Across the Rift
“It’s just a big rut in the land.” She probably thought that she was speaking normally to her husband, but her voice cut through the bus as if she were shouting into a megaphone. The husband, sitting in front of me, seemed to shrink into his seat; my own skin felt as if a cheese grater had been dragged along the length of my body.
Geology is not one of my passions – far from it. But I have read enough to know that the surface of our world sits on tectonic plates that are always shifting and pulling apart. Over the millennia, these movements have reshaped our world and are continuing to do so. The activity, imperceptibly slow to the human eye, usually occurs deep below the surface of our planet. But in only two places on Earth, the tectonic rift can actually be seen: in the Great Rift Valley, in Africa; and in Iceland. Once Connie and I had decided to visit Iceland, experiencing the rift jumped to the top of my bucket list.
And now we were here, and the disappointment that our fellow tourist felt was palpable in her plaintive remark: “It’s just a big rut in the land.” Yes, and George Washington’s tomb is just another slab of stone near his house. I sighed. Being close to a cultural landmark, like Washington’s tomb, brings a sense of history and of the man himself to your heart and mind; but natural wonders can evoke the same feelings if you will let yourself appreciate the full import of what you are seeing. Rolling across the depressed area of ground, we were literally stepping (or riding) off of North America and onto Europe. Think of that for a moment: we were transversing the precise spot where two tectonic plates were pulling two continents farther apart – and it was happening right at our feet.
And it was happening in one of only two places on our planet where that was possible. I wondered how the woman in front of us could be so oblivious to one of the greatest experiences of her life. Sometimes it is not enough to just know a fact. Sometimes you have to open your heart and your mind to the awesomeness of the moment. Passing over the rift took but a few minutes, but the memory will remain with me for a lifetime.
Essays on Travel by a Recovering Journeyman
Read an Excerpt:
Tanked in Tomar
He’s coming…he’s almost here, I can just barely catch a glimpse of him as he rises. Now he’s an arm’s reach away, as I touch the goblet of wine to my lips. And at last he is here – the Ugly American, in the form of an impish, giggling drunk. I know him intimately, yet I cannot stop him from embarrassing my wife and my daughter, because…he’s me.
This was not the turn of events that I was expecting when we reached Tomar. Having driven hundreds of miles northeast of Lisbon, we were on our way to have lunch in the town founded by the Knights Templar in 1157. The Convento do Cristo, a castle partially constructed by the Templars in 1160, looms over the community below, while the center of the town is dominated by the church of Sao Joao Baptista on one side of the Praca da Republica. On the other side of the square, tucked into a receding corner, is a medieval-themed restaurant – not a typical tourist-trap recreation of what Americans are supposed to think is an “authentic” experience, this establishment is the real thing: a rustic eatery with wooden tables and benches plunged into darkness that is only pierced by the candles sparingly placed throughout the building. Even the restrooms are set up to mimic their medieval counterparts. The only concession to modernity seems to be the computerized cash registers at the front of the restaurant.
We gathered at a single table and perused the menu. Deciding to try something new, my daughter ordered the wild boar meat, while Connie and I ordered quail with spinach and potatoes. The servings were generous, and the taste exquisite. And then I made my first mistake: I ordered a light wine for my meal, not realizing that only the house wine came by the glass. When the bottle arrived, I made my next mistake: I did not send it back, but, to save face, had the bottle opened, assuming that my wife and my daughter (and perhaps the other members of our group, to whom I generously offered glasses) would help me to polish it off. My assumption was wrong, but by the time that that revelation should have occurred to me, I was deep into my third glass.
Honor (and pride) demanded that I finish the bottle before I left. Fortunately, the meal lasted for over an hour, which allowed me to pace my imbibing; unfortunately, that was not enough time. I remember starting to giggle at something that Stephanie said. The giggle continued and developed into uncontrollable snickers, punctuated by horse-like noises as I caught my breath between Renfield-like laughing jags. I was only marginally aware that all eyes were upon me.
