Magic and cannibalism on the Shanghai Trail (Part 3 of a 3 part series!)

The plane landed in Shanghai, and we met up with our new tourguide named Erita. She told us all sorts of interesting things about her family on our way to downtown Shanghai. Her Chinese name was actually Ying Ying, which was a mistake! “My real name that my father gave me means a camp in the army!” she explained. “My father wrote the letters wrong on my birthing card (it was supposed to be Yin Yin) and so I have been stuck with that terrible name my whole life. You need your government ID card for everything, so I can never change it.”

She also explained that her family had three children, which is not common in China. She explained that families are expected to have a son. If they don’t, then they should have another child to try for a son. A third kid was out of the question, but her father was dead set on having a son. Enrita’s parents had two girls. “The first girl was my sister,” explained Enrita, “who they called Nam Nam, which means ‘boys’. I was born next, and they called me (or meant to call me) Yin Yin, which means ‘will come’. So, our two girls’ names meant BOY WILL COME. So, my parents went to another country to have another baby. They had a boy. But when we came back to China, they had to sell everything they owned in order to get my little brother an ID card.”

Our first stop was at the Shanghai World Financial Center- the tallest building I’ve ever been in. At just over 1600 feet, it is ranked the 10th highest building in the world. (The Shanghai Tower, right across the street, is the 2nd highest building in the world at 2,073 feet but we weren’t invited up in that one!)  The World Financial Center Building is nicknamed “the bottle opener” because it’s top has a giant square cut out of it making it resemble a bottle opener! It was a hazy and smoggy day, but at least we could still see ourselves rising above all the “smaller” sky scrapers. It was honestly so far up in the air that I felt a bit woozy.

img_2911-2

After the tall buildings extravaganza, we were dropped off in a popular shopping area along the famous Nanjing Road. I wandered looking at interesting things…Like giant wall advertisements like the one below featuring a woman holding a giant shrimp on her head. I stood there for a little bit playing a game I like to play- “Caption This!”  I came up with a few, but nothing really good. (Bury yourself in our shrimp?) (You never know what you’ll find in our sticky rice…)

I also stopped to stare at the at the scaffolding that was constructed along one street’s building. It was made of STICKS! Literally! I couldn’t believe that it was honestly going to hold human construction workers!

I continued to people watch and see the sites. I found it comical to see a giant Apple store immediately across the street from a giant Samsung store.  Over all, this shopping area was a very modern area with some heavy American influence.

img_2912-1

Dinner was at a nice restaurant where we tried some new things including some sort of octopus, and some meatball soup. We were poured one glass of water, and after being turned down for a refill, I felt like Oliver Twist! “Please, sir, can I have some more?”

After dinner we headed to the exciting Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe Performance
at a theater on Wu Ning Road. I thought it would be a night of flips and dance, but I was wrong! This night was a show of balancing acts, magic, comedy, and even some mild body contortions!

The lady below had uncanny balance. I have to wonder how long it took her to perfect her act??

 

The next act was a magician! It was so much fun to watch magic live!

 

It felt like I was in the audience of the Chinese version of America’s Got Talent! 🙂

 

The next morning, we got up for breakfast at our hotel, and the options were interesting… duck and congee were the highlights. Congee wasn’t my favorite. I believe it might be called “gruel” in other countries, but it is some sort of rice porridge.

On the way out for the day, we passed lots of homes in Shanghai. Most of the people live in high rise apartments, and everyone hangs their laundry to dry outside their windows.

Our first stop of the day was at the Jade Buddha Temple.  This temple was breathtakingly beautiful, with its enormous Budha statues. In one of the rooms, there were four Budhas. According to our guide, each represented the four animated mountain peaks from a Buddhist legend. The peaks had emotions like humans. “Budha can bring good luck and fix the soul of dead relatives,” explained Enrita, ” and he is often depicted sitting on a lotus plant, because it is a beautiful plant that can grow in dirty water.”

The temple had many people praying and burning incense. There are over 100 monks who live in this temple. “They pray and also make sure that the oil lamps next to Budha don’t go out,” said Enrita, “because if the light goes out- Budha dies.”

The golden woman in the photo below is Kariteimo, considered the Goddess of Loving Children. She only got that title, however, after learning from the horrible things she did. According to our guide, she had 397 children, and only three of those were boys. She was a selfish woman, who would steal other people’s children and kill them and feed them to her own children. The gods, however, finally punished her by stealing one of her precious children. At that point, she finally realized what it felt like to lose a child, and she never ate another kid. Goddess of Loving Children. Hmmm…

 

 

 

Our next stop was at the Silk Factory. Here, we were given a detailed explanation of how the silk industry began followed by a demonstration of how the silk is made from the cocoons of the silk worms.  I have never been versed in how silk was made, so this was really interesting. Perhaps the most interesting is the fact that not one bit of the silkworm goes to waste. They use the cocoon shell for the silk, and they use the pupa for facial cream. (Some people even eat the pupa if it is deep fried.) They even use the “droppings” from the worms- as a filler for pillows!

The video below shows the machines that take the cocoon and manage to pull 1000 meters of string from it!

The process of removing the silk is fascinating. It is pulled and stretched, then wet down, then stretched some more!

The costs were fairly reasonable for comforters and pillows made from the authentic Chinese silk.

I left the silk factory more knowledgeable about a process that began thousands of years ago. I didn’t purchase a big silk blanket, but I did get a change purse and 3 silk kimonos for wine bottles. 🙂

Our tour director brought us next to a giant grocery and trinket store.  It was fun to look at the different products and the designs on the packaging.

The next few hours were spent in the “original” China Town!

We enjoyed walking through the marketplace, checking out loads of food options. I enjoyed a Chinese Pizza- which was fried with green onions and powdered cheese! It was chewy and really hit the spot!

There was a great selection of local art and I enjoyed watching one artist practice his craft: finger tip painting! The architecture of the buildings in this area were exactly what you would imagine China to look like. Really so beautiful.

Just adjacent to the market was an ancient Chinese garden. Our guide said that this garden contained 600 different plants and flowers. The ancient gardens were designed to have nature in perfect harmony with the man made buildings to achieve balance.

The giant dragon was unique to see in a private garden because dragons were only allowed to be displayed in the homes of emperors. Occasionally, as was the case of this garden, the emperor could grant permission to a person of clout.

In one part of the garden there were two trees planted next to each other. “These trees are referred to as Old Husband and Young Wife,” said our guide. The Ginko Biloba Tree was 400 years old and the Magnolia Tree only 100!

I enjoyed the serenity of the reading room surrounded by the brook and the trees. The steel lion in the photos was 700 years old.

We walked for quite a while to get back to the bus after visiting the Garden. I enjoyed stolling along and taking photos of some of the interesting and beautiful things I saw. One thing that struck me was the brooms that they used to clean the street- all made of twigs!

After eating our final dinner in Shanghai, we headed to the riverbank area, known as the Bund,  to hop on a river cruise down the Huangpu River. We paid extra to get seats on the top deck of the ship, and it was so worth it! The colors were truly awesome! Our tour guide said, “Shanghai is a beautiful woman who wears too much make-up at night.”

What an amazing end to this Chinese adventure. I enjoyed this trip tremendously, and found that China is not the oppressive place that many Americans seem to envision. I found the people to be happy and no one seemed to be lacking for anything (aside from unlimited drinking water!?).

I learned a few new words in a language I new nothing of, and I even understood how to determine the worth of 100 Yuans.

I can’t wait for my next adventure. The wanderlust in me is real.

