Monday, January 16, 2012

April Rising

In April Tyana and I will take a trip to Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, November 26, 2010

Passing Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Climbing the stairs to Deck Ten I am in deep thought, trying to recollect C. P. Cavafy’s poem.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time.

Venice, Dobrovnik, Kusadasi, Santorini, Corfu - I say to myself. Harbors seen or to be seen for the first time, either from the balcony of our room or from the top deck. But on this summer morning I am thinking of a special harbor, one of which I have no concrete image. One I will not explore, though its name is quite familiar to me: Ithaka! Abstract thoughts run ahead of me as I reach the exercise deck. I whisper the Greek word nostos. I scan the horizon; dark islands appear in the distance. I wonder if I will actually see Ithaka on the trip south. Nostos I repeat – that’s what I have named my travel journal. The Homecoming.

Whether I am accused of traveling in my mind or whether I am admired for it, Ithaka itself - Ithake as the young Greek waiter pronounces it – is a reality. This island in the Ionian chain occupies an area of 45 square miles and has around three thousand inhabitants. Modern Ithaka is most often identified with Homer’s Ithaka, the home of Odysseus. When Mother introduced me to the most famous poem by one of Greece’s most famous poets, Constantine Petrou Cavafy, I interpreted Ithaka as the ultimate goal of a life-long journey. A place, most desirable, to be saved until one has learned all that is needed to be worthy of final grace: the homecoming.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

I already finished my morning mile earlier; now, after breakfast with Pat, I come to Deck 10 to participate in a charity event. By purchasing a “Wishes at Sea” t-shirt and walking a mile I will support the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When I arrive at the Rock Climbing Wall I am the only customer. The young man who sells the shirts lets me know that he has watched several terminally ill children enjoy their Mediterranean cruises. “It gets to you,” he says.

I tell him that I knit teddy bears for sick children in Africa. We talk about the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Mother Bear Project. I shake his hand, tell him that his enthusiasm touches me.

The still crisp morning air, the blue water, and the thought that I am helping a child fulfill a dream make me giddy. Making my way between runners, joggers, photographers, deck hands, and people chatting with each other, I’ve all but forgotten Homer and Cavafy and Ithaka, when a voice on the loudspeaker announces that we are about to pass between the islands of Kefalonia and Ithaka. I pull the camera from my fanny pack.

When the ship is flanked by the islands on either side the young man at the rock wall offers to take my photograph in front of Ithaka. I am overwhelmed and confide my absolute delight to have this moment on record. For the second time I shake his hand.

“I am passing Ithaka,” I announce. “It is August 9, 2010. 9:45am.”

Of course I don’t tell him that all my photographs so far are of Kefalonia. Only his suggestion to pose at a certain spot – portside he says and points to the left - makes me realize that I have been concentrating on the wrong island. In my eagerness to attribute symbolic value to the German transmission of information I lacked concentration and confused starboard and portside – a subject of endless speculation at our dinner conversations for days to come. I take another twenty pictures, aiming my camera up and down the shoreline of Ithaka, the mountainous interior where a tiny smoke cloud hovers over a divide, the wake our ship creates as we continue our journey.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

I finish my second mile and go to the solarium to write into my journal. “Not much to see since the harbors are located on the east side.” But as I scan the last passage of the poem I grasp and adore its meaning.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Reading the poem again – it is attached to the inside of my journal’s front cover – I smile. Tomorrow I will fulfill a few more lines by shopping in Kusadasi and visiting Ephesus.

May you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind-

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

My amber and ebony will probably be cloth and stone; my scholars will be past emperors and philosophers and a modern-day tour guide with a list of facts he has committed to memory.

For a moment I feel the need for a witness and try to invoke Dr. Steinfeld, but relaxed silence spreads across my body. “All my corners are rounded,” I write without questioning the metaphor.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

Angry Posidon – don’t be afraid of them:

You’ll never find things like that on your way

As long as a rare excitement

Stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

Wild Poseidon –you won’t encounter them

Unless you bring them along inside your soul,

Unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

My mind is almost empty now. I close the journal and my eyes. My soul is free of cannibals and monsters as Ithaka glides into past tense. Thank you, Mr. Cavafy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

In Search of Emily Carr

Part I

“Seventy isn’t so frightfully old!” Emily Carr, the Canadian painter, said. But the doctors would not allow her to travel alone in her caravan any longer; and after her first heart attack she had to depend on others to drive it to her favorite locations.

I would not know anything about Emily had I not inherited an Alaska Airlines ticket about to expire. For a one hundred dollar transfer fee I would be able to go anywhere with the airline, but if I wanted to stay within the $440.00 value of the original ticket, Victoria in British Columbia was the place to go. I googled “art and museums” and found The Royal B.C. Museum, a Miniature Museum, the Emily Carr House. The Victoria website beamed at me with a beautiful night shot of the Empress Hotel. Tea at the Empress is expensive but glamorous. The famous Butchart Gardens sealed the deal. Soon a three and a half day schedule emerged - a quick romp through Victoria’s highlights.

I researched Emily Carr. She was cranky. She never married. She painted most of her life though she had many obstacles to overcome. She began to write in her sixties, when it became too difficult to prepare canvas and too hard to haul around paint supplies. Emily grew up and died in Victoria. I bought her autobiography “Growing Pains,” and immediately related to the words she wrote about her Mother:

“Our childhood was ruled by Father’s unbendable iron will, the obeying of which would have been intolerable but for Mother’s patient polishing of its dull metal so that it shone and reflected the beauty of orderliness that was in all Father’s ways, his overbearing omnipotence….”

On the evening of July 27, 2009, a Monday, I summed up my first half day in Victoria with overheated disappointment: No air conditioning in my hotel room. No grocery store nearby. No Emily Carr anywhere. Vancouver Island was in the claws of a heat wave. It wasn’t prepared. The Huntingdon Manor in Belleview Park wasn’t prepared. A portable fan failed to reduce the ninety some degrees temperature; I only felt the fan’s power when I aimed it directly at my face.

As for healthy eating, buying one of the two bruised apples in a nearby convenience store was the only effort I made on the first day toward my low sodium, low cholesterol, low fat, and low sugar requirements. It seems that for every restriction added to my diet by the doctor, restaurants invent another fatty, well salted, cholesterol spiked meal, and, naturally, their menus brag about yet another super-moussed, extra sweet dessert that I can’t resist.

And what about Emily Carr? At home I had imagined myself in her footsteps on the streets of Victoria. By six in the evening I had gotten lost twice, was tired and hot and no longer interested in her. My thoughts dwelled with morose insistence on my failure to locate her home on 207 Government Street. Maybe a GPS device would have alerted me, let me know that I had given up about a block away. But in spite of my “primitive” tracking system – a map, interpreted by me with little regard to north and south – the afternoon had acquainted me with downtown Victoria, its government buildings, the layout of the Royal B.C. Museum, harbour and ferry services, bus depot, Munro Book Store, and the Canadian monetary system. I had spent some of the newly acquired dollars and cents on a little teddy bear, a few bottles of water, a mediocre salmon burger and diet coke without fizz. And, of course, that ninety-nine cent apple from the fruit bin on a street named Menzies.

On Tuesday, after a night of restless leg syndrome and an early morning television warning to the “elderly” to stay indoors, I examined my tight schedule. The decision was easy: Butchart Gardens can’t be postponed. Though Emily never mentioned it in her autobiography, it had must see priority in my book, and I had already purchased my bus ticket. At the 110-year old Gatsby Mansion next to the hotel I delighted in three days worth of cholesterol in the disguise of bacon and eggs and hash browns, before I walked to the bus depot. The Grayline Express Shuttle filled quickly with a multi-lingual crowd of garden experts and plain tourists.

The Gardens is a 55 acre expanse of flowers, shrubs, and trees, created by the Butcharts a hundred years ago to beautify an old limestone quarry about thirteen miles from Victoria. As soon as I entered the gate I was surrounded by an endless supply of colorful sites to photograph. A sunken garden of annuals with dramatically steep ivy-hung backdrop. A large Japanese garden crouching beneath filtered sunlight. A bright rose garden that stirred the emotions with its perfume. A gay Italian garden, complete with star pond and gelateria. Statues, fountains, green house, waterwheel, and Mrs. Butchart’s teahouse competed for attention. I took pictures until the batteries were dead, ate ice cream, inserted new batteries, took more pictures, leaned against a fence, ate ice cream again, bought a big bottle of water and a t-shirt, slowly moved from one garden to the next, sat under a tree, rested on a rock, congratulated myself that I was one of the many visitors who defied the heat. We exchanged smiles and sighs. Proud. Wilted. Thirsty.

Several hundred megabytes and six hours later I collapsed back into the air-conditioned bus. With a frown toward my pedometer I promised myself never to walk six miles in the sun again. Alain de Botton says it well in The Art of Travel: ” …it seems we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.”

I don’t agree with him during my armchair travels, but I remember his words when I have walked in a foreign city until my feet are raw and my brain scrambles to the hum of unfamiliar sounds. That Butchart Gardens made me lightheaded can be attributed to the intense heat – somebody said 39 degrees Celsius – 102 degrees Farenheit - and the clutter of tourists who filled the garden paths or withered on benches, expressing muffled admiration for flowers and extreme joy over ice cream stations. Or maybe my teddy bear is to blame for attracting too much attention. Too much small talk, not enough fluids.

But my journey for the day wasn’t over when I arrived back in town. An old lady with long gray hair, dressed in sturdy, warm clothes, the gear of a homeless wanderer, shared my bench at a downtown bus stop. I asked her for the nearest grocery store. She shook her head. “Nothing around here.”

