Our roads not taken, 2015

This blog has been pretty quiet in 2015. We haven’t been able to do much traveling because of my yearlong (and successful!) treatment for lymphoma.

This is just our fifth post of the year. I posted on short trips in Louisiana to St. Francisville and Breaux Bridge (our first Louisiana swamp tour), plus one whimsical post on national parks we’ve visited, plus our annual holiday letter.

I’ll close out the year with a map showing where we could have gone (and a few that we did get to) in 2015, along with a little about each would-be or actual destination. My treatment is done, though. My recovery will take a few months, but we’re already starting to make 2016 travel plans. Can’t wait to tell you about them. We expect lots more travel in 2016.

Land of My Grandfather

I wonder (hope?) if this town with the pretty lilacs might be my grandfather’s village.

Early this afternoon we boarded the train from Siena to Rome. I’ve been riveted by the Tuscan hills rolling by: Orchards, pastures, fields of artichokes, and vineyard after vineyard after vineyard. My maternal grandfather was born in this area of Italy. I tried to discover the name of the town where he was born, but that information seems to be lost. All I was ever told was that it was a small town not too far from Florence.

I wonder, as we pass the red roofs of one quaint hill town after another, if this might be ground he once walked. When he found himself in the gritty city of Bayonne, New Jersey, raising a family of six above the barbershop where he cut hair, did he ever regret leaving a calmer, simpler life? Did this beautiful, fertile land haunt his dreams, the way my Iowa farm haunts mine? He died long before I was ever born. How he felt, like the name of his hometown, is something I will never know.

At a jewelry store in Florence, a young man made conversation with me as my purchase was rung up. He asked me if I had any connection with Italy, and I told him my grandfather was born somewhere in Tuscany. He asked me for his last name. “Barone,” I said. He clasped his hands and rolled his eyes. “Barone! Such a good name, such a fine name.” Having no background information, I could only smile. “Signora, you have come home,” he told me. Not really, I thought.

But maybe, somewhere, a spirit lies a little quieter, a little more satisfied, that the scenery now passing before my eyes once passed before his.

Our train heads south, drawing closer to Rome, and Tuscany is drifting away from me. Maybe it will come back to me in my dreams.

The verdant countryside of Tuscany

Living it up at the Hotel Europa

Our room at the Hotel Europa in Florence

I always get a little nervous when making sight-unseen hotel reservations, even in the States. My companion and I have had our share of bummers. There was the creepy place in upstate New York, where a drunk man banged on our door, demanding that his “whoring” wife open the door. (My barking dog scared him off.) And there was the backwater Connecticut dive where I slept on top of the covers in my clothes, after fishing a condom wrapper out of my dog’s mouth.

So I was particularly wary when making accommodations internationally. I’m happy with a place that’s clean, convenient and reasonably secure. I’d rather spend money on things to do and see rather than places to sleep. But after some reading and research, I took a shot at a place called Hotel Europa in Florence. It is well-situated for the sights I want to see in the city, and the price was reasonable. But remembering our other disasters, I was a little concerned when our cab pulled up in front of a nondescript door, set in a building that undoubtedly dates back several centuries. The creaky elevator, with room for only one person with a big bag, was like something out an old spy movie. If not for the bags, both my companion and I could have plodded up to the 3rd floor check-in faster on foot. As our host accompanied us to our room, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much. Continue reading

Home Away From Home

Kate and Vivi

I don’t care how old you are, there are times on a long trip when you can be struck with homesickness. Three weeks is a long time on the road, and, as Dorothy once said, there’s no place like home.

Unless you’re lucky enough, as I am, to have a little bit of home living right in Switzerland. My niece, Kate Prylow and her family live in the village of Biberist, just a few miles from the larger town of Solothurn. Her husband, Mark, works for Bosch. In June his three-year European assignment is up and they’ll return to the USA. So my companion and I worked in our quick visit in the nick of time.

There is nothing like a familiar, well-loved face beaming at you as she comes hurrying down the train platform. Kate looked dashing, slim and stylish. The fact that she was pushing a baby carriage containing her 1-month-old daughter, Vivi, is a testament to her sound fitness and good health.

Johnny waits patiently for a slice of pizza

What a pleasure to be shepherded to our hotel, and then whisked off to her home. Kate and Mark’s apartment was full, not only with their two older children, Lena and John, but with Mark’s visiting parents as well. But the couple does everything with ease and grace, and as we sat down to a traditional Swiss meal, we felt more than welcome. We felt at home. Amid suggestions of possible excursions and shops my companion and I might like to take in, we caught up on family and friends.

