Sailing Through the Seasons of Life By Terri White
Life is amazing. Then it’s distressing. And then it’s amazing again. In-between the amazing and distressing, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing. Hold on through the distressing. Relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living this heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, distressing, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful. ~ Adapted from L.R. Knost
It’s easy to romanticize the past, looking back through rose-colored glasses with selective memories. My 50s childhood seems ideal, but nothing is perfect.
Indeed, my childhood was riddled with insecurities. Once at age 7, I visited a friend who lived on a farm. What a grand day! We girls baked a cake all by ourselves, played, and in the evening her big brother regaled us with funny stories. I laughed so hard I wet my pants. Oh-oh.
That ended the fun for me. Immediately, I insisted on going home – right then. Neither would I explain the problem. My friend’s mother, a sweet woman, could have easily provided clean clothes, but I was too embarrassed. Although not a major trauma - just a blip on the radar - it still remains a significant memory.
In my kindergarten through second grade school years, I routinely ran away from school. One school was only two blocks away, the other a mile. My mind went blank. The words in my book disappeared. I forgot how to hold my pencil. The teacher wanted answers. I had none, remaining wide-eyed and silent. Because I could not explain it to my teacher, she punished me by sticking me in the corner, nose to the wall. No compassion.
To further my humiliation, she refused to let me use the restroom during class (it was in our classroom). Soon a puddle leaked under my desk from you-know-who. It’s amazing that I ever braved school in those days. And I never spoke about it with my parents. How could I, a child, understand these troubles? It even puzzled the adults.
Then our frequent family moves. Uprooting. Attending different schools. Making new friends. Starting over again. And again. And again.
However, while others surely experience serious trauma, most of us breeze through life with minor issues. Regardless, we all encounter struggles as children.
With all the hormonal angst, the teen years emerge. The equivalent of the terrible-twos, teens struggle to navigate their budding independence. Reasoning skills emerge. Hence the arguments. Why? Why? Why? Lots of bad decisions. Lots of frustration. Lots. Peer pressure and temptations. Stir in the Internet and all of its vices. It’s a wonder anyone survives the teens. At least while living at home, the consequences may not prove so severe. Hopefully, good parenting offers a little softness.
The twenties. Ugh. I think it’s the worst stage for parents. Because the frontal lobe in a human brain does not fully develop until ages 25 to 29, those in their 20s still struggle like their teen counterparts. Among other roles, the frontal lobe manages higher-level executive functions, including the capacity to plan, organize, initiate, self-monitor, and control one's responses to achieve a goal. Serious skills required for adulthood.
Now they are on their own – floundering. Sometimes making stupid decisions and suffering the consequences. Some of those consequences stay with them for life. As parents, we can do nothing. We can’t force them, ground them, or lecture them. As young adults, they must navigate this season of their lives on their own. Mostly.
Although my mother modeled kindness, she never – I mean never – gave me any advice. She avoided controversy to a fault. So I determined to share what little wisdom I had gained thus far in my life. My policy? I made sure they understood that I wasn’t asking for a response or requiring them to follow my advice. That way, they did not feel the need to defend themselves. I also stated that I would never bring the issue up again. I kept my end of the bargain, and they never argued. My consolation? At least I planted a seed. Maybe it would grow. Fingers crossed.
During the thirties, life levels out: careers, marriage, and kids. Priorities revolve around the family. Unfortunately, with that comes the know-it-all stage. They think they have figured out life. Little do they know. At this stage, I rarely passed on advice because the egos of the thirty-some-year-olds are huge. Easy to bump into them. Hence the silence on my end - mostly. No ears to hear. Pretty sure we all stink like poop during our 30s.
When I turned 40, I slapped myself on the forehead, announcing, “Oh my goodness! My generation is in charge of the world!” Not entirely, but it felt like it. The children are older, careers more established, but egoism continues to mushroom. Thinking they own the answers, they write books. Books that don’t hold the answers. Books that need to be thrown in the trash. Of course, there are exceptions – like my daughter-in-law’s book. (That’s a shameless plug. Contact me if interested.)
It’s downright embarrassing when I look back at my 40s. Self-righteousness oozed from me. Once a friend introduced me to a lady. While swapping our life stories, this lady shared her frustrations about her 18-year-old son’s rebellion. Meanwhile, I was silently wondering what she had done wrong in raising him. Oh, boy! That came back to bite me a couple of years later when one of my sons ventured down that same path. The humiliation stripped me of my pride - a much-needed lesson.
At 50, I asked myself, “What have I accomplished in my life?” It’s a serious pause. Fifty-year-olds are halfway to 100. Scary. If we have not taken care of our health, then problems crop up. Doctor visits increase. We slow down, perhaps even thinking about retirement. Thankfully for me, I felt grand in my fifties – still healthy and energetic – and even started a brand new career.
The grandkids arrive. Life grows busy again with the little munchkins. Those adorable giggles filled the air with the children’s boundless energy. It’s like a new lease on life for us grandparents. Something fresh and new. The icing of life. We get to provide the softness in their lives while the parents do the buck-stopping work.
In the 50s decade, folks often discard former ideas. I sure did. Ideas about anything: from parenting to religion to politics to science to relationships. Realizing that we don’t know nearly as much as we formerly thought, we extend more grace and mercy to others. That’s why we offer more latitude to the grandchildren. As a result, these different perspectives infuse an ease to life not experienced before.
Then age 60 pokes up its head. Oh, dear. Now we are officially senior citizens. You know, old people. Pictures of our grandparents dressed in dowdy clothes and hairdos dance in our heads. Refusing to believe that we are old, we announce: We are not THOSE people who attend senior citizen functions or live in senior living facilities. Horrors! We are trendy. Still living the good life.
To prove it, hair is dyed, heavy eye makeup is applied, youthful clothes are worn, and active lifestyles persist. Don’t forget plastic surgery and facials – big business. Anything to stall the appearance of aging. I get it. Been there. Except for the plastic surgery and heavy eye makeup. Not my thing. I’m a ‘less is more’ girl. But, hey, whatever floats your boat.
Philosophically, though, the 60s are grand. We make even more adjustments in our views about life. Discarding more unpleasant baggage reduces the head noise – those excessive voices barraging us with all the “what ifs” in life. No guilt.
Enter the 70s, my season. Let’s face it. It’s weird. I can’t be 72, nearly 73. How is this possible? That’s other people. Yet, here I am. Nonetheless, I like my age. Why? Because I would never want to repeat those hard lessons of youth. Never want to repeat those years of egoism. I like knowing that I don’t know much. I am thrilled that I’ve dumped a boatload of mental and emotional garbage. It feels weightless. I highly recommend old age.
But let’s get real. While I realize that I’ve only gained a thimbleful of knowledge and wisdom at this age, that thimbleful comes in handy. So don’t put us out to pasture yet. Maybe someone with ears to hear can avoid the pitfalls of my younger years.
We’re sailing along this journey of life, heading closer to the sunset. “. . .just living this heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, distressing, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”
“Fall in Texas: Pretty sure Mother Nature is drunk in the morning, swings by to visit Texas, and then sobers up and leaves for elsewhere in the middle of the day. I’m going to regret this long-sleeve turtleneck later today.” ~ Krystal Fichtner I agree. Not much changes in a Texas fall. No cool breezes caressing the trees. No sweater weather. No long pants needed. Post-September 22 eases along as if it forgot the season. Hot, hot, and hotter. If we’ve had enough rain, the fields may still don a green carpet. More likely, though, the brown fields lie listlessly, weary from the heat. Trees, worn out in their faded greenery, gradually begin losing their driest leaves due to the prolonged heat.
However, every so often, cooler weather pokes its head out in the mornings, providing a nice reprieve. Great for sipping coffee on my porch. Then the temps rise to suffocating heights once again. It seems to take nearly two months before autumn actually arrives – and remains - in Texas, no matter what the date on the calendar. At least my idea of autumn temperatures. Nonetheless, once the milder weather settles in, it determines to enjoy a lengthy stay. As a 1976 northern transplant to Texas, I have missed every Wisconsin fall save one. Up north, it’s the only season that decks out in all its vibrant finery, splashing the countryside in an array of brilliant foliage. Those trees, showing off their designer clothes against the crystal blue skies, sway in the breeze like dancers at the prom. My only complaint is that it is all too brief.
Unless you have experienced a northern autumn, don’t even try to rhapsodize about fall in Texas. Oh sure, the occasional purple ornamental pear tree or the red leaves on the crepe myrtles shine if it rains enough. But the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges? They pale compared to those up North. The northern pictures, although stellar, still don’t compare to experiencing it in person.
As a young woman, I used to sit on my upstairs deck on those crisp days, basking in its beauty. Soaking it in. Sigh. Nothing like it. Then, almost as suddenly as the colors explode against the skyline, they drop, blanketing the earth in a colorful, crunchy carpet. Finally, in a silent anthem to the changing seasons, the trees’ naked arms reach out to the heavens - waiting for their coat of snow to usher in their winter’s nap.
Yet, life is what we make it, whether decked out in its northern autumn finery or jacketed in its bland wardrobe. I do enjoy the eight months of mild Texas weather. After all, I’m still here, aren’t I? Over the years, the quiet, frigid beauty of a snowy winter loses its appeal. I’ll settle for pictures and the occasional snow day in Texas. While the northerners shrug on their heavy coats, trudging through piles of snow, sometimes I’m sipping a glass of wine on my screen porch smack dab in the middle of January. Not bad.
Similar to the Texas Hill Country, Italy’s Tuscany features rolling hills and winding roads lined with trees. Our family-owned agri-hotel offered farm-to-table meals and wine. This restful setting proved perfect after our bustling activity in Venice.
Sherri and I decided to take the day off from the tour. While our group ventured to Florence, we lounged around the pool, meandered the country roads, and sampled their Italian cuisine. A perfect respite for me following my bout with an upper respiratory infection.
