Monday, January 15, 2018

Travel Oddities (Part I)

Travel Oddities
(Part I)
travel memoirs
Gregory E. Larson
It’s winter and I’m sitting by the fireplace remembering what I consider “odd happenings” from previous trips. These are not topics you’ll find in the slick travel brochures, or in magazine articles titled, “Top Ten Winter Destinations.” To me, these occurrences are the spice in the adventures. Sometimes it is when our preconceptions meet other cultures. Other times it is something that is just plain odd or funny. I purposely left out stories about European bathrooms or “the airplane trip from hell.” We’ve all had those. Buy me a beer sometime and I can talk at length on those subjects.

1. The non-existent B&B
          The B&B was supposed to be in a posh section of Birmingham, England, not too far from the airport. It seemed like the perfect place for Gretta and me to spend our last night of the 2008 trip to England and Wales before departing back to the U.S. After a day of driving (on the left side of the road) I pulled up to the address, and told Gretta to wait while I made sure it was the right place. I walked around a tall hedge and stared at what had been the B&B. There was a gaping hole in the front of the three story house, and workmen were pouring concrete at the front steps. They gave me odd looks when I told them I had a reservation.

Would you sleep here?

          The workmen went to get the foreman and I went to get Gretta. A tall Punjabi appeared in a turban and he profusely apologized for not getting the online reservations cut off in time to prevent us from showing up during construction. He snapped his fingers and barked orders to the workmen to “get these people some tea and American coffee.” In minutes, upholstered chairs were placed by the dumpster and a silver tray with creamer, sugar, and cups of tea and coffee were brought to us for afternoon refreshment.
Tea time in the construction zone
          While we sipped away, the owner/foreman/jack-of-all-trades found us new accommodations at Clovely Place B&B, just two blocks away . . . and a Clovely Place it was.

2. Calliope in Westermarkt, Amsterdam
          I love the sights and sounds that are experienced while riding a bicycle. This brief encounter occurred in the middle of a street in west Amsterdam. Our tour group turned the corner and pedaled down a long street towards the market. We began to hear some music up ahead, and as we got closer we discovered a huge calliope positioned in the middle of the street – no sign, no orange cones - nothing. The cars and bikes slowed as they passed the monstrosity. There appeared to be no one monitoring the contraption which emanated loud pipe organ sounds accompanied with cymbals and drums. What seemed strangest of all, it was blasting out the Bangles tune, Walk Like an Egyptian. The Doppler effect of the sound hit my ears as we passed it, and I laughed and said, “Just another typical day in Amsterdam.”

3. Japanese Tea House in Canada
Mile after mind-numbing mile passed before us on the highways of Montana, so Gretta and I decided to find a place to get out and stretch our legs once we crossed into Canada. The map showed the city of Lethbridge in Alberta as a good break point. As we approached the city, Gretta said, “There’s an authentic Japanese Tea House and Garden at a city park beside a lake.”
     A Japanese Tea House in the stretches of the wild west of Canada? It seemed a bit incongruous. What the heck. I knew nothing about Japanese Tea Houses. Maybe I could learn something.
Authentic Japanese Tea House
     Once we arrived at the park and began the walk through the house and garden, I was struck at the order and prescription of how a Tea House was designed and constructed. It had a very defined spatial arrangement of rooms, somewhat like we have for churches. This specific house had been taken apart, piece by piece in Japan, and shipped to Canada for reconstruction. While walking through the sculpture garden on the shore of the lake it seemed like we were transported to the orient. The brief tour gave me a much greater respect for oriental design.

