“People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life.… I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
For me, the true purpose of travel is to feel “the rapture of being alive” that Joseph Campbell talked about. In the chaos and haste of our everyday lives, we survive by falling back on habitual ways of thinking and doing. Leaving all that behind and venturing into the unknown on a physical level, we open our hearts and minds to the world in fresh and vigorous ways. That’s when our inner and outer perspectives begin to align, and we feel the first stirrings of joy. And this is where things get interesting.
“The point of travel is to help us in our inner evolution,” says The Point of Travel video. “Every location in the world contains qualities that could support some kind of beneficial change inside a person.” Often that change is a simple one, such as feeling more rested or getting away from the office while we still cling to a few shreds of sanity and are able to refrain from throwing the stapler at the wall — or a colleague. In these uncertain times, we may need to refresh our souls by looking at objects of surpassing beauty that have endured for centuries so we can reconnect with our own resilience and sense of wonder
On my journeys, the most powerful transcendent moments happen when I connect with people. And that happens far more easily when I am traveling with a purpose. What kind of purpose? That’s different for everyone, of course, and it certainly doesn't need to be anything too grand or complicated. You might want to learn a little conversational Spanish, do volunteer work, or visit some of the dive bars you frequented in your misspent youth. Whatever your goal, you’ll find having one opens doors and creates conversations you’d never expect. During last summer’s Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, everyone I met wanted to tell me about the traditional dishes of their childhood. Cooks invited me into their kitchens, introduced me to their families, and shared stories, recipes, and dreams.
One of the best ways to plunge into a culture is through work, whether paid or unpaid. Twenty-three years ago, Rich and I started volunteering with a couple of organizations that sent us to the Republic of Georgia, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, and Bosnia. Our goal was to provide basic business advice to struggling microenterprises. We’d spend weeks or months working with post-Soviet medical groups trying to navigate the transition to a capitalist system or assisting sewing collectives struggling to survive as cheap Chinese imports flooded into town. In the off hours, we’d get to know our hosts, their families, and their communities, enjoying many convivial evenings swapping stories and learning local drinking customs.
The organizations that we worked for no longer have active volunteer programs, but there are plenty of others on the lookout for an extra pair of hands. For instance, Habitat for Humanity, which helps people in disadvantaged neighborhoods build new homes for their families, now operates in 70 countries. Last summer, Rich and I spent a day working at a soup kitchen in Athens operated by the worldwide Catholic relief organization Caritas. If you Google volunteer programs, you’ll find countless listings, many of which provide excellent opportunities. But of course, you’ll want to use your consumer skepticism to investigate them thoroughly. Some charge a participation fee, and you certainly don’t want to pay big bucks to spend your time on a project of dubious utility.
Not all purposes have to be serious or even sensible. Rich has (and I say this lovingly) a peculiar and deep-seated obsession with luggage-free travel. He adores the feeling of freedom that comes from moving through the world unencumbered. And although it took him twenty years to convince me to try it, I find I like it, too, for shorter journeys. So far we’ve made luggage-free trips to France, Kosovo, Albania, and a haunted hotel in Santa Rosa, California, and I don’t have to be a psychic to predict there are more coming up in my future.
And speaking of the future, just this morning I stumbled across an alarming article that said, “Purpose is the latest business buzzword and it appears to be driving genuine change in the tourism industry.” Oh dear God, I thought. What fresh hell is this? Even our spiritual goals are being prepackaged and turned into marketable commodities by the tourism industry? Yep, apparently so. “This prompted travel brands to reposition themselves as organizations working to contribute to create a better world, rather than exploit it. Their focus is now about Purpose, with a capital ‘P.’” So there you have it, my friends. Super savvy industry marketers, knowing the number of international tourists is projected to hit 2 billion this year, are poised to compete for your purpose-driven travel dollars. Read the fine print and reviews Carefully, with a capital “C.”
No one knows what the future will bring, and in these days of alarming headlines and the commercialization of everything, it’s more important than ever to find honest, meaningful ways to embrace the world and love the human race, looney as it is. As a traveler, you shape the quality of your inner and outer journeys. “The big question,” said Joseph Campbell, “is whether you’re going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
After I published this, a reader named Debbi wrote to ask if I'd share Carlotta's video. Here it is! It's one of my faves. You can almost smell that sausage risotto cooking...
Don't miss a single loony adventure, packing tip, or comfort food recipe.
“One can't believe impossible things," Alice said in Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
That Queen would have felt right at home in Seville, where my credulity is constantly strained — and my funny bone tickled — by the myths and legends people have passed on to me as gospel truth. Here are six impossible things, and I hope you’ll manage to swallow all of them before breakfast.
Hercules Founded Seville.
Having your city established by an actual god conveys certain bragging rights, and to make certain nobody missed this point, in 1574 city officials built a vast public garden — Europe’s first — and named it the Alameda de Hercules. For decoration they chose six Roman columns that had stood on the other side of town for 14 centuries. Hauling ancient, 30-foot stone columns across a busy city by wagon; what could possibly go wrong? Incredibly, two made it safely to the new garden before one managed to roll off and shatter spectacularly in the faces of horrified onlookers.
No doubt a few heads rolled —possibly literally — over that snafu, and suddenly no one wanted the job of chief pillar transporter. The two surviving columns, topped with statues of Hercules and Julius Cesar respectively, stand at the southern end of the Alameda, their off-center alignment reflecting space left for the third. The other three columns are aging gracefully in the Calle Mármoles (Marbles Street).
When I went to Calle Mármoles today for a shot of the columns, I found this tour listening to a guide telling absolute whoppers about how the column was broken in transit to the Alcazar (Seville's Royal Palace) instead of the Alameda. But of course, when it comes to legends, who can be sure what's true?
A Crocodile Was Sent to Woo a Spanish Princess.
