Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

Trust (Los Altos Town Crier, January 2014)

California Hillside Dec 2013

 

We trust that the sun will rise in the east, and that the day will be 24 hours long.

We trust that the earth will not shake under our feet, and that the ocean will stay in its place, rising and falling within its tidal bounds.  Sometimes this trust is betrayed – there is an earthquake, there is a tsumani.

In California, we trust that between April and November it is safe to plan a picnic or a camping trip or an outdoor wedding.  The weather will be fine.  Once in a while there is an untimely diversion of the jet stream, and we have you-tube videos of drenched brides and soggy wedding cake.

We trust that between November and March we will have rain.  Rain that replenishes the snow back in the Sierras, delighting skiers, snowboarders, owners of second homes at Tahoe and children of families who rent those homes for a weekend.  Rain that makes our hills in December look like sleeping giants under softly curving blankets of green, tempting us to send pictures eastward to rouse the envy of our snow-bound relatives.

Sometimes a resilient high pressure ridge deflects the rainclouds, and we have drought burning our hills into barren gray, and tempting our eastern relative to ask us if they should bring their own water if they come to visit.

We trust in government, to provide safe roads, safe airways, safe airports, safe city centers, safe food and drink, safe industrial practices, safe working conditions.  Sometimes this trust is betrayed, and we have government shutdowns, locked-down schools, grounded aircraft, epidemics of salmonella.

All of our decisions are based on trust.

We trust in colleages.  Sometimes our trust is betratyed – there are moles in the FBI, there are back-stabbers at the office, there are businesses that fail and paychecks that bounce.

We trust in fellow citizens to follow the rules of the road, to pay attention while driving, to get their children vaccinated, to stay home from work when they are ill.

We trust in neighbors to watch our homes, but not invade them.

We trust in family.  if I jump from the wall, Daddy will catch me.  If I hurt my knee, Mommy will make it better.  If I need a place to stay, my sister will welcome me. Sometimes our trust is betrayed.  There are abusive parents, bitter divorces, family feuds, estranged children.

We trust in friends.  A triumph can be shared.  A secret will go no further.  Sometimes our trust is betrayed. When that happens we feel anger, bitterness, resentment.  The foundations of our world are twisted.  We blame others for our pain.  We feel we can never expose ourselves to this kind of pain again.

But if we cannot trust, we cannot love.  We cannot laugh, or be child-like, or share any kind of intimacy.  A world without trust is a world without smiles, without community, where all the headlines are grim.

My New Year’s wish:  May you trust freely, and may your trust be well – earned.  And may it rain.

In the Company of Women (LATC September 2013)

Camp skit - sisters of a certain age

Traveling with a woman friend, she will offer the window seat.

She will refuse the airline snack, but offer to give you hers.

If you do not eat your airline snack after all, she will take it in case of future need.

She will offer to watch your carry-on bags while you go to the rest room.

She will offer to refill your water bottle if she is going to refill hers.

If she is driving, and she takes a wrong turn out of the airport, she will blame herself.

If she is the shotgun rider, she will apologize for not paying attention to the signs.

If her memory of the route disagrees with the GPS, she will go along with the GPS  – up to a point.

If she is one of three passengers in the back seat, she will offer to sit in the middle.

Though she has never met you before,  she may tell you all about the latest activities, vagaries, and eccentricities of her father, her late husband, her late husband’s first wife,  her second husband’s ex-wife, her son, his wife, her son’s wife’s first husband, and her  stepson’s  mother-in-law.

She will show you pictures of her grandchildren.

She will solicit reading suggestions for her book group.

If you are going for a walk she will remind you to put on sunscreen.

She will offer to loan you sunscreen.

If she is a houseguest, she will offer to help peel vegetables, set the table, or entertain any small children underfoot.

If she is the hostess and there are small children underfoot, she will be the one to eat at the children’s table in the kitchen.

*    *     *

I had written the above about halfway through a week at a women’s camp in the Rockies, mostly with  women of about my own age.  The women in the group were largely teachers or former teachers. They were mostly white. They had gone to Girl Scout camps.  They knew all the camp songs.

Then I had an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women a generation younger. I realized that the above list of “typical women’s behaviors” is perhaps not typical at all, except when applied to women of a certain age and up-bringing.

