Travel Is As Necessary To Me As Breathing

I’m back from a 12-day vacation in the Greek islands with my daughter, feeling quite fulfilled.

Right now my brain is full of amazing images: the steep, dusty, hot climb up to the Acropolis, the amazing vistas of the Aegean Sea from the island of Santorini and swimming in the Aegean, the amazing artifacts we saw from the 6000 BC Minoan culture on the island of Crete, relaxing days on the sunny island of Mykonos, and a visit to the birthplace of Apollo on the island of Delos.

There is so much to share I hardly know where to begin. My daughter and I were very impressed with the hospitality of the Greek people we met on all four islands and in Athens. They are a handsome people who live a challenging life due to their geography, and now their very troubled economy, but they are always greet you with a cheery kali mera or kali spera and are eager to exchange pleasantries.

As I reflect on my recent travels, I appreciate more and more how important it is to get to know other cultures firsthand so we can stretch our capacity for tolerance of differences. We met many, many other tourists from different nations who seem to make travel an important part of their lives. We also met many Greeks who cannot travel due to their economic constraints, but whose eyes light up when I mention I am from New York. Being able to visit New York is a dream for them and they are eager to talk about it to learn as much as they can.

For me, travel is always an immersion experience. I try to learn a few words in the local language. I think I picked up about ten or twelve words in Greek which is a challenging language to learn. People are always delighted to hear you make the effort to say anything in their language.

I try to sample as many of the local dishes as I possibly can. I read about the history of the place I am visiting in my guide books so I can better understand the context of the place I am visiting. Most importantly, in addition to visiting the tourist highlights of a place, I try to spend time in the neighborhoods, chatting with shop owners, pausing in a cafe for a drink or quick snack, engaging in conversation with the locals, and absorbing everything I can about their daily lives.

For me, these experiences are the most important feature of my travels; they stay with me forever and increase my understanding of the world. I firmly believe that my lifelong travel experiences helped me to become a more compassionate English as a New Language teacher because I knew what it was like to immerse myself in a completely alien culture, not being able to speak the language to express my feelings, and being overwhelmed by the sensory assault of new smells, sights, sounds and expectations.

At age 70, worldwide travel is become more daunting, but I think I have a few trips left in me and I look forward to them.

Next week: 24 hours in Athens!


Greece Is On My Mind

G oing to Greece next Monday

R eading all I can to prepare for the journey

E very day brings the dream a little closer

E xpecations are high…how could they not be?

C an this really be finally happening?

E ager to share my experiences with you, Slicers!





In one week I’ll be on my way to Greece with my daughter. We will land in Athens, then a day and a half later will proceed to Mykonos, Santorini and Crete. I’ve never been so Far East in Europe and am looking forward to what I hope will be some unfamiliar experiences and some gorgeous scenery. I am just now emerging from 10 days of 2 super antibiotics; wasn’t sure I could make it. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Taking the Day Off!

Yes, I’m taking the day off!

It’s probably because I am on some heavy-duty meds for an upper intestinal infection, that I realized a couple hours ago that I hadn’t written a post for this week. I hope to be back in the saddle by next week.
Hope everyone had a good Labor Day and will have a good first week back at school!

Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia…A Close Call

(Above photo from Citylife Barcelona)

Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (Catalan pronunciation: [ənˈtɔni ɣəwˈði]; 25 June 1852 – 10 June 1926) was an architect from Reus, Catalonia, Spain. He is the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí’s works have a highly individualized and distinctive style. Most are located in Barcelona, including his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família. (Wikipedia)

* * * * * * * *
This will be my final post about my trip to Spain with my husband in May. If you read my recent posts, you’ve learned that I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the three cities we visited: Madrid, Seville and Barcelona. I would love to go back to other places in Spain some day, but meanwhile a trip to Greece is just around the corner (mid-September) so it’s time to say farewell to Spain.

In my previous post I wrote about how sad I was to hear the news about the terrorist attack on La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain which left more than a dozen people dead and many more seriously injured. Having just visited Barcelona and strolled on La Rambla, I was shocked at what happened.

A few days ago, while reading a followup news article about the incident on La Rambla, I learned that Spanish authorities, who were investigating the terrorist cell responsible for the attack, discovered a plot by the same group to bomb La Sagrada Familia.

To want to destroy one of the most amazing monuments dedicated to the grandeur of life, in the name of Islam, is reprehensible. My son experienced similar grief when he first heard of the destruction of Palmyra and Damascus, Syria having visited both just months prior to their destruction. There is clearly a pattern to these terrorist incidents. All the special places we treasure and therefore visit have become the targets of a group filled with hatred for us.

One of the main reasons we decided to go to Spain is because both our adult children raved about the Gaudi masterpieces they visited during their individual trips there. And they were right to rave; Gaudi is truly a creative genius. Whether it’s the thought he put into creating a unique door handle or a window casing for one of his apartments in Barcelona, or a whimsical chimney stack for one of his apartment buildings, or a cathedral that resembles a giant sandcastle, his style is one of a kind…and appeals to millions of visitors who swarm Barcelona during the tourist season just to see his work.

Our first Gaudi excursion was to the northern part of Barcelona to visit Parc Guell. This park and the residences he built there were designed for those less fortunate on the edge of the city, but the funding fell through before completion so it became a city park.

I was very excited because I had seen so many pictures of this park which truly unique features. After a three-hour tour of Barcelona on our first day in the city, we indulged in a cab ride to Parc Guell which is situated on a high promontory overlooking the city. My daughter had recommended the cab because she felt the climb to the park from the metro station would be too strenuous for me. She was absolutely right! As we stepped out of the cab I saw what looked like a very short line. What luck! But I was wrong.

As we stepped up to pay our admission fee, we were told we would have to wait three hours to gain entry, as the admissions to the park are now “timed” to regulate the flow of visitors. No one had ever mentioned this to us, and this is a relatively new development because there was no admission fee when my children visited in past years. And there certainly was no such thing as a three-hour wait. My heart sank. I knew we would not be coming back, since it was a bit of a journey just to get there by cab, and our days in Barcelona were limited. What was even more frustrating is that we could see the park and its attractions through the wrought-iron gate at the entrance which also offered a view of the dragon that overlooks the entry. I felt as though I could reach through the gate and almost touch the dragon.

I could also see people sitting above us on the wrap-around bench Gaudi created for people to sit on and enjoy the spectacle of the park.

So near, yet so far; it was agonizing. I felt like crying.

Since we had made the trip we decided to linger for a while and walk around the park that encircled the enclosed Gaudi attractions. It was a hot day so we slowly ambled up the circular road which led to a viewpoint from which you can see all of Barcelona and the sea beyond it. Along the way we encountered an interesting, organically-shaped, sandstone structure created by Gaudi as a kind of natural walkway with an overhang providing shade for strollers such as ourselves.

Beneath this structure were ensconced many tourists also seeking shade, and some musicians and craft vendors.

We paused for a while to hear the musicians, then walked a bit further up the hill and found a bench from which to enjoy the sights below us, including Parc Guell and the many tourists who were lucky enough to get in.

Determined not to experience another mishap, we took extra care on our visits the following days to two other Gaudi sites: Casa Mila and Casa Batllo. Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera, is most famous for its rooftop which is filled with chimneys fashioned into unusual, whimsical shapes.

The second home, Casa Batllo, is a designer’s dream.

Built with a nautical theme, this Jules Verne fantasy dwelling includes balcony fixtures of schools of fish, porthole windows…

stained glass windows…

amber-colored polished wood handrails and doors…

and a marvelous elevator shaft, with tiles of graduated blue, that allows light to flow throughout the building.

It is really impossible to describe Gaudi’s work. It must be experienced in person, using all one’s sensory awareness, since his creations were clearly designed to be enjoyed that way.

Our final Gaudi adventure was, of course, a visit to La Sagrada Familia which so recently escaped destruction.

So often when people rave about a particular spot, one may feel some disappointment on finally getting there. Not so with La Sagrada Familia.

When I stepped inside I felt like I was entering a truly sacred space. Unlike most other cathedrals where the light is often very dim, the Sagrada was filled with light that was undulating across the entire cavity of the cathedral.

Gaudi designed his stained-glass windows to create this effect of the light in constant movement, filling the entire space inside the cathedral. He designed the floor to ceiling pillars to look like trees reaching to the heavens.

In fact, all the details of the cathedral were a testament to the glory and grandeur of nature. We stood there for about ten minutes, transfixed by the light, then spent an hour just walking around inside the cathedral taking in all its unique features.

When I reflect on our time in Spain, I feel very grateful that we were able to enjoy so much art and beauty and local hospitality, culminating in our visit to this spectacular cathedral. Spain has designated 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death, as the date for completion of La Sagrada Familia. I am sure it will be one of the most spectacular celebrations of all time, anywhere in the world. I wish I could be there.

La Rambla, Barcelona…Before It Lost Its Innocence

(Photo is from You Tube)

La Rambla is exactly 1.2 kilometres long and nearly everyone who visits Barcelona walks along it. La Rambla was laid out in 1766, following the contours of the medieval city walls that had bounded this part of Barcelona since the 13th century. The locals took it to their hearts straightaway. In Barcelona, a city of narrow, winding streets, the Rambla was the only space where everyone could stroll and spend their leisure time. And we mean everyone. Because of its central location, the Rambla became a meeting place for all the social classes.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
I have been saving Barcelona, the final stop on our three-city tour of Spain in May, for my last few posts about our journey. But that was before the terrorist incident this past week that happened on La Rambla, a favorite amble for tourists from around the world through the center of this lovely city, turned it into a killing field resulting in the death of 12 people and more than a hundred injured.

I have done some traveling in my lifetime, and I’ve noticed that there are places people like to congregate everywhere I go. It could be in front of the clock tower in Prague; under the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in Times Square, New York on New Year’s Eve or the Piazza Navona in Rome. For some I’m sure it’s an excuse to say “Look at me…look at where I am!” and send some selfies to friends and family. For others it can be a pilgrimage to a place that’s been a lifelong dream vacation. But most people, I believe, just like to celebrate where they are with others doing the same. It kind of amplifies the good feelings by 10, unless of course it’s too crowded (as is happening in Venice).

La Rambla in Barcelona has become one of those beloved tourist destinations. It’s a wide pedestrian boulevard filled with shady trees and tons of people. The streets are lined with souvenir shops and sidewalk cafes. I’m sure that Europeans and the Spanish, in particular, have been enjoying this promenade for decades if not centuries, and finally the rest of the world caught on. Not taking a stroll on La Rambla when visiting Barcelona would be equivalent to not visiting Times Square for a first-time visitor to New York City.

Both my children had visited Barcelona in years past and both highly recommended that I make sure to put it on my list of places to see. They loved the art, the food, the party vibe, and the beauty and accessibility of the city. They especially loved visiting the world renowned architectural wonders created by Gaudi, perhaps Barcelona’s most beloved artist. My husband and I finally took their advice and went to Spain in May. We decided that Barcelona would be our final stop…saving the best for last.

Barcelona was as delightful as they had said it would be. We saw as many of Gaudi’s creations as we could fit into our three-day schedule; wandered the streets and barrios of Barcelona soaking up the vibe of each neighborhood (my favorite pasttime); and enjoyed a few of the thousands of cafes that are ubiquitous and offer tourists both respite, a chance to do some serious people watching and some great tapas if you’re lucky!

During our stay, Barcelona seemed to be enjoying its recent reputation as one of the best spots to visit in Europe. The city is clean, full of fascinating things to do, easy to navigate and very welcoming. Tourists are everywhere, but so are the locals who are clearly proud of their city and what it has to offer. They have reason to be proud; it’s a city with many facets, lots of history to explore, and a place to party all night if you wish to do so (we didn’t).

On our final day we did take a ten minute stroll down La Rambla from the Plaza de la Cataluna. Actually we were looking for Kabul, a notorious hostel where both our children had stayed during their visits. Kabul is legendary as a meeting place for young people in Barcelona, and we were eager to see what all the fuss was about.

There were a lot of people strolling on La Rambla that day, probably most of them tourists like us, enjoying a pleasant afternoon in late May. Although it was much less crowded than I hear it is during the height of the tourist season in summer, there were still too many people for our taste. We questioned a few locals about Kabul, and finally found someone who knew exactly where it was. This allowed us to turn a corner off Las Ramblas and almost immediately enter a magical square: Placa Reial. Suddenly we were standing right in front of the entrance to Kabul.

The appearance of the place completely belies its reputation. It looked very quiet and nondescriptfrom the outside. We peeked through the window but couldn’t see much except for a staircase leading up to what is probably the front desk. We decided to sit at a table nearby in the square so we could bask in our accomplishment of finding Kabul and such a quaint spot to people watch in the Placa Reial.

In a very short time, an elderly man, very trim and dressed like a dancer, began doing some very modified but elegant flamenco moves on the square. He then approached the tables chatting amiably with each person. His pan-handling approach was so laid back and charming that we quickly handed him some Euros. My children later told us that the plaza undergoes a complete transformation at night when the hustlers, drug dealers and ladies-of-the night suddenly appear from nowhere to market their wares. But that afternoon there were only tourists, locals strolling across the square and the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the palm trees encircling the square to keep us company. We enjoyed a delicious cold beer, a plate of pan tomate, and a bowl of olives.

This is what I will remember about La Rambla. That it is a place where people enjoy being with others, part of the international crowd that is making Barcelona a vacation hub. For me, there was nothing exceptional about La Rambla; it has its share of funky street vendors and sidewalk cafes with owners hustling tourists to their tables. Its greatest virtue are the many trees and cafes that line the pedestrian walk. Its charm lies in its acceptance of people from around the world coming together to just enjoy a stroll in one of the friendliest cities in the world.

Its innocence now violated, La Rambla is not only one of many beloved world tourist destinations, but is now also a living memorial to lives lost in an extreme, undeserved act of violence.

A Summer Surprise: A Gift of Poetry from an Old Friend

Just this past week I had a surprise…one that evoked pure joy. Recently I was invited to lunch by a friend who was my boss several decades ago. I’m sure he’d cringe at the word “boss,” since he preferred to think of himself as a leader. Hearing from him after so long, and seeing him again was a true pleasure. Over the near decade I worked for/with him, he became a significant mentor. At a time when I had limited confidence and no clear direction in my life, he believed in my potential and hired me for a position in a university setting that contributed immensely to my personal and intellectual development. His leadership was firm but supportive. I haven’t worked with many other bosses with his outstanding qualities.

Several days after our reunion, a manila envelope arrived in my mailbox. In it was a book of poetry he had written a few years ago. I am a poetry junkie so I was very excited to receive his gift. I don’t think he knew that about me, and I certainly had no idea that in addition to his many accomplishments, he also wrote poetry.

I immediately opened his book and began reading his poems. He has had an interesting life. He was a commissioned officer in the US Marines and served for 6 years during the Korean War. He became a professor at SUNY Stony Brook in the late 60’s where he still teaches and eventually became Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Technology and Society. Late in his career, he began teaching undergraduate seminars and delivering speeches on nuclear arms control and has traveled the world keeping himself informed about that issue.

But all those accomplishments melted away as I read his poems. He had always seemed to me to be a very self-contained, disciplined, but kind and generous person. In his poems, he becomes a very lyrical, sensual person who enjoys cultivating flowers and takes pleasure in household chores. He is fascinated by wetlands and considers the sighting of a blue heron a gift (as do I). He is sensitive to the passage of seasons and time both in the natural world and in the lives of people he loves. He seeks stimulation in sojourns to far away places, yet yearns for his beloved from afar. He is connected to this earth and all its wonders, and is able to share that connection without pretense.

I always thought of him as a very methodical, science-oriented thinker; never did I think of him as a poet. Was I somehow blind to this part of him, or did he keep it a well hidden secret until now? I eagerly read the rest of his poems that very same night, and went to bed feeling a sense of wonder. The best poetry, like an old friendship can do that: it peels back so many layers of ourselves, leaving us exposed and open to wonder. Having my friend (no longer my “boss”) share this part of himself at this stage in both our lives is a surprise I will never forget and a gift I will always cherish.

The Resilience Project

Over the past week, several publications that I read regularly have simultaneously included articles about “building resilience.” Does someone send a prompt out to the universe and wait for responses from journalists and writers?

In any case, it’s a topic that’s of great interest to me. In my experience, resilience is a quality that develops over time in response to challenges and hardships in one’s life. Reading a column about building resilience will not have much meaning to someone who has not been to the “school of hard knocks” as I have. In fact, I think I’ve had more than my share of them but I don’t say that to invoke sympathy; I say it because, compared with most people I know, I think it’s true. It’s also true that there are many whose lives are much more difficult than mine has been.

Instead of reciting a litany of hardships I’ve overcome in my life, I’d like to focus on the process of acquiring resilience. I developed it the hard way: being knocked down, crawling to my knees, then standing up…over and over again. This process, depending on the incident, sometimes took hours, days, weeks or decades. It was debilitating and exhausting. At age 70 I think I can finally say I have developed enough resilience to get me through difficult times with less suffering and more wisdom.

What took me so long? I was raised by a mother who had some admirable traits but was tough as nails; who didn’t believe in whining and offered no empathy or compassion whenever I found myself in a difficult situation. She was not a good model of resilience for me. I learned resilience on my own, in spite of her.

Now I have a daughter who has also definitely been given more challenges than the ordinary person. By age 30 she had had five open-heart surgeries (the fourth one nearly killed her) and has had to learn how to make a life for herself in spite of her PTSD from the many traumas she has suffered and the limitations that she must live with as a consequence of her congenital heart defect.

My daughter is my resilience project. In order to help her survive the challenges she has lived through and to face those we are not yet aware of, I have devoted much of my life to helping her (and myself) learn to develop resilience. Every time she reached a point where she felt deeply discouraged and depressed, I tried to think of a way to help her out of the abyss. This has forced me to dig very deeply into my personal well to find a shred of hope or encouragement to offer her. Over the years, in the process of trying to teach her resilience, I have learned a lot about it myself and have shared with her what I have learned.

For example, it took me a long time to learn that there is a “gray area” in life. I was raised to believe that everything was black or white. That if you didn’t tell the whole truth, you were lying. There was no wiggle room. But decades of living have taught me that for many people this isn’t so; most people live in the gray area and many people either don’t tell the truth or don’t want to hear the truth. Instead, they do what they need to do to protect themselves.

Learning this has enabled me to advise my daughter that it is ok for her to withhold the whole truth if there is a need to do so; that her feelings can be partially shared until she feels a certain level of comfort. When necessary and if no one is hurt by it, she can tell a “white lie” to get through a difficult situation while protecting herself. Most importantly she can do whatever it takes to overcome a challenge, and doing so will help her become more resilient. While I was taught to live along a straight and narrow path, I have taught her about options: how important it is to always have a Plan A and a Plan B…even a Plan C if necessary. We are building our resilience together.

One of the points made by Tara Parker-Pope who wrote “How to Build Resilience in Midlife” in the Science Times on August 1 is: Rewrite Your Story. Since most of us who blog on this site are teachers who share a love of story telling through writing, and who work hard to instill this skill in our students. I found her words instructive.

“Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves….It’s about learning to recognize the explanatory story you tend to use in your life….Observe what you are saying to yourself and question it. It’s not easy it takes practice.”

In rewriting our stories together, my daughter and I are learning that while we have each had more than our share of challenges and setbacks, we are also two people with a passion for life, an innate curiosity about many things, a need to connect with others who share our passions, and a spirit strong enough to get us through the worst times. Oh, and did I mention we share a wicked sense of humor?

“There is a biology to this,” said Dr. (Dennis) Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Your stress hormone systems will become less responsive to stress so you can handle stress better. Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress.” (Science Times 8/1/2017)

That is exactly what we are learning to do…together.