4. Rockford Files and Wild Boar in the Apennines
     Unique cuisine after a long day of bike riding is always a treat. One night in the Apennine Mountains our guides took us to a small family-owned Italian restaurant for a four-star meal including wild boar stew. We walked across a bridge near a waterfall and went into a cozy dining room with a wood-planked floor and wood-trussed ceiling. 
     Adjacent to the dining room was a long bar where an old man was sitting. The TV was mounted above the bar and an episode of the Rockford Files was on the screen – except James Garner was spewing out Italian! The guides told us the man at the bar was the grandfather and owner of the restaurant. His family ran the restaurant and as he got older he liked to watch TV re-runs. 
          The Rockford Files continued while we ate the appetizers and sipped wine. The episode ended as the main course came out, and the family guided their father to the house which was attached to the restaurant. Gretta and I thought the patriarch and the TV were a nice touch of ambience for our meal of authentic Italian food in the Apennines.

5. Risk Management checks in to Ski Lodge
Gretta at Ski Tip Lodge
     For three winters Gretta and I went skiing at Keystone in Colorado and we always stayed at our favorite resort, Ski Tip Lodge, which was an old ski lodge with a colorful history. The architecture was a combination of original log cabin and Swiss ski chalet, and it catered to those who did not want to stay in a mega-resort condo.
No TV’s or radios existed, the food was first rate, Evening entertainment was sitting around one of the two stone fireplaces, where folks played cards, swapped stories and ate dessert. The guests were allowed to tend the fires and add logs when the fire burned low. In the dining room, real wax candles were in holders on each table. We knew the Vail Ski Corporation operated the lodge, and we were amazed they supported this old lodge which harkened back to a simpler time.
One of the large fireplaces at the lodge.
     It was our third trip when we noticed a change. During the first evening we discovered battery powered candles in the dining room. What? This was an assault on reality. Then we went to the fireplace and noticed a sign next to the hearth: WARNING – THIS AREA CAN GET VERY HOT.
     Gretta laughed and said, “Hey, ya think it might get hot by a fireplace?”
     “Maybe there was an inebriated guest that got burned while standing too close. Heavens to Betsy, don’t get me started on signs,”
     I immediately pictured long, drawn out meetings in a corporate conference room with a director of risk management, talking about the dangers of running an antiquated ski lodge, and the need to protect the guests from any danger. Ugh. There goes the way of a simple candle. By now, I’m sure the guests are no longer encouraged or allowed to tend the fire. That’s way too risky. People could injure their backs picking up the logs, or they might get burned tending the fire.

6. Baby Godzilla and the Swiss Motorcycle Wedding
          One of the odder memories I have from any trip was the time Gretta and I discovered an outdoor miniature museum south of Lugano, Switzerland, in a little town called Melide. In the summertime the place had a good throng of people walking about the grounds which were about the size of an acre. The landscape included a milieu of famous buildings around Switzerland. In addition, there were mountains with trains running through tunnels and lakes with operating miniature boats. Even the shrubs were trimmed to make a person feel like a giant as one walked through the Lilliputian world.

Miniature Park in Melide, Switzerland
          No detail was overlooked. Every building was a precise, replica representation of the original.
          A cathedral tower caught my eye and I began to look at the details. Lo, and behold, at the base of the miniature cathedral entrance were semi-circle rows of motorcycles all pointed to the doors where a priest was holding a wedding ceremony for the replica bride and groom. I wondered how many motorcycle weddings occurred at church entrances in Switzerland.
           Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a toddler whose dad had just let him down on the sidewalk. The adults in the group were having a conversation and were not watching the little monster as he began to crawl into the petunias and directly toward the cathedral.
          I said a polite, “Uh-oh,” and pointed to the kid. Just as baby Godzilla reached for the semi-circle of motorcycles, the dad swooped his arm and grabbed him just in time.
          My only regret is that I didn’t get a picture of the baby creating a Godzilla movie scene, but I do have a picture of the cathedral and wedding replica below.