-HC

The time I fell in a manhole in Xi’an, China… (China travels, part 2 of 3)

After three days of touring Beijing and surrounding areas, we hopped on a China Eastern Airlines flight to Xi’an. That flight made me wonder if I’d make it to Xi’an. The turbulence was so dramatic, I would have completely bounded out of my seat if I hadn’t been strapped in.  In the airport, I enjoyed just wandering through the various shops before take off. The selection of various “goodies” is really interesting- although half the time I had no idea what I was looking at!

When we got to Xi’an, we loaded the bus and set out for the ancient city wall that encircles the city. This wall was built during the Ming Dynasty around 1370 according to our guide. The wall encircles the entire “old part” of the city, and was built, much like the Great Wall, using bricks put together with sticky rice. I would say that rice to the ancient Chinese people is sort of like our duct tape- multi purpose and holds stuff together! Ha!

The wall is hardly recognizable as a wall once you climb the stairs to get up on it. It seems more like a really wide walkway and feels like you are on a bridge. We entered through the South Gate and rented bikes for an hour. This is a very popular thing to do- there were loads of people riding their bikes. The bikes were 10 Yuan for an hour. (In US dollars that would be roughly $1.42).  When I got on my bike, I realized that this was not necessarily going to be “smooth sailing” down the wall, because the wall’s floor was extremely uneven- like cobblestone with square rocks! It was a bumpy ride! (See below the photos of the wall- I posted the video I tried to take while riding my bike!)

 

After our biking adventure we went to a local restaurant for dinner. Once again, the food was served family style, with all sorts of interesting options. The photo on the top right of the collage below shows a fried duck that was part of the meal. When the server put that plate down, she took out a knife and cut the head off- I guess so no one would mistake it for an edible part?

After dinner we walked a few blocks to catch the bus to the hotel. On the way, I bought a funky little Chinese recorder from a street vendor and played music whilst I walked! One day I hope to be able to play a tune on this thing as well as the salesman did…

Before we left the restaurant,  I stopped to catch a little of the Chinese television broadcast. I saw either news, singing shows, or old-time Chinese soap operas whenever I passed by a television.

 

The hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, was modern, clean, and located in a convenient part of Xi’an. The air conditioner was working fairly well, and the beds were significantly better than the brick beds of yore!  I also never had a single regret in taking up suitcase space with my traveling box fan. It honestly was a great thing to have since some of the hotel AC units were not exactly “cold”.

The breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express was the best one of the trip. According to tour guide Molly, there are more varieties of noodles in Xi’an than anywhere! “People love their noodles here,” she says. “One really popular noodle is called BANG BANG noodles, because when they stretch the noodles on the machine, they make a bang bang sound! In this city, a woman is only considered a good wife if she can make good noodles!”

Not only were there great hot and cold options, but there was a soup bar manned by a cook. I was able to have fresh wantons, cooked in front of me, served in a delicious soup! Breakfast of CHAMPIONS! I have no idea what was in those wantons, but they were scrumptious!

The highlight of our next day was our visit to the Terra Cotta Museum. This was one of the places I was so excited to see, and it did not disappoint. The site is beautifully kept, with flowers and trees covering acres and acres.  Regardless of what the rest of the world has to say, the Chinese people, according to Molly, consider these soldiers and the site of the archaeology work to be “the 8th wonder of the world”.

The excavation sites were fascinating. There are a series of three giant “pits” from which the archaeologist teams are still working from to this day. They have unearthed 8,000 soldiers and they are estimated to be 2200 years old! It was fascinating to learn that the original statues were discovered by a local farmer who was digging a hole for a well. He found some bronze weapons and some old pottery. The first of three “pits” was excavated in the early 1970s, and two more followed. Our guide said, “The Terra Cotta soldiers were buried in the ground by the first dynasty to serve as a burial representation. They were into the ceremony of burial. As a side note, the emperors also insisted that their concubines be buried alive with the dead emperor! Yes, human sacrifices!”

The Bronze charriot and horses were the first Pit (3) that we visited. When this was unearthed, it was broken into 1,555 pieces. It took 8 years for the chariots to be put back together. The expert archaeologists could tell amazing things from studying the horses once they were completed. According to our guide, they had teeth that indicated the horses were six years old. They also had tassles dangling from their heads, which indicated the high social clout of the riders.

In PIT 2, we were able to see the actual site where the horses and cavalry men were buried. They are still working every night, for hours, after the museum closes, to put more of the soldiers and horses together. It takes up to 2 years to complete the restoration of ONE soldier! According to our guide, the soldiers were buried in a pit five meters deep. The pit was covered with a wooden roof. When the ancient people covered the pit and roof, the wood collapsed under the weight, which is why all the statues fell down into pieces and were damaged. I can’t even fathom having the patience to dig out all those pieces and put them all together. Seeing the massive scope of this project left me exasperated!

The soldiers are all human size, the tallest being six feet. Out of all 8000 uncovered, only the kneeling archer had no damage. He even maintained his original color. Many of the soldiers have facial hair. The guide said, “Soldiers had to have a mustache in order to be considered handsome.”

One of the most interesting thing about these soldiers is that no two faces are the same. Every single man had a different face. The guide said that this was because the emperor called on all of the men in the area to come and pose for the sculptors. The artists created these men from the clay found on the nearby Li Chen Mountain. This is, apparently, the ONLY place where scientists say the clay is the quality of these statues. When word got out about this clay, tourists and locals flocked to the mountain to dig up their own helpings of the clay- so much so that the Chinese government had to shut down the mountain for fear the clay would disappear.

PIT number 1 was the largest and last pit that we visited. They uncovered 3,000 soldiers from this pit alone. For Jackie Chan fans, his movie “The Myth” was filmed in Pit number 1.

After leaving the Terra Cotta Museum, we headed to a local art museum, called the Tang Bo Museum, where we had a guided tour through the art followed by a calligraphy lesson. The guide in the museum was so knowledgeable about the art and shared wonderful bursts of history with each section of the museum. She walked us through not only the history of the art, but also the particular mediums that each was done in. The painting with the woman and child on the horse was particularly interesting. She told us that the piece was called “Visiting the In Laws”, and it represented the promise that husbands make to the wife’s parents at the wedding to return their daughter twice each year to show that they still love the parents. The return on the solstice and the Chinese New Year in order to pray and ensure a good crop for the coming year.  The bottom left photo is of a Chinese shadow puppet. These were displayed on a wall and we were allowed to touch them. I was surprised to realize that they were cut from plastic! They would put these in front of a light screen and have puppet shows. The crazy part, however, is that the audience never saw any of the color- they could only see the shadow of the puppet!

After enjoying the art, we were led into a large classroom and given a paintbrush, rice paper and ink. The rice paper was smooth on one side and rough on the other. “You only paint on the rough side,” instructed Wang, our teacher.  She instructed us in the development of Chinese characters and we drew out 6 different characters. This was quite an experience! It is not as easy as it looks! (Some of my examples are in the photo in the middle on the right).

 

After we worked hard to copy the history of Chinese figure writing, we left the wonderful art museum and headed to the Muslim Quarter Street Market. Our local tour guide told us that the Muslims came to China in the 7th century, but were upset to be so far from home. They lamented, and eventually began to be referred to as the “Hui” nationality, which means “go home”, because they wanted to leave China.

This market was a mix of food and trinket shops. When I say food, I should warn that it is really NOT the place for vegans or vegetarians! There is meat displayed every three to four feet all through the marketplace! There is nothing to disguise the meat, either. Our tour guide Molly said, “I do not recommend you eat the meats in the marketplace. You don’t know how it will be for you. American stomachs are not like Chinese stomachs. Sometimes we don’t know how long that meat has been sitting around…” With that kind of intro, I don’t think meat would be on anyone’s bucket list for that visit!

