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First, business: The Absence of War is now available on Kindle again. I had pulled it because I entered in a competition which, not surprisingly, I did not win, so here it is again for you – lending is enabled, so if you like it, you can pass it on. And while you’re at it, check out Son #2’s new book, coming in a week or so: Crystal Embers.  Preview here. 

All right, now for travel things. Monday, we traveled from Caceres to Guadalupe, the site of the famed Royal Monastery of Guadalupe. History:

There is a legend of the origins of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend says that St. Luke was the person who created the statue in the first century AD. When he died in Asia Minor, he was buried with the statue. In the 4th century, his remains were transferred to Constantinople in the 4th century. In 590 Gregorio Magno was elected Pope and he had a devotion to this Virgin and exhibited the statue in his chapel. One day the Pope was having a solemn procession with the Virgin in Rome and asked the Virgin to intercede to stop an epidemic in the city. An angel appeared to the Pope and the epidemic stopped.

Pope Gregorio Magno sent the statue to Seville to St. Leandro, who was the archbishop of the city, through his brother Isidoro, who was in Rome. During the boat trip, a sudden storm overtook the boat, but Isidoro prayed to the Virgin and the storm stopped suddenly. The Virgin was enthroned in Seville in the principal church at that time until the Moorish invasion in 714. Many priests in Seville fled the city during the invasion and went north with the statue of the Virgin and other reliquaries of the saints. They hid the statue near the river in Guadalupe.

At the end of the 13th century, a cow herder called Gil Cordero had a vision from the Virgin Mary beside the river. She indicated to him where her statue could be found. She told him to tell the priests where the statue was and for them to build a church in that place. The priests of Caceres then build a hermitage in that place and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pilgrimages started to the hermitage and later in 1389 the monks of the Order of St. Jeronimo arrived and took over the hermitage. Many of the Spanish kings, especially the Catholic Kings, favored the monastery and many additions were made to it and many treasures were given to it too. The Catholic Kings made a pilgrimage to the monastery after their conquest of Granada.

The statue of the Virgin has been examined by experts several times. The statue was carved in cedar and polychromed at the end of the 12th century. Its style is Romanesque and today her image looks black, from the passage of time. The Virgin is seated and has the Child Jesus in her arms. The image measures 59 cm. Today the Virgin is venerated and on Sept.8 there is a celebration on her feast day. After Santiago de Compostela, the number of pilgrimages to Guadalupe is the most numerous in Spain.

On July 29, 1496, Columbus brought two Indians named Cristobal and Pedro to the monastery to have them baptized, when he met the Catholic Kings here. This was the first baptism of Indians from America. They returned to Mexico and many hermitages and churches in the Americas were dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Columbus named one of the islands he discovered Guadalupe, after the Virgin. Today there is a great devotion to this Virgin in all of the Americas and around the world, especially in Mexico.

Images of the baptism are everywhere and the font that was used is the center of a fountain in front of the monastery.

I was a little surprised by how the monastery was situated. The place has a mini-Lourdes-like vibe, not surprising, if you read the note above about its long-time popularity as a pilgrimage site. So it’s not exactly a peaceful place, with the monastery being literally right up against the little town – the steps a couple hundred feet from the plaza-side cafes. It’s kind of strange, but because the town structures around the monastery retain their medieval look (except, you know, for the Mahou ads and such), it fits.

There are two aspects to visiting the monastery complex: Visiting the monastery itself, which requires participation in a tour, and then visiting the basilica, which is of course, open. The tours just kind of…happen, it seems to me. Enough people gather, and they start a tour. So, thinking that we might do this tour on Tuesday, we showed up Monday around 4:30, having checked in our cute little hostel (2 rooms for $70 total), and people were sitting around in the gathering area, so..you know…why not?

The tour is in Spanish, and takes you in the cloister, adjoining rooms which have been made into museum rooms of choir books and religious artifacts, the magnificent sacristy which features paintings by Zubaran, and then the upper…chapel, I guess. A layman takes you through most of the tour, and then in that upper chapel, a Franciscan takes over. We were, I gathered, about to see Guadalupe herself. He talked for a while, then opened another door – there was a panel with all sorts of painted images on it which he turned…and there she was! He lead a Hail Mary in front of it, then offered us a disk attached to the statue with a rope for us to venerate. Most in the group did, some held back. There was a pregnant woman in the group to whom he gave the privilege of turning the statue back the other way. (When you go in the basilica, the statue is up high from your vantage point – so where you’ve been on the tour is up behind it.)

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At one point one of my sons asked me, “What is he saying?” of the lay tour guide and I quickly explained that he was telling us we were in the former refectory and this is where the tables where and up there was the niche in which the reader stood during meals. He stared at me and said, “But you don’t speak Spanish.” “But I speak Catholic,” I said – and continued explaining that if I know the context of the speech and if I’m familiar with the topic, I can follow the general gist of what someone is saying in French, Spanish or Italian. Context is everything, though. So here, once I picked up the word for refectory, I was set.

The tour was a little rushed, but I guess you could also say it was efficient, right? The basilica was…a basilica. There was not much distinctive about it, so I’m glad we got all that done when we arrived – the advantages of the late-living Spanish lifestyle!

No photos were allowed in the monastery, but you can easily find images of that online.

Monday evening, we wandered, took in views, and prepped for the next stage. Tuesday morning, we got up and I thought we might do some walks around Guadalupe, but as we drove out, I couldn’t figure out stopping points or parking places or trail beginnings, so we just sped on. It would be an hour and a half to the next stop, so might as well….

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I won’t do a reading/watching/listening digest today – how about a trip digest instead?Or perhaps a museum digest, for that is what this amounts to, I think.

This past weekend, we headed up Kansas City way for my older son to take a second look img_20181006_140933at Benedictine. We attended a Raven Day last fall when he was a junior, but now as a senior, he’s been accepted there for next year (as well as three other schools) and we thought it would be good for him to experience it as a seriously potential student – spend the night in a dorm, and so on.

I was originally going to drive up, as we did last year, but then I thought…why? It’s a solid 11-hour drive from here, which is comparable to what I used to do when my daughter attended William and Mary, and I didn’t mind doing it last fall – we saw Sights along the way and back , but for this three day weekend, I decided…nope. We’re flying.

(I lived in Lawrence for five years of my childhood – so this was a familiar sight.)

So, in and out of Birmingham with pretty reasonable fares. We left early Saturday morning, arrived in Kansas City about 1, rented a car and made our way down to, first, the College Basketball Experience for people to stretch their legs, then to a barbecue place for people to watch the Gators, and then to our hotel down in the Country Club district, which is this quite lovely early 20th century faux Spanish/Italianate shopping area. I’d booked this hotel, envisioning an evening of wandering around, but rain interfered with that plan – so there was some walking, but not much and it was wet.

