Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Smart Kids

This week I talked to a group about Rome, the last of four talks about my trips to Italy. Afterwards a little old lady with a whispery voice asked, “How many children do you have?”


“Do all of them have your ability in speaking?”

No, I can’t imagine Karl, David, or Martha standing up before a group like I do every week. But I didn’t plan to be a travel lecturer either. I am a writer. Friends urge me to write a book of stories I tell at breakfast and lunch. I’ve written some of them on this blog and told some to a group at the retirement home where I live. Voila! I am a public speaker.

The old lady’s question got me to thinking about my children and their talents and the whole complex question of heredity, talent, intelligence, and what difference does it make anyway?.

My writing ability is a gift, one which I have enhanced by study, formal and informal, college courses in creative writing, play writing – even a short course in London – and reading, reading, reading. Still, it is a gift. Some people have it; some don’t. My grandson can solve complex math problems but struggles to write a simple paragraph. I use a calculator and still can’t balance my checkbook.

All my kids are smart. Their father was highly intelligent, too. He was smart enough to deceive me for 30 years. He was a cad. Intelligence is not equivalent to virtue.

Among my dearest friends in New Mexico was a woman who had to drop out of school after the eighth grade and worked as a scullery maid in a British mansion. Her husband was forced to leave school after the third grade and was hired out as a ten-year-old to a sheep herder on a New Mexico ranch. Two of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known. They were also great fun, always delightful companions.

For friends and companions, forget about talent or intelligence. Give me friends with big hearts.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hot Time in Texas

Summer in Texas is hot. Really hot. Dallas is hot and humid. Not as humid as Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia, but humid enough that 97 degrees feels like 110. And that’s what it has been for the last ten days.

When I went to bed at 11 p.m. last night, the temperature outside was still 92 degrees. Thank God for air-conditioning!

In New Mexico I learned that “It is not the heat, it’s the humidity,” is true. It is moisture in the air that holds the heat or cold. In the dry air of New Mexico, after sundown the air cools quickly. In summer in Albuquerque, I would run the “swamp cooler” (air-conditioning) in the heat of the afternoon. After the sun set, I opened the windows and slept every night under a blanket.

Albuquerque is high desert. In that clean, clear air the sun beats down out of a blue, blue sky. In August the high might go to 90 degrees. In the 20 years I lived there, it went to 100 only a couple of times. Still, 90 is hot. But step into the shade of my patio, and it was always cool.

Altitude also affects temperature. For every 1,000 feet you go up, the temperature goes down 3 degrees. My house in Albuquerque was on the 5,200 foot mesa – a mile high, like Denver.

From my patio I could see Sandia Mountain, 10,700 feet high. My son David came to visit one Easter. On a beautiful, warm spring day we drove to the mountain. At the top it was so cold that the winter snow had not melted. David got out of the car and made snow balls.

I miss New Mexico.

Last week my brother and his wife went with friends to vacation in Colorado. After one day in Lake City, altitude 8,500 feet, Don could not breathe. He saw a doctor. His oxygen level was 39. The doctor said, “Your lungs can’t take this altitude. You better go home.”

After their aborted vacation, Don and Mary are safely home in Dallas, altitude 500 feet. He feels fine. He says, “I’m never going back to the mountains. I’m never going to Albuquerque again!”

Different strokes for different folks. Wouldn’t it be a dull World is we were all the same?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rescued by a Muslim

In the private office of an Italian export company, across the executive-size desk I faced a distinguished-looking man, dark-haired and young (mid-thirties?) but very self-assured. He could be mistaken for an Italian. But Mohammed Terkawi was a Muslim who learned English in high school in Damascus.

After I told him my problem with my BMW's air-conditioner, he said, “Why did you buy a German car? I like American cars.”

I followed his white Cadillac across the city of Mantua to the BMW dealer, where he negotiated in Italian with the shop foreman. He told me I was to leave the car over night and to return the next day at noon.

“Do you have a hotel?” Mohammed asked.


“I will take you there. I will come back tomorrow and bring you to get your car.”