It was sort of shocking to see full carcasses being picked apart right on the street. Refrigeration is not something that is necessary in China- not for drinks and not for meat!  Every time I bought a water bottle, it was always room temperature or warmer- even when it APPEARED to be in a cooler. (The refill stations at the airport came in two temperatures: warm and hot).

I enjoyed the shops and the people were eager to bargain. I went in to one shop in search of a larger bag to take home. I saw a giant duffle bag that would be perfect. It was a “North Face” bag, so I figured it would be way overpriced even though I knew it was fake. For the heck of it, I asked the store clerk if it was real North Face. He smiled wide and said, “Oh yes! North Face made in China!”  He started out asking 400 yuans for it, and I talked him down to $180. In US  Dollars that was roughly $25.75. Not too bad!

There were numerous stands that sold those bright yellow and brown cake-looking things. My roommate and I both assumed it was some sort of pineapple cake. She ended up getting one only to realize that the yellow part was yellow rice and the dark brown was a soy sauce glaze! I’m sure it was tasty, but not when you are expecting cake!

I had perhaps one of the worst experiences of the trip in the Muslim Marketplace. It was situational irony at its absolute best.  I was walking down the street, just looking around at everything- I’m always trying to fully soak in my surroundings. I noticed this dude in a manhole, literally brimming with wires. I thought it was such an odd sight that I actually took his picture! As I walked past him, I stepped on a “fake” manhole cover, it completely gave way, and I FELL IN THE MANHOLE!! I remember thinking, “Holy CRAP! (Okay, maybe I may have used other expletives.) I’m in a Chinese manhole!”

I looked down and really couldn’t see the bottom. I was hanging there, holding on with my elbows, petrified to move. My forearms were shaking, but I was frozen in shock at my situation. The falling had caused a “dent” in my right shin, but the worse wound was on my upper thigh, just below my hip. I was bleeding and had a massive bruise, about the size of a piece of bread. The entire scene was sort of surreal, and happened relatively quickly. I remember a strong arm grabbing my right arm and yanking me up from the manhole. It was a police officer, who, as soon as he set me back on the sidewalk, began yelling at the streetwalkers. I couldn’t understand his words, but there was no mistaking his angry tone!

I stumbled forward and felt the sharp pain in my upper leg. My arms felt weak from holding my body weight above ground. There is no telling what might have happened had I not been able to hold myself. I believe it was a LONG WAY DOWN. I shudder to think what might have been at the bottom! Rats? City Sludge? Thankfully I will never know.

Below I wanted to share a video of one of the “street butchers” just to really show how this animal meat carving thing went down on the streets. When I first saw this guy, I did a double take about what he was doing. Then, as humans are wont to do, I stayed with a sense of morbid curiosity. That knife just chiseled away at those ribs. It was quite a sight to see. I kept hearing Molly’s warning in my mind- “you don’t know how long this meat has been around, so don’t eat it.” It was such an interesting place- festive music playing in the background with this butcher standing on a stool happily carving the meat from the bones…

 

Our next stop was the Tang Dynasty Dinner show. While we enjoyed a delicious pre-show dinner, I interviewed a few of the folks who saw me fall into the manhole. Since no one took my photo in the manhole, I wanted their “take” on what it really looked like…

 

The dinner was probably my favorite of all thus far. We had a delicious 5- course meal including a dumpling salad, a black mushroom consomme, a tender plate of king prawn and fish with glazed cashews, a plate of fillet of beef with sweet and sour sauce and rice, an orange sago, and a platter of “Dim Sum”, which are Chinese cookies. They also served Jasmine tea.

The Tang Dynasty theater was breathtakingly beautiful. The costumes and stage were so full of color and radiance it almost hurt to look at it for too long! The music, performed by a live orchestra, was beautiful and powerful. The performance on stage was to relay the history of the Tang Dynasty, which, according to our guide, was the most prosperous in the history of the 13 dynasties in China.

We made it back to the hotel for one last night before departing for Shanghai the next morning. I would have enjoyed one more day to explore in Xi’an. It was surprisingly bigger than I anticipated, and I never realized it was once the imperial capital of China. I learned a great deal in this town- perhaps most importantly to look down occasionally whence I wander.

The China Eastern flight to Shanghai was MUCH smoother than my previous flight, but the food was horrible. Oh, well. You can’t win them all!

Stay tuned for part 3 of my travels through China, coming soon!  Next up: Shanghai!

-HC

Ni hao! from Beijing, China (part 1 of 3)

After three hours on a flight from Atlanta to Toronto, and fourteen hours aboard an Air Canada flight to China, landing in Beijing was such a pleasure! Before hitting immigration, all travelers were finger printed, video taped, and photographed. There were literally cameras everywhere. Even when we left the airport, I saw cameras on the streets every three to four feet.

The time was 4:30pm, and I had not truly realized just how discombobulated my body would be with a twelve hour time change! We loaded the bus and went to our first stop: dinner! when we got off the bus I realized that what appears to be a sidewalk is actually a bike and motorbike lane- and those with wheels do not stop for pedestrians !

“Ni Hao” is the first phrase that I learned in Chinese. Molly told us that it literally means “You Good”. The phrase is used to greet people and just say hello. It is used at all times of day or night.

The restaurant was also my first realization that the bathrooms in China were nothing like our standardized toilets in America. They were mostly “squatty-potty” style holes in the ground, where it took some practice to avoid back-splash on shoes. The Chinese also practice a BYOTP system- Bring Your Own Toilet Paper. The prepared traveler should also keep hand sanitizer within reach because soap is not stocked in these lavatories. They are, after all, called TOILETS, and decidedly NOT washrooms!  On a side note- tour guide Molly calls the toilet “the happy room, because after you release you are happy!”

squatty potty

Dinner was served family style on the largest “lazy Susan” I’ve ever seen. Plate after plate of different dishes were placed around the circular dial. Prior to the trip, I slowly introduced some meat back into my pescatarian diet, fearing that I would have nothing to eat if I didn’t eat meat. As a diabetic, rice isn’t a great option for my pesky blood sugars! At this first Chinese dinner-I tried everything: pork, chicken, duck, fish, eggplant, and tofu! The food was good, but could have used a bit more seasoning.

The availability of drinkable water is limited to bottles in China- the tap water is not fit for human consumption, according to tour guide Molly. Unfortunately, water bottles are not always accessible in restaurants, and when they are available, they are usually served warm or room temperature at best. There are rarely beverages served cool and never cold. I don’t think I had a single ice sighting in all of my time in China! Even in the airports, the “drinkable” water fountains to refill bottles with came with two options: warm and hot. I found myself, as the trip went on, hording my water bottles for fear of running out!

After dinner we headed for the hotel: Juandong Jian Hui. On the way there, tour guide Molly warned us about Chinese beds. “They are not soft like American beds! Our beds are hard! My mom always said, ‘hard beds are good for your back!'”

Our hotel was very nice, and the rooms were clean. The beds were indeed some of the hardest beds I’ve ever slept on, but I actually like a hard bed, so I was fine. One of the ladies on the trip was not happy with the showers- they were very slippery- but I thought the accommodations were really good!

I will say that traveling with insulin is always sort of a pain because, as I mentioned earlier, ice is a rare commodity in countries outside the USA. There are no ice machines in the hotels, and even the convenient stores don’t sell it! There are no mini fridges and ice buckets are nowhere to be found. I did, with the help of some charades and my translation app (google is blocked in China), manage to befriend a front desk employee who finally understood that I needed a bag of ice.

I fell asleep quickly on the brick bed, and slept soundly until about 4:00am. I awakened after being freaked out by a disturbing Orwellian dream. A rat, with a clear tag on its head, was biting my big toe. I tried to scream, to warn my roommate Nancy, but I had no voice. Not a sound came out. I kicked at the rat and it fell off my bed and ran up the side of Nancy’s bed right towards her head. I tried to warn her, but my silent screams could not! I woke up at that point and there was no getting back to sleep.

I read for a couple hours and headed to the breakfast buffet, which had an unbelievable variety of foods! I had a fried egg, a piece of whole wheat toast, some egg soup, some watermelon, A scoop of noodles, a helping of spinach, and a very watery yogurt. I told my roommate, “I always eat when I can- you never know when your next meal will be!” Tour guide Molly told me that in the Chinese zodiac, I am the Boar. This apparently means that I will never worry about food. Ha!

Our first stop of the day was to visit the Beijing Opera school. This is a boarding school where kids come from all over China to study the arts. If they choose to study opera it is free. If they study dance or music it is expensive. The Chinese government has offered opera as a free option to ensure that it doesn’t die out of the culture.

School in China is mandatory and free until kids are 15. At that point, they decide if they want to pay to go on to technical school, to further academic study, or go into the workforce, avoiding the costs of further education. The government used to push all kids to white collar jobs, but they realized that they NEEDED skilled workers, so they reconfigured the schooling tracks to meet societal needs.

We walked through the halls, where classical piano music was blaring from speakers. Looking in the classroom windows, I could see students involved with music and drama. The girls in one class dressed in blue t-shirts and black pants and the other class wore black t-shirts with black pants. The boys didn’t seem to have any required uniform. We visited three different classrooms where students were getting dance instruction. The students were eager to perform for us, and many of their routines included lots of acrobatic moves. Much of what they did was repetitive movement… and the teachers were providing “orders” from the side. No clue what they said of course!

 

 

The students interacted with our group and showed us some of their moves. Before leaving, our group gave the students souvenirs we brought from the US.

Our next stop was the Summer Palace. This Palace, about 9 minutes from downtown Beijing, was built in 1750 by the emperor Qianlong. At almost 3 million square meters, it is the largest royal park in China. It was at this park that I learned about THE DRAGON LADY- who essentially “ruled” from 1835 until her death in 1908. Her real name was Empress Dowager Cixi, but she called herself the Dragon Lady. She started out as a concubine. Yes, a concubine. She was delivered to the Forbidden City at the age of 16 to be a mistress of Emperor Xianfeng’s harem. (Rumors suggest he may have had up to 3,000 concubines in his harem!)  The emperor allegedly heard her sing, and began calling for her every night. Even in ancient China a woman could begin life as a man’s mistress and sleep her way into power.

Luck was on her side because the Dragon Lady had the coveted boy baby of the then emperor. When the emperor died, the Dragon Lady made sure that her son, only 9 years old at the time, was declared the new Emperor. Through the “care” of her 9 year old son, she indirectly ruled the empire. When her son died as a teenager, she arranged for her 4 year old nephew to become the next emperor, and so her power continued. There are entire books written about this resourceful woman, with rumors of crazy sexual exploits, embezzlement, and draconian rule! I plan to check out a bio in the coming months.

The grounds of the Summer Palace are rich with Chinese culture. There are lions on guard and art and carvings galore. I actually heard the local tour guide say that there are 3,000 man-made structures, pavillions, bridges, and statues on the property.

Walking the grounds revealed a beautiful, tranquil pond area that ran along what is known as “The Long Corridor”, which is actually the longest long corridor in the world, according to our guide. It runs from the base of Longevity Hill all the way along Kunming Lake. The Emperor Qianlong had the covered walkway built for his mother, so she could go outside for walks even if it was raining.  These covered corridors are extremely popular and are featured in many of the royal and historical places around China.

The boat in the photo below was parked on the lake. The boat is known as both The Marble Boat and the Boat of Purity and Ease.

After leaving the palace, we made our way to the famous Tian Anmen Square. This square, in the center of Beijing, is called Tiananmen, which means the gate of heavenly peace. The square is famous for it’s Tiananmen Tower, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Grade Hall of the People, and the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. The Monument, which is pictured below, is the largest in China’s history. Sadly, this square is not best known for it’s flag ceremonies and monuments- it is perhaps most notorious for the massacre of protesters that happened in 1989. In that year, protesters demonstrated for democracy and the Chinese government opened fire on them, killing thousands. Because of this massacre and the human rights that were violated, the United States imposed economic sanctions on China.

Today, the square is a public meeting area that serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City, which was constructed in the early 1400s by the Ming Dynasty and remains the largest ancient architectural complex in China, according to our tour guide.

The Forbidden City exhibits the lavish lifestyle of the Chinese Dynasties.  It was called “forbidden”, according to our local guide, because “only the imperial families and important officials to the family were allowed inside. The public was forbidden.”

The giant red gates were adorned with nine rows of golden nails. This is because, according to our tour guide, “Nine was a number that only emperors used. It was a number that represented the top power.”

Our guide also explained that the lions who stand guard all over China actually come in both male and female varieties. The males, coincidentally, can be identified because their paw is always leaning on a ball, while the female is not.

Colors plays a significant role in the Chinese culture. Red is the national color of China, and it represents happiness, good luck, and good fortune. Yellow is the color of royalty and stands for power and money.  These two colors are literally all over the royal places that we visited.

The rooftoop close up below sheds light on another interesting tidbit about the way that the architecture reflects the history. According to our guide, the more animals that are lined up on the roof, the more powerful the person is who is living there. In all my days in China, I never saw a roof with more animals than this roof inside the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was a really interesting place. I found myself intrigued by the names that they gave to the buildings. The Palace of Heavenly Purity, The Palace of Union and Peace, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility were a few that we visited.

Our next stop was dinner, where we would have our special Peking Duck meal. The restaurant had the chefs carving up the birds for all to see. The meat was put on a platter, and, once again, all the food was served family style on the humongous lazy Susan.

After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel with a pit stop at the local convenience store, where we explored the aisles. Some of the flavors were interesting and pretty unappetizing to me! I bought some Chinese cookies to bring home to my family, and headed back to the hotel.

The second day in Beijing was our highly anticipated visit to the GREAT WALL OF CHINA. The ride was under two hours from Beijing by bus, and the mountains provided a beautiful view along the way. Molly filled some of our ride with Chinese lessons. We learned that the Chinese people use only one hand to count up to nine, and she showed us how. She also taught us that “Ma ma Ho ho means just so-so, and Ding ding hao is the best.”

We stopped to visit the Badaling region section of the Great Wall, which is the most visited section of the wall. The actual length of the wall runs over 5,500 miles.  The history of the wall is both interesting and shocking. Building started with the Qin Dynasty back in 221 BC. During those days, they used STICKY RICE to serve as the mortar for the bricks. Who knew that rice was so versatile?

The Great Wall, according to our guide, has also been called the longest cemetery, because of all the human bones found around it- close to one million people died building the wall.

The climb was steeper than I imagined it would be, and some of the rocks in the wall were worn down and slick- had it been raining, the hike might have been even a bit treacherous for climbers with slippery soles.  The views of the mountains and the winding wall were nearly overwhelming. I was feeling breathless, but adrenaline propelled me up to nearly the third tier watchtower. Sadly, the steps did me in and I stopped just shy of that height. I stood there for a while and soaked in the land, the history, and the age of it all. I thought about all the people who had visited this wall in hopes of learning more about the people who lived so long ago, in the times of emperors and dynasties. The walk back down was easy, and I enjoyed some time to wander around the little town of Badaling.

When I came down from the wall, I had some time to wander the shops before getting back on the bus. The workers in the shops in China are very intense. They follow each shopper closely, continually suggestive selling all the exciting products- fans, tea cups, snowglobes, Great Wall replicas, and kimonos.

After the Great Wall experience, we headed back to Beijing for our TEA CEREMONY lesson. This was done at a local tea shop, and it was truly informative about the different types of tea in China. Our Guide showed us the different teas, and had us smell four different scents including a jasmine and rose tea, a green tea, a fruity tea, and a ginseng tea. She showed us how to use the little filters that come with most tea cups sold in the country.  After reading the novel The Teagirl of Hummingbird Lane, I was really excited about this tea ceremony. Many of the descriptions of the teas from that novel were found right in that little tea shop.

After the tea ceromony, we headed to the Hutong district. Again, I recalled this area from the Teagirl novel, and was excited to visit. When we got to the neighborhood, there were some less than desirable smells in the streets- still not sure what I was smelling. This area was made up of tiny streets only wide enough for very compact cars and motorbikes. The homes in this area did not have their own bathrooms; families had to share local public toilets- we passed two on our way to our dinner location. For our dinner, we were dining at a local home in the Hutong neighborhood. Below is a photo of the cook and his wife. They cooked us platters of four different dishes, along with a giant bowl of rice. They also had fried Chinese donuts for us. My use of chopsticks, by the way, was nearly at the expert level at this point!

After our local dinner, we went to the park around the corner, where we met with a Tai Chi instructor and had a lesson. Our instructor, dressed in red, made the moves of this meditative activity look much easier than it was!

img_2019-1

Our final experience in the Hutong area was to hop in a rickshaw for a ride around the streets. As I hopped up in the carriage, I felt like I was on an episode of the Amazing Race! We went all through those tiny Hutong streets- in places our bus tours and even walking tours had not visited.

img_2001-1

The last evening in Beijing was spent at the Red Theater, where we watched the Legend of KungFU. A local school was lined up next to the entrance with us, and the boys were all so excited to see this show. This show was touted “the most exciting Kungfu show in the world!” According to the Deputy Irish Ambassador to China, “This show is more energetic than River Dance.”

The show was high energy and exciting. The acrobats and Kungfu fighting was thrilling, and even a bit stressful- like when the star of the show was pressed between beds of nails!

We woke up and checked out of the hotel. We were headed to the airport to fly to Xi’an, but not before making a pit stop at the famous Temple of Heaven.  This place was a place where the emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties came twice a year to worship and pray for good harvests. The first visit, according to our tour guide, was twelve days after the Chinese New Year and the second visit was at the winter solstice. They worshiped by prepping their sacrifice- sheep, Buffalo, and other animals. The emperor fasted one week before- which meant he could have no meat and no women! He moved to the temple three days before to get away from temptation. (Had he not moved to the temple, there is no telling if he could have stayed away from all those concubines!?)

Three colors are represented in the buildings of the Temple of Heaven. Blue is for heavens, yellow stands for the emperor, and green stands for the common people.

The architecture and history in Beijing was amazing. Overwhelmed might explain the way that I felt as I tried to keep up with the sights and sounds around me. Although there were cameras all over the place, by the second day I no longer noticed them. I was surprised at how unoppressive the city felt, quite honestly. There was not really much police force visible anywhere, and I saw no militia at all. According to tour guide Molly, “China is the safest county. Guns are not allowed here, so it is very safe.” I also was impressed at how clean the streets were. There was never any trash anywhere, and there was not a single bit of graffiti on any walls anywhere in the city.

Our next stop was Xi’an- home of the Terra-cotta warriors. I’m working to finish up my blog about that amazing place. Stay tuned!

-HC

 

 

VIOLET

Here is a story that I wrote for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2019. I came in 3rd in my heat, so I’m moving on to the 2nd round.  The assignment for the first round was to write a drama that involved a pet sitter and a fiance. The word limit was 2500 words.

Violet

The two dogs were barking and jumping at the door when Fiona, the owner (and lone employee) of Fiona’s Critter Sitting Service let herself into the dark house. She switched on the hall light and made her way straight back to the kitchen, where the two pups anxiously awaited their liberation. She quickly unlocked the door to the backyard and the dogs bounded off the creaky porch.

Fiona filled the food and water bowls before sitting at the oak table to read the lengthy note from Mr. Hart. His notes, written in loopy cursive letters on a yellow legal pad, got longer and longer with each visit. Fiona didn’t mind, however–the notes were filled with not only details about his travels, but also with little glimpses into his love story with Violet. He was completely smitten by this woman. He explained to Fiona that their love story was a most improbable love–not forbidden- just improbable, since he was considerably older than Violet, and society didn’t always look favorably on such love. Their story was, nevertheless, inspiring to Fiona, who was beginning to wonder if she would ever meet her own soul mate.

Fiona had been to the house many times, as Mr. Hart was gone for varying durations throughout the year. She felt like she knew Mr. Hart quite well now between his pre-travel phone calls and his handwritten notes. He was an expressive, passionate man who loved to travel and was deeply in love with Violet. Last month, he had called Fiona to explain a new treatment she would need to give one of his pups. At one point in the conversation he asked Fiona to hold for a moment. She imagined that he muffled the phone with his hand, because she barely heard him say, “I’ll be there in just a minute, my darling.”  

When he returned to the phone, he spoke in a more hushed tone. “Fiona. You cannot know the joy that is in me as I prepare for our trip to St. Lucia. I have arranged so many surprises for my Violet. We will be dining privately on the sand one night–enjoying the most sumptuous seafood and island drinks together. Oh, and another day we will behold the beauty of the island by helicopter. We will see the island’s lush rainforests and coral reefs, and even the Soufriere Volcano! She will never forget this trip! How wonderful life is, Fiona!”

Fiona often wondered if Violet appreciated Mr. Hart. She wondered how old Violet was. He said she was younger than him, but by how much? Ten years? Twenty? She never met Violet in the times she’d met with Mr. Hart, but she imagined that she was beautiful and probably intelligent, too. After all, Mr. Hart was a very smart man. Fiona knew this not just from the detailed notes he scribed, but she had often noted the hundreds of books he kept on the antique shelves in his sitting room. She had read through numerous spines and seen some of the most impressive penames: Shakespeare, Keats, Updike, Austin, Dickens, and Hemingway, just to name a few.

During her last visit, she had spent time looking at the photos on the mantle– there was one of Mr. Hart in front of the Westminster Abbey, one of him covering his white hair with a straw hat on a dark-sand beach, and one of him holding up a lobster at an outdoor restaurant next to a dock. When he called her to set up this visit she asked him why Violet wasn’t in any of the photographs. He replied, “Why, she takes the photos, my dear!”

When Mr. Hart interviewed Fiona, over a year ago, she recalled him being slightly agitated and nervous about having someone coming in and out of his house. She had assured him that she was a professional, and that she was bonded and insured. They talked about her experience, her hobbies, her family, and her schooling. Mr. Hart seemed pleased with their hour-long interview and he hired her. She found herself completely taken with Mr. Hart and his caring soul. He was the most romantic man she’d ever met, and she began to eagerly anticipate the adventures that Mr. Hart described.

Fiona kicked off her sandals and began to read the yellow note on the table.

Fiona,

Thank you for caring for my beloved pups. Violet and I will return late Sunday evening. Please be sure that you come early Sunday evening in case we get in too late. Remember to give the girls their chondroitin each night; their joints seem to be less achy when they take it. I left pig ears for you to give them in the morning. They love those. As always, also make sure they have plenty of water.

As I told you, Violet and I are staying in Paris this week with my sister. She lives just a few blocks from the Tuileries Gardens, in that magical city where I met my beloved Violet. I plan to take Violet to all the places that we went to when we first met.

I think that I’ve told you that it was love at first sight with us. I saw her sitting in a little cafe up in Montmartre. She was sipping wine and eating bread, watching the local artists paint the Paris skyline. I sat down two tables over and just watched her- completely awed by her beauty. Twice she caught me looking at her and I looked away. The third time, it became a game to see who would look away first. Finally, I got up and walked to her.

“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked her.

“No, cherie,” she answered. “Would you care to join me?”

I sat down with her and we talked until the chairs were stacked all around us and the wine had long been dry in our glasses.

“May I have your number, Violet?” I asked her.

She wrote it down on the bottom of an old receipt. I remember caressing the paper as though it was her cheek. She had touched it and now I was touching it. There was a kinetic energy that ran through every cell in my body.

I called her the next day, and found that she was free. We spent the entire day together, and I knew there was no turning back for me. We ended that day on a wooden park bench, eating crêpes “avec le sucre et beurre”.

“Could you consider loving me, Violet?” I asked bravely. “You are young and beautiful and I am an old man.”

Instead of answering me, on that radiant day, she leaned over and kissed me. Her eyes were closed and when our lips touched, I began to shake uncontrollably. She pulled away and smiled. “Consider it? I demand it!” she said, with a smile that positively ruined me.

I hope that you enjoy your week. I will miss my pups, but they know how much I need this special time with Violet.

Fiona left that night feeling wistful. She yearned for the kind of connection that Mr. Hart and Violet seemed to have–the stuff of fairy tales and fireworks and passion. Their story had reignited Fiona’s belief that such a love did exist. It was rare, but it was still possible.

Two weeks later, on a Monday evening, Fiona pulled in to Mr. Hart’s driveway for her scheduled pet sit. Oddly, there was a car in the driveway that she had never seen before. She went to the front door and unlocked it with the key Mr. Hart had given her. The light in the hall was on, and she heard a voice yell from the kitchen, “Hello? Who is it?”

“It’s Fiona,” She responded, as she walked toward the voice, “from Fiona’s Critter Sitting Service. I’m here to take care of the pups!”

An elderly woman sat at the oak table, going through a box of old papers. Her hair was white, and she had a striking resemblance to Mr. Hart. “Well, you won’t need to come here anymore,” she said, looking up from her list. “My brother’s dead. Thank you for your services, my brother trusted you.”

Fiona felt her cheeks burn and chills spread down her arms all the way to her fingertips. “Oh, no!” she gasped. “And you’ve come all the way from Paris! How terrible! What happened?”

“Paris?” the woman asked incredulously. “What would give you that idea? I’ve lived here in this town for over seventy years! My brother died of a reaction to a new psychotic medication he was given last week. His heart just couldn’t take it. Nothing has worked for him all these years, and the doctors thought this might. Such a shame that no one could help him.”

“B..but… I don’t understand!” Fiona said, bewildered. “What about Violet? Does she know?”

“Violet?” asked the woman. “Who is Violet?”

Fiona looked at the woman as she fought the realization that was slowly permeating her brain. “Oh, no. This is so tragic,” Fiona said in a whisper. “Violet was the love of his life. He told me all about their love story. It was…truly… breathtaking.”

“There was no Violet, my dear,” the woman said more matter-of-factly. “My brother suffered from a diseased mind. He did have an active imagination at times.”

The woman realized that Fiona was deeply hurt by this news. She reached into the box and pulled a yellowed newspaper out and held it up for Fiona to see. “Here’s an editorial the local paper published when they first heard my brother was let out. The doctors found him responding well enough to the drugs to leave the ward. He was able to live on his own for several weeks at a time, as long as he took his medication. But oh, my brother hated the side effects of the medication. He spent his life making frequent plans to stop taking it. He knew, after years of treatment, that he would lose all sense of reality after a day or two,  so he would plan to leave his pups taken care of before he ventured out. We’d always find him down by the old bridge and bring him back to the ward to get himself readjusted and back on track.”

“But the pictures on the mantle?” Fiona asked softly.

“My brother lived alone with nothing but his books, and, in recent years, his computer. He became a master with photoshop. They do look impressively real,” she answered with a wishful smile.

“Oh, I see,” said Fiona, heartbroken. She held the article in her hands and read the headline. “No One Deserves a Psychopath Living Next Door”. She couldn’t bring herself to read the article. It was all too much for her to take in. She thanked the woman for letting her know and told her, once again, how sorry she was.

Fiona sat in her car, staring at Mr. Hart’s house for the last time. Tears rolled down her cheeks. His sister claimed he died of a reaction to a new drug. She couldn’t help but wonder, however, if it wasn’t a reaction to a moment of clarity- realizing that Violet would never be his fiancee.

“I hope you find her now,” Fiona whispered as she pulled out of the driveway.

-HC

p.s. In round 2, which is due tonight by midnight, I have to write a comedy involving a security guard and a test of strength. Not sure how this will go, but I’m busy at work now!

Put a little poem in your speech…

My blog has suffered from the upswing in my daily grind. A few months ago, I was honored with the title of Teacher of the Year for my district. I was so nervous I thought my legs would give out from under me as I walked to the podium to deliver my speech. Thankfully they told me to write one ahead, just in case, because there’s no telling what kind of babble might have come from my lips had I not had something ready!

Many people have asked me to post my speech, so here it is. The written word cannot detect the shaking legs nor the racing heartbeat that I had as I read these words… but what an unspeakable joy to share my poem with a room filled with teachers and administrators from one hundred and forty three schools…

November 8, 2018

I am just blown away right now. Thank you for this amazing honor. Thanks again to my mentor leaders, fellow teachers, my Principal- Mr. Smith, and my family for all their support and inspiration.

When I think about what is the most important thing that we do as educators, I truly believe that it is MAKING CONNECTIONS WITH ALL KIDS. OPTIMAL Learning takes place if students feel a connection to their teachers.

I am a language Arts teacher, so it’s probably no surprise that  I wrote a little poem about what connecting with kids looks like in MY classroom… I titled it “Connecting With the World In My Classroom”... and thought, if I had the opportunity, I would read it! So, here goes…

I connect with the girl from Saudi Arabia who only makes it to class sporadically-
She’d rather care for her father, dying of pancreatic cancer,
on days when her mom can find work.
I tell her to read while he sleeps and we’ll talk.

I connect with the autistic boy from Israel who responds, “I don’t see what’s so good about it” when I say “good morning” to him each day.
He knows he makes me smile.

I connect with the Ethiopian girl who lost both of her parents when she was four,
lived in an orphanage until she was nine,
and found an adopted home with 10 other kids in America.
She teaches me about optimism and appreciation.

I connect with a girl who saw her family members brutally assaulted
in a home invasion in Somalia before immigrating to the United States.
I’m happy she’s here, and I tell her so.

I connect with an African American girl who works fifty hours a week at a Taco Bell
to support her drug-addicted mother,
and the baby of her brother, who is in prison.
I check on her every day, and never turn her down when she asks for a quarter or a granola bar.

I connect with the brilliant, gay, teenage boy who is trying to find himself.
I tell him to be proud.
I tell him to never be embarrassed by his intelligence and his heart.

I connect with the Jamaican girl who suffers from bipolar disorder and can’t maintain friendships.
I pair her with a shy girl from the Dominican Republic. I saw them laughing yesterday.

I connect with the girl from the United Arab Emirates, who wears her hijab daily.
Her eyes light up when I tell her that she looks pretty.

I connect with the athlete from Lilburn who lost his father, an Air Force officer,
When he was sixteen. I encourage him when he talks to me
About applying to the Academy.
I write a letter to my congressman on his behalf.

I connect with the Puerto Rican girl who has heinous grammar but great passion-
I tell her she’ll be a writer one day,
as I register her for my creative writing course.

I traverse the globe each day.
I learn of foreign lands, lands that I may never see.
I’m inspired by their stories, and they tell me eagerly.
I listen. I have nothing to offer them but an ear and a smile,
And my words.

I am a collector of stories, from people all over the world.
I’m lucky enough to do all this
In a day’s work.

Thank you so much for this absolutely incredible honor. I will do my very best to represent this county with all that I have to give!

-Heidi Campbell

 

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

The trains out of Paris were on strike for the second time in my travels over the last couple of years, so we were rerouted on a coach bus. There were several things that would come to light relatively quickly about this part of our adventure: the ride would be overnight into Milan, the seats could not recline if there was a normal-sized passenger behind you, and the bus would make frequent stops all night long. The stops ended up being roughly every two hours. Sleep was not really something any of us got much of that night.

When we arrived in Milan, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the train station. It was a pre-arranged deal, and I, a diabetic for nearly two decades, was taken aback by the amount of carbohydrates heaped onto my tray. There was a sugar donut, a ciabatta roll with olives nestled into the top, a giant croissant, and some other piece of bread. I nibbled on enough to get by, and we headed out to catch our train to Florence.

As we awaited the train, I looked to find one headed to Florence, but it was not on any boards. I quickly realized that the Italians do not spell Florence the way that we Americans do- it is Firenze in Italy. We boarded the train and that’s the last I remember. Sleep gripped me with the force of warriors.

I woke up and we were nearing the station in Firenze. Our luggage was picked up by a local company, and my pal Stephanie was dubbed the one who would go with the luggage carrier to make the drop off and meet us back. We put her location in our “WhatsApp” so we could track her and hit the ground- headed for our first stop which was at the Piazza Della Signoria. This square became a central meeting place for our time in Firenze. In the center of the square stands a giant statue of Cosimo de Medici- a statue of power that reminds everyone of the most powerful family in Florence history.

Whoever said that the best things in life are free must have visited this Piazza Della Signoria. This open-air, free museum in the heart of Florence is a bustling area of coffee shops, cafes, and art. There are all sorts of sculptures and statues around, including a replica of Michelangelo’s “David”. It was interesting to learn about Michaelangelo. He lived to be 89 years old, and he was a fascinating character. So fascinating, I think I will reread the Agony and the Ecstacy again soon. Apparently, the government felt that the nose on his famous statue was too big. When they were watching, but not carefully, he pretended to chop off parts of the nose, holding decoy scraps of marble in his hand, and dropping them on the ground to simulate the cutting back of the nose. When he was done, he asked the officials if it was better, and, low and behold, they said it was now perfect!

Running along one side of the Piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an area where there are a host of statues including “Perseo”, who is holding Medusa’s head, which I found to be really gripping.

From the center of town, we moved through a narrow street to the Leonardo Leather Works, where we watched and learned how leather products are made. I found it so interesting to learn about the process, and I now know how to tell the difference between real and imitation leather.

Just as the leather presentation was wrapping up, I was summoned by our tour guide, Simon. “Heidi!” He motioned. “I need to see you out here immediately.”

His tone was absolutely not the jocular wit I’d come to appreciate, and I rushed to meet him outside the shop.

“Have you heard from Stephanie?” He asked.

“No,” I answered. “I just tried to call her but I didn’t get an answer.”

“This is not good,” he said, frowning and looking intently at his phone screen. “I’m tracking her location and it seems that the driver is taking her miles outside the city! We must get in touch with her!”

At this point, the thoughts going through my mind were absolutely frantic. I envisioned her being kidnapped by the luggage handler- drugged unconscious, and headed for some sort of scary din that I couldn’t fathom. I texted her again… “Are you okay??” “Where are you?” Nothing.

Just when I thought we would need to call the authorities, Simon heard back from her. She had simply gone on a bit of a sightseeing route back to us. When she finally showed up, I hugged her with more relief than I’d care to admit!

We took a fantastic walking tour of the city next. We made our way through the streets, where our guide pointed out all sorts of interesting things. I was versed on the impact of the Medici family, and realized quickly that their “stamp” was all over the city. They have a family “crest” of sorts, that is adorned with six balls, known as the Medici balls. Five of them are red and one is blue. Once I saw one, I saw them everywhere. While numerous folklore exists about what those balls represented, the most acceptable story seems to be that they represent the medical background of the Medici family- they were doctors and the balls represent pills.

We saw large, cast iron loops along many of the buildings. These were places for people to tie up their horses when they came into the city.

We wandered to the Ponte Vecchio, otherwise known as the Old Bridge. This is the bridge that crosses over Firenze’s Arno River, and is the only bridge to survive the natzi’s during WWII. As we walked to the bridge, strolling through the shops, we learned that this place of expensive jewelers was once a street filled with tanners, meat venders, and smelly fish shops. In the early 1500s, Ferdinand I thought it was too smelly and said that the only shops he wanted in the area were goldsmiths and jewelers. The view from the bridge was lovely, and I knew staring out at the river, that I would have to return to this place of art and romance. One day…

After the walking tour we had a wonderful cheese fondue lunch at a local cafe. They delivered a basket of bread and Brooke, another traveler on the trip, was excited to share the mouth watering delight. Simon couldn’t believe the size of the bread basket, and asked, “do you think you have enough bread?” I told him I hoped so. I think he had to have been impressed with our fortitude when the basket was emptied!

After lunch, we had free time to wander the city. I opted to hit the shopping market and the Duomo. The markets were literally brimming with leather goods. Leather is to Italy what lobsters are to Maine. The vendors were all willing to make deals, and it felt like stepping back in time to be there. One market we strolled through, the Mercato Nuovo, housed a very special sculpture- one that I was thrilled to discover because it was sure to bring me luck. It was a replica of the “Il Porcellino”, which means “the little pig”. The original bronze boar was sculpted in 1634 by an Italian named Pietro Tacca. The pig, according to legend, brings good luck to those who rub his snout. If you put a coin in the boar’s mouth, and the coin makes it to the drain below, it means you will return to Firenze. (Apparently the money collected is donated to a homeless shelter for children.) I am pleased to announce that my luck should be good and I’ll be returning to Firenze!

Stephanie and I decided to spend our last hours at the Piazza del Duomo, home to Il Duomo Firenze, which translates to the Cathedral of St. Mary the Flower.This towering cathedral, the Duomo for short, was built in 1206 and designed by Filipino Brunelleschi. It is the longest Christian church in the world, and the third largest. The grandeur of the dome can be seen all over the city, which makes it, according to Simon, “very difficult to get lost.”

The outside of the church is a mix of pink, white, and green marble. The pink, a light shade of red, stands for charity, the white stands for faith,and the green is hope; all of the marble colors are also the colors of the Italian flag. It is possible to climb the 476 steps into the Duomo for only 8 euros, but we didn’t have the time or the gumption with only a couple hours of sleep the night before. I would love, another time, to attempt these steps to get a closer look at the amazing frescos at the top by the artist Giorgio Vasari.

It is free to enter the Duomo, but the line an be up to two hours. We got lucky and made it in with only a thirty minute wait. Outside, there were plenty of scarf peddlers for those who forgot to cover their shoulders. The Italian churches demand the covering of skin for those entering their holy places.

Our evening ended with a dinner in a little back street at a place called Osteria dei Baroncelli. The food was good, but the tiramisu was devine! The Italians know how to please a palate. Back at the hotel, sleep took over until I awoke to our next day, which had us on the road to Rome…

One can never have too many gargoyles… Paris, France 2018

I’m a sucker for gargoyles. I know that my affinity for these little winged gutter spouts would not be the desired response of the cathedral builders, but I find them irresistible. I told myself, as I neared the city, that I didn’t need to buy any Paris goodies since it was less than two years since I last visited my favorite city. I knew, however, as soon as I saw the tiny, spitting gargoyle, that he would have to join my growing flock of gargoyles at home in Atlanta. In the early days of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, many believed that the gargoyles scared away evil spirits. If this is true, why WOULDN’T I want to line my house with them? can one ever have too many gargoyles?

We arrived in Paris on the Eurostar train from London. Once we got on board, the trek was swift and seamless. Getting on the train with all of our luggage, however, is a major hassle. Hoisting my suitcase up the stairs practically killed me, and I had to schlep it to another train car because the one I was assigned was completely full. Needless to say, if you travel by train- less is best.  It was interesting to

We left the train station by coach bus, and rode into the city. I felt a smile working it’s way out of my soul as we made our way into my all-time favorite city. There is a special vibe in Paris that just sits right with me. It is like no other city. I don’t know if my love of Paris stems from my French roots or whether it is my love of the food, music, and art- but there will never be a day when I’d turn down a trip to Paris.

We passed by all sorts of wonderful landmarks-des Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Dome Des Invalides & Tomb of Napoleon. For some reason, I can’t see the Champs Elysees without breaking out into song… “Oh… Champs-Elysees!”. (Later in the trip I irritated Simon by singing “Istanbul was Constantinople” each time he spoke of Turkey.)  We got out of the bus along the backside of the Place de Trocadero, and were able to get some beautiful (and comical) photos of the Eiffel Tower. It was a bit hazy, but we were happy that the predicted rain stayed away.

We walked back to the bus and I noted the trash cans that contain clear bags. These trash cans were the solution to keeping bombs out of trash cans. Some cities have simply pulled trash cans all together- seems like this is a better way of keeping the streets clean- and safe!

The second part of our day was a tour of the Palace of Versailles.  This place is amazing. Once a mere hunting lodge, Louis the XIII decided that he wanted it to be his residence, so he expanded it to the size it is now- a palace of 2,300 rooms! It remained a palace until The French Revolution. During the Revolution, much of the art was stashed in the Louvre. Once the war ended, the art was returned to Versailles, which, for a while, was a storage facility. Eventually, Versaille transitioned into it’s next and final phase: a museum.

Before we began our tour of the garden and the palace, we went to lunch at a little outdoor cafe next to the Palace. I ordered the French Onion Soup and it was perfect. After lunch we got ice cream, and headed to tour the gardens. It was 120 degrees (hyperbolic- yes), but I was eager to explore.

When we walked toward the gardens, I honestly had no preconceived notion about what we would see. I knew that there would be vast gardens, but certainly didn’t realize that they would span as far as the eye could see. The gardens were immediately surrounding the Palace, and the park stretched back from the fountain for what seemed miles.  Apparently, Louis XIV was so proud of the gardens that he even welcomed the public in to enjoy them.

The fountains, which were not turned on when we were wandering through, had all sorts of interesting statues in the centers. My favorite was the angry fish… probably because it is almost gargoylesque! The gardens contain 221 works of art, making it the largest open air sculpture museum in the world, according to the Chateau Versailles brochure.

Inside, the rooms are clad in beautiful art, with busts and full figure statues at every turn. The Hall of Mirrors was not only beautiful, but also was cutting edge. The idea of using mirrors along the walls of a room was originated at Versailles. It enabled them to use dim lights, and those lights reflected in the mirrors to light the room.

After Versailles, we headed back to the city to enjoy a river cruise down the Seine River. Travel mate Stephanie skipped the Versailles experience to meet up with her cousins. She texted me to ask which dock we were meeting at, and I asked Simon, who said it was directly under the Eiffel Tower, and added, “It is blindingly obvious. Even an amoeba from Saturn could find it.”

She found us, and said a teary farewell to relatives she doesn’t see often enough.

After a disappointing cruise down the Thames in 2017, I was not expecting much from our evening cruise down the Seine. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the views and experience! The cruise was amazing! It was a gorgeous night, and local Parisians were lining the river bank enjoying wine and cheese. These locals waved to us as we passed by, and the students on board waved and even got a “wave” going after going under each bridge.

This video shows the excitement the kids had on board the river cruise! What an excellent part of our adventure!

 

Our hotel was far from convenient to the city… it was located all the way out by Euro Disney. The check-in process was a complete nightmare and took well over an hour, but Simon, our guide, kept his composure and didn’t give up until we were all taken care of. The view out our hotel window was really nice, and the windows opened all the way, so we slept with the fresh air of France filling our airways… (Brooke and Donica, anti-bug people, finally gave in and enjoyed the fresh air after realizing there was no working A/C).  There were several restaurants within walking distance of this hotel, one that sold me a delicious crepe after 11:00pm! Crepe avec sucre et beurre… DELICIOUS!

The next morning we headed to the Louvre. Since this would be my third visit in three years, I was determined to find new art to appreciate. I wandered and found all sorts of works that I had not noticed before. The Death of Cleopatra was one that really stood out… what a shocking piece when you focus in and realize that it is a snake biting her nipple. Not sure there’s much realism in her expression- I don’t think a woman would be so calm in that instance… Was it that women had to hide their emotions? Never let on what sort of pain you might be hiding? Or was it that the artist thought there might even be some sort of pleasure here? The title, however, reminds us that Cleopatra WAS killed by a snake bite, so this is really a sad piece.

I also enjoyed taking a closer look at the The Department of the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The sculptures represent the thoughtful nature of the ancient civilizations. Not only do they seem to represent thinking and focusing, but they also represent a need to understand how things work. Truly fascinating.

Of course no trip to the Louvre is complete without beholding the Greek goddess Aprhodite, better known as the Venus de Milo  (the woman with no arms), and the Mona Lisa. The middle statue below is La Pallas de Velletri- a statue of Athena. This one is a famous replica of an original from Naples, Italy.

We had lunch in a wonderful cafe- Le Marmiton de Lutece. I had a three-cheese fondue that absolutely melted in my mouth! We sat outside and enjoyed the people watching and the atmosphere. I snapped a photo of the inside when I went to use the toilets (never called bathrooms or rest rooms).

The toilets seem to always be found in the cellars at the bottom of tiny, often winding stairways…

One of my last highlights in Paris was a visit to the historic “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore. There was a line to get in, and I enjoyed a well-practiced accordian performance while I waited. Inside, I found lots of interesting selections, and really wanted to bring home the book detailing the history of the store, but my brain went back to the weight of my suitcase and the struggle I had getting it onto the train. In the end, I came out of the store empty-handed…

We met back at Notre Dame to meet up and board the bus that would take us to Italy.

Our train to Milan was cancelled due to yet another Paris strike. (My train was cancelled due to a strike in 2016 when we were headed to Barcelona, but that year they rerouted us via airplane.) This year, we were assigned what would become the world’s longest bus ride. It was an overnight ride, so we needed to sleep… but when that bus pulled into the train stop in Milan, Italy, no one on board had more than a couple hours… Simon was quick to tell Stephanie to “stop faffing”, and the bus driver had to stop every two hours.

Au Revoir, Paris… until next time!

-HC

Next up: A Taste of Italy…