Tag Archives: Travel

Roma, non basta una vita!

There is one question that I keep asking myself…when the world opens up once more, where should we go first?!

Will it be Rome? Will it be London? Will it be Paris?

For me, the answer would absolutely be to go to Rome.  But what would that first day look like?

Well, arrival day in Rome is always filled with both confusion and amazement.  During the cab ride into the city, you pass flat fields on either side and through a modern suburb that houses a replica of the Pantheon of the ancient city that I am heading to.  And then suddenly you take a left turn and up the Aventine Hill.  Now I am on one of the most beautiful of the seven hills.  Time to visit the orange orchard and look through the key hole from which you can see the dome of St Peter’s.  Fairly dramatically across the road sits the villas of Ancient Rome along the Palatine embankment.  And just below, there are the remnants of the great circus Maximus.  Dogs walk where great chariots once raced.

The ride becomes breathtaking now – there’s the Mouth of Truth, two ancient temples along the river, the theatre of Marcello, and then the great Cordonata Capitalina leading to the Campidoglio.  Next to that are the medieval stairs of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli and underneath are some Roman houses that provided a foundation for the 19th century Vittorio Emmanuel II “wedding cake” monument.  It’s a sightseeing and tourist landmark but not much else!  But now we are in the Piazza Venezia.  Down one end through the myriad of streets is the Pantheon and down the other end, the Colosseum.  And then we have disappeared into Rome.

Rome is truly an open-air museum in itself. My favorite Roman walk begins in the medieval square in Trastevere, heads across the ancient Roman bridge, and continues through the piazzas that tumble like centuries before arriving in Bernini’s Piazza Navona.  To get there, you first pass through the Piazza Farnese with its beautiful Palazzo, now the French Embassy, and the two bathtubs from Caracalla that anchor the square.  The Campo di Fiori is next with its exciting bars and marketplace.  Here the statue of Giordano Bruno marks the square.  The best pizza and the best pasta carbonara are available here!  Also this is not far from what once was Teatro di Pompeo, precisely where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Across the busy road, you make your way into the Piazza Navona.  This is probably the most famous square outside of St. Peter’s. Bernini went to town here with three fountains, the most famous being the fountain of the four rivers.

You continue the long walk via the Pantheon along the Corso to the Spanish Steps and ultimately to the Piazza del Popolo. In between, I love to grab a coffee at a bar, have a Campari, and maybe do some shopping on one of the tiny streets that surround the Senate Building. If I could sneak to Rome in January with the winter sun and empty streets, it would be the start of my reconnection to travel that I have sorely missed. Roma, non basta una vita!

As the World Turns

So, the world just turned upside down.

An election in the USA will bring change and hopefully a more international orientation. Vaccines are being moved through final phases to help us see the end of this desperately bleak pandemic. At the same time, the world has gone into lockdown once more and cases of Covid-19 in the USA are spiraling out of control.

But somehow, this week felt better than prior weeks. It may be because there is more Covid-19 testing, better treatment facilities, and above all, there is now a clear pathway out of this difficult period. Our travel world, which has relied upon a vicarious remote world wandering through cities, museums, and off-the-wall places, now at least starts to see a crack in the door. Airlines are still running restricted capacity and most places are closed…but there is a crack in the door. It’s not much but some light is shining through.

I don’t quite know how it will feel the first time that I go to an airport, check-in for the flight, sit on an airplane, and wait to be whisked to a foreign place. It has been a part of every month of my life for so long. Looking for that day to come.

Dear Japan

Recently, I was looking back at some of my photos, wondering about travel, and thinking of how the globe in my office catastrophically became unglued. Timing is everything! One of my to-do tasks is to get some Gorilla Glue so that my globe can start spinning again. That will be the catalyst for a return to travel. Good old super glue.

I was busy writing down all of the places I have traveled to over the last year or so. Notwithstanding the current war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, I did get to see the great steppes of the Hinterland that stretches all the way to Siberia.

