit of longest duration and the most extra-vehicular activity. The pair spent just over 22 hours on three separate excursions across the moon’s surface.

Three days after the landing, Cernan followed Schmitt up the ladder to reboard lunar module Challenger. Shortly after they fired the engine that would return them to moon orbit and reunite them with Pilot Ron Evans aboard the command module America. They returned safely to earth and splashed down in the Pacific on December 19.

Cernan was the “last man on the moon,” and that also became the title of his book. Before leaving the surface he spoke the following words:

“. . .as I take man’s last step from the surface . . . I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

I remember the words. I remember the excitement of those times. The prospect of space travel fueled my dreams for a number of years. The wonder remains.

A pair of special reminders of the Apollo 17 mission have a place of honor on my fireplace hearth. They are bronze castings of actual footprints of the boots that were part of Cernan’s moonwalk “uniform.”

I have other mementos of U.S. space missions, including the patches that represent Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions and a screw from “Liberty Bell 7,” the capsule piloted by Gus Grissom during the second U.S. human space flight in 1961.

I hold vivid memories of witnessing the Cape Canaveral launch of the last flight of Space Shuttle Columbia from Cape Canaveral. If you’re at all interested in space missions, I highly recommend a visit to the Cosmosphere, an impressive museum in Hutchinson, Kansas.

I frequently still look up at the night sky hoping to catch a glimpse of the ISS as it orbits our globe. I also check in occasionally to view NASA’s real-time views of the home planet.

It was in 1984 that President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build the International Space Station (ISS), but construction did not begin until 1998, when development of reusable American shuttles made it feasible. Assembly of the various components spanned 10 years and required 30 missions by various nations to transports the parts.

Moon landings and travel to other planets were the stuff of dreams. But they were not to continue. The NASA program to explore the universe, both close to home and far away, faced serious budget constraints and criticism even then, and priorities shifted to more earthly concerns.

That may change. President Donald Trump has expressed a commitment to send astronauts back to the moon before heading to Mars. And private companies, including SpaceX and others, have made public their plans to transport tourists into orbit and, perhaps, to the moon. NASA is testing an updated spacecraft, the Orion, for possible unmanned moon orbit, in addition to designing a space station for moon orbit.

Perhaps the day will come when space travel truly is as commonplace as an earthly airplane trip. After all, if John Glenn, the first man to actually orbit the earth, could return to space 37 years later at age 77, perhaps nothing is impossible. I like to believe that seemingly impossible dreams have always been a part of our reality.

So much world to see . . .

It’s already December!

My husband and I returned home tired in the late afternoon of Thanksgiving Day this year, after nearly 24 hours of travel spanning thousands of miles, seven time zones, and airports in four separate countries. We left Venice’s Marco Polo Airport in the rain and fog at first light on Thursday, and landed at sprawling DFW Airport at twilight, in thick fog and persistent drizzle.

The sky in Brussels earlier in the day had been clear, and even though the pilot announced it was blustery and cold in Montreal, the snow had stopped by the time we arrived, leaving only a dusting of white on the ground. It caused minimal delay. On this Thanksgiving Day, I was grateful for the instruments that guided our pilots and for the “weather window” that brought us home on time!

We booked the trip with full knowledge that an end-of-season cruise to Mediterranean and Adriatic ports comes with inherent risk of cool and rainy days, but off-season travel also promises smaller crowds and more chance to interact with local people. We like that. An alluring itinerary combined with the appeal of small-ship cruising aboard the 670-passenger Pacific Princess had sealed the deal for us.

It became an adventure we will not soon forget, marked by minimal deck time, grey skies, winds, occasional high seas, fog and intermittent rain. Some excursions were altered or canceled due to unfavorable conditions. None of that dampened our spirits, because the small-ship experience was much better than we had expected. We feel as if we forged life-long friendships in just 12 days!

Following the cruise, we rented a car and set off to explore the Istrian Peninsula and coastal Croatia for a few days. We ate well, drank local wine and beer, were captivated by the history, enthralled by holiday preparations, and charmed by the people we met along the way.

Mark Twain’s line comes to mind:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Our time away was marked by pleasant days and relaxing evenings, good entertainment, friendly faces, fine food, impressive sights and wonderful experiences. We returned home tired but rejuvenated, filled with delight, invigorated by memories of people and good times. We learned a lot, made new friends, and affirmed once again that travel is indeed the antidote to narrow-mindedness.

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After a brief hiatus from writing about my travels, I am once again ready to tell new stories. I hope you’ll join me: We’ll visit Malta, several Italian ports, San Marino — the oldest republic and one of the smallest sovereign nations on earth, Croatia and Slovenia. Finally, I have pictures of Venice, during the aftermath of the worst flooding in 50 years, illuminating the indomitable spirit of the city’s residents.

There is no doubt that travel changes a person, in a good way!