Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Road Trippin' - a not-so-short story.

The trip to England was awesome. We flew directly from Charlotte to Gatwick Airport outside of London, took the express train into the city, and immediately plunged ourselves into London’s fray. We climbed into the back of one of those old-fashioned taxi cabs, took a brief and expensive tour of the city, and wound our way to a hotel near Euston Station. Thankfully Steve had booked adjoining rooms everywhere we went because there was no way that the four of us could have squeezed into a single room. We dropped off our bags and headed for the nearest Tube station: the race had begun.

Truthfully, London is a blur. We went to Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s cathedral, Kensington Palace, the Marble Arch, Wellington Arch, the Shakespeare Globe Theater, Vinopolis (a museum dedicated to the production of wine), and a host of other places. We climbed to the top of many double-decker buses, rode in countless taxis, ascended and descended the escalators in countless Tube stations, and walked for miles every day. We took a train out to Windsor Castle where I managed to lose the cap to one of my favorite pens by dropping it down onto the train tracks. My dear and adventurous friend, Kim, flew over to London and spent an afternoon with us and the evening with me. We wandered through the oddly captivating Tate Modern Museum before sipping a glass of wine in a noisy Irish Bar. Thanks for coming all that way, Kim; it was great to see you.

After six days in London, we rented a car and drove to Cambridge for lunch, some shopping, and a punting tour on our way up to York where we stayed in a well-appointed bed and breakfast place called 23 St. Mary’s. The full English breakfast every morning included eggs, sausage, ham, fried toast, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, baked beans, black pudding, and all the fruit, cereal, coffee, and tea we could manage. What a hearty start to several long days of walking and shopping around that quietly majestic city. What a rich history it has of invasions by Romans, Normans, Saxons, and anyone else willing to battle the wind and rain, subsequent battles for freedom, and nowadays waves of tourists threaten to conquer it yet again. As for the shopping, we were glad to add to England’s economic stability during our twelve days. (This is one month when I am extremely glad that I don’t have to deal with the Visa bill!)

As we drove south towards Bristol and a memorable visit with friends we’d known years before in Connecticut, we stopped in Stratford-upon-Avon hoping to catch a glimpse of the place where Shakespeare was born. It took me no more than ten minutes of strolling through that noisy and filthy city to understand why he left and moved to London. Yikes! We couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I, who have an impressive collection of postcards from many years of European travel didn’t stop to buy even one there in Stratford.

Driving in England was a gut-wrenching, eye-opening, nerve-rattling proposition - and all I did was sit in the passenger seat trying to make sense of the most confusing map I’ve ever seen. Steve was the courageous one who got behind the wheel and transported us from place to place without going the wrong direction at the numerous traffic circles or venturing into the other lane of traffic. Even traveling at 75 miles an hour, we were passed on the right and left on the England’s super-highways. On dark country roads, I had to serve as both co-pilot and radar detector – not for speed traps, mind you, but for quickly approaching curbs and sewer openings. It was harrowing, but we survived. I, of course, never even considered the possibility of driving. I gladly criticized and nagged at my poor husband with terrified abandon, but never once volunteered to take his place in the driver’s seat.

Paul and Lindsay Smith welcomed us to their beautiful Bristol home with grand style and open arms. Cold wine, hot tea, tasty meals, and spicy conversation made our last weekend in England memorable. Lindsay and I snuck off to Bath for a day of sightseeing and wallet lightening. The sun shone bright high in the sky, and so did our smiles as we recalled days of warm friendship in Connecticut, told stories of current life dramas, and shared our hopes and dreams for the coming year. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed her elegance, her intellect, and her wisdom until we had those precious hours alone together. How I wish we lived closer to one another!