In 1260 the Sultan of Egypt sent a delegation laden with exotic gifts to ask for the hand of Princess Berenguela, King Alfonso X’s daughter. The gifts included a live crocodile, a domesticated giraffe, an elephant tusk, and a wizard’s wand. (I know, right? And nowadays guys get away with bringing us flowers and chocolates!) The king rejected the proposal but kept the gifts; the crocodile thrilled the populace for years.
When the beast had breathed its last, the king had its body stuffed and hung up in the cathedral along with the tusk, the wand, and the giraffe’s bridle bit. When the crocodile’s body eventually crumbled, a wooden replica was hung in its place, where it remains today, on the ceiling by the exit onto the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of the Orange Trees).
Pedro the Cruel Nailed His Own Head to the Wall.
One dark night in the fourteenth century, young King Pedro the Cruel (known to his friends as “the Just”) was waylaid on a back street in my very neighborhood. The clash of swords caused an old woman to lean out an upstairs window. She didn’t see the king or his fatal thrust, but as he tiptoed away from his attacker’s corpse, she heard the telltale squeak of his knee from an old injury, a sound known to everyone in the city.
The dead man’s family showed up at the palace demanding the killer be found and brought to justice. The king, thinking no one knew the truth, promised a reward — which the old woman’s son came to claim. He took the king aside, pretending to point out the window, but actually pointing to a small mirror. The king rewarded him and announced that the next day the killer’s head would be nailed to the wall at the scene of the crime. (This was before we had all those pesky laws about due process, evidentiary hearings, etc.)
Naturally everyone in the city showed up, agog to know whodunnit. The king arrived with a large box containing, he said, the killer’s head; the identity would remain a secret to avoid sparking a blood feud. The box was nailed to the wall, secured with iron bands, and kept under guard day and night. Years later, when his enemies finally bumped Pedro off, they immediately opened the box. Inside, they found a marble bust of Pedro’s head. It’s still on that wall (without the box) on Calle Cabeza del Rey Don Pedro (Head of King Pedro Street).
Doña María Coronel’s Body is Miraculously Preserved.
Actually, her corpse is not so much preserved as mummified. And it’s probably just as well that we can’t see her features too clearly, as she was famously disfigured in a gruesome encounter with our old friend, Pedro the Cruel. Infatuated with her beauty, he chased her all over the city for months. When he finally cornered her in the kitchen of a convent (brace yourself, this bit’s ghastly) she dashed a pan of boiling oil in her own face to make herself unattractive to her pursuer. Incredibly she not only survived but went on the found the Santa Inéz Convent and lived to the age of 77. Her distinctly creepy remains are occasionally put on display at the convent on Calle Doña María Cornel Street.
They Killed the Mother of the Bull that Gored Manolete.
“And this is Islera,” said my guide on the bullring tour, with the profound loathing usually reserved for mentioning Hitler or Vlad the Impaler. “The bull that killed the great bullfighter Manolete in 1947. Islera was, of course, killed. And afterwards, they went and found his mother and killed her too, so that she never again produced another murderer.” Now does that seem sporting?
A Murder Inspired the “Puppy” Statue of Jesus.
"This statue was modeled after the gypsy El Cachorro," a Spanish friend told me. El Cachorro means Puppy and may have referred to the man's reputation as a bit of a hound dog. He was coming home from a tryst with a noble lady when he was murdered on the Isabel II Bridge by her husband. Some claim the woman’s lover was really El Cachorro’s bastard brother, and it was all a terrible mistake. Be that as it may, sculptor Francisco Ruiz de Gijón happened to be on the scene, roaming the city in search of inspiration for the statue of Christ he’d been commissioned to carve. Seeing El Cahcorro breathe his last, the sculptor knew he had found the perfect image. “Expiring Christ,” better known as “El Cachorro,” is one of the highlights of Holy Week processions. In the off season, it can be viewed in the Basílica del Cristo de la Expiración on Calle Castilla in Triana.
I don’t know about you, but I find all of these tales completely plausible and don’t doubt for a minute that every detail is accurate. But even if I didn’t, I’d love the drama they add to the streets, bridges, and buildings that make up the landscape of my life. One man collected many of these tales into a book, but when I showed it to a Spanish friend, she sniffed. “Well, I wouldn’t trust a word he says. Everyone knows he’s the biggest liar in town.” Hmmm, I sense another legend right there in the making. I’ll keep you posted.
Thirty-three years ago Rich and I inconvenienced our nearest and dearest by getting married two days after Christmas, requiring them to make all sorts of awkward travel arrangements just when everyone really wanted to be home by the fire playing with their new toys. Ever since then, our anniversary has been squeezed into a social calendar revolving around Yuletide celebrations, New Year’s Eve, and Spain's grand finale on January 6: Three Kings Day, which in Seville involves a spectacular parade as a prelude to exchanging gifts.
In the midst of so much revelry, our anniversary celebrations tend to be modest. Researching traditional gifts, I discovered the US and UK don’t even list anything for the 33rd anniversary; apparently so few hit that benchmark nobody could be bothered. Spain, Italy, and Germany observe the occasion with tin, which didn’t help. A can of tuna? A couple of Budweisers? A tin cup? One website suggested a spiritual-themed gift. Why? “33 is an important religious number; it’s the numerical equivalent of AMEN, i.e., 1+13+5+14=33; it’s the age of Christ and also the number of miracles that he performed and it’s also the numerical representation of the star of David.” Sorry, still not inspired. A tin crucifix somehow didn't strike the right note.
Luckily Rich had a better idea: a train trip to Valencia on Spain’s east coast. He found a trendy yet cozy hotel called Maria Berger, which on arrival we learned had just opened the day before. As you can imagine, everything was sparkling clean and I could probably have eaten off of any surface in the room, including the TV remote control (although I did not put this to the test). When Rich mentioned we were celebrating our anniversary, the desk clerk immediately sent a bottle of cava to our room. “I could get used to this,” I said.
As it happened, Valencia’s Fine Arts Museum was having an exhibition of one of my favorite painters, Joaquín Sorolla. A hundred and twenty years ago he was breaking all the rules by painting everyday subjects in this fluid, colorful style:
That one wasn’t in the exhibition, but lots of wonderful works were, and I was ambling around admiring Sarolla’s brushwork when this one stopped me in my tracks.