Baby Godzilla attack was thwarted at this Swiss Cathedral replica


Monday, December 4, 2017

Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock - Sedona, Arizona
watercolor painting by author
Cathedral Rock
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte, Coffee Pot Rock . . . the names on the landscapes around Sedona, Arizona are as unusual as the formations themselves. Some are so large it takes a hike of several miles just to walk around them. Others look like pottery which has been fired by extinct volcanoes. Many people believe the rocks have a magnetic attraction and a spiritual significance.
          Gretta and I spent a week in Sedona in January of 2006 to hike and bike for some winter exercise. It didn’t take long for us to get drawn into the fascination of what we could find around every bend. At that time of the year we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Morning hikes required a jacket, hat and gloves, but by noon the warmth of the sun had us pulling off the extra layers and taking our time to appreciate the vistas.
Bell Rock - Sedona, Arizona
         During the week we used one of the larger rock formations, Cathedral Rock, to keep us oriented to our location. Finally, near the end of the trip, we decided to explore it. We drove to the small parking lot at the trail head, and as we started the hike I remember a sign that warned hikers of a strenuous climb of a mile or two, just to get to the gap, or notch, at the base of the towers. In retrospect, I thought it bordered on being a dangerous climb, mainly because of a stretch of near-vertical trail that required each hiker to independently climb the cracks in the cliff, seeking notches and toe-holds to safely make the climb.
Gretta climbing up the toe-holds in the rock (note the road and parking lot at the top of the picture).
          This was not a Disney venue! There were no handrails to grab at the cliff edge and no courtesy carts for the faint-of-heart. And woe to any hiker that might trip at an inopportune time.
          As we pulled ourselves up on top of the mesa at the base of Cathedral Rock, we began to reap the reward of our effort.
Gretta standing on top of a mesa.
          An amazing multicolor view of sky, rocks, and plants stretched out in every direction. The closer we hiked to the base of the awe-inspiring towers, our speech came in hushed tones, and I immediately felt more reverent towards the outdoors and the massive rocks rooted to the earth. We had entered a natural cathedral with the blue sky of thin air as the vaulted ceiling.
Gretta standing at the cliff's edge at the notch on Cathedral Rock.
          I remember it as a very happy time, one which we didn’t want to end. There were no other hikers at the notch. I did have a nagging worry on how we were going to step backwards down the cliffs and cling to the cracks and toe-holds, but the vistas were so striking that I quickly tucked that worry away for a while.
          I had Gretta pose for pictures at several locations in the notch, and I snapped one as she stood at the edge of a cliff shadow. If I were allowed only one photo to remember her from, it would be the one. She had that look of hers, a look of self-assurance, and of peak confidence and happiness. Her conditioning from biking, hiking, figure skating, and yoga, had made the hike seem like a piece of cake. She was happy every day, but she was happiest outdoors, and the photo shows it.
My sweetheart, at ease and full of happiness.
          I’d guess you could call our climb at Cathedral Rock a mountaintop experience. There was something special about it. We sat on a rock ledge, side-by-side like little kids, looking out to the horizon while we ate our snacks of fruit and cheese from the day pack.
Gretta standing in the middle of the notch (this is the ledge where we ate our snack).
          It was a time that made me grateful to have been born so long ago, just to experience the universe that was put before Gretta and me that day. We sat in the stillness, with the silence broken only by and a raven's call which echoed amongst the stone walls. How lucky we were to take in the sun, sky, and all that surrounded us, to appreciate each other and the spot that was a keeper for the memories.
A view for the memories - the notch at Cathedral Rock

Monday, October 30, 2017

Somewhere in Amsterdam

Bike Parking at Amsterdam's Centraal Station
photo by author
Somewhere in Amsterdam
by Gregory E. Larson

