Seize the Day! Tales from Overseas and Far Far away

“We hid most of the wine in the back of the cave and made a false rock wall so that the Nazi’s wouldn’t find it and steal it.”

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 just across the Loire River for a six month sojourn in September of 1971. 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 Nazi occupiers during WW II.

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 an enormous Gothic cathedral we found an open sided stone building that had a full sized stuffed elephant standing forever transfixed under its roof. After later climbing several hundred circular steps up to the top of the cathedral to the realm of God, 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
Digging black dog • Photo by MMB

“Hey haole – You like eat one black dog?”

Yoshi, my neighbor on the wild western side of Kauai where I was helping an art professor friend build a house during the summer of 1981 posed that question to me. Yoshi had cock fights every Friday night where locals would bet on the outcome of his rooster wars. He would barbeque a Labrador retriever (supposedly black dogs taste superior to all others) and feed the meat to his betting customers as they drank cases of beer and shouted encouragement to their favored birds as they watched the bloody fray. Our neighbor on the other side of the jungle property was Bernie Leadon, the original lead guitar player for the band The Eagles. As he was follically challenged even at that early age, the locals called him “The Bald Eagle”.

The term “Haole” is pronounced “howl-ly” and is now a general term for white people in Hawaii. It literally means “without breath” in Hawaiian and came to be a term used to describe Captain Cook and his sailors in the late 1700’s by the native people as they did not speak Hawaiian. As a haole, I did not take up Yoshi up on his offer to eat one black dog.

Fighting cock

“The raised rays on top of scallop shells are the paths of pilgrims back to God.”

In the tidal sand strand just beyond my ancestral Heberdian island of Colonsay, off of the west coast of Scotland (home of the McAfee clan) lies the even smaller island of Oransay, present population 8 people, up from 5 souls just a few years earlier. I first visited the island in 1960 when I lived in Saint Andrews, Scotland during my third grade year. According to archaeologists, the island has been populated for at least 6,500 years, its people fed mostly by abundant shellfish and the bounty of the sea. A Christian priory was established there by Saint Columba in the 6th century, the ruins of which can still be seen. Two very large, beautifully carved stone Celtic crosses still stand next to the priory. We scattered some of my father’s ashes there inside the roofless stone walls of the church, the final resting place of several of the ancient chieftains of the McAfee clan.

After scattering those ashes my brother Peter and I took a long walk on a crescent shaped sandy beach and found more scallop shells than either of us had ever seen before, each one looking like large black, white and red weathered prehistoric versions of the Shell Oil logo. I collected several and took them back to our rented farmhouse on Colonsay, which later I later brought home to America.

A week after finding the shells I was in the British Museum in London and discovered that in the 8th century, the raised rays atop scallop shells (as described in the Lindesfarne Gospels) were considered to be the paths of pilgrims going back to God, from outside to inside, from present day back to creation and symbolically delineating sacred origins, mystically beginning and ending in the same places. I have several of them atop my dresser, drawing me to Oransay and to God simultaneously every time I pull out a pair of socks from my top drawer.

Scallop Shell from Ornasay Island, Scotland • The paths of a pilgrim back to God • Photo by MMB

“It’s not often that you get to pick up your own wife hitchhiking.”

My friend David and I were hitchhiking on a gray and rainy November day on the coast of Wales in 1971, 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 you 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 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 3 witches

“ That’s me in the photograph! ”

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 several 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.

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 approptiate 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 & 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.

Giant chestnut tree and our host 30 years earlier • Maggiatal  Valley, Switzerland
Karen in a truck in an abandoned quarry • Maggiatal  Valley, Switzerland • Photo by MMB

“ If she gives me a long kiss, then I’ll let you go. “

Laura and I were trying to get out of  Avignon, France by hitch hiking, standing on the road side a few miles from town where we had been dropped off by our previous ride, but nobody would stop to pick us up. She had the idea that if we each tried to flag down rides on opposite sides of the road, we might have better luck. We wanted to get back to downtown Avignon (“Centre-Ville,”) so that we could take a train out of town, or get a ride north by hitch hiking, which ever came first. 

I stood on the South bound side of the National route and she stood on the North bound side with our thumbs extended. She was far better looking than me at age 19, and a truck filled with coal stopped for her quickly. I ran across the road and the Spanish truck driver was extremely unhappy to see me as part of the ride package. He angrily threw my back pack high atop of his load of coal, refusing to let me keep it in the cab, and I climbed into his big rig, not knowing if I would ever see my teetering, unsecured pack with my passport inside it ever again. 