The youngest woman in the group had no first or second husband, no children or grandchildren, no smartphone filled with pictures to show, had never been to camp.  She didn’t belong to a book group.  She didn’t know the words to “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya”.  She was at the camp with her mother.  In two months she planned to begin a tour of duty with the Air Force.  She will probably go to Afghanistan.

I’ll bet she won’t volunteer for the middle of the back seat in the jet.

Women-In-Military-300x200

Freeway-Free in California: Money, Power, and Pyromania (LATC May 2013)

GrantMurphy1

If you have been to the Mt. Hamilton observatory, you have driven through Joseph D. Grant County Park.  It is a beautiful drive in spring.  The road meanders upward between hills coated with the electric green of new grass, highlighted by swathes of day-glo yellow mustard as if God had taken a magic marker to the landscape.  Higher up the roadside cut is spangled with glowing orange California poppies set off by patches of purple lupine and yellow sheep’s tail.

The park brochure tells you that Joseph Grant was the son and heir of Adam Grant, for whom Grant Avenue in San Francisco is named.  The senior Grant was a co-founder of Murphy, Grant & Co., a drygoods store which rivaled Levi Strauss in selling overalls to miners during the Gold Rush.  The San Francisco store burned in a spectacular fire in 1875, but most of the inventory was saved and the demand for Nonpareil Overalls remained.

Joseph was a mover and a shaker.  He managed the family business, started the Columbia Steam Company, was President of the California –Oakland Power company, and and was a life trustee of Stanford University.   When Herbert Hoover was defeated by FDR, he came to stay at Grant’s ranch for three weeks to lick his wounds.

The brochure doesn’t say much about Mrs. Edith Grant, or about the three Grant children.   But if you are lucky you might find a park ranger who would guide you around the ranch house and tell you about how daughters Edith and Josephine did not get along and would engage in rolling-around-on-the-floor fistfights at the mansion, sometimes during social events. And how sometimes they would join forces and invite some of the ranch hands to join them on rides into town (San Jose) for supplies, throwing empty liquor bottles out of the limousine in both directions to mark their trail. He might tell you about the nightly drunken parties  Josephine would hold in one of the older side-buildings, and about how Joseph burned the building down to stop the parties.

He might tell you about how daughter Edith used to shoot at people who trespassed on family property–including the mailman. It was said that she also shot her own horses if they came in range of the front porch.

He might tell you about how son Douglas, a business disappointment but adept at golf and drinking, died in a house fire lit by one of his neglected cigarettes.  And about how Josephine, when she took over the ranch, burned all the family letters and documents.

There is a novel to be written here, don’t you agree?

GrantMurphy2

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: It is Good to be the King

Plaza and Portico and PalaceThis bright sunny morning was almost too nice to spend inside, even if “inside” is the Palacio Real, home to the monarchs of Spain beginning in the 18th century.  We took our time along the way, stopping into a beautiful local market to admire the produce and incidentals on offer.Que Bello Mercado!

At the palace we waited about 10 minutes for entry while being entertained by a guy making giant bubbles and an accordionist playing, inexplicably, “Michele” and “Theme from The Godfather” instead of “Lady of Spain.”

The palace makes  Versailles look tawdry. I never imagined so much gold-and-silver-embroidered silk and velvet existed in the world. The extravagance is excused nowadays because the rooms are opened to the public in general for viewing and are otherwise used only for state occasions; the current king prefers to live in more comfort and less pomp in a smaller palace in the suburbs. But still, the amount of wretched excess is a little stomach-turning after viewing the homeless living in cardboard boxes in the arcades of the closed shops in the Plaza Mayor.

The state rooms are, of course, all tapestry, chandeliers, and mirrors, with frescos on the ceilings painted by Tintoretto and Velasquez and other lesser lights. We also got a glimpse of some of the rooms which had been used as private living quarters by various monarchs; these had been decorated to match  then-current tastes and ranged from a faux-Tyrolean-beer-hall decor for a billiard room through an all-Chinese porcelain and stucco and tile sitting room to an Empire/Egyptian room with sphinx holding up the table.

A visit to the Royal Armory Museum at the close revealed that the excess had been going on for at least 500 years – a wealth of gilded and engraved armor, including lots of matching miniature armor for the princelings to play in, and elaborate headpieces and breast-plates and rump-covers for the horses, all gilded, lavishly engraved or sculpted, and provided with satin covers and embroidered saddles to finish the look. (None of the kings ever actually fought in these things, although they may have jousted once in a while.)

After leaving the Palacio we took refuge in Taberna de Alabardero, an al fresco stree-tside cafe recommended by Lonely Planet AND Rick Steves, overlooking the palace and gardens. The prices were high and the service slow, but the people-watching was prime.

We finished off the afternoon with a stroll in the Royal Gardens and the Campo del Moro, then caught the Metro back to the hotel. For the evening we enjoyed a gala dinner at nearby Tres Encinas, a rather upscale (for us) seafood restaurant nearby. I  seized the opportunity to wear my one “nice” outfit, just so I can say the suitcase space wasn’t wasted.
Our maitre’d  was unabashedly charmed by Winifred’s Peruvian-accented Spanish, and monitored our table closely as we divided a wonderful salad of grilled vegetables and prawns (with heads and legs still attached to show how fresh they were) followed by a sole in the same state for the same reason but expertly divided and de-boned, followed by a dessert of chocolate brownie plus trimmings, and a couple of complimentary cuplets of cherry liqueur as a gift of the host. We were very glad we had dressed for the occasion!Shrimp Appetizer - Tres Encinas P1010262web P1010263web

Freeway Free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums – Thyssen- Bornemizso

the Baron and BaronessThe Thyssen-Bornemizso museum is the last of Madrid’s”Big 3″ and perhaps the most cosmopolitan/ecumenical, as it spans from early medieval art through the impressionsts all the way to Roy Lichtenstein and Marc Rothko. In addition to the core collections, this museum had the most intriguing special exhibitions of the Big 3. On the day of our visit we happened on a special exhibit devoted to the influence of open-air painting on the Impressionists. We took this in first, then approached the regular collection already half-dazzled.

Famous blue horsesThe regular collection is now actually TWO collections, that of the Baron and his family which had been a-building for two generations, and that of late-comer Baroness Carmen Tyssen-Bornemizso (a former Miss Spain, and well-qualified judging by the full-length portrait which hangs in the entry gallery). So one is forced to zig and zag from the Middle Ages to the Barbizon school with the Baron, then leap to an unusual collection of American painters from Winslow Homer to Roy Lichtenstein with Carmen, then back to the Renaissance again with Carmen, then back to the Impressionists with the family collection. One wonders why the two collections could not simply be integrated along chronological lines; probably feminism has something to do with it.

Edward Hopper

 

A nice small special exhibit of paintings showing women going about daily life rounded off over seven hours at the T-B. There was one more exhibit of modern art entitled “Hyperrealismo” but we ran out of brain cells.

We went back to El Retiro to stop and smell the roses one last time. On this warm sunny Sunday it seemed all Madrid was celebrating La Dia de la Madre in the park: picnicking, strolling with the obligatory gift rose in hand, rowing in the rectangular Estanque. On the way back to the Metro we discovered a street of bookstalls like those along the Seine selling used books of all sorts. I barely resisted “Matilda”, one of my favorites from Roald Dahl. Perhaps in the park we discovered the real elusive center of Madrid.

Freeway Free in Spain: Toledo Transit

Bus to ToledoWe started off at a good hour for our expedition, arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch the 9:20 train, only to find that it was sold out. Next available train on a busy commute and tourist day was at 12:20. Scratch.

We went back to the hotel by Metro to save energy, I said something about our failed plans to the desk manager, and he replied quickly, “Why not go by bus?” Turns out the express bus leaves every hour, from a station about a half hour away by Metro.

With one thing and another we got to the bus station in time for the 11 AM bus and we were in Toledo by noon. A wonderful town for traipsing around.

The Last Supper - Toledo Cathedral facadeWe started with the awesome (in the original sense) cathedral, a soaring flamboyant Gothic/Baroque structure on the outside, with a wonderful Last Supper going on in sculpture across the front above the main door. If you look at it from the rise of steps across the plaze, you can see down onto the table where the sculpture was careful to provide both bottles of wine and a plate of rolls as required.
On the inside more of the same – a LOT more. In addition to the profligate use of gold from the New World to decorate altars, clothe icons, and create 10 foot-tall monstrances to hold the Host between communions, it contains more great paintings than they have room to hang or light or even identify decently – a whole set of Christ and the apostles by El Greco hung kitty corner to the viewer behind a grate, Titian, Correggio, and Rembrandt hung in a half-lit chapel on a temporary scaffold in front of the altar and again behind a grate.

