Pushing the Reset Button

I readily admit that I am still not entirely comfortable with wireless technology. I miss long curly telephone cords and purring electric typewriters. They felt solid and grounded, and I felt in control. I still keep track of appointments with a book-like calendar and I make notes on random slips of paper.

Today, I spend undue time worrying that my smart devices will outsmart me. I am uncomfortable with a car that reminds me to buckle my seatbelt, a navigation device that tells me I am not following directions properly, and a cell phone personality that questions my directives.

I am used to being in charge, and I want my technology to obey my commands and respond to my needs without being coddled.

At the very least, I hope to win ongoing battles without the need to call in reinforcements – read “young technicians who make me feel like an idiot because of my inability to solve the problem myself.

I regularly forget that the way to bypass periodic operational hiccups with both my portable devices and my desktop computer is simply to turn them off, wait a few moments and reboot them. It may be akin to sending an unruly toddler to the corner for a time out, but it seems unnatural and unnecessary to me.

Unfortunately, in other areas of life, I also tend to undervalue the power of pushing the reset button.

A Spring Resolution

I recently returned from a quick overnight in Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. A short cruise out of Los Angeles offered sun and warmth, gently rolling seas and good companionship. I savored long, lazy days aboard ship with no agenda, no schedule, no daily deadlines – all equally beneficial for body and soul. I was served interesting food and adult beverages, enjoyed good stage shows and movies, caught a few spectacular sunsets, and watched cavorting whales, sea lions, pelicans and gulls.

We strolled the Cabo waterfront, listened to music, sampled local Margaritas and street tacos and thoroughly enjoyed leisurely time ashore.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that creativity is fueled by new experiences, interesting people, beauty, good food, and even a bit of personal indulgence. But the crush of daily life sometimes gets in the way.

Vacations, especially if they are short, simple and relatively unplanned, are invigorating. Even day trips can be memorable. As much as I love exotic destinations. I have come to believe in the restorative benefits of simple getaways. Unfortunately, those simple excursions don’t happen often enough. But they’re an indulgence I have promised myself more frequently this year.

Getting out in the world is – in my universe – the human reset button.

New Spring in My Step!

I returned to my desk this week with a fresh appreciation for the work I do. Freelancing is, in many ways, a dream job. I understand fully that I have the luxury of being able to escape to far horizons on a fairly regular basis. The flip side of that coin is that, more often than not, I take some work with me.

After all, those portable electronic devices have changed my world, for better or worse. Unless I disclose my whereabouts, there is no reason for anyone to know that I am not slaving away at my desk.

But this time, I chose not to work while in Mexico. Other than checking email occasionally, I did not write a single word. I did not check, nor did I post to social media.  But I returned home with a mind alive with ideas, and a determination to work harder to tell the stories that I find interesting.

So, my promise – to myself – is to get back to work with renewed zest and spirit, and then to walk away much more often. That’s motivation I can embrace.

I pushed the reset button!

Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik, that gem of a city on the Adriatic, is now famous as a filming location for scenes in Game of Thrones, and astute fans may also recognize parts of the city in Star 100_6328Wars VIII scenes. Croatia as  a nation has existed on maps with its current boundaries for scarcely more than a decade, after years of ongoing struggle for sovereignty and independence. The city, though, is solid, ancient and unforgettable, picture postcard worthy.

Because I have never seen Game of Thrones, I had no inkling of the imposing beauty of this city on the Adriatic. It is so much more than a stage set! In the 7th Century, when the Dubrovnik Republic was born, this settlement on the shore of a dramatic fjord already had a long history.

It staggers the senses, but citizens of Dubrovnik celebrate those centuries of history as their personal legacy, both the good and the bad. They embrace it all, and speak as openly about the years of oppression and conflict as about the glory days when seafarers jockeyed for position with other independent maritime governments, chiefly Venice, Genoa and Napoli.

The cultural awareness extends back in time, far back. History is pervasive; it’s a living legacy. By contrast, Americans are still so young on the world stage, barely more than toddlers compared to Dubrovnik, indeed in contrast with most of the rest of the world.

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There is much to love about this walled city with its sturdy ramparts and fortifications. There is also much to discover: Art and architecture, upscale shops, trendy cafes with impeccably groomed servers. Young people sport smartphones and the latest fashions, children smile and play happily on the polished stones of the pedestrian-only Stradun; old folks stroll hand in hand, silently testifying that an everyday existence is very much still a part of this old city.

