The Giants’ Causeway to Scotland

Scientists say that 55 to 65 million years ago, the North of Ireland was subject to volcanic activity, and that molten lava cooled rapidly, creating fractures in the rock that looked like giant stone pillars, some reaching a height of nearly 40 feet.

It made a vivid pattern in the rock…

…and was such a unique natural phenomenon that in 1986  UNESCO named it World Heritage Site.

But if you ask me, that’s a bunch of blarney.  Better yet, ask any local.  He’ll tell you what really happened is that a giant named Finn MacCool was building a causeway to Scotland.
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A Scottish giant named Benandonner tracked Finn to the causeway, looking for a fight.  He wanted to prove he was the greatest giant of them all.  He had already tracked down and beaten every other giant in Ireland, and Benandonner wanted to serve up Finn with the same sauce.

He hurried home to his wife Oonagh.  “Don’t worry, darlin’,” she told Finn.  “We’ll serve him up as good as he brings.”  She dressed Finn in a baby bonnet and put him in a giant wooden cradle.  Then she  baked 27 loaves of bread with 27 iron griddles baked into them, and one good loaf of bread.  When Benandonner arrived looking for Finn, Oonagh said, “He’s off to the Giants’ Causeway, to make paste out of some buffoon of a giant named Benandonner.  But come in and I’ll feed you the bread I prepared for Finn.”  Oonagh gave Benandonner a loaf with a griddle baked into it, and he broke three teeth on it. “Take it away or I’ll not have a good tooth left in me head!” he shouted.

“It’s just the way Finn likes it, nice and crunchy,” said Oonagh.  “Perhaps that one’s stale.”   Then she gave ‘Baby Finn’ the one good loaf.  When Benandonner saw him gobble it down, he shouted, “Sure I haven’t a chance against the giant whose baby can eat the bread that nearly broke my jaw!”

Oonagh smiled as she watched Benandonner racing helter skelter down Knockmany Hill. “When brains are called for,” she told Finn, “brawn won’t help.”

If you go to The Giants’ Causeway in Antrim, remember that you are walking in a land where giants once tread.

And never forget that many a man besides Finn MacCool would find himself in a pretty scrape, if not for his wife!

All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel theme: Feet.

Autumn in Italy: Every Day a Slow Day

April in Paris, sure, I’ll go.  But autumn is the best time to see Italy.


No crowds, no sweltering heat, and no mosquitoes!  My sister Constance and I rented a little Fiat at Fiumicino in Rome…

…and drove straight to Orvieto, one of the ancient hilltop towns they call “Cittaslow,” or a ‘Slow City.’   Cittaslow status is open only to towns with a population under 50,ooo.  These towns are committed to restricting modernization.  They resist homogenization and globalization in Italy (and around the world), and promote cultural diversity and the uniqueness of individual cities.  The pace of every day urban life is slowed by restricting traffic flow and saving open space for local markets, not parking lots.

Slow Cities fiercely protect their environment.  They market local produce…

…and maintain their own traditions.

Orvieto is situated dramatically on a 300 foot high volcanic plateau.

Originally Etruscan, it was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century B.C.   (Fun fact: the word ‘Tuscany’ is a derivative of ‘Etruscan.’)  Like the ancient Egyptians, the Etruscans believed in a life after death, and were obsessed with death and burial.  Vast cemeteries–cities for the dead–were often carved into cliffs at the foot of Etruscan cities.  Orvieto looked down upon this one.

On top of the plateau, at the heart of Orvieto, stands a cathedral begun in the year 1290.  The facade is impressive.  It has all the extras…

…and even comes with black and white sidewalls.

In neighboring Todi, also a Slow City…

…they tell a story demonstrating the intense rivalry between Italian city-states.  In 1291, a year after Orvieto’s cathedral was begun, Todi broke ground for San Fortunato, a cathedral they claimed would be even more impressive than Orvieto’s.  Todi hired the same sculptor, Lorenzo Maitani, to create a new cathedral with as beautiful a facade as he had created for the cathedral in Orvieto.  Not to be bested by their rival, Orvieto authorities prevented this by having Lorenzo murdered.  Italy is a land of many stories, with such a colorful and passionate history!

My sister Constance is an artist, and was there to paint…

 

…but  I went to research a novel set in Italy.  Even for autumn, it was unseasonably cold…

and wet…

But we didn’t mind.

We made day trips to surrounding villages.  We drove past beautiful scenery, including Lake Bolsena.

…and were lucky enough to stumble upon Pitigliano, my favorite little village in Italy.

The surrounding landscape is dramatic, with a network of ancient ‘sunken roads’ carved by the Etruscans into the soft volcanic rock.

