Category Archives: Travel

Local Color at Budapest’s Thermal Baths

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It was such a relief to be on the plane that the physical discomfort of an overseas flight in coach couldn’t really touch me. I was no longer worried. D and I synchronized True Grit on our seat-back video screens, pausing at regular intervals to try to decipher Jeff Bridges’ mumblings.  At the Munich Airport we made our way along endless meandering hallways, up and down countless stairs, to reach the gate for our flight to Hungary. Several hours later, we were at the Budapest Airport, where the cheerful Viking Cruise staff awaited us.

Our ship was docked in the heart of this ancient and strikingly beautiful city, immediately adjacent to the majestic Chain Bridge. The room that D and I shared looked out onto the bridge and the hilly Buda side of the city, with Buda Castle and the medieval Matthias Church nearby.  A bit farther away, we could see the sleek new Elizabeth Bridge and the statue-topped Gellert Hill. My parents’ room was across the hall facing the flatter Pest side of the city.

Hungary is a land of abundant hot springs. Budapest has more than twenty thermal baths, all owned and operated by the government. According to every guidebook I consulted, the quintessential Hungarian experience is a trip to one of these baths. In the most celebrated baths, indoor and outdoor pools are grandly enclosed by elegant nineteenth-century architecture. We chose to visit the recently renovated Széchenyi Baths, which attract fewer tourists than the more upscale Gellert Baths. The friendly young woman at our ship’s concierge desk happily called a taxi when we inquired about getting to the baths. Our driver, a pleasant, talkative woman about my age, was soon whisking D and me through the city in her spotless white Mercedes. We left my parents to relax and unpack on the boat.  In a quick ten minutes, we had arrived at the ornate entry building.

To foreigners, the entry procedure at the Széchenyi baths can be befuddling, to say the least. Few attendants speak English, and the notoriously difficult Hungarian language can hardly be picked up in a weekend with the help of a phrase book. Rick Steves’ e-book on Budapest offers a comprehensive guide to negotiating the baths.  I had reviewed it on the plane, but we were still confused. Upon entering, one pays admission and rental for either a locker or a changing cabin. In anticipation of a trip to the baths, I had exchanged some dollars for Hungarian forints (a currency I find just as confusing as getting into the baths). Like a child, I paid by laying out the money and letting the attendant point to the required bills.  I thought I had rented a changing cabin, so we wandered through the complex until we found that area, only to be told that we had paid for a locker. We roamed through additional subterranean corridors and finally located the women’s locker room. An attendant attached a wristband to my arm and showed us how to activate the lock using the attached metal disk.

Having worn our bathing suits under our clothes, it wasn’t long before we were back in the labyrinthian halls in search of the towel rental station. In an effort to be upstanding guests, we hadn’t smuggled towels with us from the boat. Next time we will not be so virtuous. The rental towels bore little relation to typical American terrycloth towels. Made of smooth heavy cotton, they were more like tablecloths. For those desiring further adventure during their baths experience, bathing suits can also be rented.

Getting out to the pools was easy, and it was wonderful to be in the open air again. Surrounded by the golden yellow Neo-Baroque buildings housing the entrance area, indoor baths, saunas and massage rooms, there are three spacious outdoor pools. The afternoon temperature was in the high 60s, and the warm water felt amazing. We spent most of our time in the semicircular “Fun Pool” which has a current circle in the center. We kept to the less populated edges.

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 The “Fun Pool” where we spent most of our time.

The clientele was primarily Hungarian, although we heard various other languages, including British and American English, French, German and Russian. I have never before seen such an eclectic variety of swimming attire. And no, this is not one of Budapest’s several “clothing optional” baths.  Hefty grandfatherly men strutted about in tiny Speedos. Svelte young model types posed at the water’s edge in daring bikinis and spike heels. A number of older, well-covered women protected their hair with puffy shower caps. In the center lap pool, a cap is required. While some swimmers wore actual bathing caps, others sported baseball or shower caps.

The water began to feel cooler after a while, so we decided to have a look at the indoor baths. I was hoping for warmer water there. These pools were far more crowded than those outside. Along the edges, people, mostly men, stood shoulder to shoulder, staring unabashedly at any newcomers who ventured in. I was determined to test the water, so I made a quick circuit of the interior until I found a spot where the multitude was less pressing. When I dipped my foot in, the water was no warmer. We gladly returned to the unintimidating outdoor pools.