          I don’t know where I lost it. It fell off the cuff of my left pant leg on the first day in Amsterdam. I had two of them, and now I have just one. “What was it?” you ask.  It was a simple little neon-yellow strap with reflector tape and a Velcro strip.
A simple strap for the pant leg
photo by author
          Before my bike trip to the Netherlands, I found the straps in Gretta’s bike accessories, and I marveled at their simplicity and functionality. In the past, when I needed a strap for my pant legs, I’d used a big rubber band or a tiny bungie cord with a ball. But those items weren’t as nice as the yellow strap. It not only keeps the pant cuff from flapping in the wind but also has reflector tape to give visibility when riding in the dark. Most importantly, it keeps the pant leg from getting caught in the chain. I looked at the colorful straps that Gretta had used and thought they would be just the ticket for riding a bike in the cool and damp spring weather in the Netherlands. Besides, I hoped I could blend in with the natives while biking amongst the crowds.
          Most recreational bike riders in the U.S. don’t wear straps because they don’t wear long pants while riding. They wear outfits similar to those worn by Tour de France racers. The clothing basically consists of padded black underwear for shorts, a bright jersey, and a Styrofoam cup strapped to the head for safety. The shorts don’t have pant cuffs that flap in the wind, but if a leg touches the chain at a stop light, it will get a greasy “chain tattoo.” The racing threads work great in warm weather, but not in the winter, especially on cold days in the Netherlands when the wind comes off the North Sea.
          European riders, and especially those in Amsterdam, wear everyday clothes but no helmet, and they ride their bikes everywhere. To them, bikes are an everyday part of life. In Amsterdam, cars are a liability, because there is nowhere to park in the concentrated area of streets and canals.

Amsterdammers ride bikes of all shapes and sizes.
photo by author
          The city is flat, which makes pedaling easy. The steepest inclines are on the bridges that cross the canals. Persons of all ages and occupations are seen biking in every direction, on contraptions of every shape and size. There are seats and boxes for parents carrying children, and there are large containers built on the front and back of bikes for painters and carpenters to haul their tools and equipment with them. Some workers are dressed in suits and carry briefcases. Many are talking on their cell phones.
          Amsterdammers on their bikes believe they can do whatever they want. Many ignore the traffic safety laws, but accidents are rare. I learned very quickly that it wasn’t a good idea to slow down and stop at an intersection when the traffic light turned yellow. The first time I did, at least fifteen bikes swerved to miss crashing into me, and I’m sure that I heard Dutch cursing being muttered as the riders sped past to get through the red light.
          Back at home, whenever I put on the single strap that lost its partner, I always wonder where the other strap might be. It probably fell off at one of the busy intersections in Amsterdam while I was in deep concentration attempting to learn all the right-of-way rules for bikes vs. pedestrians, cars, and streetcars. I hope the strap has found a new home and has been liberated to someone else’s pant leg—someone who travels frequently across Amsterdam and the countryside.
          My mind wanders to the possibilities of where the strap might be. 
The Rijksmuseum and famous bike tunnel through the building.
photo by author
          I hope it has gone to the Rijksmuseum and along the historic bike street and tunnel that passes through the middle of the building. The tunnel has a storied history and is a famous symbol of biking independence in Amsterdam. There has been a long, drawn-out struggle between the museum and the city. It seems the museum has always wanted to take back the space of the bike street/tunnel and have it become part of the gallery space. The bikers have fought many times to keep it from happening.
          As recently as 2011, the Museum director attempted to convince the public and city officials to allow the museum to eliminate the bike tunnel. He said:

Bike traffic doesn’t belong here anymore. We’ve invested [$500 million] in this building; we didn’t do that to accommodate a covered bike path . . . For too long the discussion has been dominated by—not to say, held hostage by—the cyclists.