The painting isn’t all that remarkable, but the subject was the stuff of family legend.
When I was a teenager, my Aunt Beverly stunned everyone by packing up her family and moving to Valencia, Spain. Her letters home were eagerly anticipated and read aloud; everything, including cooking a holiday dinner, became an epic drama. For instance, when she wanted to serve a roast turkey, Aunt Beverly consulted the girls from the village who helped her around the house. They said they knew where to get one and returned the next day — with a living bird. My aunt, whose softhearted attitude to animals made St. Francis of Assisi look like Cruella de Vil, instantly bonded with the turkey and refused to consider cooking and eating her new pal.
An uproar naturally ensued. The family demanded their dinner. Aunt Beverly stood firm. Eventually, as it was five forceful personalities to one, she gave in — but she refused to participate directly. Standing outside the kitchen door, she called out instructions for stuffing and roasting the creature, all the while weeping for its fate. I’m not sure, but that may have been the year she became a vegetarian for life. The story took its place in our family lore, and I suspect the villagers are still telling the tale of the crazy American who didn’t want to eat a turkey because it was her amigo.
Seeing Aunt Beverly’s legendary Spanish turkey in a Sarolla painting wasn’t the only astonishing discovery of the trip. Although I had visited Valencia twice in the past, somehow it had escaped my notice that its cathedral housed the Holy Grail — yes, the actual cup used during the Last Supper.
Some naysayers question the authenticity of Valencia's Grail, pointing to the 200 other claimants to the title scattered across the globe. But this one has better credentials than most, being very old and very simple, made of carved agate polished with myrrh —a carpenter’s cup. Of course, no records exists of its early years; all we really know is that it was taken from the Holy Land, passed on to the Pope in Rome, and later given to Spanish royalty for safekeeping in turbulent times.
Is this the real deal? Every Catholic church contains holy relics, sacred remnants of saints’ bodies or personal possessions, which the faithful believe can work miracles. In medieval times high-profile relics were sold for fabulous sums, and not surprisingly, many have now turned out to be very dubious indeed.
I’m no expert, but having seen the right hand of John the Baptist in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, I had to wonder how his right hand could also be on display in the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro and the Romanian Monastery of the Forerunner. In other news, John the Baptist's six heads are displayed in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, the Residenz Museum in Munich, Amiens Cathedral in France, Antioch, Turkey, and in a parish church in Tenterden, Kent. How many skulls and right hands can one man have?
Amiens Cathedral displays the actual skull of John the Baptist — or does it? In the famous Bible story, Herod's stepdaughter demanded John's head on a platter. But we know this isn't the actual platter because that's in Genoa's cathedral — or maybe not. Thanks to Wikicommons' Wi1234 for this picture.
No one will ever be able to prove the cup in Valencia is — or isn’t — the genuine Holy Grail. But the sight of such a revered object makes even the most time-pressed tourist slow down and fall into respectful silence, while confirmed skeptics like myself pause to consider the nature of truth. In the end, I’m not sure how much its authenticity really matters. For the faithful of Valencia, possession of this treasure is a miracle in itself, and to be in its presence is to be touched by glory.
Growing up Catholic, I accepted saints and relics and miracles as part of everyday life. And while time, experience, and John the Baptist's six heads have made me question everything I was told as a child, I understand that the universe is entirely too big and complicated for me to define the limits of its possibilities. Sometimes, as the nuns used to tell us, you just have to live with the mystery.
One thing I do know for certain: the excursion to Valencia was a wonderful way to celebrate our 33rd anniversary. Perhaps that website’s suggestion of a spiritual-themed gift wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Our time in Valencia made me laugh, and think, and contemplate the nature of reality. And I think we can all agree, that’s a lot better gift than a can of tuna or a tin cup.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
One of the oddest aspects of being a blogger is that strangers meeting my husband for the first time tend to say things like, “I feel I know you already, and I really share your love of duct tape and ice cream.” If you're new to my blog, don't be alarmed, I’m not revealing some sort of kinky sexual fetish, these just happen to be things Rich considers indispensable for civilized journeys. Having spent a lifetime studying the art of adventure, he always has some new nugget of practical advice up one sleeve and an outlandish travel idea up the other. Moving to Spain, luggage-free vacations, an Albanian restaurant where your lunch is delivered on horseback — I never know what he’s going to spring on me at the breakfast table.
Are these random brainstorms or is there an underlying logic, however quirky, to his madness? I decided to ask the man himself.
Karen: When I first met you, my idea of a big vacation was a week at the beach. Now we’re galivanting all over the world, most recently on our five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour of 2019. Why are you so addicted to long-term travel?
Rich: I need a sense of adventure in my life. Actress Regina King likes to say, “Your comfort zone is where dreams go to die.” Travel is all about dreaming up new possibilities and looking forward to the future.
Karen: It took you twenty years to convince me to try luggage-free travel. And OK, I’ll admit it’s fun — once in a while, for short jaunts. What sparked your obsession with this crazy form of travel?
Rich: First, because nobody thinks you can do it. But mainly, I like luggage-free travel because it gives a great amount of freedom — freedom from worry about where the bags are, how you’re going to transport them, what you’re going to wear tomorrow. These days a lot of us are embracing a more minimalist approach to life. Luggage-free travel is the ultimate minimalist way to go.
Karen: Travel writer Pico Iyer said, “Serendipity was my tour guide, assisted by caprice.” And that’s you all over. You’re an incredibly organized person yet you hate advance planning when we're on the road.
Rich: Too much advance planning locks you in; it kills spontaneity. Some people think that not having lined up a whole series of advance reservations would make you more uptight, when — for me at least — the reverse is true; it makes me more relaxed. If I like a place, I can stay longer; if I don't, I get to move on. I’ve never come into a town where I couldn’t find a place to stay — even hot tourist destinations at the height of the season. And when you’re flexible, you walk into things you had never anticipated. As you know, some of our best stories come from unplanned excursions and last-minute detours.