(Note: the College Basketball experience is not worth the money. I guess if you are local and are having a birthday party, it might be, but not for a visitor – there just wasn’t enough to do.)

Sunday morning, youngest son and I went to Mass at the closest church (older son would be going with students in the evening), which just happened to be an FSSP parish. It was very interesting – a small church and packed for the 9 am low Mass (one of three Sunday Masses celebrated there) We didn’t hang around, but the people we encountered were friendly and welcoming and, yes, normal, in case you’re wondering. A majority of the women wore veils, but when I say “majority” I mean over half – by no means all. But veils are becoming an increasingly common sight at my own Cathedral parish, so that’s no big deal to our eyes at this point. Since it was low Mass, there was no music, of course. The church is beautiful and charming, but wow, it’s small and they could definitely use a larger facility.

img_20181007_123746Next stop, after checking out of the hotel, was at Winstead’s Steakburgers for a solid breakfast, then right up the road to the absolutely wonderful Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. What a treasure – with free admission, to boot. (Parking in the garage costs $10….)

I was very impressed with the collection, and we probably only took in a third of it (I’m thinking we’ll be back in the area regularly over the next five years, so…no pressure). I’ve put images of some of my favorites below with a bit of commentary.  You should be able to click on every image and get a larger one.

I didn’t know this about Rouault – that he had been apprenticed as a stained glass artist. You can see it.

I was moved by the descriptive note on this Manet. It prompted me to consider, once more, all the poor excuses I make….

On the far left, the work of a local artist, Wilbur Niewald, whose work I loved. It’s interesting that his work has become more representational over the decades – this is an early work called Facade I.  On the right is a fabulous lectern support – description in the middle. The fellow is struggle with the serpent, bracing himself, his clunky feet pointed inward.

On the far left, with note next to it, is an aquamanile – a water vessel used for ceremonial purposes, either secular or religious. Then a gorgeous terra cotta Madonna and Child (and others) from Tuscany. I didn’t take a photo of it, but the explanatory note was very good, explaining the symbolism of the various fruits on the border and even the frogs that are scattered in the group (a symbol of resurrection). On the far right, a small Bosch that was part of an exhibit about the layers in paintings. 

A wonderful and pretty large Asian collection. Enlarge that top left photo and see why I found it so enchanting – it flows with gentle, steady energy, and the figure embodies quiet joy. To the right up there is detail of a Jain chapel, then we have an amazingly thin jade disc with dragons and a wild Chinese funerary figure.

Also from China was the amazing statue I highlighted yesterday – from the 6th century: “Central Asian Caravan Woman Rousing her Camel While Nursing.” The best.

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Finally, these two John Singer Sargents – the top one, at least, is a study – not sure about the bottom. Both are completely absorbing.

All right then…

Then to the excellent and quite interesting museum dedicated to what’s been salvaged from the sunken Arabia steamboat. From the museum’s website:

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a unique Kansas City attraction: a time capsule of life on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century.  It is not your typical museum.  Visitors have the one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience the everyday objects that made life possible for pioneers in the 1800s.  It is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

The Steamboat Arabia was one of many casualties of the perilous Missouri River.  The Mighty Missouri, as it was often called, is the longest river in the United States and has claimed nearly 400 other steamboats over its 2,500 mile course.  In September 1856, the Arabia was carrying over 200 tons of cargo intended for general stores and homes in 16 mid-western frontier towns.  The steamer was still fully loaded when it hit a tree snag and sank just 6 miles west of Kansas City.  Due to erosion, the Missouri River changed course over time, and the Arabia was buried underground for over a century – along with all of its precious cargo. Lying 45-feet deep beneath a Kansas cornfield, the Arabia’s payload was protected from light and oxygen and was thus remarkably well preserved.

Using a metal detector and old maps to guide the search, an amateur archaeologist began the search for the lost steamer.   Located a half-mile from the present river’s course, 5 men and their families would begin the adventure of a lifetime … recovering the Steamboat Arabia.  What they found will astound you.

Being a private museum, it’s not free, but it’s worth every penny of admission. Begin with the tour – it’s very helpful and engaging to have a human being set the event and objects in context. It’s just amazing to be able to walk amid this array of quite ordinary objects, clean and looking as if they could be put to use right now.

(By the way, no human beings died in the accident. The only life lost was a mule.)

We then made our way up to Atchison, with a stop to watch some Vikings football and eat. Once in Atchison, I dropped my older son off on campus, and my younger son and I were able to visit with one of my former students, from ages past, who happens to be married to a Benedictine faculty member – delightful.

Since I’d been to the event last year, I didn’t feel the need to go through it again, so after checking in with the older one on Monday morning, younger son and I headed up to St. Joseph, Missouri. We might have done some nature in one of the local state parks, but it had been raining so much over the past two days and still looked a little threatening, so I thought – I really img_20181008_115443don’t want to tramp around in the mud and wet leaves and perhaps get rained on again – so St. Joseph it was.

What a delightful surprise. A surprise, but not surprising, because every time I travel, even five miles from home, I encounter something new to me, some corner of human life that’s intriguing, a chance to learn about more ways in which human beings do things differently – and are so deeply the same.

This time it was the Patee House Museum – a HUGE local history museum in building originally constructed as a hotel, but over the years used as a women’s college (three different times), headquarters for the Pony Express, the Union Army and, for most of the 20th century, a shirt factory.

It’s now filled – and I mean filled with artifacts from St. Joseph’s history. Much of the downstairs has been divided and fashioned to be like period shops and businesses, other rooms (the ballroom, bathroom, ladies’ parlor and so one) furnished to look as they would have in the hotel’s heyday. There’s a train engine in the former courtyard. Exhibits cover topics like the Pony Express (headquartered here during its short history) and the Buffalo Soldiers. There’s a carousel. And cars. And Walter Cronkite’s father’s dental office equipment. And a piece of rope from the horrible final lynching that happened in the town – in 1933. And just… a lot of stuff.

Well worth the $6 admission.

Next to the Pattee House is the house where Jesse James lived and was shot by the Ford brothers. It’s been moved here from its original location, but it’s also filled with interesting memorabilia from the period and from the exhumation and DNA confirmation that the body was actually Jesse James’. Made me want to read Ron Hansen’s book, which I never have.

Then it was time to head back to Atchison, where we stopped by the river – in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who rested there on July 4, 1804 and, as the placard said, “ate some corn.”  The head of the music department had kindly responded to my query about M having some practice time, and so we headed up the hill, found the department and he spent an hour getting to play on a nice Steinway baby grand  – very much appreciated!