That evening the hotel treated us to a chef’s presentation of pasta making. Good-natured, the chef invited the children to participate in the process. Truly a delight to watch, but I’ll leave the future pasta-making to those more ambitious than I.
Renowned for its romantic tales, rural Tuscany offers a rest for weary travelers. Revived, we sped down the road south for Rome – where rich history awaited us.
What a sight! Stone-pine trees lined Roman streets, motor scooters zoomed in and out of traffic, pedestrians scurried across walkways, and taxis zigzagged through the streets. Watch your purse, hurry crossing streets, and only take an official taxi. Rome was not as safe as other European cities.
But the history. Three thousand-year-old cobblestone streets snaked their way throughout the city. With more unearthed yearly, ancient ruins were evident everywhere. Merchants hawked their wares in the plazas by day while various artists entertained at night. Exquisite fountains and statutes from days bygone adorned the plazas. We even drank water from a well-constructed thousands of years ago.
First stop: the Pantheon. Built in 126 AD, this temple served the numerous Roman gods. Surprisingly, some of the pillars and doors were shipped from Africa. Quite an undertaking! As the largest unreinforced building in the world, the builders laid a 25 feet thick foundation with only a four feet thick ceiling. A large hole in the center of the ceiling lightens the weight-bearing load. In 609 AD, the Roman authorities converted the Pantheon into a Christian church. That done, they stripped the bronze from the ceiling and used it in St. Peter's Basilica. The Roman Catholic Church still regularly holds services there.
Afterward, our tour group separated to explore on our own. The expansive plaza on which the Pantheon sits offered dining, music, a rousting soccer game on a big screen, along with assorted nuns and priests. In fact, nuns and priests were everywhere. We even saw numerous specialized stores that cater to the priesthood.
Then we wandered the narrow streets in search of our hotel. We wandered some more. Then more. Clearly, we were lost. Deep in a neighborhood far from tourist attractions, we could find no one who spoke English. None. Lost in Rome. Sounds like the title of my next book. My friend began to panic. Me? I was secretly captivated by our unplanned adventure. However, we finally managed to communicate with a local and found our way. Unbeknownst to us, we were not that far from our abode. Whew! Now that was exciting.
Soon we relaxed on the rooftop of our hotel with a glass of wine and a stunning view of Rome. Eventually, though, a seagull perched on the ledge eyeing our snacks. Because seagulls never shy from snatching food right out of your hand, we scurried downstairs to a safer place to lounge. And speaking of seagulls: why had they strayed so far from the sea?
Visiting the Colosseum and Forum the next day proved an emotionally charged experience. Our guide, raised by her American mother and Italian father, brought both to life. Encouraging us to time travel, she placed us in the shoes of the Romans, whose life span lasted only 30 years.
By the time Rome built the Colosseum, they had conquered the world. Its purpose? Keep the people happy. The Emperor attended these special events, too. Mornings featured exotic animals (from India to northern Africa) fighting to the end. Executions took place in the early afternoons. To top off the day, gladiators - ancient "sports" heroes - fought. But never to kill. After training for two years, they were too valuable to the owners to allow killings. An architectural wonder, the Colosseum was soaked in history. There I stood where ancient sagas have impacted the world – and still today we learn from it.
The Forum, originally a swamp to which shepherds brought their herds, evolved into a market that grew into Rome. It was the center of public life. Oversized, all Roman buildings symbolized strength. Further, all surfaces were covered in colorful marble or painted plaster. After the fall of Rome, though, locals removed the marble, melting it into lime for cement, which accounts for their drab presence today.
At one spot, our guide informed us that we stood where Brutus murdered Julius Caesar. Was that true? Did it matter? We knew he must have at least stood nearby. For an American to be surrounded by such antiquity, it took my breath away. Our history remains in its infancy compared to Rome.
Places echo the stories of those who came before us. As a 2760-year old city, we have much to glean from these ancient chronicles. Rome was built for permanence so they would not be forgotten. Layers upon layers of archaeological finds still lie beneath the city.
With Rome offering so much to ponder, our hearts were bursting as we flew across the Atlantic Ocean toward home.
My eleven and nine-year-old grandsons’ knowledge of cars amazes me. While we’re driving, they dazzle me as they rattle off makes and models. Me? Not so much. I don't know a suburban from an SUV or any of the differences among the sedans. And don’t get me started on cowboy Cadillacs. To be fair, I know a Rolls Royce when I see it, so there’s that. But a Pinto? I can spot that relic from a distance.
Of course, Ford doesn’t manufacture those anymore because a thing-a-ma-jig didn't work out. Boy howdy, fasten your seat belts as I regale you with tales about our Pinto adventures!
The hatchback hiccups. One December, we parked the hatchback at Steve’s workplace to fly up north in a twin-engine plane piloted by our friend John, also from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (That’s another story.) Our oldest son, only six months old, never gave us a moment’s trouble during our flight. It was during the gas shortage in the late ’70s. John kept dipping down to find a place to gas up. Then he would swoop up again – and again. Perhaps that’s why Steve turned greener by the mile?
