My Travel Book - Shortcuts - Part II

Early June 2017, Swee’Pea flew from Boston to San Francisco to meet us there. We were to spend the next two weeks together in California.

You see, I always had this dream of driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the famous Route 1. SP had done it several times while he was living in California. I remember experiencing a disagreeable feeling of jealousy (to call things by their rightful name) while he was showing me his pictures. He wanted to share moments of beauty and happiness with me. But still it was hard on me. At the time, I did feel like I’d never be traveling again and all I was wishing for was to be able to move further and further away from the hospital.

Sometimes dreams come true. We did drive down Route 1, at least down the part that was still open because a few areas had been closed due to landslides. Which meant that we had to alter a few plans, all for the best.

Instead of driving down directly to L.A., we went to Lake Tahoe, another of my dreams. I had spent long evenings watching famous wakeboarders on Lake Tahoe when SP and his friends were trying to master the art of wakeboarding in Brittany. So, yes. Lake Tahoe was a great idea.

By the way, we spent two days there without even seeing one single wakeboarder on the lake. Spring had been very snowy. The lake was way too freezing cold and wakeboarders were still snowboarding on the mountains slopes above Lake Tahoe. 

From Lake Tahoe, we drove down to Yosemite National Park along Highway 88, most of the time that is, because the scenery was breathtaking. So many lakes and so much snow along the road. So many stops and so many pictures.

Highway 88 was splendid. Perfectly dry under the sun. And cars were very scarce.  Oohs and ahs of happpiness. We’d stop every few miles. The ice was breaking up over the lakes (Caples Lake, Silver Lake, Red Lake, I can’t name them all). And there was still tons of snow along the road.

Actually we were getting very close to the gateway to California Gold Fields which is called the Mormon-Carson Pass Emigrant Trail.

I don’t know why but I had the feeling that Swee’Pea was getting fidgety, sort of. He was the main driver and he had been driving for a long time… Oh oh, should we get ready for a shortcut? A road that would break the monotonousness… Some trail maybe…

There was a road on the right that would supposedly spare us at least two or three miles of that boring highway, he said. And off we turned to the right. 

Popeye and I were so shell-shocked that we kept silent. Silent? Speechless is the right term. That’s it. We totally lost the power of speech. I guess that even though SP was probably enjoying himself tremendously, he did not dare utter one single word. You see, there was this set of parents in the car and this road (was it a road?) was awfully narrow and cramped and endless and, and, and… 

Well, the road was not endless after all. In a way it could be, if you felt like walking to Route 88 on a snowy trail. Because the snowplow had obviously given up in the middle of nowhere. There was no network available but it was obvious that we were still quite far away from the exit on Highway 88.

"Shortcut", he said...

I bet you have no idea how they called this road or this whatsoever… “Tragedy Sorings Road” is its name and I am not even kidding. “Springs” because there is a spring somewhere deep below that thick layer of snow and “Tragedy” because three members of the Mormon Bataillon were found killed there in 1848.

We told Swee’Pea that he’d better get us out of there or… Or what? Sometimes one ends up feeling very dumb. So we found a way. The snowplow men had made sure there would be enough room for a car to turn around. There must be quite a few people like Swee'Pea after all! We did not have to push the car because it did not get stuck which did worry us for a while (the getting stuck, of course!). Trust a Kia! It took a few long minutes but the car ended up facing the right way to go back to civilization and to freedom and away from Tragedy Springs!

Swee’Pea was outrageously jubilant! “I knew it’d be fun!” So annoying not to be able to tell him curtly to get back in the car, “you stupid kid”! Because he’s not at all stupid and he’s no longer a kid either. Maybe mad as a hatter from time to time but also a lot of fun. 

I decided to walk for a while because you seldom get to walk between two high walls of snow, especially not in Brittany! And especially not on such a sunny and warm day!

And my preferred "shortcutter" kept on having fun until we got back onto Highway 88.

Once there, he finally set his mind on getting as soon as possible to this very improbable place called Ahwhanee, our door to Yosemite National Park.

There were no more shortcuts during this trip but a lot of driving around the landslides which probably made up for missed opportunities to drive off the beaten track.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


My Travel Book - Shortcuts - Part I

Swee’Pea, you remember Swee’Pea? My son Swee’Pea? It’s been a while since I have written about him. Ahem. Quite a while since I have written at all.

Well, Swee’Pea is a wonderful travelling companion. Even-tempered, patient, uncomplaining and (almost) always in a smiling mood. Filled with enthusiasm and endless curiosity about everything. Talkative and yet a good listener. And the icing on the cake, willing to embark on long road trips with me…

But… (because there is always a but, isn’t there?) Swee’Pea loves shortcuts. And thank you "Google Maps”! The only time I never heard him mention the word “shortcut” was in South Africa, because of safety reasons, of course.

