Thursday, July 15, 2010

New York, New York ~ Day 2, July 10

I am completely exhausted. I am beyond exhausted. I am utterly spent.
Today I saw the Statue of Liberty (after a two hour wait in line to catch the ferry over), Ellis Island, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That last is what did me in.

For one thing, the two hour wait for the ferry threw off my schedule, so my meal time was squeezed away, and I ended up subsisting on a Milky Way bar and a 20 oz Diet Coke until after 5pm, when I finally grabbed a terrible hamburger at the museum (the cafeteria at the Louvre was SO much better). So much for all the wonderful food I’d planned on enjoying today! But I found a European bakery with a pizzeria in the back just down the street from my hotel on my way home, so now I’ve got a slice of pizza with pepperoni and sausage cooling over there, and some delightful looking tiny cookies next to it, just waiting for the moment when I’m no longer too exhausted to chew.

In addition to the physical exhaustion, my brain is… absolutely full. Part of me wants to go back and spend all day in the art museum tomorrow, because my camera battery died in the hall of musical instruments. Another part of me is still just so overwhelmed by the epic scope of the art on display. Grand halls designed as courtyards to display Italian marble architectural elements. An entire medieval choir screen, from floor to vaulted ceiling, surrounded by medieval art including carved boxwood rosary beads that seem to take the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin as a challenge. A vast room, with one sloping wall entirely of glass and fronted with a reflecting pool, containing, among other relics, several small rooms that were part of an Egyptian temple, which you could actually walk partway into. Suits of armor for four equestrian knights, mounted on four mannequin horses, also in plate mail, with every facet covered with intaglio, and that was just the centerpiece of a network of galleries devoted to armor and arms from at least a half a dozen cultures.

The three hours I spent there weren’t nearly enough, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t need three weeks. I was awed, overwhelmed, and finally almost browbeaten by the magnificence of it all, and I think the only way I could see it adequately and maintain my sanity would be to see one exhibit at a time, and only spend four hours at a time, for as long as it took at that rate. Imagine a Faberge egg the size of the Superdome, but with the level of intricacy and detail multiplied, not just enlarged, permeating the whole. Now imagine trying to see it all. I feel almost literally stupefied, and I may leave the remainder unseen on this trip and go only to the Natural History Museum tomorrow as planned, purely out of self defense.

It’s amazing, though, how much repair work can be done by consuming the necessary calories. I didn’t really feel hungry, but after the first bite just now, I consumed that pizza pretty much involuntarily, and now I think I’ll go soak my poor feets and completely unwind. No matter what I do tomorrow, it will be another long, full day.


Note: Two photo albums are up at Got pics from my travels and wanderings around town, and from the Statue of Liberty.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New York, New York ~ Day 1, Friday, July 9

Ah. Yes. Even here it’s still Friday, though only barely. And soon I’ll sleep, whether the city does or no. I brought ear plugs!

A friend once called New York City the pinnacle of civilization. Maybe he’s right. All I can say for sure right now is that Manhattan Island is the most intensely urban area I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in Mexico City. Traffic saturation in the La Guardia airspace kept us on the ground an hour and a half in New Orleans. Think. A city so bustling that the fingers of its business extend invisibly throughout the country and perhaps the world, holding planes gently but firmly to the tarmacs in airports hundreds or thousands of miles away. Yet for all that, my luggage appeared on the conveyor only a few minutes after I got down to baggage claim, so they apparently run a tight enough ship. And I didn’t really mind the delay. After all, I’m on an adventure!

The adventure did start on the plane. I sat a seat away from a friendly woman who lives in Connecticut along with her friend who was across the aisle from her. She quickly drew me into their banter, and we chatted about what it was like to live in New Orleans. Pinnacle of civilization or not, they both agreed that New Orleans was a far superior city in terms of fun to be had. I can’t imagine they’re wrong, but then, I’m in love and biased. Because this is a cyber-age, chance meeting need not be an end as much as a beginning, and we exchanged names with the intention of becoming friends on Facebook. God bless Facebook.

A guy outside the airport offered to take me to my hotel for $49, but that seemed high, so I headed over to the bright yellow cab stand. It was the right decision. My cabbie was silent for the entire drive, but turned out to be incredibly nice when the hotel wasn’t where I expected it to be. He turned off the meter so we could go another block looking, while I called to verify the address. I’m glad that we found it within half a block. But for the half-block that I felt incredibly awkward and troublesome, he was incredibly kind.

I wish I’d asked him all the questions I was wondering. Like what, if anything, the beautiful old bridge beside the one we were on as we crossed over to the island was used for. Its stonework was heavy and ornate and it was a lovely structure, along completely different aesthetic principles than the ethereal trellis of the suspension bridge we were on. It seemed almost gothic, and certainly grand, in spite of the graffiti on its thick columns and its heavily-rusted girders.

It made me realize how much New Orleans complements or has shaped my sensibilities. In New Orleans, we would treasure this sort of bridge, and keep it maintained if we could, at least for foot traffic. Maybe they’ve done that here, though I doubt it. The lamps weren’t lit and the whole thing was in heavy shadow. But in my mind I could see horse carriages crossing a bridge like that, with lanterns swimming in murky, mysterious bay fog. And out the other window, buildings. Buildings. So many tall buildings. Until we reached the oasis of Central Park, that’s all there were… buildings. I caught myself wondering how people could live in so many buildings. But they do. We passed wrought iron railings around areas and flanking stoops while above climbed flat after flat, into the sky. Stoops that people sit on. People were sitting on a few, talking, just like in movies or on Sesame Street. I must sound like an absolute yokel. Maybe, for all my fairly adequate international travel experience and my 15 years resident in the nation’s fourth largest city, maybe I am.

And that’s the secret to why I didn’t chat with the cabbie, like I’m normally inclined to do. For a rare moment, I find myself utterly and thoroughly intimidated. It’s similar to the feeling I had at the doors of St. Peter’s in Rome, when I felt small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. But this is a crucible of a much different sort. Tomorrow I will leave this snug little hotel room I find myself in now, and I will step into whatever weekend traffic one finds on Broadway on the West Side. I expect it’s fairly epic. I will skitter like a small insect along the streets and down into the subway, probably brushing shoulders with hundreds of strangers and not making eye contact.

And for all the excitement I feel to be here, I’m afraid.

But I don’t really have time for fear. I need to sleep soon, because tomorrow is going to be a big day. I only have three days here, and spending them eating take out Chinese in a rented room and looking down on Broadway on tiptoe, peering over the window unit air conditioner because I’m too terrified to go out on the streets isn’t anywhere in the schedule.
For heaven’s sake, Laura, you’ve wandered Rome on your own. You can do this.

Remember. It’s an adventure!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Price

I took my car in for service today, and since the service station was only a couple of blocks from the National World War II Museum and I've been meaning to go there... I went.

It seemed the fitting thing to do.

I'll have to go back, I only got through the exhibit up to the campaign to retake the Philippines, and I didn't listen to any of the two-minute personal accounts. Still, I found it incredibly moving.

In fact, I spent the entire time holding back tears.

I suppose I don't know too well the men who have touched my life personally who were in those battles. And now I never will. They've all passed on. But I saw them. In every photograph, I saw them. Most especially, I saw Popo, over and over.

My mother's father was a Czech dairy farmer in central Texas. He had two sisters who were nuns and a brother in the priesthood. His accent was sometimes so thick I had a hard time understanding him, but I remember early mornings, before sun-up, helping him in the dairy barn, and I remember riding shotgun or in the back of the pickup, checking the cows.

He died on the land he was born on, and I of course never really thought about it, but it certainly never seemed to me like he'd ever left it in his life. It was his home. Where he belonged. Then one day I saw a photo of him...

In front of the pyramids.

A friend gave me a rosary from Rome, blessed by the Pope, and mom told me that Momo had one, too, that Popo had brought back for her, when he'd been in Italy during the war.

And he came back. Thank God. Or I wouldn't be here.

But seeing the photographs of what those boys went through, seeing them glassy-eyed with exhaustion, or, almost more chilling, seeing them smiling and bright on their way to D-Day, seeing the articles they carried with them or wore, reading their stories... It brought home to me what my Popo lived through, the man who always seemed so simple. I never even thought about it, that he was in the war, until he went through a bad time, and Mom said he'd have flashbacks of the fighting. Of climbing cliffs while the enemy fought to knock him off. I remembered that again and again today, and choked on the pain I will never have to feel.

Because it's a different world now. We don't have the draft and we don't have rationing and we no longer send so many of our men off to war that we have to fill the factories with women. Men and women both can and do choose to be part of the most powerful military in our world, and the vast majority of us can leave the worry and the suffering to them and their families. I'm sure all of us know someone serving, but how real is it for so many of us? How invested are we individually in American military action overseas? How much do we sacrifice, day to day? No one asks us to cut back on our use of gasoline, drive slower to preserve the rubber in our tires, use margarine instead of butter, recycle our used cooking grease.

All that war stuff is the business of the military, and so many of us have the luxury of approving or disapproving without really being touched. With the exception of one September day almost a decade ago, war and its devastation happens... on the news far away. Not here. Not to us.

It's trite to say that freedom doesn't come free. But it's true. Some of us, like my friend Emily, have been paying a price for months, while her husband is in Korea. My friend Nuance and her family have paid an enormous price, but, thank God, not the highest one, with her brother's injury. And me? I... I pay so little. So little.

There's no moral to this story, only my own reflections. Take away from them what you will, or take nothing at all. But today, among the black and white photos and the scratchy recordings of radio broadcasts and the written remarks of those who served from the lowest to the highest ranks, I was sobered, chastened, humbled. I owe SO MUCH, and I may very well never be asked to pay anything back.

Other's have paid and continue to pay that price for me.

They have all of my gratitude and respect.