Karen: You turned 75 this summer while we were in Thessaloniki, Greece. Did that inspire any profound thoughts about life or travel?
Rich: I still want ice cream on my birthday.
Karen: Obviously, that’s a given. And I always make sure you get it!
Rich: Aside from that, has age changed the way I travel? Yes, to some extent. I still need a sense of adventure; mentally it challenges me to stay sharp and pay attention. Recently I have become more aware of my physical limitations. Heat gets to me more, so I try not to go out at the hottest time of day — which made extra sense last year, during the most sizzling summer in Europe’s history. I no longer climb mountains, volcanos, the highest castle parapets, or the towers of cathedrals. I did walk 750 miles during our five month trip, about five miles most days, which is still pretty easy for me. And I do a half hour of yoga every day.
Karen: When we got back, everyone seemed astonished that we’d spent five months eating our way around the Mediterranean rim but somehow failed to gain any weight.
Rich: Mostly that was the walking and the yoga. And the fact that we told everybody up front that we were light eaters; people respected that. When we were filming someone making incredibly rich food — that moussaka in Thessaloniki comes to mind — afterwards we split a portion. Which, as you will recall, was more than enough!
Karen: I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “I couldn’t travel with my spouse for more than a week without wanting to kill them.” Any advice for those folks about how to get along on the road?
Rich: I believe the key is to stay flexible. Remember you’re both in unfamiliar territory and doing the best you can. Talk stuff out. Be courteous. And be very forgiving if the other person has a bad day or a meltdown. Not that you would ever do that, Karen.
Karen: Me? Of course not. But speaking hypothetically … ?
Rich: One time when I was skiing, I watched a couple having this huge fight, and he ended up throwing her skis over the railing of the outdoor bar at the ski lodge. I kept thinking, “What are you actually accomplishing? In what way is throwing her skis over the railing going to resolve your issues? You think that’s going to de-pressurize the situation? Show a little common sense!”
Karen: Any big ideas for travel in 2020?
Rich: I've had this thought rattling around in my head: anybody can go to France, Italy, or Spain. But what about those experimental micro-countries that were born from some outlandish philosophy, flourished for a brief, shining moment, and disappeared into oblivion. Like the Republike Peščenice, created twenty years ago in a suburb of Zagreb, Croatia by irreverent comedian željko Malnar. Last August we were lucky enough to meet one of his compatriots in the car wash that served as the mini-nation's capital. There are dozens of lost countries like this all over the world. Why not visit them and see if we could become ambassadors?
Karen: If I’ve learned anything in 33 years of marriage, it’s that Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I think these dancing lessons occur all the time, wherever we are, whatever we're doing — and we’re wise to be on the alert so these transcendent moments don't slip by unnoticed. To quote Kurt Vonnegut again: “So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
Greetings from Seville! As the holidays are reaching fever pitch, I figure most of my readers are too busy and distracted to read much this week. I was looking back over past posts for inspiration, and realized this one, which I wrote back in 2012, really says it all. So I’m recycling this nice, short piece, leaving me more time to wrap presents, organize our annual pot-luck feast, and prepare for our 33rd wedding anniversary, which falls on December 27. We're off for a romantic weekend in Valencia — just Rich, me, a cozy hotel room, and the world’s best paella. It doesn’t get better than that. I’ll post again in January. Happy holidays, everyone!
“I’ve got something to show you,” said Rich. “Got your camera?”
We were out for a stroll, threading our way through the crowded labyrinth of pedestrian streets and alleys that make up Seville’s downtown shopping area. “You bet,” I said. He steered me into the Centro Mercantile, an old club that often houses exhibitions of dubious modern paintings and gorgeous old religious art. I took three steps into the gallery and stopped, gobsmacked by the sight of the entire town of Bethlehem fashioned from 1500 kilos of chocolate, with a river of honey running through it.
This is what’s so great about the holidays: people can let their imaginations run wild. Some of my friends have criticized Seville’s downtown lighting display as being too gaudy. But isn’t that what the year-end festivities are all about – creating a sense of wonder and magic?
I can remember being a small child, dazzled by the sudden appearance of holiday lights, entranced by the smells of pine and chocolate and wood fires, electrified with anticipation of the treats in store for us.
Today, I live thousands of miles from my relatives and many others who are dear to me; they’re scattered around the globe from the Americas to Asia to Europe to Down Under. I’ll never again see everyone I love gathered under one roof. At holiday celebrations I sometimes feel a pang about the faces I don’t see around my table.
But I am deeply grateful that I live in an age where I can stay in close contact with those who are far away. We email, we talk on Skype, and when the stars align, we meet up somewhere and enjoy each other’s company. My social circle is no longer geographically defined. It’s a bit like iCloud; my friends are not always physically on hand, but they seem to appear when I need them most.
Having friends all over the planet keeps life interesting and makes me feel that I’m a citizen of the world. And that means wherever I am at this time of year, I’m home for the holidays.
Gift giving has always been a tricky business. In the 1930s, when future Hollywood star David Niven was an impoverished young actor, he spent the holidays merrily regifting stuff he’d received — until one day he accidentally sent someone back the leather wallet that he’d sent to Niven … engraved with Niven’s initials. Oops! A few years later, when Niven was involved in the early stages of a romance, he presented the lady with a set of beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs, and she gave him a car. Awkward!
The equation gets considerably more complicated these days, when many of us are attempting to be more careful and conscious consumers. I’m in total agreement with the principle, but let’s face it, finding nothing under the tree but long-lasting lightbulbs and biodegradable composting bags isn’t going to make the day feel very jolly. So how do we shop responsibly and festively?
Many years ago Rich and I realized that while we love the tradition of opening packages on December 25th, the presents themselves didn’t need to be fancy or expensive. So we agreed that when buying for each other, we’d stick to a modest fixed budget, and buy or make seven small gifts to put under the tree. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to lower the bar on gift-giving and just settle in for a little silly fun.