When we returned, the rain had frozen on our windshield. In Steve’s attempt to clear it off, he accidentally smashed the back window. Driving home in freezing weather from north Dallas to south Fort Worth with a baby was not my idea of joyful traveling. Life in the fast lane!
Later, when our two boys were tiny, Steve pulled out the back seat and fashioned a board to fit in that space. Topped with a foam pad, it made a tidy platform for playing and sleeping while we traveled 1,000 miles up I-35 to visit my family in Wisconsin. Even I crawled back there to rest by times. I know. I know. Gasp! No car seats. The beauty of fewer laws. The boys are in their forties now – alive and well.
Of course, I can’t forget about another December trip up north. It was a balmy 70 degrees in Texas. Typically, we left at 10:00 pm so that our three littles would sleep the first half of the trip. They did – thankfully. We packed their winter jackets and sped off.
Gradually, the temps dropped as we drove farther north. When I reached for Steve’s and my jackets, I came up empty-handed. With the warm weather and busyness of preparing for the trip, we left our jackets home. Imagine us tromping into an Iowa restaurant without jackets. Those looks.
Neither was our Pinto exactly toasty inside. We packed pillows next to the doors to keep out the draft. Fortunately, our friend John, the pilot, planned to fly up to Eau Claire the next day. When he arrived at my parent’s house, he stuck out our coats and announced, “Dummies.” Indeed.
Eventually, we graduated to a Pinto station wagon. Big time now. But it often broke down. Sometimes Steve asked me to push our Pinto down the street while he steered to magically start it. It worked every time. Don’t ask me for details. Instead, ask your mechanic.
Meanwhile, our three littles stared wide-eyed out the window while we disappeared down the street. One of them called his grandma because he was sure we had vanished forever – for all of two minutes. That was not a pleasant interchange when she arrived. Oh, well. Once our six-year-old joined me to give it the old heave-ho. Probably the highlight of his week. Maybe even the whole month.
One afternoon, I arrived to pick up Steve from work when the engine caught on fire. Now that was thrilling – if you like raising your blood pressure in unconventional ways, that is. Never a dull Pinto-moment.
Perhaps Steve should have walked home instead. This is Cleburne after all. Everything’s within walking distance if you’re into that sort of thing. With car calamities like ours, that’s a serious option.
When we moved sixteen miles out of town past the Cleburne State Park, I chose to grocery shop once a month. We only owned one car – our infamous Pinto. Or, aka, the jalopy as our kids and their friends dubbed it. Do you know that kids nowadays are unfamiliar with the word jalopy? What a shame! I make a point to educate them. Because really?
But I digress. Back to shopping. Of course, if we made plans, we drove Steve to work more than once a month. We weren’t hermits. Back to shopping.
Three growing kids need a lot of groceries. Needless to say, our Pinto station wagon was packed on those monthly trips. Just to keep us on our toes, the car broke down on Park Road 21. Only once, though. In the blazing summer heat. With cold food. And three kids.
Eventually, I nice elderly gentleman spotted us, who cordially delivered us and our groceries home. My father-in-law, a retired Santa Fe railroad man, towed our Pinto home and prepared to diagnose it. It stayed on its hospital bed for a season.
During that time, generous friends loaned us their van. The kids loved it! Air conditioning. Space. Luxury. Did I say air conditioning?
Because our Pinto lacked that amenity. Sigh. Our Pinto was especially challenging when we packed in several extra folks to take them to church with us. Drip dry clothes would have been nice in the ‘80s. We just pretended we were pioneers, trekking across the plains. Sweating it out. Pure joy. But my sarcasm is dripping – like sweat.
Pressing on to other Pinto adventures, we purchased our second Pinto station wagon in 1986. Why change, for crying out loud? It was a steal for a grand. In we piled again for our winter trek to Wisconsin in January 1987. With the back seat down, our kids - ages six, seven, and nine – stretched out with their gear to keep them occupied.
It was a great post-Christmas visit with my Wisconsin family, complete with sledding on seven bump hill. Unfortunately, though, there was surprisingly little snow that year. Quite remarkable for Wisconsin. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay.
When we readied to leave, we rented a U-Haul. With my parent’s plan to retire to Nashville, they were lightening ship. We inherited bunk beds, the family piano, books, and other items I have long since forgotten. On we journeyed toward home. Then a blizzard hit in Iowa. With a Pinto pulling a heavy U-haul, it took some knuckle-gripping, heart-pounding driving to make it through. Once we reached Kansas City, we called it a day.
Perched atop a hill next to I-35 lay a motel. Not wanting to veer too far off the freeway, we opted to stay there. Up we drove. With a heavy trailer. On the snow and ice. Then we were stuck. In hindsight, it’s a big duh. What else can I say?
To call a wrecker, Steve trudged up the hill. When it arrived and pulled us to the top, the driver asked where to park us. “Get us down off this hill!” I gasped. Thirty dollars later on level ground, we found another motel offering us a luxury suite for the price of a regular room. Delighted, the kids romped in the snow. The next morning we headed south again.
