Wanting All the Cards

I got to play “Two truths and a lie” on a Zoom call at work.  Of course I loved it.  In fact, I think everyone did, because we are lawyers.  And of course I obsessed about it for a couple of weeks leading up to the big day, because I like to think that many interesting and unlikely things happened to me over the years.  I was just a trifle annoyed that most of my colleagues had similarly outrageous and improbable experiences, though somewhat mollified when, after I announced my three “facts”, someone muttered that “they are all lies”[1]

This got me thinking about what, among the many weird, yet non-traumatic, particulars of my life remain obscure, yet interesting?  And I keep coming back to my playing card collection.

Just a small and random sample

For a large part of my life, I have loved playing cards and wanted to possess them.  By this I mean, I do not necessarily love playing card games, but love the cards themselves. It has been a deep and abiding love, a bearer of much joy, a literary and artistic inspiration, and #42 on my list of Favorite Things [A Few of [Whose] Favorite Things – Old Lady Writing][2].

Sadly, this is not my photo, but this is exactly how it was.

I trace the beginnings of this beautiful friendship to the early summers of my life leisurely spent on the Crimean beaches, playing a rousing game of Fool with whatever friends I made hanging out on the wooden sunbeds[3] between dips in the sea.  We also played Witch (Old Maid) and Drunkard (War), but Fool, the most popular Russian card game, was the only one that required some skill[4].

Clockwise from top left, Stella, Ophelia, Violette, Sylvia, and Sylvester. This is the deck she drew from memory.

When I was six, my grandmother, with whom I spent all my summers at the beach, and I were joined by acquaintances from our hometown, a couple of sisters around her age, one of whom had a 10 year old daughter, Irina.  For reasons that are lost to time, there was a joint refusal by the aged relatives to purchase a deck of cards for us, and so Irina simply drew one.  Although no record remains of that deck, I remember it as the crowning achievement of Pre-Raphaelite art.  We even gave the queens the fanciest names we knew, and attempted to name the jacks, but could only come up with one (look, we were just little girls in the USSR).  We so much wanted a real deck of cards! At some point, Irina’s mother relented and bought her one [5].  Searching for a facsimile of that deck became a goal in my adult life. 

Of course I found it!

Arriving in the US, I was absolutely stunned and disappointed to discover that playing cards here are not beautiful, and the face cards in all the decks are the same.  Of all the easy wins, playing cards were such a letdown!  And then, for American Christmas ’84, my mother presented me with a deck surprisingly purchased at Jacobson’s.  Baroque by Piatnik, which started my collection, is still the most beautiful deck I own.

The rules of the collection are simple:  face cards have to be distinct, human, and beautiful.  That means no animals, no cartoons, and no decks that have a weird theme like politicians, posters, quotes, or whatever.  They have to have traditional suits (French is preferred, because that is what I am used to) and traditional court cards.  I include stripped decks, because again, that is what was popular in Russia in my day. The backs are irrelevant.

According to Wikipedia, the largest card collection is over 11,000 decks.  Mine is about 100 times smaller, not counting double decks, but I love [almost] each and every one.  About a third of them are by Piatnik [Piatnik – Company], the greatest and largest card manufacturer in the world.  As a teenager, I vaguely dreamed of working for Piatnik, but literally could not imagine what skills I possess and into what job they would translate. 

My collection was enlarged by stopping in all stores that might carry these “artistic”, for lack of a better word, European-style cards.  In the US, that primarily included fancy stores that might carry gambling paraphernalia (and surprisingly, the store inside Cinderella Castle in Disneyworld, as well as my beloved and dearly missed quirky Peaceable Kingdom in Ann Arbor).  In Europe, it was pretty much any stationery or souvenir store, as well as big department stores like Harrod’s.  My mother has been a very enthusiastic contributor since the beginning, always traveling with the hard copy list of my decks. I stopped collecting almost a decade ago, because Piatnik seems to have run out of ideas, and ordering on the internet is no fun.  I have a very slight and vague regret of not buying a new deck in Dublin last year, but this gives me a reason to return[6].

A word about artistic inspiration.  As a refugee child in Rome with no toys but an extravagant set of markers which my family somehow managed to afford for Christmas, I drew a paper doll and, over the years, a mass of elaborate period dresses, inspired by my own imagination combined with dolls in Italian toy store windows and later, playing cards.  Since queens on playing cards are only portrayed from the waist up, all the skirts are mine.

(Just a few of the dresses; the last one was left unfinished around 30 years ago.)

[1] My big lie was the monkey story from The First Spanish Trip.  The truths were crashing a circus rehearsal (stay tuned!) and being chased by someone wielding a can opener (a singularly unpleasant event not worth retelling).

[2] I specifically did not mention it then, because I knew it will someday deserve its own full entry.

[3] English language fails me here.  The word that we actually use translates as “trestle bed”, but that seems to mean nothing to anyone.  I literally have spent no time on the beach in my English-speaking life, after an entire childhood of sun-drenched salt-water summers.

[4] In later years, during summers at the Baltic Sea, Nines replaced Fool as the rousing card game of choice. My grandfather subsequently demonstrated himself as the most charming cheat in the game of Nines.

[5] Eventually, the seven of clubs was lost, and we drew a card on nothing better than a piece of green blotter paper.  Needless to say, the seven of clubs was extremely conspicuous.

[6] And I never found Piatnik’s King Arthur deck.  I probably could now, but I prefer to leave this slight gap in the collection.  “Nothing in life has any business being perfect”.

O Fado

Lest anyone should think that all of my trips were comical debacles, I would like to unequivocally say: not exactly.  Has something absurd and ridiculous happened to me on every vacation?  Yes, yes it has.  Has it ruined every vacation?  Not even close (just the one).  Interestingly enough, the most disastrous trip of the past half century was followed by the most lovely, gentle, and perfect one two years later. 

Coincidentally, right around that time my mom saw a documentary about Portugal, and was raving about their tiled streets.  Acknowledging that these alleged tiled streets was the one thing I have been missing in my life was the first step.  The second was to search for locations that were not billed, in the standard timeshare parlance, as those where “a car is needed to enjoy the area”.  (Personally, I do not think a car is ever needed to enjoy “the area”.  It is needed to get you to a different area you may or may not enjoy.) 

In 1999, my knowledge of Portugal was limited to the Age of Explorers.  Its modern history was a non-event.  I have not even heard of the Carnation Revolution of 1974, coming as it did so close on the heels of the death of Georges Pompidou, which made an infinitely greater impression on me at the time.  But, I read that Portugal is warm in March (true!), and that there is a couple of small towns on the direct train line to Lisbon, one of which, Cascais, had a studio available.  And so we went.

Let me get the bad things out of the way.  First, my mother foisted a giant travel guide on us.  Eyewitness Travel Guides, while very colorful and pretty, are pointless for daily travel.  You are basically carrying a brick around.  It also contained the most useless restaurant recommendations, for needlessly overpriced and flavorless food which you would be hard pressed to find in Portugal, but the writers of this book did.  (Good news–Já Sei in Belém, charging more escudos per “gamba” than most other places charge for an entire meal, is closed now.  Feeling vindicated!)


Second, getting to Belém from Lisbon by train is strangely complicated.  A couple of times, when we were riding home to Cascais, the train would stop in Belém—but when we actually decided to get out, to see the famous tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the monument to the explorers, it would not.  It took several false starts riding past it and finally walking back from the next stop before we finally achieved this goal. 

This is a stock photo.
I took a photo of someone’s beautiful house in Estoril instead.

Finally, I was thrown out of a casino in Estoril.  For some reason, European casinos do not allow cameras.  This is still true—we could not enter a single casino in Monte Carlo, either, when we were there three years ago.  Apparently it is a privacy issue.  So whatever, I had to leave while spouse wandered around inside this famous casino (apparently the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”[1].  It was too amazing an opportunity for him to join me in disgrace outside, and surprisingly, I hold no grudge against him.  But I was not happy with the casino administration and avenged myself by not taking any photos of it outside either.  So there.

But these are minor hiccups.  The only real regret I have from that trip is that in the pre-digital age, I did not take enough photos.  Two rolls, while impressive for just a week in those days, seem woefully inadequate now.  Chief regret is not having any photographic memory of the magical evenings in the hotel’s restaurant, enjoying “bebida do dia[2]” and the music of Miguel Santos.  I hope he became rich and at least locally famous—he deserved it…

It was warm and sunny and did not rain once.  It was affordable, even to us.  The food, once we went off-book, was delicious, especially to a seafood lover like me, and even a plate full of smoked herring with eyes still staring at me was an adventure.  The architectural monuments were breathtaking.  It was easy to get around, both to the train station in Cascais from where we made our way to Portugal, and further afield, to Sintra.  And my shoes did not try to kill me[3].

This is still the gold standard of vacations for us.  I have subsequently wondered if it was largely being at the right place at the right time, having no expectations and simply enjoying everything that the place offered.  After the disaster that was the First Spanish Trip [The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing], it was almost too much to expect something normal.  But the stars aligned, and it was a treat for every sense.  The view from our window:    The famed tiled streets:   Lisbon, magnificent yet still approachable:   Picturesque Sintra: Fascinating museums, including the jewel that is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian: .

