Adventures Across The Pond

My friend David and I were hitchhiking on a gray and rainy November day on the coast of Wales, trying to make our way to a very rural youth hostel when a friendly and jovial young man pulled over and picked us up and offered us a ride to the farm where the hostel was located. We were crossing a berm between tidal estuaries a few minutes later when he pulled over to pick up a beautiful young woman in a dark cape with snow white skin and long black ringlets of waist length hair who was also hitchhiking. She climbed in and gave him a kiss after which he looked into the back seat and said to us “It’s not often that you get to pick up your own wife hitchhiking.” 

She told us that she had been hired to play one of the three witches in Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth, which was being filmed nearby and was on her way home after a day of shooting. She quoted a couple of her lines: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes” and “Double, double, toil and trouble.” After a ride of a few more miles ride we were let out at the gates of the hostel. We walked up a long driveway and found that here was no one at the hostel and that all of the doors were locked. The darkness fell like a shroud and the rain was unending and torrential. We had no tent and were very cold and stranded out in the country. We found a bathhouse with an open door and took shelter inside, rolling out our sleeping bags on the cement floor and prepared to spend the night there. At least we were out of the rain. In the middle of the night a farmer came in, shining his flashlight in our faces and wondering who we were and what we were doing in the bath house. He told us that the hostel hosts were on vacation elsewhere and wouldn’t be back for several weeks, but allowed us to spend the night on the cement floor, telling us that we had to leave at sunrise. We wondered if the actress had somehow vexed and hexed us with her witch’s curses. 

Macbeth became King of Scotland through treachery and murder in Shakespeare’s telling of what is now called “The Scottish Play.” Polanski had opted to create an adaptation of Macbeth as a means of coping with the tragic and highly publicized Manson Family’s murder of his wife, Sharon Tate and several of his close friends. His version of Macbeth is one of the most violent and bloody ever staged or filmed. 

Macbeth and the Three Witches • Théodore Chassériau

I was negotiating with a teenage boy, trying to settle on a reasonable price for a beautiful, beaded and fringed Berber made leather satchel that I wanted to purchase in the souk marketplace in Marrakech, Morocco. There were no fixed prices on anything anywhere in the souk – all prices were fluid and forever changeable, and mock exasperation and dramatic pleas were all part of the bargaining. Most negotiations started with the phrase “For you my fren, good price, low price, best price, no tourist price.” It was usually necessary to turn your back and start to walk away from the vendor to get a price reduction. Most of the numeric monetary bargaining was done in French, and when we agreed on a final price after I had walked away several times and finally purchased the satchel, I did not stay around long enough to see if he got a beating.

Marrakech Morocco and Atlas Mountains

I was in Marrakech with my friends David and Brad where we often heard this chant repeated over and over again by swarms of beggar boys who would follow us around the souk marketplace, pulling on the sleeves of our djellaba Moroccan robes, telling us we were No Good! No Good! but demanding money from us, seemingly unclear on the concept that humility is a good place to begin when you are a beggar asking for alms from strangers.

Spice shop in the souk • Marrakech

Rene Loyau was an old French wine maker in the Loire Valley village of  Vouvray and was spinning tales for us young Stanford students who had just arrived in the city of Tours for a six month sojourn. He clearly loved his own vintner’s products and had a tangle of purple varicose veins on his cheeks that looked like a personal road map to his winery. He plied us with endless glasses of Vouvray chenin blanc, still my favorite white wine, and regaled us with stories going back to the 19th century when his grandfather had managed the family winery.  Viticulture had existed in Vouvray since at least the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church maintained vineyards at the local monasteries. Wine cellars were built in the region from caves created from the excavation of tuffeau rocks which were also used to build the Châteaux of the Loire Valley. He had excavated a new secret cave to hide his precious stash of vintage wine from the evil Nazi occupiers during WW II, which they never found.

Kermit Lynch and Rene Loyau

After bidding adeiu to Monsieur Loyau, my friend Marcia and I walked around the medieval quarter of Tours for the first time. In the shadow of Saint Gatien, an enormous Gothic cathedral, we found an open sided stone building that had a full sized stuffed elephant named Fritz standing in it. Fritz had escaped from the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1902 and had rampaged through the city before he was executed. He was standing forever transfixed under its roof, eternally hoping to return to Africa.

