Thinking about what lies ahead

Over the past several months — months when I felt increasingly trapped at home due to a virus over which humans seem to have no control — I searched for some sort of meaning to it all. I certainly found it hard to write about travel and good times; I seriously considered renaming my blog.

Good Places in Long Ago Times came to mind, or Distant Memories of the Faraway.

Now that there are some hopeful signs that the world will once again open up, albeit not as quickly or totally as I would wish, I am consumed by thoughts of what the future will hold. Will we, months from now, still be hunkered down, focused on the perils that may await us if we travel too far and too fast, both figuratively and literally?

Have we learned anything over the past 13 months? And just what are the lessons that we could or should learn from this modern-day plague?

I, for one, have learned that being with others is always better than being apart. A year of separation from loved ones has not made us better. If anything, this year has induced in many of us a kind of stupor, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Some of those I know truly believe that we will be wearing masks in public for the rest of our days.

Can you imagine not ever again seeing a smile on the face of a stranger?

Others are still filled with fear for themselves, but mostly for loved ones and coworkers — and, yes, fear for the teachers, the caregivers, the first responders. It is a paralyzing thought that keeps them homebound and alone. That is far from the “good life” that I choose to embrace. There is much sadness around us these days.

Bitterness, anger, rebellion, distrust and angst — these are the symptoms of perilous times. There are medical authorities and social scientists who firmly believe that the collateral damage of this pandemic will constitute a growing future crisis of far-reaching proportions.

It was with all that in mind that my husband and I planned an early April visit to see relatives in Maine. I might add that we booked the trip only because we, and those we planned to visit, had been totally vaccinated, and because we had an airline credit that would cover our flight costs. But it had been far too long since we had seen and laughed with our cousins, who are very good friends as well as relatives.

We were all ready for a brief reunion. It has been a difficult year for all of us in individual ways, and we needed some respite in the form of togetherness. The four of us were together nearly two years ago for a glorious two weeks touring Portugal and the Azores, and we were eager to repeat that experience on home turf.

Masked travelers were no surprise; crowded airports were.

Flying out of Little Rock National at 7 a.m. was easy. There were few flights scheduled, fewer passengers waiting. The plane was small — 2×2 seating and half empty. But changing planes in Charlotte proved to be a totally different experience. Normally a large and busy airport, it was especially chaotic this time. We attributed the crowds to Spring Break and Easter travelers, but still we were surprised that although officials are still warning against unnecessary travel, so many would choose to fly.

The flight was filled — shoulder to shoulder, middle seats as well. We were greeted with a hand sanitizer packet, offered by a blue-gloved hand, not by smiles and words of welcome. There was to be no beverage service and no snacks. Along with seat belt and emergency oxygen instructions, we were admonished to keep our masks on for the entire duration of the flight. We settled in with our books for the next two and a half hours, noticing that even the in-flight magazine bore a “sanitized” label.

There were no huge crowds in Portland, Maine, our destination; just a steady stream of masked travelers. The mood was quiet, almost somber. Visitors to Maine from beyond the neighboring New England states who are not fully vaccinated still must provide proof of a negative test or undergo a voluntary 10-day quarantine. And masks are required still in all public places.

In our newly-adopted home state of Arkansas, the mask mandate and social distancing were relaxed by the governor effective March 30. However, many local businesses still required masks when we departed. We returned to a different world. Although we still carry our face masks with us, many of the signs have been removed from public places. I attended a meeting this past week that did not require them, and I was able to sit next to friends without three feet of space between chairs.

Coming home to relaxed rules is refreshing

Last night my husband and I joined a friend for dinner at a casual pizza place near our home. All the signs have been removed, and only one or two patrons entered with masks. Even most of the servers were unmasked and smiling. I asked about that, wondering if the younger, unvaccinated employees were nervous about increased exposure.

The answer: “No, not really. But would you like me to put on my mask?” So, the thought is still with us — with us all — that we have not yet returned to normal. More importantly, perhaps, none of us quite knows what normal means anymore. And we still receive somewhat conflicting advice from our leaders. We can’t help but wonder if we are moving too fast, or in the wrong direction as we hear more news reports about growing numbers of infections in other states.

