Category Archives: Travel

Key West: The Drive from Miami

It did appear that our luck was improving.  Like the majority of customers renting cars at the Miami Airport, we’d reserved a Mustang convertible.  I’d half-expected to find a blatantly un-fun vehicle, some sensible mid-sized sedan, parked in the numbered spot.  But there it was, a silver Mustang soft-top.  Our daughter was happily agog; we hadn’t told her the details.  She’s wanted to drive a convertible since she was five and sat behind the wheel of a red Cadillac with her American Girl doll at the DC car show.  Ten years later, in possession of a learner’s permit and the actual ability to drive, she was all the more certain she preferred a roofless ride.    


Our drive began on a promising note.  The car seemed to be in good working order.  We cruised the streets of Miami at a pleasant pace for a few miles before realizing we were heading north.  Once we found the highway toward Key West, all progress ceased.  Traffic was backed up and at a standstill.  The sunshine, which had felt wonderfully warm and welcoming a block or two back, now beat down with aggressive intensity.  We were beginning to glimpse the enormity of our error.

For a while, as we inched along, we clung to flimsy shreds of hope.  It was shortly after noon.  Maybe we were simply caught in the lunch rush.  Or maybe the traffic was horrendous because we were leaving the city.  Miami congestion, that’s all.  Yet time ticked by, with little movement and less view, thanks to the gargantuan RVs with cheery names like Sunseeker and American Spirit that hemmed us in.  We put the top up.  No need to add the further discomfort of sunburn to our misery.

As our snail’s pace took us every so slowly toward Key Largo, it was apparent that we had made a monumental rookie mistake.  We had opted to drive to Key West beginning at noon in Miami on the first Saturday after Christmas.  How could we have been so naïve?  It was the height of the high season.  Could our timing have been worse?

We should have known.  From our annual Cape Cod trip we’ve learned a thing or two about the need for careful timing when heading out to the tip of a narrow strip of land reached by a single road.  We know better than to try to cross the Sagamore Bridge to the Cape on a summer Saturday beginning any time after 8 AM.  And we never leave the Cape any later than 6 AM.  We know.  Oh, my goodness, do we know.   

You’d think we might have applied the same principle to our Key West destination and flown from Miami.  But it was too late now.

As our super slo-mo highway purgatory persisted, the mood inside the sporty Mustang became increasingly grim.  My apologies for suggesting Key West in the first place did nothing to help matters. 

Also, we were getting hungry.  Except for a tiny package of airline pretzels each, we hadn’t eaten since the night before.  My husband finds it absurd when overly fed Americans claim to be “starving.”  One of his signature comments is:  The body can go several weeks without food.  He’s one of those perpetually lean people capable, when it’s convenient, of consuming mass quantities without gaining an ounce.  Yet there are times when he’s oblivious to food.  He may return from work at 7:45 and realize he hasn’t had a bite since breakfast.

Now, if we were off on some endurance adventure, perhaps if we were contestants on Survivor or The Great Race, (and my husband and daughter would excel at such competitions), we would expect a significant level of deprivation and discomfort.  But we were attempting a vacation, not an exercise in hardship and fortitude.  Even H conceded that a little snack would be a great pleasure.

But we were hesitant to stop, for fear of falling further behind schedule.  Most shops and restaurants were located on the northbound side of the road, from which it would likely be difficult to get back into the line of bumper-to-bumper southbound traffic.  We drove on.  And on. 

Around 4:00, somewhere not far from Marathon, we spotted a promising grocery and delicatessen on the southbound side.  This would have to do. 

Grateful for the odd jumble of miscellaneous snacks we’d assembled, we were soon back on the road.  The sun was no longer  intense, so we put the top back down.  For a while, it didn’t matter that we were still creeping along. 

And then, the strangest thing happened.  The pace of traffic began to pick up.  Before long, we were moving at a typical highway speed.  The scene was just as I had pictured it in my mind’s eye:  an improbably thin line of road crossing a wide expanse of gray-blue sea.  We zipped along the famous Seven-Mile Bridge, the wind very much in our hair.  Especially in mine, as I had taken my daughter’s place in the back seat. 

The ocean view is made more interesting by the sections of Henry Flagler’s original railway bridge, completed in 1912, that run alongside the current roadway.  Some stretches look more or less intact, others sprout small trees and appear close to ruin.  There are ragged gaps where the old bridge has crumbled away completely.  Lines of birds, tall and small, keep serene watch along the isolated sections.

We were approaching Key West as the setting sun painted the sky in dramatic bands of pink and blue.  We wouldn’t see the sun drop into the Atlantic that evening.  What we’d thought might be a three and a half hour drive had stretched to over six hours.  It would be dark when we arrived, but at least we’d be there.   


The next morning, D would get a chance to try out her dream car. 

Key West: Getting There Was Not Half the Fun


You’ve probably heard what a life-enhancing pleasure it is to drive from Miami down to the Keys.  That Route 1A drive is a perennial bucket list favorite.  You know the comments.  You may have heard them uttered with a breathless urgency and a firm shoulder grip for sincerity:  You have to do the drive.  To really experience the Keys, you simply must!

And it always sounded wonderful.  That the Keys are reachable by road strikes me as a near miracle.  Yes, I could see our family cruising along that narrow ribbon, the Overseas Highway.  We’d shoot South, South, South, warm wind in our hair, the glistening blue Atlantic stretching out around us.  We’d drive until we could go no further, and then we’d look across the water toward Cuba.  Yes, we must do that drive.   But first we had to get to Miami.

Our trip began inauspiciously.  We were running a tad behind schedule when we arrived at Dulles Airport.  The agent at the counter eyed us pointedly, looking as though we’d slighted him in some malicious way.  He rolled his eyes, sighed mournfully and scolded:  You better hurry if you want to make your flight.  My husband, who travels frequently and was certain we had more than enough time, was silently indignant.  Of course, when we reached the gate, we had plenty of time.  There’s always ample time, it seems, to wait at the gate for boarding. 

The flight to Miami was, thankfully, uneventful.  At baggage claim, my bag and H’s were among the first to plop onto the carousel.  We waited, and waited, but there was no sign of our daughter’s suitcase.  You know the thought process:  No need to worry; it will appear soon.  Let’s be patient.  Then suddenly, patience is serving no purpose.  There’s clearly a problem.  Everyone else from our flight has picked up their bags and moved on. 

We moved on to the lost luggage counter.  After some investigation, the agent told us that D’s bag seemed to be on its way to Los Angeles.  Or somewhere else.  Definitely somewhere besides Miami.  My husband suspected foul play on the part of that snippy Dulles ticket agent.  He imagined the man’s spiteful thoughts:  This will teach you to be on time!  I’ll send your daughter’s blue paisley roller bag on the ride of its life!  And you, Sir, are responsible!

D’s bag would be tracked down and retrieved, the luggage lady assured us.  And it would be delivered to our hotel.  D was crestfallen, of course.  She’d packed her suitcase so carefully.  Each item had been thoughtfully, painstakingly chosen.  It had taken all day and had been accompanied by much hand-wringing and stress.  I understand.  Every time I pack, this thought loop runs through my mind:  Is it really worth it?  Can’t we just stay home? I don’t have room for all these shoes! Should we pack rain jackets, or just hope for the best?  I can’t take it.  I think I’m getting sick. 

As we packed, D and I had discussed the dreaded “what if” of a lost bag.  It had happened to H during a Caribbean vacation.  He’d worn the same long-sleeved white T-shirt for several days straight, prompting comments by some of the staff at the resort.  When his bag finally appeared, it had apparently gone on its own adventure to Managua.  We knew a missing bag was a real possibility.  D had packed essentials and a minimal change of clothes in her carry-on. But still.  All those well-considered fashion choices, all lost, at least temporarily.  I would have been equally disappointed when I was a few days away from turning sixteen. 

