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California Walking

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

The most visually striking picture I took at yesterday’s Justice for All March, my California hometown’s offshoot of the Women’s March in Washington, was of a sign featuring Donald Trump’s face in the style of the iconic Obama “Hope” posters, only this one said “Nope.” In the photo, the great orange one’s face is illuminated against a bright blue sky, a regal palm tree behind his head suggesting, rather conveniently, a coronation rather than an election. It was, I thought, a no-brainer for what to feature at the top of this blog post. Then I started scrolling through my pictures again and I was struck by this one, both for the pink pussy hats that have become the emblem of these marches and the pose of the woman on the left in sunglasses: hand over heart, her face an expression of gratitude and appreciation. This—not Trump—is what yesterday was all about.

Like many locations across the country, the crowd at our local march exceeded expectations at an estimated 2,500 marchers. In a town of just over 100,000 people this was a terrific turnout, but the most striking thing was the diversity of the crowd and its causes. Kids, clergy, local elected officials, and regular citizens came with signs demanding equal rights for women and LGBTQI, water rights, racial justice, reproductive rights, access to healthcare, action on climate change, defense of science, and, notably, kindness. It seems the uniting factor of America’s latest government is that it’s managed to do something to piss off everyone.

But yesterday was not about being angry. Yesterday was about taking a huge collective sigh of relief at finding out your neighbors are as distraught as you are and they’re going to show up to do something about it. Yesterday was about allowing yourself a few hours of joy as we inched along the sidewalks of our old-school Main Street (no road closures were in place), answering call-and-response chats, my favorite of which was “show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.”  Here, in one of my other favorite pictures from the day, is what democracy looks like:

 

Books

Favorite Reads of 2016

The rest of the 2016 reading list is currently in Deutsche-Post limbo somewhere between Berlin and California

I’ve just finished the last book I’ll get through in 2016, William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, prompting me to consider my favorite reads of the year. All four were non-fiction, reflecting the bias of my overall reading list rather than any malaise in the world of novel writing.

Only six of the twenty-one books I read in 2016 were fiction, and if I had to pick a favorite it would be Lisa Owens’ debut, Not Working, in which she gently skewers the aspirations of millennials to find meaningful careers. Said skewering transfers exceptionally well to older generations, who shall remain nameless, too.

Onward to my non-fiction list then, starting with MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference. I didn’t plan my reading list this way, but Doing Good Better is a lovely companion piece to Not Working—a sort of left-brain to its right.

MacAskill is a millennial himself, who also happens to be an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, and has used this book to set out a rigorous framework for how we might do the most good. Along the way he considers charitable giving, consumer choices, and career choices—turns out following your passion is horrible advice. What MacAskill is talking about is how to save lives, and if this sounds like a preposterous, do-gooder goal, well, you may have become as cynical as I am. Read this book. It helps.

Earlier this autumn I read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, a book about the author’s relationship with a person, the artist Harry Dodge, who identifies as neither female nor male, and motherhood—two topics that have little personal resonance for me. In that sense alone, Nelson’s book was “good for me,” a self-imposed dose of getting outside my own comfort zone. But to attribute that as the major merit of the work is to sell Nelson way short. The book is structurally unique (no chapters) with writing in turns fiercely intimate and academic. My faculty with language prevents me from explaining further; Nelson’s does not.

My last two favorites of the year were way more illustrative of my usual fare. First was Anna Funder’s excellent Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a wondrous piece of journalism with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. I started reading it because I was living in Berlin, but it turned out to be way more prescient for what would happen in American politics later in the year. Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book needs to be required reading for Americans on the psychological and criminal ruin that happens when you have a ruling kleptocracy where people are intimidated into tattling on each other.

Finally, there’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin. On the surface, it’s another woman-on-the-verge-takes-a-big-trip memoir. And what’s wrong with that? I love these kind of books, and Crispin is the imperfect, very real, very smart guide on this grand tour of Europe and its artists (which includes men, despite the title). This is Eat, Pray, Love written by the anti-Liz Gilbert.

So, voila! There you have it, my best of 2016 in books. I’m still pondering what to read in 2017, but the shortlist for January includes A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine, Robert Moor’s On Trails, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Oh and Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, and Olivia Lang’s The Lonely City, and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City (I’m sensing a theme here). Or maybe Sarah Einstein’s Mot or Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus or Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. And, oh god, I forgot Alan Bennett has a new set of diaries. The specter of 2017 looms large but at least I’ll have something to read.

Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2016

Portmeirion from on high

2016 made short work of qualifying as an annus horribilis what with the holy trinity of horrors that is the Trump presidency, Syria, and the seemingly endless string of deaths of beloved artists and entertainers. I have been devastated by these things to varying degrees and observed with worry the deep suffering they continue to cause others less protected by the socio-economic bubble I inhabit, although I’m keenly aware said bubble is not impenetrable.

