Regaining the magic

I have vague recollections of the flights I took as a youngster. The oldest memories are fuzzy fragments – seeing blue lights illuminating the runway at night, receiving a pair of wings just like the pilot’s, wishing I had a jar to catch some clouds…. Somewhere between the bumpy rides on puddle jumpers and adulthood, what was once magic became routine.

Fast forward to 2008 and my cousin’s wedding. We decided to fly to Kansas City as a family. This included my grandparents and aunt who had never flown before. If you asked me then, I might have described the trip as a “production” instead of an adventure. I love my family but that’s a lot of moving parts.

My grandfather was a tall man so we arranged for his seat to be in the aisle but he was far more interested in the view than legroom. We shuffled him into a window seat. I’m not sure Pop talked to us at all during that flight. He was not a quiet man so this is notable. Throughout the flight his gaze rarely left the window. This was clearly someone who was capable of wonder and understood that safely speeding through the air is nothing short of miraculous.  

I have to admit that I remarked on it but it really didn’t change me very much. Flights were to primarily to be endured, not savored. When we flew back to Kansas City for another cousin’s wedding, I remember Pop’s perplexed, and perhaps mildly disgusted, expression as we put on headphones, pulled out magazines, and started all sorts of tasks that took us out of the experience. We could have it our way but he was opting for fascination and exploration.

Somewhere along the way, and it might have been the first flight I took after he passed, that I realized that I was wasting a perfectly good opportunity to experience awe and joy, two emotions that far too many adults are lacking in their lives. Now, I savor the glorious moment when the plane leaves the ground and begins to climb toward the heavens. I find myself peering out the window and counting my blessings. I don’t have a perfect life but it’s full of wonderful people and amazing opportunities. There’s something about lifting off the ground that puts everything into perspective.

These photos were taken on a recent flights between Portland and Seattle. I think he would approve.

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

   

         


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The Grand Journey – Touring Tuscany

My cruise posts aren’t over yet. Editing photos and writing up these posts is time consuming and I’ve been too busy to keep up.

So we’re going way back to Sunday, Nov. 17 and our stop in Livorno, Italy. The most popular excursions from this port go to Florence. We really wrestled with our decision on this one but chose to go to Tuscany. As I thought about it, I was only really considering Florence because I felt an obligation to go since other people said I should. I may give in to that in real life but not on vacation.

san gimignano in the distance

Our tour started in the medieval town of San Gimignano or St. Jimmy-John’s if you’re asking Mr. McB. It is that collection of distant towers in the photo above.

tuscitywallSan Gimignano’s trade came from wine, cloth, and saffron. During the middle ages, there were 10,000-12,000 residents; there are 1,400 now.

San Gimignano is known for its tower houses. In its heyday, there were more than 70 within the city walls. These were constructed with one room stacked on top of another. Workshops were located on the ground floor and living areas were on the the floors above. The levels were connected by moveable ladders instead of stairs for security purposes. The kitchen was located on the highest floor making it easier to escape in case of fire.

tustower1As with modern skyscrapers, the height of your tower was a direct indication of the size of your bank account. The highest tower was said to be about 50 meters or 164 feet tall.

tustwintowersWhen the Palazzo Comunale, or town hall, was constructed, there was a rule stating that no tower could be taller than the town’s tower. Officials removed parts of some structures to ensure that the rule was obeyed. The powerful Salvucci family got inventive and decided to create twin towers. Neither tower was taller than the town hall, yet their combined height would dwarf the municipal building.

tustower2San Gimignano was a popular stop for pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena between Canterbury, England and Rome. The city was very prosperous between 1199 and 1353 but then it fell to the Florentines. In a show of power, they destroyed many of the towers and only 14 remain today.

The town is more than just towers though. It is full of many lovely sites including the quaint Piazza della Cisterna. The well is made of travertine. It was originally installed in 1273 and enlarged in 1346. Guccio dei Malavolti, the craftsman who enlarged the well, left his insignia on the side. See the ladder in the picture below?

tuswhellSan Gimignano is also the site of the Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta.
This duomo is rather modest from the outside but we heard the inside is very striking and features black-and-white marble arches and vaults. There are also a number of impressive frescoes. It was Sunday, so we could not go in. We could see the procession of tractors and other farm implements that were going to be part of the harvest blessing at the church.

tustractorThis was shot as we walked into town.

tustractorblessingThis one was in front of the church. It was nice to get a glimpse into the traditions of this little town.

While the paintings inside the church were off-limits, we were able to see some frescoes in the courtyard of the Palazzo Comunale.

tusmural2Painted in 1507 by Giovanni Sodoma, this is St. Ives Administering Justice. On the right side, the rich folks are trying to offer bribes but virtuous St. Ives has barred the door. He is interested in handing out real justice not being a puppet of the powerful.

tusmural1This is another mural in the courtyard. This one was painted in 1370. You can see San Gimignano in the hands of the figure on the left side.

We also did a little shopping. Our niece asked us to bring back a jewelry box. This seemed like a simple request but we were disappointed with the choices up to that point. Thankfully, San Gimignano came through for us in a big way and we found the perfect box. It was made from Carrara marble from a nearby mountain. It was a very elegant (and heavy) piece.

tusdoorwayBuilding in San Gimignano

gate in san gimignanoAnother shot of the gate

tuswarmemorialThis is a memorial to soldiers from WWI.

We were soon back on the bus. On our way to Siena, the driver stopped to allow us to take some landscape photos and check out some of the olive trees that were almost ready for harvest.

tusvineyardtusolivetuscanySiena is yet another medieval town. Today, the city is known for its horse race called the Palio. While the Palio’s roots stretch back to the 6th century, some will recognize it as the horse race in Quantum of Solace.

tuscsquareThis is the Piazza del Campo where the race takes place twice each year. The spectators are in the middle and the horses race around the on the black stones.

tuscbalconyThe buildings in the square also have little balconies that are very popular during the race.

The race is an opportunity for Siena’s various districts known as Contrade to compete for civic pride. The city has 17 Contrade that are represented by animals or other natural symbols. These are difficult to miss as you walk around the city.

tuspalhorseThis is found on a building in the Contrada of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram). Traditionally, the inhabitants of this neighborhood were tailors.

tusctwocontradaThis is the intersection of Aquila (eagle, one of the four noble Contrade) and Selva

            We saw the goose, the symbol of the Oca Contrada, everywhere.

tuscgooseflag
tuscgoosecontradaThis is another noble Contrada. It was also one of the two Contrade that won a Palio in 2013. As winners, they are eligible to hang and burn the celebratory lights you’ll see below.

tuscgooselamp The residents of Selva just celebrated their big feast so they were also allowed to hang their celebratory lanterns though only for a few days. If you look carefully, you can see the differences between the lamps. The ones below are decorated as branches with leaves. Selva is the forest so this is very logical.

tuscfeastlampsVisit http://www.ocaioloextramoenia.it/Palio/contrade.htm for more on the Contrade. Click “English” beside each link for translations.

Siena is also known for its duomo built between 1215 and 1263. Much of the decorative facade was added later. The mosaics came in the 19th century.

tuscsienacathedraltusccath2tuscsienacathcloseThe marble church is a fantastic representation of Italian Gothic style. It is almost too much to take in at once. There are so many decorative elements. I’ve seen it before and it was just as stunning the second time around. I wish we could have gone inside to see the black-and-white pillars and ornate decorations. As it was, there was still more of the church to see from the outside.

tuscathedralsideThis is the cathedral’s bell tower or campanile. It was added in the early 1300’s and matches the rest of the church very well. The black-and-white color combination is popular in the city and is said to represent the horses of its legendary co-founders Senius and Aschius.

As majestic and large as the church is today, there were plans to make the duomo larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Due to missteps in the construction followed quickly by the Black Plaque, the expansion never occurred. Visitors can still see some of the remnants of the attempt.

tuscwalltuscbuckleIf you look closely, you will see that the top part of the column juts out a bit and there is some buckling due to the weight of the roof.