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I’ve been asked about the famed Japanese toilets, so here goes – our limited experience:

  • I don’t know if it expresses some deep-seated cultural priority or is just for the tourists’ sake, but after we disembarked from the plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the first thing we saw as we made our way to customs was dozens of ads for toilets – from the Toto company, specifically. They lined the walkway to customs. Priorities!
  • Every toilet we encountered was just a bit different, but they all included the same basic features: the ability to flush varied volumes of water, bidet features – and I use plural there because they included more than one, contoured for the differences in male and female anatomy, and seat warmers. Some included a sound feature – that is, the ability to generate sounds (like nature or even music) to cover up…er…sounds. For all I know, they all included this feature, but I just couldn’t interpret the buttons.
  • So here’s  a tour. This was the toilet in our first hotel room in Tokyo (the Richmond Premiere Oshiage).

 

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The two buttons on the top row are for flushing – the one on the right for less volume, the one on the left for more.

The three buttons below that are for the bidet function, the one on the far right being for women.

And that’s all I can tell you. I’m guessing the buttons on the far right are for temperature regulation of both the seat and the water and maybe pressure. But I didn’t fool with them…I didn’t want to break it!

  • This is the toilet from our Kyoto house. I had to grab a screen shot from a video. It seems to me that the electronic bidet stuff is an add-on to an older toilet here. You can see the buttons on the left side – those are all bidet (you can buy that kind of accessory here, fyi). The tank reminds me of an old-fashioned high tank. You might be able to see that there’s an external faucet – when you flush, the water comes out there and fills the tank – something that greatly confused some of us at first, who thought it was some sort of extra sink. You can see the flusher below it, and it controls the volume of water  – push it to the right, you get less, to the left you get more, and the longer you hold it, the more water you get coming through.

 

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I tragically did not take a photo of the bathroom at our last hotel, but here’s one more from a different place.

The Toto company has a “gallery” of their machines at the Narita Airport. I had thought it was like a showroom where you walk around and see amazing space-age toilets, but it’s actually a restroom to use – men go left, women go right – with separate cubby/rooms. There were only two free when I went, and both the toilets were the same. So here you go:

First, check out the nifty little toddler seat for you to set your kid in so he or she won’t wander while you’re occupied. (There was a changing table, too). I have  video  – of me pointing to the buttons, freak!  – that I’ll put on Instagram in a minute. Okay, here’s that post. 

One more: this was in one of the train stations – Gion-Shijo in Kyoto. It was a “Kid’s Toilet” – like our family restrooms, but more kid-sized, with a stall for privacy.

So there you go – a not-exactly exhaustive look at Japanese toilets. I will say that after experiencing this…we must seem absolutely barbaric in our personal habits…and perhaps we are!

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Friday was going to be a challenge because of the threat of rain. I had been watching the forecasts all week, and both Friday and Saturday looked to be potentially rainy – although I didn’t know what that meant here. Because, you see, in Florida, for example, “rain and thunderstorms” can mean nothing more than something blowing through for fifteen minutes in the late afternoon.

We decided to risk it, packed up our umbrellas (clear because most umbrellas sold and used here are clear plastic) and set out on a little less than one hour journey to the northwest area of Kyoto called Arashiyama. It’s known for a few things – having some older, preserved streets, some interesting shrines and temples (shocking!) and….monkeys.

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Yes, monkeys. We moved from deer yesterday to monkeys today.

The Iwatayama Monkey Park is at the end of a pretty strenuous twenty minute hike up a hill on the river. I was a little concerned because – trying to be culturally sensitive here – Japanese animal facilities are often not run with the same mindset as those you’d find in the United States. Read reviews of Japanese zoos, and what you generally find is post after post expressing shock and dismay at the small cages and lack of stimulation and natural environment.

But this was just fine. As far as I could see the monkeys are free – but they hang around because, you know, people are handing out food all day – and seem content and cared for by staff.

So, ethics stress behind us, let’s enjoy some monkeys!

 

You can purchase apples and peanuts to feed them in a rest house – and that’s the only place you’re allowed to feed them – and the monkeys seem to know it, because outside that area, they don’t approach humans and basically ignore them. You’re warned only not to touch them and not to look them in the eye – they apparently sense that as aggression.

It was very interesting to watch them, and we were lucky because this is spring and spring means babies.

They had interesting behavior around the water. A monkey would sit there and splash with its feet and hands, make all kind of weird gestures, poke its head in, and then just sit back, maybe do it again, and then maybe jump in for a swim eventually. It was like they were getting used to the water, just as we might do.

After that, we went down to the very busy touristy street leading to the river, and headed to the famed Bamboo forest – which was…nice. I mean, it’s pretty in person, but not as haunting as it is in photographs because, of course, you’re there with dozens of your closest friends.

The walk became far more peaceful when we went off on another path, headed to the one temple I thought we’d try to hit – the Otagi-Nenbutsu-ji Temple. It was a lovely walk on paths/streets (because a few cars passed us) that wound up through neighborhoods that were part residential, part historically preserved, and some restaurants. The Temple itself is on a hillside and this is the attraction: 

In 1955, the temple’s fortunes began to change when a new head priest was appointed. His name was Kocho Nishimura and he began the long process of renovating the temple. Kocho Nishimura was not only a priest but an accomplished sculptor of Buddhist statues. He hit on the idea of having visitors carve their own statues for the temple under his guidance. These “rakan” statues, which represent Buddha’s disciples, were all added to the temple between 1981 and 1991, but look much older as they are now fairly covered with moss. Because each statue was carved by a different person, each one is completely unique, and many have humorous expressions or whimsical poses.

 

We caught a bus back into town, did some shopping, got caught in a torrential downpour, had ice cream and beer, then got a train back to our apartment.

 

Right: “Kimono Forest” at the Randen tram station. 

Dinner was a challenge. We are in a part of town that has a rich, interesting history, and is certainly busy enough, but it is not non-Japanese tourist oriented. There are loads of restaurants, but few have English menus and while I can tell the basics about a restaurant from the photographs they have posted and some awkward conversation, the details escape me. So while the boys rested, I wandered around, poking my head into various restaurants, asking for menus, trying to figure out what they had. The problem was – I could, for example, see that this restaurant was a chicken restaurant featuring yakiniku – chicken that you grill yourself tableside. Great. But I would have no idea which chicken part we’re ordering or what comes with it or how much would make sense to order. The online translating apps are not very helpful to me here, perhaps because I don’t know how to use them efficiently, but mostly because in any given moment, I need to know a lot in a short amount of time.

So you know what we did?

img_20180629_203351I discovered, right across the street and around the corner, a Tanzanian restaurant. The sign out front said the chef and proprieter was also an English teacher. We’re in.  And do you know what? It was delightful. The food was excellent – one boy had a chicken pilau, I had a fantastic stew, the other had fried chicken and fried and we all had samosas. And it was such a pleasure and relief to speak English, easily to someone besides my kids. Even after a little more than week – you forget how relaxing it is not to feel lost in translation, constantly.  So thank you, R.M. Asili Cafe and Dining! 

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After a couple of full days here in Tokyo, I’m going to say that I’m very, very glad this AirBnB thing blew up, forcing me to change plans. It certainly wouldn’t have been terrible to have been here the entire time – what with day trips outside the city and so on –  but at this point, I’m going to be glad to get to a location that’s a little more – focused, I guess.

Not that Kyoto is small. No way. But Tokyo is not only massive, both geographically and in terms of population, but it’s…widely dispersed, composed of discrete areas, without a clear center of distinct history and geography (think Chicago’s Michigan Avenue area, for example, for contrast).

(Why? Because – well, frequent earthquakes and fires and, most recently, what the US did to the city during World War II: destroyed most of it in firebombing raids. So there’s not a lot of historical architecture here and the place reflects a history of continual rebuilding.)

It’s amazing, but it’s also a challenge to figure out what to do and where to go for a day – unless you yourself have a clear focus as in, “I’m going to explore anime related things” or “I’m going to find coo fashion.”

But that’s okay for us, because for me, travel is not so much about seeing landmarks anymore as it is in even in a limited way experiencing a different culture and immersing myself and my kids in the very different ways people outside of our bubble live their lives. I am very much content with wandering. It’s a metaphor for my life, so it makes sense that I’m comfortable with it as a travel style. As I keep saying over and over – it’s all new to me – there’s nothing here I’ve seen before – so what does it matter if I see X and not Y today? I’ll experience and learn something new, no matter what, and from that tediously spiritual perspective I tend to have – whatever I experience is what I’m supposed to experience. Don’t plan – prepare. Prepare to encounter life, people, God – whatever – in every moment, where ever you end up.

That said, I think I’m going to be relieved to get to Kyoto, which has a more distinct tourist travel pattern.

Oh, I’m also glad the AirBnB thing fell apart for Tokyo because having been here for all of two days, I can see now that the location of that apartment would not have been optimal. The hotel we’re in is right next to a train station, which is so valuable, I hope I never forget this lesson – how wonderful it is at the end of a long day of walking to emerge from the depths of your last subway journey and look straight at your hotel, knowing that there’s a freshly-made room just waiting for you up seven floors…

So okay—thanks Japanese government. Good deal.

If I’m going to take anything away from this trip, it’s going to be about this Japanese culture of politeness. It’s given me a lot to think about – but I need to experience more of it. I’ll just say that it’s refreshing but also creepy. It clearly sets firm parameters for social interactions, which makes things very clear and easy to navigate. It’s also nice to not live in fear of the seething rage of store cashiers, as one does in Italy – you can give a Japanese cashier any denomination of cash and they won’t blink at whatever amount of change they have to give back to you – unlike in some parts of Europe where they might outright refuse your transaction if it requires them to give up too much change.

But you still walk away thinking…what is this extreme politeness and external cheer blanketing?  And considering the dark and even perverted shadows of Japanese culture, it’s not an unreasonable train of thought.

So to recap:

Our first full day was Saturday. We wandered around the Akasuka district, briefly described here. I was feeling rough by the end of the day – just really tired (and I’m never tired) with a bit of vertigo. I ended up just giving up and going to sleep around nine.

Sunday was better, although I still had some of the vertigo (from the flight, I’m assuming. I’m typing this Monday morning (my time) and seem to be feeling fine now.) The plan for the day, such as it was, was Mass, followed by a request trip way down to some sort of Toyota showcase/attraction that’s located on Tokyo Bay. And go from there. Highlights, interspersed with photos.

  • Mass was at this church, less than a mile from our hotel. I had first planned to walk there, but it was drizzly and by the time we’d discussed what to do, it was really too late to start walking, so we caught a cab – a cab with back doors that opened and shut automatically! I showed the cab driver our destination on the phone, and as he pulled over he said, “Catolica – Catolica?” This is the place!
  • It’s a small church, with mostly older women in the congregation, with a few families. A very, very friendly and welcoming congregation. Of course we are easy to spot as visitors, and right as we walked in the door, a woman asked us if we needed English language materials. They are set up for visitors! The Mass booklet had the Mass parts in four columns: in Japanese pictograph, Japanese in Roman letters, English and Tagalog (they have a substantial Filipino demographic, I guess?). It made it very easy to follow along the Japanese, which was interesting. Everyone sang – there was a young man with a great voice who served as a cantor on the Responsorial Psalm – and there was even one familiar tune – Eat this Bread – not my favorite, but interesting to hear it.
  • I normally can’t stand “let’s welcome our visitors” – but you know what? At the end of Mass in a small congregation, it’s just fine. There were us, some folks from Argentina and some from Costa Rica. They had coffee after Mass, to which we were welcomed, and there had a good conversation with an American, language educator and Tokyo resident for twenty-five years, who had some very helpful tips for us.
  • Go to Mass all the time, go to Mass when you’re traveling – you are always home, in a way.

From that point, we had to take a bus down to this Toyota MegaWeb place. Which took a while, but again, was interesting – we’d been doing trains, so it was time to learn the bus. What I hadn’t realized was that the Toyota facility was part of a large shopping and entertainment district called Odaiba, built on man made islands originally constructed centuries ago for defensive purposes. It was pretty crazy, and we didn’t see half what we could have – the intensity of Japanese shopping and entertainment culture is overwhelming – but:

  • My son enjoyed the Toyota place, which included concept cars and a history garage, but was disappointed because the area where you can ride various vehicles was closed. On a Sunday. Go figure.
  • I know Michael Jackson is popular in various parts of the world, but I guess “Michael Jackson dancing” is a hobby of sorts in Japan? There was some sort of event featuring groups with participants of all ages – from 5-year olds to those probably in their 60’s – doing routines. (v video on Instagram)
  • Okay – one whole area of this Venus Fort shopping mall was devoted to pet goods. Which means that it was overrun with customers with their pets – scads of little dogs, each dressed up, most in carriages, shopping for…more pet clothes? We did peak in one shop selling $4k dogs, too.
  • Now, I would go on a rant about the collapsing Japanese demographic and what irony for these couples to be pushing their carriage with their three stupid expensive fluffy dogs with bows on their heads and jackets on their little bodies while they should have had kids but – I will say that Tokyo is not at all like New York City, where you can walk for blocks without seeing an actual child. There are lots of children, it’s a very child-friendly culture, and I’ve seen many, many family groups with more than one child – some even with three. So perhaps the tide is turning, slowly?
  • We did lunch a Lotteria – a Japanese fast food chain. When eating in a foreign country, I’m not all about the “eat only locally sourced traditional recipes created in secret kitchens in hidden alleyways.” I mean – these are Japanese chains, filled with Japanese families – if I’m going to see how this works, why not? The food was fine – the interesting point being that a meal (or “set” as they call it here) includes not only your sandwich, drink and fries, but a fried chicken piece as well.
  • Gundam – these robots are incredibly popular. There’s a “Gundam Base” store in the Diverse City Mall – the biggest theme store of any I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure what this is – a show? A building system? Both? Shrugs. But the store was packed and out in front of the mall was a huge Gundam – world renowned – that, we read, “transforms” several times a day. We would not have headed there specifically to see that, but it was happening right around the time we arrived, so why not? Let’s jut say…it was underwhelming. Basically, the two horns on top of the head move to form one. Or vice versa – I can’t remember. It was funny, because there were a lot of people gathered around to watch, and the Is that all there is to it? was palpable – in any language.
  • As is the case everywhere, it seems, there is an arcade – a huge arcade, thunderingly loud, pulsing, bright, crowded. And what’s super-popular here are claw machines. Dozens of them in every arcade, from smaller ones where you grab trinkets to those featuring big plush toys, to….everything else.

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  • After a bit of exploring of the mall and a detour over to a massive auto supply store called Autobacs, we got back on the train and headed to Shibuyu – one of the more well-known neighborhoods of Tokyo. You might have heard of the famed “Shibuyu crossing” – a very busy crossing where, at light changes, thousands of people cross the road at once. Just look up photos and videos for a bird’s eye view. We crossed a couple of times, and it was something to be part of a crowd that big moving energetically in one direction. We didn’t get a bird’s eye view, though, which we’d hoped to – they say to do so from the Starbucks on one corner, but it was clear that Starbucks has worked it so you have to purchase something on the first floor in order to access the stairs to the second, where you can see – and there was a line, so it wasn’t worth it to us.
  • Took a photo at the famed Hachiko statue:

This Akita dog came to Shibuya Station everyday to meet his master, a professor, returning from work. After the professor died in 1925, Hachikō continued to come to the station daily until his own death nearly 10 years later. The story became legend and a small statue was erected in the dog’s memory in front of Shibuya Station. 

We walked around a bit, went to a few stores – I had wanted to check out Tokyu Hands, but was under – or perhaps over- whelmed, and ended up just wanting to move on – and then the massive food court in the basement of the Tokyu department store right next to the station. These Tokyo department store food areas are turning out to be one of my favorite aspects of the city. The variety and quality of goods is just so fascinating. And yes, we saw some of the famed stupidly expensive Japanese produce. Do people actually buy $100 melons? Do they?

 

(Currency conversion tip – to convert yen to USD, basically cut off two zeros. That will get you close enough. See what I mean?”

Shibuyu is grittier and more chaotic than what we’ve been experiencing in Tokyo – and more tourist-oriented – so it ended up not holding much interest for me. Back on the train, and back to our own Tokyo Skytree area, which is busy, too, but not as chaotic.

Spent some time in the mall across the way – Pokemon, nanoblocks, and various interesting Japanese goods, expensive and cheap – and then dinner.

Excellent!

 

It was a different sort of travel day, but one dedicated to satisfying one traveler’s interest (in car-related things), figuring out more of the city and see local families doing their local Sunday thing…

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Perhaps you recall this year’s Baby Robin drama…

It began when I noticed a nest being constructed between a downspout and an eave.

 

Soon, the robins had laid their eggs, and just a couple of weeks ago,  they hatched.

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We watched them the best we could – we of course didn’t want to disturb them, but even if we did, the parents were vigilant guards, perching on nearby branches and wires whenever we came near, squawking repeatedly and even swooping down towards us if it all became too much.

A week and a half ago, we checked on the babies on Sunday evening, and saw their little heads.

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Monday morning:

Carnage:

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What made it even sadder was that the parents were still around, perched, chirping, squawking and swooping. You have to wonder – what did they “think” – if anything?

I thought that was the end of it. I left the nest on the ground for the moment, intending to take it up later. Before I could do anything with it, the yard guys came and just put it back up atop the downspout.

Nice, I thought. But why?

The next day, I noticed that the parents were flying around with grass in their beaks – they were rebuilding the nest.

And now, a few days later – look at that.

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They’re trying again. I had no idea that would happen.We will probably be in Japan  by the time they hatch – but depending on when that is (they say 12-14 days) – we might be back for part of the infancy, although my daughter will certainly be here and can keep us posted.

I just hope the hawk has moved on to other parts of the neighborhood….

(Six years ago, in our previous house, we had a fantastic view of the entire process, as robins built a nest on a window ledge. Here’s a post summarizing what we were privileged to witness.)

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— 1 —

We’re back! Life has slipped and tumbled back into the normal paradigm: school, sort-of-homeschooling (Hey, there was a lot  of learning that happened in Mexico, wasn’t there?), work, music….etc.

— 2 —

Here’s a post I pulled together with links to all the entries on the trip to Mexico, with some thoughts on safety and links to our accommodations. It’s called I went to Mexico and didn’t die

—3–

This coming Sunday is, of course, Divine Mercy Sunday. St. Faustina is in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. Here’s a page:

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–4–

In case you didn’t know it (er…I didn’t) – the Feast of the Annunciation is being celebrated on Monday – (because the actual date fell on Palm Sunday)  You can download a free pdf of my Mary and the Christian Life at this page (scroll down a bit). If you want to spring .99 for a Kindle e-reader copy, go here. 

And hey – with First Communion/Confirmation/Mother’s Day/Graduation season coming up – check out my books for gifts! 

–5 —

From Atlas Obscura – I’d never heard of this – it sounds similar to our local Ave Maria Grotto. The grace in the found object. 

Brother Bronislaus Luszcz, a native of Poland, spent 23 years building this collection of large grottos. He used local Missouri tiff rock to create beautiful statues and mosaics freckled with found and donated objects like seashells and costume jewelry. He began the work in 1937, though the seeds of his endeavor were planted long before.

While Brother Bronislaus was growing up in Poland, he would watch as pilgrims trekked through his home village on their way to a shrine for the Virgin Mary. The memory of the pilgrims lingered in his mind even after he moved to the United States and inspired him to begin constructing his own shrine. 

–6–

In an era in which the only movies that seem to make it to the screen are remakes and comic book-based…you read a tale like this and you wonder…why not this story? Wouldn’t this be a fantastic movie – or even television series? Let’s do lunch and make it happen!

She zoomed over forlorn dusty roads, responding to the beckoning call of new adventures. The airborne sensation and the freedom of the road ensured that she climbed on her trusty Harley-Davidson time and time again. Long before the hashtag #CarefreeBlackGirl was coined, Bessie Stringfield was living her life freely on her own terms—riding her motorcycle across the United States solo.