Some extend for half a mile, with walls as high as thirty meters on both sides.  Their purpose is a mystery.  Perhaps for defense, but more likely a pathway for funeral processions leading to the necropolis where tombs were carved into the tunnel walls.

What I loved about Pitigliano had nothing to do with funerals and death, and everything to do with survival.

We also visited Civita di Bagnoregio, built 2,500 years ago by the Etruscans.

Civita di Bagnoregio is accessible only by this narrow bridge–no motor traffic allowed.  In bygone days, goods were packed in by donkey, but now they are delivered by motorized vehicles small enough to cross the bridge.  If you go in autumn, beware of strong sidewinds!

Today, the population varies from 12 in winter to 100 in summer.  It was incredibly charming.  We passed a middle-aged man in knee britches and vest.  Con said, “Is he for real?”  I said, “Only if his name is Geppetto.”  We saw more quaintly dressed people, and wondered if we’d walked through a gateway into the past.  I asked a woman in an old-fashioned dress, who kindly told me, “Chee-nee-mah! Pee-noh-chee-o!”  They were filming Pinocchio, and we might really have seen Geppetto!  I pointed to her costume and said, “Bella!  May I photograph you?”  “Si!” she said.  After posing for a picture, she led me back to where the film crew and cast were preparing to film the next scene.  “It’s okay to be here?” I asked.  “Si, si!” she said, obviously proud of her role in the production.  When we parted, I said, “Molte grazie!”  She lifted my hand  and pressed it to her cheek, then released it to blow me a little kiss.  I found the gesture very moving, and I know exactly where in my novel I will use it.  It’s the sort of souvenir you don’t find in a tourist trap.   And it’s the kind of research you just can’t look up in a book.

All images and words copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Italy.

I am re-blogging this post from my archives–it seemed a good fit for Jake’s Sunday: People.

Writing Between the Lines

Last May, while traveling in France, my sister and I went to Giverny to visit Monet’s Garden.  The line to enter was horrendous, and once we got past the ticket booth, we became part of the swarm of tourists overrunning his house and garden.  We must have heard a dozen different languages spoken, people from all over the globe had come to see for themselves the inspiration for Monet’s most famous paintings.

It was eye candy, a stunning profusion of color!   But instead of the rare and exotic flora I expected, all the flowers were, well, your regular garden variety.  Irises, roses, tulips, pansies, alyssum, forget-me-nots…nothing I don’t grow in my own garden.  Yet they were artfully arranged by height, texture, and color to maximize the effect.  And after all, they were in Monet’s Garden.

I wanted to capture at least the illusion of solitude and serenity, and to…

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Stories Written in Stone

No, friends, I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth.  I was dropping off my daughter Bea, not quite at the ends of the earth, but at Stanford University, 858 miles from home. We left early, so Eli could check out the graduate program at the International Institute in Monterey.  We decided to make a proper road trip out of it.  Thom couldn’t get away, so Bea, Eli, and I kissed him goodbye, and hit the road.

Our first stop was Portland, where we dined with Cousin Bryan, talented photographer, and Friend Barb.

Then we parked on the lawn of Chapman School amidst a happily buzzing crowd.  We were waiting for sunset, to witness a miracle of nature.

Every September, on their fall migration to Central America, as many as 35,000 Vaux’s Swifts stop to roost in the school’s industrial-sized chimney.  It was breathtaking to watch them gather, swooping and dipping in graceful swirling patterns of feather, muscle, and tiny bird bone.

As the sun set, the first little swift disappeared into the chimney, followed by thousands of its traveling companions.  Portland was a rest area for them, as it was for us, on one heck of a road trip.  I had road signs to follow, but had to wonder how the swifts managed to find their way back again and again to the exact same roost.

Bryan suggested another stop–for dessert at funky Rimsky-Korsakoffee House.  Raspberry Fool, pumpkin sundae, frozen lemon mousse came and went, while we enjoyed live classical piano music.  Our table top rotated so slowly we didn’t even realize it until we found ourselves dipping our spoons into our neighbor’s dessert.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but if you find yourself at Rimsky-KorsaKoffee House, be sure to visit the restroom.

The next day we burned rubber–450 miles worth–heading south on I-5 through Oregon, marvelous Oregon!

Where else could you pull up to a gas station, and not only have your tank filled , but get this kind of service?

Not to mention the natural wonders….

We passed through O’Brien, Oregon….

…navigating rush hour traffic without too much difficulty.