For a while we both stared into the street. Suddenly she came to life.

“Menzies!” she said. After a few seconds she repeated: “Menzies! There is one on Menzies.

“When she got ready to move on and hoisted her backpack into position, I saw that she carried a blue canvas bag, imprinted with the logo “Thrifty Foods.” “Where is Thrifty Foods?” I asked.

“Menzies!” She said it with a hint of irritation. “Go over a street and you’ll get to Menzies. You can walk to the corner with me. I’ll show you.”

With a tired “thank you” I declined her offer. ”I’ll find it.”

Two young German women confirmed its existence. “Ja, ja.” There is one. “An Menzies!”

I knew that my happiness would depend on Menzies. I had walked it yesterday, but apparently not far enough. This time I walked in the wrong direction. I walked to the end of the world. A crumbling high-rise apartment building. A dog. A jogger. The ocean. A man bunched up under a blanket on a bench close to the water’s edge.

Retracing my steps along Menzies I finally saw the sign. Thrifty Foods. A block from the convenience store with bruised apples. A bin filled with shopping bags. On sale today for forty-nine cents each. I grabbed one. It seemed important to honor the grocery store on Menzies.

I filled my new blue bag with Dasani water, a pint of blueberries, hummus, low salt crackers, goat brie, reduced fat herb cheese pâté and a baguette. 28 dollars and 69 cents.

When I realized that the Emily Carr’s house must be nearby I walked some more. “Closed Monday and Tuesday,” a cardboard sign announced. I stood for some time, holding on to the gate. Emily, where are you?

At the hotel I spread my bounty on the dining table, turned on the news, laid out my knitting, a map, a pen, my journal, the camera, the Netbook. I aimed the fan properly into my face and began my second evening in Victoria. All memory of burning feet and headache vanished in anticipation of my visit to the Royal British Columbia Museum. The goat brie was delicious.

Monday, July 13, 2009

It Snows in Truckee

“Go to Northstar,” my son said, “the snow there is a lot cleaner than in Truckee.”

And all but Mother wondered why I would want to take a trip to Truckee, a town everybody else just passes through. Mother understands that I find inspiration in the most unlikely places. She made me laugh on the phone with her prediction that relies on my capability to make a mountain out of a rock garden.

“I know you; you’ll put Truckee on the map.”

Of course, the ill-fated Donner party had already done that in 1847 and I would only be another curious visitor who would look for extra insight into published material.

But my main interest in Truckee was not to revive the Wild West or rumors of flesh-eating survivors, I wanted to see, touch, breathe …..SNOW.

I had tried to feed my craving for snow a few times before and though my family claims that I have tasted plenty, according to my photographs, I did not feel the tiny nip of snow flakes in my face. Not once since childhood. At the end of March 2005 I took a trip to the Alpine foothills near Munich and though I caught patches of snow with my camera, most of it had already melted. In December of 2005 I felt a quick surge of joy over early morning flakes trickling down on the rooftops of Nürnberg, but by the time I finished breakfast they had settled into small picturesque mounds that barely waited long enough to be photographed before they transformed themselves into icy threads between cobblestones.

In 2007 I rode the train to Denver and was rewarded with a snowy landscape along the route of the California Zephyr, but again did not become a part of it. When the train made a brief stop in Truckee I saw, from the warmth of my roomette, the winter wonderland I had imagined and promised myself to return to this town some day to witness the “real thing.”

On Monday, March 2, 2009, I got up at 4:29 in the morning, beating three alarm clocks, only because I hadn’t slept all night. It seems that my pre-trip mental nightlife increases with each year I age. Did I pack the long, purple scarf? The pencil set I never use? Is the suitcase too heavy to carry? Will I get rained on on my one-mile walk to the Light Rail Station? Should I bring the laptop? Do Tyana’s outfits add the right colors to snow photos? Are eight crackers enough of a cushion to absorb the negative effects of my daily pills?

As expected it was dark outside when I left home at 5:30 and the suitcase tipped over twice when I rolled it over a speed bump. By the time I reached the Light Rail I had begun to sweat under three layers of clothes. And the characters who shared my ride to the train station looked sinister, sleepy, unhappy. But eventually I was securely settled into the train that would take me to Emeryville where my real trip into snow country would begin. The California Zephyr runs all the way to Chicago and my five hours to Truckee would be just a small part of its journey, though a much anticipated one of mine.

But it rained all the way to Truckee, and with large drops splashing against the window my mood sank lower and lower. It couldn’t be. Not another failure. On my short walk to the River Street Inn I stared at the slushy ground in total frustration. Not even the sight of my 1885 accommodation with the tall bed, the claw foot tub, and the flat screen TV made me smile.
Where was the promised view of the Truckee River? Of course, the Internet “Recession Special” did not include a view. For one hundred and ten dollars a night I would only see the neighbor’s roof top.

Little did I know that this roof top would become a focal point of my evenings. Little did I know about snow, period. I pulled my new red umbrella from the suitcase and shot it open in defiance of superstition. What else could go wrong? My old black one, the one I had relied on for 29 years, had refused to open on the day before my trip and had forced me to drive to Wallgreen’s for a replacement. I bought a loudly advertised four-dollar “automatic” that I dropped into my luggage without much enthusiasm and without testing.

Hiding my face from the icy wind-driven rain under my bright red umbrella I headed across the railroad tracks toward the main street. Donner Pass Road. Downtown Truckee. Half a mile of storefronts. The Wagon Train Coffee Shop. It was on my list of things to do. “Eat at the Wagon Train.” The reviews slanted toward the mediocre, but I don’t always believe people who let out their frustrations on and wanted to see for myself. Before I entered the coffee shop the wind blew my new umbrella inside out and several spines separated from the plastic material.

“Easy come, easy go,” I told myself, slightly embarrassed over the mishap, trying to close the contraption and stuffing it in the outer pocket of my backpack.

The coffee shop confirmed its online reputation. Overpriced. Unidentifiable soup. Boring salad bar. Nice waitress. She promised snow by evening. I came back two days later in the afternoon and thanked her for that, ordered a lumberjack breakfast, took her picture with my teddy bear, and chatted with her for a while. She invited me for coffee on the day of my departure

Yes, snow started to fall by seven. I pushed aside the curtain, pulled up the slatted blind, and watched the roof across from my window. By ten I even opened the window and breathed in the clean mountain air. Judging by the accumulation of the white stuff on the sharply slanted roof and the transformation of nearby trees I felt assured that I would get my share of snow the next morning.

When I woke my first look was to the roof. At least a foot of snow. And it was still coming down. As far as I could see everything was covered . I could hardly contain my enthusiasm but forced myself to participate in the Inn’s continental breakfast. Sitting at the communal table I noted the lack of attention the young owners afford their establishment. How easy it would be to polish the image. Fresh rolls in a basket instead of frozen white bread in its plastic sack. Individual packets of jam instead of a Costco sized jar. A toaster without smashed raisins glued to its sides. A stack of napkins. Six napkins, laid out for six guests certainly don’t spell luxury. But then I remembered that Truckee, as my son had said, is only a stopping point for most people. I am one of the odd ones who came to explore the town. So did my neighbors in room 87. He is a railroad buff and would spend a great deal of time reading in the lounge, or filling me in on the history of the area. He and his wife were return visitors.

“Not many old people live here,” he noted after we discussed our backgrounds and our experiences with train trips and cold weather and mountains.

It would take a day of getting reacquainted with snow to make me think about his words. My memories are those of images encountered as a child in the Black Forest. Opening the front door in the morning and being enclosed in a wall of snow. Helping my mother and grandfather shovel a pathway. Later, in the Odenwald, sledding down mountain roads. Building fat snowmen by the fountain on the plaza. Watching snow settle on the tall public Christmas tree in the moonlight. Imprinting my footsteps in a pristine, soft, white carpet. Opening my mouth to the watery remnants of twirling flakes. And always – always – being aware of the deep silence of a freshly powdered winter landscape.

Now I am an old California city person; all my childhood memories are vivid, but I lack the practical experience that accumulates with yearly preparations for the cold season. I became aware of this when my hands froze into red and clumsy while I took pictures of Tyana. Posing her in avalanche-size mountains of snow was the highlight of my trip, except that my finger was not able to push the button on the camera. I dug through my backpack for gloves but soon realized that icy hands in gloves don’t instantly regain dexterity. When snowflakes settled on my camera lens I wondered how to shield it without losing light. I should have brought a plastic bag.

After I unpacked Tyana’s skis, made from paint stirrers and sprayed purple just a few days ago, I dropped them and they immediately opened their own hole to sink into. And as I was searching for a penny I had intended to use as an eye for a snowman, I learned that wet snow allows objects to slide all the way to the bottom without leaving a trace. Later I stumbled and slipped into a ditch and watched my camera disappear. I dug it out of its wet grave quickly, concerned that it had suffered damage, but so far it still works.

There were other things I learned about snow. It is slippery when it is compacted by tires. It becomes slush when sprinkled with de-icers. I also understand why the snow in Truckee is dirty to those who drive through town. All day it is moved to the side by snow plows and all day cars spray slush against the piles that accumulate next to the road. I tried to walk along Donner Pass because I wanted to visit places on my list that were located a mile out of town. Once the sidewalk ended, I was splashed repeatedly and after a hundred steps I turned around. Walking on the street was annoying; drivers didn’t pay attention to me, but the alternative was to stomp through several feet of snow. I could see the headline in my mind, “Old woman dies of heart attack on her way to Wild Cherries Coffee Shop.”

