Last year I took a class called Flash Memoir, from Osher Life Long Learning in San Francisco. We were taught, by author Diane Frank, how to shine a bright light on a precious moment from our life. I wrote several short passages and one of them was published this month inWorm Wood Press Media.
The piece I submitted was Turn to the Sea and it was paired with a lovely coastal image by an artist I have yet to meet,Wendy Setzer.
You can see read the poem and gaze at Wendy’s art right here.
I was baptised at the First Baptist Church of Whittier when I was twelve years old. I did it to make my parents happy. It did. I really didn’t know what I was doing then, taking Christ as my personal savior, and for the longest time, while I’ve had an affinity for Christ, I didn’t relate to the personal savior aspect. I see Christ dying on the cross, resurrecting, and having everlasting life as a metaphor for the notion that we do not die and simply cease to exist, but manifest in a different plane, with different attributes, or simply change state and our consciousness has a different point of view.
But then I saw the crucifix on the grounds of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, in Fatima, Portugal. It’s a gargantuan cross (122 feet) with a long lean Christ hanging lifeless, dead at the hands of his own, and I started to cry. The only way to stop was to turn away.
Not everyone likes this crucifix, angular and stark, but it carried great power for me, walking toward it, the cross blocking the setting sun. I tried to reconcile my feelings about how a man who did so much for so many ended up on a cross with nails driven through his hands and feet, and left to die in a public display of disdain and power. I could not.
I wasn’t on a conscious pilgrimage during our trip, but by the time we returned home, I remembered many interesting experiences around spiritual places.
Sagrada Famila (Sacred Family) is difficult to describe. It is old, it is new, and like the medieval cathedrals Notre Dame and Chartres, it is being build over generations. It required my full attention.
The cathedral sprouts from the ground in the middle of Barcelona, Spain. It’s got a McDonalds, a Five Guys, and a Starbucks right across the street, which I found both disturbing and amazing that those three companies could pull off that venue.
There are stories of Christ’s life carved around the outside of the cathedral. The final cathedral tower will be the Christ tower, supported by four internal pillars, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Due to complete in 2026.
Late afternoon light streamed through the cathedral, setting the place aglow. My wife went in ahead of me, to get our audio tours. She came out in tears, and simply said, “The Light.”
The ceiling felt familiar, like I’d seen it in a science fiction movie, where people from all walks of life live together in peace and harmony. It gave me hope.
We sat in the nave, to meditate and pray, but it was difficult to stay in that little space when this enormous sanctuary was all around and it looked like Christ was coming in on a parachute.
There is so much color and structure to the inside of this cathedral, yet no statues, other than Christ on the cross.
Architect Antoni Gaudi designed the cathedral. His work can be seen all over Barcelona. A whimsical style and from what I can gather, structurally brilliant. After Gaudí’s death in 1926 the construction was continued by architects and craftsmen who had worked with him, according to his plans and plaster models.
The story of Christ’s birth is told on the oldest side of the cathedral. It is adorned by an enormous supporting cast of story-telling statuary.
The story of his death is told on the newest side of the cathedral. More modern, more angular.
I began a series of blog posts about our trip to Barcelona, Lisbon and the island of Madeira with a post called Why I’m Tired. I hope you’ve enjoyed these images and thoughts as much as I have getting them down. Photos shot with iPhone 8plus and edited in Snapseed.
It’s evening and the tunes are starting to flow through the cool night air. A sparkling sound from the big thumping Sonos speaker gets my head in the game, gets my fingers to moving, and finds a beat that is hard to ignore. Some kind of lethargy has taken hold, and a bit of real-time fatigue, set in motion by a 24 day trip to Europe where we toured Barcelona, Lisbon, and the island of Madeira. If I’m honest I’d say the biggest trouble is that I’ve shed my jet lag but left my heart and a large dollop of my energy nine hours away. Maybe getting it down on paper with a few photos to support, I’ll be able to return to my bay area digs, heart, bones, and spirit.
Last year my wife and I started reading Dan Brown’s book Origin, and while I found the premise interesting I did not find reading it particularly rewarding. The story had its engaging moments, especially the artificial intelligence bits. I didn’t finish it. On return from our adventure one of my friends asked how I enjoyed Barcelona given that I’d read Origin, and I was clueless about her meaning. She said the book is, at least in part, set in Spain. I had not noticed that.
