Seattle Zombie Apocalypse: A Semi-Autobiography

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Yes, I’ve not posted in a while. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction. I do want to finish my travel posts about Europe. They are pending! Next week I’ll have some big blocks of free time and may get them up then (don’t hold your breath). In the meantime, here is something to read.  It’s the second or third chapter of a novella I wrote a few years ago for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It was my attempt to answer the question:  “What would the zombie apocalypse be like for someone like me, a Black stay at home mom to a young child, living in Seattle?” I’ve not done anything with the novella, so I’m posting this for fun.

amateur doodle of a mother and child on the lookout for zombies

Scared of zombies doodle

I will only say a few more things about it: 1. It’s more ‘light’ and action oriented  than my typical fiction, 2. I was inspired to share it after my friend Everett Maroon posted an excerpt of a zombie story at his blog, Trans/plant/portation (go and check it out here).

Maybe Zombies aren’t dead after all! If you choose to read this chapter, I hope you enjoy it.  Feel free to comment even if you don’t.

Warnings/info: This story features a gun, several deaths, a little profanity, has undergone only one revision and is close to 3000 words.


Seattle Zombie Apocalypse: A Semi-Autobiography


I was standing at the door, balancing a paper bag full of recyclables. “I’ll be right back. I’m taking out the trash!” I called to Adween.

“Okay, Mommy.”  My daughter was in the living room banging pots together in her toy kitchen.

I had my keys in the other hand, and turned to lock the door. I always locked up, because it was too simple a thing not to do. The consequences of someone kidnapping my precious, one and only child were too horrible to imagine. All it took was a few seconds. And how well did I really know that guy across the hall, anyway? 

I walked past the elevator, passing through another door to the half-flight of stairs that led to the building’s entry. Another flight of stairs led to the underground garage. Blue recycling bins were lined against a concrete wall. I dumped my bag of papers and glass in one and took a look around. The garage had bright new lighting after a break-in the year before. It was almost too well-lit, especially during the day. But at night, the lights did make me feel safer. Nothing was amiss. Just cars and storage units, a few bicycles. Our condo building was small – only four stories and 16 units.

I knew the names of most of my neighbors because of their mailbox decals. I talked to a few residents – the retired couple below me and the friendly artist from Tennessee who lived one story up. There was also the guy across the hall who had the decency to mumble hello to me. The rest were a blur, sometimes purposely avoiding eye contact due to social awkwardness, or just too busy, breezing to their Land Rover or whatever that was way nicer than our 15-year-old Geo Prizm.

I jogged back upstairs to the lobby and paused. There was someone at the building’s front door, tapping at it and pressing their palms against the intercom buttons. I could hear static and a voice answering, “Hello? Hello?” The person at the door froze and slowly turned their face to me. We gazed at each other through the glass for a moment.  I saw a grey faced youth, maybe 17 years old. His clothes were disheveled and splattered with dark spots. The light over the front steps cast a yellow sheen on top of his brown hair, which stood up in disarray. His eyes were wide and uncertain, but as they perceived me, his mouth began to move. I could hear him through the glass but all that came out was growls and low grumbles. Now both his hands clawed at the door, and a second figure appeared behind him, reaching. My first thought: Zombies. What the hell. Zombies?

But this was Fremont, home of the world’s largest zombie walk, surely this was a prank. That’s what my brain said, but my guts said, “Adween!” and I moved toward the half-flight of stairs leading up just as I heard the BZZZZZZZZZ of one of my neighbors unlocking the front door. 

All you had to do was push. This was convenient when your hands were full of groceries, a box full of books, or a toddler, but I cursed it then, I cursed that damn door that could open without a turn of the knob. My heart leapt in my chest in sync with my foot leaping up two – no, three – stairs. I have no idea how I scrambled up those stairs so fast. I might have flown.

I heard the kid behind me, not shuffling, but bounding. What the hell. Zombies don’t run. Then again, zombies aren’t real, so why did I keep thinking about zombies? I reached the door to my floor and pulled it open, three feet more and I was pulling open the second door leading to my unit. SHIT. The door was locked. My keys! They were on an elastic band around my wrist, and I was shaking, trying to find the key. The keyring suddenly seemed littered with tiny membership cards. I also had extra house keys – for my brother’s place, the storage unit, and my in-laws’ house 300 miles away. SHIT. I was in the hall outside my door, trembling all over. I couldn’t register anything that was happening in front of my eyes, but I heard the pounding in my chest and then, the second door opened.

There he was, five or six feet away. I felt the key slip into the keyhole and I leaned into the door, turning the handle, my mouth wide open.

In the split second it took to yank my key out of the doorknob, he had replaced me on the welcome mat. I pushed with all my weight against the door from inside and tried to slam it shut, but he was on it already.

“You’re not welcome!” I screamed in delirium, confusing my monsters, I suppose. I kept pressing and pressing, and was puzzled as to why this wasn’t working, how could one young kid be so strong? Then I realized there were two of them now.  With my back against the door and my feet braced on the tiled floor of the entry way, my brain swam with profanities. There was nothing here to brace the door – no chair, no table. Nothing to hold them back.

Just then Adween came scamping down the hallway, “Mommy, someone buzzed on the wall phone!” she said, her face the picture of joy. She stopped when she saw the look on my face.

I made the call. I slammed back one last time against the door and used the recoil to run forward. I raced down the hallway, grabbed Adween with both hands, and nearly tripped over a step-stool under the intercom phone. I veered into my bedroom and shut the door. There was no lock on this damn door. No lock on any of the doors except the bathrooms. I tossed my confused child onto the bed and pulled at the side table. Jason and I didn’t have a large bedroom, but we had a full set of bedroom furniture. I heaved at the side table and practically threw it at the bedroom door.

“Mommy!” Adween was gaping at me.

“Not now, baby! You have to be very quiet!!” 

I pushed the side table against the door. I could hear the grumbling and scratching already. They’d obviously seen me come into this room. I weighed my options: dresser or the second side table? The dresser was heavier and I might not be able to move it, but the side table was on the other side of the bed, and would be tough to finagle out of its tight space. I opted for the dresser. I pushed and pushed. Adween jumped off the bed to assist.

“MOVE!” I screamed.

She protested, “I want to help you!”

“I need you to move out of the way and BE QUIET!” The space between the wall and our bed was narrow, there was barely enough room for me to do what I was attempting, never mind with her underfoot. If those … things outside my door figured out how to turn the knob, we were fucking toast. 

Adween hesitated.

“PLEASE sit back on the bed!”

I pushed and pushed, the dresser began to lift up out of its ruts in the carpet and I leaned low and heaved again. It slid. Adween climbed back onto the bed.

“What are you doing, Mommy? Are you being silly?”

I grunted and the dresser slid magically across the carpet to the narrow doorway, right up against the side table. Thank god for cheap particle board. I took a deep breath, then ran to the closet. Up on the topmost shelf was the gun, and on another shelf, a box of bullets. I reached for them, then paused. I plucked Adween off the bed and carried her through the closet into the master bath. I looked around for a second and set her in the tub.