Somewhat to my embarrassment, despite all these things, I still find that my ability to experience both exasperation and joy daily is driven by matters much more pedestrian than those that make the news. (I’ve always excelled at compartmentalization.) And since this is a Christmas letter, I’ll focus on the joy rather than the exasperation. 2016 has been an annus horribilis and yet I also was privileged to occasionally enjoy the ride.

In May, we completed my ambition to walk the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile path along a Jurassic-age escarpment in southwest England. I took to the trail in the spirit of a religious pilgrimage with the modest intention of figuring out what to do for the rest of my life. (At that point we had agreed to leave Berlin at the year’s end, which I assumed meant quitting my job.) As the saying goes, solivtar ambulando: it is solved by walking.

Despite my grandiose vision of this walk giving me space to think and figure stuff out, its real power was narrowing my world. Choosing what to wear is surprisingly easy when you’ve only packed three shirts. For the duration of the walk, all our worldly possessions fit in two backpacks, and the most taxing decision of each morning was whether to switch to a fresh pair of socks. Once outside, there was a path to follow and a destination to be reached, one step at a time. Never once did we have to ask what we should do that day. Any spare brain power was taken up reading from the National Trail guidebook I carried in a waterproof map holder around my neck.

By the end of the Way, there had been no lightning bolts of insight, but the sights and sounds alone had been an embarrassment of riches: panoramic vistas, Neolithic long barrows, a cricket pavilion built by J.M. Barrie, and a fairytale tower designed by Capability Brown, to name a very select few. Not to mention pubs—so many pubs, the best of which, The Woolpack in Slad, was Cotswold writer Laurie Lee’s local. To ask for more from the Cotswold Way would have been downright greedy. And walking the trail had solved a problem—it just wasn’t the problem I thought I was walking to solve. What I would do next remained unknown, but our hike had at least ended the paralysis of modern life’s infinite choice and given us an actual vacation for the ten days it lasted.

Oh, and in all my pontificating I forgot to mention the most important thing: it was really good fun.

Our other major discovery of the year was much more serendipitous, a coastal village in north Wales, Portmeirion, best known for being the set of a 1960s British TV series, The Prisoner. We went mostly because husband was a fan of the show, and I fully expected to find the sort of dank, depressing British holiday accommodation that hadn’t been updated since The Prisoner was shot.

You approach Portmeirion through the stark drama of Snowdonia National Park until finally, improbably, you are in an Italianate seaside village. It’s a sort of Disneyland for grown-ups, staffed solely by people you wish were your aunts and uncles speaking with that lovely, lilting Welsh-accented English. The alfresco café serves local Welsh cheeses and Italian wine and the village bookstore specializes in Welsh literature and the whole thing backs on to a forest of giant rhododendron and hydrangeas criss-crossed with gentle walking paths. I immediately developed a mild obsession with Clough Williams-Ellis, the late architect and mastermind of the whole operation. We liked Portmeirion so much we went back to celebrate our 15-year anniversary in June, the first of hopefully many return visits.

Husband also fulfilled a long-held ambition this autumn, which was to buy a convertible in which to cruise the highways and byways of California. Thankfully for me, his mid-life-crisis car was not anything too ridiculous, unless you find a white VW bug with a blue denim roof and Herbie “53” magnets on the doors ridiculous. Proving I have become my father in at least one way, I refused to trade-in our twelve-year old Volvo to make the purchase, and I fully plan for these two cars to be the only ones we have for the rest of our lives. Channeling an elderly relative who refuses to take the plastic off her “good” settee, husband has thus far refused to remove the plastic and paper coverings of the floor mats and arm rest in a purported effort to retain that new car smell. I’m encouraging him to ask a therapist about it.

In October, I decided to take my health seriously and switched to a vegan-plus-seafood diet. I was exposed to some excellent research that persuaded me to take the plunge, despite my misgivings about never again eating cheese. That wine is vegan was some solace, and I am happy to report it has been much easier than expected thanks to the vegan-friendly offerings of both Berlin and California. It has even been liberating in the same way I found the experience of constricted choice on the Cotswold Way liberating. There’s no more agonizing over what to order at a restaurant—I take whatever is on offer that fits my needs. A bonus is the veil of insufferable vegan piety that I happily don, even though I’m not primarily motivated by the ethics of eating this way.

Earlier this month, I officially left Berlin for the second time. In January, I will start work in Berkeley, continuing my work-world-tour of cities that start with B—Bristol, Boston and Berlin having preceded this latest gig. I’m counting on my employer opening an office in Barcelona next.

