Salvaging a European Vacation

The following posts are from October of 2014 and are posted on my old blog on Blogger. I am re-posting them here in order to salvage them. Two years of posts disappeared from Blogger recently and some of them were important to me. I don’t want to lose any more, but I don’t have any control, so I thought I’d save what I could–the stuff that’s important to me, in any case. Here goes.



OCT 29, 2014

Final Thoughts on a Memorable Trip


The Paris train station where I cooled my heels.

There is no good way to summarize a 23-day, eventful, stressed to the hilt, eye-opening, charge full-ahead, sometimes humiliating, always humbling trip of more than 9,000 miles. But I think the following, written in a Paris train station between episodes and near the end of it all tells a lot.

We’d slid into Paris on the final leg of the trip, finding ourselves once again wedged between trains, covered with baggage and chatting up the locals. It was a strange mixture of the familiar, the wildly absurd, the new, the scary and the teaching moment. I had a lot of the latter during this adventure.

Here are the thoughts of that moment:

The Last Day in Europe

The eager young geologist.

This was to be the easy day, the one where we flew up from Madrid to Paris, caught a shuttle over to the hotel and relaxed until we left for the states tomorrow. 

Didn’t turn out quite that way. 

Here’s the sequence to this point (and I’m sitting in a train station in Paris drinking a diet Coke named Emmanuelle—don’t ask—as I type this):

We leave the curious Tryp Hotel (with children’s beds for adults) on time and shuttle out to the Madrid Airport, getting dropped at the wrong terminal, making a semi-late situation a bit more urgent and leading to the O.J. Simpson Airport Sprint. 

There are problems checking in, but the delay is more annoying than serious. Ryanair is, if nothing else, consistently annoying. The flight to “Paris” is without incident, except when I discover that “Paris” is actually Beuavais, a Paris suburb in much the way Richmond is a Roanoke suburb. 

Beauvais is where Ryanair flies, my travel partner explains, which means cheaper fares. It also means a hell of a lot more inconvenience and hidden fees all over the place. A flight out of Madrid yesterday would been in Roanoke already and I would be in my bed. I’m thinking out loud, “300 Euros vs. Paris; 300 Euros vs. Paris” and the 300 Euros is coming out ahead every time.

We catch a bus to the Beauvais train station, a picturesque little town, and the train takes us to Paris. We’re sitting between cars again because the train we scheduled was later and a considerate French clerk squeezed us on this earlier trip.

Sonya between train cars.

In the process, we meet a nice young geologist from Mont Blanc (Swiss-French) and he helps perk up a sagging day with some lively conversation. The geologist sits down with us and asks, “Do you speak English?” with the intent of getting some help writing a letter to a company official who might hire him … if he speaks the language well enough. We make suggestions and the conversation wanders all over the place. He’s a good kid, looking to find his place in a world he doesn’t yet understand, but one he wants to help improve.

We drag in to Paris about 3 p.m.—I thought we’d be in our hotel room three hours earlier—and Sonya begins talking about “what’s next,” meaning there is no solid plan. She decided she wants to take a bus across town to the Musee d’Orsay gift shop to pick up a big, heavy book she passed up the other day, an art book. I am not happy about this. 

She finds a place to store her luggage for a couple of hours (9.5 Euro) and gets ready, at nearly 4 p.m., to go search out the book, while I wait in the train station, telling her I feel like writing, when I really feel like punching out a marble column at the museum. She does one last check to see if the d’Orsay (The Big M’O, they call it) is open on Monday. It is not. “Paris likes me,” I think and I smile. Finally, someone does. 

She is disappointed, but even more, I think, she is hungry, so she goes looking for Chinese while I sit here writing this, waiting for some break to come my way so I can get to the room, rest and work off some resentment. It is not a healthy moment.

Men and women of various nationalities come hesitantly to the table, tell me a wide range of tales of woe while holding out their hands and I listen patiently. “Sonya has all my money,” I say. They don’t understand and they quietly walk away, looking for another face that appears weary from travel and maybe a smidge sympathetic to misery. 

My new British writer buddy at the station.

