It’s not been the best of years for human beings. Fires, floods, extreme weather events (Hello, climate change deniers?;) migrants around the globe fleeing poverty and violence; a lot of us in the U.S. watching with horror & dismay as reproductive justice disappears and democracy is threatened on a zillion other fronts.
But here’s the good news: The beauty of Nature remains unchanged.
Oh, we can mess with it, threaten it with things like removal of environmental protections in the name of “deregulation.” (Deregulation is reflexively a great good thing? Hello again.)
But as the bumper sticker – too good to waste on a bumper, so it’s still on the bulletin board – some friends sent many years ago says, Nature Bats Last. We let too many glaciers melt; Nature will erode our beaches and flood our low-lying cities. (Could we flood Mar a Lago, please? Just a tiny bit?) We let the planet warm with our irresponsibility; Nature will get our attention with devastating wildfires across multiple continents. Hurricanes. Tornadoes.
Meanwhile, Nature keeps right on offering us beauty: forests, flowers, lakes, creatures of amazing varieties. Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. Just before the oil spill that threatens even that fiercely protected habitat of an amazing variety of Nature’s wondrous creatures of air, land and sea.
Earlier in this inscrutable year I was also lucky enough to visit Amsterdam in tulip season, and to walk on some of the fast-shrinking tundra and glaciers of the Arctic Circle. And to watch the sunrise and sunset over San Francisco. Same thing. Nature’s beauty is astounding, even where its carefully-protected creatures and its bountiful provisions are threatened. So here is a fond look back at just a few of the blessings of Nature I crossed paths with over the past 365 – well, 362 so far – days. And here’s hoping we humans will do a better job of expressing our gratitude in the New Year. Peace & joy to us all.
For a small-town girl, I am embarrassingly in love with cities. Their energy, their sometime sophistication, their proud histories, their devil-may-care attitude toward the constantly undulating (some fast, some pokey) throngs of their citizens as they go about doing whatever it is that city people incessantly do.
I fell for Prague the first step I took onto the first of its cobblestone bridges spanning the centuries of its brave survival of constant conquest and cultural assaults. A guide in the Prague Museum taught me a lesson worth a college semester with one proud sentence, “We do not have an army.” Thus giving this U.S.-raised citizen new insight into what armies can really mean.
In Bruges my husband and I discovered out-of-the-way museums and savored chocolate (ink-dark for him; pale for me) with our coffee while watching the canal boats. But mostly we wandered the endlessly wandering streets. It was in Bruges that we perfected the phrase employed for so many years throughout so many other cities, from Chicago to Shanghai: “Let’s just walk.”
I love Porto Alegre not just for being the city of my birth – the last sultry thing I ever did, I often say, was being born in Brazil – but for its mix of gentle warmth and cowboy swagger. On the single visit I made to the place where my father had helped start the Instituto Porto Alegre my husband and I were treated like royalty by representatives of that august institution. We were feted with meat-heavy banquets, tours and an organ concert and sent off with a bouquet of flowers; what’s not to love about a city offering that to a stranger?
Paris. Well, Paris.
My experience of China was one two-week excursion with the Oakland Museum Art Guild, which clearly makes me an expert on all things Chinese including its cities. So. While I loved the bustle (and the leafy former French Concession) of Shanghai, and marveled at the frenetic pace of both Shanghai and Beijing, Dunhuang stole my heart. Maybe because it’s been around since – oh, 2,000 B.C., there was something casually settled about Dunhuang. Everyone seemed to move more slowly, wrapped in the desert air, smilingly unconcerned with invading tourists, of whom there were not so many as elsewhere. When I asked one colorfully-dressed woman, through several bungled words and a lot of stupid gestures, if I might take a picture of her adorable tiny daughter, she grinned, pulled me to her side and insisted in a flurry of rapid-fire instructions to a passerby that he take a picture of the three of us, the toddler nestled happily in my arms. How could I not love Dunhuang?