She laughed, “Mommy, why you put me in the bathtub? There’s no water in here.” She poised one finger in the air. “And I have clothes on!” She was giggling.

“Wait here!”

I shut the door between the closet and the bathroom, and grabbed the gun and bullets. I loaded the gun and jammed a handful of bullets in the thigh pockets of my pants. My one pair of carpenter pants, thank the laundry gods.

With a moment to breathe, I could hear something other than the sound of my heart, and the two guys were pushing against the door. They were excited now, almost babbling, “Gagagagagagagagaga!” I could hear their tongues flopping around in their mouths, and the scratching.  I looked around. Where was my cell phone? I usually took it with me when I left the condo, even for a minute. I felt around and found it in my back pocket. For the first time in my life, I hit the emergency call button on purpose.

“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

“There are some sick looking men in my house! My condo. I’m at 4291 Milwaukee Ave N; it’s a green building. I’m on the second floor. These guys chased me into my unit. I’m here with my little girl – she’s 3 years old – and I have a gun!” That seemed to cover all the important bases, right?

“Please don’t shoot me!” I added for extra measure. You can’t be too careful as a Black person in America.

The 9-1-1 operator was calm, and repeated my address to me, and asked me my name.. “Officers have been dispatched.  Can you stay on the line?”

“I think so. I – I don’t know how long. They’re trying to get in the room.”

The dresser was inching back steadily. I stood in the doorway of the closet, ready to shut the door in front of me, but that would do little good. There was no lock and nothing to stop them from turning the handle and walking right in. I thought about locking Adween in the bathroom and holding these guys off – maybe they would get me, but the lock could be delay enough to give the police time to arrive and take care of them.

I opted to wait. One, I wasn’t ready to rely on anyone else to protect my baby, and two, knowing her, she’d just open the door for them once they started banging on it because what did she know? She was three years old. This wasn’t comprehensible to her. She had no concept of dangerous people who wanted to … whatever these guys wanted to do.

I was going with the zombie thing, and about the worst thing that can happen to a person is being eaten alive, so I looked over and – holy crap! They were in! The first one – not the kid I’d seen at the door, but a man who looked to be in his late 20s wearing red skinny jeans – had clambered on top of the side table and the dresser, and was taking the long way around the bed to get to me. I gulped, took a deep breath, aimed for the head like the movies all say, and squeezed the trigger. At the firing range I’m a pretty good shot, but that was shooting at paper!  The sound startled me and the bullet hit the wall right behind him – a hole right in the frame of the window. He paused. I don’t think he was afraid, but maybe curious about the noise. It seemed like there was something going on in his brain about what to do next, and I took that opportunity to aim again – from the corner of my eye I saw the kid opting for the bed route – and fired again. Bullseye!

I pivoted and shot at the teenager standing on the bed. I got him in the chin, but given his position, it went all up into his face and came out somewhere out the top or back of his head.

I backed up several steps so that I was further in the closet, but still had them within sight. The older guy was slumped against the window, his hands in his lap. The kid had fallen back so that his legs were still on the bed but his head and shoulders were on the toppled dresser. The phone was next to me on a little rack I keep in the walk-in closet for papers. I picked it up, holding the gun as steady as I could in front of me.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Kalissa!?”

“I’m here. It’s me. I shot them. They got in the room.” My voice sounded strange to me, like it wasn’t mine. I felt light-headed, queasy.  I wanted to close my eyes, this couldn’t be happening. But I kept my eyes open and on the bodies. What kind of mess was this. Zombies are not real. Do shots to the head even work on them?

“Are they moving, ma’am?”

My senses returned and I shook my head, what living thing can be shot in the head and still walk – never mind attack a person?

“No. They’re not moving. I need to check on my daughter.” I considered whether to shut the closet door or leave it open to keep a view of them. I kept it open and continued backing up, opened the bathroom door and called to Adween.

“Mommy! What’s going on? Wow, that was a lot of noise!” She was still in the bathtub, playing with Jason’s back brush, and looking at me with a raised eyebrow. Like she was thinking, “You’re in big trouble, missy!”

“There were some bad guys in the house, baby girl. I’m protecting you. Stay in the tub until I come get you out.”  I looked back through the closet. No movement. I asked the 911 operator, “Do you know when the cops will be here? Tell them not to shoot me. I’ll put my gun down before they get here but I don’t want to put it down yet until I know for sure these guys aren’t going to get up.”

“They should be there any minute.”

“Okay. I’m going to wait in the bathroom with my daughter. Someone else is going to have to buzz them into the building because I’m not walking past these guys. I am putting my gun down in the closet. It will NOT BE WITH ME IN THE BATHROOM.” I felt ridiculous emphasizing this but I had no idea who they’re sending to my place, it could be a dumbass or anybody.

“Please, tell them. The gun is on the floor in the closet. I’m going to be unarmed in the bathroom with my THREE YEAR OLD daughter. Tell them not to shoot us.”

“Kalissa, I’ve told them what you said.”

I had to take her word for it. I put the gun down and grabbed a spare tension rod that was in the closet, slid into the bathroom, and locked the door. I huddled with Adween in the tub. I know I’d said I was unarmed, but I needed something more than a toilet brush to defend myself. Anything could still happen..

I heard the sirens ten seconds later, and waited for the police to somehow get into the building. Surely one of my neighbors had heard the three or four gunshots? I felt the floor shudder a little – that was the sound of the front hall door slamming, and I could hear footsteps tramping up the stairs, voices. I took a deep breath, and lowered the curtain rod.

Adween thought it was hilarious that I was in the tub. “Mommy, you’re silly! Why we in the tub without any croves on? Are we having a party?”

I grabbed her with one arm and gave her a tight squeeze. I was still worried about being shot by the police, and I didn’t want to be near her if they fired at me. Paranoid? Stranger things have happened. Like zombie looking dudes chasing me into my bedroom for no damn reason. I’d rather be alive and paranoid than dead and the deceased plaintiff of a civil suit.  I stepped out of the tub and stood ready at the door. I listened.

“Ma’am! This is the police! We’re in the bedroom!”

I heard some mutterings of complaint as they maneuvered around the furniture and bodies.

“I’m in the bathroom with my three year old daughter. I am NOT ARMED.” I quietly put the curtain rod between the toilet seat and the sink, then returned to the door.

Another cop’s voice, closer now – he must’ve been in the closet. “Gun here on the floor. I got it.”

Another cop, “Calling it in.”

I heard another sirened vehicle pull up to the street out front.

“Ma’am, you can open the door now.”

“Okay, I’m opening the door, please don’t shoot me. My baby is in here.”

“Ma’am. We’re not going to shoot you. You can open the door.” He was sounding a little irritated now.

I opened the door, and held my hands up.

As his eyes adjusted to the bright bathroom lights, I could see a moment of understanding pass across them as he looked at me.

He nodded grimly, and peered behind me. Adween had popped up, all wide eyes and big smile, “Are you here for the bathtub party, too?” Then she cupped her mouth and howled, “Arrooooo arrooo!”