And so I opted for what would become my favorite indoor spot in Truckee, the “Book and Bean” just across the street from the River Street Inn.

The first time I entered the “Book and Bean” I couldn’t see a thing. Another strike against old people – we will all be snow blind because we forget to wear our goggles. After my eyes had recovered I bought a cappuccino and six books, most about the Donner Party. Until then I hadn’t given the tragedy much thought, except for reading James D. Houston’s “Snow Mountain Passage” in my “Exploring Literature” group. Cannibalism is as difficult a subject as incest, defying imagination, and therefore not something I dwell upon. But Truckee and Donner Lake have played a major part in this story; only half of eighty-some pioneers survived the winter of 1846; traveling past the lake made it impossible not to think about their fate. I wanted to compare Houston’s novel to a historical document and bought the original full account by C. F. McGlashan. Published in 1880, McGlashan consulted 24 of 26 living survivors, cited diary entries, letters and newspapers, to give this tragic episode in California history the respect that is missing from many other accounts by authors who craft their sentences around the consumption of human flesh.

I returned twice to the mix of lap top computers, used books, and gourmet coffee at the “Book and Bean” and each time I discovered something else that I liked.
On my second day in Truckee I examined some of the back roads. Jiboom, where the brothels used to line up, East River Street where Chinese railroad workers lived, West River Street that ends somewhere half a mile from the River Street Inn, according to the sign. I walked my boot prints into the new snow, posed Tyana on a mountain of snow across the street from the Chinese Herb Shop, and watched the crows play near the “Totally Board” which, I assumed, is a bar. After eating a Kilimanjaro Ken that included avocado slices, spinach and cheese at the “Squeeze Inn,” possibly the most bizarrely decorated restaurant I have ever seen – a graffiti artist’s heaven – I took a local bus to Northstar Resort and Crystal Bay, Lake Tahoe. I laughed when I read the bus schedule at the Visitor Center in the train depot: Dallas has DART; San Francisco has BART; Truckee has TART; it seems fitting for the remnants of a bawdy, rowdy, tough Old West town. TART (Tahoe Area Regional Transit) took me to the winter wonderland of the young and restless: a ski resort 7,350 feet above sea level, with 39 shops and restaurants, and a golf club. What else could one want?

“The snow is beautiful, but what about history?” I asked.

I got a look of pity from two young men in designer boots and wraparound sunshades. The narrow-shouldered girl with long blond hair, a British accent, and a huge backpack talked about a dip in the hot tub after a morning of running the slopes. The bus driver tilted his head; I imagined his eyes looking at me from behind reflective sunglasses. At the end of the route, at the north shore of Lake Tahoe, he turned on his radio and paused for a few minutes. He clearly was not in a talking mood and while I didn’t make real contact with anyone, this two-hour roundtrip provided me with the answer I needed: Truckee is the right place for me. Northstar is somebody else’s dream.

On my way back to the River Street Inn the mini-mart at the corner gas station winked at me with dinner to go: mozzarella cheese, low salt crackers, a diet coke. Add to this the cookie and apple sauce left over from the train ride, and I would be happy for the evening. Though I had planned on Moody’s, probably Truckee’s best restaurant, I suddenly felt the need to protect my pocket book from “haute cuisine” and my heart from cholesterol and salt. With great delight I sat on the bed, surrounded by books, snacks, a pleasant décor, and a most interesting view of snow sliding off the neighboring roof. I watched for almost two hours. Sheets, sprinkles, dust, rolls, drips. It was an ever-changing spectacle of movement. McGlashan is credited with designing the perfect roof slant for Truckee, which I, a child observer of the German roof avalanche, can appreciate. We used to hear it all the time, “Be careful; the roofs are full of snow.” Sloped not quite at the right angle, I assume, they would suddenly rid themselves of a ton of snow that could bury you alive. On my trip through the foothills of the Alps I saw the warning signs on many houses “Danger. Roof Avalanche.” But here it was a gradual process, releasing only portions of snow, and when I woke in the morning the roof glistened in the early morning sun. Warmed from the inside and from the outside it was bare except for a couple of small patches.

The town, too, shimmered under a blue sky when I took my last lap around the main strip. The sidewalk was empty of snow. Stores were still closed; only breakfast places were open. I wanted to say goodbye to Rose the waitress at the Wagon Train but she hadn’t come in yet. As I was walking through town I read the advertisements. Snowboard Rentals. Dog Biscuits. Massages. Beads. Everything except fresh bread I thought.

And everybody except old women, I added after I carefully tested the hard-packed, smoothly shiny, trampled path between sidewalk and street. Place your foot firmly, I told myself; you don’t want to slip and fall. Only a few feet from the train station.

Old women lived here a century ago; I read about them in the books I bought yesterday and the day before. They probably didn’t have much of a choice. Nona McGlashan who wrote the memoir about her grandfather grew up here, but the book jacket says she retired in Auburn.

As I picked my seat for the trip home I wondered how much time she spent in Truckee after her grandfather’s death in 1911. I wondered if she is still alive at 98.

Auburn, hmmm? Maybe when it gets a little warmer.

The Bailiwick of Guernsey

In my worst nightmares I run through tangled streets and dark alleyways, desperately trying to catch a train, rapidly losing my connection to anything familiar. In my best daydreams I amble across sunny market squares and shaded avenues, happily following a well-marked path, confidently climbing toward a spectacular mountain retreat.

In reality travel shuffles relaxed and anxious moments in random games of hide and seek. But almost ten years of retirement, ten years of foreign shores, line up on my living room wall, and all look like happy memories to me now. Does my mind only store the daydreams? What about my trip to Guernsey? The experience was difficult enough to make me say “never again,” yet filled with spectacular sights and memorable thoughts. How will I remember Guernsey? Maybe this journey too will eventually simmer gently into the melting pot of “once upon a time,” no longer scorching the bottom, no longer boiling over the edge, but for now, as I begin to write, Guernsey stands out, shouting “dangerous” and “divine” simultaneously.

Three months earlier I would have placed Guernsey up north near Shetland and Fair Isle. I would have imagined a cabled sweater. Ponies. Then I received a postcard of Guernsey’s St. Peter Port Harbor from a friend and traced the island to thirty miles west of the Normandy coast, the Bay of St. Malo to be exact. When I googled the island I was directed to “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” a brand new book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I bought the book and while I read it I made notes and returned to google at frequent intervals. Though it is much closer to France, Guernsey is a dependency of the British Crown. I bookmarked websites, sorted through history, printed a map, downloaded a walking brochure. Twenty-four square miles of cliff paths and sandy beaches and museums, the best weather England has to offer. Sixty thousand inhabitants, a unique kind of government, “The States of Deliberation,” not represented in the UK Parliament, yet the responsibility of the UK Government for its international representation.

I bought a second novel, “The Book of Ebenezer Le Page,” written by G. B. Edwards, a Guernseyman. The book, first published in 1981, five years after Edwards’ death, is an account of one man’s eighty years on the island. A fictional account that has the texture of a true memoir. After reading this book I searched, tentatively, flight schedules, bus routes, ferry service, hotels. A few days later I announced, “I’m going to Guernsey!”


“Why Guernsey?”

It was clear that receiving a postcard and reading a couple of books didn’t impress my friends as a good enough reason for going anywhere.

“I like the word Bailiwick.”

The word was attached to Guernsey on several websites; I didn’t know what it meant, but “the Bailiwick of Guernsey” fascinated me.

“My IRA is going down the drain, so I might as well spend what I will lose anyway.”

It was a better reason than the others, but still, you’re supposed to save not spend when the economy crashes. Oh well, I just didn’t have a good reason.

Nevertheless, I got up at five on the morning of October 10, 2008, a Thursday, took a shower, ate my oatmeal, swallowed eight pills, rolled my small suitcase to the door, and waited for the shuttle driver to pick me up. He arrived forty minutes late, late enough to make my blood pressure outperform the medication. And though I was whisked through inspection at San Jose’s Norman Minetta Airport in record time, American Airlines soon forced me to take repeated deep breaths. I heard my doctor’s voice, “we’ve got to get your high blood pressure under control,” and automatically slowed down my apprehensions with a series of deep breaths and even deeper ohhhms. Flight 1588 has been delayed,” …ohhhhhm…. “We are awaiting the delivery of a rear slide”….ohhhm…”the part will be arriving from San Francisco by courier soon”….ohhhm…. “You might want to rebook on another flight”… ohhhm…”unfortunately we have received the wrong part”……the longest and deepest ohhmmmm ever. Unfortunately it drained the last breath of hope from the pit of my stomach. At three in the afternoon it became clear that the plane would have to be replaced. By then I had been rebooked twice, the last flight from Dulles to London had left, and I was quite tired. At 5:00pm they sent me to Los Angeles. Eventually I made it to London, seven hours late. It was Friday, the afternoon of October 11. I changed the time on my watch, changed dollars into pounds, took a National Express bus from Heathrow to Gatwick, flew on to Guernsey via Flybe, and landed just in time for dinner. I hadn’t closed my eyes in 28 hours. You don’t have to be asleep to experience a nightmare.

The location of my hotel: St. Peter Port, 5, Constitution Steps. The Sunnycroft Hotel website had intrigued me. “Uniquely situated on an old stepped street above the St. Peter Port town center, it occupies a peaceful crow’s nest position with spectacular views across the picturesque harbour to Guernsey’s neighboring islands of Herm, Sark, Little Sark and Jethou.”