Our tour of the city also included a stop to see San Domenico, a church devoted to Saint Catherine. Our guide said that the color of the church is the inspiration for the “Burnt Sienna” Crayola crayon.

tuscstcatherineCatherine is credited for bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon, France. One of 22 children, she lived a very interesting life. You can read more here and here. Her skull is displayed in a reliquary inside the church. While I feel sad about missing the interior of the other churches we visited that day, missing the skull didn’t bother me.

Walking away from austerity and vows of poverty, we made our way to Palazzo Tantucci which is held by Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world.

tuscoldesbankThis is just one of the three palazzi belonging to the bank.tuscbankdoorIt’s a bit more elegant than my local branch of BB&T, that’s for sure.

We had a little bit of time to wander around on our own before it was time to meet back up in the Piazza del Campo.

tuscsinstreetI spotted these fuzzy Christmas decorations,
tuscchristmasthis statue,
tuscsculptureand this one.
tuscmamaShe looks forlorn. Can you blame her with all those kids and all that bird poop?

We made it back to the square just as the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. It was still overcast but there is no rain obscuring my photo of the town hall or Palazzo Pubblico. Visitors can go to the top of the tower but we didn’t make it during our visit. It’s a reason to go back, right?

tusstowertuscfountainIt took eight years for workers to bring water to Piazza del Campo. This accomplishment was celebrated with the creation of the Fonte Gaia which is loosely translated to mean joyful fountain. The figures were created by Jacopo della Quercia.

tuscsienatuscmichaelMr. McB and I pondered the day in our own way.

tuscangelasitting My grandfather was a brick mason. He loved looking at the way things were constructed and could often tell you about the weather and other conditions when the work was done. I thought of him many times during our visit to the Colosseum and our time in Tuscany. There are so many bricks. He would love to see all of this architecture. Some how just sitting there and literally soaking up the heat from the bricks, I felt close to him.

It was a great day in Tuscany. Next time we’ll do Florence, Pisa, or maybe both.

 

Traveling Thursday – Considerations when buying travel insurance

After reading last week’s post, you decided that buying travel insurance might be a good idea and now you need to know what to look for when buying travel insurance.

When traveling abroad, the two big categories that you want your insurance to cover are trip cancellation and medical emergencies. Other coverage (evacuations, trip interruption and loss/delay) are often included in these bundled package plans.

Let’s first look at trip cancellation. This is coverage that protects the money you have invested on prepaid expenses related to your trip. Almost every policy allows you to cancel for sickness or death (either your own, your traveling companion’s, or a family member’s). Of course there are a number of additional reasons that trips must be cancelled. Things like natural disasters are sometimes covered by a company’s standard plan; it is important to carefully look at the policy. You can almost always expect to pay more for “cancel for work reasons,” “coverage in the event of the travel provider’s financial default,” “terrorism,” and “cancel for any reason.” This is when you really need to think about your life and what kind of coverage makes sense for you.

If you are still working, I highly recommend “cancel for work reasons” coverage. This generally means that as long as your supervisor signs an affidavit saying that you were given the time off but can no longer be away, you will get your money back.

“Cancel for any reason” coverage might be a good idea but remember that you may only get a portion of your total trip cost back when using this coverage.

I have been told from a travel insurance representative that the “cancel for terrorism” coverage is often not what people think they are getting. Things that travelers see as terrorism may only be viewed as “civil unrest” by the insurance company.

Now let’s move on to medical coverage.  No one plans to end up in a foreign hospital but it happens and when it does, the fees can be alarming. Even people with good insurance in the US can find it to be inadequate when traveling abroad. Medicare doesn’t cover its participants when traveling abroad. The last thing you want to do is end up sick and in debt. The good thing about most travel insurance policies is that they will act as the primary payer if you need to seek medical treatment. This means that your own medical insurance would only be billed as secondary coverage to pick up any costs not paid by the travel insurance.