This is a large, old train station with a lot of exposed metal, green iron posts and columns. Its floor is concrete, but it is surprisingly peaceful in this late afternoon. The travelers are shuffling, rather than sprinting as they were earlier.  In this little Asian bistro (cookies, cakes, weird-tasting Diet Cokes), all the tables are taken and I’m sharing mine with a young Brit who is quietly eating a tuna sandwich. Europeans don’t seem to understand that raw tuna on bread is not a tuna sandwich, but who am I to correct? The Brit says he is a writer and he looks it: tweedy, trimmed mustache, curious eyes, easy smile. 

Two weeks ago, Leah Weiss asked me if I were homesick yet and I’ve used that as a gauge for this trip’s success/failure. I am homesick now. 

I want something familiar and calm. I want to go to the theater and to paddle my kayak and to hike some of my trails. I want to pay my bills and watch a couple of episodes of “Foyle’s War.” I don’t want to chase any more trolleys or trams or cabs or trains or anything else with wheels in the next year or so. I don’t want to have to face a train conductor telling me my ticket is no good.

I don’t want to figure out what the hell five kilograms is in pounds and I don’t want to have to convert any more Euros to dollars so I’ll have an idea how much I’m being overcharged. I don’t ever want to pay $34 for another Caesar salad. Hell’s bells, I don’t want to pay $34 for Caesar.

Soaking all this up will take some time. I will go back through the photos and really examine them and see some stuff I didn’t see the first time. It’s all been so frantic that consciously absorbing has simply been lost in the shuffle. Over the next while, I will come to understand some of why things developed as they did, what lessons I need to take and keep, how much of a good look I’ve had at myself in many ways and what I need to change. There are some obvious flaws I hadn’t seen before and they’ll be changed immediately. Nothing says, “You need to fix that,” better than seeing the big, festering pimple in the mirror.

For now, the clock is ticking on my traveling companion, and the train to the shuttle to the hotel to the bath, to the soft chair.



Gratitude: A Home to Love

Today, I am grateful for:

Home. Simple. Honest. Safe. Predictable. Content.

It’s the little stucco Cape Cod with the big deck and the bigger yard, the soft and lovely mountains surrounding it, the company of friends and family, the purr of the old pickup, the smell of Goodwill, the taste of real Dan Homebrew Coffee and the warmth of a thick beef stew on the stove. It is being surrounded by those things most valuable to me and being able to touch them when I care to.

Nothing else is quite like home.



Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cordoba: One of My Favorite Stops

The trip to downtown Cordoba yesterday was an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t expected this modern city with the respected and preserved past to be so sedate and pristine. Evan assured me that, “not all the people here live like we do.” It’s basically a poor city in a poor economy, but one where people seemed content in our excursion.

I like Cordoba as much as any place we’ve been in the past three weeks because I feel relaxed in its expansive parks, beautifully preserved palaces and cathedrals, buildings with stories, heroic statues of its leaders. It appears to be a proud city and it has considerable reason to be that.

We’re going to another part of the 300,000-population city this morning, one that reflects its ancient Roman past and some of its Moorish civilization and this evening, we’ll catch a train to Madrid, then tomorrow fly to Paris for our Tuesday flight home.

I don’t have photos with this because the disk is caught in my point and shoot and I have no idea how to get it out. I’ll figure it out when I get home. I’m probably going to do one of those coffee-table  books in the next couple of weeks and I may have to determine whether the disk is worth more than the camera. Could be.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Trip to a Restored 8th Century Castle


Castle Almodovar in Southern Spain.

Friday, we drove 14 miles west of Cordoba to Castle Almodovar, an 8th-Century Moorish structure that has been completely and privately restored to its initial grandeur. And grand it is. This is a huge castle, standing high above the town of Almodovar, a picturesque Spanish village that spreads up the side of the mountain toward the castle like spilled milk with its white concrete houses.

The village of Almodovar below.

I’m still not at playing strength, but my mind is sharp enough to recognize something special and this castle is all of that. We’ve spent time with some of the castle ruins of Europe in recent days and they are fascinating, but seeing a working castle gave me something of an answer to my constant question, “How the hell did people live in these things?” Well, they did, and in a relative sense, quite comfortably, it appears.

