Friday, March 18, 2011

Random Thoughts of Foreign Places

By Elizabeth

Sao Paulo, Brazil

I remember the wooden footbridge arched over a stream of crystal water. The stream meanders over gentle hills blanketed with red poinsettias. The poinsettias in a tropical climate surprise me. Until then, I associate them only with Christmas and snow.

However, it is the kind host family I remember most vividly. In the photograph, curly black locks frame three smiling faces. The parents' arms are draped over the shoulders of their fragile adult daughter. Her face is screwed up and lopsided.

Cozumel, Mexico

Bored, I wander downstairs to see what the hotel's main lounge offers for entertainment. Back-to-back guests sit in low slung upholstered armchairs grouped around squat round tables strewn with d drinking glasses, cocktail napkins,and cigarette trays. All framed by very long drapes and tall robust ferns.

A man in black slacks, a billowy white shirt, and red waist sash, dances the flamenco on a small raised stage at the front of the lounge. The tapping, brushing, and controlled gestures of Flameco as well as the Latin music, the man's costume, and his dark features intrigue the guests.

The first empty seat I see is a front row seat. I sit there, both because getting to it is less obstrusive and because I can best appraise the dancer's style and fluency from there. When the music stops, the man asks for a volunteer to dance with him. No one volunteers. He strides over to me, takes my hand and leads me to the stage. I don't know why.

We dance. I follow his moves until the very end when he wants to close with a flourish. After turning me under his arched arm, He kneels and lifts his head. The music stops and I stay standing. I look down at him and smile. I guess I missed a cue of some sort, and I laugh. The guests laugh too, and applaud. He looks distant and annoyed.

Florence, Italy

We unpack in our small room on the third floor. Our room has high ceilings and hairline cracks in the plaster. I open the painted shutters on our window and see an octagonally shaped courtyard. It is completely enclosed. The six floors of the hotel throw a shadow over most sunlight. There are no plants. Wall-to-wall cobblestone covers the courtyard, a single and empty clothes line is strung up from windows on the first floor, and a young man in rumpled clothes and with an accordion slung over his neck plays songs for the tourists. Later, I hear that he probably traffics in drugs there.

Bath, England

Mary and I pay the attendant the admission fee to the Roman baths. Yesterday, we had bypassed a different tourist site so that we would have enough money for this one. Here, rooms upon rooms of column-surrounded corridors frame tiled baths with clear water. At the largest bath, we look at each other, slide our worn backpacks from our flannel-shirted shoulders, pull off our shoes and socks, roll up our faded jeans, perch on the edge of the bath, and slip our bare feet into the warm water. Some of the many adult tourists look down at us from between the columns, and glare.

Inverness, Scotland

Halfway down the dark and narrow kitchen stairway, I am overwhelmed by the clatter of dishes and pans being cleaned. They are from our breakfast that morning. We are all anxious to move on, but there are chores to do first. It is the way hostellers pay for their bed and board.

Last night upstairs in this castle-turned-hostel, the floors are white marble and the large windows boast views of mountains and valleys. Last night, the warden wore a kilt, spun yarns, and with great pride, held forth about the statues lining the center of a grand hallway.

In the morning, the powerful sound system in the large dormitory wakes us hostellers with Beethoven's Ninth. In the morning, the warden is not wearing his kilt and he is not spinning yarns. In the morning, armoured in his pedestrian workclothes, the warden barks out orders about cleaning his hostel. He bellows, "No one will be allowed to leave before all chores are completed to my satisfaction."

Paris, France

As payment for a summer night's lodging in the bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, Mary and I beat dustmites out of threadbare Oriental rugs under the watchful eyes of the gargoyles of Notre Dame and next to the sparkling Seine.

Liverpool, England

Wandering through Liverpool neighborhood, map in hand, looking for Beatle Street. Find it, a long and winding cobblestone street.