Teens pose for selfies by a bronze statue with nose and fingers burnished bright by visitors. Visiting adults find it hard to resist as well. 100_6394

Dubrovnik is crowded during daylight hours; it’s quieter at night. There is little of the “touristy” appeal of American beach towns and tour bus destinations. Lines to enter the city gates are often long, but quite orderly. We entered through Pile Gate, with throngs of others eager to explore the life and spirit of the city within the legendary walls.

Dubrovnik has, of course, outgrown its old boundaries, just as other ancient cities have burst their seams, and life in the new city is very different. Buses and taxis rule, and the pace is loud and congested.

I was enthralled with old Dubrovnik, more so with its people. They live in a storybook setting, with a past that intrudes on the present in a sensory way.

I would return there in a minute. Although I was able to visit only a scant portion of the country that lies along the sea, rarely have I been so charmed by a place after only a short few hours. Heading north along the coast on a bus was, at times, a nail-biting experience. But the trip was well worth it.

To be sure, there is something unfair about judgments formed so quickly. But there’s a permanence about Dubrovnik. It seems the kind of city that will remain standing far into the future, both the popular old city and the new one sprung up outside the walls. The city is a wonderful destination, and could be a jumping off point for the rest of Croatia. However, travel to Dubrovnik, other than by cruise ship, is not yet so easy for Americans. It’s more convenient to arrive by air from London or another European capital, or to travel to Dubrovnik, by ferry from Bari, Italy. 100_6409“It’s the end of the season,” we were told. All large cruise ships depart by the end of October, and the cadence of life changes. Locals live quietly, or leave on  vacation, even though the local weather remains pleasant throughout the winter.

Indeed, as our ship made its way out of the harbor, residents lined up on shore to wave goodbye. I had a fleeting vision of families bidding similar farewells to generations of sailors leaving port for adventure in unknown lands.

 

Eating well in Puerto Limon . . .

High above the harbor, where the air is clear and the streets are filled with cars and people rather than warning signs and concertina wire, our cab driver pulled to the side and indicated a colorful sign and an open doorway. We had arrived at our destination, and a smiling waiter came out to greet us. 100_4759

Crew members on board our cruise ship had said this was the place to go for lunch in Puerto Limon. We were early but it was comfortable enough to just sit and “be.” The big-screen TV that hung from the ceiling, thankfully, was not blaring, and the hum of quiet conversation from two or three adjoining tables was pleasant “background music.” We ordered cool drinks. We did not expect to be alone for long.

The ‘back side’ of Costa Rica

This is not the tourist’s Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, the busiest port in the country, has the look and the feel of a “real” town. Bananas, grains and other goods leave here bound for destinations across the globe, but it has not yet become a prime cruise ship destination. It retains its working class flavor, refreshing in a time when glitzy storefronts and undistinguished trinkets welcome disembarking passengers in most other ports.

This Caribbean port has island roots and they stretch all the way back to 1502, when Christopher Columbus set foot on the land. Beaches stretch in both directions, and the sea is beautiful, but the city itself is a bit disheveled and has suffered the ravages of earthquakes, storms and economic blight. Like much of Latin America, it is defined by gates and barricades, and the ever-present concertina wire.

Limon is not postcard pretty, but the people we met were gracious and friendly, although busy with their own pursuits and not impressed by cruise ship crowds. We had no desire to shop in town, but the fruits and vegetables displayed at the market looked lush, ripe and inviting.

My journal note from the day:

“The Red Snapper (or Da Domenico; we were never quite certain exactly where we were!) is unassuming from the street, pleasant enough within; with a friendly local ambience not unlike bars and restaurants elsewhere in the tropics. Sea breezes circulate under a soaring ceiling, wafting through open-air rooms like invited guests. Dark wood interiors punctuated with spots of bright color keep it cool, but lively. And the good-natured banter emanating from the kitchen makes us smile. So, too, does the sleeping dog that patrons are careful to step over or around!”

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Views of the harbor — our glistening white cruise ship seemed far away and far below — were mesmerizing. We looked over the rooftops toward the horizon and were captivated. We drank in the beauty of the sea, ordered cool drinks, and knew we had been given good advice.

We also knew it was going to be a long and satisfying lunch! We were not disappointed.

Sampling the sea’s treasures

Because the best part of travel involves putting aside the familiar, we asked our waiter for lunch suggestions. We specified fish or seafood. Little did we know what a feast would be set before us, so we also decided to share a pizza marguerita “appetizer.” No way could we consider it a mistake in terms of flavor, but there is no way a starter course was necessary!

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Our surprise dishes were delightful — and the three of us happily shared two distinctly different orders. The first, a whole fish served with fried plantain and a fresh green salad, was not only impressive to behold, but would have offered sufficient food for three on its own! And it was presented as beautifully as cruise ship fare.

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The second house specialty included perfectly-prepared seafood steamed in a delicious sauce and served in its own foil pack hot from the oven. 100_4748Overloaded with shrimp and mussels swimming in flavored sauce atop a bed of pasta, it was Caribbean in character, boasting plump cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and subtle exotic spice, perfectly executed, but too much for one person!

When our congenial cab driver returned to pick us up, he obliged by taking us on a short tour through his town — a request we always try to make. As we made our way back to the dock, we were happy to have shared a great meal in Puerto Limon, sorry that we had no more time to explore this back side of Costa Rica more fully.

We will savor the experience we had, and we will continue to wonder about our young waiter who dreamed someday of joining a cruise ship crew to see the rest of the world.

 

The dream dies hard, but the memories live on

It looms large on the horizon, the hulk of the S.S. United States, as she lies in port in Philadelphia. Her stacks rise above the neighboring dock buildings, and it’s possible to use them as landmarks rather than following GPS directions as you chart a course to see the once grand ship in her current forlorn and decrepit state.

This ship — and the search for a traditional Philly cheesesteak — took us to the city of brotherly love this summer.

We found our ship with ease, and we lingered there. Remembering our first encounter with this vessel, my husband and I didn’t speak. We just gazed through the chain links at this once gleaming passenger liner with a history that is irrevocably intertwined with ours.

We met the S.S. United States, and one another, on the same day in August 50 years ago at the port in Le Havre, France. The ship was just a teenager at the time. We were young as  well, and impressionable.

She was a looker, massive and shiny and silent, but aswarm with crew going about their duties. We were impressed by her presence and by her glamor; she took our breath away. We had some other experiences with her, but her days at sea came to an end barely three years later.

Our story continues.

This summer, as we mapped our road trip north, it became a priority for us to see the grand old ship. Philadelphia was miles out of the way, but we took the detour. Our hearts were in our throats as we first spied those distinctive smokestacks. We were buoyed by the hope that this old lady might actually sail the seas once again.

Unfortunately, early this month, we learned that the plan to refurbish her as a cruise ship is not feasible. The S.S. United States has been out of service for 47 years; she has languished at the dock in Philadelphia for more than 20 years now, longer than she sailed! And, though she is deemed still structurally sound, the dream that she might again carry passengers has died.

There is still some hope that the S.S. United States will be saved from the scrap heap and turned into a floating “history book.” She is, after all, an engineering marvel; this last American flagship set a world speed record on her maiden voyage. It has never been broken. Is it so hard to believe that others could be inspired by looking up at her towering stacks, standing at her railing, or exploring her labyrinthian interior. Not for us.

The experience certainly stayed with me and my husband throughout our years!

As we again gazed at her with awe, she sat behind locked gates, no longer shiny and glamorous, but impressive nonetheless!

We left the docks finally, and found a Philly cheesesteak at a tiny Tony Luke’s on Oregon Ave., almost in the shadow of Interstate 95 South. There were only seven or eight tables inside, but the line snaked through the building and extended into the parking lot beyond. It took some time to reach the order window, but not long at all for our traditional beef and melted cheese sandwiches to be ready. Miraculously, there were two seats at a table. The wait was worth it; Philadelphia’s signature food treat was the second delight of the day!

We had come to Philly for the memories. And we left well satisfied.

SOS — Saving a Grand Old Ship

By Frederic Logghe [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A long-ago time, and in faraway places, the S.S. United States was a bright and shining example of American ingenuity, achievement and spirit. She is still grand and imposing, but her shine has given way to age; her paint is peeling, her interiors are empty; she has suffered greatly from years of sitting still.

There are those of us who would dearly love to see her live on, to enjoy another incarnation so that present and future generations could be awed by the sight, the size and the story of her.