For now at least, each one of us must set personal boundaries. I’m not sure what they will be for me, going forward. What I do know is that seeing the smiles on the faces of friends and family is important. And I look forward to the time when it will no longer be a question of wearing a mask or seeing a smile.

I still hope that the time will come sooner rather than later. I can now believe that the day is approaching when I can book a trip without also having an option if it is canceled. I look forward to making future memories in those faraway places, and to sampling, once again, all the good food that is waiting to be enjoyed.

No, I have decided not to rename the blog, but rather to continue to search out new experiences in interesting destinations.

In a year’s time . . .

Note: One year ago today, the World Health Organization upgraded the status of a spreading virus, dubbed COVID-19, to a global pandemic. That announcement changed our lives forever. Today, as I write this, approximately 118 million cases have been confirmed around the world, and 2.62 million individuals have died. The United States leads the world, unfortunately, in total deaths, almost 530,000 to date, but not in “deaths per million” of population. Yet, however, it is measured, this pandemic has been deadly. The good news, if there is any, is that nearly 70,000 million people worldwide are deemed to be fully recovered, and that a handful of vaccines are currently being administered around the globe. They seem to be effective in preventing serious illness and death. That fact alone is reason for hope. The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continues to decline, at least in the United States. The hope, as expressed today by leading medical authorities, is that perhaps by fall citizens of this country might expect a return to some sort of normalcy.

For me, that means a return to travel.

Just a little over one year has passed since I was first affected by COVID-19. The pandemic was not yet big news, but we were notified in February 2020 that a cruise we had booked for May of 2020from Tokyo to Vancouver, British Columbia, would be cancelled due to “an abundance of caution” surrounding the growing number of infections, on cruise ships as well as on land. All of us who lived through this past year know how the cancellations, shutdowns and stay-at-home orders progressed.

We had returned to the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day 2019, following a trip to the Mediterranean, and we had taken a short voyage to Mexico in January to celebrate an anniversary. Life looked good at the time, with many more trips already taking shape in our minds. We were confident that modern medicine and early warnings would be effective against the spread of a new virus, and that we would soon be traveling again.

How mistaken we were.

Little did we realize at the time what the coming months had in store. When our planned North Pacific crossing was canceled, we immediately began looking for other itineraries. We boldly booked several. Over the years, we have had to postpone other trips due to illness and we have cancelled others because of a simple change of plans. We have occasionally missed a flight; we have adjusted travel plans to adapt to changing conditions and reworked schedules based on circumstances beyond our control.

Our previous trips have been memorable. And we have the memories of those journeys. But this year, to date, we have had 11 planned cruises canceled by various cruise lines, the most recent just last week. As have others, we have accrued a handful of future cruise credits, rebooked some itineraries for the following year, and opted to have other deposits returned in cash. As have others, we had flights canceled as well, and we still have a handful of travel vouchers for future use. We are beginning to plan how we will use them.

In conversations with representatives of three separate cruise companies this week, we have been given little hope of being at sea again this summer. We remain hopeful about the fall, but we are not yet confident. We have to believe that our plans for 2022 will, indeed, materialize. Down deep, though, we hold on to the thought that, with the vaccine now available, we just might be able to walk up the gangplank of a ship for a quick getaway before year’s end. Maybe sooner? Some cruise lines still have May 31 marked as the date their schedule will resume. In the meantime, we have begun to plan some road trips within reasonable driving distance of our home.

And, because of the vaccine, we felt quite confident booking a flight to visit family in Maine at the end of the month. An island somewhere in the world continues to beckon us for a fall visit.

We look forward to the time when we all can venture out without fear to see family and meet friends, to enjoy restaurant meals and to take advantage of the cultural and educational opportunities all around us. There are many places we have not seen, and others we are eager to see again, many within a few hours of our home.

The truth is that staying at home has been hard, and not every journey has to be a long one. Road trips have their own distinct appeal. We’re looking forward to exploring more of Arkansas, our new home state.

But, when the infection rates come down, and a high percentage of the world’s population is vaccinated, watch out! We continue to hope that day comes soon, and you can bet we’re making plans right now to travel to those exotic destinations that have been waiting for us.