When it came to time to make the circle complete and return to Gatwick, we said farewell to the Smiths, and headed to the nearest supermarket. On this trip I discovered a whole new level of pity for my husband's allergy to chocolate. Cadbury bars of all varieties and sizes abound in that land of milk and cocoa. At the Portishead market, the children and I filled our basket with chocolate bars, imperial mints (something I’ve never had here in the States), and black currant goodies of all kinds (black currant is one of my favorite flavors, discovered years ago in Amsterdam and only rarely sighted here at home). I bought black currant gum, cough drops, tea bags, anything and everything I thought I could shove into vacant suitcase corners. We will eat English treats for weeks to come. Cheeks and sacks full of sweets, we wound our way north and west to the Wayside Manor Inn for our final night before the dreaded return flight; no one wanted to come back home.

When I travel, the smallest details invariably prove to be the most memorable. Every time I look at the green marker with the black cap, I will remember day we spent wandering through the largest occupied castle in the world, Windsor Castle. Every time I look at the canvas bag with the huge colored polka dots, I will remember the Paper Chase shop in Cambridge where I stocked up on paper and stickers for our craft cupboard here at home. I will never wear my new and exquisite agate cross without remembering the look of pride on Daniel’s face as he presented it to me and explained that he’d picked it out at Cambridge University’s King’s College Chapel gift shop. The little girls in their neat school uniforms sketching tennis rackets and old fashioned tennis attire will make my memories of Wimbledon so much more poignant. Watching Steve and Daniel throw the rugby ball to each other in York’s pervasive light drizzle is a sight that will not soon be forgotten. But perhaps the moment that will stand out most from this entire trip took place on the last Saturday night of our sojourn. Lindsay was preparing pizza for the children’s dinner and leg of lamb for the grown ups. We were all gathered in the kitchen talking and sipping wine from Spain’s Rioja region – or perhaps it was the kir that Paul so graciously made for me. Anyway, Lindsay put in a CD of Latin American music, and we all started dancing. The four of us Belsitos and the three Smiths all took to the hardwood, shaking our hips, arms and legs flailing, as flickering candle light and laughter bouncing off the walls of their conservatory windows. What a simple and glorious moment that was. Thank you both for your warm and gracious hospitality.

I love to travel, and this trip confirmed that we all do. In order to keep the travel virus alive and well in all of us, six weeks from tomorrow, the children and I will head off for another adventure. I don’t think our Spanish lessons have gone well enough here in Charlotte, so we are taking an extended field trip to Spain. We have rented a tiny apartment in Madrid for a month, and we will see if we can’t concentrate a little better in our home away from home. Steve will join us for the last eight days and help us haul all our loot home.

Since we can’t take any of this hard-earned money with us when we die, we may as well make the best of it while we’re alive. I hope Kristiana and Daniel don’t mind how we are spending their inheritance…

Friday, March 25, 2005

Good Friday? Yes and no...

Thirteen years and nine months ago, I arrived in Williamstown, Massachusetts with my fiancée on the Friday afternoon before our wedding. We greeted our friends and family members as they arrived in town to celebrate our upcoming nuptials. That was a good Friday.

Eleven years and four months ago on Friday, October 29, 1993, I checked into the now non-existent St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut after carrying Kristiana around in my belly for 42 weeks. Yup, upon her arrival early the following morning, she was a full 15 days later than her due date. When I hoisted myself up into bed that afternoon and began the process of labor and delivery, even though many hours of pain and hard work lay ahead of me, that was a good Friday.

Just over five years ago, the airplane in which I was traveling landed at the airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was there that Steve and I embarked on our first and only cruise – from BA up the Atlantic coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That was a good Friday.

And two weeks ago today, we walked, rode, tubed, shopped, and wondered around London with our mouths hanging open on what was our first full day of vacation. That was a good Friday.

On the other hand, just over 2000 years ago when Jesus Christ was judged by and condemned to death by an angry and cruel mob, when He was stripped, whipped, spit upon, battered and bruised, when His brow was ripped open by the crown of thorns, and He was nailed to the cross and left to die on Calvary’s hill, that was not a good Friday.