Like what? Well, last year I gave Rich a singing flamingo I found a discount store. (In the video below, it’s shown with a couple of flamingo hats left over from a previous holiday season. They seemed to enjoy the singing, too.)
When friends arrived for our holiday feast, everyone fell in love with that singing flamingo. All afternoon I kept noticing various guests wandering about with it tucked under one arm, sitting with it in their laps, or nestling cozily with it on the sofa, as if it was pet, or an honored guest. As I suppose it was.
Rich’s best ever gift to me was a couple of snails. It all started six years ago, when I was walking past an old woman selling wild asparagus and live snails, one of which had managed to escape. It was proceeding down the sidewalk with all the determination and speed of which a small gastropod is capable. I mentally cheered it on, and barely remembered to mention the incident to Rich. A month later I found a small package under the tree labeled, “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” Utterly mystified, I opened the box to find a pair of confused snails staring up at me.
“You can release them back into the wild,” Rich explained. “It’s like the pardoning of the turkeys at Thanksgiving. How many people get to save a life at the holidays?”
Word of this unique gift got around, and pretty soon some friends gave us a family of snails made by their kids from play-dough, launching a tradition of snail-themed gifts that eventually led me to establish my Snail Museum (the only one like it in the world!). Each year Rich crafts something new for the collection.
Perhaps a true minimalist would object to my snail collection as not having any practical value. But I say bringing a little more joy and laughter into the world is always worthy of us.
In addition to buying less, I try to buy smarter. I cast a suspicious eye on all products, including — perhaps especially — those that claim to be “ecofriendly.” Take the ad I just saw for a bamboo toothbrush subscription that involves sending you a new bamboo toothbrush every month. The manufacturer encourages you to toss the bamboo handle into the compost, advising you not to worry about the non-biodegradable nylon bristles because you simply pull them out with pliers. Like that’s going to happen. Show of hands: how many of you out there actively compost your waste? That would be 16% of you. How many of you would take time to find the pliers and extract the bristles every month? Anyone?
Actually, it’s the “every month” part that really bothers me. We don’t need new toothbrushes every 30 days. The American Dental Association and manufacturers such as Oral-B, who desperately want you to buy more of their products, only recommend replacing toothbrushes every three to four months, and I suspect it’s a lot longer than that for many of us. There’s nothing wrong with a bamboo toothbrush; clearly it’s better for the planet than a plastic one. But these so-called “ecofriendly” manufacturers are trying to convince us to look at toothbrushes as disposable items to be tossed out while they’re still perfectly serviceable, only a quarter of the way to retirement age.
No doubt they got the idea from the clothing industry. As you may have heard, there’s such a glut of cheap clothing around the world that 85% of all unwanted garments end up in a landfill — yes, including most of those you donate to charity and many new items that have been returned unworn.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy reasonably priced clothes; on my holiday budget, it’s all I can afford for Rich, who luckily likes anything made from plaid flannel and never looks at labels. But if your family has a tradition, say, of giving each other joke gifts of hideous holiday sweaters every year, with the virtuous intention of donating them to charities afterwards, it might be time to come up with an alternative. For instance, you could circulate photos of the most ghastly holiday clothes online and make snarky remarks about them. Here are a few of my faves. You can provide your own snarky remarks in the comments section below this post.
I’ve read the tradition of gift giving at the winter holidays didn’t reach the USA until the nineteenth century, and that in those days, the gifts tended to be gimcrack — cheap and cheerful little knickknacks. I say let’s bring back gimcrack! We can stop filling corporate coffers and municipal landfills — and still have the fun of pardoning snails, singing along with flamingos, and spending more time and less money celebrating with people we love. And I believe our lives will be the richer for it.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
Only 66% of millennials believe the earth is round, according to one poll*, which (for those of us who still place our faith in math) means 34% of young Americans suspect or "know" our home planet is flat. In 2017 rapper and conspiracy theorist B.o.B. tweeted he was crowdfunding his own satellites to go up in space and prove his flat-earth theories. NBA star Kyrie Irving said, “This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” (I’m not even going to get into the irony of incorporating the phrases “This is not even a conspiracy theory” and “They lie to us” in the same rant.) Photos of the earth from space are dismissed as fakes, part of a government plot to fool us all.
Apparently the flat-earthers haven’t caught up on the news from 500 years ago. In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan assembled a fleet of five ships and set off from Seville, Spain. The fleet headed steadily west for four years until eventually, with Magellan and most of his crew dead, three ships lost and one deserted, the sole remaining ship limped into Seville’s port — proving (sorry B.o.B. and Kyrie Irving) that the earth is round. The story of this extraordinary voyage is the subject of a marvelous new exhibition on display in Seville’s Archives of the Indies — a must-see for anyone (and especially you, flat-earthers!) coming to town between now and February 23, 2020.
Magellan was a spectacular navigator and an abominable diplomat. He quarreled with his own ruler, King Manuel I of Portugal, and had to resort to petitioning Portugal’s archrival, the King of Spain, who grudgingly financed the voyage in hopes of putting one over on the Portuguese by finding a better route to lands rich in expensive spices. Magellan’s Spanish crew hated him for being Portuguese, for being kind of a jerk, and for withholding key information about the voyage. Magellan had a big secret: earlier explorers had told him about a passageway cutting through the tip of South America.
This passage, now knows as the Strait of Magellan, would not only make the journey shorter, it would avoid one of the most violent and hazardous seas on the planet, running between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.
How bad was it? I’m not sure, but here’s what they knew to expect crossing the Atlantic.
I know, right? Who would be crazy enough even to think of spending months crossing water like this in a ship 20 meters long?
With everyone’s life constantly in jeopardy, it’s not surprising the story of this voyage is full of conflict, mutinies, heads being cut off, people left to die on desert islands, cannibalism, starvation, desertion, and Magellan’s death in a ridiculous show of bravado to impress a Filipino chief. There was plenty of macho idiocy to go around, but there was also a steely core of courage that I couldn’t help but admire.
