Traveling Light

Traveling light, both physically and metaphorically is something I’ve had due time to consider over the last ten days. I’ve discovered that what looks like a light load when assembled in piles on one’s bed appears a lot heavier when measured against miles of airport concourses, train terminals, city cobblestones and metro stairwells.  The two suitcases I purchased for this trip have been worth the investment for the wheels alone; they turn on a dime and are easy to manipulate.  The expandable feature, however, has been a mixed blessing; it’s allowed me to squeeze extra items in, but makes the suitcases fall forward unexpectedly at inconvenient moments. So far I have been successful at maintaining YouTube anonymity throughout my journey.  One may wish to be known worldwide, but I prefer that my ten minutes of illusory fame (if and when they arrive) might not involve a humorous video starring me, my luggage, and an escalator.

As I was preparing my piles before actually packing my suitcases, I spoke with a kindred spirit, a dear friend of mine who often packs more, rather than less.  She would have made the ideal contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal” the game show where, among other things, women were routinely rewarded for bringing a variety of unusual items to the studio in their purses.  An umbrella, a hatchet, a roll of duct tape?  No problem.  Shoelaces, a tube of super glue, your kids’ immunizations records?  Right here.  Nose hair  clippers, corkscrew, map of Rhode Island?  Never leave home without them.  My friend is one of those people who’s ready for anything.  Whether at work or away on vacation, if you need something, she’s got it.  We talked about the pros and cons of packing this way and she recalled: “one of the first major trips I packed for was a journey to West Africa, where nothing would be available, and I seem to have been packing that way ever since, regardless of where I’m going.”  I never travelled to West Africa, but I was raised on the Girl Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”  But does that motto translate to packing every item you might possibly need, or does it mean being ready improvise or search out whatever you might need if the occasion arises?  Part of the habit of over-preparedness stems, at least for me, from the notion that if I need something I’ve forgotten to pack, I’m going to have to ask for it in Italian or French, which feels like a daunting task.

Before packing each item, I weighed the pro of having it if I really needed it vs. the con of hauling it around without ever needing to use it.   So I opted to include the first aid kit (which I blessedly haven’t needed) but left home without a sewing kit (which I could have used).  Turns out, in Italy, there are pharmacies readily available, but I have no idea what kind of store sells needle and thread.  I did buy good walking shoes, (thankfully) and brought along moleskin for blisters.  But the foot pain I’ve had has little to do with feet rubbing on shoes, and everything to do with centuries-old, deformed cobblestones jutting up every which way, and grinding daily into the soles of my feet, good shoes and socks notwithstanding.  I brought a water-proof layer (thankfully) but left the umbrella at home—good call, as in Italy, umbrella salesmen pop up at the first hint of rain, and accost anyone not already carrying an umbrella.  I packed a pillow and light blanket as well (pillow helpful, blanket superfluous) for the transatlantic flight.

I started off so proud of my light packing efforts.  One medium suitcase, one carry-on piece, and a large handbag; not too bad for a three-week trip abroad, I thought, especially considering that one third of my large bag was full of gifts and goodies for my college student children.  Unimaginably, I had limited myself to two pairs of shoes, but the change of season provided a bit of a packing challenge, for which I carried several layers of outerwear.   Not knowing how available laundry facilities might be also compelled me to bring more clothing than might have been necessary otherwise.  Although my stay in Rome was at a lovely efficiency that came equipped with a washing machine (right where the oven should have been—I’ll write later about attempting to cook Thanksgiving dinner), my one try at washing my clothes in Rome netted a lovely set of soggy and well-rinsed garments that the soap never touched.  In the cool Rome weather, this clothing took over two days to dry in the bathroom, so that even after receiving clarification from the landlord as to which receptacle of the washing machine the soap belonged in (section II rather than section I) I didn’t dare wash again for fear that I’d be transporting a suitcase full of clothes that, while clean, were still quite damp.  So I awoke today to find that the only item of clean clothing I had left to wear was my Choo Choo Bob’s t-shirt.  Some part of me thought I might clean up my act and be fashionable in Europe.  The universe, apparently, is having the last laugh.

Yesterday’s travel challenge: the Rome to Rennes leg of my journey: a 13-hour sojourn that involved a six-block walk, a local train, a two-hour flight, a shuttle bus, the Paris metro, a three-hour wait in the Paris train station, a two-hour train ride, another metro and a local bus.  Home for the week is a sweet flat in Rennes on–you guessed it–the fourth floor.

