After many years of dreaming about it, my daughter and I finally take a summer trip to Europe together. For months, this trip has been all I could think about. Along with trying to stuff as many things as possible into a tiny suitcase, I try to cram as many cities and events into our schedule as possible. At some point though, I did stop and wonder, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we travel? Why pull ourselves away from the comforts of home and familiar habits and allow ourselves to be thrown happily and sometimes recklessly into the unknown?’ On this trip, I hope to find an answer.
In Italy we are charmed by romantic Venice and we spend a lazy morning feeding the pigeons in the Piazza San Marcos. As I watch the birds surround my daughter, I can’t help but wonder how much history the thousands of generations of pigeons have witnessed. Maybe they saw Casanova escape through the roof of his prison cell or witnessed Lord Byron swim the length of the Grand Canal. They must have seen Marco Polo’s ship sail into the harbor, bringing his exotic tales from the east. Maybe they witnessed Michelangelo’s disappointment as he lost the contest to design the famous Rialto Bridge. They may have even caught a glimpse of Hemingway as he sat writing or drinking whiskey at one of the glossy, walnut tables in Harry’s Bar.
In Verona, the city that inspired Romeo and Juliet, stands a Roman Arena once used for gladiator fights and for throwing Christians to the lions. Walking down the darkened stone corridors into the belly of the Arena we can still feel the overwhelming power that was Rome. We enter the Arena in our finest clothes, just as the Romans must have done to watch their entertainments, but instead of bloody combat, we are here to watch a lavish production of the opera, Aida. Everything is larger than life here: massive, glistening, gold pyramids, blue and gold sphinxes and giant pharaohs tower over the stage with the arches of the arena lit up against the night sky. Despite the sweltering heat of summer, the emotion-filled voices singing of love and despair give me chills and bring me to tears.
Milan is a peaceful, pleasant city. Here, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is housed in what was once the Dominican monk’s dining hall of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. The price of our ticket allows us fifteen minutes. I envy the monks who saw Leonardo’s masterpiece at every meal. The painting is serene and resilient but doesn’t give up its secrets easily. As we are leaving, we learn that Leonardo da Vinci had a house and garden just next door and he lived there for twenty-three years. Now on the site of his garden, they are cultivating the variety of grapes he grew five hundred years ago. They hope to produce the very wine Leonardo drank. ‘A good reason to return to Milan,’ I think.
On our way to Florence, we find the five tiny, fishing villages known as Cinque Terre. The houses are built into the sheer rocks and cliffs with thousands of terraces of grapes and olives beyond. It’s a magical, colorful place, a good place to rest.
Finally in Florence, the rooftop terrace of our five hundred year old building, now an airbnb, offers an incredible view of Brunelleschi’s dome. The seven flights of stairs are worth the climb and I sit on the terrace at night with a bottle of wine. I’m even serenaded from the street below. One night it was carnival music, another night it was classical from a nearby concert, and on the last night it was drunken love songs sung in Italian accompanied by an equally drunk accordion player. Beyond Florence, we love Tuscany with its fields of sunflowers, rolling hills, wine tasting and food. Despite being certain that we will tire of pasta, we never do.
We take a side trip to visit beautiful Dubrovnik in Croatia. How surprised the medieval builders would be to learn that the city with its massive, sea wall and splendid views has been turned into a giant stage for the filming of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. From the battles of Blackwater Bay to Queen Cersei’s walk of atonement, the fantasies of today and the historical events of the city sometimes mirror each other. At the end of the day, there’s even a chance to sit on the Iron Throne.
From this point on our trip is mostly about art (and occasionally shopping).
We try to see it all: from Leonardo’s lovely faces to Botticelli’s fantasies, from Monet’s gardens to Cezanne’s oranges, and from Picasso’s experiments to street artists hoping someone will discover them.