Yes, I know that three days later He rose from the dead. Yes, I know that all of human history has been affected one way or another by that death and resurrection. Yes, I know that without the suffering, without the horror of that Friday night, there could be no joyful celebration on the first day of the following week when the tomb was found open and the grave clothes found empty. I understand and believe all of that with all of my heart.

But still, on the day that it all took place, when the earth shook, when darkness fell in the middle of the day, when the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, when the Mel Gibson’s proverbial teardrop fell from heaven, that was not a good Friday.

I’m glad that the story didn’t end on that sad Friday. I’m glad that that sad Friday was transformed into Good Friday when Sunday morning arrived. I’m glad that the solemn ceremonies of this day can be offset by the knowledge that, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

He is Risen.
He is Risen indeed.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Maundy Thursday

I have always hated my feet. To their credit, they have served me faithfully for nearly 40 years now without ever developing so much as a callous worth complaining about. They have produced no hangnails, nor have they ever refused to transport me to any chosen destination. The only complaint I have ever reasonably made about them is in relation to their size; they require size 11 shoes. Standing at 5 feet and 10 inches in height, I would look odd with size six feet, or so I’ve been told. I, however, would love the opportunity to test that theory out myself.

In the past couple of years, two things have altered my attitude about my feet. First of all, I have spent a fair amount of time in the past six weeks looking at my feet than ever before. I have begun to practice yoga. Bent over at the waist trying to put the top of my head on the floor, I have plenty of time to look at my feet. Extending my feet five feet away from each other while bending one knee to the vertical and making sure it stays “on the little toe side of the foot” provides me with ample opportunity to examine the big and little toes of my big feet. The other (relatively) newly undertaken habit in my life is the magical practice of receiving pedicures. I don’t get them often; in fact, I have had fewer than ten pedicures in my life. There is a spa just a few minutes from our house where a wonderful and tender-hearted woman has made my barge sized feet feel like the most beautiful and petite little paws she has ever encountered. She soaks them, scrubs them, removes any hard and dry skin, paints the nails, and does just about everything else she can think of to make me and my feet feel most welcome in her little corner of paradise. My feet and I are most grateful for her tender care. Even though I haven’t been back to the spa in more than a year, I have taken better care of my feet with scrubs, buffers, and creams since meeting that darling foot specialist than ever before. Both yoga and meticulous foot care have caused me to appreciate these brogans in a new way.

I won’t soon forget the discomfort I felt the first time I received a pedicure. It was at a salon in Connecticut where the women who performed the manicures and pedicures did not speak to each other in English. They greeted and conversed with their clients in English, but the rest of the time, they spoke to each other in a language that none of their clients understood. So when the time came for me to extract my feet from my socks and deposit them into the warm, bubbly water, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of their animated exchanges revolved around my extreme lower extremities. I wondered if the rough skin on my feet was the worst she’d ever seen. I wondered if my nails were the hardest she’d ever had to cut. I wondered about every possible worry related to my feet that day. As soon as she was done and my toenail polish was reasonably dry, I tipped her generously and ran out to my car with the cotton still between my toes. I swore to myself I’d never humiliate myself like that again. How could I ever bare my toes in front of innocent bystanders? Why would I subject anyone to the offense of having to wash my feet?

Which brings me to Maundy Thursday. Today is the day when Christians around the world remember two important practices introduced on this day in history by our Lord Jesus Christ. First of all, He instituted the most important meal in the life of the church: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Communion. With the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, His followers remember and celebrate His death on our behalf. I am reminded of last year’s movie phenomenon, The Passion of the Christ, and the scene where Christ sat with His disciples at the Passover Table and gave to them an entirely new way of understanding the tradition of the unleavened bread and the wine. His broken body and shed blood are symbolized in those two basic elements in such a simple way that even my young children are moved to silence and reflection whenever Communion is shared at our church.