How to Pack Light for Travel with Kids

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I’ve received a few requests to post something about how to pack light when traveling with children. It’s taken me a while to get to this topic because of self-doubt. Do I know how to pack light? Or do I just pack lighter than average? What do I know? There’s loads of Internet advice on packing light, what do I have to say that hasn’t been covered?

how to pack light for travel with kids

Our bags for Europe.

Well I’m done second-guessing myself.  Below you will find my advice.  And because I recently read Ayoade on Ayoade, I wrote about this as a faux-interview, in which I (as blogger La Reina Cobre) interview myself (HSofía). No, I’m not as informed, clever, or adorable as Richard Ayoade, but you’ll just have to deal with that if you want to know my secrets.


LaReinaCobre
: Give us the details of your trip and what luggage you and Kidlet took.
HSofía: We spent three weeks (20 nights) in Central Europe in November 2014. We had a carry-on size rolling suitcase, a large purse and Kidlet’s miniature backpack. (See photo)

LRC: So, what’s the deal with packing light? Why is this so important to you?
HSofia: I don’t like hauling bags, basically. It makes me hot – even when it’s cold – which makes me sweaty, which nobody wants. I’m paranoid about losing things, so the more bags I have, the more time I spend freaking out: Did I forget that? Where is it? Was it stolen? WHERE IS IT? That doesn’t make for serenity. I also like to be organized when I travel – something I mostly fail at in daily life – and every night I take an account of where everything is, discarding the day’s receipts, etc.; the less stuff I have, the faster that process goes. Lastly, I prefer to be agile when I’m on the road, like a panther fleeing zombies. I can’t be that panther if I’m lugging a suitcase big enough to stuff a grown man in, even if it is on wheels.

LRC:  In the photo I see Kidlet has the miniature backpack, isn’t she old enough to have her own luggage? Or are you worried about her ability to outrun zombies, as well? 
HSofía: Kidlet has a roller backpack we purchased in Colombia after our primary suitcase was stolen in Bogotá, but I decided not to bring it. We were traveling for only three weeks, not two months, so we needed fewer things which translates into less luggage. Also, I knew we’d be moving from city to city at a faster pace than either of us was used to, which meant more travel connections on buses or trains. It’s good to imagine worst case scenarios, so I pictured Kidlet trying to keep up with me in a train terminal if we were in a real hurry. Impossible. I would end up carrying her bag, my bag, my purse, and trying to hold her hand. I currently have only two arms and two hands.

Kidlet on train with headphones, pencil case, sketchbook, water bottle.

LRC: So Kidlet’s backpack was more of a purse than luggage?
HSofía: Well put. Her mini backpack is small but large and sturdy enough to hold an 8oz bottle of water, a few small sketchbooks, her pencil case, her iPad mini and her headphones. These were the things she’d use when we were in transit between cities, and sometimes she took the backpack out during the day, minus the tablet and headphones, which we usually left in our room.  It’s important in general, but for young kids especially, go as small as you can, because the bigger the bag, the more inclined you are to stuff it, and then who wants to carry it? When your kid’s whining because they’re understandably tired and the bag is too damn heavy. Or when your kid is sick or half-sleep and can’t even walk in a straight line. As parent, always remember that you will wind up carrying that s*** – maybe for just a few minutes, but also maybe for half a day. Always ask yourself, “If I have to carry this s*** how pissed off am I going to be about it?”

LRC: So what did you carry around in your purse? It looks roomy.
HSofía: It holds a lot but doesn’t scream TOURIST. It’s the purse I use at home. Most every day in Europe, it held the following: slim notebooks, coins purse, phone, portable device charger, USB cable(s), a guide book or maps, the day’s toiletries including quick makeup, allergy meds, and tissues, and a book or magazine to read. It was also roomy enough that I could stow our hats or scarves in it when we went into a place that was well-heated. Kidlet complains if she gets too warm, so it was important she have layers I could easily stow. In between cities, there was room in the bag for our passports, tickets, more books, kidlet’s stuffed animal, water bottle and snacks.

LRC: One of your on-line pals asked you to talk about carry-on essentials, would you say that covers it? 
HSofía: Yes, I would. A thing for carry-on is to know what you actually do – not what you fancy yourself doing, but what do you actually do in transit? En route to a foreign land is not the time you’re going to learn that new handicraft or do a hobby you never make time for at home. I really just listen to music, write, and zone out. On a good day, I’ll read, but usually am too antsy. My number one carry-on essential is earplugs. I have misophonia and ADD, so earplugs cut down on sounds that make me want to murder people, and tune out some of the stimulation. Headphones are a good substitute for earplugs, but then you’re draining your phone battery just to stay out of jail. {makes scale-hands} You have to do the cost-benefit analysis on that one.

LRC: So what about your main suitcase. What was in there, I’m guessing clothes?
HSofía: Right, sadly you can’t get through Europe for three weeks in a single outfit, so I was forced to pack a suitcase. Every time, I think I’m gonna go minimal, but then there’s this pile of stuff all around and you’re like, “Oh no, it won’t fit.” Packing clothes brings up issues for me. I’m picky about colors, don’t wear low-cut tops, shorts or short skirts, and I’m a busty size 14 with thunder thighs and a shelf booty. Finding clothes outside of the US with those parameters is a full-time job so I pack carefully. Fortunately I didn’t have any fancy agenda, I wasn’t going to any galas. And weather was in my favor – traveling to Europe in November means no sweating. There is a balance in packing durable clothes that we could wear casually and still feel proud to be in.

Boots, jeans, coat, bag, hat, in Italy.

Boots, jeans, coat, bag, hat, in Italy.

LRC: So did you pack a lot of clothes?
HSofía: Well. I had to take into account how often we’d have access to laundry – I estimated about once a week based on where we were staying, and drying time. You have to remember most places outside of the US, dryers are not easily accessible, even if you’re staying at someone’s home. Ultimately, I packed a pair of jeans, a pair of jean leggings, a lightweight black skirt, fleece leggings (worn under jeans or to bed), another pair of thick leggings, footless tights, a yellow hat, a thin silk thermal shirt, two long sleeved shirts, three or four short sleeved shirts, a couple pairs of socks and underwear, two sturdy bras. A thin fleece pull-over with a zip neck that I wore regularly. A long cotton scarf for my neck (crucial!) that was also used at night to protect my hair twists. A very thin cardigan that I wore a lot, a hat and gloves. I had an incredibly lightweight down coat that I bought specifically because it can be stuffed into a bag the size of a football.

Kidlet had two pairs of pants, a pair of leggings, four long-sleeved shirts, two sweaters (she wore the pullover far more), a set of thermals (usually worn to bed), socks, undies, a long t-shirt for sleeping in, two dresses (I overestimated how warm Italy would be), a cotton blazer, the squishy down vest, and a coat.