Lunch and my giggling fit over, we arose (or rather, I slid across the bench – on my side, as I recall – as my daughter retrieved me). Next order of business: the restroom, to wash my hands and…. In keeping with the medieval theme of the place, the wash basin was placed on the outside of the toilet facilities – and so I missed it as I lurched for the men’s room. Inside, there was a long trough running along one side, with a spigot just above; on the other side was a wooden board with a hole in it (and a receptacle made of porcelain just inside, the restaurant’s second concession to modernity and sanitation). When I had finished at the hole, I turned and washed my hands under the spigot.
“Don’t you have to wash your hands,” my daughter asked as I emerged from the darkened lavatory.
“I did,” I announced, as she pointed to the wash basin before me. After a moment’s stunned reflection, I said, “I think I just washed my hands in the urinal.” As a shocked look passed across Stephanie’s face, I blurted, “Then where did I…?
Before I finished the question, Stephanie grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s get out of here before they find out.”
CAFE HOURS: ESSAYS ON TRAVEL BY AN EMERGING CURMUDGEON
Read an excerpt:
Stone Like Thee
Notre-Dame towered over me as I stood gazing upward. This greatest of cathedrals dominated the Ile de la Cite, as it had since its completion in 1345, and now I stood beside the statue of Charlemagne astride his horse – as in life, a towering figure overshadowed by a monolithic Church – reliving memories both sweet and bitter.
So many years had passed since my last visit to this spot that it seemed like another lifetime ago. A vaguely pleasant feeling of deja-vu swept over me like a gentle breeze – a feeling of youthful innocence, lost now. I struggled to remember how it had been all those years ago, but it was as if the very air had turned into molasses as I tried to retrieve the elusive feelings.
And above me, a gargoyle smirked. I knew him. My eyes reached above the magnificent rose window, to the set of columns above. There, to the far left, he observed me. Strange, the impressions left upon our subconscious in our youth. I had first seen him in a 1939 motion picture based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris). In a final scene of that film, the great English actor Charles Laughton, portraying Quasimodo, had hugged the gargoyle and, reflecting on his own loneliness and ugly features, poured his soul into one devastating comment: “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
To a young man, bullied since childhood by his schoolmates, those words crushed my soul and scarred my self-esteem for decades. Bullies move on, forgetting their victims after having their fun; but victims always remember their tormentors. Far worse, however, are the cuts and bruises to the ego that undermine and sometimes destroy self-confidence and self-esteem. We – I – lived a life crippled by the self-doubts that bullying fosters, “knowing” that I would never be good enough to achieve my goals, “knowing” that I was not attractive to the opposite sex.
And every time that I saw that film, those final words would cut into me and make my aloneness more profoundly disturbing. But this day, I gazed up and smirked back. That deformed apparition no longer crushed my spirit. Decades of growth, years of travel and the love of a good woman – my wife Connie – had eased the pains that I carried with me. Only Connie’s absence on this trip allowed a tinge of doubt to creep inside me, but her presence in my heart and her support of my journey forced those thoughts from me.
Suddenly Charlemagne didn’t look so small to me anymore. He loomed over me like the great emperor that he was, obedient to but unbowed by the popes who legitimized his rule. Others may have warped my self-esteem, but I have retaken my life and reshaped my soul; in the end, the bullies have only hardened my resolve to be the person I determine to be.
“Why was I not made of stone like thee?” Because, gargoyle, I want to experience the full range of human emotions, so that I can stand before Notre-Dame and see the majesty and beauty of an entire cathedral rather than a single creature of stone leering out at the city.
“City Sketches is great for the traveler inside us all.” – Lupe Dominguez, reviewer
“…a lovely narrative voice, one that makes me want to read more…(and) a colorful, exciting little volume that those of us with wanderlust will enjoy.” – Claire, Goodreads review