We fell in love—and stayed away for 17 years for fear of disillusionment, in case lightning does not strike twice[4].

Last but not least: Boca do Inferno, a chasm in the oceanside cliffs near Cascais

[1]From Wikipedia:  Casino Royale was inspired by certain incidents that took place during Fleming’s wartime career at the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), or by events of which he was aware. On a trip to Portugal, en route to the United States, Fleming and the NID Director, Admiral Godfrey, went to the Estoril Casino. Because of Portugal’s neutral status, Estoril’s population had been swelled by spies and agents from the warring regimes.

[2] And none of it was port.  We literally spent a week in Portugal and did not try any port.  That was kind of weird.

[3] There was also the delightful surprise of the European Figure Skating Championship taking place at the same time—and being televised in its entirety on Portuguese TV.  How perfect is that?

[4] Spoiler alert: it does.

The First Spanish Trip

It was not *my* first trip to Spain, but third.  Unlike my relationship with Paris [https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/09/when-did-the-arc-de-triomphe-start-leaning/], my relationship with Spain devolved over the years, and what we call “The First Spanish Trip” has a lot to do with it.

It started out on a very auspicious note.  I was young (though not as young as I was when I first went to Paris) and poor (though, again, not as poor).  I had not travelled in several years by that point, if you do not count visiting family in Brooklyn (arduous drive-through-the-night weekend car trips) and Tennessee (same).  Why weekends only?  Because I live in a country where you have no expectation of paid time off.  God bless America!

Somehow, a point was reached where a week’s vacation became an attainable goal, and a travel agent was contacted.  Her involvement also seemed promising at first, as she mentioned that the roundtrip flights to Europe, particularly to either London or Madrid, were reasonably priced–$300, to be exact, which even a quarter of a century ago was very affordable.

I vaguely remember sitting in my office and calling my spouse to check if he would prefer London or Madrid.  He had never been to Europe except purportedly some bizarre flight to Germany on a military plane for literally one day.  The story is long on holes and short on details, and is not likely to merit another mention in print.  I have previously been to both London AND Madrid.  He fatefully asked, which one has better food?  Even now, a quarter of a century later, having had many a glorious adventure in London, I would wholeheartedly cheer for Madrid for a superior culinary experience.  Back then, it was a rhetorical question.

And then, in a strange twist of fate, I acquired a week of timeshare.  There are probably more timeshares in Costa del Sol than anywhere else in the world.  They are pretty fabulous resorts, even if you are not young and poor and have not taken a vacation in several years.  Looking at the map, the drive from Madrid to Malaga’s environs is a lot shorter than the above-mentioned ones—in fact, about half the distance.  On paper, it made perfect sense to rent a car and drive South, enjoying both the capital and the coast.  A lot of things make sense on paper…

Again, because this is not a travelogue, I will only mention the mistakes that were made on this, my first adult vacation.  To this day, my spouse has not recovered from some of these.  The Second Spanish Trip, despite having been a perfectly lovely and fulfilling voyage which included many of the things we missed the first time, is largely ignored and forgotten, so large looms the shadow of The First.  We may never pass this way again…

  1. Renting a car.  I actually rented a car twice in Europe within the past year, and drove through Bavaria and Gascony, both possessing of narrow winding rounds through hilly terrain.  But you know why this is no longer a problem?  Because of technology.  It is a lot easier to drive with the GPS telling you where to turn and automatically recalculating for road construction than it is when you are trying to read a many-paged Spanish-language atlas you bought at Borders (but I still miss Borders).  Spouse was driving, since he is the only one who can drive a stick (a terrible European practice that, thankfully, has also gone away.  No need to make life more difficult).  I was frantically flipping through the giant map atlas.  Everyone was screaming.  A couple of peculiarities about Spanish highways: (1) When you see the “exit” sign, you literally have a second to swerve and exit.  There is no 1 mile (or 1.6 km) warning, there are no multiple signs leading up to the exit.  It’s just the exit, and there it went, and you are still driving.  And if you think you can just exit at the next one and return—seriously, you think you can do that in Spain?  Cute.  (2) Sometimes, the highway entrance ramps are closed.  Again, no warning, no construction signs, no yellow tape, just a barrier that someone put up to stop you from getting on the highway—so you need to very carefully reverse back down ramp.  There was a lot of reversing done on that trip.  (This sign would have been very helpful at the time) (3) If there is a detour, there are—you guessed it—no signs guiding you on an alternate path.  If you are driving from Madrid to the coast, and the only road that you can see on the map is out of commission, you might end up going up a mountain and then down the other side to get back on track.  The view was breathtaking, not the least because there are no barriers, not even the flimsy ones, between the narrow road and the side of the mountain, but I have never felt so close to death (except later on this trip; see below).  We did drive through a town called Lanjaron—elevation 2,162 ft—where they make bottled water.  Whenever I saw the bottles thereafter, I shuddered.  And this is how a hypothetical five hour drive became a day-long, white-knuckled affair that pretty much set the tone for the entire vacation.
  2. Flea Market.  I hate flea markets, which is a holdover from the days I spent with my grandparents in Brooklyn.  South of Spain was filled with them.  Maybe it still is, I do not know.  Everyone seemed very keen on recommending them to us, and we put some effort into avoiding them.  Imagine our surprise when we actually encountered one at an amusement park.  Yes, right next to the swinging pirate ship in Tivoli World in Benalmadena Costa, various vendors spread their wares on the ground.  I bought a calculator to help me with currency conversion, and it broke before the end of the vacation.  And by the way, Tivoli World is lame, cannot recommend.  Of course, I live within driving distance of “America’s Roller Coast”, but even so, and even without the flea market all over itself, Tivoli World was not worth visiting. (It might be nicer now)
  3. Clamps.  Parking can be a challenge in Europe, especially if you cannot afford it.  On my last two trips that involved a car, which consequently involved parking, I occasionally paid for it.  Ah, the privilege of middle age—being able to afford to drive your car into a public garage!  It is not even grossly overpriced—you can pay less for an entire day of parking during Oktoberfest in Munich than you would for an hour in Chicago’s Loop, true story!  But back then, either parking was unaffordable, or it simply was not there, or both.  Our most confusing day was in Gibraltar, where we congratulated ourselves on finding a great free spot for our rented Opel Kadett under an innocuous sign “clamps”.  OK, clamps, whatever, and we walked away.  And then we saw it:  all the cars similarly parked had fluorescent orange boots on one wheel.  “Clamps” is literally what we did not think it was—it clamps onto your car to prevent it from moving, because it is in a *no parking* spot!  We ran back so fast (I could still run at that point on vacation—keep reading), and rescued the car from imminent clamping.  Gibraltar is English territory.  Why not just say “no parking”?  A mystery, but one we solved in the nick of time. (This detailed sign and illustration would have been very helpful)
  4. Driving up The Rock.  Again, being poor, but in possession of a car, we could not afford the funicular, and decided to drive up to The Rock of Gibraltar.  The road we took was clearly one way, because it was narrow enough for just one European-sized car, although we were puzzled at the lack of indicators which was the one way heading.  We assumed we missed the direction sign, because going the way we were just felt right—until we turned a sharp corner and were confronted by a bus barreling toward us at what seemed like the speed of light.  It was the one time in my life I was certain I was going to die.  It was, to this day, the scariest thing that has ever happened to me.  We screeched to a stop.  The bus screeched to a stop.  Spouse apologized for going the wrong way on a one-way street. The bus driver replied, nonchalantly, “It is a two-way system, but you are going the wrong way to the rock”.  Apparently, no panic is warranted.  If someone is coming your way, you pull over—onto the sidewalk, hopefully not running over pedestrians—and let them pass.  But this was just not the right street for us.  So we retraced our steps and took another, similarly terrifying, route.
  5. Monkeys.  Gibraltar is home to the only free-roaming monkeys in Europe.  They are cute, but they are not domesticated.  This is their home.  We are mildly unwelcome visitors.  Unless you have something they want.  Some years later, they attacked my grandmother because she pulled out a packet of airline peanuts from her pocket (back when airlines served peanuts)[1].  That day, they mostly entertained themselves by getting into some carelessly unlocked cars, preening in rearview mirrors, and pooping on the seats.  The only thing we did right was lock our car with the windows up.  And then a monkey stole spouse’s glasses, and I painfully twisted my ankle while chasing it.  I managed to get the glasses back, but at great personal cost.  My ankle hurt, the rest of the trip’s itinerary had to be scrapped because I could not walk very much and had to stay close to the resort, but thank God for socialized medicine—at least I got some amazing painkillers for free from the infirmary at the resort[2].(Actual photos I took)
  6. Bat.  Our trip combined the Riviera and Madrid, where we finally parted with the car and thought we might breathe easier for a few days.  That was not to be.  The very first evening out promenading in the city, we were encountered by a protest.  We had no idea what it was about, but it was alarming both because of our reluctance to be a part of an international incident and because its shouting, marching, flag-waving demonstration was led by a bat.  Yes, a real flying creature of the night charged ahead of the humans and toward us.  We ran and hid.  I mean, what else was there to do? 
  7. Hostel.  In Madrid, we stayed in a hostel.  This was before hotels.com, let alone Airbnb.  I literally sent a fax in my very basic [two years of high school] Spanish from the U.S. to reserve a hostel.  It might not have been so bad, even without a TV or any amenities but with a shower, had we not just stayed at a fabulous timeshare.  This was when I said to myself, no more hostels for me.  Never again.  And then…
  8. We missed the flight.  Yes, it happened, and I still do not know who is to blame for this.  We arrived at the airport two hours before the designated flight time, and were told that we were two hours too late.  Apparently, this particular flight has been leaving at a different hour for quite some time.  Our tickets were handwritten by the travel agent—who remembers that crazy practice?—who later claimed that the flight time must have been changed after the tickets were issued.  We had no international calling capabilities, and it was long before the flight apps.  The stressed TWA agents, whose employer was going through one of its final bankruptcies, initially just shrugged, but once I became mildly hysterical, offered to rebook us on the next flight out free of charge.  Of course, that flight was not leaving until the next day—22 hours later, at the correct time.  They booked us into—what else?—a hostel[3] in Barajas, a tiny and unpleasant airport town.  By the time we made it to the hostel, the entire town was closed for a five-hour afternoon siesta.  No matter, we were out of money anyway (this was, of course, before credit cards were widely in use and/or accepted in Europe).  At some point, the town’s only eatery opened for a couple of hours, so we scraped together our remaining pesetas and spent them on an American-style burger (that’s all they had, really!) and a pitcher of sangria.  The next morning, we put on the clothes we hastily previously washed in the hostel sink and dried outside.  And thus ended our first and worst adult and European vacation. [4]