Finally, Oklahoma City. It, too, had received its every-ten-year share of snow. Choosing to call it a day, we eased into the motel’s snow-laden parking lot. No hill this time. The kids were having the time of their lives! More snow in OK City than in Wisconsin! What’s not to like? Eating out, snowball fights, sleeping in motels.
When we climbed into our Pinto the next morning, we could not get out of the parking lot with our trailer. Once again, we called a wrecker that maneuvered us onto the road. The weather was miserable. Foreboding skies leaked snow. Hoping to not careen off the icy highway, we inched up the Arbuckle Mountains.
Upon reaching the top, the weather abruptly changed: the north side was freezing, dark, and snowy, but on the south side, the sun shined in a clear blue sky with 70-degree temps. Woohoo!
Breathing a sigh of relief, we finished our final lap to Cleburne. We pulled into our driveway, parked, and unpacked. However, when Steve prepared to return the trailer, our car would not start. That trip burned out our transmission. Time for another father-son car repair challenge.
Later, after we had moved up in the world to a minivan, our oldest son dubbed our Pinto days the “Pinto Parables”. At family gatherings, our kids sometimes regale us with their versions of these tales. My daughter even claims that I hit an armadillo on purpose. Imagine that.
Snapshot of a Day in Venice By Terri White Chilly drizzles dogged us during our morning tour of Venice. Once through, the group parted ways to experience private adventures. However, I was chilled to the bone, still recovering from my upper respiratory infection. So we dove down a narrow alley in search of a hot drink. After meandering side streets for a few minutes, we found a tiny restaurant. At first, we ordered coffee outside. Then, eyeing the cozy indoor booths, we switched to the counter serving booze. I needed more than coffee to warm my inners. Brandy sounded perfect. Drinks received, we headed for a booth. But, oh no! The waiter fussed over us, insisted on bringing our drinks and found us a booth. Winking, he refused to charge us extra, which is customary when sitting inside. Did we look desperate?
Ahhh, dry warmth. Lovely. Soon a waiter directed an Australian couple to join our booth. What a great opportunity to visit with fellow travelers! We loved hearing their experiences and sharing ours. Perfectly charming.
Finally, the sun shone, so we headed to meet our group for a gondola ride. Nestled into a gondola, we meandered the canals, heard bits of Venetian history, and finally eased into the Grand Canal, which bustled with activity. What a sight!
For the rest of the day, our group split up to explore on our own. We strolled the cobblestone streets, gazed at the sights, ventured over bridges, and landed at a pizza place overlooking the Grand Canal. Seated outside, we drank in our surroundings as we sipped wine and savored our artichoke pizza. Yum.
As the sun glided toward the West, we hopped onto our boat-bus to meet our group for dinner. Thus ending another memorable day on our tour.
VENETIAN ADVENTURES By Terri White Once we left Austria, we wove through the southern Tyrol. Gazing out the window, I spotted tiny villages, isolated homesteads, and ancient castles dotting the mountains. What caused travelers to settle in this remote region thousands of years ago? No superhighway. No stores. No neighbors. No schools. Everything had to be produced by the family. No exceptions.
But back to traveling. We approached Italy, stopped at the ancient Bomarzo Park full of bizarre statues and then headed to Bolzano, a border city that both Germans and Italians have claimed over the centuries. Hence, German and Italian are commonly spoken there.
Our afternoon visit included a stroll through the open-air market so prevalent in Europe, topped with an outdoor meal of wagyu beef. Yum. Then on the road again.
Next stop Venice, the magical city built on water. Did you know that when the Germanic tribes invaded northern Italy around 500 A.D. that locals escaped to this marsh? Then they remained and figured out how to build a city on water. As in Holland, they drove millions of timber pilings into the ocean bottom for foundations. With age, they petrified, becoming like cement. Pretty amazing!
We stayed on one of the many islands comprising Venice that surprisingly had a few roads for cars. However, in Venice proper, there are no cars. The only transportation is by boat, bike, or walking because the entire city is sitting on water. Due to the lack of outdoor space, the city provides indoor playgrounds and sporting arenas.
Boat-buses transport visitors and residents alike. To maintain an 8-10 feet depth, the city dredges the traveling sea lanes regularly. Boats collect trash, deliver goods to businesses, serve as ambulances and police transportation, along with numerous other services normally provided by cars or trucks elsewhere in the world. However, most locals also own a private boat for recreation.
And don’t forget the gondolas! What a historic and charming experience, complete with a serenade – Frank Sinatra style. For hundreds of years, this one-of-a-kind tradition has been handed down from father to son.
Due to the many canals, bridges are everywhere, just like in Amsterdam. Strolling along those ancient cobblestone streets was inspiring.
Another tradition unique to Venice is the art of mask-making. Our tour provided a visit to a professional mask maker complete with the art, history and meaning behind various masks. Intriguing, each mask tells a story. Then across a tiny bridge, he sells them in his store. Interestingly, this artist is Iranian by birth. What a surprise!