The buildings are shoulder to shoulder, two or three stories tall, thin, and of mortared stone. Their windows, slightly crooked, and their shutters and doors, wooden. Any color is from faded paint – brown, burnt red or dark green. The front doors open directly onto the street. The roofs are dark and pitched.

Over the door of the nightclub where the Beatles were "discovered"- an otherwise nondescript building that melts into the others - hangs a wooden carving of the Beatles' heads and the words, "Four lads who shook the world."

Besancon, France

Cavernous enclosed stadium - stale, smokey, and cold. Densley packed bleachers overflow to the floor in the center.

Most of the overflow crowd, my friends and I included, sit cross-legged, waiting for the famous rock band to transport us.

Some people are walking, others cluster. The stranger next to me passes two pans of brownies. "I hear that the hashish is very very good - a strong strain from Egypt. Help yourself and pass them on."

Looking backwards and far up, I observe back-lit silouettes of policemen with imposingly big-dogs-on-leashes marching back and forth along a window-fronted walkway. To me, it looks as if they are goose-stepping and I shudder. Then, the concert begins and colors blur and drip to the rock music.

After the concert, we walk the narrow dirt road to the train station. John, the Brit with the faded army jacket, runs wildly through the firs and snow screaming that the trees are attacking him. John's long blond hair is so clean it seems to magnify the full moon; it makes it easier for us to keep our eyes on him. We laugh a little and talk about the brownies. Someone remarks, "Oh yeah, I heard some of them were opiated."

By the time we reach the train station, John is back.

Belfast, Ireland

The center of the city is gray and eerily quiet. It is gated with large grill work that reminds me of the gates to Oz's Emerald City. The jagged skyline is Victorian. I am just off the boat and have time before the train to Dublin. Slowly, I scan the urban landscape, looking for some form of life. Seeing no one, I am about to explore further. Then, I spot a substantial policeman standing near the gate. He looks relaxed. In a sweep of his arm, he waves to me, and shouts, "Ye must be an American!" I reply, "Yes, I am!" " Well" he says "Did ye bring your bike all the way across the ocean?" I smile, wave, and head for the train station.

Dublin, Ireland

Pale skin flashes defiantly above the waistbands of their ragged jeans and the scrawny teenagers crawl over cars parked along the sloped street. They are near the old prison in Mountjoy Square, rehabilitated to be the youth hostel I checked into that morning.

I hear that once upon a time, Mountjoy Square had been a very fashionable place in Dublin. I hear that James Joyce mentions it.

At random, the teenagers bash the cars with crowbars and then flee. I check that my passport is safe and walk towards the river and to the pub frequented by Brendan Beehan.

Somewhere in the Highlands, northwestern Scotland

Three Scots, fellow hostellers, want to show me the highest pub in Scotland. It is more than a day trip to get there, so we stop in a valley to pitch camp for the night. The sky is periwinkle blue streaked with purple clouds. A phalanx of towering mountains protects the entire quiet valley, four people, two tents, and a fire. My new friends speak to me proudly of the mountains, this evening, shrouded by a deviously beautiful white fog. Local lore has it that any man who dares to wander in the mountains in this fog will lose his way. Many have died.

My task for tonight's meal is to draw water from the nearby creek. With the aid of a torch, I pause to marvel at the small fishes navigating the freezing crystal water. Looking up, I see a massive buck with majestic antlers standing at the base of the nearest mountain. The rocky ground is covered with short grass, moss, and some snarled undergrowth. The fog there is not too thick yet and its veil over the buck flutters with the wind. Holding his head high, he faces the valley, contemplates a distant horizon, then turns and disappears into the mist.

by Elizabeth Milligan © 2011

Written at a Handcrafted Words Online Workshop


  1. Hi Elizabeth, Hope all is well. I loved reading about your travels. You have been around. My impression is that you were college age, is that right? A vivid memory of each place well told. I am Scottish and drawn to that history. I loved the last vision of the buck in the mist. So nice to read your words again. Sharon

  2. Such clear memories of many parts of the world, Elizabeth. What splendid experiences and recollections.