The following night Kate took us for dinner at one of her favorite Solothurn restaurants. The food was wonderful and the conversation was the happy, familiar kind that can only happen when two in the group have enjoyed watching the third grow up. Kate is a more confident, capable woman than I ever hoped to be, and there’s something deeply satisfying in knowing the younger generation has come into her own. Our time went too quickly.

The visit was a special little oasis, and when my companion and I left Solothurn this morning we were refreshed and ready to taken the rigors of travel in foreign countries again. Family time will do that for you.

Princess Lena

Romance in wood

Wood couple with a rose, kissing.

Couple with good balance, kissing.

Romance is a stereotype of the countries we are visiting: France, Switzerland and Italy.

My traveling companion and I were expecting our fair share of middle-aged romance – over a French or Italian meal, or perhaps enjoying a glass of wine by a Swiss lake, or – well, maybe enough said about that.

But I don’t think we were expecting to find romance carved in wood on the streets of a Swiss town.

But in the middle of Luzern we found a display of wooden sculpture, most of them couples kissing – notably thinner couples than my traveling companion and me and certainly more flexible. One or both of us would surely topple if we kissed bending over so far.

Perhaps our inability to embrace with such balance enhanced our enjoyment of the sculpture display on the cobblestone streets of a Luzern intersection.

Romance fills the square

I lingered among the statues shooting pictures as my companion shopped for shoes. I thought it might be fun to ask someone to shoot a photo of us kissing – vertically – among the sculptures. But we’re vain enough and round enough that we each prefer photos of the other or just of the places we visit.

I also needed someone to stand between the large wooden hands, to provide some perspective. But we’ve been traveling together long enough that I knew better than to interrupt shoe shopping.

Then a young couple strolled into the sculptures, enjoying them as a young, romantic couple should. I was too slow with my camera to catch a picture of him shooting a picture of her kissing a sculpture of a man.

But then he posed her between the hands and I had my romantic shot in the sculpture display.


The wrong train songs rumble through my head on Alpine journey

One of many scenic views on our train ride from Lyon to Solothurn

When I’m riding a train from France to Switzerland, why does “City of New Orleans” run through my head?

We never got within 250 miles of old Orleans, though we did roll along past houses, farms and fields. And chalets, vineyards and peaks. Majestic, snow-capped peaks.

I definitely felt the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor, but every time the tune took me to “Good morning, America, how are you?” I came up short. Neither France nor Switzerland had the right number of syllables, and I’m not a native son. Continue reading

Remembering Brandon and Patrick and a special day when their futures looked boundless

Brandon Buttry and Patrick Devlin at Starved Rock State Park in 2006

Today I’m remembering — fondly, but through tears — a special trip we took in 2006 to Starved Rock State Park in Illinois.

We chose that as the location for a family reunion, probably the biggest gathering my extended family has ever had. My younger brother Don came in from Iowa, joined by 13 of his 14 children. My brother Dan came in from the Detroit area. Sister Carol came from Vermont with her two children. Mom came up from the Kansas City area, the last long trip she took by car (Mom’s in a memory care unit now). Cousins that we hadn’t seen for decades came in from around the Midwest.

We had good-natured fun with roasts to note Don’s 50th birthday, coming up that fall, and a granddaughter put together some slides as an observance of Mom’s 80th birthday, which would be that December.

One of my favorite memories of that gathering was the bond between two of my nephews, Brandon Buttry and Patrick Devlin, both 13 that summer. They hung out together pretty much all weekend. When we hiked the rocks and canyons of the park, they scrambled together up the steepest inclines, exploring the park more aggressively than their younger siblings and cousins or their older siblings, uncles, aunts and parents. No one enjoyed the park more than Brandon and Patrick did. Few people enjoy life with the gusto that Brandon and Patrick did.

Dan and I, both Eagle Scouts, took Patrick and Brandon to the nearby Ottawa Scout Museum. Patrick was a Scout, determined to join his uncles as an Eagle. Brandon wasn’t in Scouts, but he tagged along because he and Patrick were pretty much inseparable that weekend. They are together time and again in my photos of the gathering.

And they will always be together in my heart — nephews we lost too young. Neither of those wonderful young men made it to their 20th birthdays. We lost Patrick to leukemia in 2009, a year after climbing mountains at Philmont Scout Ranch, but before he could finish his Eagle Scout project. We lost Brandon today, killed in action less than a week after earning his Combat Infantry Badge in Afghanistan.

I don’t have much more to say. It’s hard to write even this much. Just this: Cherish the special young people in your life. They have so much promise, but you never know how long you will have them.

From left, me, Patrick Devlin, Brandon Buttry and Dan Buttry at the Ottawa Scouting Museum.

Brandon and Patrick behind a waterfall at Starved Rock.

Brandon Buttry in May, graduating from basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in May 2012.

Patrick Devlin in Scout uniform.