During our tour through the Venetian streets and alleys, we saw laundry strung between buildings, open-air markets in plazas, historic statues, boats bustling with their particular services, and ancient buildings.
One of those buildings was St. Mark’s Basilica situated in the famed St. Mark’s Square. Like a jewelry box, the interior glitters with 40,000 square feet of golden mosaics with each tile depicting a Bible story. I questioned the extravagance when so many were likely poor, but at least the construction provided jobs.
Our two day tour slid to a close all too soon. As our bus meandered south toward our Tuscan retreat, I wondered what treasures that fabled area would hold for us.
“The hills are alive with the sound of music” rang in my thoughts as we approached the Alps in the Austrian panhandle. Breathtaking. Calming. Sublime. Our hotel, nestled in a quaint village, offered lofty views, cozy rooms, and cheerful hospitality.
After we settled in our rooms, we visited in the lounge overlooking towering trees, green meadows, and a sparkling lake. Then on to the dining room for not only a taste of Austrian fare, but also a traditional band, complete with costumes and an accordion. However, as the evening progressed, I grew ill.
Excusing myself, I headed to my room. Chilled to the bone, I crawled into bed heaped with comforters. I could not get warm. Soon I heard a tapping on my door. In walked one of our guides asking if I needed to go to the hospital. I begrudgingly agreed.
Since our tour only used a bus, our hotel owner kindly drove us the local hospital. Once there, the staff ushered me into the doctor’s room – one who spoke no English. That surprised me. Somehow we communicated. Then a tech whisked me away for an x-ray.
In the States, we undress in a booth and don a covering. Not so in Europe! The tech motioned for me to pull off my top. Baffled, I kept looking for a private place to undress. No such luck. Finally, he tugged at my top. So I removed it and stood in all-my-glory for a chest x-ray. Ugh.
Back to the doc who wrote me a couple of prescriptions for an upper respiratory infection. Then I paid a whopping $150 for my visit to the ER, and waited for our ride back to the hotel.
I figured that I would fulfill my script the next day, but not so. On the way home, the hotel owner stopped at the apothecary– at midnight. Apparently, the pharmacist lived upstairs and routinely answers after-hours calls. Once she returned with my meds, she grumbled, “I don’t know why he was so grouchy. He comes to the hotel restaurant regularly.” Kind of comical. Who knows what we interrupted?
The next day we were scheduled to tour the famous Neuschwanstein Castle – you know it as the Disney castle. However, that was not in my cards. Such a disappointment! Of all the castles I planned to visit, that topped my list.
What I really needed, though, was sleep. And sleep I did. Later, when I ventured to the dining room, the hotel owner hovered over me like a mother hen. She sent me to the infrared room, ordered a massage, and then announced that I needed some fresh air. Back home, I would not have risked the cool, damp air, but she insisted.
Once outside, I strolled the lanes of the village surrounded in lush meadows and towering mountains. Each house was in pristine condition and neatly landscaped, like a storybook setting. Finally, I reached the edge of town, plopped down on the grass, and wept at the view.
No, I didn’t miss anything. This quiet day was salve to my soul as I gazed at the unspeakable beauty. No regrets. But my massage awaited me, so I moseyed back to the hotel.
Readying for my massage, the masseuse, instead of leaving the room, waited for me to strip. Oh, well! Totally worth it, I reveled in those hot stones. Meanwhile, the tour group joked that I was probably enjoying a Swedish massage from a sexy male massage therapist. Only half right!
Although the Austrian Alps brought surprises that I never anticipated, I reveled in my own private experience. Who would have thought I’d need an ER visit in a tiny Austrian hospital, topped with a grumpy pharmacist? All gifting me with a quiet day soaked in peace.
Life – it’s what happens to us while making our plans. Just roll with it and enjoy the ride.