St John and Cousin Jesus

St John and Cousin Jesus

The most awesome thing about the Toledo Cathedral is the detail – everywhere you look there is an artwork that would be worthy of its own exhibit in any other context.  For example, this mosaic of John the Baptist with his young cousin Jesus – at least 30 feet tall over the door of the cathedral – not even mentioned in the audio guide or anywhere else – but so powerful!

We got halfway through the audio tour and elected to pause for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant Winifred had located online nearby. (We are on a veggie kick since being greens-deprived in our first day in Madrid.) There are good and bad veggie restaurants - Madre Tierra  was excellent – a wonderful salad and then a cream of spinach soup so thick and rich I could have eaten it with a fork.

Virgin and Unicorn - Choir stall - Toledo Virgin M crowning a saint in ivory - Toledo Saint and demon contending- choir stall - Toledo Jacob and Esau? Choir Stall - Toledo

Then back to the cathedral for the rest of the tour of amazing carvings and sculpture.  (See some of the amazingly evocative carvings in the choir stalls above)

The art highlight – the Sacristy- was closed for renovation, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never have made it to the El Greco Museum, which had a different set of apostles, much better displayed, hung in a setting designed to recreate a 15th century home such as El Greco might have lived in during his time in Toledo – quite charming.

Back to the bus, stopping for Winifred to pick up some mementoes and gifts. The express bus was full, so we took the milk run, whistle-stopping through a series of villages and small towns, letting off matrons who had been shopping for their week’s supplied in the supermercados of Toledo, taking up young people who had been visiting their families for the holiday and were headed back to Madrid – it was fun to make up stories to explain the meetings and partings.

Evening on the bus

Freeway Free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums – El Prado

El Prado 3D galleryEl Prado

At El Prado you can thrill your fill on the Big 3 of Spanish painting: Goya, El Greco, Velasquez.  Wow!  I warmed up with a roomful of Hieronymous Bosch (inspiration for every sci fi paperback anthology cover ever printed).  The Garden of Earthly Delights is enough to give one nightmares for a week.  On the wall catty corner is Breughel’s Triumph of Death  with Death leading an army of skeletons against the doomed remainder of mankind – the original zombie apocalypse.Bosch - Earthly Delights and Torments After

Unfortunately, a guard informed me that photos are not allowed soon after I left Bosch and Breughel, so I will have to link you to websites for you to get your tastes of G, V, and el G.

I was headed for Goya but got side-tracked by Velasquez.  Three hundred years before the Impressionists, this man knew exactly how to make light shine out of a picture.  I could have looked at his portrait of the Infanta Maria  and her handmaidens and dwarves for hours speculating on what was happening in each person’s mind, but the traffic of Japanese, German, French, and Spanish tour groups impeded reflection.

So I proceeded on my search for Goya but went the wrong way and got caught by El Greco  - even earlier than Velasquez, and combining use of light and of exaggeration to portray emotion and character in a way that prefigures Toulouse-Lautrec by 400 years.

W and I had split up after Bosch and Breughel.  When we reunited for lunch I was ready to babble about El Greco while she had found and been immersed in Goya, especially the “black Goyas” from his late period.  We exchanged enthusiasms, and then went out to explore again.

This time I found the Goyas and worked backward from the black period all the way to when he was hired to do “cartoons” of designs of frolicking gypsies and children,  to be used as patterns for tapestries at the local royal weavers workshop.  Amazing.  Age and war do alter one’s  point of view, and to go backwards in his career, from the murals of massacre and the blindness of fate to these sunny comic scenes, was especially poignant.

So which was the greatest painter of the Big Three?  Impossible to choose.

 

 

Freeway-free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums: Reina Sophia

Line for Dali

Madrid is a big city, the largest we have visited in Spain. Unlike the other largish cities we have visited, it does not seem to have a historic center; the Plaza Mayor is a nice place in daylight, but in the evening it is a haven for the homeless who are sheltering in cardboard boxes left over from the day’s sales of tidbits and trinkets for tourists. The main gathering place for events is the Puerta del Sol, site of the city hall and of Madrid’s civic mascot, the statue of a bear reaching for fruit on a strawberry tree (obviously not the kind of strawberries we grow for shortcake in the US).  Unlike other European capitals, it does not have an iconic identifying landmark, like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben  or the Brandenburg Gate or St. Paul’s Cathedral.  What Madrid has is Art, in three world-class museums, and in Madrid we looked at Art, with an occasional eyeball-break in the lovely Parque del Buen Retiro.

Here are our experiences with the Big Three (spreading over a couple of posts):

Museo de la Reina Sophia
Reina Sophia focuses on  Spanish modern art with the jewel of the collection being
PIcasso’s  Guernica Pablo-Picassos-Guernica-001.  The museum was having a special exhibit of Dali
which had started two days before our arrival and despite the drizzle the line to get in there was across the plaza  when we arrived at 4:30.  We decided to do the rest of the museum and come  back later for Dali.  We worked our way up in the general admission line, and  discovered gleefully that as seniors we qualified for free admission to  everything but Dali.  W had done her prep and started us on the second floor, but even  then we wore out our feet and our brains before we got to Guernica.  

Two days later we came back to the Reina Sophia for a second go-around.  This time we let ourselves drown in the overwhelming torrents of Dali and Picasso. These had never been my favorite painters, but after learning of the background against which they lived and painted I am more favorably inclined.

I did not know that Guernica had been painted on commission by the republican government of Spain to show at the Spanish pavilion at the 1936 World’s Fair in Paris.  I did not know it  was part of an attempt to win world sympathy for the republicans in the Civil War against Franco. (They got a lot of sympathy, but Franco still won). And I did not know that during World War II Dali had to flee Spain for France, then for the USA. There he became the first performance artist/career celebrity, perfectly reading the needs of the host country, anticipating Paris Hilton and Madonna by a half-century.

After drinking from the fire hydrant of history and art at Reina Sophia, the park was a chance to stretch our legs and our eyes over some longer distances.  There is something very refreshingly basic about a vista that includes a little girl and a pigeon.

Park and Pigeon

Freeway-Free in Spain: People and Public Art

There’s something about a statue, especially if it is reasonably representational, that makes people want to interact with it.  Here are some that we ogled, sat on, cuddled with during our trek in Spain.  Can you identify where we were?
Ware the Plague or the Inquisition - CacerasThe Goddes Ceres - Caceras Storks frozen in bronze - Caceras Pisarro AKA Cortez - Trujillo Paso Doble Dancers - Caceras Native son - Toledo P1000990web On the Pilgrim Road - Burgos Grandparents? Burgos Madrid Icon The Fallen Angel - Park de Buen Retiro, MadridT

Freeway-Free in Spain: Burgos

Burgos CathedralWe had a ladies day in Burgos, with Jen and her five-year-old daughter Lucia having a couple of small shopping errands to do in the  City .  After the errands, Jen led us through the flamboyantly baroque cathedra. The cathedral is such a beautiful building that I forgot that I don’t care for Baroque – they had just finished a mammoth cleaning and restoration project and everything was as bright and gleaming as you might imagine the Pearly Gates to be in your best dreams.

The Crossing - over the grave of El CidThe carved apertures in the domes look like fine lacework, letting the sun shine in on the Crossing where El Cid and his wife Dona Eximee are buried, and on the effigies of the High Constable and his wife in the Constable’s Chapel.

(I remember sweating over the Corneille classic in  high School French IV.  (For those of you who don’t read French, the Charlton Heston/Sophia Loren version was pretty good, too.)Sr. & Sra. High Constable - Castile

We were hungry after and asked a friendly-faced woman passing by if she could recommend a local place for lunch.  She directed us around the corner to La Favorita! The entry was jammed with folks waiting, but thanks to a good-hearted waitress and  Lucia’s soulfully hungry eyes we were soon seated and served with some of the best plates of goodies we have had in Spain so far.  About halfway through Jen’s eyes widened and she pointed out a tall balding man with glasses standing at the bar – “That’s the President of the province of Castile y Leon!”  It was about then that we noticed the Michelin stars on the door.  Despite the trendy crowd and the power clientele, the bill was extremely reasonable- tapas is definitely the way to go in Spain!Lunchtime, La Favorita, Burgos

After some separate R & R time we met the family for chocolate and churros at the local bar/chocolate shop.  “Hot chocolate” here is a thick hot rich goop like a pudding which you eat with a spoon or by dipping the churros into it.  Sinfully good.  Afterward I hiked up to the castle on the hill by myself to catch the sunset.  Very nice in the evening light, but when I turned to look for the mountains toward the north east I saw only a wall of gray moving toward me. By the time I turned for a last look at the valley the snow was already whirling around me in big soft flakes.El Castillo, Aguilar de Campoo

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