But, I fear that is not to be.

Three news networks this week have told her story. Those who are desperately trying to save her say that the deadline is near – maybe less than two weeks away – when they will be forced to give up the fight. Rent alone at her dock costs $60,000 a month, and before Christmas this year, the money will have run out.

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy that is seeking a benefactor, says the end of October marks the deadline. After that, she notes, negotiations with a “responsible recycler” will begin. This is not a new development, but it is no less disturbing. The ship has faced the wrecking ball before. But she has, in the past, been granted a “stay.”

For Ms. Gibbs, it’s personal. She is the granddaughter of the ship’s designer, naval architect William Francis Gibbs.

It’s personal for me too.

In a very real sense, the U.S. United States was a matchmaker; she was the reason I met my future husband almost 50 years ago.

At that time, she had been called into service to help move American servicemen and their families out of Europe, and specifically to move them home from France. She was still carrying paying passengers as well, but in some cases, American military families made a five-day passage to New York aboard this swift liner. They ate in the elegant dining rooms, were served by impeccably uniformed staff, and experienced a lifestyle that only a few tourists of the time shared. Luxury ocean liner travel then was the domain, for the most part, of the rich and famous.

But when General DeGaulle of France decreed on March 10, 1966, that foreign military in his country must withdraw or submit to French control, a massive logistical effort began almost immediately to relocate military families. The one-year deadline loomed large; time was of the essence. Even though air travel could accommodate the humans, shipment of household goods and automobiles had to be by sea. At the time, utilizing available staterooms and the cavernous below-deck holds of this great ship made a lot of sense.

So it was that the paths of one young U.S. Army lieutenant and one young working journalist converged one day on a dock in Le Havre, France. He was newly-assigned to help meet the deadline, charged with the responsibility of scheduling military travel and moving belongings. I had a story to write about the huge effort.

No, it wasn’t romantic; we were not her passengers. But she loomed large on the docks in Le Havre as we looked along her more than three-football-fields length and up at her 12-stories above-the-water countenance.

Just a little more than one year later, when there were no military personnel left in France, it was largely due to the S.S. United States and the numbers of people and tons of belongings that she transported back to American shores.

Yes, she was impressive then.

She is still impressive now. Her peeling paint and her empty decks do not detract from her presence and her lines. She still looms larger than life, even though she has sat silent far longer than she ever plied the seas. She was in service only from 1952 through 1969, silenced when she was only 17.

My personal story continues with her. In another tale of endings, my parents considered themselves fortunate to be among her passengers on a scheduled North Atlantic crossing in November 1969. They enjoyed the experience immensely, and they disembarked in New York. The ship was bound for Newport News and a refurbishing “furlough,” but she never returned to service. My father thought it ironic, in his later years, that he had sailed on one of the last troop-carrying voyages of Cunard’s Queen Mary, as it ferried American servicemen home after World War II, as well as on the final crossing of the S.S. United States.

S.S. United States, Philadelphia, 2005

The rebirth of cruising vacations came too late.

Today, the irony is that more people than ever before take to the sea for vacations. Cruising ships have grown larger, accommodations more deluxe, and onboard amenities overwhelming. The S.S. United States was the last American-flagged passenger vessel afloat. She was also the largest ship ever to be built in the United States. She is substantial even by today’s standards, although her passenger load was not quite 2,000 in 692 staterooms, with a crew of just over 1,000. But, she had a distinctive look about her, with two stacks towering almost 65 feet above her decks. And she was fast. She remains the Blue Riband-Hales Trophy winner. She set the speed record for crossing the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage in 1952, snatching it away from the Queen Mary. It has not since been broken!

Both Cunard’s Queen Mary and the S.S. United States were known for elegance and speed. Both were designed for passenger comfort, but built to carry troops in case of need. Both served well. Both today are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

View a slideshow of the S.S. United States.

There the similarities, unfortunately, end. The Queen Mary is now a popular hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. The S.S. United States rots at the dock in Philadelphia.

Surely she too has value as a destination resort, a museum, an office building, a shopping center, or a funky condominium development. Or, am I just out of touch with reality?

As Susan Gibbs and others have stated in recent news interviews, “We have never been so close to saving her; and we have never been so close to losing her.” Save Our Ship (SOS) efforts are ongoing. But, hopes are beginning to fade.

I will continue to hope. Yes, it’s very personal.