There was nothing more to be done, so we headed to pick up our rental car, located in an area that seemed many miles from baggage claim.  The queue at Avis stretched from one end of the enormous rental car center to the other.  This couldn’t be the line for those with reservations, could it?  Oh, yes, it was, we were quickly told by those already waiting.  Surely the queue would move quickly, H reasoned.  How long does it take to pick up a rental car once the paperwork has been completed online?  Three minutes, max! 

Apparently, for many it’s a complicated process that requires fifteen to twenty minutes of heated conversation and problematic inquiries.  From our fixed viewpoint in the queue, we took to timing the interactions between customer and agent.  H, speedily efficient in all things, was incredulous.  What in the world was going on?  What kinds of questions were people asking?  Can you explain, in detail, how to drive a car?  How does one refill the gas tank?  Where are these so-called gas stations located?  What is insurance?  Would you please review again the rules of the road?  And where is the road?  Judging from the frequent arm motions, extensive directions were being given and repeatedly misunderstood.

Other rental car agencies had no lines.  This was because they had no available cars, we learned.

An hour later, we had reached the velvet ropes that indicate the expected start of the line. When at last we approached the counter, I began timing.  H was right.  Two and half minutes later, we were on our way to pick up our car.  Surely, things were about to get better.     


At Long Last, Key West


For the past several years, during family discussions of possible destinations for an after-Christmas trip, I’ve suggested Key West.  For one reason or another, H and D were not particularly enthusiastic.  Something changed this last December.  Maybe they just wanted to shut me up, but they agreed it was time to check out Key West.

None of us had been there.  Our sole Florida experience as a family had involved a stressful middle-of-the-night arrival at the Miami airport in an effort to beat a snowstorm on our way to Aruba.  It had not been pleasant.

I’ve always liked the idea of Key West.  I like remote, end-of-the-world places where the land terminates dramatically in an expanse of sea:  Mont St. Michel in Normandy, St. David’s in Wales, the aptly named Land’s End in Cornwall, and of course,  the outer tip of Cape Cod.  Such spots have a touch of the other-worldly, the surreal. Perhaps because of the play of light on water, colors of foliage, skies and sunsets tend to be invested with an unusual intensity.


There was another reason I’ve wanted to see Key West.  My grandparents, who made their home on a farm in central Kentucky, had visited the Keys in the 1950s.  Grandaddy did most of his traveling via the pages of National Geographic, which he read in his big rocking chair by the kitchen window.  I can still hear the squeak of the old chair’s springs.  While my grandmother flew at least once to Atlanta to visit my parents and me, I don’t think Grandaddy ever set foot on a plane.  My grandparents weren’t frequent travelers, but they made a few big road trips over the years.  They went to Michigan, Maine and Virginia, but it was Key West that made the strongest impression on my grandfather.


I wish I could have asked him about it. What made him like the place so much?  Of course there were no photos from the trip; my grandparents weren’t camera people.   The flat seascape couldn’t have been more unlike the inland rolling hills of Kentucky.  If I saw it myself, maybe I’d know. I might walk some of the same narrow streets Grandaddy had traversed some sixty years prior.  Maybe I’d watch the sun dip into the Atlantic from a spot where he and my grandmother had once stood.  I’d be in a place that was completely new to me, but not entirely, because I would see it in part through my grandfather’s eyes.  Seems to me like a pretty good reason to travel.



London, Revisited, Part IV: Saint Paul’s

I was looking forward to showing my daughter Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which I’d studied repeatedly in various art history courses.  D was familiar with it from her preschool years when Mary Poppins was a revered staple in our video library.   In those days, I tended to remind her, too often, that the “Feed the Birds Church” was a real, famous, enormous church in London.  Sometimes I’d show her pictures of it in my architecture books.  And if my husband were in on the viewing, he’d explain how young Michael’s tuppence, used for bread crumbs for the birds, instead of deposited into Mr. Banks’ bank could, in theory, have caused a run on the bank.  No doubt D would have preferred fewer teachable moments while she watched her movie, but that’s a burden some only children must bear. 

Europe 2014 642

St. Paul’s stands atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London.  A church dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle and prolific New Testament author had existed on the spot since the sixth century.  The current church replaced a large medieval basilica built in the Romanesque and Gothic styles.  Like much of the City of London, it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.  At the time of the fire, a young Christopher Wren had been involved in updating Old St. Paul’s.  A network of wooden scaffolding was in place as the stone walls were being repaired.  Had the scaffolding not caught fire and ignited the wooden roof beams, portions of the medieval church might have been salvageable.  After the destruction, Wren was hired to design a grand new cathedral.  Wren rebuilt over fifty London churches, but St. Paul’s is his crowning glory, a masterpiece of the English Baroque style.   

Europe 2014 644

The highly sculptural west front of St. Paul’s, with its double temple front and twin towers. 

Europe 2014 646

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. 

Europe 2014 647

Wren’s monumental dome drew on Italian Renaissance forerunners by Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Bramante.

Europe 2014 660

From its earliest days, St. Paul’s has been a distinctly urban church.  Considering its location in the densely crowded City, the heart of London’s commercial district since ancient times, it could hardly be otherwise.  Seventeenth-century images of Old St Paul’s show the hilltop basilica closely surrounded by haphazardly constructed smaller buildings.  The warren of wooden homes and shops that encroached upon one another made suppressing the four-day Great Fire particularly difficult. 

Europe 2014 639

That St. Paul’s continues to be hemmed in on all sides by ordinary office buildings is therefore not surprising.  But, I wonder, do they have to be so emphatically ugly and insinuatingly pushy?  A wave of fresh disappointment hits me every time I approach the great church from a street like the one pictured above. 

Europe 2014 691

The British flair for the sweeping, spectacular vista is nowhere in evidence around St. Paul’s.  Above, a view from the Millennium bridge. 

Europe 2014 686

The Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s from across the Thames. 

Europe 2014 670

St. Paul’s looks down on the life of the city, as it has since its completion in 1708.  Above, in Bankside near the Tate Modern, a Shrek in a silver track suit amuses pedestrians by hovering in mid-air.  Despite the labyrinth of buildings that crowd the base of the Cathedral, the dome still towers well above newer, less distinguished neighbors.  Let futuristic skyscrapers such as “The Shard” and “The Gherkin” continue to pop up, as long as they don’t blot out the vision of that iconic dome.   

London, Revisited, Part III

Europe 2014 585

Europe 2014 599

As we proceeded with our walk through the heart of London, I maintained my role as a somewhat muddled and conflicted tour guide.  It was with relief that I found the lacy, Gothic-style towers of Parliament and all the buildings of Westminster Palace in their expected spots, keeping watch over the Thames.  Their honey-colored stone gleamed warmly in the sunlight; I had never seen them looking so pristine.  The last traces of Industrial Revolution coal-dust grime were blasted away in 1994.  

Europe 2014 605

Although reduced in number and usage, classic examples of the red telephone box still punctuate the streets of London.  That they tend to be surrounded by international tourists snapping photos with their phones strikes me as an interesting irony,  further proof that our twenty-first century world is nothing if not meta.   

Europe 2014 607

The ever-present London Eye grew larger as we made our way down the Victoria Embankment alongside the river.  Perhaps because I was distracted by the giant Ferris wheel, I completely missed one of my favorite London statues, that of the formidable Boadicea driving her chariot into battle against the Romans.  Back home, when I looked for her on Google maps, I found her exactly where she should have been, on the Embankment near Westminster Pier.  It was dismaying to realize I had walked blindly past the Warrior Queen. 

Europe 2014 611

When we paused to rest on one of the Embankment’s sphinx-armed benches, our daughter noticed that our sunglasses reflected double rings of the London Eye.  

Europe 2014 614

Europe 2014 620

When in London, one is gifted (or afflicted), with London eyes. 

Europe 2014 623

From the Embankment, we approached Trafalgar Square.  Since its completion in 1724, the neoclassical Church of Saint Martin-in-the Fields has anchored a corner of  the square.  James Gibbs’ design, with a tall, graceful steeple resembling a multi-layer wedding cake, continues to influence the building of Protestant churches throughout the U.S.  I regret that we didn’t squeeze in a visit to the café in the church’s roomy, atmospheric crypt.  It’s a great place to refuel and revive after wandering the halls of the National Gallery across the square. 

001 (2)

This photo from 1982 shows the church from the steps of the National Gallery. 

Europe 2014 624

On the day of our visit, Trafalgar Square and the steps leading to the Gallery were awash in a teeming tide of humanity.  I had hoped to show my daughter some of my favorite paintings, but the crowds made me lose heart.  Spring break in London, as in Paris, has its drawbacks.  It seemed futile even to try to elbow our way over to one of the grand lions that guard Lord Nelson’s column.  Somewhat appropriately, in the waning afternoon light, the National Gallery takes on a grim, fortress-like aspect in the photo above. 


On a less hectic day in the summer of 1982, Lord Nelson’s lions, and the Gallery itself, were more accessible. 

We decided to flee the area.  But a quick departure was impossible  due to the press of the crowd.  Had I never been in London during the week before Easter?   Maybe not.  During my year in the U.K., I returned home once, and that was for Easter.  Maybe the city’s always as congested at this time of the season.  Better to assume that’s the case than to think it’s been spoiled recently. 

I know I’m not alone in occasionally wishing myself nearly alone (with a hand-picked group of family and friends) to experience the marvels of the world’s great cities.  As we made our way back, slowly, toward Grosvenor Square and our hotel, I considered the advantages of conducting future British travel from the serenity of the sofa via PBS and Netflix.  Under the expert guidance of, say, earnest young Endeavor Morse, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s otherworldly Sherlock, or the bright-eyed, sensibly shoed Miss Marple, one may witness matters of life and death set amidst notable U. K. monuments, without ever battling a crowd.  The older I get, the more tempting that sounds. 

London, Revisited, Part II

No doubt about it: I was a tourist in the city that had once been home. The experience was as unsettling as I had anticipated.  Familiar buildings turned up in unexpected places.  My identifications were often completely wrong.  That building there–I think it’s the Horse Guards. . .  What does that even mean?   I used to know.  Oh, it doesn’t matter–it’s not the Horse Guards at all.  Too many landmarks looked different, not because of any real changes, but because of the frayed edges of memory.  This is what I had feared.

Europe 2014 537

Reassuringly, some sights, such as Buckingham Palace, were much as I remembered them.  Its gardens of red and yellow tulips were spectacular on this bright spring day.

Europe 2014 541

A major change, though, is the fact that the London Eye is visible from nearly every point in the city.  I hadn’t expected it to be such a background constant.

Europe 2014 556

The Victoria Memorial and the Palace Gates were as grand as ever. 

Europe 2014 554

St. James’s Park was dressed up in the Easter-basket colors of early spring.

Europe 2014 573

Westminster Abbey hadn’t picked up and walked away.  It was whiter and cleaner than I’d ever seen it before.  During my first visit, in 1975, it was still blackened with nineteenth-century soot.

Europe 2014 595

The lawn of the Cloister was perfectly manicured in that oh-so-British style.


During a visit in July 1982, my friends and I posed with a group of jolly actors in period costume outside the Abbey.  I tried to recreate the photo with H on this trip, but the results only highlighted time’s passage, and not in a good way.

Europe 2014 572

Some prominent landmarks kindled no spark of recognition.  One example is this monumental building facing Westminster Abbey.  It’s Methodist Central Hall, dating from 1911.  As a lifelong Methodist, I’m disappointed in myself that I have no recollection of it.  The headquarters of the United Methodist Church in the U.K., it serves as a conference center, concert venue and home to a large congregation with a vital and active mission. The expansive auditorium topped by its enormous dome was meant to evoke  open-air camp meeting pavilions, such as that in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  Next visit, I’ll remember.  Also, I’m going inside.


London, Revisited

Arriving in London’s  St. Pancras station after a twenty-five year absence, the first of many changes that had overtaken the city since then began to wash over me like a wave.  In 1989, work on the Channel Tunnel, following decades of planning, discussion, and ongoing set-backs, was in its very early stages.  Back then it was still called the “Chunnel,” and its progress, or lack thereof, was daily tabloid fodder.  The media eagerly fanned the flames of unease about the possibility of a land link to the Continent opening up a deadly rabies pipeline.  Enormous, rambling St. Pancras had sat largely derelict.  With its brooding red-brick towers and aura of neglect, it could have been mistaken for a Victorian mental asylum.  It was gratifying to see how beautifully the station had been restored and updated to accommodate the Eurostar line.  Had it been in a U.S. city, it more likely would have met  the wrecking ball than renovation.

Emerging onto the streets of London, a less welcome transformation confronted me.  The classic, classy black cabs–those timeless Hackney carriages–where were they?  I knew they still existed, in a somewhat updated form, and in colors other than black.  But the streets outside the station swarmed with garish  purple and orange minivans.  We could have been in Cleveland.  We settled for one such vehicle to take us to our hotel on Grosvenor Square.  Oh well.

One thing that had not changed, however, was the near-anarchic state of London’s traffic, which tends to be particularly alarming upon first arriving.  Cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians are constantly darting aggressively from unexpected directions, especially at round-abouts.  About half the vehicles appear to be confused by the concept of left-side driving.  Our driver was frequently outraged at the ignorance and rudeness of others on the road.  Some things, then, never change.  In comparison, Paris’s streets were those of a sleepy backwater.

As we made our way  through the chaotic congestion, in sudden fits and stops, I caught a glimpse of the new British Library next door to St. Pancras.  When I left the U.K, it had been no more than a hazy, perhaps-some-day project.  Most of my daily dissertation research had taken place in the manuscript room of the old library, then part of the British Museum on Great Russell Street.  Less often, I worked under the vast grand dome of the historic main reading room.  The new facility, perhaps a model of sleek twenty-first century efficiency, struck me as lacking in charm.

But it didn’t matter. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever turn the brightly painted and gilded pages of a fourteenth-century Apocalypse again, in the new library or elsewhere.  I had abandoned my academic ties, let all those bridges quietly smolder away to ashes.  I’d come to the conclusion, as I was finishing my dissertation, that a career in college teaching wasn’t for me.  That was fortunate, since jobs in my field were extremely rare.  I have no regrets about the course my life has taken.  Do I?  No, I don’t.

But I do miss the chance to page through those amazing medieval books, written and illustrated by hand.  Their quirky images, typically more humorous than frightening, despite the accompanying text of Revelations: the dragons that resemble perky, pointy-eared dogs sitting for treats (in my mind, now, I see Kiko in every one), and the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, looking like a Gothic princess’s dream doll house.  I can point out some of the books to my daughter, although they’ll have to remain safely inside their hermetically sealed glass display cases.  See this one?  I studied it.  I had it in front of me for an entire week.  It was removed from display so I could examine it!  I think she’d be impressed.   Someday, I’ll show her.  But probably not on this trip.

Europe 2014 565


From Paris To London on Eurostar

It’s Labor Day, a time when my family confronts our many unfinished projects of the summer.  No better time, then, than to resume new posts on Wild Trumpet Vine.  Some, like this one, will look back to last spring, while others will be more timely.  So now,  back to our leaving Paris for London in April.