I was in St. Petersburg at the end of a river trip from Moscow that had been pure joy and a time of revelation. But I had OD’d on castles. Plus, I really wanted to see the Dostoevsky Museum, which was not on the agenda for my tour group. So I set out on my own, equipped with a map by which I planned to count bridges and a total ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet. My secret weapon was the ability to approach perfect strangers, point to my map and say, “Dostoevsky Musee?” in my most beseeching Southern accent. Six or seven instructors in I wound up with a polite gentleman who suggested, in severe Slavic gestures, that it would be best if he lead me there. I would never otherwise have found the nondescript entry into the apartment where the great man himself lived his last months, a small but remarkable museum that leaves one feeling as if Fyodor just stepped out for a drink. I was mesmerized by St. Petersburg.
Though I will always leave, and find, my heart in San Francisco, it can get a little fickle about New York. A recent visit coincided with the Twin Towers memorial lights of 9/11, and visits to two of my favorite museums in the world: the Whitney & the Morgan Library, and a stroll of the High Line from end to end and back.
A discussion about New Yorkers could’ve been a discussion of city people anywhere. My New Yorker friend argued that his compatriots are rude and insensitive. I said, “I can stand at the top, or the bottom, of any flight of stairs anywhere with my carry-on bag, and within 30 seconds someone will appear and ask, ‘Would you like help with that, ma’am?’ Never fails. People are people, just more densely so in cities.
Oceans and beaches and mountains and parks remain full of wonder for me; cities are full of wondrous humankind.
Bones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed.
The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.
Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area. It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.
Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.
In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works. Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.
Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .
Sailing around icy fjords in the Arctic Circle? In June, when it’s 24-hour daylight, not even a twilight, let alone darkness? Which means you don’t even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You are, however. guaranteed to freeze your nose and burn your face from the sun and snow unless you bundle into parkas and slather on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen. Who would do such a thing?
Well, it turns out, yours truly. My late, greatly beloved husband died on February 15th, his voice ringing in my head with recollected snippets – one of which was: If you didn’t have me to look after, you could go on this wonderful trip to XxxxXx. Not my favorite snippet, but there it was. So thanks to some bizarre urge that a highly trained grief counselor might be able to analyze, I found myself saying – on about February 25th – why not?
Conveniently there was a Commonwealth Club expedition to the Arctic Circle with a bunch of climate people, even including a casual acquaintance interested in a roommate. It was somewhat of a cruise (read: too much elegant food, drink and royal treatment onboard) but it promised firsthand views of what we humans are doing to this beautiful planet. Plus countless lectures about millennia past and (hopefully) future by impressively credentialed people. So off I went. San Francisco to Paris to Longyearbyen, Norway to the Arctic fjords, the last leg aboard the small but lovely Ponant ship l’Austral. This is the first of what may be several reflections from the northernmost tip of the globe.
It is incredibly beautiful, this planet.
At its northernmost tip there is a breathtaking expanse of blue, gray and white: snow, ice, sea ice (salt water turns to ice at about 28 degrees,) azure blue skies streaked with gossamer-gray clouds melting into the sea – which itself changes from shades of sapphire to emerald-blue in an instant with the shifting skies. The fjords are defined by mountains fronted by stretches of tundra and permafrost – the differences between which (tundra has vegetation, permafrost is permanently frozen) were carefully explained to me.
Accompanying our group, in addition to the impressive lecturers, were about a dozen naturalists who appeared (to this octogenarian) to have a median age of about 15. But they had PhDs and post-doctorates in things like polar ecology, bioscience and glaciology. One of them left me with an unforgettable phrase and indelible image that sums up the Arctic experience for me. I wish I could videoconference the moment with every climate change denier, every fossil fuel enthusiast, every deregulation proponent and every grandparent who believes – as I continue to do – that our grandchildren will save the planet.
We had come to shore to study the wildlife (a clump of resting walruses) and wildflowers (there are over 400 varieties of tiny flora in the tundra) via inflatable rubber boats called zodiacs. Zodiacs could navigate the distance – in this case it was about a quarter of a mile – from ship to shore.
“You see where our ship is?” said my naturalist friend, pointing toward the sea. I nodded. “This time last year, that was ice.”