RHINE RIVER REFLECTIONS By Terri White The Rhine River flows from the Swiss Alps and dumps into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Although castles dot the landscape, one small castle was built in the middle of the river! Nestled on the banks, villages thrive from tourism. Vineyards with vertical rows of grapes drape the hills. Wherever I gazed, the scenery exuded charm. Our hotel, an ancient former railroad granary, lay next to the ever-present train tracks. Worried about noise? Not in Germany! It supplies all homes and business next to the tracks with quadruple paned windows to soften the noise. In fact, we never even heard a sound. Narrow staircases winding up four flights with our gear reminded me of mountain climbing. If you are out of shape, don’t even attempt to tour Europe. Whether stairs or hills, you will need energy to survive. Cobblestone streets meander throughout the villages. Vines, potted plants and window boxes overflowing with flowers deck the rows of stores and homes. On each store, a symbol, hailing back to the eras of illiteracy, represents the type of store: a pretzel for the bakery or a fishing pole for a sporting goods store. In every city and village, artists, musicians, and vendors gather in the plazas. Restaurants set tables outside on the sidewalks or in the courtyard at the back. Surprisingly, they never pipe in music, offering instead a quiet atmosphere for conversation, while the servers let you enjoy a leisurely meal. In fact, many times we thought they had forgotten us. Food! Frankly, we were not impressed with the classic German sausage, sauerkraut, and potatoes, but the atmosphere made up for its lack. In Europe, public bathrooms are available. To keep them clean, they charge about 50 cents. Sometimes attendants clean the stall after you use it; other times, automatic cleaning robots accomplish the job. Either way, we never lacked for clean facilities. Castles everywhere – 25,000 in Germany. Some have been converted into hostels or event centers. Preserved for their historical value, others offer tours; their history fascinated me. These fortified structures, built on strategic river crossings and passages through mountains, levied taxes on all travelers. If you resisted, you were lowered into the dungeon until you relented. Dark, no food, no water, nothing. I peeked into a few historic dungeons while listening to our guide’s captivating chronicles and wondered if those castle lords were just wealthy thieves. Has anything changed over time? After leaving the Rhine River, we stopped briefly in Munich, a city with centuries old buildings, numerous museums, and the celebrated Oktoberfest. About 20 miles away, though, lies the infamous Dachau concentration camp, but that was not on our itinerary. Instead, our tour opted for a more light-hearted day at a historic beer hall and outdoor market – just a glimpse of big city life in Germany. I even noticed the original Aldi Supermarket! From quaint villages to castles, Germany captivated us with its history, scenery and culture. There was so much to soak in as we eased out of Munich and headed for the Austrian Alps for our next adventure.
HOLLAND HOLIDAY By Terri White It was a dream come true: seventeen-day trip to Europe with a girlfriend. We started planning a year ahead. Where to go, what to do, how to get there. Since this was our first time in Europe, we chose a Rick Steve’s Amsterdam to Rome tour that included castles. It proved to be the perfect choice.
A history buff’s delight. With his website loaded with travel tips, we felt confident that we could navigate our tour. It even included details about the type of walking to expect at each destination. So, of course, the most important purchase was walking shoes.
With a size 11-1/2 narrow, the only store nearby that stocks my size is in Fort Worth, but that proved futile. After several unsuccessful purchases, and returns, I found the perfect shoe – Keens. Waterproof, cushy, comfy. I still wear them.
Next, I needed quick-dry pants and shirts. Eddie Bauer offered numerous choices at a hefty price. Nevertheless, they are well-made and may even outlast me. Throw them in my coffin, Junior! Money! How much to bring? Where to exchange it? Notify credit card companies of my overseas plans. Cell phone plans to accommodate Europe? No problem. Put my phone in airplane mode and only use it with the hotel’s Wi-Fi. Many hotels, actually. Bottom line? Pack light, forget the make-up, and enjoy! We did.
The day arrived. Dallas to London. Grab a quick lunch. Hop on the next plane to Amsterdam. While waiting to take off from London, Sherri whispered, “I hope some overweight person doesn’t sit next to me.” Soon a good-looking twenty-something Italian man squeezed in next to her and plopped down. Instantly, Sherri blurted, “Oh! I am so glad you aren’t fat!”
As she turned beet red, he announced, “We Europeans are not fat like the Americans.” We all laughed and settled in for our jaunt over the North Sea.
Amsterdam! A city abuzz with bikes, canals, bridges, and tall, narrow buildings steeped in history. I loved it! Just lounging in an outdoor café soaking in the atmosphere inspired us. On our own until our tour gathered, we hired a guide for the Red Light District, the oldest part of the city filled with . . . ah . . . curiosities. Indeed educational!
When parents walk their children to school in the Red Light District (Yes! Families live there!), the kids notice the women in the windows. “Mommy, why are those ladies in the window dressed in their swimming suits?” Every mother’s response? “They’re waiting for their ride to the beach.” Nothing to add here!
Longing for java? Don’t go to a coffee shop! What? At coffee shops, you buy marijuana for your smoking pleasure and goodies laced with the stuff. Not your thing? No worries. You can grab a cup of Joe at a café. I’m not making this up, folks.
Houseboats lounged in the canals. Bikes whizzed by with men and woman dressed for the office or with kids and groceries. Whole parking ramps were devoted to bikes! Shops stuffed with cheese, chocolates and pickled herring drew us in. I feasted on this city replete with a rich history and fascinating architecture. Anne Franks’ hide-away alone left us speechless.
Our Netherlands tour ended at an outdoor museum featuring life in a rural village from days bygone that included a windmill, paper mill, shops, sheep, pastures, towering trees, and the famous Dutch pancakes. Did you know the Dutch top their pancakes with anything from beef stew to spiced apples to syrup? What’s for dinner? Take your pick!
While our tour bus meandered down the fabled autobahn, my eyes drank in the hills rimmed with vineyards and decked with solar panels. My mind, already swimming from the richness of our Holland adventures, eagerly anticipated what awaited us in the Rhine River region.