Not a wise thing to say in a city of bike riders. In July 2012, the city council voted to keep the bike path and tunnel. In the museum’s recent renovation, they made a feature of the bike by using big plate-glass windows in the lobby and galleries to allow the museum-goers to see the cyclists pedaling through the museum. I viewed it as true kinetic sculpture.
          I wonder if the strap will find its way down Prinsengracht, past the townhome where Anne Frank hid during the German occupation of World War II. In her diary, she recalls the happier days of riding her bike home from school, and of her concern that when a boy would ride alongside he would almost always become enamored and want to spend every moment with her.
          Before she went into hiding, her bike was stolen, and her parents gave their bike away to a Christian family to prevent it from being confiscated by the Germans. In one of the most memorable lines of her writing, she expressed her wish: I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I'm free, and yet I can't let it show.
          Now, in 2017, I see the strap as a small symbol of freedom. Sadly, freedom and life was taken away from so many people in the Netherlands during the German occupation.
          I can picture the strap in heavy commuter traffic, weaving and turning on the web-like network of canals and streets, negotiating the bumpy cobblestone pavers and rail lines, giving the streetcars the right-of-way and plenty of space.
          Maybe the strap is worn by a commuter who lives in a small townhome in northern Amsterdam, and it takes a daily ferry ride with its owner in the cool, morning darkness to cross the harbor waters where the Amstel River and the North Sea merge. Once the rider disembarks onto de Ruyterkade, the strap would reflect the light of the early morning traffic of cars, pedestrians, and public transportation around the Centraal Station.
                If someone in a family has the strap, I hope they use it on their weekend outings, to go on a picnic or just to enjoy the big green spaces and children’s activities in the huge Vondelpark.
          Following a long-time tradition in Amsterdam in the Spring, the family might take an all-day ride out west of the city to enjoy the tulip fields. Couples in love could take the strap with them and ride all the way to the Keukenhof Gardens in April and May, where thousands of people from all over the world flock to see the explosion of tulip color.
Keukenhof Gardens in spring.
photo by author
          Who knows, it might be on a rider that travels all the way to Rotterdam, passing the swans and windmills along the canals beside green fields of sheep and cattle.
Dutch countryside
photo by author
          I’ll never know what happened to it, but I’m beginning to think this is one lucky little strap, even though I don’t possess it anymore. I can only hope it is out there on some cyclist’s leg, crisscrossing the countryside. Gretta would be happy, too, knowing that the strap is somewhere in Amsterdam, free to roam a continent that always had a piece of her heart.

Information source:

Jordan, Pete, In the City of Bikes (The story of the Amsterdam Cyclist), New York, Harper Collins, 2013.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Colorful Landscape (seen and unseen)

View of Kansas City skyline from Penn Valley Park
watercolor painting by author
The Colorful Landscape (seen and unseen)
by Gregory E. Larson

           Sit in one spot, for three hours or more, within the confines of the city (and with your cell phone turned off). Find a park or a good vantage point where you can observe man and nature. “Are you crazy?” some would ask. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems totally contrary to everyday life.
          But that is just what my friend, Kirk, and I have been doing. We’ve started painting outdoors on a regular basis. It’s called plein air watercolor. We’ve taken our chairs, palettes and supplies outdoors a couple of times in the cool of the morning as the sun comes up in Kansas City.
The Scout in Penn Valley Park
photo by author
          Our first time out was in Penn Valley Park on a spot near the sculpture of The Scout. We found a gap in the trees that provided a hillside view of greenery, with the city skyline beyond – a view where the colors in the foliage and the buildings mixed with the morning air, and the dreamy landscape was filled with the sound of bustling, rush-hour traffic.
          Thankful of the luxury of a gorgeous view on a pleasant morning while the world rushed around us, I said to Kirk, “Heck, I just want to sit here and have my bagel and drink coffee for a little bit. What a great day!”
          The sunlight touched the trees on the hilltops, reflecting a golden green, and the dark-blue shadows of the skyline began to brighten. As we sat and observed, more and more detail began to strike at our senses – a shadow here, a reflection there. The sky above the buildings was a collection of pale streaks of blues, pinks, and yellows. The change in light was slow-paced, but fun to observe. I began to think how different the skyline must have looked fifty years ago, and of all the life, business, and work that has transpired over the landscape. It made me think of a Beatle’s song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Life goes on, braaah!”
          Having brushed and daubed the paint onto the thick watercolor paper long enough, we abandoned our vantage point. It was late morning, and the city looked totally different. I’m sure a lot of business had transpired in front of us that morning inside the man-made edifices, and the trucks and cars were noisily going about their everyday routine.
          I thought about what happens through the course of time on one spot on the landscape. What looks peaceful one moment can totally change in an instant or a day or a year – a sort of now you see it, now you don’t syndrome. The river of time prevents us from seeing all that transpires.
          The next trip, a couple of weeks later was a visit to Loose Park, one of the jewels of the Kansas City Parks system. It’s a large swath of ground steeped in history, a place which has been the site of a civil war battle, a farm, a golf course, and now a park. Being in an urban area, it is a popular spot at all times of the day. I’m sure the list of activities and events (both legal and illegal) that have transpired in Loose Park would boggle the mind.
          Kirk and I decided the peaceful setting of the scenic pond with an arched bridge and willow tree had good possibilities for a watercolor. We selected our vantage points and began sketching and painting. While we worked, a slow but steady stream of people walked by us. Some stopped to look at what we were doing. Some talked. We discovered that’s one of the benefits or hazards of plein air painting. There were a couple of peculiar happenings while we were there. A woman asked Kirk if he had seen a cell phone she lost there on Sunday. She said she was with a “wedding party.” We also noticed two park employees floating in a small aluminum boat, criss-crossing the area around the arched wooden bridge. Kirk and I commented to each other about the two men and how they didn’t look like they were doing much work. At times, it was hard for me to see the calm reflection of the pond because they were stirring up the water. It made me think of when I played along creeks and ponds as a kid. We walked away from the morning session not knowing what had transpired there over the last two days.
Loose Park pond and bridge
watercolor painting by author
          That night I lay in bed, listening to the news, and my ears perked up when I heard a story about a local couple who went to Loose Park on Saturday afternoon.  The guy (Seth Dixon of Warrensburg) had planned to propose to his girlfriend (Ruth Salas of Liberty) out on the bridge. But once he bent down on his knee and looked to his sweetheart, things went awry. He opened the lid on the box, the ring popped out and dropped onto the bridge planks, fell through a crack and plopped into the pond faster than you can say, “bye-bye bling.” Once the shock hit him, all he could say was, “Oh . . . my . . . God.”
          They spent all evening wading in the pond, reaching and fishing for the engagement band, but came up empty-handed. The next day at church, they shared their sad story, and a whole group of church folk volunteered to help search for the lost ring. There were so many people wading in the pond at Loose Park that Sunday afternoon, they could have had a mass baptism.  But the ring remained elusive.
          On Monday, while Kirk and I were sitting at the bridge all morning, the story got on the news. A cell phone video, which their photographer friend had taken when the mishap occurred – well, it went viral – a hundred thousand hits in two days. Social media at its finest. The peaceful setting in Loose Park began to take on a life of its own.
          The couple was invited to be on national TV and share their story on ABC’s 20/20 show (or so they thought). The network had them flown to California and tricked them on the night before the interview by giving them tickets to go see Jimmy Kimmel Live. Before they knew it, they were invited up on stage, not knowing the surprise that was hidden behind the stage curtain. Jimmy showed the video of their bad fortune on the bridge in Loose Park, and he had them share their story.
          Voila, the curtain opened and revealed a stage set with a wooden bridge and a photomural of the weeping willow tree. Jimmy and a jeweler gave the couple a huge engagement ring set with a medley of diamonds. He talked them into recreating the proposal in front of a cheering studio audience and national TV.
          But wait, there’s more.
          Several divers had attempted to find the ring to no avail, but while the couple was in California, a Missouri truck driver (on his own time) felt sorry for the couple, and brought his metal detector to Loose Park. He searched in the pond for four hours, and found the ring! Now the couple has two rings, one small and one large.
          It appears the park is peaceful again and life goes on in Kansas City.
          Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Solar/Lunar Event