Fritz the Elephant stuffed and mounted • Tours, France

Fritz the elephant’s tragic death by strangulation • Tours, France • 1902

After later climbing several hundred circular steps up to the top of the cathedral to the realm of sculpted stone saints and gargoyles to see the entirety of our new home city, we walked to the other side of town and found a very agitated, mangy crazed lion pacing back and forth and roaring endlessly inside of its tiny, cruel outdoor cage in a park.  We had somehow stumbled into a French version of the African savannah on the first day of our new lives in Tours. I was puzzled and enchanted.

Saint Gatien Cathedral • Tours, France
Tours, 1785 • Pierre-Antoine Demachy • I lived in the building to the immediate right of the bridge next to the river

My friend Brad said this after shaking the pope’s hand and being blessed by Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1971. My friend Carolyn was at that same audience and asked the Pontiff about how her friend, Rob, (who had just had a psychotic break in a Cro-Magnon cave filled with 20,000 year old rock wall paintings in the south of France), could get better. The Pope said that Rob should go somewhere quiet, be alone and talk to God and that God would heal him. He also recommended that Rob read and study the Scriptures. Perhaps it was a start, God willing, but probably not a modern or adequate treatment or cure for schizophrenia.


Pope Paul VI embraces the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church

This ironic and humorous bit of nautical and drinking advice was offered up by my brother in law Alan, when someone offered us drinks from a bottle of Gallo Fairbanks Port, a low quality mass market version of Portofino, a fine, sweet Portuguese desert wine, while we were playing music outdoors in the foothills of the Sierras at a music festival. Alan is a world class oenophile and probably knows the location of the Godly vineyard where the Grapes of  Wrath were grown, pressed, bottled and stored.As Pope John XXIII said, ”Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”    

The best Ports are made in Portugal and over a hundred varieties of grapes are sanctioned for Port production, though typically only 4 or 5 are used. Vintage Ports can be aged from 10 – 40 years, and fetch a far higher price than the Gallo Fairbanks plonk we were offered. The wine received its name, “Port,” in the latter half of the 17th century from the seaport city of Porto at the mouth of the Douro River, where much of the product was brought to market or exported to other countries in Europe. Port became very popular in England in 1703, when merchants were permitted to import it at a low duty, when a war with France deprived English wine drinkers of French wine. Port remains popular with older ladies in England today because of its “medicinal” qualities.

Douro Valley, Portugal • Home of port wine

I have only been caught in storms at sea twice and found both instances to be disturbing and terrifying.  Fortunately in both cases the captain was able to find a nearby port in the storm. I was in a small open ferryboat, crossing very rough waters between the Spanish islands of Ibeza and Formenterra, when huge waves suddenly appeared and began to break over the bow of the boat, soaking everyone and flooding the craft just as we made it into the refuge of the breakwater at the edge of a harbor. The second instance was in a much larger ferry, crossing the English Channel between Calais, France and Fokelstone, England in the midst of a terrible storm. The ship was tossed about like a child’s bath tub toy and the bathrooms and decks were soon slick with vomit from hundreds of sea sick passengers. When we finally made it into port I felt like emulating the Pope, who traditionally thanks God and kneels down and kisses the ground when he returns safely from a sea or air voyage.

Any port in a storm

In California I always wake to the shrill and raucous cries of crows. In The Netherlands it is soft echoing tones of church bells, ringing out the hours, accompanied by the sweet, round, soothing cooing of wood pigeons, the world’s oldest domesticated bird.  They sing a melodious five note song which they repeat endlessly, perhaps the birthplace and inspiration for the modern school of minimal music.  As we stood on a dock on the River Ijessel in the twilight in the evening waiting for the ferry,  a dozen pigeons strutted around at our feet, waiting for someone to drop crumbs or morsels of food from their hand held snacks.  A 12 year old Dutch girl in front of us suddenly knelt down and grabbed a white pigeon and held it gently to her breast with both hands surrounding its wings and body. 

The pigeon was surprisingly calm, and as the girl held it, all of the children on the dock and later on the boat, came over to stroke the bird, as parents commented that “Pigeons are rats with wings,” and “Don’t touch it, you’ll get bird flu.” The children ignored the parent’s advice and went on stroking the bird, lost in the magical wonder of one of their peers picking up a wild pigeon and channeling Saint Francis, patron saint of the birds.

The girl held the bird and disembarked with it on the other side of the river.  The last I saw her, she was still holding the white bird to her chest and was strolling calmly into the ancient walled city of Deventer.

A bird in the hand is clearly worth two in the bush.

Woman with Pigeons • Gustav Courbet

Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands, looks like an old world version of Indiana, if Indiana was on the edge of a shallow and very windy sea, (the Waden Sea,) bordered with islands and edged with enormous dikes. The land is as flat as God’s billiard table, covered with endless golden wheat, grain and potato fields, topped with dairy cows and horses and fields full of wildflowers. From the tops of the towering dikes, the views are endless and expansive in every direction. One feels as large as the landscape, topped always with towering cumulus clouds and the ever changing wind blown chiaroscuro light and shadow patterns that the Dutch master painters of the 17th and 18th centuries were so fond of painting.

Wadden Sea tidal shores • Photo by MMB

Ship emerging from a park lawn • Pingum, Friesland, Netherlands • Photo by MMB

Bicyclist • Friesland • Photo by MMB

My friends Jenny and Felix love trees and plants more than anyone else I have ever known. They  have introduced me to the wonders and joys of municipal botanical gardens in the many European cities that I have explored with them. They met for the first time when they were both young horticultural students and were working for Queen Elizabeth in Kew Gardens, a 300 acre botanical wonderland in the country outside of London. Whenever we hike with them they have one or more botanical guide books in hand to identify any species or specimens that they are not familiar with.

We were stopped in the small village of Giumaglio in the Maggiatal  Valley in the Italian part of Switzerland, intently studying a book entitled “Tree Giants of Switzerland.” There was a photo of an enormous chestnut tree with a young woman standing at the base of the tree, dwarfed by its immense size. The tree was estimated to be over 650 years old with a circumference of over 33 feet. Felix knew from the caption that the tree was somewhere in that alpine valley, and was determined to go and see it if possible. We pulled up to a random house in a small village and Felix and Jenny went to the front door and knocked, with the book opened to the photo of the tree, hoping to get guidance or directions. An older woman opened the door, looked at the photograph and laughed, saying “That’s me in the photo.” She told us that the photo had been taken 30 years previously when she was much younger and said that the ancient tree was deep in a distant wood and would take 3 hours to hike to – More time than we had that morning and clearly further than she wanted to hike and guide tree enthusiasts whom she had just met.

Our much younger host beneath the giant chestnut tree

She invited us into her home and served us coffee, tea and freshly baked bread. Her kitchen and dining room tables were covered with gleaming polished chestnuts that she had just gathered and beautiful produce from her garden. It seemed appropriate that the table tops in her house and patio were filled with chestnuts that she had just harvested, completing the 30 or so year cycle and tying a beautiful bow of synchronicity and coincidence around the gift box of the day’s adventures.

After our impromptu brunch, she suggested that we hike up to a mountain top quarry that had been abandoned during the oil crisis in the early 1970’s. We made our way up into a narrow alpine valley and hiked through a beech and birch studded gorge and after several wrong turns, finally found the quarry, littered with huge trucks and excavation equipment in a state of arrested decay, left completely untouched since the quarry had been abandoned.

Karen drives an abandoned Scania truck • Photo by MMB

The night sky in Iceland sometimes becomes alive after dark, unveiling the aurora borealis’s strange and magnificent phosphorescent glowing, pulsating lighted dramas that float for hours, ever changing and mysteriously lit from within. It looks like a phosphorescent green celestial forest fire in the Heavens, rising from the low Northern horizon and fanning out with wide tendrils sweeping all the way across the vast dome of the sky.

Northern Lights, Iceland • Photo by Gaute Bruvik.

Iceland is full of sheep – they seem to be the national animal, mostly white but always with a few black and speckled outliers. Occasionally there are large flocks of snow white swans grazing out in the bright green verdant pastures next to the ewes and rams.

Sheep on a hilltop • Photo by MMB

The weather is variable and ever changing. Everything in Iceland is on a scale that dwarfs all other landscapes that I have ever seen or walked through.  All is vast, beautiful, enormous and otherworldly.

Fin Mountain, Iceland • Photo by MMB

Glacier and icebergs, Iceland • Photo by MMB

Harpa Concert hall • Reykjavik, Iceland • Photo by MMB

Jesse Winchester on traveling to the horizon:

Frank Sinatra wants to fly away with you: