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Travel Tours for the Housebound

April 24, 2020 MCS MBI 13.5x12.5 Vintage Travel Scrapbook Album with ...

Most of the people who read Cold, are what my friend Barry would call PLUs.

People Like Us, are any group of individuals who are interested in roughly the same topics of conversation. Like people who are Cowboys fans, love Jimmy Buffet and enjoy Scuba diving. Pretty sure we know what they’re talking about over cheeseburgers in paradise.

In our case, a PLU not only refers to fiction lovers, but folks who are wild about history, exotic places, and quirks of culture. Doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew, Elvis or The Beatles. If you’re into the aforementioned subjects, you’re in.

Cold PLUs in particular share a fundamental curiosity about what’s not right in front of us. It isn’t because we don’t care about the view from our own backyard and the current events shaping our everyday lives. It’s just that we want to understand them through the lens of what has been or what is in various places around the world and amongst diverse peoples. We’re eager to see where our stitch is made in this grand tapestry.

But right now, my fellow PLUs, it seems some of our interests are inaccessible to us: namely, foreign places and cultures. And since we’re lamenting not only the loss of our actual vacations in the coming weeks and months, but even the day trips and weekend excursions that used to help keep our wanderlust sated, I thought we might do a little work-around.

Through the modern magic of YouTube, we can not only cross borders, but transcend the boundaries of time and space! And while real, live travel is great – it’s been the seed for several of my novels – YouTube is a pretty good substitute. It’s been a Godsend to this housebound mother-of-three fictionista. There are lots of places I’ve written about over the years that I haven’t visited personally, but have seen through the handheld cameras of tourists who have been kind enough to upload their home movies onto internet video platforms.

Given that we’re all housebound right now, I thought it might be a fun idea for me to act as a tour guide of sorts and take us on a handful of these virtual trips together.

This will be a curated video travelogue of some of my favorite places in the world, embellished with a few, short, history-infused blocks of fiction. Just to get all of our interests folded in.

The good news is, you don’t even need to put on a fresh coat of lipstick for these outings. Hell, you don’t have to shower or change out of your PJs. No TSA lines or weird intestinal bugs from the street food you’ve consumed either. Best of all – these trips are FREE.

hitchhike to wonderland

Our first stop is Athens. I know this ancient city pretty well, as I lived and studied there in college. Today, I thought I’d take you back to Athens in 1924 – a few years before my time. This was during the Golden Age of Archaeology, when the modern world was utterly transfixed by the ancient past. Let’s walk around a bit, shall we?

That was incredible, wasn’t it? And we didn’t even have to break a sweat.

If you don’t mind time-hopping just a bit more, I’d like to take the hydrofoil from Athens to Monemvasia, just like I did when I was a twenty-one year old co-ed. Just kidding – no hydrofoil required! This time we’re going by way of a snippet from my second novel, The Hungarian, which took place (partly) in Greece in the mid 1950s. Just as a funny aside, the following conversation was very similar to one I actually had with a Greek gigolo who approached me on the beach. He wasn’t romantically interested in me, I should add. And even if he was, I had no need for or interest in paying for a male escort. He said he’d overheard me talking to my friend and wanted to “give me some advice.”

The rosy sun skimmed the water, as if dipping its toe to test the temperature. The simple beauty of the sky made Lily smile. It was one of the few uncomplicated things in her life right now. The sun, the water and Etor, the hotel gigolo, who sat beside her imparting his particular brand of wisdom.

           “A woman should never travel alone,” Etor chided. “Especially one of childbearing age.”

           Lily chuckled at how he could sound like a prim schoolmaster, all the while sporting a most fashionable pair of chartreuse swimming trunks that left little to the imagination. She tossed her head back, enjoying the tickle of a lone droplet of sweat that rushed down from her neck and into her cleavage.

           “I’m not alone,” she teased. “I have you.”

           Etor had taken to joining Lily around sunset, sitting cross-legged on the rocks, as they watched jellyfish bob on the swelling surface of the Pélagos Sea. His lined face was still handsome, but Lily figured he was only a couple of years shy of retirement, as men half his age courted the attention of the same vacationing Countesses who used to buy Etor’s supper and handmade Italian shoes. The ladies were only a decade or so older than the bronzed Cretan now, and stared with growing resentment at the silvery roots of his auburn hair.

           “You need a man,” Etor asserted. “A Greek man. The Americans can’t handle you.”

Vintage TWA Trans World Airlines Adv. Postcard GREECE "Acropolis ...

Next stop: Italy – the seat of the Roman Empire, the birthplace of the Renaissance, the land where pizza was invented. I’ve wandered her oldest roads, touched the foot of Michelangelo’s David, was nursed back to health from a terrible flu by a sweet, silent cadre of nuns at a monastery outside of Rome, and was blessed by Pope John Paul II during an audience at the Vatican.

But that was twenty-five years ago, not one hundred and twenty-five. Maybe, we’ll discover it hasn’t changed all that much.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take you to Vatican City, again during the mid 1950s, courtesy of The Bone Church.

Felix bowed his head, and the Cardinal led the way into an early Renaissance building, its interior decked in blue-veined marble. The Cardinal’s office was perched on the third floor corner, one of many rooms that comprised his suite of apartments.

For Felix, visiting the Cardinal’s apartments was a bit like coming home. The artists whose work his father had so admired from a distance – Caravaggio, Pisanello, Daret – were mounted in heavy gold frames. Michelangelo had painted images of the apostles on the wall alongside the banister, one of the few artifacts left unmolested during a seventeenth-century renovation.