History books refer to those days as the Age of Exploration, but never doubt that humans are still boldly going where no one has gone before. Two years ago I heard NASA scientist Amaya Davis talk about the Mars expedition planned for the 2030s. Young men and women are already in training and vying for seats on the first voyage to the Red Planet — even knowing that it is a one-way ticket. The amount of hardware and fuel they will use up to reach Mars is enormous, and they simply can’t carry enough extra to make the return journey feasible.
“Why would anyone do that?” I asked Amaya.
“They want a place in history.”
As with Magellan and his crew, I’m in awe of the courage of these future astronauts, even while thinking they have to be more than halfway nuts. Rich and I have definitely decided not to sign up for that trip. But I’m glad so many brave people have chosen to go into space, if only to be able to properly debunk the flat-earthers.
While the NASA crews are all volunteers, many of Magellan’s sailors were shanghaied, kidnapped on the streets of various ports and thrown aboard to replace crew members lost to scurvy, suicide, accidents, execution, or worse.
The kidnapped sailors had to find unexpected depths of valor to face a life-or-death struggle they never signed on for, in the most daunting circumstances imaginable.
I suspect Greta Thunberg feels much the same way. She had no hand in creating the climate crisis, everyone's existence is at stake, and we're dealing with a deck stacked in favor of failure. I can only imagine the bravery it took for her to begin her first, solitary protest vigil outside the Swedish parliament. “It is still not too late to act [to combat climate change],” she said in April. “It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination.”
We know Greta has that kind of courage and determination, but do we? I guess we'll find out. Nobody wants to cope with climate change, but it turns out that we are the generation that, like the shanghaied sailors, woke up to find ourselves on a ship floundering in uncharted waters, headed for a future over which we have slim control and no guarantees of survival.
So where does a die-hard optimist like myself find room for hope? I’m heartened by the knowledge that humans have a pretty good track record of finding inner strength when they need it most. During one of Britain’s darkest hours Winston Churchill said, “It is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required.” A lot of people had the courage to step up then and do what was required. I believe the majority of us have the fortitude to stand up and do our bit now.
One thing inspiring Londoners in the Blitz, sailors of yore, and astronauts of the future is the clear certainty that our survival depends on working together. Our ancestors survived on the African savannas — surrounded by creatures that were bigger, fiercer, and better equipped with teeth and claws — because humans learned to cooperate with one another. And they refused to give up. Like the early explorers, like the Mars mission team, like Greta Thunberg, we know that when there is no going back, we must find a way to move forward together. And I believe we will.
*Scientific American took a hard look at the original data compiled by YouGov and found statistical discrepancies that cast doubt on the claim that only "66% of millennials believe the earth is round." In addition to inflating the percentage, the term "millennial," normally defined as those born 1981 to 1996, here refers to 18- to 24-year-olds. So there are plenty of questions about the YouGov statistic suggests. Whatever the true numbers, the fact that anybody believes the earth is flat remains deeply worrying.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
“Hey, this is the Dragonpit!” exclaimed my sister Kate. “The actual Dragonpit from Game of Thrones.”
“Yep,” I said. “Although sadly, it doesn’t have any actual dragons in it at this time.”
We were in the ancient Roman city of Italica, just six miles northwest of Seville, visiting the remains of the massive amphitheater built to enable 25,000 bloodthirsty spectators to watch gladiators fight to the death. In much the same spirit, 10 million Game of Thrones fans found themselves riveted to other epic clashes filmed on this spot, including this meeting between the psychopathic queen Cersei Lannister and Daenerys “Mother of Dragons” Targaryen, a woman who really knew how to make an entrance.
Italica was a great place to visit even before it was discovered by Hollywood location scouts; I’ve been taking visitors there for 15 years and they always love it. The city, founded in 206 BC to house veterans returning victorious from the battlefield, was home to two emperors and thrived under their patronage; at one point it was the second largest city in the Roman Empire. Today the most important artifacts have been safely removed to the Archeological Museum of Seville, but the 128-acre site is still impressive, with paved streets, gorgeous mosaic floors, and of course, the amphitheater. Or as we know it today, the Dragonpit.
“There’s not a single sign or flyer about it being the Dragonpit,” Kate marveled, looking around at the ancient stone walls. “No mention anywhere of Game of Thrones.” Having grown up in California, in a family with several Hollywood actors, we both found it astonishing that nobody had thought to capitalize on the fame of the site.
But that’s Seville for you; it likes to act cool and nonchalant whenever Hollywood comes to town. During the filming, a friend was walking through my neighborhood when a long, black car pulled up at the curb and she saw Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) emerge and go into Bar Alfalfa, one of my favorite places to grab a coffee. Did anyone take a picture and post it on the wall? Get them to sign menus or napkins? Apparently not. I have been in this café dozens of times since then, including yesterday with my sister and brother-in-law, and there’s nothing to show the actors were ever there.
To round out my sister’s impromptu Game of Thrones tour, we went to Seville’s Royal Alcázar. This spectacular palace was built in the fourteenth century by Pedro the Cruel on the ruins of an old Moorish fort where, it’s said, they used the skulls of their enemies for flower pots. Somebody persuaded Pedro to get rid of the skulls, and I think we can all agree that was a good call. Today, the palace is home to the Spanish royal family when they’re in town and a favorite with visitors from around the world. It includes a breathtaking mix of every architectural style in vogue for the past 700 years. My favorite part? The elaborate pleasure garden, which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the Water Gardens of Dorn.