We drove on for several miles, when he suddenly turned off onto a dirt road and drove into an isolated quarry. He stopped the truck and told us to get out. I had a Boy Scout hunting knife strapped to my belt, and he suddenly grabbed me, put his arm around my neck, pulled the knife out of its sheath, and held it against my back. He asked me in Spanish why I had a knife, and I told him that I was practising to be a bull fighter, and might use it on cats. He was not impressed but he told us that if Laura would give him a long kiss, he would leave us there and let us go. She acquiesced, seeing our dangerous predicament in a very isolated spot, and after the horrible kiss was over, he got back in his rig and left us choking in the dust of his coal truck. We walked back a mile or so to the main road and flagged down a diabetic Dutchman who did not have rape or murder on his to do list, but badly needed a shot of insulin, and chided us for having the gall to “Travel on someone else’s money,” though he had voluntarily stopped to give us a ride.  After that I stuck to train transportation, as this incident was the very end of my hitch hiking travels and travails.

Hitch Hiking
My Boy Scout knife • Photo by MMB

“Great Scott! We had to get out of the car and climb a tree and then the elephants crushed our car.”

My grandfather, James Claude Thomson, was traveling down a narrow road in the jungle in French Indo China (now Vietnam) when he saw a herd of angry elephants running up the road towards his car. The road was too narrow for a turn around and a quick reversal of fortune, so he and his companion jumped out of the car and climbed a nearby tree, from which they saw the elephants crush their car while bellowing wildly. When the elephants had exhausted their rage against the machine and charged back into the forest, my grandfather and his companion descended from the tree and walked to a nearby village.

Savage beasts were not yet done with him. A few years later he was chased into a ditch by a water buffalo in China and as he fell he hit his head so hard that he suffered a detached retina which eventually led to blindness in one eye and having to have the eye removed. He had a glass eye which I sometimes saw resting in a glass of water next to his bed when I would bid him good night when he visited us in our summer home in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts when I was a child.

I later wrote in one of my many journals:“The eye with which I see God is the same eye that God uses to see me.”

My grandfather got a theology degree in his youth and for a short time was an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. He later went back to school, always interested in real science, and got a PhD in Chemistry at Columbia University and later a Master’s degree in public health aa Johns Hopkin’s. He was Dean of Sciences at the University of Nanking and later worked for the World Health Organization at the United Nations in Iran, Japan and Korea before he retired after a lifetime of public service.

“I woke up in bed laughing and realized what I had done.”

My grandfather James Claude Thomson said this to his wife (my grandmother) after realizing that he had bent over and picked up a clip of bullets and given them back to the man who dropped them and was about to load them into his gun to shoot him. His good manners saved his life when the soldier was so taken aback by his instinctive polite gesture that he did not kill him. He was in China where he was chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Nanking. He and his family were caught up in a civil war between Chaing Kai Shek’s forces and the soldiers of the Feudal Warlords. His house had been looted by several groups of soldiers earlier that day and everything of value had been already been taken when a soldier demanded silver and gold. When he explained that everything had already been taken the soldier picked up a clip of bullets to load into his gun to shoot him and dropped them on the floor.

McAfee warrior

“ Vagabonds, brigands, sheep stealers, thieves – The black Macfies – That’s your legacy and heritage! “

I was buying some groceries for dinner at the only store on the tiny island of Colonsay, 50 miles off of the west coast of Scotland. It was home to my ancestral Scottish Celtic clan of the McAfees, and when I mentioned my heritage (my grandmother was a McAfee) to the proprietor of the store, he was not impressed and let me know exactly how he felt, saying “Vagabonds, brigands, sheep stealers, thieves – The black Macfies – That’s your legacy and heritage!“ 

The last chief of the Macfie clan was murdered on a small island off of the coast of Colonsay in 1623 while trying to elude pillaging Macdonald clan brigands, desperately hiding beneath seaweed, when his place of concealment was given away to his pursuers by the cries of seagulls. The clan has been without a chief since than.

McAfee in Gaelic means “Son of the Dark Fairy” – a testament to the thinness of the webs between the worlds of man, matter, fairies and spirits in that veiled, magical, mystical corner of the world.

Marrakech and Atlas Mountains

“If I sell it to you for that price, my master will beat me.”

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, just before Christmas in 1971. 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.

“Check your bed for scorpions.”

This bit of arachnid-phobic advice was given to me upon check in at Maho Bay – an eco-resort on the isle of Saint John in the Virgin Islands where my new wife and I were about to begin our honeymoon, a few days after getting married in Saratoga, California. We had flown from Puerto Rico to Saint John the previous day as the only passengers on an eight seat, puddle jumper, twin engine plane. I sat next to the pilot who told me that he was a little hung over from a party the previous evening.

We arrived in Saint John on July 3rd. The next day was July 4th, the American Virgin Island’s Independence day which they had adapted into Carnival day. The island was full of masked, carousing people, drinking copious quantities of rum, singing, dancing in the streets and eating conch fritters. Reggae bands were driving through town, playing on the back of flat bed trucks. Many celebrants were teetering on very tall stilts, dancing in a long parade through the town, singing, shouting and loudly cracking bullwhips above everyone’s heads. It was a very festive, if slightly menacing welcome to the island. It was their local version of Mardi Gras.

After a celebratory drink of rum mixed with guava and coconut cream, we ate our first conch fritters and slowly made our way to Maho Bay, where we were warned to check our beds for scorpions before laying down. It turned out to be good advice, as I found one nestled between the sheets the next afternoon. Scorpions typically are ground-dwelling, tree-living, rock or sand-loving, but this one clearly craved the higher thread count fabric of a luxurious honeymoon suite for its afternoon nap.

Lascaux cave painting

“I’m sitting on God’s eyelid and he keeps blinking and crushing me!”

The first intimation that something was seriously wrong had come at dinner the previous evening, when we were assembled in an ancient stone hall in the mediaeval hillside town of Rocamadour, in the Dordogne area in the South of France. We were seated with the mayor and local dignitaries, when Rob suddenly stood up in the middle of the official’s welcoming remarks to our group during a small banquet in our honor, and screamed “Reborn! Reborn! You must be Reborn!”  

We were in our second week of a couple of semesters at Stanford’s overseas campus in Tours, France in the chateaux dotted Loire Valley. The campus director had arranged a 4 day trip to the Dordogne area in the South of France, famous for wineries, beautiful landscapes, chateaus, gastronomy and Neolithic cave paintings. He had procured a private 3 car train to take us from Tours to the medieval village of Rocamadour, a several hour trip. We stopped in the railway station in Perpignan which I was excited about, having read that Salvador Dali considered it to be the center of the universe, though is seemed like just another provincial French railway station to me at the time. A few other campus members had just purchased an old VW Micro Bus from a student from the previous Stanford Tours group and had arranged to meet us at the hotel in Rocamadour that same evening.

Rob was escorted out of the banquet hall and taken to his room and the festivities with the dignitaries continued. We spent the later part of the evening on a virtual pilgrimage, climbing up the very steep illuminated rocky hillside above the town on narrow paths that were interspersed with bloody statues and shrines depicting the 14 stations of the cross – each station representing an event from Christ’s final day of life on earth; from condemnation to death on the cross at his trial, to being crucified and finally laid in a tomb. I met Rob’s girlfriend Carolyn for the first time on the walk that evening, who was very concerned about his mental health and asked me to talk to him as I was sharing a room with him.

When we were done with our walk I went to our room and prepared for sleep and asked Rob how he was doing. He abruptly asked me what he should do about “shit.” Thinking he was speaking metaphorically, I asked him what kind of “shit” he was worried or concerned about. He then told me that he had tried to eat it, but did not like the taste very much, and wanted to know what I thought  he should do with it. I instantly knew we were on living on very different planets, and suggested that he just flush it down the toilet, forget about it, and move on to the next delicious French meal and let nature take its course.

We awoke the next morning and visited the Gouffre of Padriac, a deep chasm that we descended into and then took a long boat ride down an underground river, filled with strange, sightless albino fish. Our bus later stopped by the roadside where an incredibly old man was tending a steaming roadside still, making highly alcoholic calvados apple brandy and giving free shots to anyone who would stop and talk with him.

Gouffre of Padriac

We travelled onward to the mouth of Lascaux cave, where Neolithic and Paleolithic people had lived 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. As this was 1971, visitors were still allowed to go into the caves and see the remarkable artwork of bison, mammoths, horses, ibex, deer, tracings of human hands and woolly rhinos. The guide explained that it was thought that shamans retreated into the darkness of the caves, entered into a trance state and painted images of their visions, creating magic to increase the abundance and success of their hunts. It was in these inner chambers, surrounded by the spirits of ancient men and their prey that Rob found himself sitting on God’s eyelid and being crushed every time that God blinked. He began screaming and we helped him out to the mouth of the cave where we laid him down on the ground and gave him water and a massage to try to calm him down. He was a having full blown psychotic break. 

The director of the campus decided that it would be best if we transport Rob back to the campus in Tours in the ancient VW Micro Bus and put myself, David, Brad, Marcia and our English professor, Ken Fields in charge of him. The bus had no seat in the center section so we laid Rob down there on a sleeping bag and tried to calm him down. None of us had any training for this sort of emergency, so we put on a Beatles tape and all began to sing along. Unfortunately the second song that came on was the tune “I’m So Tired” with the lyrics:

I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink

I’m so tired, my mind is on the blink

You know I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain

You know it’s three weeks, I’m going insane

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got

For a little peace of mind.

As we all sang along it was clear that we needed to fast forward to a happier tune and found, “Here Comes the Sun,” with much more positive lyrics.

We finally returned to the campus in Tours, a day before the rest of the students came back from their much less stressful cultural and geographical holiday. It was decided that Rob would have to return to Tunis, Tunisia, where his father was the US ambassador. When I saw Rob again the next year, after his stay in a mental hospital in Washington DC and daily infusions of lithium and anti-psychotic drugs, he told me that he had been convinced that he was the last Roman general of the last Roman army in Tunisia, 2,000 years ago, and was tasked with defeating and subjugating all of the Arabs in Tunisia. As far as I know, he was not successful in those efforts. 

Rocamadour, France