Homeward Bound

So ten weeks of travel are at an end. I am happy and relieved that I managed it all, with only a few low moments. It gives me confidence going forward. No matter where I go, I reckon I can handle it.

There were so many memorable moments…

Spain: watching flamenco dancers in the upstairs room of a Madrid restaurant, part of the welcome reception for the volunteer program. Playing the role of newscaster in a skit as part of the program. Running around the resort grounds taking group pictures in crazy poses (e.g. “pretend you are flying” below.) Jiving with my new friend Toby in the bar, far too late into the night. Saying good-bye to the Spaniards and volunteers, with hugs and tears and promises to reconnect.

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France: Walking the streets of Paris, the morning light reflecting off the freshly washed cobbles, glancing off the rooftops. The waiter in a Menilmontant café persuading me to try the luncheon special and very good red wine. Giggly glances shared with students in our French classes as the teacher explained an exercise we couldn’t made head or tail of. Struggling to master the subjunctive tense and the use of the word “dont”. Learning about French cinema and the music of Serge Gainsbourg.

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Paris

Standing outside the house I lived in as a child in Montmartre, and remembering youthful escapades. Dining with family friends from that time, laughing and catching up as though no time had passed. Visiting Stratford friends in their beautiful flat in the banlieue and stuffing myself on excellent food and wine. The cafes of Paris, the Seine, the parks and vast squares.

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Door in Montmartre, but not “my” door

The exquisite light in the south of France, casting a magical glow on everything. Walking along the canal du midi, basking in the sun overlooking beautiful gardens. Gazing out my all bedroom windows, all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees.

IMG_1503fullsizeoutput_f0eAmsterdam: Oh the canals! And bridges! And the chill truth of Ann Frank’s attic and all that went on in that stifling space. Van Gogh’s wild artistry. Playing dice with Scarlett in a coffee house, dodging the fierce cyclists (there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam).

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Scarlett in Amsterdam

Scotland: Wandering the streets of dramatic Edinburgh, meeting the world’s best tour guide, Robert, on the steps of the Scottish Academy (‘wearing a wide-brimmed hat’). Listening to Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament. Trying haggis. Soaking in information while on coach tours. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall. Gazing out from Queen’s View over Loch Tummel. Scotland’s wild beauty.

IMG_1718IMG_1754England: Reconnecting with people from Atlantic College (where I did my last two years of high school) – not only Scarlett, but our room-mate Kate – with whom we saw Travesties and a 60’s V&A Exhibit. Lunching with our housemistress in Stratford-upon-Avon, 45 years after we’d last seen her. Driving to Norwich to visit another friend from the College and his wife. Motoring on the Norfolk Broads in their boat, sipping wine. Wandering through Norwich.

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Scarlett, Mary Ann, Bruce & I at Norwich cathedral

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Norfolk Broads

Reconnecting with my daughter-in-law’s parents, whom I only met at the wedding, at their lovely home in Saffron Walden. Meandering the English countryside with them.

Seeing theatre. Walking in Hampstead Heath, many times, with Scarlett. And especially spending time with Scarlett (probably rather more time than she wanted!) It is a bit mind-boggling to be so close to someone I met when I was fifteen, who has always lived at least an ocean away – and yet, here we are in our sixties, still having a great time together.

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Hampstead Heath

IMG_1856Of course there were less positive experiences, like sweeping up piles of foul dust in a dark attic in Ventenac-en-Minervois. And I must say the actual travel was less than inspirational. I spent a total of 12 days (out of 70) in transit. Enough to last a lifetime, really. Most irritating was the time spent getting to and from airports – particularly in London where it is both expensive and time-consuming to get into the city from ANY of the 4 airports. I will not miss the travel days.

And today is my last one (for a while). Stratford, here I come, with a great sack o’ memories slung over me shoulder. Thanks to everyone who made this trip special – not least of all, you, my blog followers! I’m ready to be home.

 

 

 

 

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Amazing Amsterdam

Scarlett and I arrived in Amsterdam the day after the national election, which saw an 80% voter turnout and the re-election (in minority) of Mark Rutte with 21% of the vote. His closest rival, the anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders, did not make the gains people feared he might (although he did gain), but the Green Party got far more votes than anticipated. It’s a bit mindboggling as there are something like 14 political parties in The Netherlands, most of whom have seats. Rutte will apparently need to join with 3 other parties to form a coalition government.

IMG_1214The election results seem comfortingly characteristic of The Netherlands, which has been progressive for a long time; assisted dying, marijuana and prostitution were all legalised years ago. The atmosphere is relaxed and respectful in Amsterdam. There is no evidence of the horrors anticipated by those staunchly opposed to legalizing such things. It feels no different from any other European city, except there are mad cyclists everywhere (watch your step!), and consequently fewer cars. The city feels safe and friendly. I could imagine living here (although my non-existent Dutch would be problematic).

 

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Outside a well-known “Coffee House”

It was, consequently, something of a shock to visit the house of Anne Frank, which stands in stark contrast to the atmosphere in Amsterdam today. The “house” is actually the warehouse annex where Anne and her family hid for two years (1942-44), before being discovered, arrested and shipped off to Auschwitz. Anne wrote most of her famous diary while in hiding.

Now transformed into a museum, the hour-long journey, up incredibly steep narrow staircases and into the long ago lives of the eight people who huddled in such close quarters there, is heart-wrenching. The rooms are no longer furnished, but each contains a photograph of what it looked like during that period. All the rooms are dark, as they were (the windows were covered, no one ever looked out). The entrance to the annex is concealed behind a bookcase, built for that purpose. Quotes from Anne’s diaries adorn the walls, as do the photos of movie stars and artists that she glued up to decorate her room, as any teenager would. The ongoing hope in her words is dashed by our knowledge of what happened. At the end of the tour, there are exhibits related to the Nazi arrests and concentration camps, and videos of Otto Frank, Anne’s father and sole survivor in the family, and a friend of Anne’s who tried to get food to her in the camp, just before she died.

Otto Frank made it his life’s work to get Anne’s diary published. She had hoped and planned to turn it into a book, to be called The Annex (and that is the title on the first publication). By now it has been translated into over 60 languages. I can’t imagine a more chilling testimony to the brutality of those times – precisely because it was not her intention to be chilling; she wrote from a position of youthful innocence, certain she would see freedom again. This site is well worth visiting (but book online or be prepared to wait in line for at least an hour.)

IMG_1222On our second full day in the city, we went to the Van Gogh Museum, also a very moving experience – and although it is tricky see parallels between Van Gogh and Anne Frank, I did. Two individuals, terrifically talented, cut off much too young. Hard to believe that Van Gogh really did all his painting (including teaching himself to paint) during a ten-year period – and how fantastic his work is. I had not previously realized how much his early work was influenced by the Dutch masters – all dark, gloomy, earthy – so different from the wild profusion of colour and swirls in his later work, drenched in the light of Provence.

Amsterdam itself is utterly charming – the canals captivating, architecture unique, people hardy, enthusiastic, and kind to fumbling foreigners. I took a canal boat tour and learned much about this thriving commercial centre. Built on land that is below sea level, Amsterdam takes its name from the famous dam built on the Amstel River that made the land habitable. The canals were created partly to provide drainage, partly for defence. Most of the houses (which I took for apartment buildings) lean in slightly towards the canals, and have pulleys attached to the gables, to draw goods up for attic storage or to clear them of the floods that occurred for centuries. In the 20th century, the construction of more dams and dikes cut the city off from the tides that caused so much flooding (well, something like that – its pretty complicated!)

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Rainy view from boat