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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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Britain

Wunderbar Wales

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Castle Square in the walled town of Caernarfon

Glorious as it was, Wales’ underdog victory over Belgium last night in the quarterfinals of the European Championship is not the subject of this post. But if that victory means Wales gets more attention in the international travel press, all the better. After our return visit to the northwest corner of the country last week, I can’t understand why Wales isn’t plastered on the pages of every glossy travel mag. It may not always have the weather, but it has the scenery in spades and charming, unspoilt villages.

We first tiptoed into exploring Wales in early May with an overnight visit to Portmeirion before heading up north to the familiar territory of the English Lake District for the rest of the weekend. Leaving Wales so quickly was a decision we soon regretted. A combination of heaving crowds and a ratty hotelier painted the Lakes in grim relief compared to the busy-but-not-overwhelming Portmeirion, which seemed to be staffed solely by men and women whose warmth made me wish they were family. Turns out I’m a sucker for lilting Welsh-accented English.

That taste of Wales—I wrote about it here—was enough to prompt us to book a return visit in June. We again based ourselves in Portmeirion, but this time we explored the surrounding area, starting with a drive along the northern coast on the A55. The sun was shining and the combination of the green-capped hills and ocean made it feel like the PCH. A surfeit of castles on the route shattered the illusion in the most delightful way possible. (Yes, we have Hearst Castle in California, but along a 20-odd mile stretch of this Welsh coastline I counted no fewer than three such edifices, each with considerably more heritage than William Randolph Hearst’s twentieth-century creation.)

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Porthmadog Station of Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway

In Caernarfon we stopped to use the loo and were lured down to the waterside by the view across the Menai Strait to the island of Anglesey. We kept walking, each block more interesting than the other, until we entered the medieval walls of the town. Here Welsh flag bunting fluttered above narrow, lively lanes—including Hole in the Wall Street—crammed with shops, cafés, and pubs. Lording over the scene was, you guessed it, a massive stone castle. We vowed to return and spend a night.

The ideal way to reach Caernarfon on our next visit is by narrow gauge steam train, specifically the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway. It leaves from Porthmadog, which is less than a three-mile walk from Portmeirion, most of which is along a bike path with glorious views across Snowdonia. The train wasn’t running on the day we visited, much to the disappointment of my husband who is of a middle age where an obsession with steam trains and train stations is mandatory.

Instead we followed the port, which was developed in the 1800s to export slate, to a small stretch of the Wales Coast Path leading to the harbor of Borth y Gest. Here a row of candy-colored, double-fronted houses line the crescent-shaped coastline. The tide was out and we drank a glass of rosé underneath the striped awning of the Sea View Bistro. There was an ice cream parlour next door, but after a short walk out to the windswept beach we settled on the deck of Moorings, the other village café, for another glass of rosé. I could have done the same thing every day for a week. Next time we visit it will be for a week—I always seem to leave this corner of Wales wanting more. There’s the rest of the Llŷn Peninsula and more walking on that coastal path and always another glass of rosé.

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Low tide at the harbor village of Borth-y-Gest

Books Cotswolds Walking

Laurie Lee and me and the Cotswold Way

For evening entertainment while walking the Cotswold Way, I packed a slim paperback of Laurie Lee’s Cotswold memoir, Cider with Rosie. The book has a firm place in the twentieth-century British literary canon although it remains somewhat unknown in America—at least it did to me before I lived in the Cotswolds. Capturing Lee’s boyhood and an age of lost rural innocence between World War I and the mid-1930s, I can’t think of an obvious American comparison. Little House on the Prairie crossed my mind, but its era (late 19th century) and prose style are different, and the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy is its more obvious British soulmate.

In any case, Cider with Rosie had been resident on my bookshelf for the past few years—I must have bought it in the publicity surrounding the 2014 centenary of Lee’s birth—but I had never gotten around to reading it. Ten days of immersion in the countryside Lee was so fond of seemed like the perfect excuse to finally crack it open.

On the second night of our journey we stayed near Winchcombe with friends. We were still more than 20 miles north of Lee’s home territory in the Stroud Valleys, but Cider with Rosie would prove itself an eerily relevant literary companion that evening. One half of the couple who were hosting us is a shepherd and earlier he had brought 30 sheep into the garden to address the problem of a broken lawn mower. While we dined on a supper of takeout curry, I looked up from the table to see the flock gathered ominously at the kitchen window, their collective glare seemingly indicating their disapproval of the lamb rogan josh that lay steaming on the table (this menu selection, I note, was the shepherd’s idea). I tried to put them out of my mind as I dipped into the chicken tikka masala, but later, reading the local ghost stories Lee recounts early in the book, it seemed they were destined to haunt my dreams.

There is little remarkable about a two-headed sheep, except that this one was old and talked English. It lived alone among the Catswood Larches, and was only visible during flashes of lightning. It could sing harmoniously in a double voice and cross-question itself for hours; many travelers had heard it while passing that wood, but few, naturally enough, had seen it. Should a thunderstorm ever have confronted you with it, and had you had the presence of mind to inquire, it would have told you the date and nature of your death—at least so people said. 

The next morning I awoke with a start to the 5am wake-up call of the bleating flock, one final act of revenge.

The lawnmower brigade

The lawnmower brigade before the lamb rogan josh incident

Three days of walking later we arrived in Painswick, the closest point on the Cotswold Way to the village where Lee was raised, Slad. Here there were signs to nearby Bulls Cross, but on the advice of Lee, we gave it a miss: At this no man’s crossing, in the days of foot-pads and horses, travellers would meet in suspicion, or lie in wait to do violence on each other, to rob or rape or murder.

In Painswick, Lee’s legacy started to be audible. Sitting in a coffee shop, I overheard a lively local whose father, also a poet like Lee, had apparently known the author and found him a tad arrogant. Our hostess for the next evening had aunts and uncles who had been classmates of Lee at the village school on which he lavishes an entire chapter, a taste of which is here:

Our village school was poor and crowded, but in the end I relished it. It had a lively reek of steaming life: boys’ boots, girls’ hair, stoves and sweat, blue ink, white chalk, and shavings. We learnt nothing abstract or tenuous there—just simple patterns of facts and letters, portable tricks of calculation, no more than was needed to measure a shed, write out a bill, read a swine-disease warning.

From our B&B in Middleyard, we arranged a taxi to take us up to the Woolpack Inn, Laurie Lee’s local pub. The bar is adorned with some pictures of Lee, but the real thing to see is the view from the deck overlooking the Slad Valley. We lingered on the patio while I caught up on my reading before sitting down at a table inside for dinner. Despite its fame from its association with Lee, the Woolpack remains a down-to-earth and lively local, with good real ales and a kitchen punching above its weight.

That evening I was introduced to my favorite chapter of the book, Grannies in the Wainscot, in which Laurie Lee marks himself out as the Alan Bennett of the south of England. The chapter is devoted to the two old ladies who lived in the “top-stroke” of the T-shaped house that Lee grew up in.

Grannie Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves, and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed so much of my early days. With their sickle-bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike. In their time as such close neighbours they never exchanged a word. They communicated instead by means of boots and broomsjumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”; for each to the other was an airy nothing, a local habitation not fit to be named.

In the days of walking that followed we left Lee’s patch of England for Wotton-under-Edge and Tormarton, but the scenery remained as beautiful as Lee’s prose, like this description of his beloved mother, a voracious gardener:

While Mother went creeping around the wilderness, pausing to tap some odd bloom on the head, as indulgent, gracious, amiable and inquisitive as a queen at an orphanage. 

On our second-to-last day of the walk we crossed the M4, a major motorway and milestone on the Cotswold Way. While technically still within the boundaries of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this part of the Cotswold Way begins to feel foreign for those who hail from north of the border. Both soil color and accents change. At our bed and breakfast in the unfortunately named hamlet of Nimlet, our hostess was particularly disinterested, making it all too easy for us to label this unfamiliar territory as unfriendly. The impression was not helped by the price gouging of a local taxi firm who charged us £25 for a 3-mile journey from the nearest pub, where we had been served a dinner seemingly fashioned out of cement.

Cider with Rosie once again echoed our journey. In the chapter called Outings and Festivals, Lee writes about an Annual Slad Choir Outing to Weston-super-Mare, a 50-mile journey in five charabancs that felt as foreign as going abroad. Their impulses as they entered “stranger’s country” were similar to our own:

So we settled down, and opened our sandwiches, and began to criticize the farming we passed through. The flatness of the Severn Valley now seemed dull after our swooping hills, the salmon-red sandstone of the Clifton Gorges too florid compared with our chalk. Everything began to appear strange and comic, we hooted at the shapes of the hayricks, laughed at the pitiful condition of the cattle…

Once arriving in Weston, members of Lee’s entourage also had gripes about the refreshments: Mrs. Jones was complaining about Weston tea: ‘It’s made from the drains, I reckon.’

