Retiring an old passport with a lot of fun travel memories

The pen ran out of ink as I was signing, but I never got a question about the signature in dozens of trips on this passport.

The pen ran out of ink as I was signing, but I never got a question about the signature in dozens of trips on this passport.

Cover 1I’m traveling on a new passport in this trip to Italy.

Getting a new passport is no big deal, as long as it arrives before you need to travel. But the return of the old passport, with a couple holes punched through the cover, brings back a decade of travel memories.

mugFor one thing, that old mug shot that looked so bad 10 years ago (does anyone ever like their passport photo?) at least looks 10 years younger now. The sideburns were all white then, but the goatee part of my beard was still more pepper than salt. Sometime in the past decade, that beard turned all white, then I shaved it for vanity.

But the real story of an old passport isn’t the photo, it’s the stamps inside.

Oddly, I can’t find a stamp for my first trip on the passport, a 2004 visit to Tofino, B.C., for our 30th wedding anniversary. I see two other 2004 trips to Canada stamped, but not that August trip. I don’t know whether they didn’t stamp the passport that trip, or had the wrong date on their stamp, or perhaps the stamp was covered by one of the two visas that were pasted down over a full page (I always presumed they picked a clean page for those).

Other than the anniversary trip, all travel on the passport was related to work. Of course, we piggybacked a lot of personal travel onto the trips for employers, clients and conferences.

This trip, for instance, is for the International Journalism Festival, where I am a speaker on four panels. But we came a few days early for a visit to Venice.

I have two visas in the 2004 passport, from Saudi Arabia for a 2008 trip and Russia for a 2009 visit to Siberia. They were two of the more memorable trips I’ve ever taken.

SaudiThe trip to Saudi Arabia was one of the few where Mimi did not accompany me. Carol Ann Riordan and I represented the American Press Institute at the inauguration of the Prince Ahmed Institute of Applied Media Studies in Riyadh. API was negotiating with the Saudi institute to provide some training for Saudi journalists.

The gender discrimination in Saudi was clear from our greeting at the airport, where our hosts provided Carol Ann an abaya to wear. In the media offices, women journalists worked on a different floor from the men, though I was able to visit them with Carol Ann. They were hungry for training and Carol Ann insisted that any contract for training would include programs for Saudi women journalists.

Though Carol Ann was a vice president of API and I was just a director, the Saudis asked me to sign an agreement with the prince to pursue the negotiations, because I was a man. The agreement was just an agreement to continue negotiating, though, and API never got a contract to do training in Saudi.

RussiaI chronicled the trip to Siberia in a series of posts in 2009, when I visited for a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the independent press in Siberia. I treasure the memories of friendly hosts and of journalists who were proud of their independent media. As I read of the growing power of the Putin regime, I hope my friends and colleagues there are able to maintain their independence.

The trip to Siberia included a wonderful walking tour in the December chill of Barnaul, the city where the conference was held. And after the conference, Mimi and I visited St. Petersburg and Moscow.

JapanFrankfurtI got a paper stamp in my passport from a 2007 visit to Japan to do some workshops for Stars and Stripes, the newspaper serving American military troops who live abroad. That trip also included a stop in Germany for some training for Stars and Stripes staff there. The 2007 Frankfurt stamp is the only one on its pair of pages, while other facing pages are crowded with up to nine stamps.

The Stars and Stripes visits were sandwiched between two stateside events, so we were limited to two days of sightseeing in Germany and one in Japan (though Mimi had more time both places while I was doing my workshops). Both visits were memorable, though. We caught Mt. Fuji on a rare clear day, and it was spectacular. In Germany, we visited Heidelberg one day and Mainz the other. Our visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz provided a closing for many Newspaper Next presentations and other speeches at journalism events.

Ecuador straightEcuador smushedI got two stamps for our 2008 visit to Ecuador (the month after the Saudi trip). Unlike most countries, they stamped it coming and going (I recall a fee to leave the country). One stamp was clean, but he other was kind of skewed and hard to read.

The Ecuador trip, for a Newspaper Next workshop for El Comercio, included a side trip to the equator, and walking tour of Quito in the rain and to the Otovalo market in the mountains outside Quito.