But what I never connected to the holiness of this week until this year is what Jesus did for His disciples before the Eucharist. He removed His outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, got down on his knees, and proceeded to wash the dusty and tired feet of His dusty and tired disciples. Those were not the dainty, well-scrubbed feet of the average suburban mom. Those were not the feet of well-fed and well-dressed businessmen whose feet are regularly shod in fine Italian shoes. Those were the calloused, rough, road-weary feet of fishermen who had spent most of the previous three years walking all over the Middle East. But there He was, Christ the Lord, on His knees with a water basin nearby, cleaning their feet with the same hands that had fed thousands, healed hundreds, held children, and been lifted up in prayer to His father in Heaven. Those same hands of mercy and compassion that touched countless lives expressed that same mercy and compassion as He tenderly caressed one of the least appreciated body parts. And when He finished washing their feet, He instructed them to follow His example and wash each other's feet.

Could I have done what He did? Could I have bent down in front of twelve people that I knew would betray me, abandon me, and deny me and washed their feet? Could I have humbled myself in front of the people who looked up to me, who relied on me, who depended on my for nearly everything they needed and washed their feet? Can I do that now with my husband and children, the same people who criticize me, slam their doors in anger against me, refuse to eat the food I’ve cooked, and reject my attempts to heal the rifts between us? What about neighbors whose dogs leave unexpected gifts on my lawn and friends and relatives whose careless comments leave me wincing – can I bow down before them also and wash their feet? Can I overcome my feelings about my own feet long enough to wash anyone else’s? Have I ever obeyed that part of Christ's instructions to His church?

It’s one thing to come to appreciate the strength and stamina of my feet while grunting and stretching my way through a yoga workout in the privacy of my own home. It’s one thing for me to pay a total stranger to pamper my feet in the privacy of a spa’s back room. It’s another thing entirely for me to set aside my dignity and my foot-phobia, to risk the funky smells and unusual growths and thick yellow toenails of those whose life paths I have crossed in order to follow the example of Christ’s servant leadership as demonstrated centuries ago on Maundy Thursday.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Now it's time to say 'Good-bye"...

The day of my departure has arrived. Our bags are packed. Patience is in my backpack right next to the chocolate-mint Balance Bars. The children have new sneakers and a renewed spirit of adventure. I have my colored pencils and markers in my carry-on, but what I hope will be marked with indelible ink is my soul. So many museums to see, parks to explore, hills, vales, and villages to be awed by. I will miss my house, my friends, and my life here, but all of this will be enhanced, perhaps even profoundly, by leaving it behind for a few days. Certainly, that is my hope, my wish, my dream for this journey.

It's going to be cool and cloudy in London during the next week - at least in comparison with the weather here in North Carolina. May our hearts be warmed, our spirits be transformed, and our minds be newly informed in the coming fortnight. I may try to duck into an Internet cafe on the road and write something short, but I may just collect tidbits of stories along the way and share them when I return.

Please say a prayer for us. Light a candle for us. Relax into a full Lotus pose and meditate for us. However you do it, remember us in your thoughts and prayers. I will do the same.

Bye for now, GailNHB

Monday, March 07, 2005

Forty-eight hours and counting...

The countdown is on. The packing has begun. Well, I’ve packed the kids’ stuff anyway. Daniel couldn’t care less about what he wears, so I pick out shirts, socks, and underwear, and roll them together into little wraps. He can pull one pack out each morning, and his whole outfit is set. Kristiana picked out her own clothes, but I make the same rolls with her clothes. Each of them will carry three pairs of pants to go with the six changes of shirts, and they are set! Everybody pulls behind a rolling bag, has a small backpack, and nothing gets checked in. We will be gone for twelve days, so we pack six changes of clothes and do laundry in the middle of our stay. I owe this method of packing to Rick Steves, whose travel tips and advice have changed the way I travel. He is THE ONLY SOURCE of travel guides and ideas for me when I do any European travel.

I tend to wait until the morning of my departure to pack my own clothes. For those of you who haven’t seen me of late, I have a new addiction: skirts. I wear a skirt nearly every day. In the past eight months, I have worn pants less than a dozen times. Many of the people I have met in these past few months look at me askance and make a comment of some sort when they see me in pants. It’s not a religious thing. It’s not even a modesty thing, although most of my skirts are pretty long. It’s just that I have found skirts to be infinitely more comfortable than pants. No worries about puddles on public bathroom floors. No worries about being hot and bunched up on hot days. No worries about being underdressed in any situation. Plus I have a friend who is an awesome seamstress who has made me a dozen or so skirts in the last year – for free. I wrote about her in an earlier blog: her son is the one I visited in prison. I have done lots of Spanish to English translation on his behalf. She pays me in skirts. Nice deal. Anyway, when I travel, I wait and pack my skirts and tops on the day that we leave. I love that feeling of packing my things because if I’m rolling up my clothes, then the day of my departure has arrived.

Back before my first trip to Italy in the fall of 2001 – less than one month after September 11th – I discovered a book titled, The Way of The Traveler, by Joseph Dispenza. One of the things I love most about this fantastic little book is the author’s careful articulation of his vision of travel: “Every time we leave home and go to another place, we open up the possibility of having something wonderful happen to us. When we move out of the familiar here and now, we set in motion a series of events that, taken together, bring about changes at the very root of our being.” I look forward to seeing and experiencing the ways that this trip will change the very root of our family. Twelve days on the road in unfamiliar territory, trying desperately to learn another language on the fly, figuring out what’s good to eat and what is best to bypass, driving on the other side of the roads, catching up with old friends, perhaps making new ones – all of this and so much more will surely give us all a lot to journal about.

He breaks down every trip into five parts: the call of the road, preparation, the encounter (at the destination), the homecoming, and recounting the tale. Each step of the process involves careful thought, preparation, and most of all, a mindfulness that is often missed in the rush of the trip. Be aware. Be careful. Be alert. Soak in the details of each stage of the journey, from the choice of the destination, to the choosing of mementos, to the photo sorting at journey’s end. I have benefited enormously from this book, and every trip I have taken since that Italian sojourn three and a half years ago has been enhanced by the principles gleaned from Dispenza’s book. I could write volumes about the ways in which my entire life journey has been altered by the reading of this book and the application of its suggestions. Perhaps someday I will...

This morning I introduced my children to one of the most important packing tips Dispenza recommends. Along with our shirts, jeans, skirts, and socks, we must be sure to slip in our spiritual provisions, those intangible virtues and values that will make the road rise up to meet us in meaningful ways. We spent time together this morning making a list of the qualities each of us will need to make the most of this journey. Sure, we will carry English pounds, our passports, credit cards, an itinerary, lotion, deodorant, and lots of vitamins. But this morning the children made lists in their journals of the other things they need to carry; their lists included patience, a sense of adventure, kindness, laughter, and gentleness. I was impressed with how well they articulated their spiritual needs for this undertaking. On my list, I included a willingness to be a passenger and not the driver on this trip, humility, grace, compassion, and love. I know I will need them all. This trip will be quite different from my annual solo jaunts; this is taking my mothering and teaching and wifely duties on the road. I will need every ounce of quietness of spirit, flexibility, and openness to new food that I can muster.

To those who have sent tips and suggestions for England, many thanks. To those who haven’t had a chance yet, please drop me a line soon. I covet your insights. Time is short; forty-seven hours from right now, we will be on board, somewhere out over the Atlantic Ocean making our way to the land from which this nation declared its independence a little over 225 years ago. I can’t wait.


Friday, March 04, 2005

War and Peace and Elections...

It’s been over 18 months since the United States and several allied nations invaded Iraq. The military pulled Saddam Hussein out of a hole under a house and have had him in custody for months. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have been killed or imprisoned as a result of this operation. Sadly, many civilians have lost their homes, livelihoods, and even their lives; war doesn’t just affect the soldiers. Coalition forces worked hard to stabilize much of Iraq, and the first free elections in that nation’s history were held just over a month ago. Bravo for the Iraqis; I continue to hope and pray that they will someday know lasting peace, that the suicide bombings would stop, and that stability would prevail in that strife-torn land. Although the weapons of mass destruction were never found, the initiative has been considered a success by the government of the United States.

Everywhere I go I see bumper stickers and car magnets that remind me of the need to pray for our troops. I receive emails with photos of soldiers sleeping in the mud, in sand trenches, and I pray for their soon and safe return as often as I think about them. I know people whose cousins, sons, husbands, brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts, and friends have died in, returned from, or are still serving in Iraq. I know that I am not alone in my prayers that this conflict would end soon, that the Iraqi government would be established, and that all the coalition soldiers, Americans, Polish, Salvadorans, Italians, and from every other nation represented there – that they would all go home soon. I think the best way to support our soldiers is to bring them home, run them a good hot bath, feed them well, and let them sleep for about two weeks – with full pay. Everyone wants the war to end and for peace to reign.

Almost exactly a year ago, on March 11th, blood once again flowed from the bodies of innocent civilians when bombs exploded on several trains in Madrid killing over 200 people and wounding more than 1,000 more. Soon after that attack, it was discovered that the bombings were carried out under the direction of Al-Qaeda, the same group held responsible for the horrors of September 11th. Being that I have good friends in Spain, I immediately wrote to them and called them to make sure they were okay and to ask whether they or anyone they knew had been directly affected. The people of Spain took to the streets by the thousands to protest the violence, to call for peace, and they pleaded once again with their President to withdraw the troops from Iraq.

I say “once again” because before the war in Iraq began, the Spanish people had protested for weeks against the planned invasion. Like many of their American counterparts, the vast majority of Spaniards disagreed with the decision to go to war against a nation that had no direct link to the terrorist acts of September 2001. But Aznar went against the will of the majority of his people and made the decision to join President Bush’s coalition and sent Spanish soldiers to fight. I remember how angry my friend Leticia was at the time; she told me, “He will lose next election; the Spanish people won’t forget this.”

The bombings of March 11, 2004 occurred only two or three days before their national election, and just as Leticia promised, Aznar was voted out. The main campaign promise of the man who took his place was that he would bring the troops home. He carried through on his promise within months of taking office. Much of the American press about the Spanish election was critical of their choice to replace Aznar. Many critics said that by withdrawing the troops, Spain was giving credence to the terrorists. Although the number of people lost in Spain was not as great as that of September 11th, their personal and national sorrow was no less acute. For the parents and siblings and children of those soldiers, none of the political arguments mattered. For the families of the Spaniards who lost their lives in Iraq none of the arguments mattered. For the millions of people who had protested the war long before those bombings, the opinion of foreigners didn’t matter; they never wanted to be a part of this war and they opted out as soon as they could. For many of their countrymen, however, it was already too late.

As I think of my Spanish friends preparing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of their nation’s single largest act of terrorism in decades, my heart goes out to them. My mind cannot fathom the horror of how that beautiful and elegant city was torn apart that fateful Friday, and a few days later was draped in silence as its citizens raised their hands in symbolic surrender to the perpetrators of the terror. I so wish I could have been there to see them as they painted the palms of their hands white and walked in silence for hours, not only in Madrid but also in towns and villages all across that land to show their solidarity and their commitment to not draw blood anymore, to stop the killing, and to seek peace.

So why was it that last month when President Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and other representatives of our nation visited Europe to rebuild broken lines of communication between the US and nations there, no one went to Spain? Why would preference be given to nations who made a sovereign decision not to join the conflict, but the one nation that sent its troops, saw them killed in action, had their nation attacked, and then made the sovereign decision to withdraw them – that nation is ignored in this new round of coalition building? The Spanish people did what many American soldiers - and what their own soldiers - died to bring about in Iraq: they voted. They voted freely and fairly. They went to the polls and let their voices be heard. And for that they have been ostracized by the United States. I just don’t get it.

Aren’t free elections and democracy the point of all this bloodshed?