And in between visits to Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, I thought of Japan. A place that to me feels so calm and serene, which I visited twice last year. I thought it was so impressive how their handling of the virus has been. The very positive ways they have dealt with the pandemic so that people can travel responsibly and with confidence inside of its borders.

I was prompted to think of this because our wonderful colleague who organizes our Japan trips sent me a message. Things are looking up in Japan, she told me. It probably will be one of the first places we can re-enter for travel. So I sat, thinking about Japan a lot. Was it the food, the high-speed trains, and the ancient traditions that hang beautifully in the air over Kyoto? I thought of the evening maiko performance in Gion and the chance of being able to run into geishas during the Toka Ebisu festival in January.

I thought of how profound it was to visit Hiroshima and the island of Miyajima with its famous Itsukushima Shrine. And of course, the frisson of Tokyo. I distinctly remember going into Tokyo Station to buy bento boxes and a set of masks. I didn’t even think that the masks, which I bought primarily as a souvenir, would become part of my daily living. In the Asian world, and especially Japan, masks have been commonly worn for many, many years.

So, dear Japan, I miss you and I cannot wait for that daily flight from Boston to Tokyo Narita to come back. I can’t wait to see Godzilla in Shinjuku and taste some of finest ramen noodle dishes in the world. I can’t wait to eat sushi and miso soup for breakfast. I can’t wait to feel like the tallest guy in the elevator, because I was, and I can’t wait for that feeling of being so far away in such a foreign place, that it gave me goosebumps to even imagine that the world is round. I am totally ready to travel.

The Current News

I find myself trolling the news websites to get a better sense of the pandemic internationally. My usual go-to sites are the BBC and The Guardian. Catalan closed down, the UK has gone to a tiered system, Liverpool is higher tiered and London is lowered tiered, France is in lockdown, and the Czech Republic seems to have shut its borders. Australia is reeling from a recent spike in cases and Switzerland has eliminated specific countries from visiting! And all of this happened within the last 48 hours.

And I thought to myself, that travel is much more resilient than all of this noticias. Travel will endure. Honestly, if the explorers could get on a boat the size of my shoe and spend two years trying to find the spice kingdom by going the wrong way, then these times will be overcome.

Yes, there has been a lot of tragedy. This pandemic will be something we tell our kids and our kids’ kids about. But the world will move on and we will too. The other day, I wondered if the pause in pollution that this had permitted was some divine way to give us a few more years of sanity before the horror of climate change eventually envelops us. We have an election and Brexit and corruption and still the world spins. I may have missed a vacation or two over the past eight months, but at some point, a new normal will come into being.

I was thinking all of this as I stared at the fabulous dance poster in my office of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s a black and white contact sheet that has been blown up. My dad loved the Fred and Ginger movies and we watched them every Sunday in the wintertime in England. There is a great line from one of the songs in the movies that sort of sums it up: “There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s music and laughter and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”

Love that song. Love travel. Who doesn’t? Let the good times roll.

Observations: How Art Transports Us

I have a lot of art and photographs in my new office. I sort of like the clutter. There is the lampshade with the heron, the soccer poster from 1930, and the deco picture of a woman playing golf.

I love how my David Hockney’s remind my of my time in Santa Monica. There’s a beautiful picture of the Pantheon by an unknown artist, and my black and white photo of Joni Mitchell, given to me by an old friend because my day always starts with “Ladies of the Canyon.”

I have a poem from my daughter and a wild picture of me when I used to act, a large contact sheet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, and a corner palazzo in Venice along the Grand Canal. I feel like I am in Doctor Who’s tiny tardis. None of this art or photography is worth a fortune, but all of it is priceless to me.

During this pandemic period, I treasure a place that can transport me somewhere else. A place where I can travel and a place where my imagination can tap into some astroplane. Until we begin our journeys again, these places become important. Memories of walks through museums and cities, a river walk or a skyline.

Yep, my office does look a bit like Gertrude Stein’s living room now, sadly without the original Matisse and Picasso paintings! A little cluttered, but for the time being, a quick swivel of my chair and I have been to more places in 10 seconds than any person deserves. For the time being, that’s better than not.

Observations: How Arriving in Rome Leads to Magic

Let me just say, I miss Italy – the walks, the food, the friends, the light, and the myriad of personalities represented by each tiny kingdom that makes up this crazy country. Whenever I travel to Italy, I find myself in a reoccurring predicament sort of like Groundhog Day…the arrival day. There is a reassuring madness and transition that takes place every time.

In Rome, if you made the mistake of checking your bag, you are often resigned to a long wait by the carousel where I am convinced the baggage handlers gather underneath and watch us poor checkers of bags wait and wilt, teasing us with an early movement of the carousel, encouraging us to jostle to claim the best spot for a smooth departure. Mistake number one. You checked your bag! Rome’s airport is so convinced that it will be a long and possibly fruitless wait, that they have installed a children’s playground and coffee/wine bar to ease the pressure of the moment as the baggage handlers do whatever they need to do to maintain their part in this commedia dell’arte.

And then at some point, if you’re lucky, the bags show up. There is a frantic grab as everyone, except the unlucky ones, retrieve their bags and head to the uscita. And then the next round of fun begins.


Taxi? No grazie.
Metro? Dove? Bus al centro, mi dispiace! Nothing comes easy.

The signs at airports in Italy are always confusing and there are often a couple of exit points so that somebody waiting for you may be in the wrong place. It only adds to the story. By nature, Italians are overly detailed and under sourced in terms of organization. So there are rules that make no sense and rules that are deliberately confusing. And everyone in Italy think they make perfect sense – which they do if you’re Italian.

Confusion, chaos, where is the metro, how do I get a ticket, where is the motolaunch in Venice, which way do I go?! Italians almost revel in that power of perfect and complete orderly chaos. It’s their word after all – caos.

At some point, you survive the airport arrival and end up in your hotel. A little frustrated, but how bad can it be as we are talking about Italy!

Then the arrival moment…the passegiata.

Through the busy piazzas and the bits of Bernini, past the fountains and the Baroque and Roman stone, you stop and take an espresso, or a gelato, or a beer, or a Campari. And you look out onto the movie set walking by and you know something beautiful has happened without your knowledge. You have passed to the other side. You have disappeared into Italy, and have become an observer of all those things that you found frustrating and they have turned into beautiful moments. The transformation is complete.

No need to toss coins in the fountain. The spell is cast and without even a thought, but with a skip in your step, you go about your day secure in the knowledge that you will return.

Observations: How Cameras Capture Our Travel Memories

We just moved our offices and my new office has become a bit messy as I untangle some 20 years of old office life and reorganize it in our new and cool space. In between sorting out my artwork, I also find myself looking back at the photos I have collected over the years. They resonate with me more than ever during these strange times. I discovered a box of slides with a scrawl of countries written on the outside of the box – Africa, Egypt, Italy, Anguilla, The Soviet Union, Morocco – all stacked in dated boxes alongside an old projector and a few carousels. All of those memories stacked into these boxes. Strange. I promise myself every year that I will get these slides developed into a collection that I can store digitally. My kids bought me something one Christmas so that I could do that but it seemed so time consuming that I never got around to it.

Those were the days of my Nikon Nikkormat, my first foray into real photography. I pretty much stayed with Nikon over the course of my SLR career. Lugging the camera wherever I went and loading in ektachrome, kodachrome, or tri-x for black and white. In those days, you couldn’t see what you just shot and you didn’t want to waste too much of your 36 exposures so you became incredibly disciplined when taking photographs.

It’s difficult to recall when the camera got left behind (metaphorically I mean). Although I can still remember losing my Nikon in Morocco in a marketplace. At least I only lost 36 exposures and the camera itself. Then one day, I moved to a tiny, point-and-shoot camera that stored photos digitally. I never really liked it, and I remember it was so slow when you needed it to be fast, but it was easier to travel with. Then in between my Blackberry and the IOS revolution we have today, I got my first iPhone. And that changed my world.

How peculiar to think we no longer travel with a giant camera and a couple of huge lenses. Somehow I miss those days. The precision of changing the ASA or the aperture, loading in a new roll of film, and storing the old. The excitement of developing the images. Some good, some to be tossed, some become framed and hang on the wall in the house. Memories of a holiday and a place in time. A sphinx, a camel, a faraway place captured forever and hanging on the wall by the kitchen.

I was thinking about this because in my office, amidst the rubble and confusion, I have a collection of photos by Robert Doisneau – a French photographer who took more than 325,000 negatives over a career that spanned 60 years. He was based in Paris and most of his photos were of Paris life and its personalities which he often observed as a result of spending hours on a street corner.

His photography hung around a phrase in French: “un pêcheur d’images.” A fisherman of images. He felt this best described what he did. In order to get what he needed, he had to immerse himself in the life of that moment. As he said, “Il fallait que je me mouille.” He had to get wet to feel the moment. It’s the essence of “being there” versus not. If it’s raining, walk out and feel it. It’s the power of travel. Getting wet when it rains.

In these days, it is what I miss the most…Ironically for a Brit, getting wet when it rains! The curiosity that takes me on mysterious journeys, leads me to observations, and like a fly on a wall, enables me to see things differently without getting in the way of the moment. Looking through Doisneau’s collection, I felt like I was almost there. Sort of traveling and sort of time traveling. All from my office in the Fort Point area of Boston.

Reflections on the Pandemic: A Slow Reopening

As Europe has slowly opened this summer, I get to see the places that I frequent through my friends that live there. I get to look at the canals in London, the empty piazzas of Venice, I get to walk through the royal parks and Hampstead Heath, and I truthfully miss it all. Travel is such a compelling part of my life and my colleagues’ lives, that at some point we are all going to jump on a plane to go anywhere and begin the journey once again.

I was thinking of this the other day as I was driving from my house to the office in Boston. But by instinct, I took the wrong turn and I ended up at Boston’s Logan Airport. I almost felt like parking the car, getting out, saying hello to the British Airways staff, and just having a walk around Terminal E. I probably need to see a therapist and I quickly continued back through the tunnel to correct my mistake and headed into the office. But in the meantime, I am waiting for departure day to arrive!

Reflections on the Pandemic: The Office

Some people were born to be remote workers. They wake up, make some coffee, have good Wi-Fi, and then drift off to a room that is all kitted-out for a virtual office. They love the non-existent commute and they’re very self-motivated. They don’t miss the socializing in the office. Type B people…highly focused, not attention seekers. The money and time they save on lunches and travel alone means that they actually make more than all of us. In addition, babysitting becomes less of an issue.

I really had thought of what it would be like to be a remote worker – to not have the buzz of the office, the people smiling as I grab my morning coffee at Flour Bakery, the impromptu meetings, the beer after work, the buzz of the city. I just really couldn’t imagine myself being in that world of the remote workers. But…here I am tapping away, sitting on Zoom, and looking out the window. I am now one of them, a remoter, and it feels weird.

When I closed my office in mid-March, we all became affiliates of the remote club. Little did we know how long it would last. There are some people who never really get comfortable with working from home (literally and metaphorically). And there are some people who just simply find it so easy that they never want to return to the office. In fact, you may have to plead with them to come back.

Over the course of the pandemic calendar, one word gives it away…remote. I feel a bit remote. I miss the buzz and banter. I miss the innovation and creativity that often comes about through this buzz and banter. I miss the faces. I miss the city a little bit – probably because I’m not a rural guy – but I’ve adjusted to the sounds of hearing coyotes in the evening and wondered at the miracle of dragonflies and bats. And I wonder when the world will return to normal. And then I think that this is normal now; dragonflies are beautiful, bats eat mosquitoes, and maybe I’m going mad!

Reflections on the Pandemic: An April to Remember

As I now sit out in Western Massachusetts watching the annual invasion of Japanese beetles balanced by an influx of hummingbirds and crickets and dragonflies, I was thinking how quickly April passed and how Easter came and went. That’s when I realized I had never spent Easter in the USA. I always find myself traveling because that is when our groups travel and it’s one of the busiest times of our year. I find myself jumping on planes and trains and moving between London and Paris, while sometimes catching the processions in Seville or other times listening to the Papal Blessing in St. Peter’s Square. I rarely spend a spring without visiting Versailles. Even Notre Dame under construction would have been a place I would go. After all, I was there last summer when it took fire and I witnessed the scene from the top of the Montparnasse Tower with the fabulous Marie-Helen Hickman, our Frenchie-Alabaman Tour Manager whose whole family of stars have worked with us over the years.

So, this year I had Easter in Western Mass for the first time ever. April in New England is always interesting as we still have the occasional snow storm, the last splurge of winter, in between the mud season getting going. April came and went but at least I got to enjoy Easter egg hunting with Cecilia, my grandchild. And still we thought we would be back in travel mode sooner than later. We still had a bunch of groups who were hanging on for the summer. Although increasingly people began trending towards rolling over their trip to next year.


And then global travel started to really shut down. I would get reports from Jessica, our niece in Rome, who was locked in her apartment with her husband and daughter, Beatrice. Italy was under complete lockdown and masks were already mandatory. You could not leave your apartment without a certificate and you had to prove you were going to either the pharmacy or a grocery store. Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, all came tumbling down too. The UK followed – albeit halfheartedly at the beginning. And the USA finally started to take it seriously. Suddenly I started to delve into my bag of tricks and retrieved as many magnets as I could from all of the trips I had taken. I popped them on my fridge. Every now and again when I go to grab my milk, I stare at a magnet and disappear into whatever takes my fancy and whatever is on the fridge. I will always regret not buying more magnets for times like this.

And the toll of Covid-19 continued to spiral. Fatalities, sickness, it all became very real and very frightening. It was clear that we were going through something that we had never experienced before as individuals, as a company, as families, or as countries. This was huge.

Reflections on the Pandemic: The Beginning

Strangely enough, this whole challenging saga began after my second trip to Japan in January 2020. After visiting only a few months prior, I had returned to the country again to see Tokyo and Kyoto, and this time I even got to visit Hiroshima. As I love Japanese food, I ate up a storm on this trip, and I dove deeper into Japanese culture. Even knowing that this was my second time there, it was still mind-blowing and spectacular. But there was this thing in the background that I was aware of. I had picked it up on the BBC News and knew it was out there. But I thought it would be resolved.

There was a cruise ship in Tokyo Bay that had been stranded while they tried to figure out what to do with people who had been infected by isolated cases of this novel virus, Covid-19. I think we all thought that it would be sorted out quite quickly as Japan is highly organized and efficient and that they would help to isolate whatever this was, and life would go on. For me, I continued to travel.

Fast forward a few weeks to coming through the Marco Polo Airport in Venice on February 20th. It wasn’t a big deal but I had my temperature checked before immigration. Immigration in nearly every European airport is electronic. So, it was strange to see somebody jumping out of nowhere with a machine that detected your temperature. I didn’t think too much of it and headed into town on a boat across the glorious lagoon. Had I known what was about to follow, I think I would have asked the motoscafi guy to go super slow so that I could taste every single aspect of that journey from the airport into Venice. It is probably the greatest single airport transfer in the world.

I checked into the hotel and went for lunch at a cool place as I waited for a friend of mine to come in that evening. I even met up with an ACIS group. I hung out with Anna Costes, our fantastic and fabulous Tour Manager, and we made some silly poses with masks on. We didn’t think much of it except how lucky we were to be in a town like this, in a setting like this, as everyone walked around in wonderful Venetian Carnival costumes and masks. It was a theater set in the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The next day, I walked around the city and people were flooding in from everywhere since it was Saturday. At Carnival, the city usually enjoys three million visitors. I had a bite to eat, left Venice, and drove with my friend to Switzerland. Every year I go skiing there – the same hotel, same mountains, and same friends. We have been doing it for 20 years. I know exactly what is around every corner of the mountain. Believe me, at my age I’m not looking for surprises. I’m more of a sightseeing skier and I like to coast and cruise while I take in the scenery. I even know what the hotel room looks like and I know the people in the hotel. Had I known what was about to unravel, I would probably have savored that week a little more. But same hotel, same mountain, same bartender, same friends. It seemed just like any other week in the mountains. Except it wasn’t.

This was the last week that Europe would be open. That week was when the cruise ship in Japan became a deteriorating situation, and Japan had shutdown. Italy, one of the first European countries to experience this outbreak, started to shut down too. The Carnival was cancelled. Borders were closed. Literally the lights went out during the course of that week slowly but surely. By the end of the week, Europe was shutting down.

By the time I got back to Boston, I wasn’t even sure what kind of entry issues immigration would give me. I boarded the busy British Airways plane from London to Boston, and upon arrival, I had to ask somebody if there was any special immigration protocol for Covid-19, or new entry requirements, or new concerns. An immigration official said that nothing unusual was required. Welcome home. There were no temperature checks or masks being worn then and they let me through as normal.

The first 10 days of March was confusing. Italy had essentially shut down right after I left, some countries remained fairly open, and we still had groups traveling. The last two groups out there were Jim Minor from Sarasota on an amended European itinerary, and Lucy Bartholomee from Dallas was in Australia. Everyone else had cut their journey short or rethought their plans. By mid-March, everyone stopped traveling. In four weeks, this virus, which started in China, became global.

I was thinking of all the traveling I had done since the start of the year. When I was in Barcelona in January to celebrate our Global Teacher Conference (with more teachers than ever before), I wish I had stayed a little longer to taste this wonderful city by the Mediterranean. It always energizes me. When I went to Bruges, I was so charmed by the place, and a beautiful evening hanging out in a gorgeous converted monastery, that I nearly took it for granted because I knew I would be back since that’s what I do. I travel, I wonder, I learn, I travel, and it changes me. And then the world stopped.

Roman Ways

Beatrice en Vélo

My niece lives in Rome and has been there since 2001.  Due to Covid-19, she has been locked down since the end of February and has only recently been able to leave the apartment to start enjoying again the beautiful city that she lives in with her husband and 9-year-old daughter, Beatrice.  As part and parcel of being on lockdown, she has been tutoring Beatrice and working on all sorts of projects with the French school that her daughter attends.

This latest project was one that I was particularly struck by as it was based around a French poem from Jacques Charpentreau.  The idea behind the original children’s poem, called “Paris en Vélo“, took us by bicycle through the various districts of Paris.  Below is the original poem and assignment.

Beatrice’s project was to replicate the poem using her own words and taking us through her neighborhoods in Rome.  Below is her final poem along with a picture of Beatrice on her bike.

It is extraordinary for me to follow Beatrice and Jessica’s adventures on WhatsApp.  Most of all, it is incredible to watch the creativity of her teachers as they continue to keep the kids engaged while they were literally at home unable to even walk 100 meters outside.  “Rome en Vélo” is wonderful because Beatrice was able to take her bike out for the first time in nearly three months.  While she couldn’t cover all of the neighborhoods, she was able to experience life outside of the apartment en vélo.

For all of the teachers who have been teaching remote over the past 2.5 months, Chapeau Bas!  Thank you on behalf of all of the parents and students.  Whatever country, whatever subject, you have all done quite an amazing job of keeping the knowledge flowing and the creativity blowing our way.  I wanted to share this delightful poem because it says so much about the innovation and importance of education even when things are so difficult.  Of course, grazie Beatrice for being the inspiration.

And I Found Myself in Venice

Today I dreamed of Venice. I had never been to Venice during Carnevale di Venezia but for some reason, some weeks ago, I found myself transiting through this great city and arrived in the middle of the Carnevale spirit.  Venice in the winter is something incredible.  If you fly into Venice on a clear day, you are struck immediately by the silhouette of the fish that is Venice from high above – stretching all the way from the Arsenal to the Piazzale Roma.  Upon arrival, there is a new walkway at the airport that takes you from the terminal building to the ferries and motor boats.  From there, after usually a little bit of chaos, you find your boat and sail across the wide lagoon.  Looking back beyond the airport, the snow capped Dolomites are a stunning sight like the backdrop in a theater.  You pass San Michele Island before entering the small canals that lead into the main artery of the Grand Canal.
Venice never ceases to amaze.  It is like a Hollywood set – the Doge’s Palace, the gondolieri, Santa Maria Della Salute, San Giorgio on the Giudecca, and of course, the jewel in the crown, the Basillica of San Marco and its clock tower looking out across the square.  In this dream, I walked through the streets and into the piazza where I ended up in the middle of the Carnevale.  There were elaborate costumes, people posing at the Quadri, and walking deliberately, slowly, disguised with their Carnevale masks.  Everybody appeared to be on show, with some sitting in the piazzas, where musicians in costume played, while others walked along the Promenade of the lagoon.  It is the most colorful spectacle I have ever experienced.  In my dream, I walked through the centuries in slow motion with all of these characters.  I never thought that three or four days later, the narrow alleyways, the main piazza, and the canals would be empty of the three million people that come to celebrate Carnevale every year.  Venice would then take on an emptiness that it will probably never see again.  I cannot wait to go back.
It is bizarre in this time of COVID-19, to think that the masks that we wear now are strangely derived from this ancient festival where people actually wore the masks to conceal their identity and to have fun.  The masks enabled different classes to mingle together through the festivities and all sorts of debauchery took place.  A lot of people ask about the long nose masks and they are particularly relevant today.  The PesteMaschera were used by doctors to treat people with plague-like symptoms by stuffing the nose with herbs and spices.  The aroma enabled the doctors to work without the stench of the plague around them.  In addition, they believed that the mask would help ward off the plague.
The Venetian mask makers, the mascherari, held a special place in Venetian society and had their own laws and their own guild.  And the masks themselves became a central feature of the Venetian Carnevale.  It began as a Baroque carnival in the 1600’s and was then used in the 1800’s as a form of fun and pleasure.  And as a way to insulate the Venetians as their world slowly changed and alternative trade routes bypassed this great city and left it for the grand tour travelers to enjoy.

And I Found Myself in London and Rome

In my Facebook and Instagram world, I find myself traveling to all of my familiar haunts and daring to step into places that I am not so familiar with.  A friend of mine, who lives in the center of London, keeps me updated with his afternoon walks through the deserted city.  It makes me nostalgic as a Londoner.  I remember my mother telling me stories about the Blitz in World War II.  She lived in London and they would have to take shelter in their houses until they got the “all clear.”  The streets were empty.  I wondered if that emptiness was a little like the emptiness that we see now.
As a traveler, it’s fascinating to see a city like London with all of its craggy alleyways, pubs, and bookstores, its parks and squares, laid out perfectly with not a hint of a car, taxi, bus, or person.  I know that this is a temporary state of affairs, but the magic of my friend Jim’s afternoon walks replenish the soul and makes me smile and reminisce.
Then there are those memories in my photo library that I can plug straight into – like a Roman walk that I do every time I go to Rome.  Pictures from the past that I find myself scanning and then I recount in my mind the history of these walks that accompany me every time I return. And I wonder, how many years it will be again before we see this quietness.  Not a plane in the sky, not a horn on the roads.  It is as if the world has decided to give us a break and show us a “what if” in an attempt to slow down the madness of global warming and self-inflicted climate change.
When I look at the pictures that our beloved Carlotta posts from our Rome office, I walk with her through the empty streets around the Circus Maximus and look at the ancient temples and stroll through the Capitoline Hill, and look down to the Piazza Venezia, and it seems peaceful.  My niece, Jessica, who lives near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, looks down on empty streets that lead to the Spanish Steps.  The beautiful, the Baroque, the Roman, all empty.
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Every city almost feeling like a busy museum that was on a lunch break.  Statues and churches that we had barely noticed come out of the woodwork.  Crossing the streets, you now have time to look up rather than trying to avoid the chaos and cacophony of cars and buses and scooters.  There they are and they have always been there.  We just never noticed.
And I wonder, when it all ends, when we return and jump on the planes and populate the places again, whether we have learned anything at all.  We do not have much time to think about it but it’s worth the thought.  These places need to be beautiful for the next 2,000 years.  It’s down to us.  We can have an impact on how we maintain the gardens we live in and how to proceed for the future.

Baku or Bust!

Driving over the Steppes of Georgia

The drive from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan is quite stunning. The mountains are always hovering over you with the snow capped peaks soaring above the plains. To drive from Tbilisi to Baku, we decided to spend an overnight en route and visited a Soviet-era spa hotel. It was quite a treat – dreadful decor and awful food with zero charm but worth every minute of it. To get to the spa resort, we had to negotiate the steppes and switch vans to ride on a four-wheel drive truck that seemed to stay precariously close to the watch towers that are dotted along the Azerbaijan border.

The wild landscape, with the wind whipping across hundreds of miles of barren earth, was stark and unforgiving. The guys in the watch towers had their guns pointed at us, which was not entirely reassuring, but our drivers knew the boundaries and told us not to worry. Yeah right! We just couldn’t take photos! We visited a remote cave monastery in Davit Gareja dating from the 6th century before we headed to the Vashlovani National Park near the Azerbaijan border. The spa scene here was pure Soviet. Rough and ready with bright lights and gangsters. Georgia sits on the precipice of the oil rich Azerbaijan, but the border crossing was yet to come. And there as so far no sign of wealth in the Georgian countryside.

The Border Crossing and Baku

The town where the Georgia-Azerbaijan border sits is called Lagodekhi. It is basically a busy street with traffic and trucks rolling back and forth between the Caspian Sea port of Baku and the Black Sea town of Batuni. We had to get out of our Georgia vehicle and walk the 200 meters with our bags across the border to Azerbaijan. It’s a strange feeling. The crossing can take an hour and if you mention you have visited Armenia, it could take longer. We hadn’t, but if we had, there would have been a much larger hassle as they tend to go through everything. No love lost between the Azerbajanis and the Armenians! We still had to have an interview, showed our visas (necessary for Azerbaijan but not for Georgia), and then were walked across to a new vehicle on the other side. Then the slow descent to the modern and ancient city of Baku begun.

The drive was beautiful and the sweeping vistas down to the Caspian Sea were dramatic. This is the land of oil riches and caviar, if Georgia missed out on the oil, it also didn’t do too well on the caviar side of things. As we arrived in Baku, we were greeted by a skyline of skyscrapers and the iconic Flame Towers. We stayed in one of the pointed skyscrapers covered with LED screens that mimic huge flames throughout the night. It’s quite a sight.

Baku is famed for its medieval walled old city, which contains the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a vast royal complex, and the iconic stone Maiden Tower. We drove past the stadium, a huge complex, as we headed out of the city, driving next to hundreds of oil rigs bobbing up and down like horses at the trough. It became obvious that this was a city of wealth. We saw the Mud Volcanoes and the Fire Temple outside of the city before getting back to Baku in time for a delicious dinner accompanied by….caviar.

Is Baku worth it? Yes, it is. It’s easy to get here too as you can easily connect back to the USA. We flew back on Turkish Airlines, stopping in Istanbul first, and then all the way to Boston. An amazing place to visit.