Of course, GoT location scouts weren’t the first to discover that Seville is always ready for a close-up. Generations of filmmakers have fallen in love the grand sweeping arc of the Plaza de España, a 1928 architectural fantasy with turrets, colonnades, and a moat crossed by a series of lovely arching bridges. In 1968 it stood in for the Cairo British officers’ club in the scene from Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole scandalizes everyone by storming in dressed as a Bedouin and demanding a lemonade.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Plaza de España took on the role of a city on Planet Naboo for the underwhelming 2002 prequel Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The backdrop is gorgeous; the actors are young and handsome; the dialog is excruciatingly wooden. Don’t feel obliged to watch all of this short clip; fast forward to the end where the setting morphs into the real Plaza de España, which is genuinely worth a look.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones was far from the worst film ever made in Seville; I personally award that distinction to Knight and Day, shot here in 2009. When word got out that Tom Cruise and Cameron Diez were coming to town to film a romantic action movie, and that they were calling for people to sign up as extras, half the city went down to the casting office to see if they could get in on the fun. Sadly, Rich and I were turned away because at that time our residency visas didn’t allow us to take paying jobs in Spain. Many of our friends did get hired, and Rich and I suffered through one hour and forty-nine minutes of idiotic dialog and hammy acting to see spectacular shots of Seville with nanosecond-long glimpses of our amigos in the background. I happened to walk by while stuntmen were filming this scene, so it’s one of my — well, not favorites, that would be going too far, but I guess I can say it’s the part of the movie I dislike the least.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, I didn’t realize Seville has the running of the bulls!” We don’t. That takes place elsewhere, most notably in Pamplona, as immortalized by Ernest Hemmingway in The Sun Also Rises. Evidently the filmmakers figured nobody would know — or care — about the inaccuracy, and perhaps American audiences didn't, but here in Seville everyone roared with derisive laughter.
As luck would have it, Rich and I did have one brush with stardom while Knight and Day was being filmed. One evening, as we were having tapas in the (now defunct) Aguador de Sevilla, Cameron Diaz came in with some friends and asked for a table. The manager glanced around, shrugged, and informed her they were full. She walked out looking stunned; I don’t imagine that has happened to her since she got her big break in The Mask in 1994.
Did the manager recognize her? Probably. The film was the talk of the town that spring, and quite likely some of his friends, family, and/or customers were working as extras. But as I said, Seville likes to play it cool. The city was founded by Hercules, sent two emperors to Rome, gave Christopher Columbus his send-off to the Americas and his final resting place in the cathedral. It takes a lot to impress a Sevillano. Now, if someone showed up on an actual dragon, then the city just might sit up and take notice.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
“And whatever you do,” said the technico who had just installed my gleaming new self-cleaning oven, “don’t use the self-cleaning feature.”
“It raises the oven temperature to 6000 degrees, to convert grease to ash. I had to really jam the stove under your countertop — which is narrower than standard, by the way — so the plug is right up against the oven. You use the self-cleaning feature, you melt the plug. And then…”
He didn’t need to go on. My fantasies of maintaining a spotless oven had just gone up in smoke.
I started to laugh because it was such a supremely Spanish moment. In making an effort to upgrade, I’d moved two steps forward (a slightly roomier and much less temperamental oven) and taken one giant leap toward burning down the entire apartment building.
In its own weird way, it was rather comforting. Seville has changed so much lately, it was good to know the city hadn’t lost its quirky, unpredictable character, its innate ability to infuse even the most ordinary act with mystery and high drama.
I’ll admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of post-trip culture-lag following my five month Mediterranean Food Tour. Returning to a city you love after a long absence is always difficult; the tiny, incremental changes that took place over time hit you all at once. Just when you long to wrap a familiar place around you like a favorite old coat, it feels alien, awkward, and ill-fitting, as if it had shrunk several sizes, grown an extra sleeve, and lost all its buttons.
Speaking of ill-fitting clothes, the city just lost one of its emblematic old shops that had provided generations of Sevillanos with cheap house dresses and men’s shirts. It was called El Mato, and the clothes were so inexpensive it gave rise to the saying, “Tan barato como El Mato,” as cheap as El Mato. This would crop up in exchanges like, “How was your hotel in Morocco?” “Not very nice, but I will say it was as cheap as El Mato.” Rich once bought a short-sleeved collared shirt there, and it was actually fairly decent except that the short sleeves were extremely short, no doubt to save on fabric costs. He wore it for years, and I assured him it didn’t look odd at all. I’m sorry to report that El Mato closed its doors last month and the site is now a bright, modern Mr. Cake bakery.
It’s a bit sad to lose an old-fashioned shop like El Mato (and the dozens of others that have disappeared lately), but the real challenge is adapting to the tourist boom that’s rocking the city. Arriving back in late September, I found crowds jamming the downtown streets like something out of a dystopian movie (the teaming hoards in Soylent Green and the zombie stampede in World War Z come to mind). From 2014 to 2018 (the year Lonely Planet declared Seville the world’s top destination) tourism rose almost 35%, and when the 2019 statistics come out, I’m guessing it will prove to be another record-breaking year. I’ve heard 32 hotels are being built in the city, and new restaurants seem to pop up every day. Some are wonderful, but all too many are cookie-cutter corporate chains offering burgers, pizza, and chicken Caesar salads. Bars now sell drinks with umbrellas and pineapple in them, to underscore the theme: you are on vacation does it really matter where?
“It’s all your fault,” a friend told me. “If you’d just stop saying nice things about the city on your blog, we might have a chance of stemming the tide.”
I don’t actually believe that I’m the prime mover here, but I felt I should meet him halfway. “How about I start a rumor that the Great Plague is back?”
In the middle of the seventeenth century, this grisly disease claimed the lives of a quarter of the population the city, when the national average was 5%. Why? Because the Sevillanos of the day — those old scofflaws — ignored, evaded, and refused to enforce the efforts to maintain quarantine.
“The Great Plague?” he said. “Yes, that should do nicely.”
I promised to mention it on my blog at the earliest opportunity, and now I have. Feel free to help me spread the rumor far and wide.
But for the most part, I’m trying to adapt to the new reality, not fight it. As Rich keeps pointing out, all cities change constantly; it’s what keeps them vital and alive. I’ve occasionally visited towns — Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, or Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic — where they’ve worked so hard to preserve the town as it was during a single moment in its history that the place has become a theme park, a plasticized, Disneyland version of itself.