As I climbed into the back seat of the Cadillac, Mohammed introduced me to his father, a portly gray-haired man with a congenial smile, who was visiting from Syria. Mohammed put a tape into the stereo. I found myself in a surreal atmosphere, riding around Mantua, Italy, in a Cadillac with Arab music blaring from the stereo.

The next morning I walked a couple of blocks from my hotel to the castle of the Gonzaga family, for many centuries Marquises of Mantua Right in the center of the city, this Medieval fortress is a forbidding stone structure, many stories high without a single window facing the street. The iron gates were open, and I entered through an arched stone passage and bought my ticket.

The living quarters of the nobility were on the upper floors. On the fourth floor the great hall, redecorated in the 18th Century in the “Pompeiian” style, walls painted with delicate floral ribbons, opened onto a courtyard garden with real flowers growing in pots, a secret paradise. But I couldn’t help thinking that secure within their stone walls, the noble Gonzaga family was in a luxurious personal prison, shut off from the outside world.

Did Isabella D’Este feel like a prisoner in this place when she married the Marquis? I tried to evoke her presence. I couldn’t. I returned to my hotel, and shortly before noon, as promised, my Muslim rescuer returned and – without father or Arab music – took me to the BMW dealer. The shop foreman said the car was not ready. Would I please come back at 3 p.m.?

Mohammed invited me to join him for lunch with his marble dealer from Florence. After eating a first course of pasta, my host apologized to me for talking business during lunch. Then, while he and the Florentine bargained in Italian over marble Mr. Terkawi was buying to ship to the Arab Emirates, I ate a huge plateful of baked chicken. I could not identify the seasoning, but it was fantastic. The three of us lingered over wine until time to return to the BMW dealer.

My car was ready, but the dealer wanted $54 for repairing the air-conditioner.

Mohammed said to me, “This car is under warranty. You do not pay.”

He and the shop foreman got into a big argument, shouting at each other in Italian. I did not understand the words, but I could see the little shop foreman begin to collapse.

I did not pay. Thanks to this Muslim, I was able to get my air-conditioner repaired, was treated to a splendid Italian lunch, and saved $54.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Miracle in Mantua

I went to Mantua to see the castle where Isabella D’Este lived in the 15th Century. In an era when women of the nobility were pawns married off to seal political alliances, the Duke of Ferrara married Isabella’s sisters to the Duke of Milan and the King of Naples. Isabella was given to a lesser nobility, the Marquis of Mantua. She was one of the most remarkable women of the Italian Renaissance.

It was not a happy marriage. Fortunately, her husband was a soldier who hired himself and his men out to other princes. While he was off fighting for Venice, Isabella pursued her intellectual interests. She corresponded with all the great minds of her day. In one letter she wrote to her brother-in-law, the Duke of Milan, saying she heard about a portrait of his mistress. Would he please send it to her so that she could admire Leonardo’s work?

The castle at Mantua is a fortress built in the Middle Ages. For me it had to wait one more day. I had the problem with my car. The air-conditioner, which had been “fixed” in Athens, was still pumping out cold air, and I could not turn it off.

At Mantua I checked into a hotel and then took the car to be washed. After driving through Yugoslavia, the BMW was filthy. Leaving the car in the hands of an obliging Italian, I walked across the street and into a small, very old and undistinguished Catholic Church. The interior was dark and gloomy, the walls covered with huge paintings, so grimy with age that I could barely make out the martyrdoms of the saints.

I knelt with my knees on the hard wooden kneeler and prayed, “Dear Lord, please listen to this Protestant prayer. Will you please send me someone who speaks English and can help me get this BMW fixed? I know it is not hurting the car for the air-conditioner to be running all the time, but it is using lots of gas and I’m almost out of money. All I want is someone who speaks English. Won’t you do that?”

I walked back across the street and asked the car-wash attendant, “Que parle inglis?” He understood my feeble Italian. With hand and arm gestures, he indicated that I was to go next door and climb the stairs.

God answered my prayer.