In fact, there is a significant section of the castle, built a bit more than 100 years ago inside the main court walls, that houses a family now, amid the tourism.

The day in Almodovar was crystalline with an azure sky and the olive and almond tree countryside a lovely middle green. The road to the castle was like so many of the small-town Europe roads, too narrow for anything to navigate, besides a slim government worker on foot. My daughter-in-law, Kara, talked of acclimating to the small streets when they moved to Spain about a year ago. Hers were tales of horror. I don’t want to try it. Even on the right side of the road.

The castle, which was built in 760, was actually used as a royal residence once it came under Christian rule. The castle was run by the Order of Caltavara, then the Order of Santiago before finally going to the Earl of Torravla in 1903. He began restoration.

View from inside the castle.


The castle trip, I hope, was a solid step back toward my normal life of enthusiasm and energy because I’ve really missed it. (Sonya is suffering, too. We’re both doped up pretty well.)

We’re all going downtown to Cordoba today to get a feel for the city, which has about 300,000 residents and is far more bustling than you’d know. Evan’s family’s house is considerably more splendid than I imagined. He tends to undersell everything, so I thought maybe this was Spain’s version of Vinton. It’s not.

This is one of the new suburbs so rare before recent years in Spain (and most of Europe). Ev says the walls and iron gates and window bars are a recent development, coming from the Franco era when fear was the dominant attitude in Spain. “It’s now cultural,” he says.

The fences don’t make bad neighbors, however. Yesterday was one of those frequent festival days this country so enjoys and when Maddie and I took a walk and bike ride on the spectacular greenway across the street, joyful noises emanated from all over the neighborhood. “People use the hell out of that park,” Evan noted. I could see why and how.


Oz and I look down on Almodovar.


Kara chases Oz. Not an uncommon sight.


Oz pulls the sword from the stone at the ancient sword display.


Proof: A kid’ll eat the middle of an Oreo first.


Kids, start your engines!


The smith neighborhood from the front yard.


Casa de la Smith, Cordoba, Spain.


Maddie rides laps around the house.



Friday, October 24, 2014

Finally, the Family; Finally


Pampa and the Pampettes, together again.


Maddie in her evening mode.


It’s nearly 9 a.m. in Cordoba, Spain, and the Smith household is going full throttle. We got in, after yet another nearly full day of travel, yesterday evening and I can tell you that there is nothing superior in the human experience–mine anyway–than the sound, the look and the feel of a child running across a train station lobby, arms spread wide, yelling, “Pampa!” My heart melts.

That’s what greeted me. Twice. Once from Madeline, once from Oz, her little brother.

Just an hour earlier, I was steaming at the ears because we had yet again had a train mishap. Our train was to leave at 5:35 and we simply missed it. By a minute. Even though we had been waiting for it for nearly three hours. Sonya managed to get another train to Cordoba 10 minutes later, arriving nearly an hour earlier than the one we had originally scheduled, but we had to pay twice.

The trip down from the South of France wasn’t especially eventful, but it was beautiful. This part of the world is hotter than Florida, but its short trees almond and olive trees, high vistas, beautiful white or beige homes with terra-cotta roofs combine to keep it old looking and interesting. Saville was gorgeous, but Marseilles, an old Sailor’s town with a rough reputation, was swirling with chilly wind when we got there. The ocean was rough.

Oz, the couch potato.

My cold is still hanging on (takes two weeks no matter what you do, a doc once told me) and the bronchitis is scary. There are periods when it feels like I’m not going to be able to breathe, but I suspect I’ll muddle through. As you can tell from this first post in a couple of days, it’s all left me drained and not especially good at writing, but I’m hoping that will come back soon.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Southern France, a Home That is Safe


Olgica Chopra: 9/11 had a strong impact.

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Olgica Chopra’s father-in-law, who had lived in New York for 30 years, decided he’d had enough. He wanted peace and quiet and he would not get it there. Olgica, an art consultant in New York at the time, and her academic husband were asked to find a suitable place for him in France, preferably the southern portion where it would be safe, warm, remote and relatively inexpensive.

View of the living room.