As the time approached to meet our taxi driver, the late afternoon air was taking on a serious chill. The abject deficiency of our rented towels made it difficult to emerge from the water. Our completely saturated tablecloths were icy and offered no comfort. Other towels, real, fluffy towels, folded invitingly, temptingly, seemed to mock us. I hope to never again feel such overwhelming towel envy. The comparative warmth of the taxi was especially welcome. We were invigorated by our plunge into the warmth and local color of the Széchenyi Baths.  And we were glad to return to our floating haven on the Danube, which appeared even more inviting than it had at first sight.

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The “Relaxation Pool” where some bathers play chess.

Helpful note on payment: Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the baths, which allows you to avoid dealing with forints.  Our taxi driver preferred to be paid in Euros.

Anticipating Disaster on the Danube

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I still find it hard to believe that a little over a year ago, my daughter, my parents and I were on our way to Budapest. We had decided, uncharacteristically, to use spring break for a Danube River cruise. Typically, we go no place more exotic than Atlanta during this time. Even more typically, we rest, recharge and sleep late. But the European river cruise was highly recommended by several friends, and we had been considering it for a few years. The time was right, it seemed. None of us, after all, was getting any younger or healthier. The longer we put it off, the more medications we’d have to drag along, and the less sure-footed my parents and I would be on ancient, uneven cobblestones and cathedral steps.

My husband opted out, as I had expected. He likes to remind us that he doesn’t get a spring break.  He had accompanied me and my parents on a trip to France when our daughter was three. One European vacation with the in-laws, he decided, was sufficient. The river cruise, with its set itinerary, didn’t appeal to him; he preferred a more free-ranging vacation. Had he come, we would have needed another stateroom on the ship, or a suite. Traveling in uneven numbers isn’t ideal for river cruises.

The previous September, when I had asked my parents about the Danube cruise, they responded enthusiastically. I had found what looked like the perfect trip, with a stop in Regensburg, where Daddy had been stationed with the American occupational forces after World War II. His time in Germany had been cut unexpectedly short, when his father died suddenly. Daddy had not returned, and he was beginning to think he never would. While Mama, a dedicated Anglophile, would have preferred another trip to England, she was fine with Germany. My daughter’s top vacation choice would have been a bustling Caribbean cruise, but she was happy to be going to Europe for the first time. I looked forward especially to accompanying my father to Regensburg, an unspoiled medieval town that was spared wartime damage. I loved it that he would be returning with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

As the departure date approached, my excitement gave way to anxiety. I would have worried less if my husband had been coming with us. While we disagree about the highlights of travel (I prefer historical sight-seeing, he goes for action and adventure), he has a gift for keeping a clear head and making good decisions when adversity arises. As Mama once noted, while H drove us calmly out of Paris, after negotiating various bewildering aspects of French bureaucracy at the airport and rental car agency, he would be a formidable contestant on The Amazing Race. Not long after we had begun dating, we were on our way to Newark Airport in my VW Rabbit, when it broke down on Route 1. I was headed to Michigan for a friend’s wedding.  H spotted the office of a car service, persuaded the owner to awaken the off-duty driver (her son), and got me back on the road in no time.  As I waved goodbye to H, who waited beside the Rabbit for a tow truck, I had complete confidence that he and the car would make it back to Princeton safely.  From that moment, I began to see his potential as a permanent feature in my life.

Without H on this upcoming trip, I would be the Adult in Charge, and that was frightening. It had been nearly ten years since I was in Europe, but, as I tried to remind myself, I was no travel neophyte.  I had spent a summer in France during college, and as a grad student I had become accustomed to traveling throughout Europe, with friends, family, even alone. I had enjoyed it. I had not been riddled with misgivings. As for my parents, they are sturdy and capable travelers. They visited me during the year I lived in England, and we zipped around the countryside for three weeks in a rented red Ford Escort. We explored out-of-the-way castles and hard-to-reach ruins that only the locals knew about.

But we were all younger then. So much younger, it appears, when I see the photos from those trips. Still, none of us is ancient, doddering or especially fragile, and we have my daughter to help us. Even as a baby, she was a spirited and adventurous traveler. While fellow airline passengers crossed themselves during bouts of turbulence, she was all smiles, clapping her chubby hands and yelling “Whee!.” She had grown into a highly competent traveling companion. Like most of her peers, she has a facility for technology. She is her father’s daughter, and she would be a good stand-in for him. We would be fine, I told myself over and over. We would have a wonderful trip.