Felix’s first glimpse of those same apostles hadn’t been in the books of his father’s study or on his initial visit to the Cardinal’s office some years before, however. It had been in his mind’s eye when he was little more than a child – a reverie that he’d tried to convince himself was the result of an overactive imagination. Felix was a boy of nine and skating alone on a pond in the Blansko forest, when a still, mental image of Simon the Zealot, disciple of Jesus, avenging priest of the temple, appeared before him. Felix mistook him for a neighbor at first and began skating towards the figure when St. Bartholomew emerged from the snow. As Simon whispered into Bartholomew’s ear, they faded away into a jumble of tree roots.

Back then, Felix had explained away every prescient dream and strange, wakeful image, the way a dweller in an old house might justify the creak of footsteps when he knew no one else was home.

Found: Vintage Italian Postcard – Rome 1898 | An Italian Canadian Life

Our last stop today is Cairo, Egypt. I’ve never been there, but I’m writing about it anyway. The second book in my new “Breath” series, tentatively titled “Of Sand and Bone,” takes place largely in Cairo in 1902. A friend of mine, a Chilean artist who’s travelled there many times, assures me, “It’s much as it was before.” But perhaps that’s something we can verify together…

Last, but not least, I give you a brief excerpt of the work in progress I mentioned, “Of Sand and Bone.” It’s one that must rely entirely on my imagination – one fed by the journey’s I’ve taken to Cairo through fiction and film. I hope I’ve done it justice.

As we spill out onto Ramses Square, a musical racket of chants, footsteps, arguments, and laughter comes at us. The clim-clam of camels moseying along with the elegant trot of horses pulling a carriage rolls in the background like percussion.

“It’s like nothing at all has changed,” Father marvels. He walks on as gape-mouthed as a first-timer.

“It hasn’t been all that long we’ve been gone,” I tell him. “I’m sure the Pharaohs think the same when their spirits come down from the heavens to visit their pyramids.”

He takes me close and squeezes my shoulders. “You and your ghosts.”

One thing, of course, has changed irrevocably, and I know it’s on his mind. He’s wondering how we’ll ever live here without my mother. Unlike me, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. To him, gone is gone.

“What’s so splendid about Cairo is that nothing ever really leaves here,” Clara says, as if sensing what I’m thinking. “It all becomes absorbed into her fabric. Such an old city, but the desert that surrounds her is even older, and its phantoms, too, find their way here.”

Hugo’s Brougham pulls up and the men in tarbushes go to work again, loading our bags up top and bowing deeply, then helping us ladies inside the carriage. I get side-glances from all of them, getting a firm reminder that here in Egypt I’m not quite Egyptian enough for the Egyptians. They can look all they want. The desert has always felt like home to me, and my blood is every bit as old as theirs. Older, my mother would have insisted.

Only one of them looks on me not only as if I belong, but with deep affection. It’s Horus, Uncle Hugo’s coachman.

“Little Leila,” he says, utterly breaking decorum. “You’ve come home to make more mischief for me, I see.”

“You’re hardly one to talk,” I tell him.

It was Horus who once drove me into town center when I was only yay high knowing full well I was determined to sneak into one of my mother’s incendiary feminist readings – where children were most certainly not allowed. The adults were required to make a big stink out of it, of course, but they were all just blowing smoke. Horus was docked a day’s pay, which was snuck back to him by my mother the following week, once things had settled down.

I give him a wink and he flinches in horror as if it’s the evil eye.

Inside the carriage, I feel like I’m back in London all of a sudden. It’s a new one, with plush, creamy velvet and gravy-brown tassels all over.

“Ach!” Clara waves her hand and gives one of her famous eye-rolls. “A gift shoved down our throats by Hugo’s grandfather. It was after one of the cousins came to visit and clearly complained about how he was brought about town. The old rig was just fine.”

“Hmm, just fine, yes,” Hugo says, though it’s quite plain he enjoys his new toy. The old rig was only a buggy.

“It’s very handsome,” I whisper to him, and he takes a puff off Father’s pipe to keep from smiling too broadly, then comments on how fine a tobacco my father has brought with him.

While I’ve never minded roughing it at all, it is lovely to sit in comfort and get reacquainted with Cairo. I lay my arms on the window ledge and balance my chin onto my hands enjoying the street circus.

We pass men playing big bass drums hung around their necks. They’re singing a song, but I can’t make it out. One of the many folk songs sung on the streets as often as small talk is exchanged.

Men, and even some women carry baskets on their heads. But it’s only the men, all pouch-bellied, who sit sprawled on rickety chairs, smoking hookahs and watching the crowds. Their heads are wrapped in thin, white linens that have all seen better days. They sit playing dominos on stone tables that look as if they were dragged in from the pyramids.

A small wooden Ferris Wheel, cranked by hand, is set right in the middle of the road, forcing us to go around it. Only about four benches on it, each fit for one, rocking and jerking with each turn. Makes the riders – men, of course – chuckle. When each one reaches the top, they spit over the side, prompting a strong rebuke from Horus.

Lines and lines of merchant stalls, their proprietors dressed in skull caps and tunics striped like pajamas. Each and every one of them has a bushy mustache as thick as a fur collar. Except for one. He is clean shaven and catches my eyes as we pass. He looks right at me like he knows me and holds up a small statue barely the size of his hand. It’s a rather distinctive looking thing, and I notice its bird head and lion’s mouth straight away. Then the clawed talons. Those seem to be clutching a flower.

An Ox cart passes between us going in the opposite direction and I strain to keep my eye on the man, but it’s no use. By the time the carriage has passed, the merchant is gone and I feel as alone as I felt on the day Mother died.

Vintage Postcard of Cairo Mosque Sultan Barkuk $20.00 – Schofield ...

Until next time, stay safe and distant, but remain close.


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