“Mimi,” asked Tristan, “did you go to Woodstock?” “No, but I attended a similar rock fest in Wisconsin.” Without skipping a beat, Tristan responded, “Did they call it Cheesestock?” It was 1970 during my dad’s gubernatorial race. After a campaign event, I escaped with my friends to the Wisconsin boonies. They held it in a rural pasture with all the trappings of Woodstock – except no rain. Unseasonably warm that weekend, the temperature rose to 70 degrees. An April heatwave for us Wisconsinites.
Ahhh, the carefree years of young adults. Still in college and supported by parents, we worked part-time jobs for spending money. The late ‘60s and ‘70s music told the tale of the times. “The Times Are a Changing” rasped Bob Dylan. Indeed.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. The Vietnam Conflict raged while college students demonstrated against it. The Civil Rights Movement exploded. Black Panthers. Weatherman. SDS. Molotov cocktails flew. Heads bashed. Students and police clashed - tear gas hanging in the air the next morning. Jail sentences. Violence met with violence.
Many, though, worked peacefully to bring about change. Quiet, candlelit marches expressed our opposition to our involvement in Vietnam. My dad and others promoted “dove” political candidates running for various offices. Busses of northern college students drove south to participate in sit-ins for black civil rights.
To further racial understanding, the University of Wisconsin joined an exchange student program with Louisiana’s Grambling College, the famed all-black college in which Eddie Brown churned out NFL pros. Universities from Ohio and North Dakota joined the program as well. After a thorough vetting, I hopped aboard a Greyhound bus bound for Louisiana. The closest I had ever come to the South was driving through it on the way to Florida for spring break. I was in for a surprise.
What did I, a while middle class girl from the North Central Midwest, know of racial relationships? Only what my parents taught me: to respect all people no matter their race, religion, or financial status. But understanding the nuances of cultural differences? Nothing. Zero. No one talked about that.
So, totally unprepared, I dove in. Three other students from my campus and eight others from the other two campuses attempted to navigate the cultural cues. Meanwhile, the twelve Grambling students sent to the three northern campuses struggled likewise.
The Grambling students and staff were the black folks who stayed behind under Jim Crow laws instead of joining the 1910-1970 Great Migration to the North and West. These were the folks who endured. The ones whose relationships with whites were always more conspicuously on thin ice. Not the subtlety of northern bigotry. It never occurred to me.
Black migration? Jim Crow? To me, people were just people. But they’re not. Sure, we are all human with the same needs and similar desires. However, a culture’s history seeps into the DNA. The suffering. The triumphs. The abuse. The joys. The deprivation. The teachings. The struggles. The parenting, or lack of it. They are passed down subtly and explicitly.
Regardless of one’s ancestors, those experiences, handed down over the centuries, determine the culture of a people.
Enter this naïve 21-year-old, who takes people at face value – not picking up the nuances, expecting others to think like me. Why wouldn’t I? I had only experienced white, middleclass Midwesterners with rare exceptions.
There were kindnesses. Once at the student union, a fellow asked if anyone would play chess with him. I volunteered. Soon other students surrounded us. Within three moves, I realized I was in way over my head. Clueless about strategy, I only knew how to move the players. The game dragged on. Finally, defeated, I bowed out gracefully – totally embarrassed.
I’ve often thought about that day. Not long ago, I realized that my opponent knew immediately that I was out of my depth. So to not embarrass me, he took his time beating me when he could likely have won in three or four moves. A kindness.
When my girlfriend from UW visited me on spring break, we piled into a car with my Grambling friends to party elsewhere. As we chatted, Jo turned to me, “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” I had to “translate” the southern, black dialect for her. Interestingly, I don’t remember struggling with that.
My roommate, gone most of the time student teaching, was cordial, but we never developed a relationship. However, one of the other UW exchange students visits her Grambling roommate to this day. That remarkable friendship remains the touchstone of the program.
Our dorm provided the usual common area with comfy chairs and a TV. In those days, Saturday night featured iconic family programs, one of which was “All in the Family” with the infamous Archie Bunker. On my own one evening, I strolled into the room. Since it was packed, I sat in the only empty chair at the back. Oh, how I wanted to laugh! Because that program, if you understood the sarcasm, was hilarious. However, not wanting to offend the others, I remained quiet. Eventually, I eased out of the room, too uncomfortable to stay.
Cultural nuances. What were they? How to respond?
At the end of the semester, someone pushed me, shattering my right elbow. It never occurred to me to inform the college officials about it. Years later, I realized that even in 1971, Grambling could have experienced a backlash from the southern white community had I reported it. Fortunately, the incident was not racially motivated. Just a hothead who lost control of his emotions. The school provided transportation to the doctor. In a temporary cast, I flew home for surgery, ending my exchange experience.
I encountered the discomfort of being conspicuously the only white person in the room. Of not knowing the acceptable responses. Of not feeling safe in certain situations. All crucial to understanding the culture.
Then that summer, a friend from Grambling surprised me with a visit. Between letters and visits, he asked me to marry him two years later. By that time, I had graduated from college and was working as a school librarian in Virginia. He had secured a teaching job in Seattle. With all the best intentions, that ship had sailed. It was not to be. I returned to Wisconsin to reboot my life.