On the second-floor I entered an export company and was ushered into the office of one of the most charming and helpful men I’ve ever met. Mohammed Terkawi was a Muslim who learned English in high school in Damascus.

God was telling me that we are all his children.

In the next blog I’ll tell my adventure in Italy with my Muslim friend. Oh, yes, and my visit to Isabella D’Este’s castle.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Castle Franco

I crossed the border from Yugoslavia into Italy and headed for Castle Franco, the closest town with a BMW dealer. It is a small city, still enclosed by Medieval walls and whose only claim to fame is as the birthplace of Georgione.

I’m not sure of the spelling of the name. In the art appreciation class I audited in college, the professor told us that Georgione was a painter who died young having produced only a few fine paintings. The effete can brag about seeing a Georgione painting in a museum in Europe. There are none on display in his hometown.

I was reminded that there are fashions in art, just as there are fashions in clothing and architecture. Everyone knows Michelangelo. At least they know the name. In my grandmother’s day, the fashionable Italian painter was Rafael. Today it is Caravagio. On every trip I’ve made to Italy, I've stood in a church for twenty minutes before one of Caravagio’s dark paintings of twisted bodies, while the guide explained why it was great art.

There are also no Caravagios in Castle Franco.

After a night in an unmemorable hotel, the next morning I went to the BMW dealer. He did not speak English. He punched buttons and assured me in Italian that the air-conditioner worked perfectly. The few Italian words I knew escaped me; I kept trying to tell him in Spanish, “Frio! Frio! todo el tiempo.” He shrugged and walked away, convinced that I was a foolish woman who did not understand how to punch buttons.

I got in the car and drove on to Montova (Mantua).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Hot BMW

It was late August. As I drove my new BMW south from Yugoslavia into Greece, the temperature inside the car became hot. I punched the button to turn on the air-conditioner. Nothing happened. I punched the button again. No cold air came out.

I asked the young German girl I picked up in Thessalonika to try. She punched button. No cold air. The air-conditioner would not work.

It was a long, hot ride all the way to Athens. I had a booklet listing all the BMW dealers in Europe. I took the German girl to the pier where she could catch a ferry to Crete, then I drove to the Athens dealer. The head of the shop said, “Bring the car back Friday morning. The car is under warranty. We will fix it.”

I spent several days seeing the many historic sights in Athens. I climbed the Acropolis, where I took a photograph which looks the same as every other picture you’ve seen of the Parthenon. The other side is a total ruin. The temple remained perfect for 2,000 years, until Greece rebelled against the Turks in the 19th Century. The rebellious Greeks hid gunpowder inside the Parthenon. There was an explosion. The remarkable thing was half of it remained standing.

Friday was to be my last day in Athens. I took the car to the dealer. He told me not to come back until after 5 p.m. I spent the day at the archeological museum. The “primitive” marble statues, standing stiffly upright but with shapely drapery, were much more beautiful than photographs I saw in my college art appreciation class.

At 5 p.m. I returned to the BMW dealer. The shop was closed, but an attendant brought out my car. As it was under warranty, there was no charge.

The next morning I started north, driving towards Thermopylae. The air-conditioner worked perfectly.

I drove into cooler mountains in Yugoslavia. I punched the button to turn off the air-conditioner. Cold air continued to blow into my face. I tried again. Frigid air kept pumping out into the car. I turned the dial down as low as possible, but I could not turn the air-conditioner off.

I did not foresee five frustrating days in Yugoslavia, but from my experiences going through the country from Budapest to Belgrade and down to Greece, I did not want to take my car to be serviced in that dismal nation. (I was not surprised later when Yugoslavia broke apart into a half dozen warring countries.)

It would be a week before I attempted to get the air-conditioner fixed in Italy. That proved to be one of the most remarkable experiences in my life.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Buying My BMW

In my life I’ve experienced ups and downs, been rich and poor, lived in many places, and traveled further than other old ladies living in this retirement home. My biggest adventure was in 1983, when I sold my house in Illinois and went to Europe for six months.

Before I left I talked to my ex-husband about buying a car. Wallace and I were still friends – I thought – and I am no expert on cars. He came over to the house, and, as he sat stiffly on a chair in the living room, I showed him a booklet with all the cars available for delivery in Europe.

He flipped through the pages of the catalog. I said, “I’m thinking of buying a Volkswagen. The cheapest is $14,000.”

Wallace said, “Look at this! You can buy a BMW for $15,000. They have the best resale value. That’s what you should do.”

The day I closed on the house, I took the check to the bank and then drove directly to the BMW dealer in Elmhurst, Illinois, where I wrote a check and signed a contract to for a 318i, a new model and the smallest car BMW made.

The salesman said, “Go to the factory in Munich on August 21. Show your passport, and they will hand you the keys to your car.”

That’s exactly what happened.

I drove my new BMW over 9,000 miles from Germany through Austria, Hungary, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, then up to Belgium and the Netherlands before taking it to the ship in Antwerp.

After coming home, I took my car to be serviced at the BMW dealer in Fort Worth. In the showroom I saw an identical car – same year, same model 318i – with a sticker price of $22,000.

The car was a bargain. My problem was I had no job and no money. Wallace tried to forget he ever knew me. He felt no obligation to me for the twenty-seven years we were married.

I could not afford even an efficiency apartment in DuPage County, Illinois. I moved to Albuquerque, and for three years, while entangled in a lawsuit to obtain support, I drove thousands of miles on the interstate highways between New Mexico and Illinois.

I made that exhausting trip dozens of times. I never worried driving across country alone. I couldn’t depend on Wallace, but I had a reliable car.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wandering in Venice

In Athens I opened a letter from my friend Emma, saying she and her husband were taking one of those two-week-six-country tours of Europe and would spend two nights in Venice. So, after a frustrating week in the wilds of Yugoslavia, I drove on to Venice with a day of sight-seeing on my own before the Hills were scheduled to arrived on their bus tour.

No, I did not ride in a gondola. They are expensive. For a city built on water, Venice is a great city for walking. No cars or trucks to dodge or make noise. I spent a delightful day of wandering around in narrow passageways and climbing steps over bridges and walking on narrow sidewalks beside canals, all quiet and unhurried. I shooed away pigeons on the big Piazza San Marco and discovered hidden squares where little Venetian children played with small dogs.

I had a small book, "Churches of Venice", and a map. I went to the famous ones. St. Mark’s Cathedral with its dazzling mosaics telling stories of the Bible and a terrazzo floor with waves like the surface of a pond, which made walking a dizzying experience. (Venice really is sinking back into the sea.) I especially enjoyed the many smaller churches. That’s relative, some Venetian churches are huge.

I discovered Bellini. I’ve never been fond of Italian art. I go more for French Impressionists. Titian seemed over the top with those hefty pink nudes. In contrast, in museums Bellini was just one of dozens of Italian painters whose Madonnas all looked like the same blonde Italian girl. The Kimball Museum in Fort Worth has one; the U.S. Post Office used it on the first Christmas stamp.

Then I went into San Zachariah’s Church and above a side altar saw Bellini’s Madonna and Child enthroned in a perfect setting, a painted archway within a real arch. Before I went back to my hotel, I stepped inside the neighboring church, Santa Maria del Orto, where tourists never go, and saw an old lady lighting candles before another exquisite Bellini Madonna.

On museum walls Italian Madonnas look insipid. In Venetian churches, where they are meant to be, they filled me, a sometime unbeliever, with religious awe.

That evening I was waiting in the lobby when Emma and Bill walked into a modern hotel with their tour group. The next day we went to all the usual tourist sights, including St. Mark’s and the Doges’ Palace.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Approaching Venice

In the movie “Summertime” Katherine Hepburn is a single, middle-aged American woman who goes to Venice and finds romance. I first time I went to Venice I was a single, middle-aged American. I fell in love with the city. . . but had no encounters with any handsome Italian male.

I drove towards Venice, guided by highway signs where the kilometers went down and down: “Venezia 60", “Venezia 25", “Venezia 10". I knew no cars were allowed in the city. As the kilometers plummeted, I became anxious, wondering where I would leave the BMW and how I would find a boat to take me over the waters of the lagoon to the city built on islands in the Adriatic Sea.