When looking at this coverage, it is also important to understand whether preexisting conditions are covered or not and how the company defines preexisting. In many cases, preexisting conditions are covered if you buy shortly after making a trip deposit or if you buy the most expensive level of coverage. Preexisting conditions are generally classified as any existing condition that you had to seek treatment for within X days before signing up for the trip. If you were treated for cancer but haven’t had treatment in two years, this would not be a preexisting condition for most providers. If you received your last chemo treatment 55 days before booking the trip, it would be. In some cases, even a change in maintenance drugs or other medications X days before signing up for the trip can trigger the preexisting condition exclusion. Look at the details and think about your life. My advice is to buy insurance immediately after booking your trip. By doing this, you can often get a waiver for preexisting conditions while avoiding the premium coverage cost.

If you are traveling in the U.S., you should still buy cancellation coverage but you may not need medical coverage depending on your own policy. If you own insurance is lacking or there are few in-network providers in the part of the country you are visiting, you might want to consider medical coverage as part of your travel insurance.

The cost of your travel insurance coverage will vary based on how much medical coverage you want. To determine what you’ll need, consider your health and what (if anything) your health insurance will cover. If you are going to Antarctica or another remote location, make sure the policy provides adequate medical evacuation coverage.

Next week we’ll wrap up with a look at what you should cover and go over some sites that offer information and quotes.

Pearl Fryar’s Garden

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On our way to spend Christmas at the beach, we made a side trip to Bishopville, SC where we toured the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden. This destination has been on my list since seeing the documentary “A Man Named Pearl” several years ago.

pfg9The film tells the story about how Pearl’s quest to win the local gardening club’s “yard of the month” award turned into the stunning garden that attracts about 20,000 visitors each year.

More importantly, the film tells the story of a determined and patient man who has a way of coaxing the potential out of the plants he encounters. Many of the plants in Pearl’s garden were rescued from the compost pile of local nurseries. Not having formal horticultural training, Pearl wasn’t afraid to take a chance on these specimens. He studies them to determine their pfg13strengths and then patiently molds them into stunning creations, often using innovative techniques that defy what should work in gardening.

Pearl’s ability to see potential and nurture new creations applies to the people he encounters too. In addition to giving young people the opportunity to work in the garden, Pearl also has a scholarship fund that offers opportunities to average students who might fall through the cracks without a little help. Just like his plants, these students blossom with a little attention and encouragement.

Visiting Pearl’s garden was a wonderful and uplifting experience. While walking through this lovely garden I could feel the love and care that Pearl showers on the garden. Since Pearl does not try to make specific shapes, visitors can use their own creativity when looking at the garden. It’s a bit like finding characters in the clouds. There is such sense of joy and whimsy.

pfg2The highlight of the visit was meeting Pearl and listening to him talk about the garden, his techniques and life in general. If he ever decides to hang up the trimmers, Pearl could make his living as a career counselor of philosopher.  He said if you want to get noticed, you have to do something that no one else is doing. He also advised that if you are the smartest person in your group of friends, it’s time to make some new friends. While the garden was gorgeous (see more images below), it was Pearl’s words that were the highlight of the trip for me.

If you have the opportunity to visit Pearl’s little garden in Bishopville, you really should. There is something magical and inspiring there.

pfg_1pfg12pfg10pfg8pfg7pfg4pfg3

Traveling Thursday – Seat guru

Aisle? Center? Window? If only the chore of selecting an airline seat was this simple. Before selecting a seat for your next flight, visit SeatGuru. The site offers hundreds of plane diagrams and detailed information on which seats you should book and which you should try to avoid based on legroom, proximity to the lavatories, and other factors.

Trying to decide between business and coach? The site gives you information on seat width and pitch in each class.

The site also shows information on the amenities found on the plane. When comparing long-haul flights, it might be worth a bit more to you if you have your own seat-back entertainment unit instead of the overhead projectors/monitors found on some flights.

Using the site isn’t a guarantee that the seat you want will be available but at least if you find yourself in a “red” seat you can prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

Of course there’s always the chance you’ll get the seat of your dreams only to find yourself sitting by someone who just came down with the flu. Unfortunately, there’s now way to predict that.