Not my photo, but this is about as exciting as I remember Barajas.

[1] Do not feel bad for grandma.  She was, and is, fine.  It takes more than a pack of wild monkeys to take her down.

[2] I have been telling this story for all these years, but it is a fiction—some might say, a lie, but that is such an ugly word.  What actually happened is that I twisted my ankle in the excitement of getting to the bargain basement of Marks & Spencer’s.  Which is a stupid thing that I do not like to mention, but now you know.

[3] Hostal Viky is still in existence.  I am not going to give it a review, either here or anywhere else, because it may very well be a fine establishment of its kind, but as the final indignity at the end of a comedy of errors, it did not impress.

[4] But you know what was NOT bad about The First Spanish Trip?  My footwear!  [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/30/the-wrong-way-to-the-parthenon/] In the photos, I am wearing tennis shoes.  How American!  It was the last time I wore tennis shoes to Europe.  That is also something that has changed over the past quarter of a century, but now I am old, and my running shoes are for running.

The Wrong Way to the Parthenon

I always loved Greece.  To clarify, I always loved Ancient Greece, having grown up on “The Trojan War and Its Heroes” (a masterful retelling of the story old as time for elementary school age children, with delicate silhouette illustrations in which I colored in the hair of every single Achaean), “Adventures of Odysseus” (which always made me uneasy because his 20 year absence from home seemed like a little longer than a lifetime to a seven year old me), and “Legends and Myths of Ancient Greece” (a compilation so complete that I would venture to guess that it contained a story of Zeus turning into almost every creature in Greek fauna to pursue various women—and why that would be more attractive than if he simply appeared to them as a handsome guy is something that I took as Olympian Gospel).

My other source of information about Greece was, of course, my beloved childhood encyclopedia, “What is this, who is that?”  https://oldladywriting.com/2019/11/03/liechtenstein/ It contained not only an article on Greece, but one on “Ancient Greeks” and one on the “Acropolis”.  It stated, quite inarguably, that Parthenon is one of mankind’s most marvelous creations.  But, the article grimly concluded, it exploded in 1687.  Given that this was before the internet, and in the USSR to boot, even imagining the Parthenon’s remnants was beyond the possible.

And so, when the first Big Birthday that we could afford to celebrate with a Big Trip was nigh, we went to Greece. 

These ARE the actual shoes I wore in Greece. And now think, do they look like they would work well on such trip? On any trip, except to the mailbox? I rest my case.

