Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why We Travel

“Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.”

Emilia Earhart

When I was growing up, my parents often travelled to faraway lands. It didn’t worry me during the day, but at night I dreamt over and over again that they died in a plane crash.  I dreamt it so often that I taught myself how to control the story. Just as the plane was about to hit the ground, I would tell myself to wake up and not to worry, it was only a dream. One night, probably from boredom or just curiosity, I let the dream finish its terrible trajectory.  This night the plane crashed. Everyone aboard was killed. At the funeral, my father was quietly lowered into the ground. My mother, by contrast, sat straight up in her coffin right before they closed the lid and said, “If you think I am taking this lying down, you are sadly mistaken.” She got up and walked out. I never had that dream again.

So you can imagine the shock when she did die.  Not violently in a plane crash but quietly in a bed following a stroke. The doctors had prepared us for what was coming, but I didn’t believe them. After all, she had defied so many expectations and predictions. After a skiing accident, they said she might not walk again. She walked. Snow blind on Everest, she found the path. In jail in Algeria, she got out. Dead in my dreams, she quit her own funeral.

So you can see why I thought, of course, she would make it. When I arrived at the hospital following the call from my father, she was singing “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” from Mary Poppins and asking for bourbon. Even at the very end, even when the nurse whispered, “I think she’s gone” and began to check for a heartbeat, Mom took a huge, deep, gasping breath that made us all jump out of our skin. See, I thought, she isn’t ‘gone’. Not my mother. But a few minutes later, she was.

But this is supposed to be a travel story – about an adventurer - an old-school, lady traveller to be exact. Please note that I did not say old-school woman traveller. My mother didn’t set much store on feminist activism. I think she was bored with it. Instead, she just did her own magnificent thing. As the Reverend Tom Midyett said at her service, “Nan was an artist” with all the individuality that statement implies.

The sweetest words my mother ever heard were always, “No, you can’t do that.” Maybe she never intended to do it. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But the minute something was forbidden, she would get a really fun, terrifying glint in her eye. I think she lived for those moments. And then she was off, to Africa, to Antarctica, to New York, to altitudes and deserts and rivers and castles, to all the places that for all kinds of reasons she was not supposed to go. She was Boudicca in a Chanel suit, Sacagawea leading Lewis and Clark, Gertrude Bell mapping the Middle East - always leading the charge against convention and expectation.

And just when you thought she’d done it all, she’d head off again. ‘Where’s  your mother now?’ was my favorite question as a child. It still is. So where’s my mother now? It’s hard to say. Off on some adventure, causing trouble, I suppose. I hope. 

I like to think of her this way. On her very first trip - 15 years old, excited, apprehensive, about to board the train in North Carolina bound for New York City and Julliard and my father and us, her children, and everything that happened after that including Antarctica and Algeria and Everest. My mother taught me this. We travel because God gave us two feet, a strong heart and a sense of adventure. We travel because, aware of all the hazards, we still want to do it.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Gardens at Highgrove

I visit gardens the way most folks watch MasterChef, I love to watch someone else perform but I haven’t a clue how to garden. Still, when the announcement arrived from my daughter’s school that tickets had been obtained to tour the Prince of Wales's gardens at Highgrove, I leapt at the chance. MasterChef Grand Finale here I come.

It’s a bit complicated getting oneself to Highgrove southwest of Tetsbury in the Cotswolds. First, you must pre-book a ticket from the website or you can call the booking office on 0207 766 7310.  I’ve been told tickets for the season go fast. On arrival, you must show a photo ID to get in. Public transport involves a train journey and a pre-booked taxi. Highgrove maintains a strict timetable so don’t be late. No phones, no cameras, no binoculars. But then, this is the home of the heir to the British throne so with that in mind, the rules seem pretty reasonable.

And the gardens? In a word - wonderful - and completely worth the effort. For the past 30 years, Prince Charles has engaged in an environmental project so full of vision, passion and empathy for nature that it totally lifted my spirits about the sorry state of the world.

The guided tour takes about 2 hours. Groups are small and the feeling is intimate. Our guide was terrific, knowledgeable and lots of fun. We had a delicious light lunch after our tour and of course, an opportunity to buy very tasteful things from the shop where all the proceeds go to support the Prince’s many charitable endeavors.

If you are a gardener beg, borrow or steal a ticket. If you are travelling in the Cotswolds, ditto. Even if you are a garden nincompoop like me, go. After 20 years of living in the United Kingdom, I would rank my day spent at Highgrove as one of the very best.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Chef, a TV Show and Flash Fried Collards

My daughter loves Master Chef. It’s charms are somewhat lost on this old curmudgeon. I haven’t been excited about a TV cook since Julia Child - until I was introduced to the award winning public broadcasting series “A Chef’s Life” featuring an eastern North Carolina girl, a Yankee husband*, and a backwater called Kinston that has a real Civil War ironclad the CSS Neuse washed-up in the center of town. Does this sound like the makings of a fabulous TV show? Honey, it’s a cracker.