They landed him an apartment in Montpillier, a short distance from where Sonya and I spent the night last night with the lovely Olgica in the 400-resident medieval village of Durfort. Mr. Chopra apparently found what he wanted and Olgica (who is Czechoslovakian) ran into an irresistible project: a 14th Century apartment in what would have been a middle class section of a farming community.

The apartments are humble outside, striking when you pass the door, especially this one. Walls are nearly two feet thick and Oglica’s is three stories tall. She lives on the first and second floors and we share the second (bathroom and our kitchen) and sleep on the third.

Olgica is a tall, lithe, athletic woman with a regal bearing and an easy smile that has been used much. She is a kick-boxer, a runner and an art expert. She talks of work-life balance and natural living. That was out of balance in New York, she says, and spending time with her young daughter became more of a priority. She is the very essence of Southern France, from what I’ve seen, and I feel fortunate to have met her.

I’m not as taken with the bricks and mortar of Europe as many are, I’m afraid, but the people encourage me with their openness, optimism and genuineness. We have much to learn from people like Olgica.



The patio is lovely, a serene place.

I spent almost all day (20 hours of it) in bed yesterday with this dang cold. Went to the doctor Monday and he pronounced it bronchitis, something I haven’t had since I quit smoking more than 20 years ago. It has been draining and annoying and I have eaten but once in the past four days. I’m hoping for a better day today. Tomorrow, after a quick two-hour run down to Marseilles, flight to Saville and train to Cordoba, I get to see Maddie and the gang. I can’t wait. It’s been a looooooong slog in Europe and I’m ready for some family time.


Southern France, as you must know, is astonishingly beautiful.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Time to Take It Down a Notch


This will be me for the next couple of days.


After trying to figure out what to do for this miserable and sometimes debilitating cold for the last couple of days, I think I have it. I’m going to rest. Take it easy. Sit outside with the birds and the cats. Drink some coffee. Wander the farm fields. Visit the goats. Watch for eagles. Nap. Take meds. Eat a bit.

I’ve been trying foolishly to keep Sonya’s pace nearly 15 days and it simply does not work. She’s 20 years younger than I and has conditioned herself for trips like this for years.

My inclination toward team play has gotten me into a physical mess, which is entirely my responsibility. Sonya is a big girl who can take care of herself and who functions well on trips alone. I’m having to learn all of this trip business and figure out how I fit best and get the most. I don’t do either by wearing myself down and coughing all night.

I want to have some energy and good cheer when I see the grands this weekend and I want to enjoy Cordoba. It would not suit if I had to be confined apart from the group because I was contagious and it would not work at all if the airline refused to let me aboard the flight home early next week. So that’s the deal. I’m done with adventure for now. I’m going to try being an old man for a while. A happy old man.
Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Day of Lively Diversion


The ancient abbey is richly appointed.

Today, I learned our farm mistress paints her chickens. Seems the purples and other colors don’t bother the chicks, but they keep eagles and falcons at bay, wondering what the hell they’re looking at. Jilly says she considered painting her white horse with black stipes, but couldn’t find the black paint in the same spray cans that sheep farmers use to mark their stock. Comes in most other colors. Sonya suggested purple.

* * *

Anne Gauchet

I sat on a bench for a while today at the Caunes-Minervois Abbey about half an hour from the farm with Anne Gauchet and talked about ancient Roman archeology and translating highly technical information for organizations like nuclear power companies and IT firms.

Anne is a fascinating woman who is retired and lives in Carcassonne, a sort of capital of this small region. She is French, British and Dutch and caught my ear when she instructed Sonya and me to stand at opposite ends of what she called the “whisper room” and have a quite conversation. Our voices stayed at a whisper, but what we said was clear as if we’d shouted.

She invited us to go see her tomorrow. Hope we can work it in.

The old abby is an interesting place, though churches, especially Catholic churches with all their finery, are not my cup of tea. This one was started in the 8th Century and has been added on to over the years as political infighting and all the other side issues the church has found itself involved in moved past. It is richly appointed, as befits the largest private landowner in the world, and my guess is that most of its worshipers over the years were poor, even destitute.


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