The year was 2007, and it was my last vacation with a non-digital camera.  Because we could afford to splurge for a milestone birthday, I took four rolls of film for a week’s vacation.  Coincidentally, this is the same number of photos I took over an entire summer in Europe almost 20 years earlier.  I also would like to have said that it was my last vacation for wearing uncomfortable shoes.  But, alas, it was not.  I am kind of known (not widely, only within my family) as someone who brings the wrong footwear on vacation.  There have been a few vacations during which a day is dedicated to looking for new shoes for me, because the ones I am wearing are literally trying to kill me.  A useful tip: if you have freakishly giant double extra wide size 42s, do not attempt to shop for ladies boots in Paris. It is an exercise in frustration, and a waste of time.

And so, armed with several useless phrases picked up from a talking parrot of a Greek guy I used to know, lousy shoes, analog camera, but strong knowledge of Greek cuisine (because we live near one of the best Greektowns in the US, if not THE best) as well as strong knowledge of Greek mythology, we arrived.

Our base was a timeshare in Marathon, which is literally marathon distance to Athens.  We never ran or even walked there, because, first, it was long before my running days, and second, it is apparently uphill for half the distance.  It is pretty much the toughest race one can run, which explains a lot about Philippides’ fate upon completing it.  We took a bus every day, which was not physically exhausting, but mentally taxing.  First, it was never quite clear when the bus left Marathon.  There was an hourly schedule, but it was not even loosely followed.  We often had to just meander along the route with the hope that the bus will overtake us as some point during the 26 mile journey, and preferably sooner than later, because Greece is hot in June.  Second, it was completely unclear what bus would take us back to Marathon from Athens.  Every evening, we would wander through the bus park, leaning into every one and yelling “Maratonas?”  Depending on the reaction of the driver, we would board the bus, which took a different route back every.single.time.  And finally, the highlight of the Athens-Marathon trip was when one fine evening, the bus was abruptly stopped in the middle of the road and boarded by heavily armed Greeks in military uniforms who roughly removed an unprotesting and guilty-looking young man.  We recognized him as an employee of the resort where we were staying and from whom we bought sunscreen the previous day.

The resort, aside from apparently employing at least one known shady character, was lovely.  June is not yet a busy time in Europe, so we had it almost entirely to ourselves.  Upon arrival, I promptly invested in a bar card so that I could enjoy local libations every evening.  But, as it was not full tourist season, the bar was sparsely stocked.  So, spouse drank Greek beer while I drank ouzo like it was my job.  Funny thing about ouzo, though—you really cannot drink too much of it.  And so it was two beers and two ouzo[s] every night.  I also bought a box (yes, you read that right) of retsina at the resort shop, along with a small fortune in sunscreen and bandaids.  I have not drank retsina since, as that box did not make much of an impression.  I am not sure I have had ouzo since.  I still sort of associate it with duty rather than pleasure.

The resort had a breakfast buffet which we enjoyed the first morning.  And the second, but less so.  By the third, we thought the scrambled eggs looked familiar, as in they seemed to look literally exactly the same as the day before.  By the fourth day, they were turning green, along with the ham.  We stopped eating there after that.

So, the first day of the vacation we, of course, decided to see the Parthenon.  We arrived at the Acropolis and entered through some gate at the foot of the hill.  From there, we had to choose to turn right or left.  The map we had (for of course this was before GPS as well) did not help with choosing the direction, and being mindful of the fact that most people would go right, we went left. 

The trip up the Acropolis hill was literally a long and winding road.  Along the way, we encountered a couple of Russians loudly arguing in the shrubbery and predictably calling each other “goat”, giant turtles crawling around in a friendly manner, an ancient amphitheater, and many other similar curiosities during a two hour trek in 100 degree heat wearing entirely unsuitable shoes.  Approaching the entrance to the Parthenon, fainting from exhaustion and practically falling on the seller of water and ice cream, we realized that had we turned right when we first arrived, we would have been right around the corner from the ticket booth…

You would think we would have learned something from this experience—and you would be wrong.  A couple of days later we went to Corinth, determined to check out where St. Paul preached to the Corinthians.  We walked and walked, but nothing in town looked like the ancient Corinth of my imagination.  Surprise—we took the wrong turn yet again, as there is New Corinth and Ancient Corinth.  We did eventually find the latter, complete with the exact spot on which St. Paul once stood.  I mean, he must have—the place is not that big.

And finally, the one place where nothing went wrong during our trip was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.  We spent almost an entire day there.  The highlights included the famous Mask of Agamemnon (quite an ugly mug completely dissimilar from the lovely drawings in my childhood book), kouros statues about which I also learned in childhood (clearly I was a very well-informed kid), and busts of all the Roman emperors in chronological order, which I tried to identify by using my extensive knowledge thereof acquired entirely from the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davis. http://www.lindseydavis.co.uk/

As for the famous Greek Islands, we did not visit them.  We did go to one, Aegina, because it is the closest to Athens, and a fast boat gets you there from the Port of Piraeus in about 40 minutes.  Maybe next time.

Pont du Gard and the Plague

In my adult life, I developed a fear of the plague.  I blame two fictional sources for this:

  • The film “Horseman on the Roof”.  Apparently it is based on a novel, which I have not read, and is set during the 1832 cholera epidemic in Provence.  Something must have gotten lost in translation and/or in my memory, as the latter is absolutely convinced that the story is about The Plague.  In all fairness, cholera is pretty nasty, too.  The film was made in 1995, and I would have seen it on video some few years later, so I have been frightened for 20+ years now. 
  • The book “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. I read it in 2004, and have been *legitimately* frightened for almost 16 years.  It actually is about the plague, though the one from the 1600s, not the Black Death of the 14th century.  Which just goes to show that whatever century or whatever contagion, they are all awful[1]

Until literally three days ago, I assumed that the fear of the plague was the same as some of my other phobias, such as the irrational dread of large statues. (Yes, the Statue of Liberty is pretty much my worst nightmare.  I choose not to read too much into that…)  Turns out, the plague is back. 

Actual toilet paper purchased by me in France for no other reason that it was needed at the time. ‘What an auspicious purchase!

I am not making light of it.  Like everyone else, I am trying to adjust to the ever-changing environment in which the toilet paper is scarce like it was back in the USSR, borders are closing (like they were back in the USSR), and no one trusts the government as a source of correct information (I think I see a pattern…) Unlike many other folks, I spent the last week in France, and gained some unexpected perspective.  Spoiler alert:  I think that cancer or work-stress-induced-heart-attack are still my more realistic foes in this lifetime.

I had three modest goals for this past week in the South of France:

  1. To see the newest D’Artagnan statues.  Until the last decade, there were three in the world; now there are five.  If I had to drive for several hours to a couple of French villages to complete this quest, well, I did.  Of course I did.
  2. To see the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and hopefully locate the mural of Gerard Philippe nearby.  Done.undefined
  3. To stop by my old stomping grounds in Nîmes.  This did not happen.  We woke up on the day for which we scheduled this visit to the announcement that the US borders were closing the next day.  Supposedly US citizens would still be allowed to enter the country, but tell this to someone with a different family history.  This refugee rallied, got on a train from Perpignan to Paris, and flew out of Paris as soon as Delta would let her on a plane.  Home is where the dogs are.  And a paycheck.

The last official day of vacation, on the way back from Avignon to our timeshare, we stopped at Pont du Gard.  I did not intend to stop there, because I had the most vivid memory of my previous visit there. Yes, it was during “that summer that I spent studying in France” https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/09/when-did-the-arc-de-triomphe-start-leaning/.  It was such a good day!  I mean, I acutely remember it as a *Good Day*.  It was June of ’88[2], the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by friends.  Our summer program included an art class, so some were drawing the bridge.  I took two photos, which in the day of pre-digital cameras was the rough equivalent of the 19 I took this second time.

Pont du Gard then

We went to Pont du Gard this past week because it was on the way, and we had time.  We waffled a little, because it costs $10+ per person to get into the surrounding area.  But if I have learned anything in this life it is that you cannot put a price on regret.  So we paid and started walking.  And there it was, standing since shortly after the death of Christ, towering through millennia over The Plague, my friends and me, my spouse and me, impassively watching people come and go, sun shining, river flowing, and the aqueduct still standing.

Pont du Gard now

It has been almost 32 years.  I have lost touch with all but three of the people in that group.  Yet on the last day of my “Feast During the Plague”, I felt surrounded by their ghosts.  I have never missed KIES Group ’88[3] as much as I did during that time and in that place! 

So, the ghosts of my friends from 1988.  The majestic mass of that huge ancient Roman aqueduct from the first century A.D.  Spouse and I, having a *Good Day*.  And I kept thinking, I’ve had an interesting life.  I was fortunate enough to see and be seen at this site twice in the past two centuries.  And I am still in touch with three of the people who shared that incredible summer with me, and share the memories of that day.  If the plague gets me, I have lived[4].  If the plague gets me, the bridge still stands.  Lalalalala….life goes on!  And that is how Pont du Gard helped me to deal with my fear of the plague. 

[1] Unrelated to this topic, I love Geraldine Brooks’ books except one.  I cannot recommend “The Secret Chord”.  It is shockingly violent.  I would rather read about the plague of any kind.  As of this writing, she has five novels out.  Read four of them in this order: “Year of Wonders”, “People of the Book”, “Caleb’s Crossing”, “March”. 

