Travel, Clinton, Durer and Memories

I once gave a talk to a club about my favourite travel memories. I’ve travelled to many corners of the world, some more than once, some once was enough. I am not a trekker or a third-world adventure traveller, but I am a traveller and not a tourist. A tourist sees only the popular places and eats in hotel restaurants and shops at shopping malls.

I like to eat at markets and buy supplies at local shops and picnic. I research my destinations beforehand and look for experiences that reveal the true identity and history of a place. I collect memories, not things. And I keep a daily diary so when I come home I can re-read them and remember. When I’m very old I can experience them as new!

In 1995 I was in Washington DC with my Mum and ten others. I was leading an opera tour and we went to New York, Washington DC, Mexico and LA. When we were in New York the Oklahoma bombing happened. Several days later we stayed at the Hilton in Washington during a firefighters convention. The rest of the group had gone shopping and Mum and I were just heading out when there was a knock on our door. It was a military man, in uniform, with a gun and a dog. He asked if he could come in and check the room. Not your everyday happening. When I asked why, he said, “Important guest today, Ma’m. Making sure the hotel is secure.” Important guest, Washington DC. He checked the room and the balcony, thanked me and left. I got Mum organised and we went down to the foyer. I found a helpful, chatty concierge who told me that President Clinton was coming to the firefighter’s dinner to thank them for their efforts during the bombing. All the guests had been ‘locked’ into the ballroom for some time and the Secret Service were making final sweeps.

Outside the main door were several huge men in suits and dark glasses with what looked like hearing aids in one ear. They spoke into the cuff of their shirt. This was manna from heaven for me! I walked up to one of them and said ‘hello’. He whipped around and asked me who I was and where I was from and what my business was. I explained that I was here from New Zealand and if we promised to be absolutely still, could my Mum and I stand over there in a corner and watch? Astonishingly, he said that was OK. Remember, this was the hotel where Reagan was shot. So we did. We saw a cavalcade of big black cars sweep past the entrance and go into the garage downstairs. We were about to leave when men started arriving up the escalator into the main foyer.

And then all of a sudden there he was. Tall, broad-shouldered, more thick-set than he is now. Charisma by the bucket load. William Jefferson Clinton. We stood by the potted palm in the corner and watched him walk across the foyer towards a set of double doors. We were in his eye line and I smiled at him and he smiled back. Then he was gone…..we went shopping and talked about it for hours. The women on the tour were GREEN that they’d missed it. Over the years it became my “Presidential Drive-by Fondling.” Right place, right time.

I have ‘bumped’ into other famous people on occasions and taken the opportunity to have a brief word, sort of. I was a few feet away from Mick Jagger once in an airport and without even thinking I went “Yoh, Mick!” and waved to him and he grinned at me and waved back. I met David Suchet at Wimbledon nearly 20 years ago and was glad I told him that I loved his work. I stood in a tube carriage with Geoffrey Palmer, who was an actor, and I told him I loved “Butterflies”. I do hope he knew I meant the situation comedy he was in with Wendy Craig and not the fluttery, pretty things that inhabit gardens.

Other favourite memories involve places. In Paris I found St Chapelle, a tiny church around the corner from Notre Dame. It has a second story made from stained glass and standing in the middle of it on a sunny day is like standing in a kaleidoscope. You never forget that. I visited a Benedictine monastery in Rome and listened to chanting and tried liquor. I sat in the arena in Verona in 40 degree heat at 10pm and watched opera as thunder and lightning rolled around us. I spent a whole day in Westminster Abbey saying hello to dead people and telling many of them that I love their work. 

And I have searched out Albrect Durer and continued an almost lifelong love affair. I took Art History in the seventh form in 1977 and we studied Durer and Raphael, in the scholarship exam there was a question about Durer and I got the highest mark I ever got in any exam. And I love his work. He lived in Northern Germany in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. He painted and made etchings and engravings. He drew incredibly lifelike owls and hares and pieces of turf. He drew a rhino and it looks remarkably like one. He painted portraits and they hang in major art galleries. I first saw them at the end of 1977 when Mum and I did a Eurorail trip around Europe and we went to art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, Cologne and Amsterdam. Whenever I return and see one again it always looks at me and says, “you again, what took you so long?” Recently I’ve seen the self-portrait in the Louvre and the portrait of his father in the National Gallery in London. He features prominently in short story I wrote (more below)

Of course I could tell you about the food memories…but I shall leave that until another day. I wrote a short story about a food critic who is dying in a hospice and she remembers tastes and experiences from throughout her life. I used my own food memories. And I wrote a very touching one about my darling Durer….If you’re interested, you will find the book “Stirred not Shaken” at Smashwords, for free.

Another glorious day in Cambridge and the garden is calling.

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