We already bought the book from Audible so I downloaded it and started at the beginning. The opening scene is at Montserrat (serrated edge) monastary, where we traveled to view the black Madonna. Now I have a book to read, but this time with a bit more attention.
We took the metro to the train and rode north out of Barcelona through small cities and farmland, toward a towering mountain, with steep crags at it’s pinnacle.
There are two stops for Montserrat (serrated edge) train station. We took the first for the gondola. The second, I believe, is serviced by a tram that rides a track up the mountain. I’m not positive, but there may be a walking option. The station was the launching point for the gondola that moved us up to the monastery in about 5 minutes. It’s steep, but follows the contour of the land so is never that far from the ground, but looking back down into the valley, it’s a long ways. We were there in October. It was cool on the mountain, but overall, the temperatures were quite mild throughout our trip. Not so, I hear, in the summer months.
When we entered the grounds I was trying to imagine how they built this place. It’s work getting things up the mountain now, but around 1025 AD? It’s a long way from anywhere, and it’s up a mountain. Would be fascinating to go back in time and be a fly on the wall, to see them making measurements, cutting stone, hauling heavy materials up a steep, rocky mountain.
Note the people standing above and to the left of the crucifix. We stood in line for our turn to get there and see the Black Madonna. As we stood in a slow moving line along the inside wall of the cathedral we could look out into the sanctuary and get an up-close viewing of the architecture. Our Donna, below, with the Black Madonna.
There’s a beautiful entry with expansive views over the valley below. We heard about a series of hikes that are available, but that will have to wait for another day.
Outside the cathedral the sun was getting low in the sky, casting long shadows across the valley below where we’d catch our train back to Barcelona.
The ride down was quick and easy. Our car was full and it rode quite a bit lower than a fairly empty car that we pass on our decent.
I’m still a little tired, but I’ll renew myself and talk about Christ in our travels.
It was Sunday late morning when Donna returned from yoga. “How about a trip to Santa Cruz and do a little paddling?” I asked, and Donna was game. She made us lunch to go and I outfitted the car with racks and gear. In an hour we were on the road south, through Half Moon Bay, on down to Santa Cruz and eventually New Brighton beach.
We stopped at the Swanton Berry Farm, not the one near Año Nuevo State Marine Reserve where you can pick berries, but a little complex on the east side of Hwy One a bit north of the little town of Davenport. Swanton has it all. Restrooms, hot coffee, berry pies, cobblers, and some serious chocolate. Payment is on the honor system, with a cash drawer sitting out to make change, plus an iPad for card transactions. The coffee was great, the chocolate truffles were rich and dark. We saved the pie for later.
We took the 41st Avenue exit and drove to the end for a restroom pit stop and a quick peek at the Hook, but for me, it was a chance to see if Sharks and Privates were breaking and they were. We tried to snag a parking spot in Capitola, but no game, no spots, wall to wall packed.
We pulled into New Brighton and showed them our annual Calif State Park Pass and in we went. An hour later we were warming up on the beach. Could have been the south of France, except it was sand, not rocks. We warmed up with plenty of shoulder stretching and then I fired up the GoPro and walked to the water. In two feet of water I just stepped on the board, then landed the other foot, but the water retreated, and the look on my face was pure surprise as I sailed over the nose and nearly collided with Donna. We laughed it off and had a ball. Donna saw a shark just a few minutes into our paddle. She paddled all the way to O’Neill’s house near Pleasure Point, then turned around and fetched me on the return. It was a calm paddle back, gliding over smooth water and emerald-green kelp.
After showers and warm clothes we drove into Santa Cruz and ate on a bench in the park across from Mission Santa Cruz. And that’s where we ate the berry pie.
Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s old with so much new. We found the town pronounced and spelled several different ways. Bruges, like rouge with a B in front is how most tourists pronounced the quaint Belgian city, but the locals called it Brugggghhh, like starting to say blue in french, but then moving the G sound to the back of the throat and kind of squeezing the finish. I never got it right.
One of my friends at the San Francisco Writers Studio told me about Bruges. “It’s ok if you like medieval towns,” she’d said. “What with cobble stone streets, canals, quaint cafes, and boutique clothing stores,” and we did like all of that.
The trip from Amsterdam to Bruges was relaxing, if a bit underwhelming, until we got off the train in Antwerp. I remember being stunned to a stand still looking up at the massive train station clock. It had been decorated to fill the entire end of the station. It didn’t seem real. We both took photos hoping to capture the elegance of the structure. We probably have 15 images, none show the full grandeur. But our commuter train to Bruges was late so we got to sit in the station, sip coffee, and watch people coming and going in the afternoon glow. We’ve since watched Hugo, to visit that feeling again. There’s something about a train station.
The train to Bruges moved along at a snail’s pace, past Ghent and several other small towns. Medieval architecture sprung from the skyline, like pillars of inspiration.
In Bruges we found the bus to our AirBnB and sat for the 10 minute ride to our new hood. It was a quiet little street, with several homes sporting sculpted gardens. Our place came with two bikes that we rode into town for groceries and dinner. We rode home in the dark, feeling alive and quite free.
In Bruges, we walked down narrow streets, and from time to time could see the spires of one of several church steeples. We managed a stop at each.
There’s something about these old churches. Structures that are built over centuries, over generations. Who had the original concept? How did it change as time changed, as wars were fought, as sons died, as children became adults, and they too died.
Someone suggested that we see the Colin Ferrell movie In Bruges. I’d tried it some years back and didn’t make it very far. I found Ferrell’s constant negativity hard to swallow, but in the movie’s defense, the photography is stunning. There are shots from the water, from towers. It’s really a great overview of the city. And there’s a seriously twisted relationship between Ferrell and the guy who played Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter movies.
What I didn’t see was the well-developed retail scene. As we approached the city our first day we saw shoppers carrying bags from the well-known shops you might see in San Francisco, Milan, or Rome. There were great little cafes, cobble-stone streets plazas, bicycles nestled in ivy. Reflections in the water,and church towers framed by a maddening sky.
We had a snack at the Pigeon House. Great little stop for local color. They honor the pigeons who race from as far away as Spain, all the way back to Belgium. The bird is stamped into chocolate medallions.
Speaking of which, Belgian waffles. We only had one, but what a treat. We sat in the back of a little cafe, watched what a nearby table was eating and ordered what they had, one waffle with creme fresh and dark chocolate. The waffle was large but light. We filled a corner with cream and another with chocolate. We took our time. We shared. Donna took her spoon, and with the delicacy of a fine surgeon poured a teaspoon full of chocolate and ate it in one bite.
I gotta say that the town held me from the first steps. Narrow streets, cool old doors, and canals.
One afternoon we were drawn to a bridge by a sound that I couldn’t place. It was musical, like a steel drum, but nuanced with a humming sound. We came across this troubadour playing a Hang Pan and blowing into a diggerydo. He provided a sound that seemed both primitive and contemporary all at once. Since our return we hear Hangman on our streaming stations just about every day.
I could go on and on about Bruges, but our next stop is Paris. So you gotta move on.
We took Norwegian Air out of Copenhagen and landed in Amsterdam a bit late in the day. The train station was a bustling hub of diverse humanity. People looked to come from every corner of the globe. Outside central station it was crowded, rushed, and dirty. By the time we got to our AirBnB, via a 15 minute bus ride, we were sure we’d made a poor decision on where to stay…until we met our host and saw our apartment. Until we woke in the morning to find a green parrot perched in an Elm outside our bedroom window. Until we found the local grocery store had fresh organic produce, eggs with bright yellow yolks, and found the Danish nut and seed bread we’d eaten in Copenhagen. We continued to eat our mostly raw breakfast. I was loving it.
The buses ran prompt and got us around town quite easily. But the streets are the places we found most charming. Strolling hand in hand along quiet canals, as bikes cruised around corners, horse-drawn carriages clopped along the cobblestones, and musicians played music here and there.
And of course the Coffeeshops, not to be confused with Cafes. Both are plentiful in Amsterdam.We talked with the proprietor of one of Amsterdam’s oldest coffeeshops, The Bulldog, about cannabis edibles and discovered that it’s against the law to make anything with cannabis. Even the lollipops and Spacecake are made with some kind of cannabis oil, with little to no psychoactive properties. He said that once upon a time, Amsterdam was the world leader in progressive medicine, but now they are trailing the likes of California, Colorado, and other US Cities.
We hooked up with a friend of a friend, Lorand, who lives in the hip neighborhood of Kinnerbuurt. They have a farmers market that runs the length of a pretty long street, and is open every day of the year. Fresh everything. Lorand guided us through enormous food courts inside a refurbished tram repair center. It’s called Foodhallen. It’s spacious rooms, varied aromas, music, and people made it an interesting place to get a bite and feel the vibe. We also discovered a fantastic cafe where I tried fried goat cheese. I thought it was fish. Our cafe host even got in the action.
We spent hours touring the Nine streets area where we found cafes, retail stores, canals and reflections, plus the ever-presence of bikes, locked and being ridden.
We walked many streets more than once, and it didn’t seem to matter. There was always something to see, taste, smell. We tried to go to the red light district, but each time we tried, the way there was crowded, and the energy was more than we wanted to handle, so we’d mosey on over to the nine streets area and relax into the non-stop shops and cafes.
The only activity we planned in advance was Ann Frank’s house, and if I had one word of advice for that tour, see the movie first. We streamed it on Netflix and it gave such a great sense of the cramped quarters, the difficulty of being quiet, and how personality conflicts are amplified by war and confinement. The place is tiny, the stairs narrow, and with wooden floors, it’s practically impossible to keep quiet.
Our second day in Amsterdam we wandered into a souvenir shop to purchase refrigerator magnets and gaze over all the shiny objects.
What a fun store. I thought it must be hard on a shop owner trying to sell high volumes of tiny items to make ends meet. While doing our transaction we asked if he could point us to the Van Gough museum. He asked if we had tickets, and said that it’s quite helpful to purchase in advance, and it’s great to go late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. He said he could sell us tickets which turned out to be such a great move.
My lack of art history knowledge caught up with me the next day. We took the tram to the museum area when I got the feeling that Amsterdam was bigger than I’d thought. Much bigger. It’s almost twice the area of San Francisco, and larger than all the cities we visited, Copenhagen, Brugge, and Paris.
We walked by the Rijksmuseum and sat in the sun at an outdoor food court with coffee and a nibble. When it was our designated museum entry time we walked a hundred meters or so to the Van Gogh museum. We’d asked about its location a couple of times and were corrected on our pronunciation each time. It’s not Van-Go, it’s Dutch, Van-gawk, but you have to slur the second syllable through the back of your mouth. An acquired skill I think.
We picked up our audio tour gear, and agreed on when and where we’d meet, since we have vastly different attention spans for museum tours. I started the exhibit and was greeted by a large, say 8×12 foot painting of peasants in the field, some mostly sitting, eating, sharpening blades. I’d seen it in art appreciation class in junior college. I moved on to a series of self portraits and learned that he taught himself many techniques by painting himself, as he did not have money for models. I searched for that image when drafting this blog post but never found it. I did find dozens and dozens of peasant paintings, little studies of faces, feet, and folks at work. He was a prolific painter, who took great pleasure in painting the simple life. When I got to the timeline display of his life, I was shocked to tears when I discovered he’d taken his own life.
We spent a bit of time in the tulip museum, in the Nine Streets area, where Donna learned that many of the varieties of tulips they sell won’t do well in our climate, so we waited for home to buy our bulbs. They went in the soil this past weekend. We’ll wait for Amsterdam in our spring garden.
Outside the tulip museum we discussed a book we’d read. Donna confused All the Light We Cannot See, with bits from The Goldfinch. I’ve had a fear that I might lose my wife to dementia. In that moment, I thought it was happening. I started to cry. Donna took me onto the bridge where I tried to talk about it. She reassured me that she is not losing her mind.
I’d love to spend more time in Amsterdam. Such a vibrant city with more to see than can be done in four days. When we returned home I told Donna I wanted to visit Ikea and get a little hit of Scandinavia. We came home with a few odds and ends to keep our trip alive along with a mounted and framed black and white photo of the same image that got me interested in Amsterdam a few years ago. I’d seen it at an executive office on Sutter Street in San Francisco. It was one of several framed images, all done in black and white, of various cities around the world. Each had one element of color. We brought it home from Ikea. It’s lovely next to our fireplace.
Until we return, we have a photo, we buy aged Gouda cheese, and we recount stories real and imagined.