Becoming a Butterfly

My husband and I just returned from a month in Italy. It felt as though not only were we transported to another continent, but we also lived in a cocoon for that period of time. We ignored the news. We focused mainly on our new environment, immersed in the cultural differences, trying to become Italian for a short while at least.2015-06-11 17.53.58

When I think of cocoons, of course, I think of butterflies and the phases they go through in their evolution. The cocoon or chrysalis stage prepares them for the fourth and last stage.

Okay, I’m not going to imply that we returned from our vacation as butterflies, but I do think these trips offer us a chance to revise ourselves and bring back something of the culture(s) we visited, depositing whatever we’ve learned or discovered in our home environment.

The loveliest thing about being in transit was letting go of our usual routines and schedules. I didn’t go to the gym or work out regularly (except for climbing the endless number of stairs wherever we went). I didn’t meditate. I didn’t prepare meals except occasionally. 1980-01-01 00.00.14-1I let go of my daily practices, and that allowed another mentality to take root.

Will I be able to sustain this alternative way of being? Only time will tell. At the moment, I can’t stand to turn on CNN or any other 24/7 news channel. I long for a ride on a vaporetta. I even miss climbing so many stairs. Naturally there’s much more that I had to leave behind: the wonderful restaurant we found in Venice with the frenetic owner who also was the waiter. He did a dance for hours as he flitted between tables and kitchen, all contained in the same room (CoVino). The ancient sites with their echoes of former centuries (Pompeii was particularly disturbing and moving: to think that in an instant a culture was decimated) . The stunning Tuscan landscape that not even our Northern California hills can match.

Clearly, these memories will be working on me for a long time, and while I might not become a butterfly, I at least know what I’m missing.

Viva Quebec City!

I’ve just returned from touring some of Tuscany’s scenic hill towns—Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Sienna, and others. While they are distinctive sites and well worth visiting, I find my Canadian nationalism surging, and I want to write about Quebec City, not about Italy.

It’s difficult to find a place that equals Quebec City for its charm, unique culture, and beauty. The only walled city north of Mexico, when you pass through the portal into the city’s historic section, the focus for most visitors, it’s like entering a fairy tale complete with a castle. The century-old Fairmont Le Château Frontenac—with its towering top ringed by steeples and turrets—overlooks the St. Lawrence River and soars over the town, adding to the magical feeling.

But this impressive hotel hasn’t always dominated the old city. Many museums, cQuebec-City-Canadahurches, homes, and scenic lanes date back to the 1600s. These are the structures that define QC and give it so much charisma. The Frontenac is the icing on the cake.

Quebec’s Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is perched on cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River and provides views of the countryside for many miles beyond. Accessible by steep stairs or via a funicular car, Old Quebec’s Lower Town has its own historic charms. The Basse-Ville sprang up around the city’s harbor and was the original neighborhood of the city. Homes, shops, and ancient streets sprawled here at the base of the cliffs centering around Place Royale—a square on the site of the garden of Champlain’s Habitation (1608).

The preferred entry to old Quebec City is via the Grande Allee. Time seems to have stood still here. It’s like entering another world, another time, another place, and it works its magic on you. Only Rottenburg, another walled city, has had such an effect on me.

A horse drawn cab is the appropriate way to view this wonderful place. When we visited, our driver was a redhead, of Irish descent, but born and raised in Quebec. He spoke very clear English, his words carefully enunciated. He wore a straw hat, and the horse’s name was Dixie. We learned that the animals aren’t overworked. A vet checks them every day, and they only pull a carriage every other day.

On our fire-engine red cab, we wove through narrow cobblestone streets past stone houses festooned with window planters. In the more commercial area, the vividly colored umbrellas at sidewalk cafes competed with the flowers for lending bright patches to the scenes. We also passed the Hotel Clarendon, built in 1870, where we stayed. It’s the oldest hotel in the walled city. Located a little away from the most festive streets, it’s still in the center of the action. Our room had a window overlooking the St. Lawrence, a clock tower, a part of the Château Frontenac, and a park.

If I can generalize, this link between French and English speaking Canada that our driver represented captures the essence of Canada, with Ottawa the head and Quebec City the heart. Without Quebec, something precious would be lost to Canadians. It’s a touchstone and, Quebec City, which lost once to the British, must not lose again. It has the exuberance, the emotional life, and the sensuality that some Anglos can lack. Quebec City also is the heart in that the Americas emerged out of European sensibility, and that presence its felt here perhaps more than anywhere else. I guess that’s why Italy’s hill towns and QC merge for me.

How Vacations Challenge Perceptions

My husband and I are spending a month in Italy. I’ve observed us experiencing a phenomenon that makes me wonder if other couples go through a similar dynamic. Whenever we take a big trip like this, our relationship gets shaken up. Our usual routines and rituals left in California, we have to rediscover ourselves in a new context. In some ways it’s almost like living with a stranger. Who is this man I’m married to?

It usually takes us two or three days to find our bearings and to reconnect in a new way. We have to renegotiate many of the interactions we take for granted at home. What time will we rise? How will we decide on what to do or see once we have awakened? When will be find time to pursue our own individual interests? At home, we have our own schedules already set: I write and teach. My husband teaches and sees patients.

Vacations throw couples together in a vastly different way than what they are accustomed to. No longer can we depend on the various distractions in our lives that help us to manage our days. In a way, we are stripped down and made more vulnerable, forced to dig deeper into ourselves and into the other person. There is less to hide behind, so it’s an opportunity to see our partner freshly.

Major trips also take up a good deal of time in the preparation stage. Getting ready for such a vacation requires a journey of another kind: gathering information about our proposed destinations, making reservations for planes, trains, cars, and accommodations. Already we are so involved in living in this imagined world that when we finally do arrive there, it can be disconcerting. The place we had expected to visit can seem so much different.

The Vatican Museum, which we plowed through this week, didn’t enlarge our cultu1980-01-01 00.01.07ral dimensions, except that we did see the Sistine Chapel, the major attraction there. It was a great disappointment not to have the leisure one expects when visiting a major museum for the first time to linger in front of the art. The crowds were so enormous that it was difficult to stop anywhere. We were just part of a herd being pushed through the place.

Nor did the other sights we had read about live up to your expectations. The Spanish Steps that looked so glamorous in a recent Woody Allen movie were only stairs that a bunch of tourists had claimed. The Trevi Fountain of La Dolce Vita Fame was under construction. No water. No fountain. Just the sculptures overlooking it. I understand that even in the movie, the director created a set to resemble the fountain, so Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni also didn’t have contact with the real thing.   

What am I suggesting here? Our relationships to others and to the world are often temporary and in flux. I need to expand myself in order to embrace the husband I’ve grown accustomed to. He is a different man in Rome. So am I. Similarly, our perceptions of another country are often romanticized, much different from the reality. Therefore, spending time there can bring us to a more realistic vision of the world, one where we too are ever evolving.

Have others had similar experiences?