Home from Abroad

British Poet and Writer Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

I have just finished reading a wonderful book of Laurie Lee’s travels in Spain during the mid 1930s, when he walked out of his Gloucester village, wound up in Spain, walked for hundreds of miles across Spain to Andalusia—at which point Spain erupted in its Civil War. He was evacuated by a British destroyer in July 1936. His book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is a travel classic and gives a better picture of life in Spain than I have ever read. Doing further research on him, I discovered that Lee also wrote poetry, among which was the following poem about his travels:

Home from Abroad

Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.

But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights.

Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye
And drowns Chianti in a dusky stream;
he flower-flecked grasses swim with simple horses,
The hedges choke with roses fat as cream.

So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

For all his travels, Lee ended up in the Gloucestershire village from where he started. How curious!

 

Fastest or Farthest

Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich in Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930)

I wonder if I misremember the scene: Marlene Dietrich writes with her lipstick on her vanity mirror, these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Winning”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

When I searched for the still of the scene, I only came up with a mirror on which was written, again in lipstick, “I changed my mind.” I would obviously have to see the film again to refresh my memory. I know the words are in the film somewhere, and the quote has stuck with me—though sometimes I remembered it as “He travels the farthest who travels alone.”

I like to travel alone, but I think I would much rather travel with Martine or my brother Dan or one of my friends. Unfortunately, Martine thinks I’m much to adventurous in my trips. She claims that anti-malarial medications like Chloroquine or Aralen do not agree with her. Otherwise, she is an ideal travel partner who is genuinely interested in the places I like to visit. The highlight of our travels together was our trip to Argentina and Uruguay in 2011.

My brother is also an excellent travel partner: We tend to agree in advance on the places he wants to see and the places I want to see. Thus far, we have gone on only two trips together: Mexico in 1979 and Ecuador in 2016.

My friends are more problematical in that none of them would dare to visit a Third World country whose language they don’t speak. I always imagine introducing them to Maya ruins or South American volcanoes or Icelandic fjords. But I imagine them as being versions of myself before I started on my travels—all eager to travel to exotic destinations and devil take the risks! Alas, they are not like me. They are irrepressibly themselves. And that’s why they’re my friends.

So I suspect that most of my future travels will be by myself.

My First Trip Ever

My Mom and Me at Niagara Falls Circa 1950

Some time before my brother was born in April 1951, my Mom, Dad and I went for a couple of days to Niagara Falls, which is just a few hours from Cleveland. This was before the Interstate Highway System made such trips routine. At the time, my Dad had a 1949 Mercury Coupé which had precious little room behind the front seat. I must have sat on my mother’s lap in those pre-seatbelt days.

I remember taking a ride on the Maid of the Mist of that era and getting splashed by the falls as we approached them. As I recall, the above picture was shot at a park opposite the falls on the Canadian side.

Yes, this was my first foreign jaunt, at the tender age of five or six. During all my years in Cleveland, the only trips we ever took were to:

  • Niagara Falls
  • Detroit to visit one of my mother’s distant relatives (and that included a visit to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village)
  • Schoenbrunn, Ohio—the first pioneer settlement in the state
  • A flight one summer, at the age of fourteen, to West Palm Beach, Florida where we stayed in nearby Lake Worth

As my horizons broadened from my extensive reading, not only of books but of maps and atlases, I felt increasingly claustrophobic living all year round in my home town. So when it came time to choose a college, my preference was for out of town, even though I did apply to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) if all my preferences rejected me. My preferred choices: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Harvard kept losing my transcript. Yale accepted me without a scholarship; and Dartmouth and Bowdoin both offered full scholarships.

 

 

 

A Look Back at Ecuador

Native Otavaleños Entering Church

There are few places I have visited to which I would not like to return. I am speaking particularly of my travels in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and South America. There are a fairly large number of cities in the United States that, I hope, will never see my shadow again. On the other hand, there are parts of the U.S., particularly in the Southwest, that I love. New Mexico, for instance. My mouth is watering for those red and green chile peppers, the best in the world.

Last year at this time, I was planning for the trip that my brother and I took to Ecuador. I loved the places that we chose to visit, particularly Quito, Otavalo, Mindo, and Cuenca. The only problem was that traveling by automobile through the larger Ecuadoran cities required the tracking skills of a scout: Street signs around the periphery of every city were practically nonexistent. We finally got into the habit of following what looked to us like intercity buses, which were pretty easy to distinguish from the local rat-traps.

Otavalo was perhaps my favorite place. That was mostly because the inhabitants were mostly Otavaleños. Gringos stood out like sore thumbs. That’s okay, because sometimes it’s fun to be lost in a crowd of indigenous people, even if they didn’t speak a word of Spanish. (Their language was mostly Quechua.) Just taking a walk through their marketplace was like being in another world.

My problem is a simple one. If I were to go back to all the places I loved, I would be alive for several more decades—and no man knows how much time is left to him.

“The Long Day Wanes”

Odysseus

Odysseus

You would think after ten years circumnavigating the Mediterranean, losing all of his crew to various disasters, being imprisoned by the witch Circe, and massacring the many suitors of his wife Penelope, that Odysseus would take a rest. According to Alfred Lord Tennyson, he does—for all of three years. In his poem “Ulysses,” Odysseus is eager once again to hit the road:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I don’t know about the mariners he addresses in the last stanza, considering that all his original crew is no more. Perhaps these are new ones, eager to embark on ticking off their own bucket lists.

Asking the Pilot

Patrick Smith, a Commercial Pilot, Writes a Great Blog

Patrick Smith, an Experienced Commercial Pilot, Writes a Great Blog

Since people have been flying in heavier-than-air machines for over a century, it is amazing how little accurate information one can find in the news whenever there is a fatal crash or—heaven forbid—a missing aircraft. For many years, I had been reading Patrick Smith’s excellent “Ask the Pilot” column in Salon.Com, before that website decided to cut him loose in favor of more celebrity-conscious material. Patrick is the author of a book entitled Cockpit Confidential, which I am adding to my TBR (To Be Read) pile of books. On his excellent website, called Ask the Pilot, he writes:

More than ever, air travel is a focus of curiosity, intrigue, anxiety and anger. In these pages I do my best to inform and entertain. I  provide answers for the curious, reassurance for the anxious, and unexpected facts for the deceived.

I begin with a simple premise: everything you think you know about flying is wrong. That’s an exaggeration, I hope, but not an outrageous starting point in light of what I’m up against. Commercial aviation is a breeding ground of bad information, and the extent to which different myths, fallacies, wives’ tales and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is startling. Even the savviest frequent flyers are prone to misconstruing much of what actually goes on.

Which isn’t surprising. Air travel is a complicated, inconvenient, and often scary affair for millions of people, while at the same time cloaked in secrecy. Its mysteries are concealed behind a wall of specialized jargon, corporate reticence and an irresponsible media. Airlines, it hardly needs saying, aren’t the most forthcoming of entities, while journalists and broadcasters like to keep it simple and sensational. It’s hard knowing who to trust or what to believe.

In the current edition of his website, he launches a broad-based attack on the Huffington Post, which did an article entitled “16 Alarming Secrets That Will Change How You Will Feel About Flying.” I recommend you read the Huffpost article, and then look at what Smith has to say about it entitled “Nonsense from the Huffington Post.”

Not only is Ask the Pilot a great resource for information on flying, but it contains some fascinating travel articles written by a guy who’s been just about everywhere. I like it so much that I am planning to link to it on my own site.

 

I Would Like to Have Been Him, Part 2

Patrick Lee Fermor (1915-2011)

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

A long time ago—certainly before I moved my blog to WordPress—I wrote about Sir Richard Francis Burton, how I would like to have lived his life.(I’ll look it up for you and re-post it sometime in the next week or two.) The other person whom I admire so much that I would like to have been him is Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor. Both were knighted; both were world travelers; both had superb intellects; and both were superb writers.

At the age of eighteen, Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, starting from Holland and ending up in Constantinople. Most of his trip was covered by two volumes he wrote years after the fact: A Time of Gifts (1977), covering from Holland to the Hungarian Border, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), covering Hungary and Romania. When he died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 96, he will still working on the third volume. I was heartbroken at the loss, feeling I would never find out how his trip ended.

Thanks to his good friends Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron—himself no mean travel writer—the third volume has finally come out. It bears the title The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (2013). Fortunately, enough of the text is pure Fermor, which is quite a complement. Take this passage, for example, describing Romanian Orthodox art:

I was fascinated, and slightly obsessed, by these voivodes and boyars as they appeared in frescoes on the walls of the monasteries they were always piously founding — crowned and bearded figures holding up a miniature painted facsimile of the church itself, with their princesses upholding its other corner, each with a line of brocaded, kneeling sons and daughters receding in hierarchical pyramids behind them. Still more fascinating, later portraits,hanging in the houses of their descendants—some by unknown local artists who travelled through the principalities early in the nineteenth century—showed great boyars of the princely divans, men who bore phenomenal titles, most of them of Byzantine origin, some of them Slav: Great Bans of Craiova, Domnitzas, Bayzadeas, Grant Logothetes, hospodars, swordbearers and cupbearers, all dressed in amazing robes with enormous globular headdresses or high fur hats with diamond-clasped plumes, festooned with necklaces, and jewel-crusted dagger hilts.

What a whiff of Eastern Christianity is in this passage from pages 183-184! It is typical of Fermor’s obscurely beautiful lists that can pop up anywhere in the text.

As if his travel and writing were not enough, Paddy Fermor was a legitimate war hero. During the Nazi occupation of Crete, as a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), he helped organize the Greek resistance and carried off the German commandant, General Heinrich Kreipe, over several mountain ranges to a waiting British submarine. At one point, the captive Kreipe was so impressed by the scenery, that he quoted some lines by Horace in Latin. Fermor finished the quote, also in Latin, at which the astonished Kreipe could only mutter, “Ah, so!” Fermor commented that both he and Kreipe had “drunk at the same fountains” of learning.

Other books by Fermor include the following titles which I have read:

  • The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953)
  • A Time to Keep Silence (1957)
  • Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958)
  • Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966)
  • Three Letters from the Andes (1991)

All are travel books except the first, which is a novel. The only book of his I have not yet read is The Traveller’s Tree (1950), about his sojourn in the Caribbean. Also well worth reading is his wartime colleague W. Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight: The Abduction of General Kreipe (1950). Most of Fermor’s books are available in attractive paperback editions from the New York Review of Books.