Are you?

A relapse of restlessness . . .

Mornings are chilly. Daylight comes later and is as apt to be dull and gray as bright and sunny. Dark descends early, and the glow of a fire in the hearth is welcome. But today marks the winter solstice, and the earth will once again slowly begin to reawaken after its winter rest. So, too, will our spirits. 

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This has been a long nine months — leaving a wealth of sadness, anger, distrust and uncertainty in the wake. I know I am not alone with the feeling that it just needs to be over so that we can all get on with living our lives the way we wish to live them. And, because the nightly newscasts now intersperse continuing Coronavirus reports and charges of election irregularities with the news of vaccine approvals and deliveries, we have  cause for hope. The vaccines may be the best holiday gift we could imagine.

For me, my future will once again hopefully include travel, dining out in the company of others when the mood strikes and gathering with groups of friends to share good times. I hope we will soon be able to greet family and friends with hugs rather than fist or elbow bumps, and put away the masks that hide our smiles.

I cannot wait. I am making plans. However, I am well aware that the return to a sense of normalcy will not be abrupt. I just hope that the path to that return can be relatively smooth.

Perhaps, sooner rather than later, the threat of COVID-19 will become just another memory, and we can all succumb to Spring Fever instead. During these dark and lonely months, we have tried to cope in ways that made sense to each of us individually. Perhaps now we can join together to pave the way back to a lifestyle that is punctuated with laughter and hope rather than fear.

Life is always uncertain, and if that is the great lesson of COVID-19, let’s all take heart that good times lie ahead. I anticipate than 2021 will be a good year, even though I recognize that there are continuing challenges to meet.

In my heart — and in my world — the time to plan new excursions is past due. My travel partner and I want to escape to an island for a bit of sea and sun; we want to be able to freely explore our new home state, savor the fun of out-of-the-way destinations, and discover unique “back alley” eateries. I am compiling a list!

I have satisfied my wanderlust somewhat these past few months by reviewing and editing the past several years of travel photographs, reliving memories and cataloging ideas for posts still to be written. It has only served, though, to increase my appetite for the next journey and for new destinations.

It helps that cruise companies and travel planners view spring as the season to offer reduced deposits, bargain fares, new itineraries and great incentives. They’re all very tempting, but the reality is that travel plans are still tenuous, and the disappointment of more cancelled cruises would be almost too much to bear.

So, even as I ramp up the planning for trips that lie ahead, I remain sensible enough to know that for the next several weeks, perhaps months, my travel is apt to remain virtual. I will, however, post weekly photos and share some stories of past travels just for the fun of it. 

The good food? Well, that can be found almost anywhere, and staying at home has proved to be a way rediscover the goodness and the joy of home cooking. I recently found some old family recipes, saved from the hard times of long ago. So there will be stories of them as well. And some of them may surprise you.

When the world settles down a bit, I have compiled a variety of travel tips for anyone who is ready to pack bags and head off to new experiences. I hope you’ll join me!

Ring those bells . . .

A random Facebook post from a faraway friend captured my imagination this past week. And now it has become a “cause” because I can’t seem to help getting caught up in grand ideas that are designed to bring people together in quirky, frivolous ways. Great things often come from small and simple acts. This time it seems a lot of others have joined in with enthusiasm. I hope it lasts, and I hope it grows.

It has been reported that the effort was begun by a housewife and “mum” in the U.K. who thought it would be a good memory for her children in years to come. I learned about it via several Facebook posts, among them one from a relative in Norway; and the word is spreading fast!

Just as the balcony singing across Italy seemed so spontaneous and emotionally uplifting in the terrible, early days of the pandemic, this recent request for citizens of the world to gather on their front porches at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve strikes an emotional chord with me. I want to be a part of it. I want to hear bells ringing from every doorstep on my street. Then I want to watch the television news coverage of bells ringing in other time zones and in other nations. It will restore my faith that people everywhere — from Capetown to Chicago, From Anchorage to Ankara, from Dublin to Denver are more alike than they are different, in the words of Maya Angelou. I want to celebrate with those people on apartment balconies and front porches all across the world. I am gathering up my bells!