I was introduced to “A Chef’s Life” by my friend Mase who would send to London DVDS and internet links and promises to take me to Chef and the Farmer, the restaurant featured in the show, the next time I was in North Carolina. And he did.

We arrived on a Tuesday night in July after a long journey with great expectations. Chef and the Farmer sits right across from that famous sinister ironclad across a large parking lot already filling with cars. It was an exciting start. We were early hoping to grab a table before our 7:45 reservation as Mase had a 3-hour drive home. So we started out in the wine bar and shop, had a lovely glass of red, got to study the evening’s menu and met some nice folks who had driven all the way from Raleigh. In my usual “sotto voce” I let it be known that I had come all the way from London and Mase all the way from Greensboro. That impressed the Raleigh folks.

It also caught the attention of Susan, a member of staff from the show who took wonderful care of us. Such is the charm of “A Chef’s Life” that we felt like we already knew her before she appeared, in real life, at our table. And there was a film crew all over the place shooting Season 2. How fun was that.

Throughout the night, Mase and I would spot all our favorite folks from the program. “There’s Vivian!” “Look, it’s Ben.” “Oh, her parents just arrived.” I acted like a complete idiot and boy did I have a good time. The lovely Susan realized we were besotted and brought Vivian and Ben over to the table. We were shameless in our praise. They were just as wonderful as on film.

And what about the food? Reader, it blew me away. Describing the cooking as a farm-to-table symphony of local classics just doesn’t do it justice. We had country ham with peaches, pork belly, flash fried collards (incredible), gazpacho (also incredible), squash casserole and tomato pie. We ate our way through the summer gifts of eastern North Carolina. We ate our way through the filming of our favorite TV show. We ate our way through an inspiring direction for a town that had fallen on hard times.

And as the sun set over the ironclad and vast parking lot of Chef and the Farmer, I asked myself, not for the first or last time, what the hell I’m doing in London when my tribe – and flash fried collards – are here in North Carolina. Well, I’ll always have Season 2 of a “Chef’s Life”.  

It’s not home, but for now, it’ll have to do.

* Mase says that since Ben is from Chicago, Illinois, he doesn't really qualify as a Yankee. I say that hailing from the land of Lincoln qualifies him for sure. The Yankee description stands.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I'm ready Bill Cunningham

It’s hot and sunny here. World Cup enthusiasm is in the air. It’s Friday and I am about to hit the streets of London. Get ready Bill Cunningham. But wait. He takes sartorial snaps on the streets of New York for the New York Times. There is absolutely no reason to dress for Bill Cunningham here in London.

Oh yes there is. I always choose my outfits for Bill. His women stride across New York ‘expressing their personal style’. They’re having fun. They’re confident, cool and interesting. I want to be part of that tribe, those confident and interesting urban creatures here in London. So I’ll try to dress the part - just in case.

Many years ago, Bill Cunningham took my picture (above) with my glamorous sister (on the left) at a society wedding. I put to you this: Bill Cunningham knew that we were the original New York gossip girls. No one at that wedding was safe from our withering comments. No TV show can compete.

So here’s to you Bill Cunningham and just in case, I want you to know that I’m off to the dentist on Wimpole Street. Best to catch me after I’ve had my teeth cleaned. I’m the one who looks like I’m ready.

Friday, May 09, 2014

It's Mother's Day Somewhere

Yikes! It's Mother's Day in America on Sunday.  Today, I am republishing something that I wrote in 2009 when it was Mother's Day in the UK but not the US. Five years later, my mother is still up to her old tricks, I'm still getting my dates mixed up and it's still Mother's Day somewhere. 

It’s Mother’s Day in the UK. Sure, the economy needs stimulating but this year’s commercial badgering to remember, love and shop for Mum is a bit much. Microsoft just sent me this. “Make her day even more special with Windows Live.” Hey Bill Gates & Co., I’ve got news for you, my mom’s not here. It’s not like she’s gone to heaven or gaga or anything like that. She’s fine but she lives in the US of A so today is not her day. But all this Mum marketing has made me miss my Mom.

I love my Mom. She rocks. Give her a worthy battle and she’s good to go. I was a pretty impossible child and she certainly never tired of trying to straighten me out. She did all kinds of cool stuff that I didn’t appreciate at the time, like climbing Everest or hanging out with the Touareg tribe, or drinking Brezhnev under the table. But even then I knew that my Mom was the best “get out of jail free” card a girl ever had. The bigger the trouble I produced, the more heroic was her response.

So here’s to you Mom in America from daughter in England. Today’s your day. You rock.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Baatan Death March? No, our baby is going to college

Meaning no disrespect to the real American and Filipino victims, my husband and I just finished a deadly march of sorts – down the east coast of the US to look at universities with our daughter. We saw 10 in 12 days. That’s a lot of universities and a lot of travel. I can’t tell you which ones or what my daughter thought about them. That’s her story. Our story is about what will be probably our last road trip together. We always knew she would leave but now we’re accompanying her on her shopping trip for the next chapter of her life. At Heathrow airport, she’s excited. We’re a little sad.