Suddenly I driving 60 miles an hour on a causeway, like the one which connects Galveston Island to the Texas mainland. Then I was in Venice! I had driven right onto an island and into one big parking lot.

In “Summertime” Katherine Hepburn arrived in Venice by train and took a “vaporetto” from the train station to her hotel. Since the streets in Venice as too narrow for cars, boats called “vaporettos” follow “bus routes” on the major canals, stopping at designated places to pick up and discharge passengers. I grabbed my canvas bag from the backseat of the BMW, locked the car, and boarded a “vaporetto” to take me Ms. Hepburn's first stop in the city, the train station.

Unlike Ms. Hepburn in the film, I did not have hotel reservations. I’ve found inexpensive hotel rooms throughout Europe by going to the tourist bureau in the main railroad station. In Venice I took a vaporetto around the island to the “Hotel del Orto” where I climbed the grand staircase to my tiny, third-floor room.

For me the “Hotel del Orto” became a symbol of Venice, beautiful, romantic, and dilapidated. Once a splendid palace, its magnificent lower floor rooms were faded by centuries of wear.

My room’s view of the canal below was obscured by a magnolia tree in the palace’s small, canal-side garden. There are few gardens in Venice and fewer trees. All flowers and vegetables must be brought in by boat from the mainland. Walking up the steps on a bridge, I looked over the marble railing and saw passing beneath me a barge full of lettuce.

Venice was once the richest city in the World, whose wealthy merchants controlled trade in the Mediterranean for centuries. A thousand magnificent palaces faced the canals. But 300 years ago began its decline. Even in the time of Lord Byron, people went there primarily to enjoy its beauty. But trade had gone elsewhere.

Today the business of Venice is tourists. It is still beautiful, but like an old woman, it needs constant renovation to keep up its appearance. Major tourist attractions are stunning, but, just like old people who do not inject botox or dye their hair, many buildings show their age. Some are sinking into the sea.

I loved staying at the Hotel del Orto with its faded elegance. When I returned to Venice 15 years later, I almost missed lunch to take a vaporetto around the island to see it again. A sign on the huge oak doors said, “Closed for Renovation.” I hope the owners gave the place a face-lift and it is again welcoming tourists. Who wants to stay in a Hilton when they could sleep in a palace?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

How I Traveled

I live in a place where most of the residents have lived in Texas for more than 70 years and don’t know much about any place else. A few took cruises – one couple went on more than 15! Another couple lived in an rv and traveled all over the U.S.

A few have been to Europe. Elizabeth proudly recounts her 12-day, 6-country tour with a guide who told her “all about everything I saw.”

I am lucky. I lived in five states. My children went to school in Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Then I lived in New Mexico for more than 20 years.

Each place we lived we explored. When my husband was transferred to Texas in 1966, we brought with us a family who knew nothing about the state where I grew up. The first week we were in Dallas, I took the children to see the museums in Fair Park and enrolled them in classes at the science museum. Then I made a big map on posterboard and set it up in the kitchen. In the next four years we marked out our travels all over the state, from Parker’s Fort in East Texas to the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend.

But I didn’t get to Europe until I was middle-aged. Then I made up for 50 years of day-dreaming.

I traveled far and often. I never counted the trips. I always read about the place I was going to visit, history, literature, biographies of famous people, etc. I looked forward to seeing paintings and churches I had seen reproduced in books on art and architecture. Then when I finally arrived in Athens or Florence or Istanbul, I was always surprised by something unexpected. Each journey was a new adventure, bringing new discoveries even in places I had been before.

I talked to people. I listened. I learned from every person I met.

I still talk to everyone. A lot. I tell stories about my travels. People here at this retirement home asked me to give programs about my trips.

Several told me they dreamed of going to Italy. So we are going there this month. Starting this week, every Monday at 3:00 p.m. we will gather in the living room, and I’ll take them on an arm-chair journey. First stop: the magical city of Venice.