LRC: That sounds like a lot of clothes.
HSofía: It was too much. I liked the option of a skirt to wear w/ the footless tights and the fleece leggings were great under jeans near the end of our trip when Prague had an icy fog. But next time I’d skip the thick leggings, choose one pair of jeans and one long-sleeved shirt. You find when you’re traveling that some clothes are very comfortable to be in for 12 hours while you’re trekking around, and you want to wear those more the others. Keep in mind that we were outdoors a lot, so most people saw just our pants, shoes, and overgarments. For Kidlet, I’d have packed more pants because her shirts were protected by the sweaters she wore all the time, whereas her pants got grubby from her obsession with sliding across restroom floors.  I also packed a pair of crocs for Kidlet, which was unnecessary because we weren’t going to any pools or staying in hostels with shared showers. I don’t think she ever wore them. She wore her favorite sneakers every day. I wore my Fleuvog boots every day. I’d packed flip flops and a pair of black flats but never wore them. It kills me that I lugged around THREE sets of footwear for 21 days. I also packed a “just in case dress” – a total waste.

LRC: What’s a “just in case dress?”
HSofía: It’s a dress I pack just in case I get invited to something where you need to dress up a little. Which has never happened, and never will until the trip where I don’t pack the “just in case dress.”

LRC: So it’s like an amulet … against being invited to fancy shindigs?
HSofía: I guess. But I’m not taking it again. I’ll risk it. When it comes to clothes, my tip is go with basic items that are easy to keep clean, decently made, and low-key, but take things you love to wear. In short, take the most comfortable clothes you own that you also feel good to be seen in, just remember you can’t take them all.

LRC: The word count is getting to 2000, we need to wrap it up. What else?
HSofía: Books. I have this personal problem where I think I’m going to read books I’ve had laying around for years at home … like yes, it’s on the plane to Italy that I’ll learn what Schopenhauer was talking about. It’s ridiculous. Even after toning it down this trip, I crammed half a dozen in the suitcase. Of course I picked up more books while traveling, so came home with ten books. I’ve since got a Kindle so that won’t be happening ever again, I swear. I also had several guide books, but I dispose of those after I’ve passed through the relevant city. I’m a shedder, which means you pack things that can be got rid of along the way because they’ve been used up before the trip is done.

Also in the bag: Clear plastic toiletry bags, extra writing/sketch books and a bag of crayons/markers. We used the extra books but the crayons and markers went unused because I brought so many that they were always in the suitcase. I go with travel sized toiletries as much as possible. Don’t worry about bringing extras of ordinary items, unless you have special health needs. I shed whatever toiletries are leftover and unneeded the night before I fly back home. Most places supply bathing toiletries so you might not have to buy them at all. Before we left Seattle, I got my hair braided with extensions so I had no hair products for myself.  I always bring some low dose melatonin for sleep adjustment.  Allergy meds, ibuprofen, and earplugs to help sleep at night – you never know what the pollen or noise situation will be. These latter take up negligible amounts of space and affect the quality of your experience, so are worth bringing with you.

LRC:  Overall, it sounds to me like you could’ve done a better job with packing.
HSofía: Yes, and I say this every time, but I will pack MUCH lighter on my next trip. I learn more every time, and every trip’s different – climate, accommodations, length of time. But it’s fun.

LRC: Any parting words?
HSofía: There are pros and cons to packing light, so don’t view it as a competition. It’s about not packing more than you’re willing to haul around. I don’t like hauling things around. Some people don’t mind. No way is inherently better or worse, it’s simply about aligning your luggage with the experience you want to have.

 

Before Sleep, a Reading and a Poem

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It’s near the end of January now and I’m reading several books simultaneously (as usual). The difference is that I’m trying to decide which book to finish this month so that I can have completed three books in January (I have reading goals! See: Goodreads). I have a feeling it might be Richard Lewis’s Living by Wonder. My former rowing coach suggested it a year or so ago and I picked it up again last week and resumed reading.

The essays, all on the subject of the imagination of children and ‘poetic understanding’ – that wondering curiosity that connects us to the parts of ourselves and the world we cannot articulate – are easy to read but deeply thoughtful.

Also got into a strange mental state whilst I was reading the chapter on solitude. Found myself suddenly doubting whether poems even exist. I must be tired, thinking like this. But for a few minutes I sat here wondering whether poems were just a sham, and maybe I’d been hoodwinked, for all these years. What was the difference between a poem and any other group of words, really? Then I sort of snapped out of it, and wrote a poem. Well, I wrote a line, and then another line, and it could have been prose, but took on the physical shape of a poem.

Strange, yes, but don’t have too much time to think on it; it’s Kidlet’s bedtime, and I have rowing practice in six and a half hours. Here’s the poem, in any case.

Untitled
Could I lie here on a bench of the gallery?
I’d like to do that, fall asleep surrounded by this art.
Wouldn’t mind people coming and going,
head soaking up the comfort of their footsteps.
With my eyes closed I’d sense their bodies moving
all through the room, piece to piece.
Attach a skein of yarn to a leg of each person
and tack it down every time they paused, and let
it keep unraveling. I’d be in a web by end of day
woven around and below, woven out of the hardness
of the room. I’m facing the ceiling with my eyes closed
strumming songs on the overlapping paces of strangers.

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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Several weeks ago, my friend Lori over at Project Based Homeschooling mentioned a book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Over the next 72 hours, I saw this book mentioned across social media. A lot of people I knew were talking about it. Normally I avoid trendy things until they blow over (or forever) but when I read the premise – getting rid of the things you own that don’t prompt a “spark of joy,” I bought the book.

The premise appealed to me because of inklings I’ve been grappling with over the past year. When Kidlet and I were in Colombia last winter, I noticed how clutter was not a way of life for everyone, especially people who didn’t live in the city. Due to its three mountain ranges, history of guerrilla warfare and poor government investment in national infrastructure, Colombia is a difficult country to navigate once you leave the metropolitan areas; this makes bringing goods into small town and rural communities very costly.

One of the consequences is that in those smaller places you don’t see a lot of extra stuff in people’s homes. There are no Walmarts, Targets or Fred Meyer one-stop-shopping stores where you can easily buy things you didn’t know you ‘needed’ until you saw them on display. There is no Amazon delivery service or Zulily. There are still toy stores, market places and shops that sell knick-knacks, necessities and cheap sundries, but they are mom-and-pops.  Most people walk to them or take a motorcycle, horse or mototaxi. This is not to say that Colombians are minimalists, nor do I want to romanticize their existence. What I’m saying is I noticed how, because of circumstances often beyond their control, people managed to have a lot less ‘stuff’ and still live comfortably.

This is something I’ve observed often outside the US/Canada, and may be one of the reasons I enjoy traveling. Kidlet and I stayed in normal homes/apartment rentals for our visit to Europe, and while there I paid attention to what possessions the owners chose to have on hand, and how they organized them.  I also thought about what we brought with us, for three weeks: One large carry-on suitcase and my purse, plus Kidlet’s tiny backpack for her mini tablet, headphones, and sketchbook supplies. At the end of the three weeks there were clothes and books I’d packed that we never wore or read. Eighty percent of the little items I’d packed “just in case” were never used.  Several people have suggested I write about packing light with a child and I will do that later, but for now I’ll say — I could have packed lighter! And wished I had.

My clothes out to sort; all my remaining clothes in closet (including coats).

My clothes out to sort; all my remaining clothes in closet (including coats).