We start in Boston – America’s ultimate college town containing 50 college and universities with 250,000 students. What a party. And here’s the good news. Logan Airport, the car rental facilities and the drive in to Boston are much improved from our day or even the days of her older brothers. Of course we had trouble finding our hotel off Boston Common because 1) there was a huge Greek Independence Day Parade taking place and 2) it was “off the Common” in an uncommon way so after a stressful time in the car, we unloaded, unpacked and hightailed it to Radio Shack to buy a GPS thinking that would solve our navigational problems. Hahahahahahah.

The Boston Park Plaza Hotel was awful by the way. If you have never been roused at 2:00 in the morning in the same room as your teenage daughter unhappy to be sleeping in the same room as her snoring parents (that should have been a suite with privacy) to race down 9 flights of stairs to find a lobby full of clueless guests and staff and fire department, to go back up and have it all happen again at 3:00 – well, you just haven’t lived.

But the universities were great. Our child, our little Chouchou, was off and running towards her future. After all the discussion, meetings and SAT practice, our very English daughter was getting her first real taste of the American university experience and it looked, as we hoped it would, very appealing. She’s thinking of her favorite films -  Good Will Hunting and the Social Network. We’re thinking of Animal House. Everyone’s happy.

So back in the car and on to Providence. An easy run. No arguments. The Hotel Providence was as wonderful as the Boston Park Plaza was awful and Providence has gone through a rejuvenation that we found inspiring. Go America!

Back in the car. The GPS doesn’t do its thing. An unholy row breaks out in the front seats. In the back, Eloise puts on her headphones and settles in to watch Game of Thrones on her laptop –  less violence and more interesting than what was transpiring up front.

We spent a fun and relaxing night with my brother in Rye, New York where I grew up. I walked by our old house, and by all the houses of my childhood that have quadrupled in size. Progress they say. Monuments to consumption I say. Where are the city planners? But enough whinging. On to the train and into Manhattan.

Manhattan looked great.  Our hotel, The Jade on 13th between 5th and 6th was really nice. Eloise went guitar shopping at Mat Uminov on Bleeker Street with Brian Cullman, world music expert and Uncle. And of course, our London-born child fell hopelessly in love with New York. You go girl but a mother worries. Is she tough enough? She thinks so. Let her go Mama Bear.

Back in the car and on to Philadelphia. Talk about rejuvenation, Philly looks amazing. We stayed with children of friends in a fab house on Lombard Street who are managing careers, babies and renovations with aplomb. Hooray for all the young families who are reclaiming American cities and for the cities that are embracing them.

Back in the car. GPS argument. Out come the headphones. On goes Game of Thrones.

We arrive in Washington, DC without that much nasty traffic and have a great dinner with all our friends and family who live there and who have known Eloise since she was born. Of course everyone is interested in what she has seen, liked and will see in the next few days. They are supportive. Eloise is diplomatic. It’s all good.

Back in the car. Monsoons. GPS argument. North Carolina, more wonderful family and friends. And then we were done. 12 days, 10 schools, 690 miles. Through it all, Eloise was good spirited. We saw so many wonderful universities. We had lots of fun. Last night Eloise flew back to London with her father to get ready for the start of school. I am spending an extra week in NC to see family and friends and check on the farm.

This morning she sent me a Facebook message. “Do you miss me yet?” followed by a weeping emoticon.

She has no idea.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The World's Nicest Hotel has a Baby

Every year since 2006 we have argued that the best skiing in Europe can be found in the Dolomites. The posts can be found here and here’s a summary of why we have never felt the need to go anywhere else:

·      One ski pass = 1,200 kilometers of trails, 510 lifts across 12 valleys encompassing 3 regions of Italy. That’s the equivalent of skiing from New York to Chicago in an area so special it has been declared a World Heritage Site
·      Dramatic scenery and delightful villages that offer the very best of Austrian and Italian traditions and culture
·      An almost infinite number of mountain huts and restaurants with exceptionally wonderful food and drink at attractive prices

And now there’s another reason: The Berghotel Ladinia. This small, charming 3-star hotel has been recently taken over by the Costa family who own and run the fabulous Hotel La Perla next door. (Our recent post about La Perla can be found here).

 Ladinia was always a great little hotel with its perfect ski-on, ski-off position and chalet coziness but now with the Costa’s imprimatur, it has been taken to a whole new level of specialness. It’s bijou but everything reflects the family’s passion for quality - from the d├ęcor, to the staff, to the food and drink. For the price, you will not find better value. And if you wish, for an additional charge, you can use the spa facilities at Hotel La Perla that my ski buddies describe as lovely and very restorative.

So another year and No Crowds skiing advice holds firm. If you want to impress someone, go to Zermatt but if you want to ski more, eat better and spend less, head for Corvara where the world’s nicest hotel and its new berghotel baby await you.

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom