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*