Friday November 21, 2014

 I had planned to spend my Thanksgiving holiday with a friend in Calistoga, walking and talking, tasting wine, maybe even having a mud bath for the first time. However, Life (at this time it seems appropriate to give her a capital letter) got in the way. So instead of hanging out and relaxing, I'm sitting in the airport on my way to Portland. My 87-year old father is in the hospital, and I need to go help my mother. 

However, after my initial self-pity and grumbling, I've decided to think of this as an opportunity to stop every day to reflect on something I can thankful for. After all, I'm sitting here at SFO surrounded by travelers going off for their own Thanksgiving holidays. I will get to see my family. That's a good thing.

It's been over a month since I posted to this blog, so this time between security screening and boarding gives me time to reflect. And I realized how this small moment has given me something.

So here is the first of my haiku to celebrate this Thanksgiving week:

sunrise over air-
port flying alone gives time
to write into day

Won't you stop at least once during this busy day and notice the goodness around you?

What I Learned in Paris #1: Birdy Kids

While in Paris a few weeks ago, I received a post from the blog Telling HerStories: The Broad View by Sheila Bender titled "A Strategy for Travel Writing".  In her post, Bender wrote about a technique her daughter used while describing her experiences during a trip.  Bender wrote "[My daughter's] Facebook posts took a form that made me think of William Stafford’s poem, “Things I Learned Last Week,” and the way I use that poem’s writing strategy to help people find the specifics in their experience." Using a similar idea, Bender's daughter wrote several posts starting "Today I learned..."

 This particular blog came at a fortuitous time for me, giving me an idea on how to structure writing about my own recent travels.  So here is my first What I Learned:

Paris' Marais neighborhood lies on the Right Bank not too far from Notre Dame.  It is one of the few parts of the city that was not completely demolished and rebuilt during the nineteenth century.  That means that many of its streets still wind around keeping their medieval flavor. 

The area has long been a Jewish quarter and more recently has added a lively gay community. And as in most of the large European cities I've visited, graffiti graces many buildings and alleyways of the Marais. This is one of my favorite parts of Paris, and I've stayed there for my last few visits. 

During my most recent visit, as I  walked down Rue Vielle du Temple, the street near the apartment my family had rented, I noticed a large cartoon-like bird painted on the side of one of the stores.  At first, I didn't pay much attention.  After all, the painting was surrounded by the more usual graffiti - and beautiful Parisian architecture.  After a few days, I finally realized that I kept seeing similar birds in various locations so I started looking for them.  Each colorful picture contained a logo: Birdy Kids.  

Of course I was curious, so like most somewhat tech-savvy people, I turned to Google.  I couldn't find too much information online about Birdy Kids  and most of it is written in French.  However, I did find the Birdy Kids website. With the aid of Google Translate, I read their manifesto:  "Welcome to the Birdy Kids. Founded in 2010 Birdy Kids consists of three young artists gathered around a common project: Street Art playful and colorful for everyone."


When I tried to dig deeper to find out more by reading an article about the "Birdy Crew", Google Translate failed to translate so I resorted to reading the article using my extremely limited French gained from two years of City College classes.  From this article I learned that the three members are Guillaume, Gautier and A.E.M.  Two of them are native Parisians and one hails from Lyon, France.  They are now based in Lyon but travel to many European cities to paint their street art.  From what I can tell, I was extremely fortunate to see their creations in Paris since some of their work went up just before I got there.

I also found Birdy Kids on YouTube.  In the video below, you can see them at work on some of their creations.
I'm not sure why I was so fascinated by these birds. Perhaps it is their childlike quality and bright colors.  Perhaps I just enjoyed the surprise of finding them as I walked the streets of Paris.  I'm sure there are many who turn up their noses at Birdy Kids' art, saying is is just more graffiti defacing buildings.  However, I disagree. I love these birds because they made me smile.


I Better Get a Move On

Today I came across a website listing the Wonders of the World.  The list is divided into categories:  eight lists with seven wonders in each as well as a final catch-all ninth list with 13 wonders from all over the world.  Being one of those people who love lists, and feeling cocky about my traveling credentials, I eagerly counted those I have visited.  Imagine my dismay at how many of the world's wonders I have yet to see. 

Here is my own personal list:


List 1 -  The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Of these, only one exists today, but it is an important one:  the Great Pyramid of Giza.  I can't quite forgive myself for missing out on that one, and need a plan to remedy this.   

I do give myself some credit for visiting Olympia last summer where I read about the legendary statue of Zeus which was once there - and a Wonder of the Ancient World.


List 2 - The Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind

 I did much better with this one, having been to the Colosseum, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  However, there are four locations I have never visited.





List 3 - The Seven Natural Wonders of the World

For this category, I can only claim two wonders: the Grand Canyon and the Northern Lights.  I've actually been to the Grand Canyon more than once and seen the Northern Lights twice, so do those count as four?

List 4 - The Seven Underwater Wonders of the World

I  did even worse here since the only location on the list I've been to is the Galapagos Islands




Since I snorkeled for the first time in the Galapagos only five years ago, I guess this isn't so bad.








List 5 - The Seven Wonders of the Modern World

I was surprised that out of this list, I've only been to the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate BridgeFive more to go.


Lists 6, 7, 8 and 9 detail what they call the "Forgotten" Wonders 

I was unable to determine just what constituted a wonder being forgotten, so I can only surmise that there wasn't room for these places on the "A" lists.  As they include some of what I consider extremely important buildings and beautiful natural locations, it is hard for me to see how they could have been outvoted. However, since there are also many stunning places that weren't mentioned at all, I have to wonder who could have possibly forgotten those as well.  Since the 9th list comprised 13 forlorn wonders, what would a few more hurt?


From these four lists, I have collected Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, Mount Rushmore, the Parthenon, the Statue of Liberty and Gateway Arch in St. Louis (listed with the Eiffel Tower and the Parthenon? Really?).  How strange that the "forgotten wonders" are the ones I've been to the most.

As for one more from this list, last summer when I visited Tanzania, I was very close to Mount Kilimanjaro.  However, since it was night when I arrived, and the mountain was shrouded in mist during the day, I never actually saw it.  That will be my excuse to go back.

So, of the 63 wonders listed, I've only seen 14.  Obviously I've got some traveling to do

For the full lists, visit Wonder Club.

Continuing Journeys of The Sneaky Observateur

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes

Outside Hampton Court outside London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012
The British Museum, London, February 2012

The British Museum, London, February 2012

Drepano, Greece, June 2012

Drepano, Greece, June 2012

Nafplio, Greece, June 2012

Syntagma Square, Nafplio, Greece, June 2012

Ancient Greek Theater at Epidavros, Greece.  June 2012
The Fish Market, Athens, Greece, June 2012

Agamemnon's Tomb at Mysennea, Greece, June 2012

The Greece I Saw, June, 2012

Of course I could write about postcard Greece: the pebbly beaches, the sky stretching out clear, dotted with clouds at sunset. Or the blue, blue sea, the bluest water I have ever seen, unlike any other place in the world. Or about the sun beating down hot and demanding as I walked down the small road from our tiny rented apartment to the beach. Or the food – black and green olives, anchovies and tiny whitebait fish served up crisply fried. All this is what I would expect to see – and to write about. The Greece everyone wants me to tell them about – because isn’t that what we all desire when we go on vacation?

But that wasn’t the Greece that touched me most deeply.  Instead, there was the Greece I could not ignore, the one with the brave face with terror barely hidden underneath. 

The Greece I saw was filled with row after row after row of empty buildings lined up on the road spreading out from Nafplio, a small town on the Peloponnese Peninsula. The lovely town square was filled not with tourists but locals.  I heard someone on the street comment that it should have been crowded in mid-June.  Instead many shops in the surrounding streets were shuttered and closed, and shopkeepers in those still open were desperate for any sale we might give them.  One salesman told us no one was coming to Greece now and certainly very few people were spending money. 

The Greece I saw was the Greece of political rallies before their June 17th election with an edge to the air, a palpable uneasiness, so few smiles but instead nervousness about their future.  The streets of Athens dingy, graffiti-filled with much of the neighborhood around my hotel closed and empty with signs saying “For Rent” - but who would possibly open a business now?  And the cafes stood half empty, the roof garden of my hotel with chairs to spare when five years ago I had to fight for a table. The night our Greek friend, T. tried to find us a restaurant to eat in – one after another gone, gone, gone – and her quiet unease at showing us what must be a daily occurrence to her, this woman whose job has been reduced to four hours a day.

Signs of protest were splashed everywhere – raised fists and slogans painted on walls, the whole place showing peoples' anger and frustration with their broken government.

This was the Greece of high unemployment rates, especially for young people. 29.6% of young people in Greece are unemployed, according to What can they feel about Greece's future? Where will their lives lead?

What about those who have worked their whole lives only to find their savings or pensions gone?  When D., a retired teacher, told me in his broken English, “We are very poor,” of course I thought about what I would feel, being reduced to this after giving years to teaching. His few words were filled with so much weight, leaving me with many questions - really none of my business - but I wanted to know where his teacher pension has gone, how he makes do, what this all means for education in his country.  But his English was not good enough for him to explain, and I know only a smattering of Greek.  I am left with only those few poignant words.

That was not necessarily the Greece I wanted, but it was the Greece I feared so much that I almost didn’t go - the only time I have come close to cancelling a trip abroad.  But I decided that I wanted to be a traveler and not only a tourist, to experience more than just the highlights of a country.  So I went.

Hidden Themes

When I was in college at Northwestern University back in the days when Women's Studies was a new discipline (figure out the years on your own), I had the great fortune to hear Margaret Atwood read to a small group of about 30 women students. I will never forget the question that one of those students asked Atwood:  what are the most important themes in your work?  I have also never forgotten Atwood's reply: I don't think about my themes; I just write.  I leave figuring out my themes to graduate students.

Like Atwood (can I really compare myself to her?), I don't spend much time thinking about the recurring themes in my own work.  However, in the last few months I've had several writer friends point out some interesting observations about my poetry, themes and metaphors I had never noticed myself.  I guess that is why I've begun to think about subjects that interest me most - and not just in my writing.

Those who know me also know how much I love to travel.  In fact, it's become rather an obsession for me.  Like all of my family, I love taking photographs to record those trips.  Recently, I have become aware of my predilection for taking photographs of groups of people going about their lives totally unaware of my presence behind them. There is something I find so provocative about watching these people interacting with each other. I can only imagine what they say to each other, but I love the fact that I can record a snippet of their relationships with each other.  So I have images of school children drawing on the museum floor in Bilbao, Spain.

And a photograph of young Buddhist monks at lunch at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand as well as a group of school girls sitting on a dock in Zanzibar.

 And then one of the most poignant images - of these women on a ferry to Istanbul. I found it very difficult to talk to the women in Turkey and this group gazing out at the sea seemed symbolic of our separation.

Just why do I enjoy capturing such images while I stay in the background?  Well, I don't know, and I'll leave that to others to figure out.  For now, I just want to keep traveling and finding more groups like these.

Teacher/Poet or Poet/Teacher?

Today a funny thing happened in my middle school classroom. The teacher stopped "teaching" and became a writer being interviewed by her students.  We were watching a video about an author of one of the stories in their textbook.  When it was over, someone asked me what my writing routine was.  I've told my students that I write poetry and have always written poems with them for classwork. But I've never really just talked to them about who I am as a writer, what I do and why I do it. 

This day was different - I put aside the set curriculum for 20 minutes and just let them ask questions -- and they had some really good ones.  One boy asked if I thought it was better to start writing when you were still young or was it okay to wait until you were older.   That is something near and dear to my heart because I never really wrote when I was a child even though I "wanted" to be a writer.  I told them that I always loved reading books which had as the main character a girl who wrote -  Little Women and the Betsy/Tacey books in particular - and that although I dreamed I'd be like them I didn't do anything about it until I was an adult.  I had to admit that I thought it would have been better for me if I had started sooner, if I had taken myself more seriously, if I had worked harder. I asked them to think about whether they wanted to create art in some way - to write, paint or play an instrument. If they did, I wanted to encourage them create a space for it in their lives when they are young, to feel the joy of creation now.

Who was more affected by this whole conversation - the students or myself?  As with all middle school teaching, it may be years before I know if any student took this to heart enough to start on their own writing career.  That's the wonder and the ache of teaching adolescents - I have to have faith that I am touching their lives even though they may never tell me.  However, I do know that their genuine interest in me as a writer, their desire to understand me just a little bit more touched my heart in a way I won't forget.