I strongly doubt that will be Seville’s fate. This city is too quirky and unruly ever to line up behind any single idea, even one with such obvious benefits as fighting the Great Plague. Twenty years ago, I was gobsmacked to discover that the many city maps of Seville were all drawn differently — some, for instance, enlarged alleys that were useful shortcuts, while others fudged the angles of streets to suggest they all converged on an important landmark. I finally realized each cartographer was being helpful, drawing attention to navigational elements that might be overlooked on a more accurate rendering.
That attitude certainly hasn’t changed. Does a self-cleaning oven really heat up to 6000 degrees? Of course not. The maximum is 471 Celsius (880 Fharenheit). Our technico was merely exercising his God-given right to convey information with sufficient drama to ensure we’d be too terrified ever to consider using the self-cleaning feature. He wasn’t just installing an oven, he was saving our lives. And he was serving as a timely reminder that in the midst of constant upheaval, Seville’s kind heart and quirky spirit remain as strong as ever.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
“And this is the Virgin of the Napkin.” My Spanish friends beamed fondly at the painting, hung in its own exquisitely lit niche in Seville’s Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum). Sometimes both talking at once, each one jumping in with colorful details, my friends explained that the famous seventeenth century artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo had painted this incredible work on the back of a napkin one night after dinner. He'd been dining with some monks here in the city, and afterwards they’d asked him to paint a little something for them as a memento of the evening. Murillo, who apparently had brought along his painting gear, picked up a napkin (presumably not the one he’d been wiping his lips with during dinner), stretched it like a canvas, and began this work.
“Increíble!” I exclaimed, as I was clearly meant to do. “Casi un milagro.” Incredible. Practically a miracle. My friends glowed with pride and pleasure.
That was fifteen years ago. And while I naturally had my doubts about this story — for a start, even a painter as gifted as Murillo couldn’t dash off a work that detailed in a single evening — it was still a shock to arrive at the museum ten days ago and discover that the painting had been thoroughly debunked. Yes, the work was indeed painted by Murillo, but the legend involving napkins and monks originated in the nineteenth century and soon went viral thanks to British travel writer Isabel Romer, who loved digging up colorful, offbeat stories for her readers. (A woman after my own heart.) The painting has been moved to a lesser position next to some of Murillo’s larger works; clearly it’s now a mere footnote in the great man’s story.
Having a cherished legend debunked is one thing; it’s considerably more disconcerting to discover wild inaccuracies in our very concept of what our planet looks like. Remember the world map that hung on the wall in your grammar school classroom? It’s all wrong.
That image of world geography got its start in 1579, when Gerardus Mercator cleverly represented the world as a grid that navigators could follow using straight compass lines, eliminating the need for constant, tricky course corrections. Fast forward nearly 400 years to when my husband was in the navy, and the Mercator projection was still the gold standard, used on his ship to navigate the route between Norfolk, Virginia and Gibraltar. The Mercador projection may be great for sailors, but it has the unfortunate side effect of distorting the size of land masses, enlarging those further from the equator until Greenland (836,330 square miles) looks bigger than South America (6,890,000 square miles) or even Africa (11,730,000 square miles).
Today there’s growing support for the Gall-Peters projection, which attempts to correct the geographic distortion of Mercator’s approach. Naturally, this new work is surrounded by its own controversies, with some cartographers sneering at James Gall (a 19th century clergyman) and Arno Peters (a 20th century German filmmaker) as unqualified hacks. The Controversy section on the Wikipedia page reads like a Facebook rant. Nevertheless, the Gall-Peters projection is gaining traction; it’s now being promoted by UNESCO and has been adopted by a growing number of British and American schools, where it’s viewed as a more accurate and equitable representation of the planet’s geography.
Ours is a world full of controversy and dissension, and just about the only thing we can all agree on is that we live in an age of disinformation. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves that there’s nothing new about distorting information and disseminating it far and wide. Just this morning at breakfast Rich was talking about the party line telephones of his childhood. For younger readers, this was back in the dark ages before everyone had their own phone, and houses in a neighborhood would often save money by sharing a single land line. When the phone rang, everyone would run pick up, and when it was for you, the neighbors were supposed to hang up — but of course they secretly stayed on the line, listened in, and then proceeded to share all your news and gossip with everyone within their orbit. Rich calls it “the forerunner of Facebook.”
With disinformation ramping up online, I find it comforting to spend time in countries that haven’t (yet) been overwhelmed with bot-fueled globalized thought manipulation. One night in May, I was on the Greek island of Ikaria, famous for the remarkable health and longevity of its residents. An election was coming up, and a meeting had been called in the village of Evdilos; chairs were set out under the trees near the wharf, and what appeared to be the entire population of the village gathered at twilight to sit and listen to the candidates. Here, politics was still a face-to-face business that didn’t rely on sound bites and social media. In its own small way, it was breathtaking.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of globalization and mass disinformation. But standing at the back of that crowd on Ikaria, I was reminded that we still live in human communities. It is our nature to talk among ourselves, sharing information, weighing facts, exploring ideas, arguing, attempting to winkle out the truth of a subject. We do it with friends and family at home and, if we’re lucky, with those we meet during our journeys.
“The antidote to misinformation is exchange: to send truth-tellers around the world," said former U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Bleich. “Truth-tellers—mathematicians, scientists, musicians—return from places and can tell people objectively what they saw and experienced and learned, and restore critical and analytical minds.”
Being a truth-teller is important work, and every traveler can do it. When we have the good fortune to spend time talking with people of other cultures, we bring home fresh perspective not only on their culture but our own.
“Travel,” says globetrotting author Rick Steves, “challenges truths we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given.” And that’s a wonderful thing. Because it shows we don’t have to live in a “post-truth” world, as some in the media would have us believe. Yes, there are plenty of people around who are careless, callous, and conniving with the truth. But there are still millions of us who persist in caring about the nature of reality, verifiable facts, and the precise shape of our world. And that’s truth worth knowing.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
I write about
Send me your email and I'll send you travel tips, recipes & free stuff.