[2] June 28, 1988, to be precise. I know this, because I had to keep a diary in French for class.  Apparently I did not swim, because I felt fat in a bathing suit.  But it was still a great day!

[3] KIES—Kentucky Institute for European Studies.  Now it’s the Kentucky Institute for International Studies or KIIS (pronounced like “keys”), a consortium of public and private Kentucky colleges and universities which administers a variety of international studies programs in Central America, Europe, South America, and China. It was founded by Murray State University in 1975.  Back then, it was just Europe.  And it was incredible.  That summer changed my life, and unlike many other life-changing events, it changed it for the *better*! 

[4] But I am still betting on cancer or death-by-stressful-job.  Not morbid, just realistic.


That summer that I spent studying in France , https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/09/when-did-the-arc-de-triomphe-start-leaning/ I decided to visit every country in Europe.  The Eurail Pass made it seem like an actual possibility, if not a likelihood.  So how did I do it?  Well, I did not, because a couple of caveats were built into this very vague plan, including:

  • British Isles did not count, because the Eurail Pass did not include them
  • Soviet Bloc did not count, for obvious reasons (it was the ‘80s, friends)
  • Germany and Austria did not count, also for obvious reasons

What did count were the “dwarf states”[1].  I first read about them in my beloved childhood encyclopedia, “What Is This, Who Is That?”  My mom bought it the year I was born, so as of this writing, pretty much all the information in it that does not pertain to fish or ancient history is outdated.  Even the fact that Malta is not included in the article on microstates is pretty telling—it was still part of the United Kingdom.  Yes, I date back to Malta’s pre-independence days!  Plus, it was published in the USSR, so literally, all the post-Renaissance history articles are pretty skewed. 

Liechtenstein is the one with the stamps and teeth. There is a stamp museum there, which we did not visit. I am not sure about the teeth. Unless they are just signifying a welcoming smile?

The original article listed, as anyone who can read Russian can plainly see on the attached, but I will translate for the rest, Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and San-Marino.  Currently in Wikipedia, we currently also have Malta and Vatican, but not Luxembourg.  What happened to Luxembourg?  I suppose since it is bigger by area and population than all the others combined, by all means let’s exclude it.  I *have* been there, and survived a traumatic experience of being [almost] attacked by a knife-wielding maniac at a cemetery—but that is another story for another time! (I might be saving it for my memoirs)  And as for Vatican, it goes without saying that the Soviet version would make no mention of it under any circumstances, because “religion is an opiate of the people” (Karl Marx said this, not I).

And so, during that summer, I already had Vatican under my belt, having lived as a refugee in and around Rome some years before then, and then proceeded to have that encounter in Luxembourg[2].  In the past decade, I travelled to Malta (which is literally the most perfect place in terms of weather, history, food, ease of getting around, and the fact that all the signs are in English even if no one actually speaks it), and Monaco (which is also cool in many ways but is the opposite of easy to get around.  I mean, when there are elevators to get you from one street to another—take them!  Do not, I repeat, do not brave the stairs!)  I still have not been to Andorra or San-Marino, and frankly, they are a bit off the radar for me.  Someday—but not today, as I say. 

So when I planned the vacation to Munich for Oktoberfest this year[3], I noted how close Liechtenstein is.  Driving there was one of my motivating factors for renting a car, because I already learned from that European summer that the train does not stop in Liechtenstein.  It literally does not have an international train station!

I could not find a tour book on Liechtenstein, so spouse and I decided to improvise.  We pretty much just drove into the country and looked for parking.  Everything is right there: a beautiful cathedral, an interesting history museum, and a town square with souvenir shops and cafes.  There is also a medieval castle within a short drive—it is apparently in a different town from the capital, Vaduz, which is basically one street over[4].  The views are breathtaking, since Liechtenstein is ¾ Alps.  The beer is not bad, though not as good as three countries over in Germany.

In short, I would highly recommend a visit to Liechtenstein, if you happen to be in the Alpine neighborhood, and like picturesque towns.  Do I feel like I visited a different country?  Well, not necessarily, but I do have another flag to prove that I did[5]!

[1] I apologize for the use of the term “dwarf” to anyone who might be offended by it.  This is, again, a direct translation from the Russian language, as again can be seen from the attached illustration.

[2] Faux-dwarf!

[3] I travel to Germany now.  My, how the world has changed!…

[4] I did not realize it was a different town until I looked it up just now.

[5] Fun fact—I collect flags from the countries I visit.  Soviet Union and Russia merit their own separate flags, as does the Republic of Texas.