Born in 1911, Stringfield got her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout, while she was still in her teens and taught herself how to ride it. As chronicled in the 1993 book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road by Stringfield’s protégé and eventual biographer Ann Ferrar, at the age of 19, young Stringfield flipped a penny onto a map of the US then ventured out on her bike alone. Interstate highways didn’t yet exist at the time, but the rough, unpaved roads didn’t deter her. In 1930, she became the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle in every one of the connected 48 states—a solo cross-country ride she undertook eight times during her lifetime. But not even that satisfied her wanderlust. Eventually, she went abroad to Haiti, Brazil, and parts of Europe.

And you just wonder….how many other stories are there?

And the answer…one for every person. 

At least. 

–7–

It’s Easter Season! Below are related excerpts from our favorite vintage 7th grade Catholic textbook, part of the Christ-Life Series in Religion . The first is about the season in general, the second about next Sunday (before it became Divine Mercy Sunday, of course).

What I like about these – and why I share them with you – is that they challenge the assumption that before Vatican II, Catholicism offered nothing but legalistic rules-based externals to its adherents, particularly the young. Obviously not so

I also appreciate the assumption of maturity and spiritual responsibility. Remember, this is a 7th grade textbook, which means it was for twelve and thirteen-year olds at most. A child reading this was encouraged to think of him or herself, not as a customer to be placated or attracted, but as a member of the Body of Christ – a full member who can experience deep joy, peace and has a mission.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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And finally…it’s Easter. Sunday morning, rise and shine.

My body was worn out, but functional. I roused every one about nine and had them clean themselves, dress and pack. We’d be heading to ten o’clock Mass at the Cathedral, then returning to the hotel for any last necessities, checking out, and leaving our bags at the desk for the afternoon.

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Easter morning view from the hotel room. 

Our flight back home was early Monday morning. I had a room reserved at the Mexico City Airport Marriott Courtyard for the night. Good buses run from Puebla directly to the airport all day, so I knew that there was no need to reserve any tickets. Shooting for a general time frame would work just fine, so that’s what we did, the time frame being 4-ish – which would get us to the hotel by seven at the latest, we hoped. And ten hours later, up and out and on the plane home.

The zocalo (town piazza or square) was not as busy as on former days (yet), but there were magazine vendors setting up who hadn’t been there before. As I mentioned, the Cathedral was celebrating Mass every hour most of the day – wander in and you’d hit something guaranteed.

We slipped in a side pew just as Mass was beginning, the final strains of Pescadores de Hombres fading as we did so. The celebrant was, I’m presuming, of the archdioceses’ auxiliary bishops. It was an Easter Sunday Mass, with organ and small choir and the same stellar cantor who had sung on Thursday and, even though I couldn’t see him, I’m sure, at the Vigil. The only disappointing and honestly puzzling point was that the cantor led the Responsorial Psalm and continued to stand at the side, which led me to believe he was prepping to sing the Easter Sequence…but no. It was simply recited by some old guy. Why???? It’s so haunting, beautiful and expressive – and this fellow with the wonderful voice was standing right there! Why??

After checking out and stashing our luggage, we…as we do…wandered. Food was consumed – churros (excellent and fresh – there was always a line at the place around the corner), street tacos, the famous local cemita sandwich and street quesadillas and probably some ice cream. We shopped, not only for souvenirs – including candy at Puebla’s famed Street of Sweets –  but for clothes and shoes (as I was told, everything was open) as well. As I’ve said, the cost of living here is so low, it’s crazy how inexpensive even good shoes are.

 

Behind the Cathedral is the “House of Culture” which houses, among other spaces and institutions, the oldest public library in North America, the Palafaxiona Library.

When, in 1646 the bishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, donated a rich and select personal library of 5,000 volumes to the Tridentine College, he thought of the formation of the clergy, but also of the society of the city of Puebla. He therefore established, also, that anyone who could read was to be allowed inside this magnificent library. As a seminary library, it was also a library with a broad range for reading, one not limited to knowledge about God and his church, but to the study of all that might occur to the pen of man, and in order that man might have strong arguments to defend the faith.

By 1773, then Bishop of Puebla, Francisco Fabián y Fuero, established the principal nave of the Palafoxiana Library at 43 meters in length such that the population would have access to the collection of Bishop Palafox. The bishop also had two floors of fine shelves built in fine ayacahuite, coloyote and cedar.

The collection increased with donations from the bishops Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz and Francisco Pablo Vázquez, and by the inclusion of the library of the Jesuit College. Today, some 45,059 volumes dating from the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries coexist with a few from the 20th century.

Those darn obscurantist Catholics, up to their repressive tricks once more!

 I had determined it was open, so it seemed like a visit would be a quick, painless dip into culture – but wait – there’s more!

As we climbed the steps on our way to what we thought was the museum, we encountered an exhibit – an exhibit of devotional statues that had, at one time or another, been on display in the Cathedral. (Don’t worry – it hasn’t been wreckovated – there is plenty of art still there in every nook and cranny. It’s just that over five centuries, you collect a lot.) It was free admission, so we walked through and took some time with the emotionally expressive, finely wrought work. I was especially intrigued with the back of this Christ the King – that hair……

We were on our way to the library when we heard music, and discovered, down in the courtyard a floor below us, a dance performance happening in front of a large, appreciative crowd. Video is on this Instagram post.

On to the library, which involved a slow walk through – probably quite boring for some, but absorbing for me. Libraries are that way in general, but to be surrounded by centuries of exploring, meditation, research, creativity and pondering, hand-written, laboriously printed, carefully preserved – is humbling.

And so….quick version of the rest of the day:

Retrieved luggage. Got an Uber to the bus station. Arrived at bus station (different from our arrival station – this is the one for the airport buses) – tickets available on a bus in 45 minutes, purchased tickets, sat and waited.

Even though the station was busy, the experience was less confusing – there were fewer IMG_20180401_163516.jpgbuses leaving, so it was clearer which was ours. As we did before, we checked our luggage, went through security and then boarded – getting our promised first class snack – A WATER AND A MUFFIN – this time. Although this time, the movie screen wasn’t working – the bus driver even stopped the bus about fifteen minutes out, came back, took out a panel from the ceiling, fiddled around, squinted at the screen, shrugged, returned to the front and kept on driving – screen dark, but we did have wi-fi.

The bus dropped us off at Terminal 1, the originating terminal for most international flights (Inter-Mexico flights as well as Delta fly from Terminal 2) and the location of our hotel. I am so glad we stayed at the airport. Our flight was at 7 am, and I can’t imagine how more miserable we’d have been if we’d stayed any distance away. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was unnecessary, as we discovered afterwards when we walked to see how far we’d have to go in the morning – we could have just turned a couple of corners and eaten our choice of fast food at a third of the price (this was most expensive meal we had in Mexico…)…ah, well!