What’s a few steps if the view is great and the price is half that of the Yacht Inn across the street from the harbor? At least I wouldn’t have to be evacuated if the seawall broke and the Esplanade became flooded. Clearly I had watched too many weather related disasters on CNN in recent months.

“I’ll drop you above the hotel,” the cabdriver said, “it’s easier to walk down than up. He turned
into a narrow street and continued his explanation. “Especially with a suitcase.”
“How many steps down?” I asked.

“Around forty.”

“How many up?”

“At least a hundred.”

I hobbled my suitcase down the steps to the Sunnycroft.

Mrs. Pestana, the manageress, was perfectly blond, with pale blue eyes and an efficient set of instructions. She looked twenty-something. I was elated to have reached my destination. Too talkative maybe? With a few words of polite welcome she deflated my overly sensitized system. No old world charm here, I thought. I suddenly felt abused. Later I found out that many in the hotel industry are either Latvian or Portuguese nationals on a nine months working visa. I decided that Mary Pestana must have come from Latvia; it’s quite cold there I think, maybe her lips had frozen into a thin line at an early age.

“The view is fabulous from the top of the steps,” I offered in defiance.

“You’ll have to let us know in the morning if you want dinner tomorrow,” she countered.

I dragged my suitcase down a narrow, white-spackled hallway, past rooms one through six, all the way to the end. Room seven. My home for the next ten days. When I opened the door I knew I had arrived at a place of character. I saw an oddly shaped, sparkling clean room. White sheets, white walls, white washbasin. A windowed door opened to the stone wall veranda, connecting me to the guests in rooms one through six via a view of the harbour and the other islands. In the bathroom, the shower had a mind of its own. No matter how I adjusted its temperature, it produced scalding water first, then followed up with an icy trickle. When I brushed my teeth at the sink, the hot water faucet ignored me. Before I went to bed I learned to pump the handle on the toilet tank to produce enough water for a flush. Just like Paris in the old days, I thought. I loved it.

Crackers and chocolate for dinner, I realized after I had unpacked. I didn’t feel brave enough to meet an unfamiliar downtown on a Friday night. Not when a hundred steps separated me from it. The porch was a wonderful place to end the day, and while my dinner might have been meager, the lights of the port below, echoed by the sea and domed by a darkening, cloud-clustered sky, were as inviting as I had hoped.

I returned to the veranda several times during the night. As the voices from nearby pubs grew drunker and my bed grew lumpier, I sat, my left hand pressed over my chest. Pain?
Why? What did it mean? I didn’t sleep that night. I coughed more than usual. In my travel journal I wrote, “I hope this trip isn’t shortened by an emergency exit!”

On Saturday morning, after I suffered through a few bites of a bland English breakfast that was too greasy and carelessly prepared to describe, I began my exploration of the island. I counted one hundred and five stairs down to the market place, and 500-some steps to the bus terminal. Sixty pence would get me a ninety minute introduction to the island. Three stops into the trip the chest pains came back. I count when I am scared. I count everything. It is a mindless recording of numbers to drown out fear. Crawling through the green countryside along the top of the south cliffs, I must have been on my sixth or seventh greenhouse, when Ebenezer Le Page became part of the landscape. Ebenezer, the old, quarrelsome fisherman who grew tomatoes at Le Moulin, his granite cottage by the sea. Though he had lived on the north side of Guernsey, in the Parish of Vale, he had left his footprint all over the island. As more and more greenhouses flew by, I imagined him sitting on a stone bench, casting a frown at the intruders.

Later I would buy “The Review” printed by the Guernsey Society. In the spring edition British writer and long time Ebenezer fan, Richard Platt wrote:

“This is not a work of literature. It is a thing of flesh and bone. Ebenezer and I had often journeyed together in imagination, and shared our tea in front of a coal fire, but now I had come to Guernsey in body as well as spirit, to walk the streets he walked and follow the path of his life.”

If Ebenezer Le Page is the main fictional character of the island, the German Occupation lends its ghostly remnants as main tourist attraction. I made a mental note to investigate, when I saw the sign “German Occupation Museum.” In the historic tug of war between countries Guernsey seems to have two very important dates: 1066 when the Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, defeated King Harold and the Duchy of Normandy and England became one. 1940 when the Germans invaded the Channel Islands and stayed for five years. Guernsey became part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Bunkers and other fortifications still spread, like milestones, along the coastline, and clubs like the “Vintage & Military Amateur Radio Society,” the “Guernsey Military Vehicle Group,” and the “Channel Islands Occupation Society,” are dedicated to keeping history alive.

Guernsey, I told a lady at Buttons Bookshop later, seems like a war chest for memoir writers. The Channel Islands were bombed after they had been demilitarized and the islanders were more or less deserted by England. They suffered air raids, occupation, starvation, deportation to concentration camps, and all the other atrocities of war. Twenty-one thousand were evacuated; Rumors and confusion and fear kept another twenty-thousand on the island. I think that most who stayed wrote memoirs. I bought ten of them. At various bookstores around the island I scanned another twenty or twenty-five.

Not to forget one of the reasons for visiting, I also inquired about “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” everywhere and was assured that the book was a success with the locals. The exception was a guard at Castle Cornet. He shook his head and said, “Imagine, an American lady writing about WWII in Guernsey.” I countered with my best smile, informing him that it is a fictional story, written in letters, and that it is quite good.

Mary Ann Shaffer, a San Francisco Bay Area librarian, wrote the Literary Society twenty some years after she had spent a night at the Guernsey airport. Her niece, Annie Barrows, finished the book because her aunt was too ill to work with the editors. Annie had never been to Guernsey. But it doesn’t matter because the landscape is not a major part of the story; the characters are developed well enough to support the heroine, Juliet Ashton, in her quest to find material for her next book. I love the Guernsey Literary Society for its quirky characters and for its epistolary format that allows for time lapses and shortcuts in background material, yet gives plenty of room to spontaneity in plot resolution.

But no matter how hard I tried to concentrate on the Shaffer novel, G. B. Edward’s book about Ebenezer had imbedded itself into my memory, had become a part of me; the old man popped up everywhere. On the Pier Steps, for instance, the steps he climbed looking for the lawyer’s office to make out his will. His words warned me:

“I went to Town and after I came out of the States Offices nearly killed myself, by being fool enough to climb up the Pier Steps. I thought it would save time. I got to the top puffing and blowing, and my old heart going like a hammer; and saw myself dropping dead in the middle of the High Street. I must never do that again.”

I laughed at myself after I took the shortcut; Ebenezer was almost eighty when he decided to leave all his money and the memoir he was writing to Neville Falla, a young man from London. I laughed again when I bought a notepad at the Press Shop. Ebenezer had been there, too, and had complained:

“The girl was in no hurry to serve me; and I sat thinking how I had lost my knack with girls. That was brought home to me the day I went to the Press Shop in Smith Street to buy this book I am writing in. When I walked in the shop there was three or four girls who was supposed to be serving, but they was standing in a bunch nattering and took no more notice of me than if I was the Invisible Man.”

They don’t pay attention to old women, either, I wanted to tell him. Again I had to remind myself that he is not real. And yet, as Richard Platt points out:

“Ebenezer is so real that the grave digger at the Vale Church, which is surrounded by a graveyard displaying many graves with family names from the story, has grown weary from alienating two and a half decades of incredulous visitors, to whom he has had to explain, having read the book twice himself, that Ebenezer is in fact a fictional character and was neither baptized nor buried there. Their disbelief is easily explained. To accept this book as a work of fiction requires an act of will.”

I ate dinner in my room that evening, a baguette, brie, a tomato, an apple. I had stocked my refrigerator with foods that came closest to the diet I have to follow, though it was impossible to find sodium-free anything and just as hard to buy reduced fat items. The co-op on Market Square was the closest I would come to healthy food. And diet Pepsi, of course.

Fifty-two hours without sleep. I coughed all night even though I sucked on cough drops most of the time. The pain behind my chest bone came every half hour; it was a faint pain but it kept me unsure, worried. But not until I walked along the harbour, on my way to Cornet Castle on Sunday morning, did I seriously consider cutting my trip short. I suffered a sudden, sharp pain, right in the middle of the chest, exactly where I imagined a heart problem could have developed. Ever since my angioplasty and stent procedure, I had panicked with every thought of a reclosing of the coronary artery. What had gone wrong? I sat down on a stone bench, breathing deeply, mentally listing my options. A visit to a doctor here would cost around two-hundred dollars, and what could he tell me? Only tests can give answers. Expensive tests. What if I needed re-stenting? I would have to fly home for that. What if the chest pains increased? I could die right now, right here, on a bench in the harbor of St. Peter Port. Patricia would have to take off from work to collect my body and take it home.

After a while I walked again. As a matter of fact, just like the day before, I covered more than four miles, visited three museums at Cornet Castle, took a hundred pictures. I chatted with the lady at the cash register about the layout of the castle and gardens and with the museum guard, about history. She pointed out important spots of interest; he gave me insight into Guernsey’s past, offering well-rehearsed vignettes about the liberation and an unmistakable hand signal that showed little faith in Churchill. Every once in a while I indulged in a moment of self-pity. Privately. In silence. Weighing vulnerability against endurance.

I spent the evening eating my cheese and tomato baguette, clutching my chest, watching silly TV shows, bouncing between “This will go away,” and “I’ll have to do something.”

At three o’clock on Monday morning, October 13, I packed my belongings. I had gone without sleep for 85 hours, that’s three days and thirteen hours. I had decided to go home.

