Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

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Freeway Free in Wales: Hanging out at Bodysgallen Hall

20180716_211431docWe are still traveling first class:  we were picked up at the Manchester Airport by Jason, a deferential fellow with a strong accent.  He loaded our gear into a Mercedez limo/van, and off we go through misty rain (the first rain in six weeks, Jason says) to Wales, home of unpronounceable names.   We are staying outside of Llandudno in a 17th century carriage house named Bodysgallen Hall.  The castle for which this ample residence formerly served as gatehouse is visible from our windows, at least a couple of miles away across the valley.  Talk about an impressive entrance!20180716_185011web

Our  room has  mullioned windows and a lot of toile and chintz and Turkish rugs. The welcome reception for our group included a harpist as well as a wide sampling of local whiskeys and not-so-local wines.

Now the sun is setting through my mullioned windows, my spouse is in PJ’s reading about tomorrow’s itinerary, and I am contemplating one more tour around the garden outside before turning in.

Next week: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

Freeway Free: Flying First Class!

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My father used to say “It only costs a little more to go First Class.” But that was back when a first-class upgrade set you back only about $20, and sometimes you could get one just by flirting with the ticket agent.

When I had a day job, I did quite a bit of international traveling in Business class and amassed enough Frequent Flyer points to gain access to United’s Red Carpet Club and other elite airport venues. More recently, I have had to join the hoi polloi in Coach class and in the ordinary waiting areas of airport terminals, so it was a real treat when we were upgraded to Business class on our flight to Great Britain.

The first surprise was our access to the Polaris Club Business Class lounge, which United now shares with Lufthansa and Continental. Wow! The old Red Carpet Club gave you coffee, tea, and pre-packaged cheese slices and crackers to tide you over while you waited for your flight. If you were lucky, they might not be out of apples or bananas. The Polaris Club is several levels of comfort and cuisine apart.

Not only are there espresso machines, but also several open bars with serve-yourself beer and wine as well as available mixed drinks. Food stations include German-style cold cuts and sausages for make-your-own sandwiches; a breakfast station with bagels, French pastries, hot and cold cereals, fruit, and yogurt; and a steam table offering hot miso soup, steamed rice, potstickers, ramen, and sushi.

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Tucked away next to the restrooms and private laptop cubicles were showers! United has apparently picked up some classy tips from its European and Asian partners.

Once we were on board, we found seats that could be stretched out to lie flat, with pillows, blankets, big screens for on-screen movies, lots of storage for carryon luggage,  plugs for our laptops and Nicholas, an assiduous purser to answer any question. In Frankfurt the Polaris Lounge was equally well equipped as at SFO, and even on the small plane to Manchester we were served quite a creditable Salad Nicoise with wine. It’s been quite a while since I felt so pampered by an airline. A great start to our British adventure!20180715_151353doc

Next week: From Top of the Castle to Down in the Pits in Wales

Freeway Free in New Orleans: All that Tourist Stuff

20180520_145218docYou recognize this photo of the Cathedral Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It could almost be a postcard if the cars would get out of the way and the sky be a bit bluer.  It was a warm day in May, and I was glad of the clouds.

 

You recognize these wrought – iron balconies in the French Quarter too.  A walking tour of the area between the Square and Bourbon Street has countless examples of this lovely lace work

.Of course, New Orleans means music.  We saw ragamuffins playing on washtubs, we saw street corner quartets, we sat on hard benches enthralled by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we were escorted to our restaurant by a second-line band.  Music is all over the French Quarter, and it’s all great!

 

And of course, there’s the food – Beignets and Bananas Foster and Jambalaya and Gumbo and so on deliciously, served in well-known trendy restaurants like NOLA and well-known traditional restaurants like Arnaud’s and Brennan’s, and not-so-well-known but still delicious hide-aways like The Court of Two Sisters.

 

And don’t neglect the simple pleasures of walking around the Quarter, peeking into garden courtyards, stumbling across artwork tucked away at the end of arched corridors, and gawking at window displays. Take your time.  New Orleans is a city for leisure – it’s too hot and humid to hurry!

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Hidden treasures: If you need an air-conditioned break, there are two fine exhibits tucked into the building just to the right of the cathedral as you face away from the square.  One details the how’s and why’s and consequences of Hurricane Katrina;  upstairs is a museum of Mardi Gras costumes.  Talk about contrast!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in New Orleans: the National WWII Museum

20180519_092657webWhy, I wondered, is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, rather then in one of the principal embarkation cities for the European or Pacific fronts?

DSC_6027a.jpg-0373webI guess I was not the only visitor with this question in my mind, as the neighboring plaque explains how A.J. Higgins’ design for landing boats “won the war for us” per Eisenhower, leading to the establishment of a D-Day museum in New Orleans, site of four Higgins plants.  Once the D-Day museum was established, widening its scope to include the rest of the war seemed sensible and cost-saving.  And the National World War II Museum is a true gem.

The main museum is divided into two major sections, one devoted to the European theatre, the other to the Pacific war. The exhibits include photos, little-seen films, recordings of memories from actual participants in the various political and military battles. I spent most of my time in the “Road to Berlin” section, while my partner skimmed through that to explore the Battle of Midway.   I also toured the exhibit adjacent to the lobby which covers the Home Front,  with dueling radio broadcasts from national hero Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent of the isolationists,  and Franklin Roosevelt advocating support of the British through Lend-Lease for Liberty.  Then Pearl Harbor settled it all.

20180519_095524webAn excellent introductory film, “Beyond All Boundaries” shows in the Victory Theater Complex, which also offers live entertainment in vintage 1940’s style. the film orients you to what was at stake in World War II and how the conflict developed.  Even with this as a guide, there is too much to cover in one day.  The Home Front section includes a 40’s era -themed Soda Shop where a visitor can sit down and refuel.

Other buildings include the Boeing Center which displays WWII era airplanes, and a Restoration Pavilion which features displays on the technology advancements that came about under the pressure of war.

The National WWII Museum is a far cry from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and Cajun cuisine.  But it’s a Don’t Miss!

 

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: Huey Long’s Long Shadow in Baton Rouge

20180517_173530docBaton Rouge is to New Orleans as Oakland is to San Francisco, forever in the shadow of its more glamorous sister city further south along the Mississippi. As the capital of the State of Louisiana Baton Rouge has its own history and its own character. Like Washington DC, it started out as a small town strategically located in the center of the state. Just as Washington grew into its role and was transformed by Pierre L’Enfant and his grand plan, Baton Rouge was also transformed by a man with a vision. That man was not an urbane French urban planner like L’Enfant.  Baton Rouge had  “the Kingfish” the great populist politician Huey Long.

When I was in high school I read the great novel All the King’s Men, which Robert Penn Warren transparently based on the life and death of Huey Long.  I had been equally enthralled by that other great Southern novel, Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the world’s of those two novels is neatly visible in Baton Rouge.

20180517_173652webBefore the Long Reign, Baton Rouge sported a perfectly ghastly Capitol building, a crenellated castle built in 1849 as if to withstand attacks by the protesting proletariat.  As a proud member of the proletariat, Huey Long naturally preferred a more modern design.  The new Capitol  is a miniature of the Empire State Building,  the tallest Capitol building in the country, and seventh tallest building in Louisiana.   A massive statue of Huey Long  marks the burial site of the Kingfish,  It stands facing the building rather than the city ” so he could keep an eye on the Legislature. ”

20180517_174737webThe Governor’s Mansion seen above, also built by Huey Long has a totally different vibe – it is said he had it built based on Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for the White House, so when he was elected President he would already know his way around.

Long’s mansion was replaced in 1963 by a new building which was modeled on ante-bellum mansions (specifically, Oak Alley in Vacherie, LA).  It could have been used as a site for the exteriors of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Louisiana’s public face has come full circle.3284_New-Gov.-Mansion_9eff8afb-5056-b365-ab007987e9bb3f4b

Freeway Free in Cajun Country – The Myth of Evangeline

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When I was in high school we studied the poetry of Henry Wadworth Longfellow, and particularly “Evangeline”. To this day, when I am walking in a redwood grove, the introductory line comes to me: “This is the forest primeval/the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (Although redwood trees don’t exactly murmur, or if they do, it is so high up I can’t hear them.)

So here we are in St. Martinsburg, site of the supposed reunion of lovers Evangeline and Gabriel in the classic poem. The “Evangeline Oak” is the largest of several very impressive trees in the Evangeline/Longfellow State Park but there is no actual connection to the poem, as Longfellow never visited Louisiana, nor does the poem mention an oak tree. The statue of Evangeline which formerly sat near the oak has since been moved across from the City Hall in St. Martinsburg. It is actually modeled on Dolores del Rio, who starred as Evangeline in the 1929 move, and it was donated to the town by the movie cast. It has been replaced by a bust of Longfellow on a plinth whose plaque includes the stanza from “Evangeline” which mentions St. Martinsville.20180517_151453web

Adjacent to the park with the oak tree is the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, a small but effective installation with a focus on tracing the emigration pathways of the displaced Acadians and also provides assistance with tracing Acadian genealogy. Co-located in the same building is the African American Museum, which traces a different diaspora from Africa through the slave trade to the various Southern slave markets. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Before visiting St. Martinsburg we had stopped at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-known local Cajun restaurant and dance hall at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. It was hard to reconcile the down-home flavors of Cajun food and music with the high-flown verses of Longfellow, but “Cajun” is undeniably a shortening of “Arcadian” which has been passed down for 200 years. History is a twisting river.

 

A Piece of my Mind: Homecoming Parade (Los Altos Town Crier, Nov. 7, 2018)

20181019_133643docHomecoming Parade – Now and Then

My spouse and I biked up to our downtown in mid-October to watch the High School Homecoming Parade. 

20181019_132743webMain Street had been blocked off between State Street and First Street.  Both sides of the street was lined with people, some who had brought chairs for better viewing.  Many of the spectators wore T-shirts with the “HOCO” Home coming Logo, overlying a large candy-swirl sucker honoring the Candyland parade theme. There was a lively mix of parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and fellow students of the marchers. Lots of hugs were being exchanged.

Here they came!  First a couple of motorcycle policemen, then one of the  Fire Department ‘s white trucks, lights flashing. Then the parade proper, led by the high school’s eagle mascot. with the 20 members of the Homecoming Court riding in sports cars or on the back seat of antique convertibles in mixed or same-sex couples. 

In between the members of the court marched delegations of the different Fall sports teams –football leading the way in  T-shirts and sweatshirts, followed by Field Hockey, Water Polo, Girls Volleyball, Tennis, Cross Country, Culinary Arts, Golf, Basketball, and FUTSAL (a kind of combination of football and soccer, a young bystander explained to me.)

 

Also marching were members of different clubs – the Latino Students Union dressed in ethnic garb and carrying pinatas on poles, the Black Students Union, Gender and Sexuality Awareness carrying rainbow banners, the Broken Box Theatre company,  Model United Nations, electronics club, Students for Haiti Solidarity, One Dollar for Life, and others I didn’t catch.

Each class had put together a float in honor of the parade theme – there was a candy house built of giant Necco wafers, a gingerbread house, a forest of lollipops surrounding a giant green M&M, and a giant gumball machine  (the gumballs were balloons.)

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress. 

I couldn’t help looking back to the  High School Homecoming Parade during my graduate year some decades ago.  At that time the Homecoming Court consisted of six girls nominated by the class, escorted by the young man of their choice.  There was no such thing as a Homecoming King. The Queen nominees were all Caucasian.  That was no wonder, as our high school at that time had zero African American Students, and almost no Asian or Latino students.

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress.

The football team rode in cars.  Because it was Game Day, they wore shirts, ties,  sports jackets, and dress shoes – not suitable for walking even the few blocks along Main Street.

I remember working on the spirit squad float – a giant cube covered with tissue paper flowers spelling out rally slogans in the school colors. 20181110_161512web

The 2018 version of Homecoming Parade was not the same as what I remembered.  There was a lot more diversity in the shapes and colors of the homecoming court.  Some of the sports and most of the clubs were new to me. There was a lot less formality in dress. But bystanders and participants were all smiling.  Despite the many changes  over the years, I feel that our community character has been preserved.  

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Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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Freeway Free on the Mississippi: Tying up at Vickburg

DSC_6027a.jpg-0033docI had never paid much attention to the Siege of Vicksburg in my readings about the Civil War.  Of course, the victory at Vicksburg made Ulysses Grant a hero and set him up for Appomattox later, but the other great Union victory at Gettysburg overshadows what was happening at almost the same time at the other end of the Mason – Dixon line.   The Battle of Gettysburg lasted only four days, the territory of the battles is compact, and there is a clear turning point, dramatically titled “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy”.

In contrast, the Seige of Vicksburg lasted seven weeks.  There were a number of small, inconclusive battles which took place miles from Vicksburg in April and May which led up to the Seige.  Grant finally won his victory by cutting off supplies to the town and bombarding it from both river and land.   The Vicksburg National Military Park, like the Gettysburg National Military Park, surrounds its eponymus town on three sides, but the actual battlefields are miles away.  Like Gettysburg, the Vicksburg NMP has  monuments scattered about commemorating different states’ contribution to the battle, but they are much less numerous and massive than those at Gettysburg, as if the city was simply too exhausted to raise many tributes to the fallen.  We are, after all, in Mississippi, on the losing side of the war.  The two Civil War re-enactors who talked to us at the Park seemed ruefully anachronistic, as they were both at least forty years older than the soldiers whose roles they were playing

20180513_153815webThe Old Court House Museum in the center of town is small, intimate, and indomitably Southern.  It includes battle flags from the Confederate Army, but few from the winning side.  It includes donations of baby shoes and quilts and beaded purses from local ladies.  It includes an un-abashed depiction of slavery which defends it as a humane and mutually beneficial relationship between master and slave. It includes an exhibit of china which is exactly like the set I inherited from my great-grandmother.

The walk down to the dock on a hot afternoon was a step back in time.  As we left the historic district the sidewalks became more uneven, cracked, or non-existent.  Black families sat on their front porches, lazily waving palm-leaf fans.  Our tour boat waited for us on a nearly deserted quai, walled off from the town by a protective barrier which marked the height of historic floods.  Vicksburg seems caught in a bubble of history, waiting for the past to come around again.

 

 

 

 

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