I am reminded of images of the remains of travelers on the Oregon trail.  The further west they travelled, the more of their belongings were left strewn on the prairie; what once appeared to be an item of estimable value eventually became a burden and was jettisoned to improve one’s chances of survival.  Not a useful comparison, perhaps, for my brief European tour, but one that gives me pause, nonetheless.  I have several unplanned days next week at the end of my journey, and I find myself weighing the pros and cons of my options based, to at least some degree, on the hassle of hauling all my stuff around with me.

So my physical baggage (the French is plural “bagages”) is getting in the way of my free spirit.  Hmmm.  Some more food for thought.  And what about the other kind of baggage?  Those attitudes and expectations that keep us from traveling light?  That, my friends, will have to be the topic of another post–all the baggage hauling from yesterday has prepared me for that famous international afternoon activity–the nap.




Milano, 5 a.m.

It’s 12:00 p.m. Milan time, but my body thinks it’s still 5 a.m., and is behaving accordingly.  In an attempt to reset my bio-clock, I am forcing myself to stay awake, even though my body is begging for a nap.  No scintillating posts today, that’s for sure.  My brain has checked out.  Perhaps that’s what jet lag is all about—the brain and body being out-of-synch.

My trip from Minnesota to Milan was largely uneventful, which is usually a good way to describe air travel.  I nearly missed my transatlantic flight at JFK due to being in the wrong terminal. I got to my gate.  The sign said my flight was destined for Salt Lake City.  I, however, was destined for Milan.  At that point I had only 45 minutes until takeoff. I quickly retraced my steps, with difficulty found my way outside to the airport shuttle (no thanks to airport signage), and realized just in time that I was waiting on the wrong track.  I got to the correct terminal, but was sent back by the security guard to the airline desk to get a different boarding pass.  Of course there was a problem with my reservation in the computer.  By now I had less than half an hour to get through security and to my plane.  When the Alitalia employee told me the flight would be two hours late, I was actually deeply relieved.

Updated boarding pass in hand, I went through NY security.  In the NY airport, I noticed, there were actual written instructions inside the gray bins– Step one:  Unbuckle your belt.  (No problem, I didn’t wear a belt.)  Step two:  Move your hips in a circular motion.  (Hunh?)  Step three:  Pull your belt out. (Ok, New York is just plain weird.)  I glance up at the top of the instruction sheet and laugh out loud as I read.  This insert is entitled:  “Helpful Airport Moves—Security Mambo.”  Seeing that I am amused, the security guards show me another insert in the series, something to do with a suit jacket shimmy.  You’re supposed to slide your jacket down your shoulders and “shake what your momma gave you.”    How nice to know that in the middle of what has become a very stressful process, somebody still has a sense of humor.

Our flight eventually boards several hours after its scheduled departure time.  It’s a pretty snazzy airplane.  I’m gratified to notice that I understand a majority of the steward’s Italian introductory remarks:  “Welcome aboard, sorry for the delay, etc. etc.”  It’s not until I hear his English rendition that I catch the reason for our delay– there has been a strike of the air traffic controllers in Italy.  This is only slightly more reassuring than knowing that your plane has had mechanics swarming aboard for the last few hours fixing whatever mysterious ailment your aircraft is suffering.   I wonder, when our plane lands in the morning, will the air controllers be there,? Or will they instantly promote folks, say, from the duty free shops, shoe shine or currency exchange—“say, we’ve got a special assignment for you today.”   But before either take-off or landing, we need to board, and boarding is hampered by a couple of men arguing about the poor design of a fellow passenger’s carry-on bag.  She has lifted her bag to the overhead big, where it stubbornly sticks out, victim of some design person deciding the handle doesn’t need to be retractable.  This is not a broken handle, but one designed not to ever push in, and these guys are not happy about it.  They are debating loudly across the aisle, with the stereotypical Italian hand gesture–five fingers together as if to grip something, elbows bent.  These gesticulations impede my progress to my seat and I need to spit out my first useful Italian word “permesso” in order to get to my seat.  Four thousand miles later, controllers or no controllers, we do land safely in Milan.

My six weeks of Italian, thanks to Rosetta Stone, and fluency in Spanish, have made communicating easier than it would have been otherwise.  I can understand far more than I can speak, but unlike with Spanish, there still are big gaps.  For example, at the coffee shop, I am able to understand a heated discussion between two airport employees that apparently has to do with raising rates of some sort and about protesting injustice when there is due cause.  I am unable, however, to understand the barista’s simple question to me:  The English equivalent “for here or to go?”  This is an important question in Italy, because there is a price differential if you stay to have your coffee at a table vs if you stand at the bar to consume it, or take it to go.  So I take my pastry and coffee “to go”, which is about a twenty-foot walk to the seating area of the airport.   I eat, and people watch, and eventually give in to the nap, on the grounds that I’ll be driving later that day, which, as it turns out, is a very good decision.

After my nap, another snack, and more people watching, I eventually make my way to the car rental place where I am to meet Emman.  He is coming from Rome to meet me and we will travel together for the weekend–a grand European adventure.  He arrives in good time, and I am both delighted and relieved.  He’s a good friend and a good traveller.  It’s so good to see him always, and we’ve managed to find each other in a foreign airport without using cell phones.  In fact, our whole time together has been planned via email.  Whatever happens, as long as we’re together, we’ll manage.  We rent our car and hit the road.

Warped Mirrors

As a child, one of my literary touchstones was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”.  In the prelude to this story, Andersen describes a warped mirror that has been designed by the devil.  Like the mirrors in funhouses of days gone by, this mirror distorts and mars everything it reflects.  Often Satan’s demons roam the earth carrying this mirror with them, cackling gleefully at all the mischief they are creating by reflecting untruths down upon humankind.  One day a power struggle ensues, and in the turmoil the demons drop the mirror, which shatters into thousands of shards, some lodging in people’s eyes and hearts, distorting their view and turning their hearts to stone.

The remainder of this fairy tale concerns the epic search by a little girl, Greta, to find her dearest friend, Kay, whose heart has turned to ice from the mirror sliver lodged there.  Ultimately love triumphs, but at great cost.

I think of this story whenever I hear Matthew’s warning in the gospel—”you who see a speck in your brother’s eye, first take the log out of your own.”   The devil’s mirror still has the power to play fancy tricks on us.  But only until we recognize it and remove it.  Then we regain our true eyesight.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a sermon, read something meaningful, seen a powerful movie, etc. and thought to myself “so-and-so should really hear this message.”  That may be true, but it might also be that warped mirror speaking, reflecting away from me and projecting onto others my own worst fears and darkest traits.  If I take the time to be honest with myself and look a little deeper, I often understand that the lesson or message is for ME.  It may or may not apply to others as well, but my job, as I’m better beginning to understand, it to pay attention to who I am called to be and what I am called to do, and trust God to nudge others in the direction they’re supposed to be heading. If I can successfully rein in my tendencies to make sure everybody else is getting it right, that equips me with more than enough energy to follow God’s call for me.  

And today, that call appears to be leading me towards Europe.  If I ever had a better incentive to give up micro-managing, I don’t know what that might be.  Try pulling that plank out of your eye and see what happens.  The view can be pretty spectacular.


Wing Dust

The sun is streaming in my window, warming my face on a chilly November morning.  It is Tuesday, and I leave for Europe on Thursday.  Two of our college children are taking their semester abroad, and against all practical advice, I’m tapping heavily into my retirement account to finance this adventure.  I know it’s an incredible splurge, and I’m aware of how tremendously blessed I am to have this opportunity, yet on some level it feels like a deep need rather than a luxury.   I’m trying not to panic, since panic never helps much anyway, and ends up being a colossal waste of both adrenalin and brain space.  Instead, I’m just trying to plug away at things, focusing on one task at a time, and trust that everything will come together in the end.

I want to tell myself that this is “just a trip to Europe”, (as if “just” could ever modify that phrase) so that my body will settle down and stop feeling so jittery, but my body knows better, and tells me so. This is a spiritual pilgrimage, the middle-aged me searching to take up where the adolescent me left off.  On some levels, it feels as if I’m twenty-something again.  On other levels–catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, for instance, or acknowledging my need for support stockings for the transatlantic flight, I come to grips with another “reality”–in human years, I am now fifty-something.  Yet my spirit, if not my body, feels young and light again, full of possibility and longing, trusting and open, excited to be alive.  It’s looking forward to discover whatever adventure might lie just around the corner.  I feel blessed that my spirit feels safe enough to come out again, that the vicissitudes (or “dings” as we might now call them) of my earlier adult life have not been able to keep this girl down forever.  I gingerly dust off my roadweary wings, and tentatively prepare to soar.

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