Beginning of August 2017 Solar Eclipse in Beatrice, Nebraska
photo by Michael Farley

Solar/Lunar “Event”
by Gregory E. Larson

           In today’s cycle of internet and cable news, the 2017 solar eclipse of August 21st is now ancient history. I’m sure that millions of the protective glasses have been thrown into the trash. How sad. I can only hope the eclipse caused most of us to pause and contemplate the magnitude, the precision and the beauty of the cosmic display.
Crowd awaits solar eclipse at Homestead National Monument
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Thinking the odds of it being clearer and drier in Beatrice, Nebraska, than in Kansas City, I jumped at the chance to go there, but in the end we barely saw it through the skin of the raggedy clouds which hung above the Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice. Everything seems to be considered an event these days, including the weather, and the gathering of over 10,000 people on the edge of the Great Plains to witness the eclipse was definitely an event.
James inspects Michael's camera
photo by Linda Anneberg
          Our group of relatives included an astronomer (Richard Henry and spouse Judy), a photographer (Michael Farley and spouse Linda), myself, and my Grandson, James. Richard answered the scientific questions. Michael set up his Nikon camera and big lens to record the eclipse.
          Every cloud listed in meteorology textbooks was visible that morning. We nervously watched a stalled front float ever so slowly towards us from the south. An hour before the beginning of the eclipse, a low, dark, ceiling of clouds parked above us and blotted out the sun. Totality of clouds is what I called it. After inspecting the horizon to the south and west, I predicted the viewing would get better as the moon began to slide in front of the sun.

An untimely low ceiling of clouds arrives
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The crowds cheered each time the sun became visible. The edge of clouds snaked above us, and there were several ten-minute periods of viewing while the countryside reflected a dim translucence. Just prior to the total eclipse, a portion of the cloud blocked our view, and the waiting became unbearable.

        I listened to a couple from Beaumont, Texas, who sat near us. With a pronounced drawl, the wife said, “Sweetheart, we drove all the way from Texas to see this and what do we get? CLOUDS! Was it worth it to come here? I don’t think so.”
          The husband responded, “Hon, it is what it is. Just enjoy the outdoors and relax. I can’t do nothin’ about the weather.”
          Just two minutes prior to the total eclipse the clouds parted, the crowd cheered, and then we all started acting a bit crazy. Everyone experienced the darkening and the aurora in their own way. We looked like we were in a drug-induced stupor, turning every which way and saying, “Wow!” and, “Unbelievable!” It seemed as if God used a giant dimmer to turn off the sunlight and throw a sixty-mile diameter pancake of darkness on top of us. We were able to see bits of brightened sky on the horizon.
A pancake of darkness slides over us during the total eclipse
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Crickets chirped. Birds became quiet. Headlights shone on the highway.           We removed our protective glasses and were able to safely look directly at the full eclipse and the corona. James and I stood in awe, while he referenced his mom, dad, brothers and sisters who were at a different location and said, “I hope my family gets to see this.”
Total eclipse viewed from Beatrice, Nebraska
photo by Michael Farley
          Then came the spark of the diamond ring, at the point in which the first part of the sun peeks around the edge of the moon. It was a white-hot light of utter clarity — something akin to the spark of an arc welder. We clearly saw our shadow outlines on the ground, and the light continued to grow in its intensity.
White-hot spark at the end of totality called "the diamond ring"
photo by Michael Farley
          The crowds cheered again, and the birds in the Osage orange trees chirped their morning songs. The mellow softness of the light on the countryside continued to brighten and passers-by talked excitedly. The Texas wife was elated and shared with all of us, “I am SO glad we came! It is indescribable. You have to see it to believe it.”
          That summed up the importance of seeing the totality of the eclipse. My limited words don’t do it justice. All I know is that anyone who has stood and looked at the corona will never forget it.
The light returns to the Nebraska countryside
photo by Gregory E. Larson

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sicilian Fishermen

Harbor in Siracusa, Sicilia
photo by Gretta Larson
          Preface: The best times during travels are when you discover something unexpected. That was the case in the city of Siracusa, in the summer of 2012 at the far southeast tip of Sicily. All of the elements came together for a great moment on a trip: quiet time with the one you love, anticipation of a big day, good food, and discovery of the unfamiliar. It was a brief point in time I'll never forget.

Sicilian Fisherman
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson
Accordion player in Siracusa
photo by Gretta Larson

           I sat up in bed after the short night of sleep, running fingers through my hair and rubbing my eyes. The vivid memory of the last evening returned in the sights and sounds of the seafood restaurant. Wine, laughter, and clapping to the accordion music of Sicilian folk songs  was combined with visions of endless plates of steaming pasta and seafood — everything imaginable from tender calamari the size of onion rings, to scallops and a variety of fish from anchovies to swordfish.
          But there was no time to waste, as Gretta and I packed our bags and prepared for an epic day ahead on the bicycles. It was necessary to begin a mental focus on the proposed route that would put us in morning rush-hour traffic and eventually take us to the countryside where we would traverse over mountainous ridges along the eastern coast of Italy’s largest island.
          As the sunrise was breaking, we were the first to arrive at the breakfast buffet on the rooftop of the Grand Hotel Ortigia in Siracusa, at the harbor’s edge.  We ordered our cappuccinos and filled our plates with powdered pastry, fruit, and cheese, then sat out on the rooftop deck of the hotel to appreciate the cool, quiet moment before the long hot day began. I put the scene in my memory to recall it later in the day when it was hot and the climbing was difficult.
          The town was barely waking and the pastel colors of the sunrise on the sea at the city’s edge painted a serene picture from the rooftop deck. That’s when I noticed a fishing boat entering the harbor. It was but a speck about a half-mile away. Other boats of various shapes and sizes were lined up behind the first boat, all spaced about a quarter-mile apart. It made me think of the airliners cueing up to land at an airport. What’s going on? My interest was sparked and I stood up at the railing to get a better view.

Fishing boat in Siracusa Harbor
photo by author
          I looked down at the stone quay at harbor’s edge and noticed two men standing by a white van, peering out to the horizon. My guess was the boats were arriving at the prescribed time to sell their overnight catch to the men in the van, who would then distribute the seafood to the restaurants in town. It was a simple scenario that I’m sure had continued in some fashion for as long as man inhabited the island.
          Being a Kansas man, I wondered what it was like to go fishing on the ocean at night and complete the day’s work at dawn. Did the men swap stories and a bottle of grappa while the stars shone overhead? What kind of fish did they catch? Were their wives happy or sad when they returned home after sunrise? These were a few of the questions that popped into my mind. I assumed the small boats were collecting mussels or other creatures from traps, because there wasn’t much space or equipment on board. The larger boats probably brought in the bigger fish.
Sicilian fishermen in small boat - June 2012
watercolor painting by author
          From the railing, I was able to photograph a few of the boats as they approached the inner harbor. My favorite boat was the tiny, three-man craft with the bright yellow and black stripes. The scene was so simple and worthy of a painting: three men in a boat. One man steered the motor in the glassy harbor, the second man wrote on a note pad (probably calculating the money they would receive), and the third man leaned over a tank, checking the ‘take’ for the night to make sure it was still fresh. It was a scene from the Hemingway era, one that was played out day after day, year after year. 
          For a few brief moments, Gretta and I stood at the railing to watch the discussion between the fishermen and the market men — then it was back to thinking about the big day ahead.
          With words unspoken, we sipped our cappuccino and enjoyed the quiet of the morning, happy to have witnessed a simple ending to the fishermen’s workday, and wanting to savor the moment just a bit longer before our journey continued.