In Paris we visit the rock star of the art world, Mona Lisa. After hurrying down a long corridor of ignored masterpieces, we find her surrounded by an international mob. Some tourists stand and stare at her. Others push and shove to get to the front of the crowd and take obnoxious selfies. A few pull back and look at the painting from afar. I work my way through the crowd and have a brief moment at the front before the overworked security guards, who look more like bouncers at a posh, European nightclub than museum guards, make everyone move. Some visitors refuse to budge. I can’t blame them. After all, Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s beloved creation with a thousand secrets and he carried her with him until the day he died. My daughter and I give up fighting the crowd and move to the side. Reluctantly, after an hour in her benevolent gaze, we leave.
Our trip is nearing an end and I’m beginning to understand why we travel. After five weeks on the road, we are not the same people we were when we left. Travel allows us to fill our lives with adventure. It gives us unlimited opportunities to experience a dream. We have a chance to reap the world’s riches for inspiration and return home to create something wildly different and new. We take the kindness, charm and humor of the people we meet along the way and bring the memories home with us. We leave some of ourselves behind too. And despite the money we spend, we are far richer towards the end of our travels than we were at the beginning.
We still have a few days left, so after leaving Paris, we head to London. We take in everything we can, from a five-hundred-year-old comedy at Shakespeare’s Globe to Sherlock’s fictional haunts, from the gold-encrusted gates of Buckingham Palace to Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs. And London serves to remind us that sometimes, travel is just about having as much fun as possible.
Traveling is often an unintentional pilgrimage. This was especially true of my trip to Amsterdam several years ago. On the first day, I went through my guidebook and checked off all the tourist sites I planned to visit: the museums, the flower markets and oh yes, the Anne Frank House. I had almost forgotten about that. I made a check by the entry. Then I underlined it and decided to go there first.
As I set off in search of the house, I realized that Anne Frank’s diary was one of the most important books of my childhood. I remembered the photograph of Anne on the front cover. It was Anne’s favorite because she thought it made her look like a glamorous, Hollywood movie star. And I remembered Anne’s bright, optimistic vision for the future.
The tall, narrow houses on Prinsengracht canal all looked the same, but the Anne Frank House was easy to spot. A long line of people waited outside. As I took my place at the end, I realized that most of the people in line were women. None of us spoke the same language, but all of us had read Anne Frank’s diary and all of us were on this unintentional pilgrimage together.
Finally the line moved. We entered the building which housed Otto Frank’s business. He sold pectin for jams and jellies and spices for meats and sausages. We climbed a steep Dutch staircase, stepped through the revolving staircase and we were in the “Secret Annex” where Anne, her family and four others hid for over two years.
Traces of the family remain but there is no longer any furniture in the rooms. The Nazis took it all after the family was arrested and shipped it to Germany. On the day the Dutch police discovered their hiding place, the arresting officer grabbed the bag in which Anne kept her diary and schoolbooks. He dumped the contents on the floor and filled the bag with money and jewelry. After the family was arrested and taken away, Miep Gies, the helper who brought them food from the black market, saved the diary, planning to return it to Anne after the war.
In the living room of the Secret Annex there are some faded marks on the doorframe where Anne’s father measured her height. She grew several inches despite the moldy beans, preserved kale and potatoes, which was often all they had to eat. A map on the wall marks the advancing Allies as reported over their secret radio. The space above Anne’s desk is still decorated with her favorite postcards: Hollywood movie stars and a young Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain. Through a crack in the window we could see the Westertoren clock and a chestnut tree, Anne’s only view of the outside world.
My fellow pilgrims and I huddle around a glass case which contains the original diary bound in red-and-white plaid cloth. The fragile lock is broken open. Many women are tearful. Everyone is moved. No one speaks. We feel grief over the tragedy of Anne’s life. But we are also in awe of the power of a single voice, Anne’s voice to reach countless millions across several generations, and in over one hundred languages with her vision of hope and compassion.
On the wall is a list of “Judentransport,” which names all the people on that last train out of Holland bound for Auschwitz. Halfway down the list we find number 309: Frank, Anneliese. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where her mother and the other occupants of the “Secret Annex” were killed. Anne and her sister were later moved to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen where Anne died in March, 1945, just a few weeks before the Allies liberated that camp.
My fellow pilgrims and I leave the Anne Frank House trying to comprehend the contrast between the unimaginable horrors of Anne’s final months and her powerful, unshaken faith in humanity when she wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank died sixty-nine years ago this month.
This happened many years ago as I was waiting for a bus on a dusty road in Thailand. It was early in the morning and I’d left two hours earlier than I needed to, hoping that the bus wouldn’t be too crowded at this time of day. The bus was late, as usual and a Buddhist monk dressed in orange robes sat down next to me on the bench.
I had two oranges in my bag so I offered him one. I wasn’t sure if he would take it from me but he took it graciously. “One must always say yes to everything,” he said in English.
I smiled and nodded. “Is that really possible?”
“Imperative,” he laughed.
“Saying yes to life, even to adversity, teaches us joy. You are learning joy,” he said.
“How can you tell?”
He didn’t answer my question. Instead he said, “In the future you will learn to stop worrying. You will learn to live in the present moment but when you do this, do not forget to bring the beauty of your future dreams into your present moment. Do not forget to bring happy memories of the past into your present moment. This combination is the true meaning of present moment and of joy.”
I saw my bus coming down the street. “Why are you telling me this?”
He laughed. “To thank you for the orange.”
I boarded the bus but the monk remained seated on the bench. “That’s not my bus,” he explained.
As the bus pulled away, I turned to the driver and asked if there was another bus on this road. “No, the driver said. This is the only bus.”
I looked out the broken window of the bus but the monk had left the bench and was walking down the street in the opposite direction. I never saw him again.
The dawn of a new year always makes me think about what I would do if I could do anything I wanted for a year. What would I do if it was my last year on earth? What would I put on my bucket list? Or instead, what if the new year was the beginning of a new and long life, one unfettered by the past? What would I do? Hmmm seems like both lists are the same. So in honor of that thought, here’s what I will do in 2014.
I’ll give up my house and my car and live like a computer-toting, wild-writing gypsy.
I’ll travel everywhere. And I’ll fall in love every day. I’ll fall in love with carnival-like people who wear strange-colored clothing and tell the most surprising tales. I’ll fall in love with fantasy-inspiring places, from blue green mountains to gray and decrepit city blocks. I’ll fall in love with mind-expanding ideas whispered to me by mysterious, coffee drinking geniuses and I’ll fall in love with the simplest of experiences. Maybe a flower growing from the crack in a city sidewalk or a woman singing as she bakes bread in a flour-dusted bakery. At night, I’ll dance in the protective blanket of the dark. Then in the thin light of early morning, I’ll set the dawn-gold lion of my imagination free from his cage and write.
To travel and write is to fall in love with the world.
I’ll sit in cafes and at bus stops and listen to fascinating people. Everyone has a good story to tell. I’ll be patient, coaxing and encouraging until people give up their stories, their histories and their secrets. I’ll let the scents, tastes, sounds and colors of the past wash over me through their words until I feel that I’m really living their history. Then I’ll write everything down, but not their secrets. In this way, I’m a bad journalist; I keep people’s secrets.
I’ll watch plays in London and New York. I’ll go to Italy and eat, go to Russia and drink, go to Japan and eat and drink. I’ll visit all of my friend’s houses around the world and surprise them by coming in their front door and saying, “I have missed you so much.” We’ll laugh and cry and talk for days. Then I’ll be off again.
I’ll look at art everywhere: Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, London. I’ll feed orphans in India and dream about hobbits in New Zealand. I’ll go to the opera in Milan. I’ll find the fun in every place and find what is meaningful.
I’ll dance everywhere. And learn languages. And study painting. I’ll paint pictures and give them away to people who have hidden beauty inside of them.
I’ll help strangers anonymously by leaving them money in tiny Japanese gift envelopes. The less money I spend on myself, the more I can help others. I’ll see people reading my books on subways and trains but they won’t know I’m the author of the book they are reading. I’ll watch their faces for signs of emotion, rejoicing when they laugh and when they cry.
I’ll go to a church I’ve never been to and sit in the back or sing in the choir. It doesn’t matter what the religion is; the voices will be heavenly.
With the true heart of a gypsy, I’ll see the world as it really is and fall in love with it. Then I’ll set the dawn-gold lion of my imagination free from his cage once more….
… and write.