The confusing voices in my head made me want to go home.
“If you don’t hurt, you didn’t work hard enough.” The collective wisdom and abuse of my parents’ generation.

“Pain? What pain? Just slow down a little.” My old self, ignoring all but the most obvious signals.

“Call your doctor immediately if you have a chest pain.” The sentence I had picked up from a physician on TV the day after Tim Russert died. The day the cable guy crawled under my house to fix a faulty connection and I ended up at the Kaiser emergency room.

None of these voices played a leading role; none of them was clear enough to gain my vote of confidence. I would go home as soon as daylight arrived. Daylight! I would see the fiery rise of the sun one more time. But I would miss out on cliff walks, on Brother Déodat’s Little Chapel, on Lihou Island where Ebenezer and his best friend Jim Mahy got stranded, on the Parish of St. Martin where hungry Will Thisbee invented his potato peel pie. It would cost me dearly to rebook flights and I would definitely have to deal with another nightmare. And yet, all I wanted was to go home. To be near a Kaiser Hospital. Fully dressed I laid down on my bed to formulate a plan of action. I closed my eyes.

Five hours later I woke. Sunshine in my face. Cautiously optimistic I sat up, looked around, saw the suitcase leaning against the wall, changed my mind about flying home. If I didn’t suffer chest pains climbing hundreds of stairs, I couldn’t have a heart condition. It had to be something else. Pleurisy? Deep breathing seemed to increase the pain. Soreness from the lumpy bed? A combination of jetlag and reaction to medication? A cold? I still coughed, still felt the stab behind the chest bone, but I was much calmer. Later I reasoned that keeping my suitcase packed and being prepared to throw all my plans overboard at any time had restored my confidence in myself. A few hours of sleep might have helped. Or … maybe this was all a hoax. Maybe my body had tricked me into being scared. For years it had tricked me into believing that I was healthy, pretending to be perfectly capable of pushing blood around my arteries. And it had tricked me after the coronary procedure with the globus histericus affair, the lump in my throat that made me afraid I couldn’t swallow food. Malade Imaginaire? I had never thought of myself as hypochondriac before, but during the past five months I had made more trips to medical facilities than during the previous nine years of retirement.

Though I rearranged the list of possible reasons for chest pains again and again, slowing my step when I felt the slightest pinch, I explored Victor Hugo’s part of town. He had written “Les Miserables” while in exile on Guernsey, had written “The Toilers of the Sea” about Guernsey, and was probably the most famous person ever to live on the island. His fifteen-year stay had inspired a trail map that I had hoped to pick up after inspecting his elaborately decorated home. But the house was closed for renovation and I had to be content with a few photos of the exterior. I wasn’t a huge Victor Hugo fan anyway, I consoled myself. Besides, I already trailed two other authors’ imagination.

Around noon I bought a cup of potato leek soup and a baguette at the bottom of Constitution Steps and stuffed my pockets with several kinds of cough drops from the pharmacy on Market Square. By three I had paged my way through several bookshops and needed a cup of coffee. The Dix Neuf in the Arcade was on my “must do” list. Dix Neuf is a hip coffee shop where all the young black-suited bankers seemed to have congregated to discuss the financial crisis. I never found out why the downtown afternoon crowd looked like a batch of cloned undertakers, but it seemed appropriate at the time. In the Guernsey Press I read that no bailout was offered here since Guernsey is an offshore financial center without safeguards. The managers of Iceland’s Landsbanki Guernsey had transferred most of the bank’s funds to a sister institution in England; there was nothing left for Channel Island customers who had entrusted Landsbanki with their savings. Only the sister bank in England would receive bailout moneys. Papers, airwaves, and internet forums denounced the way the Guernsey government, the States of Deliberation, handled the crisis. The quickly formed Depositors Action Group on its website “I want my Money from Landsbanki” reported heartbreaking pleas from retirees who had lost their life savings, and working couples whose children were suddenly deprived of their college funds.

Late in the afternoon I climbed the stairs to my hotel with only two pauses to catch my breath. I felt pleasantly tired and only vaguely annoyed by the discomfort deep breathing produced. After teasing my ration of hot water from the showerhead and raiding the refrigerator for calorie wise baguette toppings, I settled on the communal veranda to listen to the evening sounds of the harbor. After dark BBC1 entertained me with “Panorama” in which the commentator Matt Frei examined the rise of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. The segment was advertised as “Obama and the Pitbull.” I had already heard several Brits complain about increased coverage of news from across the pond rather than European politics, but I appreciated the show. I’ve always been a BBC fan and it certainly was more informative than the Snooker Championship and two silly game shows on the other channels.

On Tuesday I explored The Guernsey Museum, smiling, remembering my childhood at the exhibit of “Childhood Memories” and giving the Museum’s Victoria Café a chance to woo me with its Guernsey gâche, the island “signature treat.” So much for culinary artistry; this was just plain raisin bread.

After getting lost in a tangle of unfamiliar streets I hopped on a bus, not sure where to go next and was immediately drawn into a conversation with two German ladies. For the next half hour they pointed at their island map at each turn, arguing our position, but they nodded in agreement when we discussed our WWII experiences. All three of us had just turned 70; we had been children during the war; we thought war was a terrible thing to inflict on the young.

Soothed by our common past I disclosed my chest pains for the first time to somebody other than my self-absorbed inner watchdog. Even now I can hear myself whine, “It’s the same kind of pain I had when the advice nurse made me call an ambulance. And I was just sitting at my desk when it started. My blood pressure was 217 over 112 when they carried me out of my house.”

“You should get that checked” was the polite response before we continued to exchange air raid and bomb shelter stories. What was I thinking? You don’t talk to other travelers about your ailments. Was I that desperate? Annoyed with myself I stepped off the bus at St. Sampson while the two women continued their roundtrip back to the cruise terminal. St. Sampson Harbor, I remembered, was close to Bordeaux Harbor which Ebenezer had called “Birdo,” but my lapse in proper etiquette irritated me enough to spoil my walk through Ebby’s neighborhood. Not even a stop at the local knit shop or bookstore revived my enthusiasm. Why is it, I wondered, that after living a whole life on my own, I still get trapped into the expectations that had been inflicted upon me in my childhood?

“Be polite,” had trumped honesty.
“Don’t impose,” had veiled fear and forbidden the right to confide.

My feet drudged through the back streets of St. Sampson without establishing a connection to the history around me, because I was absorbed in a list of complaints against my own history. The sunny, white-washed face of isolated communities often hides unpleasant, even deadly secrets. Who demands loyalty of a child without providing it with the safety it deserves? I dug deeper into old wounds with each thought. Began to sort blame. When I caught myself counting my steps from one block to the next, I knew it was time to stop my detour into the past. Time to catch the bus back to St. Peter Port.

A trip to the German Occupation Museum on Wednesday left its imprint on me for the rest of my stay, its emotional impact far greater than I had expected. I suspect that the presence of World War II made my chest pains that day seem less pronounced. Never had I seen so many weapons in one place, and such detailed documentation of wartime rules and regulations. Do the soldiers of one nation really use such a variety of helmets and caps and hats? How much communications equipment did it take to control the islands? How many warning signs and official orders? Along one length of the building a street had been set up, a replica of a Guernsey street during the Occupation. Complete with banged up bicycles and old brooms leaning against storefronts. Even the “Liberation Tearoom” was filled with evidence of Hitler’s destructive powers. I was disturbed by the canon in the corner, while I forced a cup of Nescafé down and tried to joke with the old man who was as somber as his museum. I suddenly yearned to see a young person bobbing his head to a rap song. Please! Somebody slouch in a chair! No more German soldiers fixing their lifeless mannequin eyes on distant goals. I couldn’t wait to escape.

That evening, sitting on my bed, spreading brochures splashed with German soldiers and swastikas, I thought how the islanders must have felt deserted and trapped in those five years. They often battled equally hungry German soldiers and foreign slave workers for stray potatoes and old cabbage stalks. Their rations were often cut to almost nothing. Bread became a luxury. Only during the final months did the Red Cross ship Vega bring relief to the starving islanders.

Being totally isolated must have been just as bad as being hungry. Radios had been confiscated and anybody caught hiding one was punished. Dorothy Pickard Higgs wrote:

“We have had our wireless sets removed again and are almost without news. We can read the German version on the front page of the local paper if we want to (!) and occasionally someone who has Jerries in the house, can hear something when they are out. But we hear so little that it isn’t possible to follow the course of the war at all. The fierceness of “their punishments for even minor offences has made Guernsey afraid to take risks, so we are all being fairly law abiding. But things are getting very difficult, because they are stealing so much of our stuff and even our police daren’t lay a hand on a uniform, no matter how mean the theft they catch it perpetrating. The meanest of all is the way they are taking food from the men’s allotments, so that they can’t have any store for the winter. How can we help hating the sight of them?”

Sometimes neighbor turned against neighbor, desperate for even the smallest favor from the enemy, but most of the time families shared their hidden food stash. Higgs, who was one of the lucky ones, raising hens and growing vegetables, wrote:

“We had a dinner party today – quite an event. Tomato soup and eggs baked in potato nests, with lots of green peas, and sweet corn pudding. I am sick to death of the last, but the visitors loved it, and Frank never gets tired of anything.”

Mary Ann Shaffer used rationing in her novel to highlight togetherness. Dawsey Adams tells Juliet of the death of a diseased pig:

“I remembered my mother making soap from fat, so I thought I could try it. It came out looking like frozen dishwater and smelling worse. So I melted it all down and started again. Booker, who had come over to help, suggested paprika for color and cinnamon for scent. Amelia let us have some of each, and we put it in the mix. When the soap had hardened enough, we cut it into circles with Amelia’s biscuit cutter. I wrapped the soap in cheesecloth, Elizabeth tied bows of red yarn, and we gave them as presents to all the ladies at the society’s next meeting. For a week or two, anyway, we looked like respectable folks.”

I reread a few pages of Ebenezer Le Page before I turned off the light. My fictional hero, too, made me feel the weariness of the islanders, the energy it took to stay alive, and the emotions that held together families. Old Ebenezer had walked across the island from his home in Vale in the northeast to his one-time girlfriend’s house in Plainmont, the very tip of the south west coast, to find his cousin Raymond. He had risked his life by walking all night, defying the curfew, and when he stumbled back into his living room he found his sister waiting up for him.

“She was sitting by one candle, sewing a patch on the seat of a pair of my old pants from some of the rags Raymond had left behind. ‘ I thought I would wait up for you,’ she said. I saw how grey her hair was, and how thin her face and her body; and she had been a well-made little woman. I was overcome by a feeling of homage for my sister. I knelt in front of her: and she is the only woman I have ever knelt to; and I bowed my head in her lap. She didn’t know why I did it; for Tabitha, of all people, would have been the last to imagine anybody could ever pay her homage. She stroked my neck, as once my mother had done. ‘Are you hurt;’ she said. I said, ‘Raymond and Horace are killed, and my lovely Lisa is a jerry-bag.’”

With so much emphasis on World War II in the tourist industry and so many signs of the occupation still visible all over the island, I had braced myself for at least a few hostile remarks. “You are German?” asked with raised eyebrows. Or maybe a simple factual statement thrown in my direction: “The Germans inflicted so much pain on our island.” At least a general sentiment like, “It was a bad time.” Instead, I encountered many smiles from older islanders. For some the past had become a means to earn a few Guernsey pounds, and for others preservation of history had turned into a hobby. Apologies, floating to the surface of my mind occasionally, were not needed, not expected, but I was quite sure that nobody forgets air raids and starvation and mine fields and deportation to concentration camps. And I, would I ever overcome the shiver that seizes me when I hear the sound of a siren?

I made plans for Thursday before I opened my eyes. Breathing slowly, evenly, I was grateful for a full night’s sleep and decided to ignore chest pains, if they came during the day. “I’m fine,” I told myself. I would walk the west coast, from the Shipwreck Museum at Fort Grey to Lihou Island. “There is really nothing wrong with me. All I needed was enough sleep.”

My self-examination continued while I was getting ready for the day. “Am I a hypochondriac?” I asked my frown in the mirror while I brushed my teeth under a trickle of cold water. After I dabbed my face with a washcloth I stood up straight, rubbed my chest, probing, trying to locate the spot where the pain had been. “Right there! I can feel it.” Dismissing the sore spot as a trick of my anxiety producing imagination I covered it with a t-shirt and grabbed my camera. Fog hung over the harbor and the morning air was cool and misty.

Tyana had been sitting on a little table next to the bed for five days and nights; I had barely looked at her. I have to be in the right frame of mind to carry her around and to answer questions from onlookers to our photo expeditions. Today would be the day.

I took her outside. Three or four rooms down an army of black socks hung over a chair and a pair of naked legs extended from the doorstep, wiggling toes on the tiled floor. Every once in a while a puff of smoke shot into the air from just beyond the doorframe. A tightly constructed answer to the “No smoking in the room” sign. After several minutes a pale young man in gray briefs emerged. He seemed to be talking to a roommate while he touched one of the socks. I wondered if he knew about the switch that would heat the towel rack and dry his socks. “He looks like a Brit; he should know,” I told myself and smiled when he gave me a quick wave before he went back inside. Twisting and turning the teddy bear, propping her onto the low stonewall, leaning her against the doorframe, balancing her on the winding staircase to the upper deck I thought about the postcards I had bought at the bus terminal. Postcards of teddy bears. A local woman had posed bears in front of various tourist attractions, the Little Chapel, Cobo Beach, Cornet Castle. She sold calendars, cups, towels, showing off her “Guernsey Teddy.” I had seen the bears in all sizes in several of the local stores.

Excitement had crept back into my agenda. I would buy Tyana a friend and take pictures of them together

As it happened, I made a friend that day. It began on the bus. A middle-aged gentleman sat down, a seat ahead, across the aisle. I wouldn’t have paid attention except that he carried a dog, a terrier, who shivered with fear. The man talked to him, stroking him, lifting him closer to the window until the fear subsided and he was content to watch the landscape fly by. The man held on to him tightly halfway around the island. Dogs, I read later, are allowed on Guernsey buses, but they may not occupy a seat. I pulled my camera from the daypack and took a picture, trying not to attract attention to myself by disarming the flash and holding the camera low. While the man didn’t seem to notice, the dog did. After two shots he sat up straight, his ears tilted forward. He stared at me. As if caught in a forbidden act, I grinned apologetically and stuck my camera back into the bag; after all it isn’t polite to take a picture without consent. When they exited the bus the man and I nodded at each other, the way travelers often do. I smiled and said, “Bye, doggie!”

Half an hour later I saw the dog run toward me. On the causeway to Fort Grey and its Shipwreck Museum I was taking my first shots of Tyana and was exchanging small talk with a couple from England. The dog greeted me like an old friend, wagging his stumpy tail, jumping back and forth.

“May I take a few pictures of your dog?” I asked after we all had agreed that the weather was nice for a walk along the coast and that the exhibits at the museum were not to be missed.

The man gave his approval but added, “Benji is the boss of me.”

I twittered like a mother,“ Is that all right with you, Benji? Hi, Benji. Come here, Benji!”

While the others continued to examine the horizon for clouds I played with Benji. After ten minutes they all took off toward the museum and I returned to Tyana. Benji stood still occasionally, looked back. I waved and posed my bear against the backdrop of the historic site.

Sometimes a stranger becomes indelibly connected to the memories of a place, a time, an event. If it is another adult I encounter, the anonymous familiarity means a break in the stress of travel. There is no relationship, only momentary understanding. If I connect with a child, I feel a motherly responsibility to add a pleasant memory to the young one’s store of experiences. With animals I sometimes share a sense of community. An unspoken, playful acknowledgement of shared space. This has happened with cats and dogs, sheep, cows, and large birds, but I sometimes wonder how a bear would react to my presence. Or a wolf. I imagine that my fear would prevent communication of any kind should I ever get close enough to a really wild animal. But I remember the storks of Marrakech and their welcoming chatter. I remember the lone sheep near Humsaugh along Hadrian’s Wall. A golden retriever, twenty-five years ago, at the Esalen Institute. They understood. Benji understood too.

When a sharp chest pain hit me later, in front of the HMS Boreas, Benji was close by, looking over his friend’s shoulder. I kept on reading about the 120 lives that were lost on the Hanois Reef in 1807. Outwardly I pretended nothing had happened even though my mind had by now included lung cancer in its dark anticipations. Persistent coughing. Sharp chest pain when breathing deeply. Typical symptoms. For a while Benji’s little face calmed me. Knowing that I was not alone calmed me. But I nearly panicked when the British couple and Benji and his friend disappeared. Even the kindly shopkeepers who insisted on taking a picture of me and Tyana, could not give me my balance back. I walked out, like a zombie, onto what seemed like enemy territory - a place without my doctor, my lifeline. Lacking enthusiasm I sat Tyana on top of the George III cannon that points towards the Hanois reef. More than one hundred ships have sunk near the lighthouse in the last two centuries. A depressing thought. An ominous symbol of nature’s superiority, even on a calm day when neither sea nor sky threatened to destroy lives.

A quarter mile down the main road I hoped that the lemon drizzle cake at Le Sablones Teagarden, behind the L’Eree Hotel would get me out of my slump. Two elderly ladies, friends meeting for lunch, the only customers, were inclusive in their conversation with me, yet exclusive in their understanding of each other. To them I probably was the slightly annoying stranger with her unconventional prop, a child’s teddy. To my own reasoning I was the bore who could not get her act together, could not enjoy the moment. It wasn’t until I had walked up a hill, around Fort Saumarez, and across L’Erée headleand to the causeway that connects Guernsey and Lihou Island, that I finally regained my composure.

Lihou Island was the place where a young Ebenezer Le Page and his friend Jim Mahy spent the night after the incoming tide prevented them from leaving. I would have crossed had I remembered to check the tide table in the morning. I saw several people, all quite young, on the island and eventually I made it across half the causeway. Two-hundred and fifty feet from either shore. The rocky path was littered with shells and seaweed. Tidal pools filled the crevices and I had to jump over puddles that were too deep to wade through. In the distance I saw the big grey-shingled farmhouse that is run by the Lihou Charitable Trust, mainly to benefit school children. Tyana fell face forward into a trickle of seawater. I had forgotten to bring the chopsticks that I normally slide into the back of her clothing to make her stand up. After staring at the island for several minutes I wished I had brought a pair of binoculars to be able to see the ruins of the Priory up close. I also wished I were a few years younger, less conservative in my decision making. Not scared to be swept away by the incoming tide or halted in mid-journey by an unreliable heart or lungs that refused to respond kindly to blasts of fresh air.

Before the trip I had read a number of websites and knew that the Priory had been established in the twelfth century by Benedictine monks from Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. The official Guernsey Government Website informed that according to legend, witches found the Priory a great source of irritation. I imagined frantic witches’ high-pitched voices slicing the misty night, clashing with faithful whispers from monastic stonewalls. I really should have checked the tide table.

Lihou Island had shaped Ebenezer’s life, had made him deeply aware of love and friendship, but at the same time had conditioned him to miss out on future pleasures. One night of closeness had taught him to reject lesser relationships. There seems to be a hint at homosexual desires according to some scholars, especially since Ebenezer never married, but I think his love for Jim was a matter of trust and understanding. Jim gave his unconditional attention to his friend, and when he was involved in an unhappy marriage later on, Ebenezer learned to be accepting toward Jim’s wife, because his friend needed his strength. Of Jim’s thoughts on Lihou, where they had been stranded as teens on a late Sunday afternoon, G. B. Edwards wrote:

“By the time we got back to the L’Erée end again, the sea was over the causeway. He couldn’t swim and nor could I, and to get back up to our waists in the water it was hopeless to try because the current is very strong there, and we would have only been swept out to sea…..I wasn’t worried, though. I’d never felt so happy. I wish I could remember what we said to each other that night. I know we sat down on the grass and talked more friendly than we ever had before. Jim was always open with me, and said anything that came into his head; but I wasn’t so open with him, as a rule. That night I was. I could say anything to Jim.”

Lihou Island, more than any other place on Guernsey, made me wish I had more time to explore. The bright yellow shells I brought home have paled; the wispy seaweed that had clung to the rocks I collected has dried. Books and maps and brochures are stuffed in a shoebox. But Lihou lingers. When I saw Benji and the man again a couple of days later, they both recognized me. The man and I had a casual shout across the street, about the beauty of the cliff walk and about teatime at Fermain. The dog gave a quick stubby wag and a pull on his leash. “Bye, Benji” I waved. Then we moved on.

I think that silly laughter, wafting on a cloud of cigarette smoke, was the answer to my next chest pain. Almost two in the morning. Am I needy again? Is it possible that a crude joke; a joke I hadn’t even heard, could give me enough of a connection with the world around me to fight the nighttime blues? I draped my coat over my pajamas and opened the door to the patio. The twenty-somethings were topping off their irreverent salutations to the gods of beer. Light split the night in half in front of room three; shadowy torsos leaned from the door frame at intervals, aiming the glowing heads of cigarettes towards an ashtray I couldn’t see. I shivered, felt awkward in my makeshift garb, stood ready to withdraw, an unwanted intruder into the night-time pleasures of young working men, away from home. I don’t know whether it was the fresh air rising from the harbor or the waves of nicotine and slightly slurred blissed-out voices of my neighbors that settled my uneasiness, after a while I returned to my bed and slept soundly toward the rise of the morning sun.

My visit to the Little Chapel on Friday afternoon was not so much a result of a desire to see Brother Deodat’s miniature version of the Lourds Basilica as it was a photo opportunity for Tyana and her new friend “Guernsey Bear.” I bought him at Garnhams Gift Shop, right after eating a full English breakfast at Christie’s. Friday was a day split in half. The morning was filled with housekeeping, organizing, shopping, and my first really good breakfast since my arrival. And, because it was so good, I returned to Christie’s for lunch and ate the most delicious salad, made of rocket (a kind of lettuce) sun-blushed tomatoes, avocado slices, and mozzarella chunks.

I realized that my time on the island would come to an end in a couple of days and that there was still so much more to see and do. The Little Chapel was called “a work of art and a labour of love” on the official website; I had read that it had been torn down and recreated several times and was now billed as possibly the smallest chapel in the world.

“Bears, get ready,” I said and stuffed both of them into a shopping bag. When I arrived at the chapel I was surprised by its small size and found it to be excellent as background for bear portraits. The walls were studded with seashells, pebbles, and pieces of broken china; the entrance was narrow, and the altar filled with gifts and flowers from visitors. It was, I decided, not at all a Guernsey-like serious work of architecture, but a rather gaudy, idiosyncratic piece of personal ambition. Brother Deodat must have been terribly bored with his daily prayers to embark on this project. The bears loved it; they posed freely on the steps, by the entrance, next to a window.

On the way back to the Sunnycroft I couldn’t find a bus stop and finally did what the locals do, I stood by the roadside and waved. The first bus went past me and the driver didn’t even look apologetic. It wasn’t until a half mile or so later that I realized I had been walking on the wrong side of the street. It was then, close to four in the afternoon, that I had another chest pain, probably because I was angry with myself for forgetting the British traffic pattern. A snippy voice of righteousness whispered in my ear.

“Serves you right. You could be sitting in a comfortable bus if you paid attention.”

“Spot on,” I answered my voice of punishment with a hint of defiance and almost tripped over a hump in the street. “Spot on” must have been the phrase of the day; I had heard it several times on television during the past few evenings. And the hump? It’s the British equivalent to our bump. I faced a couple more before the next bus picked me up and took me back to town. By then I had forgotten about the pain, concentrating instead on a strategy for dinner since Saturday closes the doors on all shops by five. Without much complaint I resigned myself to a stale baguette, the last of the brie, a pear, and a syrupy semblance of black currant juice. Nobody expects three good meals in one day.

On Saturday I visited another war museum, this one near Cornet Castle, built into a bunker, again filled with more German war artifacts than I was expecting. I also visited, just a few hundred meters away, an Aquarium – an old Aquarium – that seemed to be run by one man who also sold fish food, soft drinks, and sandwiches. This place too, was housed in a bunker, at the bottom of the “Clarence Battery” another reminder of past wars.

On my last day, Sunday, I finally climbed the stairs to “Clarence Battery,” viewed Guernsey from above, and walked the cliffs. Though I had to stop occasionally, out of breath, up and down this rocky terrain, I noticed that I was not afraid of a heart attack, maybe because I was surrounded by many other walkers who seemed to sprint the ascends and descends with ease. On their way to afternoon tea they were chatting with companions, nodding a friendly hello, enjoying the landscape.

Maybe because Ebenezer was missing from this last outing before I returned to California, or maybe because I usually disconnect from my foreign adventure on the day before I leave it behind, I remember little of my last evening. On Monday I rode the bus to the airport, conquering the stairs down to the street one final time. My flights were uneventful, and I arrived home late, unpacked, and settled into my regular life without delay.

I had no chest pains when I came home, but wanted to be “on the safe side” - as if a safe side exists – and made an appointment with my doctor. After I responded with a whispered “ouch” to the push of her two fingers on my blouse-covered upper torso, she speculated that a virus might have attacked my chest wall.

I still don’t know what Bailiwick really means (or how to pronounce it properly) but it doesn’t matter; I love the word. Not everybody vacations in a Bailiwick.

I have read all the books I bought on the island. My snapshots of Guernsey have entered the halls of glossy symbols. Trimmed, grouped, labeled, the island’s bunkers, staircases, greenhouses, and harbor sunrises habe been locked into an album. My regrets over not having walked across Lihou are buried alongside the regrets of prior journeys. The bears are still friends and greet me each morning from their seat by the window. Tyana has loaned the Guernsey Teddy a pair of her jeans to go with his jumper.

It seems, once again, nightmares have been banned from my memories, only daydreams answer when I look at the clouds over Fort Hommet on my living room wall. While I sit at my desk I imagine Benji cocking his little wiry head, dark-suited bankers agonizing over the Guernsey Press, the manageress of the Sunnycroft finally pulling her lips into a faint smile. My young neighbor in room three, the one with bare pale torso and wet black socks, puffs smoky circles into the morning sky. Juliet Ashton of the Guernsey Literary Society has married Dawsey Adams and has learned to talk to pigs. Ebenezer? Ebby didn’t really die. He went back to the Press Shop and bought another journal.

“I want to write down in it all the good thoughts I have left out in this,” he had told Neville when he had handed over his book.

It seems only fair that Ebenezer le Page should be allowed the time to count his blessings. I praise my Guernsey companion, thank him for his guidance, and admit in a whispered aside that already my attention is straying onto a new map of adventures.

Sleeping in a Suitcase

It was curiosity about the former DDR – the German Democratic Republic - as well as a wish for an unusual adventure, that took me cross-country to the other side of Germany. I wanted to see the poverty I had read about, the frustration, the exodus, and I wanted to sleep in the suitcase that was advertised as the smallest hotel in the world. Hindsight tells me that it was crazy to expect a meaningful experience within a twenty-two hour time span, but by a stroke of luck I encountered the most outgoing, ambitious and open-minded person who would guide me with enthusiasm into both, a political discussion and a night in a wooden box by the Zwickauer Mulde at the far end of Saxony. Herr Lehmann, the owner of the suitcase, is an extraordinary man.

I had cut out an article about “Sleeping in a Suitcase” a few years ago, eventually researched it on the Internet and put it on my list of things to do someday. A month before my trip to Dilsberg I emailed Herr Lehmann and we set my date of arrival for September 21. He seemed thrilled, offered to give me a ride in his boat and a tour of his museum, even said he would pick me up from the nearest train station if I told him my arrival time. While I lived in Dilsberg I received a “Welcome to Germany” note from him. All that, I thought, for a ten Euro stay.

Thirteen dollars to spend the night and one hundred and sixty dollars for the roundtrip. Though I left my rented house at five thirty in the morning, I didn’t get to Lunzenau until three in the afternoon. Five transfers – three trains and two buses, increasingly more graffiti and broken glass, less flowerpots, dilapidated communist blockhouses, long red lights and detours because of highway construction – and then I stepped out of the bus into bright sunshine onto a deserted street. Nobody to ask directions, no signs, few houses, fewer cars, not even a cat. A far cry from my fortress Dilsberg where people sat on benches in front of the town gate tower and directed strangers to the castle. I should have taken Herr Lehmann up on his offer to meet me at the train station, but it had seemed like such an imposition to make him drive forty-five minutes to pick up one person.

As soon as I walked a few feet to the right I saw the restaurant “Zum Prellbock,” a white three story stucco with its own parking lot. And then I saw the Suitcase, a few feet back, separated from the street by a fence, surrounded by flowers. It was exactly as it was described and pictured online. A large wooden crate that was painted brown and embellished with the attributes of a suitcase. Not much taller than I; probably not even two feet longer, and definitely very narrow.

“I’m going to sleep in that?”

I’m not sure if I said it out loud or if I thought it. Slowly I walked alongside the restaurant, on one hand excited about having made it so far but also wondering if I would be able to find alternative sleeping arrangements if I became claustrophobic. I reached the locomotive and the restored train station that Herr Lehmann had hauled in and made into a museum. Down the stairs stretched a beer garden with wooden tables and chairs, shaded by large trees, edged by the river. Inside the dark interior of the restaurant I spotted Herr Lehmann in the middle of his kingdom. Station master hats hung everywhere, signs, posters, rail artifacts, souvenirs. We shook hands like long lost friends; his wife welcomed me with a glass of sparkling water and I was urged to sit and relax.

We talked for half an hour before Herr Lehmann suggested I take a walk to the tall rail bridge a mile and a half away. He would get the boat ready and later his wife would prepare dinner. The boat, I realized as we toured the grounds, was the dinghy tied to a tree and it had taken on some water. My host gave me an introduction to the history of the suitcase and his passion for the railroad. He works for the Deutsche Bundesbahn, the German Rail system; he is a collector of rail art and anything else that is connected to trains. His restaurant is a meeting place for cultural events like poetry readings and art exhibits and the display of unusual hobbies. He built the suitcase a few years ago because he constantly had requests from visitors who wanted to spend a night in his train station. Together he and his wife manage the restaurant, the museum, the gift shop, the suitcase and an upstairs vacation home. Tourism has declined since the younger generation migrates west, hardly any requests for the furnished apartment that he rents out for twenty-five dollars a night. He gets up at three in the morning and drives seventy kilometers to his job in Leipzig. But he never quit smiling, and with great enthusiasm he told me about his plans for the future, a suitcase on wheels to take to exhibits and to travel the continent or at least visit the children.

I had brought a present for Herr Lehmann, an American magazine about rail travel and a small figurine of a stationmaster. When he flipped through the pages aimlessly I realized that he did not understand English and suggested that he might like the photography. It was the only time I saw him reticent.

“We learned Russian in school.”

This simply had not occurred to me. Everybody else I knew in Germany had some basic knowledge of English. It was the curtain – the iron curtain - that had left its marks. The division I had read about, the uneasy readjustment of two halves that had for so long gone in their own opposing directions.

Finally Herr Lehmann took me to my “room.” He unlocked the narrow door to the suitcase and the first things I saw were the tiny sink and the toilet. The rest of the interior was filled with the wooden bunks and an old metal locker. The walls of unpainted pressed wood were almost totally covered by black felt pen writing. The ceiling was batted with a dark blue fabric on which somebody had sewn yellow felt stars.

“Make sure you leave a message too,” I was told as I read some of the poems and thank yous on the walls.

Since there was no room to move around inside we stood in front. Soon Herr Lehmann left to get the boat ready for the promised ride on the river. For the first time I noticed the mosquitoes that swarmed around the waterfront and I regretted not having brought repellent. I posed Tyana on the top bunk and took a few pictures before I closed the door to freshen up a bit. If I moved very slowly I avoided banging into the walls. A small window at the top allowed for some light but I also located the switch for a lamp by the bed. On top of the locker I saw the bible, an old book of regulations for rail travel and a Japanese adventure story. Something to read for all occasions.

After my limited cleanup session I took the camera and began the prescribed walk. It was easy to follow the river but too far to the bridge. Germans describe every stretch as being two kilometers but somehow it is always twice as long. The landscape was beautiful though it seemed neglected. Throughout my short stay in Saxony I had the feeling that two forces were at work, the fast pace of reconstruction but also a slow decline based on lethargy. I tried to sort out my impressions on a bench by the Mulde, tried to keep my expectations separate from reality, but I couldn’t. Every time I focused on the natural beauty in front of me, I remembered the face of a station attendant I had asked for directions. He didn’t move, barely opened his thin-lipped mouth, his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. He looked cruel, like the East German policemen who shot at their brothers when they tried to climb the wall or escaped through underground tunnels. Like the villains on a movie set.

Five minutes after six I showed up for dinner and excused myself from the boat ride. I didn’t want to hurt Herr Lehmann’s feelings, but the boat looked small, the mosquitoes threatening, I was hungry, and I began to feel the effects of the seven-hour train trip.

The family sat under a tree with their evening meal. I apologized for being early. No problem, the menu would entertain me for half an hour. It not only detailed the food choices, all associated with the glory days of trains, but was also loaded with old ticket stubs, advertising, and historical facts. A clever way to involve the tourist with the concept of past rail travel and a tribute to the Lehmann’s creativity and commitment.

I ordered potato dumplings, red cabbage, and sauerbraten. And of course my daily Cola light. I am not a beer drinker and I don’t remember how many times I had to point that out during my trip. I was one of six guests and the only one who remained until it got dark. We moved inside and after a quick phone conversation Herr Lehmann asked if I minded being interviewed and photographed. He would do the interview and the Free Press would send a photographer the next morning. I had suddenly become a celebrity because I had traveled so far to sleep in the suitcase. Most visitors were young cyclists who used it because it was cheap or because it was an oddity. There were occasional travelers from other German states, quite a few Berliners, some newlyweds, an oldster who hadn’t lost his sense of adventure yet, but nobody from the US had ever slept in the suitcase.

A gentleman named Gert Flessing introduced himself and moved over on the bench so I could sit next to him. I recognized him from the website as the writer who would recite his poems the next evening.

I was surprised when he smiled and explained, “Normally I am a pastor.”
“You are allowed to drink?” I said it without thinking and was reassured that beer consumption was not sinful. We both laughed. I apologized and told him that I was not used to socializing with a pastor. Then we discussed the recent elections and the fact that the right wing, the Neo Nazis had garnered a spot on the ticket. Her Flessing explained the peculiar kind of poverty the eastern states are facing.

“Different from real poverty,” he claimed. “Our poor are demanding; they won’t make do with used things. They expect to be taken care of. We subsidize their children’s education and their heating bills in winter. But it never seems enough.”

After a while I became a bit uneasy with the conversation. The “Wende” (the change or the turning point) as they call the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have caused many problems. Unemployment (East Germany has 19 percent, twice that of the west), the exodus of the young (more than a million people have moved to the west since 1989), the closing of factories and the decay of the cement block communist houses. My question about Neo Nazi influence on the young provoked Herr Flessing to say that, “the left is just as dangerous.”

Whatever it was that I detected in his voice, I didn’t want to explore further. I gave him my email address and promised to keep in touch. Herr Lehmann finished his interview with me and around ten his wife brought in my comforter, which he carried as he escorted me to the suitcase. It was totally dark outside. Dark, silent and thrillingly refreshing. After the door closed I brushed my teeth, slipped into my sweats and went to sleep.

Why was I surprised the next morning that my sleep was so sound? It really makes no difference how big a place is once you close your eyes. I didn’t wake until my cell phone alarm went off at eight. Extricating myself from the lower bunk, looking into the mirror above the sink, I had the urge to rip open the door and dressed quickly. With the turn of the key I was part of the real world again. I wiped the dew from a chair and sat down to enjoy the morning, realizing that the thrill of this adventure was not in sleeping in a box; it was in the effects of the total package. The cats around my legs, the deep colors of fall flowers, the bright blue sky, the mumbling of the river, Frau Lehmann’s smile as she came with a covered basket and set the breakfast table for me. Cheeses and lunchmeats, yogurt, a boiled egg, fresh rolls, jam, coffee. She sat down with me while we waited for the photographer. And he, a typical German in my eyes, immediately argued about the expectations of the newspaper.

“I am supposed to photograph an arrival.”

Well, Frau Lehmann expected to be photographed having breakfast with me. It’s what Herr Lehmann had suggested, I guess. The photographer won. We were told to stand in the parking lot, by the rail art statue, the suitcase in the background, Frau Lehmann explaining its history, the sun shining brightly into our faces. I insisted on holding Tyana the bear. A young man without a sense of humor I thought when he frowned. But this time I won. I’m German, too, you know.

The rest of the morning was that of a regular traveler. I packed, moved my belongings into the restaurant so Frau Lehmann could get the suitcase ready for the next inhabitant. On Herr Lehmann’s recommendation I took off toward the castle.

“Rochsburg is only two kilometers away. You have to see it.”

Either I got lost or the distance doubled and though I had a wonderful walk up and down mountains in the deep shadow and silence of old trees, I was glad to finally arrive at a plateau and see the castle in the distance. I knew I would miss my one o’clock bus – 13:10 to be precise – if I walked much farther. When I reached the main road, I located the sign that pointed back to Lunzenau and marched nonstop past windmills and smoke stacks – the dichotomy of old and new again – right back to the Prellbock. A quick Cola drink and a hearty handshake later I stood at the bus stop, ready for the long trip back to Dilsberg. As I had promised myself some time ago, I had slept in a suitcase, advertised as the smallest hotel in the world.