Does anyone remember Hands Across America?

It was 1986. It was a BIG IDEA. Organized by USA for Africa, the same organization that produced the star-studded video concert We Are the World in 1985, Hands Across America was designed to underscore the need for funding to fight devastating famine in Africa, and also to address hunger and homelessness in the U.S.

The thought of people from all walks of life clasping hands to form a human chain stretching from the West Coast to the East to highlight the plight of those who needed help was more than I could resist. I became an early supporter. It was conceived as a benefit effort, not only to address problems but to be a ray of hope for those who had little else to sustain them. The 80s were difficult times for many Americans and for the world, although the sting of those years has faded over time.

The route was designated and mapped, and for a small donation, individuals were assigned a place to be at a specific hour — 3 p.m. Eastern time, May 25, or noon Pacific time. It was a Sunday. I gathered up my family, including my husband and young son plus several equally spirited friends. We drove about 30 minutes to be at our designated spot along a highway not far from our suburban Dallas neighborhood. We arrived shortly before 2 p.m. to find only a few others scattered along the roadway. I remember being somewhat disappointed that the crowd wasn’t as large as I had hoped.

But, as happened in other communities, we joined hands at the appointed hour and stood in solidarity under the Texas sun for a cause that was born from a dream, a cause we believed had the potential to change the world. We stretched our line along the roadway as far as possible. It was reported that there were breaks in the line throughout the nation, but in a cornfield in Iowa, in the geographic center of the United States, 16,000 people gathered. There were throngs in New York, in California, and in Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 was rained out but people stood in the rain for another reason.

It is said that long-haul truckers honked as they passed the lines along the country’s highways. It is said that a few stopped and joined the chain for brief moments. In some small towns, church bells rang out as neighbors gathered along their streets, one hand in another. And anyone who participated felt uplifted by it all.

President Ronald Reagan joined hands with others at the White House and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill brought the U.S. Capitol into the chain. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton joined in in Little Rock, and scores of entertainers lent their names and their support to the effort. A theme song, Hands Across America, was broadcast simultaneously from radio stations coast to coast. For 15 minutes or so on one day in 1986, millions of people came together in a most unusual way.

Even though the actual human chain did not span the 3,000 plus miles as intended, it is estimated that more than five million individuals participated, perhaps as many as 6.5 million. Though there were empty spots along the route, it is also said that if those who joined the effort could have been equally spaced, the line would have stretched from coast to coast, and the effort was termed a success by the organizers, raising more than $15 million after expenses. Many of the participants donated more than the stipulated fee for the privilege of joining total strangers to see an audacious idea take shape.

So it is this year. It’s an outrageous request to ask people across the globe to step onto their front porches Christmas eve to perform a symbolic act — “to spread Christmas spirit and help Santa fly his sleigh” — with no thought of reward. But it’s also inspiring, isn’t it?

I want to hear bells echoing throughout my neighborhood the evening of December 24, and I want to see news reports of millions of people in scores of other countries shaking their own bells with an energy that could change the world.

Is that too fanciful a dream? Perhaps, but I hope not. Even if it doesn’t shake the world, perhaps it can open hearts, spark a new hopefulness, contribute to a happier holiday, and become the source of lasting smiles for many who have precious little to smile about this year.

So, enlist your neighbors, spread the word to friends and family, join neighborhood and online groups that are springing up to support what has become known as “The Christmas Eve Jingle 2020.”

Get those bells ready!

At the very least, perhaps it will be a fond memory, and provide a unique story for future grandmothers to tell their grandchildren in years to come.

We all know that 2020 has been a tough year. We all want the coming year to be better. And, no matter what holiday or holy day one celebrates this December, the year is coming to an end. Each of us must now look ahead to 2021. We cannot escape the passage of time, and we cannot turn back the calendar to a date that was more pleasant or more “normal.” All we can do is move on, so why not begin the process of moving ahead with a bell in each hand and new purpose in our hearts? It’s up to each one of us to make a difference.

I believe in hope and I know that we could all use a new measure of hope this season.

I remember Hands Across America, I remember We Are the World, and I want to be a witness as another Big Idea comes alive!

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.”