The Cotswold Way finishes at the grand doors to Bath Abbey, and Lee also writes about church, albeit an altogether humbler affair, in the final chapter of Cider with Rosie. His lament for the loss of community life seems as poignant today as it must have been when the book was first published in 1959.

This morning service was also something else. It was a return to the Ark of all our species in the face of the ever-threatening flood. We are free of that need now and when the flood does come shall drown proud and alone, no doubt. As it was, the lion knelt down with the lamb, the dove perched on the neck of the hawk, sheep nuzzled wolf, we drew warmth from each other and knew ourselves beasts of one kingdom…

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To end here would be to give the wrong impression of walking the Cotswold Way with the companionship of Lee, which was a joy. Rather I’ll leave you with this gem of a line from Lee’s description of his boyhood summers, my own memories of the summer of 2016 juicily fossilized with Lee’s prose and the paths of the Cotswold Way:

We carried cut hay from the heart of the rick, packed tight as tobacco flake, with grass and wild flowers juicily fossilized within—a whole summer embalmed in our arms. 

Cotswolds Walking

Where to sleep, eat, and drink on the Cotswold Way: The best of life off the trail

It’s been a little more than a week since we arrived in Bath, shattered but giddy over completing the Cotswold Way. Two days later I was stricken—and I do mean all the grandiosity and fervor that word implies—with a nasty stomach flu and, between that and going back to work, haven’t had time to write much about the experience. Spoiler alert: it was awesome.

While I assimilate all 102 miles of the Way and try to figure out how I’m going to get it down in words (I’ve got your pictures here), I thought I’d pass along some of the more prosaic but nonetheless important details now: the best places we slept, ate, and drank along the walk. Because nature aside, the beautiful thing about the Cotswold Way is your never far away from a bed, a pint, and a pie.

Best B&Bs
The Cotswold Way is more B&B than tent, although there are a few fields in which to erect one if you insist. Personally, I prefer a room with freestanding tub, like the one that greeted us at the end of our first day at Shenberrow Hill in Stanton. Wifi is dodgy in the whole village in the early evening, but this was the only shortcoming of an otherwise perfect stay hosted by a British Joan Didion lookalike and her Jack Russell puppy. Five-star full English breakfast.

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Just south of Stroud in Middleyard we stayed at Valley Views, a bungalow B&B owned by the genial Pam. She not only came out into the street to track us down when we somehow veered off the path, she also booked us a taxi to nearby Slad to eat dinner at the legendary Woolpack pub (more on this later). Pam’s accommodation was sparkling clean, with decent wifi and a bath thoughtfully stocked with a variety of bubble and foam potions to soak our weary legs. Five-star full English breakfast.

In Tormarton, just north of the M4, yet another proprietor had to come into a field to find us and lead us back to their B&B, in this case The Little Smithy. Our digs were an entire elegant little cottage, complete with sitting room, kitchen, and, yes, a bathroom with a tub. There’s no wifi, but the accommodation was so comfortable we almost didn’t mind. Three-star full English breakfast, but only because it was doll-house sized. (Having eaten eight consecutive full English breakfasts prior to this one, my arteries thank the hostess for the portion size.)

All these B&Bs are part of the hosts’ home, not a hotel trying to be cute with its name. Mercifully all are directly on the Cotswold Way so, assuming you have a better sense of direction than us, there’s no extra foot mileage involved. All cost under £90 for two.

Best Pubs
After a few days of hiking, it became clear that wild garlic (ramsons) was going to be the official scent of the journey. Covering every woodland floor, these delicate white flowers conspired to keep food on my mind for much of the walk. While others may have been admiring the scenery, I spent most of my time thinking about how I could really go for a nice risotto. Luckily there were excellent pubs en route to keep my thirst and hunger at bay. I even managed to eat some of that wild garlic in a rather cement-like falafel dish. Needless to say, that pub didn’t make this cut.

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Top of the list is the Woolpack Inn in Slad, technically not on the Cotswold Way but worth every cent of a short taxi ride when you’re in the Painswick area of the walk. Famous for being Cotswold writer Laurie Lee’s local, the Woolpack may just be the best pub in the region. Somehow it manages to combine boozer and foodie havens into one glorious setup with nary an ounce of pretension. We spent a luxurious couple hours drinking real ale on the patio before settling down to the meal of the trip: a tomato salad as pretty as any meadow we had walked through, wild asparagus (a delicious first for me) with roasted asparagus and courgette fritters, and a glorious Eton mess.

We didn’t stay the night in Dursley, but I liked what I saw of the town when we walked through somewhere around day 7. While the villages of the north Cotswolds are stunning, their beauty feels a bit like a precious piece of china locked away in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Dursley in the south Cotswolds feels the opposite: a place where real people live and work, including a rather spectacular newish-looking public library. We had occasion to meet some of the locals when we stopped for an excellent Sunday roast at the vibrant Old Spot Inn. Here we made the acquaintance of Fly, an Italian greyhound, and his human, both of whom were very nice to us despite the fact that I had inadvertently taken Fly’s normal seat in the booth by the bar.

In Hawkesbury Upton, it’s worth taking the teensiest of detours to lunch at the Beaufort Arms, a big, friendly place filled with locals and serving the kind of plentiful stodge you can happily justify on a 16-mile day. In a mega carbo-load, I downed cheese and onion potato cakes with a shared bowl of cheesy chips while the petite Belgian couple who had passed us earlier in the day nibbled their granary bread sandwiches. Needless to say that was the last time we saw them on the Way.

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Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the Mount Inn in Stanton, overseen by the ever-lovely Pippa who long ago ran the Plough in Cold Aston near our Cotswold home. The Mount Inn is more restaurant than pub, whose excellent food is complimented by the westward-facing vista from their hilltop position. They open at 6PM, but if the weather’s good I recommend arriving a few minutes earlier to nab the bench on the outside deck for some pre-dinner drinks with a view.

Best Bit of Luxury
Conveniently spaced at the nearly halfway and end (or beginning, depending on the direction you walk) points of the Cotswold Way are two opportunities to indulge in a bit of pampering. And let’s face it, walking 10+ miles a day is an excellent excuse for a bit of indulgence. In Painswick, the recently opened and imaginatively named The Painswick, offers a stylish restaurant and hotel. We didn’t stay overnight, but we did have a glass of wine on their wisteria-strewn veranda overlooking the valley followed by a rather posh dinner. I’ll definitely be back, even if my ibérico ham and truffle pizza was served on a tree.

The Painswick

We ended our journey in grand style with a night at the Gainsborough Bath Spa. Arriving in mud-caked boots and waterproof trousers we didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the clientele, but the gentleman who checked us in treated us like royalty, right down to the bottle of champagne delivered to the room. I like to think it was a congratulatory gift for walking the Cotswold Way, but it turns out they “give” (yes, yes, I know we paid for it in the room price) a bottle to everyone who books direct with the hotel.

Of course the real reason for staying at the Gainsborough is access to Bath’s famed thermal hot springs, which is free to hotel guests in the evenings and early morning. I couldn’t wait that long to take the waters, so I paid the day spa fee and spent several hours relaxing in the various pools, each with slightly different temperatures. In between dips I drank shots of warm chocolate from a slurpee-like dispenser—not the most obvious spa amenity, but I’m a fan—and snapped surreptitious shots of other ridiculousness, like a lion head that barfed lavender ice and came with instructions to scoop handfuls to rub on your entire body. It was entirely divine, as was the whole walk. We’re already talking about doing it again, this time from south to north, but I won’t wait for that to revisit these spots.

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The Details

Shenberrow Hill B&B
Stanton
Broadway
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
Tel: +44 (0) 1386 584468

Valley Views B&B
12 Orchard Close
Middleyard
King’s Stanley
Stonehouse
Gloucestershire GL10 3QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1453 827458

The Little Smithy B&B 
Smithy House
Tormarton
Badminton
South Gloucestershire GL9 1HU
Tel: + 44 (0) 1454 218412

The Woolpack Inn
Slad Road
Stroud
Gloucestershire GL6 7QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1452 813429

The Old Spot Inn
Hill Road
Dursley
Gloucestershire GL11 4JQ
+44 (0) 1453 542870

Beaufort Arms
High Street
Hawkesbury Upton
Badminton
Gloucestershire GL9 1AU
+44 (0) 1454 238217

The Mount Inn
Stanton
Nr Broadway
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
+44 (0)1386 584316

The Painswick
Kemps Lane
Painswick
Gloucestershire GL6 6YB
+44 (0) 1452 813688

The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Beau Street
Bath BA1 1QY
+44 (0) 1225 358888