MexicoThe Mexico stamp from a 2006 trip to introduce Newspaper Next to Latin American publishers and editors barely made it onto the edge of Page 24 of the passport. That trip included a visit to ancient pyramids as well as the Guadalupe Shrine.

Pages 8 9You don’t get a stamp every time you enter a country. A stamp at the Frankfurt airport is the only evidence of our 2013 trip that included visits to France (a conference about Russian media partnerships with my friends from Siberia),  Switzerland and Italy (last year’s International Journalism Festival, plus visits to Rome, Florence and Siena).

My trips to Canada resulted in at least 14 stamps entering that country in various locations (some of the stamps mention the city; some don’t). And I don’t think I got stamped every time I entered Canada (unless some are under those visas). I can’t recall exactly which of my Canadian trips were before or after the June 2004 issue of the old passport, but I count at least two dozen trips to Canada since getting the passport.

Mimi and I enjoyed some wonderful visits to Tofino, Cape Breton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and other Canadian locations on the old passport.

Stops at airports in Amsterdam and Zurich didn’t even merit passport stamps. I had to wait for those at my destinations.

I’m breaking in a new passport on this trip to Italy, but it doesn’t have a stamp yet. Italian authorities waved us through the “passport control” station without a look at the new passport. But I’m expecting a lot of stamps before I have to replace this one in 2024.

Update: I did get an Italy stamp at the Rome airport today. I just rechecked the old passport and I don’t have one there. Not sure why I got one this year but not last year.

Italy stamp

European churches are glorious, but whom do they glorify?

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, known locally as the Duomo.

Something bothers me when viewing the magnificent churches of Europe.

I have great respect for the artistic and scientific talents of the architects and builders. I admire the painstaking work of the masters who created the paintings, statues, columns, sarcophaguses, murals, mosaics, cornices, tapestries and frescoes that seem to decorate every available space. The reverence of these ancient people is touching and I respect the expressions of faith that these churches and their art represent.

But it also feels at times too much.

As my companion and I walked away from the glorious Duomo in Siena, Italy, we passed a group of English-speaking teen-agers getting their first glimpse as they rounded the corner. “How many, like, insanely beautiful churches can there be in one country?” a youth asked rhetorically of his peers.

Indeed, beautiful and plentiful. But on some level insane.

As a visitor to Italy centuries after the Renaissance artists, I am thankful for their contribution to art and beauty. That they elevated humanity is, to me, beyond question.

My father enjoyed painting. While his favorite subjects were sunsets and other landscapes that celebrated the beauty of creation, a few had religious themes. Some of his works hang (or did at one time) in the churches where he served as pastor or perhaps in some he visited. I grew up appreciating the talent and inspiration of the artist.

I’m grateful for the Medicis and other wealthy people who fostered an appreciation of art here. While I’m proud of Dad’s artwork, I recognize the difference between a hobby artist and a master. To become a master, one must work full-time for years. That requires support of wealthy people or wealthy institutions such as churches, either to buy the work or to sponsor it.

As I noted in an earlier post from this trip, I was in awe of the vision and execution that created the David. Sunday we saw the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and marveled again at the beauty and the talent that created it.

Michelangelo’s genius did not grow from nothing. He and Leonardo da Vinci were the greatest artists of a culture that also produced masters such as Botticelli and Donatello (both of whose works we’ve seen on this trip) and lesser masters whose names I’ve already forgotten but who produced magnificent works we viewed in the museums, cathedrals and basilicas we’ve toured. Their work grew from the generosity of the Medicis and other patrons of the arts and from a culture that honored and elevated art.

It’s the cavernous cathedrals that strike me as too much. While I know they were built as tributes to God, I wonder how much they really are statements about the money and might of man. Wouldn’t the savior so often depicted in these statues and paintings have preferred that the church spend more of its wealth following his commandments, such as feeding and clothing the poor, and less building such grand palaces of worship?

I don’t wonder that in a condemning way. I know I don’t contribute enough to helping those less fortunate. And I’m certain the inspiration provided by religious art and architecture helps change lives and drives – directly or not – many of the countless acts of generosity by the faithful.

But as I admire the artistic gifts of the masters, I wonder if the popes and bishops who built these grand cathedrals weren’t glorifying themselves at least as much as the master they served.

St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

The Pietà

Today, I saw the Pietà again.

I was nine years old the first time I saw it, at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. When I close my eyes, I can still picture it: The room where it was housed was lit in blue except for the spotlights shining down on the sculpture. Visitors stood on slow moving walkways, allowing everyone a good, long view, while keeping the lines moving for those waiting. What I remember best, though, was how I lost my breath at first sight. Struck dumb, I stared and stared at Mary’s face, so incredibly young, the gentle, open grief so powerful it made me weak in the knees. It was the first time a piece of art evoked a physical and emotional response from me. If my mother would have allowed it, I’d have ridden over and over on that moving walkway for the entire day. If I had been asked what I most wanted to see on this trip to Italy, I would have said, “I want to see the Pietà again.”

Today, I did.

This time, it was in St. Peter’s Basilica. There were no blue lights. There was no moving walkway. Visitors could spend as long as they liked. And I looked for a long, long time.

The first time I saw the Pietà, it was through the eyes of a child. Today, I saw it through the eyes of a grandmother. And I realized I have lived a lifetime with the image in the back of my mind. Sometimes I would think of it, when I held one of my own sons in my arms. I have watched one sister-in-law lose a teenage son through cancer, and throughout his illness, the vision of the Pietà quietly came to my mind. I saw another sister-in-law lose a son in a violent act of war, and, as I watched her weep as they closed the casket for the last time, again, Mary, holding the remains of her sacrificed son, haunted me.

My companion stood quietly, hand on my shoulder today, patiently waiting as again I stared, and stared and stared. I don’t think there’s a mother alive who can look at the Pietà and not feel the weight of her child in her arms, who doesn’t feel the overwhelming, staggering loss etched so eloquently in every line of the marble.

Today I saw the Pietà again.

The Pietà

I am most fluent in helplessness

Few experiences are as humbling for me as traveling in countries where English is not the native language.

Maybe that’s part of why I like travel. We all need to be humbled now and then.

I excelled in German when I was in ninth grade. But we moved to a different school district, where they dropped German from the curriculum during World War I “to be patriotic.” And a quarter century after World War II, they still weren’t teaching it. Continue reading

Magical Siena

Il Campo in Siena

Correction: My traveling companion was indulging me and posted this for me after I’d written it on the train in another program. It didn’t occur to either of us that it would then bear his byline. This is Mimi Johnson writing, no matter what WordPress says.

My companion and I reached Siena in the midafternoon, hungry, tired and perhaps a little bit cranky. He’d asked me before we left the states, “Why Siena?” I’d told him I’d just heard it was a beautiful Tuscan city, smaller, without as many tourists as Florence. I thought it was worth a brief visit, a chance to kick back a little and not push the sightseeing quite so hard.

Siena is magical at night.

Our B&B was in an ancient, rustic building, the color of, well, sienna. It was just off Il Campo, the lovely center square of the city. After a little snack of bruschetta and a little rest at a sidewalk table, we felt better, ready to wander the narrow, steep streets. We spent some time at the Duomo, lighting candles for each of our families at a side altar. And we stopped by the Basilica of St. Domenico, because I couldn’t resist the chance to see St. Catherine’s mummified head looking down from the altar.

I’d read in several places that Siena is at its best at night, and while we were still in France, an acquaintance who’d been there confirmed, “It’s magical.” I wasn’t disappointed. After dark we sat on the cobblestones of the square, looking up at the artfully lit campanile, a half-moon lurking nearby in the starry night. When I looked over at my companion I could clearly see the young man he used to be, when he wooed and won me. Romantic. Magical.

Last night, I slept in a building that was built 800 years ago. As I lay in bed, my companion sound asleep beside me, I looked up at the dark wood beams of the dim ceiling far above me, and wondered about all the couples that had shared this room before us. The idea of 800 years of living kept me awake. (Or perhaps it was the espresso I’d had after dinner.) The drunken singing from a group below drifted up from the street, a faint, merry murmur through the ancient, thick walls.

The entrance to the Palazzo Masi bed and breakfast in an 800-year-old Siena building.