We spent the last few days tearing around Berkeley trying to find an apartment, our expectations lowering with each successive viewing of what can most charitably be described as hovels. Then, at the eleventh hour—literally at 6pm the last night we were in town—we found a gem in a charming neighborhood. It is a lot like the apartment I had in Los Angeles when I was twenty-five, except three times more expensive. I’m trying to rationalize it as a return to my youth.

To be fair, the neighborhood has a lot going for it. Husband appreciates the art-deco-fronted cinema, while the organic-with-vegan-options ice cream shop and French bakery appeal to the always-hungry person in me. We were already on our way to sign the lease when the landlord dropped that writer Michael Chabon was practically our neighbor—a factoid that seemed custom-created by the universe to titillate me.

We’re looking forward to new adventures in our new digs in 2017. Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and here’s to a better New Year!

Europe

Return to Venice

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Parking

Last weekend I made good on a promise I made to myself 25 years ago, sitting alone on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute as my semester abroad in Venice ended. Those four and a half months in Venice remain one of the few things I did in college that was worth a damn, a fact I already had an inkling of that long-ago morning. The tourist hordes had thinned, leaving me alone to my woolgathering. This, I thought, is the time of year to be in La Serenissima.

Fast forward twenty-five years as I prepare to leave Berlin for California at the end of the year. Scanning my psyche for any potential regrets after my departure, the only thing that registered was not taking advantage of my proximity to Venice to make a return trip before I go. I booked my flights immediately.

The Alitalia flight landed in drizzle at Marco Polo airport. I made my way to the airport dock to await the Alilaguna blue line—a boat bus—into the city. It’s a leisurely route, stopping in at Murano before making its way down the calf-side of the Venice boot, around the heel and down the toe before heading out to the Lido, then back to San Marco and the mouth of the Grand Canal before finally snaking around to the shin and my stop along the southern promenade of the Zattere. My hotel, an art deco gem called Ca’Pisani, was just a five-minute walk north.

The light was already starting to go, and so I dropped my backpack and headed out into the streets to feel my way to the Rialto Bridge. I had read about a shop nearby selling le Furlane, velvet slippers once worn by gondoliers, that I thought would make nice Christmas presents. Crossing the Accademia Bridge, I recalled my first journey into this part of the city on my very first day in Venice, when my classmates and I had stopped for a picture at the foot of a statue of a winged lion. Later this route became synonymous in my head with a Saturday afternoon outing with another classmate, ostensibly to find ingredients for a Mexican dinner but with several stops for beer and an ear piercing on the Rialto Bridge along the way. Muscle memory took over and I was sure-footed as I made my way through a sequence of corridors and campi that widened and narrowed as if at the whim of a drunken accordion player.

Night walking

Night walking

Having completed my shopping “chore,” I reversed course for my old stomping ground of Fondamenta Nani, a canal-side calle that’s just around the corner from the hotel. Here I stopped into Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, a wine shop and cicchetti bar, for a glass of Prosecco and a couple of slices of baguette topped with raw shrimp and smoked swordfish (price tag: €5.50).

There are no tables here, no place to cordon yourself off and make a pseudo-private space. Instead you must jostle with your fellow man to place your order and stake your spot either at the bar or along the rear wall lined with shelves of wine. It is a microcosm of the city itself where the lack of cars creates a communal life of pedestrians that’s disappeared in many cities and suburbs today. As Tiziano Scarpa wrote in his charming cultural guide, Venice is a Fish, here is a place “where privacy doesn’t exist. You are constantly meeting people, you greet them seven times a day, you go on talking as you part, until you’re twenty metres away from each other, raising your voice as you disappear into the crowd.” I may have come to Venice on my own, but it’s not a place where I feel alone.

For dinner, I walked the few steps to Taverna San Trovaso, the restaurant that was a special treat in my student days. Several of my classmates had affairs with waiters here—I was far too prudish for such things, thus I always paid for my gnocchi ai quattro formaggi—and I couldn’t help examining my gray-haired server for a hint of recognition. I had a table in the far corner from where I could survey the crowd as it gently but surely filled the dining room: a German couple, a local family, a beautiful young woman reluctant to remove her sunglasses or cashmere beanie, who seemed to be known to the staff and was dining with an equally glamorous middle-aged woman.

***

Courtyard at Museo Fortuny

Courtyard at Museo Fortuny

On Saturday morning, there was more rain. I did a quick tour of the nearby neighborhood where I had lived in college, including a visit to Santa Maria della Salute, near “the point,” where the Grand Canal opens into the lagoon. The wind was at war with my umbrella, and I stepped inside the central apse of the church for a moment’s reprieve. Outside on the steps I had noticed a beggar on his knees, unprotected from the elements with an upturned baseball cap in front of him. His position on the spot of my 25-year-old reverie seemed symbolic and, on my way out, I gave him some coins. Later that afternoon we would cross paths on the other side of the Accademia, proving again that it’s hard to be alone in Venice.

The early morning pilgrimage over, I headed back towards the Rialto to spend the remainder of the morning discovering something new, Museo Fortuny, on the site of Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei. I had been led to it via a series of serendipitous connections made over the course of the year: a rainy day visit to Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ Cotswold home, that had sparked an interest in his work and art, followed by an excerpt from A.S. Byatt’s book, Peacock and Vine, introducing me to Mario Fortuny, a Spanish designer, painter and architect who had much in common with Morris.

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Yann Sérandour’s Cactus Show & Sale

As I paid for my ticket, I was disappointed to learn that a contemporary exhibit was on display—I had been expecting to see Fortuny’s workshop—but that disappointment turned to delight as I ascended to the darkened second floor of the palazzo. Here contemporary pieces mingled with Fortuny’s lush tapestries and oil paintings inspired by Wagner’s operas. A black-and-white video installation hung above a low-slung couch, piping out horror film music box melodies. There was a stack of vintage luggage and a series of photographs of a bearded lady’s head in a bell jar. An ante room held one of Fortuny’s large-scale models of an opera theater accompanied by life-size velvet theater chairs. Around the corner, Yann Sérandour’s Cactus Show & Sale cleverly juxtaposed a large-scale black-and-white photograph of a cactus sale with an assembly of mid-century branch-like tables topped with books on cacti. The combined effect was as lush and creepy and playful and atmospheric as the city outside.

It was time for lunch and my destination, Al Covo, was on a route that would allow me to tick off the obligatory visit to St. Mark’s Square. I had a notion to stop into the Florian for an apertif, but the arcade was jammed and unpleasant and I was relieved to get back to the open air of the Riva degli Schiavoni, where workers were busy assembling platforms and ramps for the possibility of flooding, the city’s famed acqua alta. I was early for my 1:00PM reservation but happy to get out of the rain and to have the pleasure, as the night before, of watching the dining room fill. It was my first meal at Al Covo, which I had read about online, and I was relieved to hear only Italian voices at the tables around me.

There is a special pleasure in dining extravagantly alone. In my younger days I trained myself to eat out solo by carrying a book, but now I don’t bother. I’d much rather shamelessly eavesdrop, or at least attempt to, as on the table next to me that alternated between French and Italian and then English, when they asked me if I minded their dog, a handsome, sullen Italian pointer named, rather unfairly, Brutto—the Italian word for ugly. I did not mind Brutto and, seeing that I would be offering no scraps, Brutto took no mind of me either. I worked through four courses, mostly of creatures from the nearby lagoon, accompanied by Prosecco and local, organic Pinot Blanc, biding my time until the tide receded.

Gelateria Nico on the Zattere

Gelateria Nico on the Zattere

The only downside of a luxurious lunch was I had no interest in dinner. Instead, that evening I took a walk to Campo Santa Margherita, site of our favorite dive bar during my college days. It had changed names and was populated only by two sullen old men, so I kept walking towards a light at the south end of the square. The shining beacon was a lively bookstore, Libreria Marco Polo. There was a small English-language section and it seemed the right time to make a start on the Ferrante Neapolitan quartet. I bought My Brilliant Friend and a turquoise library bag bearing the shop’s name in red. On my way home I stopped in Cantine del Vino già Schiavi again for a glass of red wine.

***

Dorsoduro

Dorsoduro

I had saved a visit to Peggy Guggenheim’s small but perfect collection of twentieth-century art for my final morning in Venice. The house where I had lived during college was next door to the museum, and I had visited weekly on the evening it was free to students. By the time I left, I had memorized the walls. It was, then, a relief to find the first room hung exactly as I remember it with my favorite, Magritte’s Empire of Light, retaining pride of place on the back wall. I have always been a sucker for his literal surrealism—it appeals to my left brain—and I had it all to myself in the opening minutes of the gallery.

Next I lingered on a couch with Jackson Pollock and hunted down the Joseph Cornell Wunderkammer that had moved from its former location in the hall. When I finally found it I also found something new: an inscription explaining that one of Cornell’s collages was about the Postman Cheval, a French postman who built a Palais Idéal from found materials in his spare time over the course of 33 years. I had never heard of Cheval and was intrigued. As with Morris and Fortuny, this was a new piece of silk in my cultural web: a thread to follow beyond Venice—perhaps to the palace in Hauterives one day—but one that will forever be, in my head, connected to this city.

Although the weather didn’t call for it, I ordered a Campari spritz in the museum café, along with a timbale of vegetables from the nearby island of Saint Erasmus. It was only 11:00AM, but I wanted a last meal in Venice before heading back to the hotel and then the water taxi awaiting me next to the Accademia Bridge.

Leaving in style

Leaving in style

This mode of transport isn’t cheap—it costs €100 more than the Alilaguna boat—but it is an instant mood booster. It’s also a threefer: you get a ride along the Grand Canal, then alongside gondolas through an interior canal that cuts across the ankle of Venice, and finally across the lagoon to the airport at full bore. It also saves an hour on the Alilaguna, so I looked at it as buying an extra hour on my last day. It still felt like I was leaving too soon, but, as the saying goes, best to leave the party while you’re still having fun.

Ciao, bella. Next time I won’t wait another 25 years.

Europe Random

Opa

Opa on his 100th birthday

Opa on his 100th birthday

I, of course, didn’t know Opa until he had retired to Florida in a house just a third of a mile from where we also moved when I was six months old. I wouldn’t have picked up the information that he had earlier lived in St. Martin, Aruba, New York, Paris, and Cairo until I was at least a few years older, but relics of these past lives were everywhere in that tract home on Selby Drive—from a dinner gong to gilt-edged mirrors to the curvy armoire in the guest bedroom. It was these objects that made the most vivid impressions on me as a kid. The den at the front of the house was a veritable treasure trove: the oil portrait of Oma, the writing desk and letter opener, the camel saddle, and the cow bells and various tchotchkes on the bookshelves. Each time I visited I did a physical survey, scanning the shelves, tinkling the bells, turning over a six-sided clear acrylic picture frame in my hands.

All this stuff was downright exotic; to a kid growing up in the deep suburbia of southwest Florida it may as well have been plonked down from outer space. This was, of course, long before the Internet put the whole world in the palm of your hand. Coincidentally, Opa’s den also held a physical copy of that era’s Internet: a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was a nod to the importance of intellect and knowledge and, in the pecking order of reference materials, a step above the World Book Encyclopedia they had at my elementary school library.

If there was a whiff of pretension about those encyclopedias—or about any of the aforementioned objects—its smell was sweet. Pretension has negative connotations, but it’s the grease on the wheels of social and economic mobility, and I think Opa knew that. He also deserves credit for it. I spent hours on the floor of that den working on school reports with an open volume from his shelf, his house serving as both a literal and figurative reference library for me for a world outside of Fort Myers.

When I was a teen, Opa’s time working abroad and his multi-linguism also impressed me. I was resentful French hadn’t been passed down to my father and then to my sister and me, although there was admittedly nothing to stop me from learning on my own other than a tin ear and a lack of discipline. I like to think my own globetrotting adult existence owes something to his legacy, and I always got the impression he approved of—even took pleasure in—my choices, including my British husband. There was a rapport between Opa and D., a sort of mutual recognition of a fellow bon vivant. D. always looked forward to visiting Opa and being offered an ancient liqueur as an aperitif or digestif, depending, as Opa explained it, on the time of day. When I wrote postcards on vacation, Opa’s was the only one for which D. commandeered the pen.

Some years ago when D. and I were living in the UK, we were given the set of keys to a vacant apartment in Paris. We took advantage of our good fortune as often as we could, and one of the routines we most enjoyed was going for lunch on Rue Cler. It’s a pedestrianized street filled with produce stalls, specialty food shops, and the kind of outdoor cafés where all the chairs are facing out for maximum people watching. It’s also quite near the Eiffel Tower and, in my head, where Oma and Opa lived when they lived in Paris. I’m not sure where I got the idea—maybe the neighborhood was pointed out to me on a childhood visit to Paris with my parents or, more likely, it’s just something I heard over the years. In any case, as we made our way to Rue Cler on each visit I always pointed out a particularly beautiful stretch of mansion blocks to Douglas and said “That’s where Oma and Opa used to live.” Whether or not they ever did is beside the point. Even in that tiny den at the front of his house in Fort Myers, Florida, he managed to open up the whole world to me.

When Opa sold his house and moved into the nursing home, most the totems of his past life were dispersed amongst us. The cowbells and camel saddle now sit in my own den in California and, judging by my niece’s interest in the bells on a visit a couple of years ago, still hold the same allure for kids. On my visits to Opa in recent years, I always saw him in the common area of the nursing home—a pleasant enough environment but one stripped of the context his possessions had provided. The last object of his that I ever saw was a small rectangular painting he had made through an art program at the facility: a picture of a palm tree on an orange background set somewhere in the West Indies. He must have been thinking of going home, and it’s comforting to know he finally arrived. He will be missed.

Cotswolds Walking

Thames Trek

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Emboldened by the success of our hike in May on the Cotswold Way, husband and I set out on another of Britain’s National Trails, the Thames Path, last weekend. We only had two days this time, so we stuck to the twenty-three plus mile stretch of the path that’s in the Cotswolds. It runs from the Thames Head near Kemble to Lechlade, with Cricklade perfectly positioned midway for an overnight stop.

The Thames Head Inn on the Tetbury Road (A433) seemed like a reasonable enough guess at where we should be dropped off to start the walk. The pub has a huge framed map with directions to the trailhead in its doorway, but I walked right past them without noticing and asked a waiter for directions. He showed me back to the doorway without batting an eyelid, apparently used to this kind of behavior from walkers. Luckily the Thames Path is so clearly signposted it requires negligible navigational skills. In less than fifteen minutes we had found the start of the path, marked by an old ash tree, a pile of rocks, an illegible monument stone, and a very legible finger post declaring that the Thames Barrier London was a mere 184 miles away.

It was 11:00AM by the time we set out, having waited out the morning in the hope of letting the worst of the day’s rain pass. There was more rain—and little sign of a river save an overgrown riverbed—on the first two miles of our journey, but that just made the Wild Duck in the village of Ewen all the more welcoming when we arrived bang on time for lunch. We ate and drank better than we deserved for the distance we had walked, but the food was so good that I recommend a late morning start on the Thames Path regardless of the weather.

Back on the trail the waterway gradually became a stream before widening out to something recognizable as a river running between the lakes collectively known as the Cotswold Water Park. The name is a bit misleading; while there are leisure activities like boats and fishing, there are no water slides or wave pools. Of the 150 lakes in the area, only three are open for swimming. We stuck to dry land, walking on through the architecturally diverse village of Ashton Keynes, then back by the lakes of the Cleveland Lakes Nature Reserve, along an old railway track, and finally the ancient North Meadow of the Cricklade National Nature Reserve. It was 6:00PM by the time we arrived at the Red Lion Inn in Cricklade, our quarters for the evening.

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Cricklade’s High Street, described almost 200 years earlier as a “villainous hole”

Conveniently, the Red Lion has its own microbrewery on site, Hop Kettle Brewing Company, and we sipped hyper local IPAs in the beer garden as we eased off our boots. Our spacious room was on the ground floor of a converted outbuilding adjacent to the garden, its only downside being a temporary plumbing problem that meant no cold water. After cooling down the bathtub with buckets of ice, we headed to the pub’s restaurant, hidden behind the main bar through a small side room. The gastropub menu included beer pairings for everything on offer, and, even though it was the restaurant’s recommendation, I felt awkward ordering a canned American IPA to accompany my excellent sole, peas, and homemade gnocchi. If you’re beginning to think this walk was just an elaborate excuse for gluttony, well, you’d be right.

Fortified by a locally sourced full English breakfast the next morning, we set off early in an attempt to miss the gales promised by the weather forecast (they never arrived). The path continues for a couple blocks along Cricklade’s High Street, past a plaque that points out the town’s less than illustrious past. In 1821, the journalist William Cobbett called Cricklade a “villainous hole” in his book, Rural Rides, noting that “…certainly a more rascally place I have never set my eyes on.” We left Cricklade by following the Thames under the A419, where the only sign of rascals was some graffiti under the overpass. Even that, though, had a gentle Cotswoldian slant: “Make tacos not war” it implored, complete with an illustration of a taco adorned with some frilly-edged lettuce.

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Once under the motorway the path continued for a couple hours through gentle farmland, crossing the river at various points over wooden pedestrian bridges. There’s another Red Lion in the village of Castle Eaton, this one stuck in an early 1980s time warp complete with David Essex’s Silver Dream Machine playing in the background. The pub’s placement on the Thames Path is perfectly timed for a lunch stop, but even we were too full to eat. Instead we took liquid refreshment, connected to the achingly slow WiFi, and bantered with the genial landlady about her collection of tunes, which also featured Status Quo.

Leaving the village we walked through more farmland. Harvest was done and Swiss rolls of straw dotted the fields. After a few more pleasant miles, the path left the river and we spent an unfortunate mile along a busy road, the A361. This most unpleasant part of the journey was partially redeemed by the reward of a tiny thirteenth century church, St. John the Baptist, that greeted us in Inglesham just as we rejoined the path. William Morris, whose country house was in nearby Kelmscott, oversaw the church’s restoration in the 1800s, and it was well worth looking in before we continued on the last mile along the river to Lechlade.

The Halfpenny Bridge in Lechlade marked the end of our endeavor, just a mile or so short of a reclining statue of Old Father Thames at St. John’s Lock. We will have to wait to meet him and the rest of the Thames Country Path, which ends at Hampton Court, until spring. Instead we headed to the churchyard of St. Lawrence in the center of town that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his poem Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade—on a day, I imagine from the first stanza, that had been much like this.