Getting to the train and on board was by far the most stressful segment of our trip. The night before, we’d asked the hotel concierge to arrange for a taxi to the Gare du Nord at 9 AM.  Our train was to depart shortly after 10.  When we trooped down with our bags in tow, the friendly concierge was surprised to see us.  The taxi was to arrive at 10 AM, just as we’d asked.   Uh oh.

The concierge called for expedited service.  A tense twenty five minutes ticked slowly by before we were on our way.

Europe 2014 526

The enormous Gare du Nord was more congested and confusing than I had ever seen it.  Lines for the Eurostar were snake-like and slow-moving. When at last we made it to the area leading to customs,  an attendant pointed us toward a counter to fill out a boarding card.  Did we each need to fill on out?  He wasn’t sure.  Time was short, so we completed one for the family, as I remember doing on overseas flights.  Although, oddly, come to think of it, we had received no boarding cards on our Air France flight.  Arriving in Paris, we had breezed through customs with barely a pause.  It was like sailing through the Easy Pass lane in a New Jersey toll plaza.

Further along, another attendant asked for our boarding cards.  And no.  We all needed one.  Didn’t we see that it said “Name” and “Passport Number”?  How can that apply to an entire family?  The unexpressed question being: Are you idiots?  Maybe.  But H and I both remembered that rather archaic wording on the cards at the airlines: To be completed by Head of Household, or something to that effect.  We rushed back to grapple with the boarding cards, again.  Of course, there was the typical pen problem.  Those anchored to the counter (on not-quite-long-enough chains) were running out of ink.  In search of working pens, I rummaged awkwardly through my purse, which was stuffed beyond full.  H stared at me in exasperation.  Why is he not expected to have instantaneous, magical access to some writing instrument, I wondered.   Perhaps because we were in such a rush, the requested  information seemed ridiculously detailed.  Address in London?  Are you kidding? Anyone have the hotel address?  We muddled through.

We were flustered and on edge as we approached the customs agent, who sat scowling fiercely in his little glass box.  Why, exactly, were we going to London?  What was the purpose of our trip, he asked ominously?  He grilled H and me first, then turned a laser focus on our daughter.  Apparently he expected her to cave and reveal that our trip had some vile, nefarious goal.  Sight-seeing?  Reeaally?   And what sights do you wish to see?   You want to compare London and Paris?  Indeed?  To what end?  At last the agent tired of the interrogation, and waved us on, still hostile but bored and dismissive.  With relief, we made our way down to the platform, where the train was, thankfully, still waiting.  It was due to depart in seven minutes.

Once on board the uncrowded train, a welcoming, quiet calm enveloped us.  Whew!  Only after we were settled did I look at my ticket and see, written there in bold print:  Arrive at least  30 minutes prior to departure for check-in.  We had completely forgotten that helpful suggestion.  Because we had printed our tickets at home, the need to allot time for check-in had escaped us.   Had we known how extremely close we were cutting it, we really would have been worried.

The journey from Paris Nord to London’s Saint Pancras was smooth, quick, and uneventful.  We were soon served a pleasant breakfast by polite, soft-spoken attendants.  In less than a half hour, we were gliding silently through the tunnel.  A half hour later,  we emerged into sunshine and the same gently rolling fields of brilliant gold that we had seen in France.  Rapeseed, I learned, grown for its oil.  An unfortunate name for something so pretty.  The entire trip took about two hours and fifteen minutes.  It was vastly quicker and more efficient than in the old days of train, boat and train, each segment prefaced by a long wait in a smoky departure lounge.

My family and I wouldn’t have considered adding London to our itinerary on this trip if it hadn’t been such a convenient train ride from Paris.  But I was glad I lived through those old days and had the memories to show for it.  Glad I had the chance, with my fellow middle-school aged friends, in 1975, to cross the Channel by slow ferry.  See European Vacation, ’75:  Crossing the Channel.   I had described that crossing in my travel journal as a highlight of the trip.  Had we traveled then on a sleek, fast train, there would have been less opportunity for adolescent adventure.  While the Eurostar served my family’s purpose perfectly on this recent trip, I’m happy it didn’t exist on my very first European vacation.