The interesting point though is that his shortcuts always end up being fun and hilarious… if you like adventure that is and being on the wild side of the road(trip)!

Our road trip from London to London (almost 4.000 kms in three weeks) was filled with shortcuts. Most of them while we were travelling through Brecon Beacons Park, Snowdonia and the Lake District. Most of the time we ended up driving through fields (yes, Google maps trails and tracks and paths of all sorts) and finding ourselves hopelessly stuck in the middle of nowhere in front of a cattle gate. Which entailed backing up for at least a couple of miles on very winding and hilly pathways.  And then learning from locals much later on that unless strictly forbidden, one opens the gate and then drives away after carefully closing the gate until the next one.

(Do you read Welsh? We don’t! And so we kept backing up. Until the next shortcut.)

One of my best memories, shortcut wise, happened on our way back to London. Driving from Edinburgh to Durham. From the very beginning of the trip, we had agreed upon travelling through the countryside as much as possible, thus avoiding big cities and congested road networks. Thus probably getting to know Great Britain better.

We decided to avoid driving through Berwick-upon-Tweed, quite a huge town - population : 13.000 people! Google indicated that there would be a shortcut that would take us right to the coast and Bamburgh Castle with its Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum.

Google Maps also indicated that we had to turn right away and drive across a golf course…

I was truly shocked when Swee’Pea, laughing his heart out, took the weediest and narrowest lane on the left or was it the right… and there we were… going through a golf course where actual people were playing and you could hear golf balls whizzing by.

I was so shocked that I probably closed my eyes for a few minutes or maybe a century. I never took any pictures of the going through! But I found a very explicit picture on the web.


 The crossing was short. Thank you. But the shortcut kept getting worse. You see, it had been raining a lot in the area and the lane that was supposed to get us safely to the seaside look more like a shelled battle area than a leisure countryside whatever. The water holes were very, very deep and even wider. The few hikers on the way looked rather amazed that a car would make it through.

Well, we did. The mood in the car was not at its best. Mine at least. Swee’Pea was thoroughly enjoying himself and the car was obviously built to last. (I got my fun a few hours later watching SP getting rid of the caked mud in a very ancient carwash while I was munching away at a bag of M&M’s!)

And there again - a gate! I knew it! Except that this one would be a little bit more dangerous to handle than the cattle gates. My mood was getting from bad to worse. I had to manoeuvre the gates, of course since I don’t drive. It all was a matter of being cautious and fast at the same time.

Take a big breath!
Open both gates. Check! Breathe!

Cross the double-track line with the car. Check! Breathe!

Walk back to the first gate to close it. Check! Breathe!
Walk back across the railway line. Check! Breathe!
Close the second gate. Check! Breathe!

We had done it. Safely. (I didn’t trust much the green light in such a forlorn place! This was the railway track from London to Edinburgh after all. Fast trains!)

I hopped back in the car. We were not very far from the small road to Bamburgh. And the countryside was pastoral and colourful. And peaceful. My mood went up to feeling good. This had been quite an experience after all.

A few minutes later, some Northumberland witches decided to use every trick in their power to kill the fun.

There we were with no way to do a U-turn. 

One weak bridge… mentioning “road vehicles” and not “trucks”. We had driven over quite a few “weak” bridges in Wales because they were prohibited to lorries but not cars. But this one in the middle of nowhere was clearly stating that no vehicles were allowed on it, not even cars.

We decided that being stuck there wouldn’t help and that it would be better to go check the bridge before making any impulsive decision.

While we were pondering the pros and cons, a train whizzed past us on its way to Edinburgh. At top speed. We had the same question: “Was the “green light"
still on or had it turned “red” a few minutes ago? We’ll never know because we definitely decided to drive forward and check the bridge.

All those fields around would need to be harvested. And harvest means harvester and tractors and trucks… Maybe the bridge was not this weak after all. Except that all those vehicles and contraptions could be driven through the fields and never use the bridge because it really was “weak”.

We breathed in and out. At least I did. And we drove forward. We had set one rule while being on this road trip : let’s not vent our feelings (the negative ones, of course) while in the car. Not enough space for a fight. So I probably kept quiet, trying not to fly off the handle.

Once close to the bridge, it was time to play it like in South Africa. Rangers in Kruger Park are always checking animal tracks on the trails. Very useful. And there they were. Tractor tracks all over the bridge. We could not be heavier than a tractor, could we? 

Hopefully we wouldn’t be the last straw that would break the camel’s back. And we were not. Or I wouldn’t be telling the story, would I?