THE wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

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The Thames between Cricklade and Castle Eaton

 

The Details:
The Wild Duck Inn
Drakes Island
Ewen, Cirencester
Gloucestershire
GL7 6BY
+44 1285 770310

The Red Lion
74 High St
Cricklade, Swindon
SN6 6DD
+44 1793 750776

Berlin

Berlin Battleground

This morning I witnessed a quintessential Berlin scene, a clash of the old and new city in the fertile gentrification battleground of Mitte, although gentrification has arguably long ago won in this neighborhood and old Berlin is being represented by a lad of not more than thirty. He is drunk at 10:30 in the morning and has draped himself on a stoop adjacent to a popular Portuguese coffee shop. His bike lies beside him. A big baguette sandwich in a plastic bag, a bottle of water, a jumbo can of beer and what looks like a bottle of salad dressing are in the basket.

Across the sidewalk a yummy mummy—new Berlin—is wearing a Megan Draper-worthy getup: a pale blue trapeze cotton dress with elasticized smocking along the shoulders and ivory cap-toed shoes with square two-inch heels. She is changing her toddler’s shitty diaper on a bench built around a tree, and she keeps pausing to pull her dress back down on her shoulders as if to assert her chicness despite her current task. The clean lines of her brunette bob obscure her face as she leans down to finish the deed.

Meanwhile, the mohawked drunk lad has taken to amusing himself by putting the screw cap from his empty half pint of liquor on his eye, monocle-style. Yummy mummy’s toddler is delighted by this and they exchange nonsensical ramblings for about sixty seconds while yummy mummy monitors the situation. Just when it seems toddler might go in for a close up with mohawked drunk, she gets distracted by a cushion. It belongs on one of the café chairs and the toddler throws it on the ground and stomps on it to her mother’s delighted relief. The drunk stands up and walks to a parked car to admire his screw-cap monocle in the reflection of the window, then walks back to his stoop, lies down, and continues his now audience-less mumblelogue. For now, both old and new Berlin have held their ground.

Berlin Cycling

Walled Gardens

I first noticed the Kleingarten as my plane was making its final descent into Tegel, patches of green lining the Berlin-Spandau shipping canal just south of the airport. Translating as “small gardens,” these allotments are more enchanting than the prosaic English term implies. They’re also a staple of modern German society, with an estimated 70,000 in Berlin alone.

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A retreat in the Kleingartenanlage Bornholm

I got a closer look at allotment culture by cycling on the bike path that runs along the canal, starting near the Hamburger Bahnhof in Mitte and heading northwest. In less than twenty minutes you reach the entrance for the beach at Plötzensee, and not long after you’re riding alongside the lake’s Kleingartenkolonie. There are no cars, just tanned Germans pruning, weeding, or enjoying a drink in the sun of their gardens. But these postage stamp-sized plots are more than just rural oases plonked down amidst acres of urban apartment blocks. While you’re not allowed to live in them full-time, all the allotments have structures, ranging from cheerfully painted sheds to mock-hunting lodges—complete with antlers over the front door—to McMansions to rival those found in any self-respecting suburban enclave. The Kleingarten continued unabated as far as I rode, to Tegeler See, Berlin’s second largest lake situated just northwest of the airport.

On the return leg of the cycle, I veered off the canal-side path and rode along one of the interior lanes of the Kleingartenkolonie Plötzensee. Here middle-aged women busily snipped away at their shrubs. Most used electronic clippers, but one younger woman was wielding a pair of old-school, over-sized scissors, a scene that reminded me of the pristine neighborhood exterior shots in Edward Scissorhands. Later I read that allotment clubs typically have strict rules, from hedge height to the ratio of fruit to flowers to vegetables grown on your plot.

An allotment with a sense of humor, meters from the old East/West border crossing

An allotment with a sense of humor, meters from the old East/West border crossing

According to a BBC article, allotments were first setup in Germany in the 1800s as an antidote to the country’s rapid industrialization, becoming an important source of food during the two world wars. There’s a more recent historical connection in Stasiland, a tremendous non-fiction book I’m currently reading about the lives of ordinary Germans in the GDR. One of its central stories revolves around Miriam who, at the age of sixteen, made an impetuous attempt to escape across the Wall near Bornholmer Strasse. The Kleingartenanlage Bornholm I butted right up against the border, which ran through adjacent train tracks. Her attempt starts like this:

“Miriam climbed through and over the fences separating the gardens, trying to get closer to the Wall. ‘It was dark and I was lucky—later I learned that they usually patrolled the gardens as well.’  She got as far as she could go but not to the Wall, because there was this ‘great fat hedge’ growing in front of it. She rummaged around in someone’s tool shed for a ladder, and found one. She put it against the hedge and climbed up. She took a good long look around….Between her and the west there was a wire mesh fence, a patrol strip, a barbed-wire fence, a twenty-metre-wide asphalt street for the personnel carriers and a footpath…”

This morning I rode my bike to see the Bornholm allotments in the northwest corner of Prenzlauer Berg, not too far from my apartment in the old East. To get to them, I crossed the Bösebrücke, the border crossing between East and West Berlin that was the first to open on November 9, 1989, when a socialist party bureaucrat mistakenly announced that crossing points would be open effective immediately, precipitating the fall of the Wall. There are a few pieces of the Wall left as a memorial there—now known as Platz des 9. November 1989—but to get a sense of what Miriam saw you have to go a few kilometers away to a re-creation of the setup at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. With its mingling tourists, it gives a benign, day-lit impression of what a teenage Miriam encountered as she peered over that hedge.