But then again, what if? What if one or more of us got sick? What if someone fell or met with an accident? I remember taking a flying fall on the marble steps of a Renaissance church in Italy. I couldn’t afford to do that now. What if my parents’ passports, which expired in five months instead of the recommended six, led to some difficulty? This point caused me extreme consternation, and after many calls to various European embassies that should have eased my mind, I was still worried. What if, after all these plans, we couldn’t make this trip? Or what if we did, and disaster struck? What if, what if. . .. The what ifs were exhausting me.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, similar worries dogged my parents. Our family tends to make plans eagerly for a date that appears comfortingly far-off. As the actual event nears, the second-guessing starts. It’s tempting to say, “Oh, never mind. Let’s just stay home.” Stay safe, be comfortable, avoid the risk.

But the time was ticking by, and it looked like this trip was going to happen. The day arrived when Mama and Daddy drove up from Atlanta, healthy and looking good. We would be flying overseas together, first to Munich, followed by a short connecting flight to Budapest. I expected that once we were on the plane, my worries would vanish. The river cruises cater to a predominately elderly clientele because so many of the usual travel worries simply disappear.  We would be in the capable hands of the Viking River Cruise staff.  The ship would be our well-equipped floating hotel.  On land, we would, no doubt, be herded onto “motor coaches” like preschoolers on a field trip, but unlike H, I was fine with that.

The weeks of worry were at an end.  We would soon be flying to Hungary.

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On the left bank, the hills of Buda. On the right, Pest, with the dome of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building.

 

Back When the Movies were Big, and the Theatre was a Palace: Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox

My trove of movie memories was neatly packed, sealed, and hidden away in my mind, and it took a while to access them. I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of home viewing, of DVDs, streaming video and Tivo, that I had nearly forgotten the thrill of the old-time movie-going experience.

Having grown up in Atlanta during the 60s and 70s, my most colorful movie memories center on the Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929. Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Mosque, national Shriners’ headquarters, its flamboyant style is best described as Islamic with touches of Egyptian. When escalating costs jeopardized the project, William Fox stepped in and oversaw the completion of the building as his newest movie palace. The fanciful exterior is a wealth of onion domes, minarets, ornate tile work and arched colonnades.

The movie that stands out most clearly among the many I saw at the Fox was, strangely, a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South, truly a remnant from another world. I was with a group of fifth-grade friends, and it was the first time a parent had dropped us off at the theatre. Maybe the movie was chosen by that parent simply for its “G” rating. Had we been younger, we might have taken some delight in the singing, dancing, southern dialect-spewing animals of the Uncle Remus stories. We were mature enough to be uncomfortable watching wise and contented former slaves extolling the joys of life on the old plantation. (Because it is now generally considered a racially offensive film, it has never been released in its entirety on VHS or DVD.)

The movie wasn’t a good fit for us, but it didn’t matter, because the Fox Theatre was dazzling. Gilded opulence was everywhere, from the box office window, to the concession stand to the luxurious Ladies’ Lounge (no mere utilitarian restrooms for the Fox). The auditorium was vast and atmospheric, with nearly 5,000 seats. It resembled an enchanted courtyard from the Arabian Nights. Before the movie began, we marveled at the gradually darkening and slowly rotating twilight sky above, flickering with crystal stars and the occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Just before show time, the famous pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit. The second-largest theatre organ in the U.S., it filled the great space with the music of an entire orchestra, a variety of brass instruments and sound effects, such as thunder and lightning.

By the mid 70s, as potential movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, the Fox was struggling financially. Down at the heels and seedy, it had become the Blanche DuBois of movie palaces. The City of Atlanta, always quick to move on in the name of progress, proposed demolishing the theatre to make way for Southern Bell’s new headquarters. This plan awakened Atlantans, at long last, to the urgent need for hometown historic preservation. (The city’s once-magnificent Terminal Station, designed in the Spanish Mission style by the architect of the Fox, had been torn down in 1972.)

Perhaps because so many Georgians clung to their own unforgettable memories of the old theatre, the Save-the-Fox campaign gained support quickly. The building was not only saved, but eventually fully restored. It now serves as a popular concert venue, with a film series every summer, complete with organ sing-a-longs. The historic old girl looks better than ever. Blanche has bucked up, gone through rehab, become fit and healthy. An active, happy grandmother, it looks as though she has many good years ahead.

My daughter has never been to the Fox.  My husband hasn’t either, although he and I have eaten dinner across the street at the Georgian Terrace, while crowds flocked to a performance of Celtic Woman. I hope we can catch a summer movie at the Fox this year, so H & D can see that magical, indoor amethyst sky.

Memory: Persistently Disintegrating and Rebuilding

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If time moves at a bewildering pace, memory is equally problematic. Over the years, I have clung to certain recollections, the details etched in my mind with crystalline clarity, only to realize later that they are erroneous.

I was absolutely sure, for example, of the enormity of the airplane on my first overseas flight. As I remember it, in coach there were four seats across on the two side rows and ten in the center. I thought my friend Jackie and I were in that miserable middle section. A frail, elderly couple was marooned in the very center, and I felt terrible for them. Recently, when I found my notes from the trip, I read in my own eighth-grade cursive that there were three seats on each side row and only four in the center.  I had been so sure about that central row of ten. While this may seem an insignificant point, in my mind it had been pivotal. It was hard proof of the plane’s great size and cattle-car conditions.

I am not alone in my flawed remembrance. Recently, the iron-clad nature of the eye-witness account, once accorded special precedence in crime solving, has been cast into doubt. A witness may be supremely confident of what or whom he saw, but still he may be dead wrong. Perception is likely to be flawed in various ways, including the angle of vision, circumstances surrounding the viewing of the event, even one’s emotional state at the time. Memory is not set in stone, but prone to suggestion and easily colored by prior and later experience. It’s an ongoing drama being constantly reshot. As time passes, our memories both erode and build up piece by tiny piece, like shifting beach sand in a storm. Salvador Dali’s paintings of melting clocks capture this truth: over time, memory is simultaneously persistent and disintegrating.

Memories of early childhood are especially likely to be compilations, aggregates of our own experiences and accounts of older friends and relatives. Photos may trick us into believing we remember, when we do not. I think I recall playing on my swing set when it was set up behind the chicken lot at my grandparents’ house. I may remember using the dining room table as a secret fort before Thanksgiving dinner, reaching up surreptitiously to grab a piece of turkey. Guess I’ll never know if these memories are mine or borrowed.

In one of my most vivid memories, I’m about four years old, catching lightning bugs with two friends on a warm Kentucky summer night. The vision is suffused with a heavy Keatsian Ode to a Nightingale atmosphere. There are “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways” and “fast-fading violets covered up in leaves.” Jarringly, amidst all that tender poetic beauty, there intrudes the sharp and uninvited recollection that the bubble gum I was chewing began to taste much like the pungent scent of the fireflies. Did this really happen? Maybe it did. As Proust has famously observed, the sense of taste can transport us miraculously into the long-ago. He had his tea-dipped madeleine; I had my insect-infused bubble gum. Perhaps if I were to sample lightning bug gum again, I would know for sure.

Memory is perversely selective. The most trivial of objects and events may be fixed indelibly and inexplicably in our minds. Yet unless we have consciously prepared ourselves beforehand, crucial episodes slip away with barely a trace. Faces of loved ones fade and blur. I don’t remember visiting my grandfather in the hospital before he died. I remember the blue dress I wore to his funeral, and I think I recall kissing him as he lay in his coffin. My shock at the firm, marble-like coldness of his face rings true, but who knows?

Memory, like life, is a work in progress, a bubbling stew of the inconsequential and the profound, the ridiculous and the significant. In both memory and life, the miscellaneous threads may tangle. We tend to look for meaning where it doesn’t exist, and fail to recognize it when we stumble upon it. Yet dead ends may lead us on new and better paths. When I’m struck by a memory’s mingled richness, sweetness and bitterness, it’s comforting to remember that it’s the taste of life itself.

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Seems like I remember playing in my grandfather’s 1951 Dodge with my friend Bob.  It was the old car Grandaddy used for his errands in town and trips to the tobacco barn. My grandmother wouldn’t let him drive her much newer car, a Chrysler with pronounced fins.

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The only thing I remember clearly about this day is the Sugar Daddy I was eating. It was very cold, and we were about to go somewhere.

Are you puzzled by the strangeness of some early memories?
Wonder why you recall certain details clearly and forget the main story?  I’d love to hear about it.

Cape Cod Shell Angels

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My husband’s family has vacationed in Cape Cod since he was a little boy. They cherish their time on the Cape. It’s a Family Tradition marked by capital letters and exclamation points. They will battle illness and adversity to reach the Cape. Fortunately, I appreciate the unique environment as much as they do. We began taking our daughter there when she was two. Her love of the Cape was immediate, as natural to her as breathing. H’s parents were immensely pleased with the discerning wisdom of their young granddaughter.

Our quaint little rental cottages look out across the bay to the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape. We feel privileged to spend time each summer in this transitional, luminous, glorious spot. As in such magical places as Cornwall, Mont St. Michel and Key West, the expected balance of land and water has shifted. The land resembles a narrow ribbon drifting on the water. The sky is vast. The light is awe-inspiring, ever-changing.

The land itself is in constant flux. I was unprepared for the quiet drama of the bay. Growing up, my beach experiences were limited to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts of Georgia’s  islands. Both are beautiful areas, but they lack the sharply defined tidal contrasts of Cape Cod Bay. Every year without fail, soon after we arrive, a knock at our screen door signals Grandpa’s delivery of our copies of the tide chart, our guide to daily life. At low tide, the flats extend nearly as far as the eye can see. The shallows glimmer like silver in the shifting sunlight. When the tide begins to rush in, the change is at first almost imperceptible. Before long, though, the water is swirling around us, its determined, unstoppable force clearly evident. At least once every day, we watch as the expanses of sand shrink into islands, smaller and smaller, before they become completely submerged again.

The bay is not a prime beach for shelling, but occasionally it offers up its particular treasures. Every so often, during an especially low tide, scallop shells dot the flats like pale, muted jewels, their colors subtle and austere. Naturally, my daughter and I collect them. Over the years we had acquired several sand pails full before we discovered an ideal, simple way to transform the shells into appropriate mementos. With the addition of a few beads and smaller shells, they became Christmas angels. (Once again, the hot glue gun allowed us to turn out a host of ornaments quickly and easily.)

Our little angels keep Cape Cod with us during the off-season. The medieval pilgrimage connotations of the scallop shell give the angels a certain dignity and make them all the more evocative. One of the world’s first souvenirs, the scallop shell became the emblem of the pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela, the several routes of which stretch through the mountains of France to northern Spain. Tourism on a grand scale was born in these pilgrimage routes, and the Way of St. James continues to attract pilgrims, many still on foot. Medieval pilgrims were, to some degree, tourists, just as many of today’s tourists are, in a sense, pilgrims. For travelers of the eleventh or the twenty-first century, whether navigating the perils of wilderness paths or the trials of Interstate 95, the goals of the journey are similar and elemental: an escape from the daily routine, the promise of adventure, a firmer grasp of life’s real meaning, and the opportunity for spiritual renewal. I love it that such richness of meaning is tied up neatly in the humble shell angels on our Christmas tree. *

*One final, fitting point of interest: our scallop shells wash ashore near the place where our country’s first pilgrims landed. As most of us learned and later forgot, the Mayflower’s initial stop in the new world was in what is now Provincetown Harbour.

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A Small Reunion of the Rutherford Hall Gang

 

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Rutherford Hall in the fall, during the 1980s.

My trip to Atlanta was occasioned by a reunion of old college friends from the University of Georgia. We met as freshmen living in the basement corridor of a wonderful old dorm, Rutherford Hall. We were saddened by the recent news of the decision, despite much protest (including ours), to demolish Rutherford and build a larger, more luxurious new residence hall in its place. Out of six former Rutherford girls, only three could rearrange our lives to attend. But three good friends together again after so many years is nothing to sneeze at.

Sarah (all names have been changed) had recently moved back to Atlanta, after years in England with her family. Always the gracious hostess, she volunteered her comfortable home as our headquarters. The last time I saw Sarah I was moving to New Jersey. Then recently married, she offered her guest room in Delaware as a stopping point on the drive up. Her hospitality and sense of classic style remain flawless. She retains the ladylike reserve that made her seem wise beyond her years at eighteen, but it’s a reserve that she lets slip a bit when she’s in the company of old friends.

Jackie was flying in from Montana, where she has lived now for two decades. I’ve known her since middle school when were both on the school newspaper staff. She was renowned for her articles on European travel. My first memory of Jackie is a newspaper photo showing her seated in a Venetian gondola. I was impressed, and somewhat envious. Our typical family vacation involved visiting relatives in rural Kentucky. Knowing her background, I expected her to be conceited and snooty, but she was nothing of the sort. She was, and still is, a person of kindness and integrity, as well as a magnet for fun and adventure.

Jackie was among my closest companions when our 8th grade French class, amazingly, took a spring break trip to France and England. (This was unheard of in the Atlanta Public Schools in the 1970s, but we were blessed with a remarkably spunky French teacher who was determined to turn us into citizens of the world. She found a study trip that was extremely bare bones and thus affordable.) On my very first airplane flight, I sat next to Jackie the seasoned traveler as we flew to New York and then on to Paris. I felt incredibly lucky. By day we saw the famous landmarks I had pored over in library books and old copies of National Geographic. By night, we sat up late giggling with our friends in French lycees and London dorm rooms.

Jackie and I roomed together during our freshman year in college. I remember vividly my surprised happiness the day she called to ask me. I had planned to accept a luck-of-the-draw, university-assigned roommate, and I probably would have landed in a soulless freshman high-rise.  Jackie’s older sister had lived in Rutherford, and she recommended it for its large rooms, atmospheric appeal and central location. Had I not roomed with Jackie, my first year of college would have been far less memorable. She drove a flashy Firebird, which wasn’t really her style, but it was the car her dad bought her, and she piloted it with flair. (No one else in our group had any kind of car.)  She also had an affable older brother in a fraternity. The night before classes began, Jackie took our Rutherford group over to the Kappa Sigma house. My social life was set for the next couple of years. As time has passed, as we’ve reveled in life’s ups and weathered some significant downs, our friendship has grown stronger.

Jackie, Sarah and I had much to reminisce about. We were first drawn together by a shared housing woe. Water seeping into the foundation had flooded the room next to Jackie’s and mine. It was pouring across the hall toward Sarah’s room and trickling up to ours when we got to work with towels and buckets to keep the water at bay. The girls living in the flooded room had to vacate, which was too bad, but it left us with a convenient guest area for visiting friends. We weren’t bothered by damp and mold so much in those days, and we didn’t expect a hotel lifestyle. That spring, after another flood, we brought in masses of bamboo from a recent luau and our little hall became as atmospheric as a cloud forest.  Instead of being irked by the inconveniences of living in an older dorm, we saw them as creative opportunities and part of Rutherford’s ramshackle charm. 

During our first quarter, Jackie enjoyed an especially active social life.  She rarely cracked a book, but on the weekend before finals, she decided to start studying. While she crammed in the library, the rest of us camped out in our room and zealously created some comically spectacular cut-and-paste art in her family photo album. We used pictures and captions from my National Lampoons and a magazine coyly titled For Women Only that one of us had received as a joke gift. (We were respectful in our mischief; we did nothing that couldn’t easily be undone.) It took a while before Jackie discovered our many-leaved masterpiece, and the anticipation of that revelation made it even better. When she finally removed the album from its shelf to show a friend, several of us were there to witness the hilarity of her shock. As we had expected, Jackie appreciated the humor and recognized the prank as the twisted compliment it was intended to be. 

Our best times that year arose from similarly mundane circumstances.  We kept our doors open nearly all the time, to encourage frequent socializing and pronounced time wasting. We had great fun paging through the Freshman Register (a Facebook predecessor) and making silly phone calls to cute boys. If, by chance, we received a prank call, we were prepared. We’d pass the phone around to everyone in the hall, each of us adding some outlandish comment, to puzzle and embarrass the unsuspecting caller. Glorious fall days like today remind me of freewheeling Sunday afternoon drives in the Athens countryside.  With Jackie behind the wheel, we’d discover local eccentricity and explore the occasional abandoned farmhouse or unexpected University-owned structure.

Our little Rutherford reunion brought with it the realization of how precious and fleeting is the sense of community that flourishes so vigorously during the college years.  It’s made more profound because we’re away from home for the first time.  That closeness cannot quite be duplicated in the so-called real world of work, parenting and routine daily responsibility. This, I believe, is one of the saddest aspects of growing up.  Fortunately we can capture it again in a diluted form, when we reunite to reflect on the good old days. 

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Rutherford in a rare snow, the Myers Quad facade, in the 1980s.

 

Back Home in Atlanta (Follow-up to Fun with Ground Transportation)

The worst part of the drive from the airport is now over, and Daddy is beginning to slow down. We’re in my old neighborhood, and I’m trying to soak it all in, trying not to miss any detail. Some houses remain unchanged for the last two decades, still in need of loving care. Others are in the course of being popped up to three times their size. Some invite repeated renovation; each year sees a new style, wing, or entry. Others have disappeared completely, and I try to remember what used to be on each bare muddy lot marked only by a Porta-Potty. Ever since General Sherman burned Atlanta in his March to the Sea, the city’s state of flux has been fast-paced.

My parent’s house, though, looks very nearly the same as it did when I was last here this summer. It remains essentially unchanged since 1929, when it was built, in a leafy in-town neighborhood of small brick Tudors and Norman cottages. We moved there in the late 1960s, after two years in a suburban rental. Our new house was a mess, but it immediately felt like home. My parents spent years uncovering its classic features–hardwood floors hidden under gold-flecked linoleum and lavender sculpted carpets, plaster walls concealed by wood-grained wallpaper. We gradually updated the kitchen, which still contained its original appliances, chrome-edged, simulated stone Formica countertops and metal cabinets. But we made no structural changes or additions. My mother’s interest in redecoration has not dimmed, but the alterations are smaller in scope now. My childhood room is just as it was when I moved away: the same wallpaper, the antique cherry furniture inherited from my father’s aunt.

I know every quirky feature of the house by heart: the sharply curving narrow driveway littered in the fall with acorns, the sound of the brass knocker rattling as the heavy front door closes, every creak along the center hall, the loud click of the light switch in the stair hall, the bathroom faucet handles that rotate the wrong way, the back hall steps lined with walking shoes and cartons of Coca-Cola, the old ping-pong table in the basement used for storage and craft projects, the view of the back yard from my old bedroom window, and the unique, inimitable smell of home.

It’s somewhat unsettling to be here without my daughter. I keep thinking she’s upstairs in the playroom, which has become a sort of toy museum. She’s probably unpacking the boxes of baby dolls, stuffed animals and Barbies that my mother lovingly maintains. Or maybe she’s setting up a tea party at the little pink table in the alcove, or rearranging the furniture in the doll house. But the table, the doll house and my girl are all at our home in Virginia. And if my daughter were here, the toys wouldn’t capture her attention nearly as much as my old Seventeen magazines and the wardrobe bags full of vintage clothes in the attic. (My mother has a great gift for design and sewing, and for many years she was possessed of a phenomenal energy that led her to make more clothes than we could ever wear).

It’s disorienting, as well, that there is no dog here. If I happen to see a shadow out of the corner of my eye, I think it’s the dog. And each time we leave, I look around instinctively to hug him goodbye. But I’m not sure which dog I expect. Is it my childhood dog, who has now been dead nearly twice as long as he lived? I often think I hear him, my sweet Popi, my stand-in for a sibling. He was a black and white cocker spaniel and chow mix, as aloof to other dogs and non-family members as Kiko is friendly. He often nudged open a partially closed door with his nose, a sound I hear repeatedly in my mind. Popi was so comforting when I was upset—he’d put his muzzle on my knee and look into my eyes with such compassion. Or is it my funny Kiko that I think I hear or see? But Kiko has never set one neat little paw in this house.

Returning to a childhood home is a bittersweet pleasure. The things of the past get confusingly jumbled up with those of the present. Old memories collide strangely with current reality. My brain is stretched in uncomfortable ways, and I feel young and old, happy and sad, at the same time. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t often go back alone to my old home.

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Popi, as a puppy, and me.  It was his first Christmas, and our first in the new house.  Of course Mama made my dress and vest, and my daughter wore them, as well.

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Popi with next-door dogs Felix and Cocoa, outside our back door.
He didn’t like them, but he tolerated them occasionally.

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Popi, not long before he died, at age 15.

Fun With Ground Transportation

Arriving in Atlanta in the early afternoon, the airport is packed as usual. Is Hartsfield-Jackson ever not teeming with humanity? I wind my way through the slow-moving multitudes toward the train (formally, the Automated People Mover). I feel officially welcomed to my hometown when I hear the familiar electronic voice warning “Stop! Do not enter!,” followed by “Doors closing!” After exiting the train along with the herd and ascending the super-long escalator, I see my parents in their usual spot just outside baggage claim. That first glimpse is always a surprise—in my mind I guess I see them as thirty years younger. They probably do the same with me.

After hugs and greetings, my father begins his customary discussion of the unfortunate parking situation. The parking garages are, indeed, in a constant state of reconstruction. There is great difficulty securing an empty spot, and even greater difficulty returning to that spot. My parents never fail to disagree about the optimum route. Once the car has been located, the next issue is threading our way out of the garage. My father continues to be a confident and competent driver, but in the airport parking lot he has a tendency to repeat urgently, “Which way? Which way?,” and to be oblivious to all exit signs. Mama’s suggestion that he calm down does nothing to ease the tension. I’m relieved, though, that Daddy is driving; I wouldn’t want to do it.

In line at last to pay our parking fee, the car ahead of us never fails to be immovable. We watch with incredulity as the driver speaks at length to the attendant, as forms, cash and credit cards are exchanged, maps appear to be consulted and further conversation ensues. The number of documents passed back and forth befits a drive-through passport application office or a border crossing into a war zone. At long last, the car in front inches away, snail-like, but not before Daddy has tried (without success, due to the high volume of cars behind us), to move to another lane. Once at the parking booth, the ticket has usually disappeared under a seat.

Finally out on the highway, Daddy’s limited patience has been severely tested, making the ride to my parents’ house all the more harrowing. In an attempt to make up for lost time, he drives at quite a clip, frequently changing lanes, all the while glancing back to ask me questions about the flight. Mama is a reluctant driver and an anxious passenger (she grew up with older brothers who wrecked cars and racked up severe injuries on a regular basis). Whenever possible, she sits in the back seat, with Daddy chauffeur-like in the front. She strongly urges my father to slow down, advice he clearly does not appreciate. Next time, I vow (as always), to take MARTA and spare my parents (and me) this hair-raising drive.

Fun with Air Travel

This past weekend I did something I have rarely done: I went away alone. My daughter and I have flown regularly together over the years to visit my parents, but these trips have become less frequent with the increasing demands of school. When she was younger, the logistics of child and dog care were too daunting for me to leave home overnight. Once, years ago when my mother was hospitalized and very sick, I flew to see her. But, until now, I have never gone away without husband or daughter, just for fun. This trip to Atlanta was to be a celebratory reunion of old friends. 
Bad weather, bad luck, discomfort and indignity seem to be standard in air travel. Of course, in these days of underwear bombers and terrorist plots, any flight that arrives eventually and safely at its final destination may be considered a success. In my own recent flight experience, delay and frustration were caused by all the usual factors: interminable security lines, thunderstorms, snow, ice, hail, excessive heat, mechanical trouble, alarming noises, strange smells, missing crew members and heavy runway traffic.

A typical flight for me usually begins promisingly enough. The plane arrives at the gate, late but not exceptionally so. Passengers are boarded. We are set to go; all appears in order. The plane is picking up speed on the runway when it stops and the engines are cut. The pilot reports a situation that puts us in limbo. The wait on the concourse is extended multiple times, before we return to the gate and disembark. No information is provided, but we are advised to remain near the gate. On our last flight, the wait on the runway and back in the airport totaled seven hours. Accordingly, I did not have high hopes for this trip.

My low expectations, however, were far exceeded. Security was a breeze.  The flight departed and arrived on time, the weather was beautiful, and my companions were enjoyable. I had the window seat in a row of three. We were all strangers, but we began talking and continued for the duration of the flight. The near certainty that we would never meet again gave us the freedom to dispense with small talk and get straight to life’s big issues. We had strikingly different backgrounds and opinions, but the discussion remained courteous and pleasant. Remarkably, we all recognized that the real value was in sharing our ideas, not in trying to prove a point. To judge by the example of our political leaders and pundits, we would conclude that opposing opinions cannot be aired without stirring up contention, competition and bitterness. It was refreshing to see that this must not always be the case.