This space is proud to announce my having passed the California driver’s license test. Which means – if my eyes and my car hold out – I’m good for another five years, with a valid ID in my wallet. Or so I thought. Turns out I neglected to apply for a Federal Compliant Real ID driver’s license rather than a regular old driver’s license. Who knew? As of October 2020, unless I go back to the DMV and successfully complete whatever I inadvertently omitted, this lovely new license will not get me through the airport. If I knew not, I know now: Instead of the golden bear signifying this is a Real ID Driver License in the upper right corner, my brand new license bears the small print: Federal Limits Apply. No getting into the Federal Building for me. Sigh.
At the moment I am headed out of the country and into an exploration of the Arctic Circle (more on that later, when we find out how many glaciers haven’t yet melted, and after I return to internet access territory.) My new license, combined with my old but still valid passport, almost got me into the security check at SFO. Would have, actually, except the TSA lady said my boarding pass didn’t have the green check for my TSA Pre-check. As I was not about to join the mile-long non-TSA Pre-check line, I returned to the Air France people and eventually procured a new boarding pass with the magic green check. Happily I had my Trusted Traveler number with me.
A few years ago I drove (legally) out to the TSA place and spent the best $85 I’ve spent in a long time getting finger-printed, answering a bunch of questions and – after I got back home – waiting a few months before I learned that the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security thankyouverymuch had satisfied itself that I was not much of a threat to public safety. Ever since, I have happily skipped the endless lines waiting to get through airport security in favor of the quite manageable (usually, unless it’s Hartsfield-Atlanta) TSA Pre-check lines.TSA Pre-check will get you out of the country, but good luck getting back in. One emerges from a wearying international flight to be greeted by the endless lines waiting to go through Customs.
But I now have Global Entry!! Like TSA Pre-check, Global Entry is a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of this overseen by the Homeland Security people. If our homeland is not secure, I don’t know why. (Well, yes I do, actually, but Mr. Putin told Mr. Trump that everything is fine, so we shouldn’t worry about Russia.)
On my return I guess I’ll trudge back to the DMV and apply for a Real ID to go with my TSA Pre-Check, Trusted Traveler number and Global Entry card and – well, I do have a Social Security number, and a U.S. passport and a Brazilian passport (possibly expired now but still . . .) and 4 pages of saved passwords somewhere, if I can remember where I filed them. All of these, with luck, will be all the global security protection I need in this modern day and age. It is tricky to keep track of it all. One has to hope that our planetary borders are secure.
This birthright-citizenship-ending business is getting personal. Surely Mr. Trump has nothing against me exactly – although one can never be sure. I don’t follow his tweets (until they are reported on real news,) but he may have access to my emails. Still, how does he feel about us birthright outliers? And where will we wind up? Stateless?
Here’s the whole story. When I arrived on the planet my mother (along with my father and three older sisters) happened to be in Porto Alegre, Brazil. They’d actually been there for a little more than a decade, my dad helping start a school and my mother teaching music to preschoolers. A dozen or so of the latter were her bridesmaids in tiny matching dresses she made and oh, how I wish I could put my hands on that photo. But back to the birthright.
Since my mother (a legal, if temporary, immigrant) happened to be in Porto Alegre, I was born in the German hospital there. Brazil, being a friendly sort of country, immediately granted me citizenship.
Not to be outdone, the USA simultaneously granted me citizenship, under the “American Parents Abroad” act. And that, for a number of years, was that. (But is the APA still OK? Should we trust those babies born in shit-hole countries not to be inherently terrorist?) My family came back to the States when I was too young to have started learning Portugese – more’s the pity; it is a beautiful language. I grew up hardly even noticing my dual citizenship.
Then I reached voting age. When I registered to vote there appeared a mildly ominous-seeming document stating I must renounce my Brazilian citizenship (no dual citizenship allowed in the scary 1950s.) So with hardly a passing thought to my birthright country I renounced it. This might make me okay with President Trump, I guess, though in hindsight it makes me a little sad. And conflicted. Dual citizenship is now possible, and I might want to relocate if things keep going south (or alt-right) in my chosen country.
Fast forward about a half-century. My irreplaceable Final Husband, learning I had never revisited the country of my birth, suggested we should go back. Five minutes later I was on the phone (this was the 1990s, but pre-email) making arrangements and reservations. My favorite exchange was with a hotel reservations clerk in Rio who said, “Oh, you cannot stay one night in Rio. You must stay two, three nights in Rio.” (Which we did.) The primary plan, though, was to visit Porto Alegre, and the Instituto Porto Alegre where my father had famously served.
Initial plans made, we set out for the Brazilian Consulate to obtain visas. “Oh, you cannot travel on a visa,” the nice lady said to me – after granting my husband a visa. “You were born in Brazil; you will need a Brazilian passport.” Which was a little startling, but as it turns out the passport is cheaper than the visa. Small victories. In time, my new passport arrived – in my birthright name, which is not exactly the name on my US passport or airline tickets, but who’s worrying about details?
Me, actually. I figured I might get into Brazil and never get out. But all was well. We visited Iguacu Falls, surely one of the most beautiful spots on the planet (after spending the requisite few nights in Rio and taking photos ostensibly of me but really of the gorgeous girl(s) from Ipanema in the background.) Mostly, I went around smiling at everyone, displaying my passport to sales clerks and waiters and saying muito obrigada – essentially the full extent of my Portugese. Nobody didn’t smile back.
Safely home, things rested for another decade or two. But now our president is saying – constitution be damned – that he might just delete that birthright citizenship. Does he mean just all those murderers and rapists storming the border, or since every immigrant except Melania is a potential terrorist, is he going for retroactive non-birthers? I.e., yours truly?
A quick call to the Brazilian consulate yesterday informed me I am welcome to reinstate my Brazilian citizenship, even if my passport has expired. But now with Mr. Bolsonaro down there wanting to chop down the rain forest – not to mention his political opponents – my alt-birthright country isn’t looking so great either. Still, hedging my bets, I’m hanging onto all these documents. And praying a lot for the whole planet.
This all started when my #1 son-in-law Paul said, “Oh, that’s too far for Gran to be flying coach . . .” As if he hadn’t already made enough points by cutting short a trip to Belize so my daughter Sandy could do a quick turn-around and come meet me in Portugal. I have, therefore, been happily anticipating a Business Class flight from San Francisco to Boston, and thence to Lisbon for an end-of-life conference where I recently presented a paper. (I try to drop that phrase wherever possible: “presenting a paper at a conference in Lisbon.” More on that extraordinary conference soon.)
I will skip right past the San Francisco to Boston leg of the journey (which was indeed spiffy) and cut to the Boston-Lisbon leg. If you’re a Business/First Class person, you may want to skip this blog post entirely. It would be the polite thing to do, similar to looking the other way when you notice tourists staring up at giant skyscrapers. You will already be familiar with scenes like this one below, of my mini-apartment complete with its own shelves, tabletops/pull-down table, overhead and reading lights and seat that goes from upright to reclining to bed with way more space (thanks to the little tunnel in the seat in front of it) than my 5’2” self could possibly need.
But if you’re not, and you’re curious about how the other 1% lives, this is a peek into the (sort-of) secret alternative to the grit-your-teeth-&-curl-up-in-your-window-seat version with which most of us are familiar. Once you learn the operational secrets, it is definitely the way to do intercontinental travel.
Along that line, I will back up and make one observation about the SF-Boston leg. Had it not been for the charming young Orthodox man in the seat next to me, who clearly flies this way a lot, I would never have figured out how to get the tray down, identify the power plug, turn the reading light on, etc, etc. When the hot towels came around, he leaned over and said, “Be careful, these towels are very hot.” And as we de-planed, after I told him his mother had raised him well to be kind & helpful to little old ladies and I appreciated that, he thanked me and said, “Good luck!” I suspect he thought I’d need it.
While the coach dwellers were still rearranging their several cubic feet of Stuff into their allocated several cubic inches the canapes arrived at my apartment, quickly followed by the soup and salad, followed by the entree and rather fancy dessert. Meanwhile, my apartment seat/bed was negotiable into a dinner-table accommodation, recliner or bed with the push of a button I now understood (thank you, SF-Boston seatmate.) It’s tempting to meditate on ways the airlines might share just a teeny bit of these blessings with your traditional coach family. But definitely easier to postpone all egalitarian impulses, sit back (or lie down) and enjoy the adventure. Which I did.