So, what does this have to do with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Well, it’s about accurately identifying what one needs and loves. I followed Marie Kondo’s directions as outlined in the book, beginning the process of discarding with my clothes. Just my clothes. (I’m leaving Kidlet and Hubster to do their own discarding later if they want.) It worked out just as she said. When I pulled a plastic tub off the top shelf of Kidlet’s closet marked “Out of Season Clothes,” I found stuff that did give me that “spark of joy” – but I hadn’t laid eyes on them in two years. Because they were in a bag in a closed container on the top shelf of a closet in my daughter’s room. Additionally, I could wear them right now, this month; so much for “out of season.” Meanwhile, there were items hanging in my closet that I looked at every day and didn’t like to wear.

When I was done pulling out the clothes that neither sparked joy nor met a real need, I’d filled four 13-gallon sized bags with clothes — alarming because I’d already ‘decluttered’ three such bags’ worth of clothing a month ago.  In one day, I let go of 50+% of my clothes. I don’t miss any of it.

The second category of items to discard is Books. I was looking forward to this because books take up a lot of space in our 2-bedroom flat. But it’s been trickier. I have far more books than clothes, and some of the books I’ve held on to for years have come to symbolize old aspirations and my past.

I also noticed more pushback from virtual on-lookers. Whereas no one suggested I hang on to clothes, or that it was good to have a closet full of outfits, many of my friends reminded me of the virtues of keeping physical books. Clearly, I have more bookworms for friends than fashionistas (not that the two are mutually exclusive), but I was intrigued. The fetishization of books is another thing I’ve been (idly) contemplating for a while, especially as Hubster has shifted mostly to digital/e-books and I imagine myself as a righteous defender of the independent bookstore.  It’s tempting to take this generally good thing (a book) and rationalize holding on to it because literacy, education and open-mindedness are so valued among my circles.

But there I was, defending the e-reader as preferable for some kinds of books, defending the whole process …. and in responding to my friends I discovered something: that I want to change my life, and that means removing the barnacles from long-held virtues so that I can actually grasp them again.

Marie Kondo strongly encourages honesty in this process — and the truth is I still view the book as a talisman. Kondo writes of clients with dozens of religious charms in their home, and they’ve had them for years, though the charms — if you take them literally — lose their value over a year or so. There’s a mindlessness to it, the idea that a thing retains its value to you forever. As if this object, long after you’ve paid it any attention, is still doing work for you, imbuing you with desirable gifts or powers.

Looking down at my pile of books — Kondo recommends putting all of them in a big pile on the floor to realize the enormity of ones collecting — it was apparent to me: I don’t need this kind of ‘luck.’

All my books - and some of Inara's - in a big pile to sort.

All my books – and some of Kidlet’s – in a big pile to sort.

Some of my books qualify as “sentimental items.” Kondo recommends sorting sentimental items last, but I was confronted with some yesterday and today. What inspires sentiment isn’t always positive. Letting go of some books has been about letting go of aspirations of who I want to be or skills I hope to acquire. And accepting that I am still not that person, even if I’ve had the book for 10 years. Emotionally, it’s not easy. But it’s been better to get rid of these books. They are attached to old, unrealized hopes which have just withered into shame.

If I pick up a book and feel shame, there is no doubt that it’s got to go. I had to take a deep breath and accept that there will always be another book to read, another really, really good book to read.  Not necessarily to possess, but to read. And share and reflect on.

What I am learning in this KonMari process — which I’m still at the beginning of — is that accepting when I have Enough books, is tied to accepting that I am Enough. Enough doesn’t mean Finished or Perfect, nor is it a prescription for the future.  What is in my life today may not be in my life tomorrow, what I love today I don’t have to love tomorrow. The excitement is beginning to mount as I have a much clearer view of the books that do spark joy – with the excess out of the way, I can see them and spend more time with them.

A Question for the Dalai Lama

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This morning on my way home from rowing practice, I started thinking about the recent atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon. What to do? What to do? What does a person like me, so far away and of average capabilities and little power, do? There is a famous account of the Prophet Muhammad telling his followers: Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he should change it with his hand; and if he cannot, with his tongue (by speaking against it); and if he cannot do that, he should hate it in his heart – but know that is the weakest of faith.

That story has come to my mind every day for months now, between IS and Boko Haram abroad, the ongoing killings of unarmed Black people and mentally ill persons by police seemingly given carte blanche here in the US, and school and mass shootings right here in my own state. And of course there’s our purchased politicians working steadily to strip more and more from the poor and working classes, including the quality of the very air they breathe and the stability of the ground they walk on. I mean, what do you even do?  Can anybody do anything?

And for some reason I started thinking about the Dalai Lama – I don’t remember why he came to mind as I sat there, parking my car in the garage – and what would he say about all this? IT dawned on me that I don’t know what the Dalai Lama has to say about any of these issues. Or the Pope. Well, Pope Francis talks about social issues, but these two are spiritual experts – why don’t they give Boko Haram or these criminals running our financial system a call and a talking to?

If those who cause the most pain and suffering are suffering from spiritual disease, doesn’t it make sense to send the most skilled practitioners to go and treat them? At least give it a try? Wouldn’t Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama be volunteering? Am I bananas for thinking this? I think of the scores of journalists and humanitarian observers who’ve been killed and murdered this year in their efforts to keep us all apprized of what’s happening (so that we can denounce it in our hearts from the comfort of our homes), and the medical professionals who’ve watched helplessly as bandits kidnapped their patients, and the thousands of ordinary people – including children – who’ve stood in witness to terrible things. And I think of ordinary chaplains and nuns in prisons and criminal psychiatric wards sitting with the condemned and the wretched as a regular practice, sometimes having to grapple with them physically but mostly grappling with their spirits, for their souls.

Later in the day I was at home and someone on Twitter mentioned the Pope Francis again – and his recent statements about expecting a punch in the face if you insult someone’s mother/religion. I think this Pope is not a bad Pope as Popes go, but what is his purpose, exactly? What has he been appointed to do? Is he challenging himself? And why was the Dalai Lama reincarnated? To what purpose? To inspire whom? To oversee the transformation of what souls?

In education, new charter school or program likes to vaunt itself as reforming when it’s simply plucked the high achieving students out of low achieving schools.  But a school or program that could take the worst performing/worst behaving individual students and help them become successful would be impressive – that would be the proof in their pudding, to whatever claims they’re making of their validity and necessity. So it follows for me when it comes to religious and spiritual leaders. Why are these big shots so involved with us? Why is it left to ordinary, unchosen people to deal with the monsters of the world?

At first I thought, Wow. Am I jabbing a finger at the Pope and the Dalai Lama because I feel powerless? It’s possible. Probably yes, to some degree. But there’s more … and even though I’m not his religion, I felt sacrilegious wondering this: Is the Dalai Lama afraid?  Too afraid? I’ll be open: I’d be afraid to face off  with BH and IS and all those other people wreaking havoc on populations, be it through physical violence or economic violence. Is he also afraid? Is the Pope afraid?