It was a long day, but it flew by–not just because we had Good ‘n’ Plenties in the car, but because Bea read aloud to us–first Rex Benedict’s YA Western, Good Luck Arizona Man, and then Last Stand at Goodbye Gulch.  Bea brought the quirky characters to life with her many voices.

We also sang along with the Kingston Trio, Michael Martin Murphy‘s cowboys songs, and Paul Clayton’s Whaling Songs of the 19th Century.   Our favorites are the stories set to music.  Like John Denver’s On the Road, or Liam Clancy’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

We cut over to the coast from Grant’s Pass, and found ourselves in California.

We marveled at the giant redwoods…

…and golden hills.

We braked frequently for wildlife…

…and, yes, for ice cold Diet Coke.

Like the Vaux’s Swifts, we found a very nice place to roost that night.  Ferndale is a Victorian village, with over a hundred Victorian buildings still in use.  We splurged and stayed at The Victorian Inn, which is old enough to have suffered damage during the 1906 earthquake.

We missed the sunset in Ferndale, but went for a night walk on the deserted streets.


Not even a restaurant was open, so we had a picnic up in our room…

…solved all the world’s problems over a hot cup of tea in the Victorian’s cozy guest lounge…

…and went to sleep in beautiful brass beds.

The next day, we took a walk to see the town by daylight.

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So many beautiful old houses!

Then we discovered Ferndale’s terraced cemetery.  I urged the kids to keep time in mind, as we still had 400 miles to drive that day.

We found so many stories there, some shared with the world, others buried so deep we could only wonder at them.

We almost missed the little marker on a weathered  tombstone identifying its occupant as one of the handcart pioneers, who had spent months walking 1300 miles across the Great Plains on foot, dragging no more than 17 pounds of personal possessions, food staples, and a few tools.

The trip of a lifetime.

Some people showed a sense of humor about a very serious subject, or at least their survivors did.

I don’t believe this was irreverence; rather a private joke shared from one world to the next.  There was also a well-worn bench for them to spend time together.  So far away, and yet still so close.

Most were simple heartfelt expressions that summed up a life in a few words.

Sometimes all it took was one word.

While reading stories of flesh and blood written in stone, I came upon a headstone belonging to a young man, who died in 1880 at the age of 23.  His bones are dust by now, as are those of the parents who grieved for him, but their words still ring true.

“A light is from our household gone, a voice we loved is still.  A place is vacant at our hearth, which never can be filled.”

I’m glad the kids were off exploring and the cemetery was deserted, because I started to bawl.  My heart must’ve been feeling what my mind kept trying to forget–that my baby bird was flying from the nest, and nothing would ever be the same.  It only took a tissue and a minute or two to pull myself together.  Truly, I couldn’t have been in a better place for putting this matter into perspective.

We raise our children to be strong and independent.  We do whatever we can to help our little birds learn to fly.  When they do, we rejoice.  It means we’ve done our job, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.  It was a moment that put my whole life into perspective.  Instead of fretting about getting to Monterey before dark, we walked downtown to a lovely shop in search of…

…PLUMAGE.


On life’s journey, I will be a handcart pioneer.  I choose to bring sunshine and laughter and song with me–as much as I can carry, and then some for sharing.  Along the way I will partake of pumpkin sundaes, good company, and live music.  I will fill my heart with stories that make me strong, make me wise, make me laugh.  I will savor the Good ‘n’Plenties of Life.  In every footstep of my journey, I will have faith in the power of love.  And I will always remember that tiny miracle of nature, the Vaux’s Swift, who on its own life journey, always manages to find its way home, even for a little while.

All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Stone.

As You Like It: Reflections (on Life and the Art of Aging)

“All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…”


My mother and her sister Loena were best friends.  Wherever Loena went, she would sing or hum quietly to herself.  My mother used to introduce her to friends saying, “This is my sister Loena.  Don’t mind her; she hums.”

Mom was the one who used to bust Aunt Loena out of Detroit for road trips.  Sometimes to Washington, D.C. to visit my sister Miriam, to Maine to see my sister Constance, or to see me and my siblings in Seattle, especially if the Tigers were scheduled to play the Mariners.

Driving cross country to attend my wedding, they made a late-night stop at a hamburger joint in Iowa. They were laughing so hard the young man behind the counter came to their table and said, “Ladies, I don’t know where you’re going, but I want to come with you.”

Less than a year after Mom died, my first baby was born.  It was a wonder-full time, if bittersweet.  Aunt Loena’s visit was the next best thing to seeing my mom holding my baby in her arms.  I felt my mother’s presence, watching, smiling, loving.