For those who are still looking for thrills, we had to drive quite a few miles off the beaten track. On a very grassy path that took us straight to a very small asphalted road.

To Bamburgh Castle, at last!



My Travel Book - New York 2017 - They Were Smiling. I Was Crying.

Last time I was in New York goes back a very long time. March 2001 actually.

In March 2001, we had done hundreds of things in New York and spent most nights at the Metropolitan Opera which meant not doing what we had enjoyed doing before - having a cocktail at “The Greatest Bar on Earth” at Windows on the World.

I remember boarding the plane that would fly us back home and telling Popeye that I felt bad we had not had enough time to go up there. He answered: “Oh well, next time. We’ll be back next March anyway.”

And then the unthinkable happened… and we never made it back to New York until many, many years later. Not because of 9/11 but because my life took new turns that kept me away from the States for a long time.

We landed in New York on May 13. We were to spend a few days there since I wanted to get over jet lag before attending our son’s graduation in Boston. I had planned a few activities. Not a lot. One night at the Met. A few museums. And that was about it. I was very reluctant to go to the World Trade Center site. We made the decision on the spur of the moment. It was sunny and I probably imagined  it would be much easier to go back there on a sunny day. Don’t ask me why. Would a sunny day alleviate the pain I knew would be intense?

The sun was shining but I hadn’t realised that entering the site would be unbearable. The emptiness overwhelmed me. I literally doubled up with grief.  I was shedding bitter tears without even being conscious I was sobbing.

I went to Auschwitz II Birkenau a few years ago. The skies were overcast and slate gray. The extermination camp was empty save for us and our guide. There was not a sound to be heard. It was eerie. What do you expect to find at an extermination camp? We were in mourning of the untold numbers of victims who were murdered there. I remember shedding silent tears but I did not sob. And I came out of hell without one single picture. Wilfully.

The 9/11 Memorial was different. There were thousands of people there from all over the world (and from the US too) milling round the pools and queuing to enter the museum. Cars were rumbling past. For those of you who’ve been to New York, we know the city never rests.

However I was not there as a witness like in Auschwitz in order to testify in person about the Holocaust for fear of oblivion or even worse, denial.

I went to the 9/11 Memorial to remember. Remembering the inconceivable abomination that happened right before my very eyes in 2001, on the eleventh day of September. Remembering the towers the way they were and how much they were part of our lives and the skyline. And above all, remembering the people who lived through this ordeal and died there too on such a perfect sunny day.

There was a world before 9/11, a world that totally disappeared that day, not only for New Yorkers and Americans but for all mankind. People died on 9/11 and keep dying because of 9/11 all over the world. None of us escaped nor will escape somehow unharmed after all. I was grieving for this lost world, far from perfect but such a “wonderful world” after all.

So I wished I had been on my own that day, far from the maddening crowd… It was so hard to rub shoulders with people who looked happy, happy to be there in New York, on a visit they would talk about just as much as getting on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “I went to New York and went to the Memorial with my friends or family. What a great place… It was so interesting…”

I froze to the spot. There they were, delighted and smiling. I did not see any victory of the living over death. I saw “selfitis” at its worst… while I was still battling somber memories.                        

And there they were, taking selfies all over the place…  Couples, single men and women, families with children.  “I am in New York… What a beautiful day… Hello, my Facebook friends!” Like or Love would be the answer… Or more probably “Such a great couple/family. You look so adorable…” and the icing on the cake: “You look like you are having fun. Enjoy your trip.” All the while the water in the pools was endlessly flowing down. 

I took a deep breath, entered my own sanctuary bubble and managed to walk calmly around the pools. I felt awed by the everlasting waterfalls and the bottomless emptiness of the core. I read names, too many names and I touched lightly some of them. 

I spent a long time there. The waterfalls had a soothing effect on me. I stopped crying.

I finally noticed the pigeon which had been sitting in the pool all along. When it decided to make good use of all this water, I smiled. Life was going on. 


*Good Luck, and Good Night*


My Travel Book - So Much Planning... And Then We Finally Flew Away...

Sometimes it is hard to remember when an idea first pops into your mind and then becomes a project that will evolve into a real adventure. Hard to remember how plans were drawn up and steps taken to turn dreams into reality. How and when? When and how?

Another question. Why? Oh this is usually so easy that there is almost no need to mention why. Of course, why always comes before when and how.

During those past three years, our family has undergone many changes, most of them really huge. As you probably know, we are a very small family of three. When one of us is confronted with change, it usually ends up having an enormous impact on the whole family.

When Swee’Pea moved from South Africa back to Europe and decided to take one year off, the change was seismic! We had to learn to spend more time together which ended up being a lovely experience actually! We had been living apart in different countries and most of the time, in different continents for more than 15 years.

And it so happened that two years ago, Swee’Pea decided to go back to school in Boston to get a new degree in a totally different field. He has a PhD in astrophysics but this time it was to be a Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy. (The Fletcher School’s MALD). We were very supportive. But honestly, it was hard to face again distance, time difference and change… quite simply change.

The first year flew away so quickly that it was amazing. A new school year began in August 2016 but we spent a few long weeks together in Brittany in December 2016. One more term and graduation would happen in May 2017. We wanted very much to be there, all together.

Graduation with great pump is uncharted territory for French people studying in France. I still remember the day Swee’Pea received his PhD in astrophysics. One big lecture theater at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics filled with his friends, colleagues, professors (and the jury, of course). He defended his doctoral dissertation. The jury left to confer - not for long and our son became Dr SP, PhD in astrophysics.  In a corner of the Institute entrance hall, we had arranged a small buffet with champagne to celebrate. And that was it. Three days later SP left for his first job as a fully-fledged astronomer at the Nice Observatory.

Graduating from the Fletcher School’s MALD had to be a great moment in our family life. And I guess I am finished with answering the “Why” question.

Now to when and how?

So “when” was definitely at Christmas time, in Brittany. I probably initiated a discussion about plans to be made be in Boston as a family, considering a new important turn in our life. Popeye would be retiring by the end of January, which would give us more freedom to travel.

Now to “how” did we ever plan a trip that started with a graduation in Boston and ended up with a 6 weeks road trip from the East Coast to California and back to New York. How did we go from reasonable to somehow loosing our minds?

At first, we decided that we’d stop in New York for a few days to get over jet lag before graduation. We’d drive to Boston from there. We’d attend graduation and fly back to Brussels from Boston. We soon all agreed on this plan.

How did we end up taking this crazy trip through the States? A trip that did involve two transatlantic flights, two domestic flights across the US, four flights in private rented planes, staying in 11 hotels (*12* except that we stayed twice in the same hotel in NY), renting six different cars plus riding in countless numbers of cabs and Uber cars and hiking a lot too.

Very simple, my friends. Some of you may remember a post I wrote in 2015 -  “My Travel Book - A Road Trip - Where To?”…

There was my chance! A chance of a lifetime!

New York and Boston were requisite. We added Montreal to visit our dear friends and their growing family. And then our plans went definitely wild. What about Los Angeles where Swee’Pea had spent three years at a time when I was not feeling good enough to travel? If we decided to go to LA, why not fly to San Francisco from Montreal and drive down to Pasadena, his "hometown" in one day on Route 1. “Let’s not drive down so fast”, said Swee’Pea. What about Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Park and then taking several days driving down to Pasadena? And while we were in Pasadena, what about flying to The Grand Canyon and spending two days there? And it went on and on.

The plans, at least hotel and commercial airlines wise, had to be set well in advance. So we went to work…

So just the way we had done it in our British road trip, we planned our main stops and we left a lot of opportunities open along the way. Trips planned to the letter do not agree with me. If I miss one single planned thing, I feel a painful loss since I have been somewhat deprived of the most important thing ever. While travelling, I like to have as much time as I can to improvise. Lingering in some places and skipping others. You know, the “Um” stuff! “Um, perfect weather today. Let’s go “there”, whatever “there” is!” Or the “Did you notice the sign on the right? Let’s go there!”

I guess it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Brittany where it is quite hard to plan activities and where one has to live essentially according to the weather! It is definitely never much fun to go sailing on Monday as planned because the sea turned suddenly very rough while it was just perfect on Sunday but...

I am very happy our light planning worked out well again this time. Of course, there are regrets about things and places missed but mainly because there was not enough time. But there were no frustrations. Almost none. Those six weeks were fraught with incredible encounters and adventures which may never have happened if planned carefully.

We would not have taken an impromptu drive around Newport with SP’s wonderful roommate after flying there for lunch. We would never have ended up at Folsom prison. We would not have gotten stuck between two snowdrifts in the middle of nowhere on our way to Lake Tahoe or was it on our way to Yosemite. We would not have followed the steps of Edwin Hubble from his house in Pasadena up to Mount Wilson Observatory where he discovered that the universe is expanding… on a rather foggy day. We would never have enjoyed one last minute delightful lunch at John Steinbeck’s childhood home in Salinas, nor enjoyed a private and totally unexpected visit of the said house. We would not have landed in some improbable place called Marble Canyon… Six weeks filled with so many strange happenings, so many incredibly happy times.

Thousands of pictures to look at on wintery days.

And so many stories to be told… 

*Good Luck, and Good Night*