Departure was painless. I was glad we flew Southwest – the departure lines in the morning were non-existent there while the other airline counters were crowded, even at 6 am. Hobby Airport in Houston has an almost completely automated immigration system – US citizens didn’t even have to fill out customs forms – and the re-entry experience was a breeze. Back on the ground in Alabama by 12:30, in the Chick-Fil-A drive through by 1.

Success!

Come back in the next couple of days for a summary post and Deep Thoughts. 

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A very, very smooth trip. I am not in anyone’s fan club, least of all an airline, but I have to say that this Southwest flight from Birmingham to Houston to Mexico was one of the better flights I’ve had lately. First, there were no lame Southwest flight attendant hijinks, which I was dreading. Secondly – when the plane pulled away from the gate…it kept going. And going. Faster and faster until it was in the air! Fancy that…no ten minute waits on the runway followed by another ten minute wait, then followed by a thirty minute wait in which we are told, “Looks like we’re almost maybe perhaps next in line for takeoff.”

Airport moment:

Older (I can still say that! Sometimes!) woman sits down next to me at the gate. Gets out her phone. Starts talking. Loudly. This is what she says, no lie: Oh, she has no class. She speak so loudly all the time. Just no class. Well, yes, I hope they’re happy, but I doubt it will last. You know how it started right? They had an affair? He was married and left his wife for her?

Too bad she’s not as classy as the dame loudly gossiping about her in the airport!

****

One of the very tense moments in any transition from airplane to vacation stay in any city is the issue of actually getting there. Airport taxi rip-offs are everywhere, from Paris to Rome to most other places I’ve never been. Mexico City actually has an excellent system for minimizing the chances of being overcharged or taken to parts unknown.

The taxi companies all have booths in the actual airport. You go up to a booth, and tell them the address of your destination. If you don’t have a lot of people with you, be sure to specify sedan or they will stick you in a van and it will be a hundred pesos more. (Not a lot but still). You pay the booth attendant, he or she prints out a ticket, and then you take it outside to the outside attendant and he or she hooks you up with a taxi. You’ve already paid, they know where you’re going – almost like Uber!

So that’s what we did – taking then about a thirty minute ride through a very busy city to our apartment. There was one stretch of road which was lined with market stalls, thronged with people, and with even more people darting towards cars stopped at intersections with toys, ice cream, and water for sale, and bottles of sudsy water ready to wash windshields.

***

The apartment’s good. The only negative (which I’ll mention to the owner and in the review) is that there’s no “guide to the area” – I’ve rented a lot of vacation apartments before and leaving a guide with directions for transportation (here’s the nearest subway stop, this bus line runs near the apartment, and so on) and favorite local restaurants and grocery stores is absolutely standard. It certainly makes life easier. But other than that, it’s good – two bedrooms, a large living room/dining room.

After a bit of a rest, we set out walking. I hadn’t intended walking all the way to the Zocalo, but that’s what we did, taking a break along the way for Mass. It was a long way (almost 3 miles) and (spoiler alert) we cabbed it back (I couldn’t get Uber to load properly at the moment).

We walked along the Reforma, the main central drag through Mexico City – lots of higher end hotels are located here, there’s a central walking and biking path lined with trees and benches almost the whole way, and I understand on Sunday mornings, they make the road pedestrian-only, which must be lovely.

It was busy, and the closer we got to the center, the busier it got  – it wasn’t unruly or crazy – mostly families of one size or another – but it was certainly a surging river of folks. In a way it was just like any other similar scene in any other city: lots of characters, from Iron Man to Mickey Mouse and street performers – the street performers were, however, in three categories and three categories alone: Hurdy-Gurdy organs, then a man playing an accordion while a woman holding a baby stands with a cup, and little children – no older than seven or eight years old – playing beaten guitars.  Those in the second category reminded me of the beggars in Rome, and I wondered if, as it the case with the Roma and their babies, the children are sedated. As for the little boys banging on their guitars? You might think it’s cute, but it’s really not. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on, and the little boys are clearly tired and even a little angry.

Our primary goal was Mass, which we hit about halfway through at a church I thought had something to do with St. Francis, but which I cannot for the life of me locate on the map right now. We’ll pass it again at some point – I want to go in and look at the décor more carefully, and take phots with my real camera. Some interesting points:

Those of you familiar with Catholicism in Latin countries probably already know this, but it was new to me. And I don’t know if this is standard practice everywhere, but at this parish in Mexico City, it was. In the US, we have our palms  given to us at the beginning of Mass. Regular old strips of palm leaves. We process, have Mass, and that’s it.

It’s different here. Outside of the church are crafters and vendors of artifacts made of palms – the intricately woven standards you might have seen, but even very elaborate figures, such as the crucifixes you see in the photo. People buy those before (and after) Mass, and bring them into church.

Now, we were not there at the beginning, so I don’t know if there was a procession, but it was the end of Mass that intrigued me.

After Mass, everyone who has something – either purchased that day or from home – brings it up to the front for a blessing (It’s like what I’ve seen at the Hispanic community’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Masses in Birmingham – everyone brings up their religious objects, no matter how big, at the end for blessing.)

What was thought-provoking to me was that while, as is normally the case, perhaps ten percent of the congregation received Communion, almost everyone had a sacramental to be blessed and take home. I need to think about it more and work it out, but the dynamic seems to be that Mass is the locus of blessing, the presence of Jesus. From the Mass, we can take the sacred back into the world, into our homes.

Those of us who are frequent Communion-receivers frame that dynamic in terms of the presence of Christ within us in Eucharist – but those who don’t receive the Eucharist frequently still find a way. A powerful way, it seems to me.

 

 

One of the reasons I want to go back to this church is to take a closer look and better photos of the medallions of the evangelists in the sanctuary – you can barely see them running across the center above. What was great about them (again, maybe this is a common motif – I’ve just never run across it before) is that each of the evangelists is, as usual, paired with his symbol – ox, eagle, man, lion – but here they are riding them. It’s fantastic.

After Mass, we just made our way over to the Zocola, which is massive. The added treat was that there was obviously something going on – we could see a crowd gathered, attention directed towards a covered concert area. It was to be a symphony performance – Beethoven’s Ninth.

If it hadn’t been the end of a long travel day with two boys who’s only consumed donuts in the morning for their daily sustenance, I would have stayed for the whole thing. But as it was, I could sense the mood in my crew, which was a hungry one, and there were no food vendors of any sort around, so we took a turn around the square and peaked into the Cathedral (Mass going on in two places within – we’ll go back later in the week for a closer look during the day), all with the first movement resounding in the air. It was a lovely, stirring welcome to Mexico City, and a reminder of the contrasts so much a part of this culture: Beethoven in the square, with impoverished little boys banging on beaten-up guitars four blocks away.