Across the Channel

Europe 2014 596

Before we left for Paris, we had reached a family decision to take the Eurostar train to London instead of traveling further in France.   We’d compare two major European capitals.  It would be a great experience for our daughter.  My husband was interested, since he had spent little time in England.   But I wasn’t sure I was ready to return to London.  It had been twenty-five years.  I had waited too long.  So long that any return trip would always be too soon.

When I was last in England, I had felt very much at home.  A year of living in London, traveling regularly to Cambridge and Oxford and elsewhere throughout the UK had left me feeling like a local.  The next year, a month-long follow-up visit seemed like a return to the old home place.

But England was no longer home.  That priceless cache of experience I had accumulated piece by painstaking piece–all that familiarity, all that intimate knowledge of a place and its people–it had mostly vanished.  Staying away for two and half decades will do that.  Now, I’d be just another middle-aged tourist mother traipsing from site to site, attempting to decipher an unwieldy map.

The whirlwind of mixed-up memories that spun around me in the garden below my old Paris dorm room had been daunting enough.  I was afraid London would stir up a contrast even more uncomfortably extreme.  Could I face yet another collision of the current me with the student me from half a lifetime ago?  Of course I could face it.  But I doubted very seriously that I would enjoy it.

I understood with new clarity how my father must have felt when we stood on a certain medieval bridge in Germany.  As an eighteen-year old fresh out of high school, he’d been stationed in Regensburg with the U.S. Occupational Forces after World War II.  Before long he was seeing a beautiful German woman in her mid-twenties.  She’d lived in an apartment building on the other side of the bridge.  He’d become like one of the family, welcomed by her mother and her small daughter.  When his overseas service had been cut short following the sudden death of his father, he’d  never said a real goodbye to Anna-Marie.   He thought he’d return shortly.  He didn’t.

Sixty years later, he was in Regensburg again at last, accompanied by his wife, daughter and granddaughter.   Did he want to cross the Stone Bridge and see if anything remained of the old buildings he remembered?  No, he didn’t.  It was all too much.  Too much time past, too much change, internal and external, to wrap one’s head around.

A sixty-year wait for a return trip is certainly too long.  A lapse of twenty-five years wouldn’t be nearly as overwhelming, would it?

Europe 2011 233
A View from the Stone Bridge, Regensburg, April 2011

Rue Mouffetard-Area Street Art by Seth

As we wandered the Latin Quarter behind the Pantheon along the narrow streets of the rue Mouffetard area this past April, we were stopped by several delicately painted street art murals.  The three paintings include the same figure of a young boy wearing a pale blue and white striped hoodie, jeans and Converse sneakers.  This is street art at its playful, charming, arresting best.  Not only does it improve the blank walls it adorns, it prompts passers-by to pause, think, and look more closely. 
An internet search after I returned home revealed these three murals to be the work of Julien Malland, who paints under the name “Seth.”  Also known as the “Globe Painter,” he has created many other works throughout Paris and all over the world.  The figure of the boy appears repeatedly, as does the pony-tail-wearing girl in the example below.  The artist often uses the wall surface as a unique element in the design.  In the painting above, the boy appears to be in the process of disappearing into the wall.  In another Paris mural, entitled “Painting the Rainbow,” the boy seems to lift up the wall like a canvas curtain in order to paint a circular rainbow on the floor below.  In other works, the wall surface plays the role of water, from which the boy and girl emerge as they prepare to launch a paper boat.


Above, secrets are shared under cover of the roomy striped hoodie. 


In this work, the boy appears to float in the water of the wall, holding his paper boat aloft. Some of Seth’s Paris works occupy entire sides of multiple-story buildings.

This artist’s appealing, whimsical creations remind us that Paris is, indeed, one rambling, open-air gallery in which art of every genre is free for those willing to take the time to look.