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The Monument in Memory of the Divided City and the Victims of Communist Tyranny

Back in the Kleingartenanlage Bornholm I walked my bike around the narrow pathways. Fruit trees were heavy with apples, pears, and plums, and there was little evidence of the hipster takeover some claim is happening in allotments around the city. There were enough garden ornaments to populate a miniature golf course—not just gnomes, but windmills and donkeys and wagon wheels—a display which, as far as I could tell, was completely without irony. Unlike the allotments at Plötzensee in the West, Bornholm was a ramschackle affair. Gardens were lush and overgrown, with sunflowers and roses and canna lillies higher than my head, perhaps a sign that, twenty-six years later, residents still have a lingering distaste for the rules of the GDR. As for Miriam, her escape attempt is just the beginning of her bewildering tale of life before and after the Wall. It’s well worth reading Stasiland for her story alone.

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A Bornholm Kleingarten

Berlin

The Queen of Berlin

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The Queen of Berlin works at a hairdresser in Prenzlauer Berg. She’s not the delicate flower with stocking-seam tattoos who does my cut and color, but rather the statuesque woman who shampoos. She has a shaved head—a note of irony I appreciate in an apprentice hairdresser—and her neck and upper chest are covered in black and red tattoos: a dragonfly, dahlias, some words. Her nose ring hardly seems worth mentioning, but her trademark look is black culottes and orthopedic-looking black sneakers. At first glance she’s easily mistaken for someone who could cut your heart out and eat it for a snack, but when you talk to her she is sweet, almost childlike. A Carrie Bradshaw-style gold necklace spells out her girlfriend’s name. “Cheesy, I know,” she tells me, “but I like it.”

Recently my husband and I were sitting outside a café at a busy intersection when she strode up on her bicycle. (I know you can’t stride on a bicycle, but whatever the two-wheeled equivalent is, she was doing it.) She was wearing her black culottes and an asymmetrical red PVC bolero, and in that moment she owned all of Rosenthaler Platz. “I know her,” I whispered to my husband.  There was no need to point out whom I was speaking of. We both sat back and admired her, an urban incarnation of an equestrian queen.

Today at the hairdresser I was too timid to ask if I could take her picture, but drop me a line if you come to Berlin. I’ll send you to have your hair done with The Queen.

Cotswolds

Running Away to the Circus

One of the pleasures of living abroad is being in a time zone that’s inhospitable to watching live television coverage of key events in America’s presidential election cycle. Having missed the circus that was the Republican National Convention, I made up for it yesterday by spending the afternoon under the not-so-big top of a real circus, one with clowns and acrobats and animals whose sole aim was to do the exact opposite of what appeared to be the objective of America’s Grand Old Party: to make people smile.

Giffords Circus is a summer institution in the Cotswolds, touring village greens and commons with its distinctly throwback-style of entertainment. This year’s show, The Painted Wagon, is a wild-west themed extravaganza—a metaphor all too fitting for behavior last week at the RNC in Cleveland. Dodge City Saloon proprietress Sarsaparilla Sal was our hostess for the afternoon, while the house band led by Handsome Eddie provided the musical accompaniment for a variety show that included a lassoing cowgirl, juggling barkeeps, and gasp-inducing aerial hoop dancing. Tweedy the Clown and his pet iron, Keith, were also on hand to keep the laughs coming. There was even a baddie sheriff who tried to arrest the whole audience for eating gold chocolate coins that had been robbed from Wells Fargo by El Gifford. Perhaps in Cleveland he could have been deployed to arrest an effigy of Hillary. It’s as if the Giffords—the circus is the brainchild of Nell and Toti Gifford—anticipated the political climate in America and built the perfect antidote of an afternoon. Now if only they would consider touring it in the states.

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The General and his do-si-do-ing horse

Looking at my blog posts from the last year, it occurs to me that my afternoon at the circus fits a theme of how I like to spend my free time these days. From Kelmscott Manor to the whimsical Welsh village of Portmeirion to the London Tweed Run, I’m most interested in those activities who have no higher aim than happiness. I’m drawn to the creators of the world who’ve embraced this, from William Morris to Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis. A look over the headlines for the past month explains my newfound affinity for pursuits unburdened by any objective other than delight. More than ever, we need the Giffords of the world. An afternoon at the circus deserves a permanent spot on the curriculum for being human, especially if you’re running for president.

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