 

We took a cab back to the area of our apartment, and started looking for food. The restaurant at the end of the block I’d been thinking of was closed. We walked around a bit, almost decided to do just sandwiches from the 7-11, but then I said, no, we’ll go back to the Argentinian restaurant not far from the apartment, and that was a good decision. The food was great – excellent fresh empanadas, two huge hamburgers and a fabulous skirt steak for me. It was a fairly casual restaurant, but the service was so old-school and so many levels above the Hey guys, how’s everyone doing style of American eating, the boys were intrigued.

So there you go. I’m writing this Monday morning, and we have a long day of Teotihuacan – the main attraction – ahead. We are knocking it off today because museums are closed on Mondays, so we might as well….

Video at Instagram. 

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Greetings from…back in Birmingham.

It was an excellent weekend, although shorter than originally planned.

The last workshop of the symposium was scheduled to run from 3:30-5 on Sunday. That was also the only Sunday workshop my son was really very interested in – it was on LIDAR technology, which has revolutionized Maya studies.

(National Geographic ran a breathless, irritatingly hype-y special on this a few weeks ago.)

But after attending four talks on Saturday – three right in a row – and gotten the zoo visit done, I discerned that perhaps….this was enough. A day long workshop on Friday and IMG_20180310_144930.jpgfour academic presentations? For a thirteen-year old? I suggested that perhaps we could just…go home earlier on Sunday?

We talked it over. He was, indeed, interested in that workshop, but LIDAR had been discussed many times in the talks he’d attended, and considering how interested he is in the topic and how hot LIDAR is in the field…he’ll have a chance to engage with it again. The thought of getting home at 5 instead of 10 or later was certainly attractive to both of us.

Decision made…so that’s why I’m writing this from home Sunday night instead of..Monday morning.

But let’s backtrack.

First, our New Orleans hotel. Here’s Amy’s Travel Advice  Section:

I’ve stayed in New Orleans before, in various spots, and never paid what I consider an exorbitant amount. We’ve stayed in various chains in the city, and once at a Residence Inn near the airport. When I started looking for rooms this time, I got serious sticker shock. Nothing, nada even close to downtown for less than 350 a night. Even hotels in Metairie were more than I wanted to pay. Finally, I settled on a Holiday Inn and Suites across the river in Harvey, which was at least under $200.

(And why was this? I poked about and saw a couple of events – the Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament and a Bourbon Festival, but really? Would that be enough to drive prices up for the weekend? Spring breaks beginning? That certainly might be part of it. Well, then we were driving and walking around Sunday morning I saw, not one, but two big cruise ships in port – the Norwegian Pearl and Carnival Dream. That might just have been the tipping point – thousands of folks coming in early to get the party started before departing on Sunday. Maybe?)

Then about a week before the trip, I checked again – just to see. What I actually checked was the question, “Slidell as a base for New Orleans trip.”  Because hotels out there are of course much cheaper. The discussion I happened upon answered that initial question with a resounding NO DON’T DO IT, but buried in the various answers was the suggestion of a hotel – the Prytania Park Hotel – which, the person said, was reasonably priced and close in – just on the edge, between the Garden District and Downtown.

I checked the usual booking sites  – no vacancies listed for my dates. But then, just IMG_20180311_091502.jpgbecause I know that what is listed on the booking sites is their inventory that’s been released to them from a particular hotel – I went to the hotel’s website and checked. Vacancies! For a “junior suite” with two beds and on two levels.  For well under $200 a night. I emailed just to make sure, got a positive response, cancelled that Holiday Inn and booked this one directly with the hotel.

So there’s a lesson for you. Always check with the hotel (or airline, or whatever), even when it seems hopeless.

Isn’t it always the way, though. These innovative ways of doing life pop up – one place where you can check All The Prices! – but it never quite works out the way we think. In this particular case, the booking sites and hotels are vying for profits, with the hotels – especially independent hotels – in a real bind. They can’t survive if they’re not listed, but then those third party sites will take their cut. The hotels are helped by the review systems – to a point. They’re not helped if the third party sites don’t crack down on fraud and competitor sabotage and let unjustified poor reviews stand.

And so for us the consumer? How does it work out? There’s a certain level of convenience in these third party sites like Booking.com. It helps to get a broad survey of availability and an efficient way to look at room arrangements (particularly outside the US where there tends to be more variability), but be aware of two points:IMG_20180311_092001.jpg

First, what I’ve just described: the booking sites don’t have all of a hotel’s inventory available to them.

Secondly, if you end up having a problem after booking, resolution goes much more smoothly if you’ve booked with the hotel (or airline or car rental agency or tour agency) directly. Trying to get refunds and justice with the added layer of Orbitz or TripAdvisor or what have you is going to make things even more difficult than they already are.

Use them for research, sort of trust, and always verify.

Oh, and the Prytania Park Hotel? I liked it. It’s a bit shabby – it’s not a shiny chain hotel or a pristine boutique inn. But it was very clean and secure. Our room was, as advertised, a IMG_20180311_092047.jpg“junior suite” with two twin beds in a loft, and then a downstairs area with couch, chair, desk, desk chair, fridge, microwave, two sinks and bathroom area with tub and shower. And a balcony! The clientele seemed mixed, but mostly families and middle-aged to elderly folks. There was a breakfast, but it was clearly a step down from what you’d find in a Residence or Hampton Inn (i.e. frozen waffles instead of those you make yourself, no proteins, etc…).

There’s not a heap of street noise, although there was traffic outside – there must have a been a club nearby because Friday night, the bass was pretty consistent and loud until well after midnight – but strangely enough, it was much quieter on Saturday night.

Right across the street, there was an older fellow sitting outside on his front porch both mornings, reading. He resembled my father so strongly, it gave me a start: Same build, IMG_20180310_083457.jpgsitting exactly as my father would be reading in the morning if he were outside, legs crossed, with a hat like this on his head, holding and smoking his cigarette just so. I texted the photos to my older sons who both responded with many exclamation points and, in the case of one, the obvious conclusion that my father had faked his own death and escaped to live in seclusion in New Orleans….

And, here on a trip, with a longer one coming in a couple of weeks,  I thought of the conversation I had with him about this time nine years ago, when I told him, a little nervously, that I was going to take the crew to Sicily, of all places. Someplace completely different, somewhere just…away.  I couldn’t face the entire summer here. We had to leave town.  I braced myself, expecting an argument and an attempt to dissuade me. Sicily? But that’s not how it went, at all.

I think that’s great, he said without hesitating a second. It will do you all a lot of good. Go and have a wonderful time.

And so we went. And went. And went…and still go. We go, thanks, for a lot of different reasons – his encouragement, his financial legacy, his own regret at not traveling more earlier in life before it became physically challenging – to him.

 

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