I thought, at least the Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation and his own awareness, what does he have to fear? What a victory it would be if he could guide some of the world’s most lost souls back onto an ethical path. What a victory it would be for the Catholics and the world if the Pope could soften the world’s most hardened hearts. Is it possible? Could they do it?  Is that even their job? Does anyone of us actually believe it’s possible? What does the Pope, what does the Dalai Lama, actually believe is possible?

Yesterday the Dalai Lama was in West Bengal, India, where he gave a speech on the necessity of dialogue to achieve peace.

 

 

Peace Requires Education

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… the one cultural revolution truly worthy of the name would be a revolution for peace, capable of transforming a man trained for war into a man educated for peace, because peace requires a proper education. This indeed would comprise the great mental, and therefore, cultural revolution of humanity. And this owuld mean, finally, the advent of the much discussed new man.

~José Saramago, The Notebook “May 7, 2009″

 

Buying a Car: I Am That Woman!

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We leased a car today – a new one. I’ve never owned a new car, or driven a new car. I’ve never been to a dealership to get a car and had no idea the process would take nearly four hours. When we first arrived I felt snippy — anxious about the financial commitment, the cost, having to haggle, our credit rating (how terrible would that be?), and what will we do with our old car, which was in the shop, and so on … so many things worrying me. I feel old and shrunken up when I fret like that.

And then I felt I had to keep an eye on Hubster, the wildcard. When it comes to money we tend to switch roles – I go from erratic to plodding, and he goes from objective to thrill-seeking. I would rather back away from a purchase altogether if it seems excessive, whereas he will say things like, “Well if we’re going to spend [x amount] on a lease, we might as well buy the car and pay for it in cash.” And then I have to look at him like he’s grown antlers and he says, “What? You don’t agree?” And then I have to explain why that is ridiculous, and how we already talked about this and my god, nooo.

As often happens with us, the saleslady was amused by our banter and maybe the fact that we actually exist as a couple — I suspect a lot of people think it’s interesting that a Black woman and an Asian American man are even together, and I can only imagine what stereotypes we’re reinforcing or destroying as we go about in public together. It’s not something I think about at the time, but sometimes later when I’m home I reflect on it….

Anyway. Back to the car. I was abrupt and guarded and trying to manage all these concerns at once when we first arrived, so I kept the saleslady at arm’s length. She initially struck me as harried and a little dismissive, a woman probably in her late 40s, with whom I surely had little in common.

Then at some point I realized, “Oh my gosh. I’m that woman.” Yes, I’m that 30-40-something woman with the spouse and the kid, who is not being present, who is stressed out, lacking charm or the ability to find humor in things. I used to have customers like this all the time in my previous work, back when I was still in my 20s. And I used to wonder, “How do these sour women get this way?”  Now I know: they are not like this all the time. This is what it looks like when you have so many things you’re trying to take care of that how likable you are in that situation is simply not a priority.

Before I knew it, the test drive had been completed, and I was being given quotes. I was so focused on my goal to not spend more than I felt was reasonable, and to keep to a budget, that I found myself doing something I rarely do – saying No. I sent the saleswoman back three times. I don’t think I’ve ever sent anything back three times for anything in my entire life. Hubster wanted to reconsider, “Well, maybe ….” I put my hand up –at least that’s how I imagine it — and put my foot down. “No. We can’t do this.”

Surprisingly, the saleswoman kept going back and it occurred to me later that even though I wasn’t trying to haggle, this was haggling. She didn’t seem surprised by it. The fourth quote was the one that worked, and we managed to get it without any rudeness or hurt feelings. Now that I know this is possible, “the game” has changed?

Ultimately, we got a solid car on a three year lease, and I don’t think we overpaid too much for it, all things considering. The saleswoman turned out to be very chummy with us. Before we left, I was relating to her as one adult to another.

Even though I’m in my late 30s I still often feel like an adolescent in unfamiliar situations. But the way I view myself from the inside is not how I present anymore on the outside. My life has changed, I’ve changed, in ways I don’t always realize. I hope that I can remember from time to time that Oh my gosh, I am that woman! And what’s more, so is she! And it’s all right. There are good things about being “that” woman. And sometimes, it just is what it is, nothing more.

All in all, a good experience to have on the second day of the New Year.

Drifting into the New Year

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How to celebrate New Year’s when you’re in the doldrums? I’m so often in the doldrums, most people wouldn’t notice I’m there — sometimes it takes me a few weeks or months of getting shadowed up to my knees or waist or neck in it, to realize where I am.  You’d think I’d recognize the signs, and I sort of do, but whether I’m always willing to admit it to myself is another story. Daily life lights up with easy distractions.

But a big warning sign I should stop ignoring is not wanting to write things for the public (via blog or wherever) — I do this mostly out of a bizarre fear of sounding like a loon. How terrible it would be if I hit Publish on something ridiculous! Which is silly for three reasons: One: no one cares. Two: I am ridiculous. Three: not-writing for me is about the most depressing thing there is; it makes everything worse.

Every first day of the year for a decade or so now, I read a passage called “For the New Year” from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.  It’s one of those things that sits on my heart and from day to day I weigh my actions against the ideas presented in that passage, choosing to be guided by it when I do; and just as often, noting when I didn’t follow it — usually because I was thoughtless and forgot.

But this year is the first time in a long time it hasn’t resonated with me. I still think it’s a terrific aphorism, just not the one I need right now.  And although the New Year is my favorite holiday, for 2015 I didn’t plan or do anything special for it. I didn’t even go and get the mochi to make for breakfast as I’ve done for years since marrying Hubster. Late on New Year’s Eve, I regretted doing nothing. Most holidays I’m content with not doing anything special, but it didn’t sit well with me neglecting this day. Not at all.

What a way to start the new year, with a regret. But also a realization: some things do matter, some things do matter to me. And recently I’ve been lost in the fog of discontent that arises from focusing on unimportant things, so finding that I cared about something was like finding a little lamp shining on the path leading out.

I did make a wish for the year, that I posted on Twitter: To have a more lucid and efficient mind, a softer heart, and stronger muscles. Those are reasonably achievable, and what’s more, they are sincere. It’s strange not step into the year with enthusiasm and my usual optimism, but I still have sense enough to know that my life is full of great things, that I have many good fortunes. 2014 was good for me, but part of what makes me sad is knowing it could have been more. And all the more that it wasn’t, was no ones fault but my own. I have another post sitting in Drafts that touches on that called “Aging Gracefully in an Age of Regrets.” Maybe I’ll post it later this week or month or year.

A great thing that happened at the end of 2014 was reading Rilke and having his words finally ring a bell for me. Here’s a part of a poem I found pertinent to this day, a prayer I make for myself.  From Part Two: XIII of the Sonnets to Orpheus.

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Berlin Highlights

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In this post, I’ll share highlights of our visit to Berlin, Germany. Kidlet and I were joined by my long-time friend Elandria, who had met us in Prague. Not only was it great to see my friend again — she normally lives 2,500 miles away in Tennessee — but it was wonderful for Kidlet to get some quality time with her “Auntie E.”

Good morning from our Berlin apartment.

Good morning! From our Berlin rental apartment.

After writing yesterday’s post on Prague I realized how much wasn’t said. Places to eat (and not eat), buying souvenirs, what things confused or perturbed me, history, culture, race and language, our accommodations,  the arts scene — not to mention so very many more photos I wanted to share. If you have a specific question about Prague or want to know more about the experience, feel free to ask in the comments. (If you know me offline, of course you can ask me offline.)

Now on to Berlin, where we spent four nights in a one-bedroom apartment (Air BnB) in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood:

Sights We Saw in Berlin
Checkpoint Charlie
Potsdamer Platz — Salvador Dali gallery — a wintergarten — shopping mall
Museum Island — Pergamon Museum
MACHmit! Children’s Museum
Brandenburg Gate
City bus routes #100 and #200
Berlin Wall
Story of Berlin museum
DDR Museum
Marx/Engels statue

City of Bikes, Berlin.

City of Bikes, Berlin.

Berlin is enormous, flat and full of bicycles. It also feels young and vibrant, diverse and full of history, too. It felt like a place one could just slip into, if one were accustomed to cities and city life.  Getting to experience Berlin with one of my BFFs was great, and she was a real help to Kidlet, too. We all really liked the city and its excellent transit system, and by the end I was trying to figure out if Hubster could be persuaded to move there!

Berlin is also where I realized I’m a selfish introvert used to getting lost in her own head; hence, I am not the best travel companion. That was a humbling experience and I often felt frustrated with myself.  The one time in Berlin that I felt truly at ease was on our last night there — after a few glasses of wine (and uzo). Only then did I feel like a fun person to be around. For the future, I could probably address this problem by: doing daily relaxation exercises; traveling with more than one other adult (so that I can “tune out” as needed without guilt/anxiety); learning to ‘lighten up’ and be less serious/anxious; and traveling more frequently with another adult so that I can get better at it.

My own hangups aside, Berlin was great. It’s hard to list the highlights because almost everything was pretty cool (once we found it and arrived there).

 

Berlin Highlights

Museum Island, Berlin

Museum Island, Berlin

Riding the #100 city bus — Elandria had read somewhere that this was the thing to do, and a much cheaper alternative to those sightseeing buses that charge 40 Euro to take you to the same locations. Many of the city buses are double decker, and we lucked out by boarding the #100 at its starting point, so we had front row, top deck seats. As the bus took off, E and I agreed that this was really nice and the only difference between this and those sightseeing buses was that we weren’t getting a running commentary from the tour guide. Well. Lo and behold! Seated behind Elandria was a Berliner in a burly coat, who appeared to be in his 60s, with a voice made for theater. He began pointing out every thing for us! As we rode down the main avenues, he told us about this and that museum and what sort of collections they held, this and that church and when they were built and destroyed and rebuilt, what that construction project was, and what types of events were held in this popular site.  He told us about the previous night’s celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling. He was not condescending or overbearing in any way. We got the grand tour, he was very kind. I wish I’d been more bold and asked his name or at least his occupation. Thank you, man from Berlin, for the first day orientation!

Seeing the Salvador Dali gallery was another thing Elandria wanted to do, and I ended up really liking it! I’ve seen some of Dali’s more famous works, but this museum was focused on his sketches and lesser known sculptures and paintings. What I loved about it was getting more insight into his process as an artist, seeing the evolution of his ideas through sketches. I was happy that Kidlet got to see this, too, as she does mostly pencil and pen drawings. I left the gallery with a deeper appreciation for Dali’s brilliance as an artist – not just his famed imagination, but his actual, technical skill. I could have sat with some of his pictures for half an hour simply because they were so good. I also learned more about his life, like his 50+ year devotion to his wife, Gala, and bitter feuds with other artists, and for heaven’s sake, the man was burned in a tower that he’d retreated to after Gala died — in all, what a cinematic life. And he is not overrated.

The Checkpoint Charlie museum was more than I bargained for, in terms of information. First there’s the cheesy, touristy thing where you can pay a few Euro to take photos with young (non American) men dressed as American guards, then there’s this strange, deceptively small-looking private museum that declares its dedication to peace and human rights – CRAMMED FULL of text, photos, artifacts and videos. It’s old-fashioned in its presentation. But there is a wealth of information there, countless testimonies and photographs. The unabashed, passionate feeling about the fact that people’s lives were devastated by the Wall and and that the people who rose up against it were heroes was … kind of awesome.  So many historical museums have a cold veneer of objectivity, whereas this one feels very much a product of the 1960s.

View into art/printing room at the children's museum.

View into art/printing room at the children’s museum.

An eight-minute walk from our apartment, right in the heart of Prenzl’berg was the MACHmit! children’s museum. Kidlet was stoked to check this place out, as she’d been toted around for days looking at things that had belonged to dead people. Many Berlin museums are open until 6, 7 or 8 at night. As a tourist, this means there are things to do after dark in the wintry months. MACHmit closed at 6, so we were able to visit on a weekday when school aged children were there, and Kidlet had a blast.

The MACHmit looks like it was designed by Waldorf-obsessed storytellers who’d been given approximately a million dollars. I was taken aback at the exhibits and their high levels of sturdiness, simplicity and beauty. The downstairs was an homage to the way things were done in olden days and the Grimm fairy tales … with printing rooms and a recreation of an apothecary that I wanted to play in. Upstairs was more play-space, a story time area, massive tables for art, and a café.  Prenzl’berg is a trendy area of town with lots of families with young children, and I felt at ease there. The way people dressed, ate and behaved was not that different than what I’m used to in Seattle, with all the emphasis on organic (called bio in German) foods, old-fashioned little dining spots, and probably many other insufferable bourgeoise obsessions that I have no business knowing about.

A final highlight for me was getting to meet a long-time online pal, whom I met long before I even knew Hubster. She is somewhat famous these days (there is a Wikipedia page about her!) and I was slightly disbelieving that she made the time to visit with us. I’m so proud of her and all the important work she does, and to meet her in person and see who she was and what she was like, face-to-face, just made me feel good.

When it came time to leave Berlin, I was not ready. Elandria had to return back to the United States, and Kidlet and I were expected in Munich. Maybe one day I’ll return, and if I do, I will definitely spend some time in the Tiergarten (a 520-acre city park). Every time we passed it, I’d feel my spirit trying to pull away and run in! In Munich, I was able to get in a bit of park ramble, but that’s for another post. A few more photos from Berlin:

 

Berlin postal worker's bicycle.

Berlin postal worker’s bicycle.

More Bikes in Prenzl'berg, Berlin

More Bikes in Prenzl’berg, Berlin

Kidlet and Elandria at the Story of Berlin museum, religious diversity exhibit.

Kidlet and Elandria at the Story of Berlin museum.

We didn't get to explore Nicolai Quarter, but this is an evening view of it, and the Spree river.

We didn’t get to explore Nicolai Quarter, but this is an evening view of it, and the Spree river.

At the MACHmit! in Berlin

At the MACHmit! in Berlin

Elandria and I on our last night in Berlin. Note my wine-induced grin!

Elandria and I on our last night in Berlin. Note my wine-induced grin!

 

Back from Europe: Highlights from Prague

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So I managed to blog exactly once since leaving for our three-week trip to Europe (Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Austria) – and that was on the plane ride there. Oops. Traveling (with a young child) is tiring, and between journaling and updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I’d had my fill of documenting the experience while there. Still, there’s a sense of completion I get from blog posts that I just don’t get from other forms of social media.

Let’s begin with the trip itinerary:

Prague, Czech Republic –  4 nights
Berlin, Germany – 4 nights
Munich, Germany – 3 nights
Verona/Brescia area, Italy – 3 nights
Florence, Italy – 2 nights
Overnight train – 1 night
Vienna, Austria – 1 night
Prague again – 3 nights

That sort of pace has never been my style, but the transitions were not as grueling as I’d expected. I still prefer to stay longer in a single city or to visit more than one or two cities of an entire country, but given the parameters I was working with, it was the best itinerary I could’ve come up with. And I can say that because I came up with 19 possible itineraries – this one was #17!

Wenceslas Square, Prague

Wenceslas Square, Prague

Several people have asked me for highlights of the trip, so I’ll structure my blog posts along those lines. First up: Prague, our arrival/departure city. We spent four nights there at the start and three nights at the end. Initially we stayed in Malá Strana (Little Quarter), several hundred meters from Malostrenská Square (aka Starbucks Square). It was a good location because of its proximity to the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and a few key tram lines. On our second visit, we stayed in a more remote location up on the hill, a few minutes’ walk beyond Prague Castle, near the Loreto. Prague is compact, so we were not very far from things, but the hill is a consideration. Especially walking back after dinner at 10:30 at night when it’s really cold. Which we did, several times. If I visit Prague again, I’d like to try accommodations in Old Town or thereabouts because there were more restaurant options on that side of the river, and a lot of stuff over there we didn’t see much of.

Sights We Saw in Prague
Prague Castle — St. Vitus Cathedral — Golden Lane
Franz Kafka Museum
Charles Bridge
Petrin Park — Tower — Hunger Wall — Mirror Maze
Wenceslas Square
National Marionette Theater
New World Street
Strahov Monastery Library
Old Town Square — Astronomical Clock
Kampa Island
Museum of Miniatures
Nerudova Street
Old Jewish Cemetery — Pinkas, Spanish, and Klausen Synagogues — Ceremonial Hall
Municipal House
Palladium (Shopping) Mall
Lennon Wall
Museum of Ghosts and Legends

 

 

First evening in Prague, at the Charles Bridge.

First evening in Prague, Charles Bridge

Highlights

The Charles Bridge is not overrated. We walked across it eight or nine times and it never got old. It was the first tourist thing we did on our first evening in Europe. It was not crowded,  and early enough we could look up at the statues and see them against a backdrop of sapphire blue sky, with all the waterfront lights reflecting on the Vltava River. Buskers (one of Kidlet’s favorites was a man who played glasses of water) and portrait artists were still around at night. During the day, there are more ware peddlers and a lot more visitors in general. One day I’d like to walk the Charles Bridge at sunrise.

A photo of me asking Kidlet to include overhead sign in the photo of me.

A photo of me asking Kidlet to include overhead sign in the photo of me.

Franz Kafka Museum – Well, I can’t think of a better museum dedicated to an individual, what an homage this place was. It’s located on Kampa Island and there’s a David Černy fountain out front of two men with swiveling hips facing each other, perpetually “urinating” into a shallow pool shaped like the Czech Republic. Kidlet got a real kick out of that as I mulled over the artist’s statement. I spent two hours at the Kafka museum and could have lingered longer, but six year olds have their limits. Kidlet never fussed or complained and spent most of the time drawing in her sketch book, but she found the space, full of shadows and angles, to be eerie.  As we moved from room to room, she’d grip my sleeve and ask, saucer-eyed, “What’s that sound?”

In Old Town, we visited the Municipal House (the exterior of which is spectacular) for the two-room show, Vital Art Nouveau 1900. When traveling, the temptation is strong to see famous warehouse-sized museums, but museum fatigue is real (and lousy). I retain so much more information from a small, well-written and well-curated exhibit on a subject I’m interested in. Here I learned more about the philosophy and influences behind Art Nouveau, especially as it developed in this region, and also about Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, whose work you’d likely recognize even if you don’t know him by name. There were echoes of ideas and feelings I experienced at the recent Seattle Art Museum exhibit on the Northwest School. Some artistic connections were made for me here, and also some beautiful artifacts and film footage of Prague from a century ago.

View from Funicular, Petrin Park

View from Funicular, Petrin Park

On our first full day in Prague — before one of my best friends arrived to join us — we had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours at Petrin Park. It was one of our best days on the trip. We set out for a breakfast place called Cafe Lounge near The Hunger Wall, but accidentally took the long way (I wasn’t lost, just confused about where we were going).

It was a great thing because we stumbled upon the Lennon Wall, and some funny statues of giant babies on Kampa Island, and we were along the water and met friendly dogs and their smiling owners in a little park. After a good breakfast (with good service!) at Cafe Lounge, we walked to Petrin Park. There was the sculpture art dedicated to victims of communism, and near that, a big bed of blue and white flowers. I got yelled at by an impatient transit ticket seller, who was then yelled at by an Englishman who came to my defense. Then we took the cable car (aka the funicular) up to the top of the park, where we saw the replica of the Eiffel Tower and spent some time in the Mirror Maze (a major highlight for Kidlet). It was still pretty Autumn that first week of November, and we got to see Prague’s trees full of changing leaves. Petrin Park was calm and interesting, with lots of paths crossing the hills. There’s a nice playground at the bottom of the Park, off of Ujezd.  We returned a day or two later with my friend and climbed Petrin Tower (299 steps, and the elevator was broken – be sure to ask after the lift’s condition before buying tickets if there is anyone in your party unable/unwilling to climb those stairs!). It was cold and misty on the second day but the views were still grand.

Kidlet was a real trooper and let me visit not only the Old Jewish Cemetery but several important buildings related to Prague’s Jewish culture and history in the Jewish Quarter. The Cemetery is a sight to behold, with graves — dating back to the mid-15th century — scrambling over each other and every which way.  Adjacent to the cemetery is the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of 80,000 Moravian and Bohemian Jews killed by the Nazi regime are written on the walls. In the upstairs of the synagogue, we looked at the art of children from the Terezín (aka Theresienstadt) Camp. Kidlet’s mind is still very much in a child’s world of cute critters and robots, candy, hearts, flowers and rainbows, but I talked to her about what we were seeing here.  I know she doesn’t well understand the context of World War II (nor does she care to go into details of history) but she listened and seemed to think about it.  Another highlight, half a dozen blocks from the Cemetery, was the Spanish Synagogue. It’s done in a Moorish Revival style, and all I can say is, do an image search and see for yourself; I stepped in and was in awe.

Well, summing up just the highlights was tough. I have so much more I could tell or write about Prague, but no one wants to read a 2,000 word post. I’ll just end by saying I truly hope to visit Prague again — it’s beautiful, approachable and very romantic. Also, one final highlight: Kidlet lost a tooth there on our very last night!

Lost tooth!

Lost tooth!