But it was hard for Aunt Loena to get away.  She spent two decades housebound while caring for her mother-in-law, and then her husband.  No one blamed him for his frustration, but he yelled at everyone who came to visit or offer aid, and fired everyone my aunt hired to help with housework and eldercare.  It was emotionally isolating and physically exhausting.  She never complained, and joked that at least her medical appointments for heart trouble, cataract surgery, and blood transfusions got her out of the house.  Like my mother, she knew how to look for the bright spots.

The 911 response team knew her by name, as she had to call whenever her husband fell out of the recliner where he slept.  It was time for a nursing home.  She visited him twice a day, until she caught meningitis.  Her doctors didn’t think she’d survive.  I flew to Detroit to say goodbye, but Aunt Loena is a two-time cancer survivor, who has come back from the brink so many times she makes Rasputin look like a weenie.  It was a wake-up call, however.  She checked out of the hospital with a bucket list.  My aunt is 86, anemic, subject to dizzy spells and shortness of breath.  Oh, yes, and always up for an adventure, so long as it is wheelchair accessible.

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Aunt Loena with my sister Lee and my son Elijah

Our first adventure was a trip to Seattle.  We knew she had a great time, because wherever we went, she hummed to herself like a purring kitten.  That trip was just a warm-up for her dream trip to New York City.

Aunt Loena in Central Park with Bea and me.

When it was time to leave New York and go our separate ways, it was too sad to say goodbye, so instead we said, “Where to next?”  She’d always wanted to go the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  So that’s what we did.  My son Eli flew in from college in Maine, I flew from Seattle, and my sister Lee joined us from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

 We went in October, to take in the fall colors as well as the plays.

I chose our motel for its name.

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In Stratford I discovered the secret to longevity–a nightly dose of Miss Vicky’s Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips!  Aunt Loena is a teetotaler, but she’s not afraid of a little salt and grease.  Got sugar?   Bring it on!

Each time we part, I fear another long drive or a cross country flight will prove too much.  We make a date and look forward to it, but  I always check before I make plane reservations.  “You’re sure?”  And she always says, “Oh, yes.  As long as I’m sitting down, it’s almost just the same as sitting at home.”

We promised to bring her to Seattle for fish and chips this summer, but Lee couldn’t make it.  I asked my friend Monica, also a Detroiter, if she’d consider escorting Aunt Loena.  The next morning I got her reply– she would be delighted!  What a gift to us all!  We couldn’t have pulled it off without her.  Monica and Aunt Loena had been hearing about each other for years, and felt like they already knew each other.  We kicked off a week-long PJ party by attending a performance of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”   We also enjoyed Teatro Zinzanni’s very silly but impressive dinner theater show, “Gangsters of Love.”

Aunt Loena made her famous egg salad sandwiches.  Years ago, when we all drove to D.C. to visit our sister Miriam, we weren’t out of Detroit yet when Mom said, “Who’s ready for an egg salad sandwich?”  It was 10am, but so what?  We were ready for another one by lunchtime.

We picnicked at Green Lake–egg salad sandwiches, my brother Lew’s homemade cookies, and Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips.  We couldn’t get to a picnic table, because we didn’t have an all-terrain wheelchair, but from our park bench we had a gorgeous view of the lake.

I would love to take Aunt Loena to Hawaii or Europe; even she feels it might be too far.  But her eyes lit up when she said church friends had gone to a casino, and she thought it might be fun to try her luck just once–if there was a smoke-free one with wheelchair access.  I don’t know anything about casinos, but an internet search and a few phone calls was all it took to locate a smoke-free casino in Toledo, not far from their wonderful zoo.  I sent Aunt Loena home with a roll of quarters and a promise.  Guess where we’re going next spring!

Saying goodbye is hard.  Aunt Loena said Mom always told her, “Whatever happens, we won’t cry.  We’ll smile, kiss the kids goodbye, and stop the car around the corner to do our crying.”  And that’s what they always did, she said.  But this time we all had to cry, just a little.

Most people in my aunt’s situation prefer the security of a recliner, the proximity of their own doctors, and to be in control, even if that just means the remote to the television.  Who can blame them?  With advanced age, circumstances often change, especially where health, finances, and family support are concerned.  Aunt Loena lives her life as an adventure, and adjusts the size of her dreams as necessary.  But for her, everything is icing on the cake.  New York is as good as Hawaii, and Ohio is as good as New York.  But she would be just as happy humming quietly and playing cards with a friend while snacking on a bag of Miss VIcky’s Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips.

I want to grow old like Aunt Loena, to go out swinging or at least singing.  When I told her she was brave for coming all the way to Seattle, she laughed and said, “All I need is a wheelchair, and someone to push it.

You got it, Aunt Loena.  And you don’t even need to ask.

All words and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck