Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Reclining Buddha

June 25, 2015


Uncover your head. Remove your shoes and place them in the provided bag. Now, as your soles touch the cool marble floor, look up and be amazed at the pure size of the thing.


The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok is 105 feet long and 50 feet high. It fills the entire building – from end to end and from floor to ceiling, with narrow a passageway on either side so you can make your way around it, admiring the satiny gold plating, the liquid lines, the huge feet.


Painted pillars give the impression of a cage, as if the Buddha were a specimen in a zoo. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He smiles serenely, right hand propping up his head. That right hand, I’ve since learned, means this isn’t an the Buddha on his death bed, as I’d thought. It’s the Buddha encountering the giant Asurindarahu. When the giant refused to bow to the Buddha, the Buddha made himself appear enormous, and then showed the giant the enormity of the heavens. Asurindarahu was duly humbled, as is the visitor to Wat Pho.

But it’s not just the scale that moves you. There’s a stillness here, and a coolness. Especially after the heat and hubbub outside. And soon you become aware of an ethereal music. Metallic percussion. Bells, maybe. Some notes are higher, some lower, some louder, some softer. But there’s no discernible melody. The rhythm is irregular, but each note has the same tone. It’s the way stars might sound, if you could hear them flickering.


Fill your ears with the sound as you make your way around the Buddha’s tall feet (undergoing restoration during our visit, a sign regrets to inform us). Start up the far side of the temple, and you discover the source of the music. And realize it’s not music at all. At least, not intentional music. Lining the wall behind the Buddha are identical metal bowls. One hundred eight  — one for each of the auspicious characteristics depicted in mother of pearl on the soles of the feet we can’t see. For 20 Thai Baht, or about 70 U.S. cents, you can buy a dish holding 108 metal tokens, one to drop into each bowl.


I paid my 20 Baht, and contributed to the music, making myself, for the time that it took to return to the Buddha’s head, a part of the sacred architecture.

Only Connnect

October 23, 2013


We didn’t plan to attend Mass at the Cathedral of Barcelona. But there we were on Sunday afternoon, needing to sit down after a long walk around the old city, when they started closing the doors for 5:00 mass. So we stayed, and watched the ancient building we had come to visit as a museum turn into a living spiritual home.

The spoken parts of the service were in Catalan, the singing in Latin. I don’t know either language. But by picking out a word here and there –sacrificat, kyrie – and remembering my years as a Catholic school librarian, I could more or less follow. It was satisfying to suss out the meaning of what I was seeing. And it helped me feel less foreign.

Feeling less foreign is my underlying goal whenever I travel. It’s not that I want to take home with me – strolling around Barcelona, the last thing I wanted to see was another Starbucks, Subway, or the franchise known in Spain as Dunkin’ Coffee. It’s more that I crave a sense of belonging – of feeling connected to my surroundings.

This isn’t a conscious goal, but trying to achieve it can be deliberate. Why else – if not to find my place in the city – did I spend so long, that Sunday afternoon, searching the twisting cobblestone passageways of the old city for traces of El Call – a once-flourishing Jewish quarter that was purged of Jews, demolished and rebuilt as a Christian neighborhood 600 years ago?

That night at dinner, something about our server seemed vaguely familiar. She spoke perfect English, but with a heavy Spanish accent. More than that, though, she got us – our little jokes, the fact that we intended to taste each other’s dishes, why I wanted to hold onto my empty plate until David had finished. While she refilled our water, she asked how we liked the city, and David asked if she was from here. No, she said. Buenos Aires.  That’s when it hit me.

“Buenos Aires,” I whispered to David after she’d left. “She’s Jewish.”

The more I watched her, the more certain I became. I kept waiting for her to return to our table so we could talk more, and trying to figure out a tactful way to test my theory. But a different server took over, so I’ll never know if I guessed right.

I was sorry I couldn’t verify our common background. But the most satisfying moments of connection are the ones that happen on their own. The trick is to recognize them when they do.

Take, for example, our dinner the next night, at a different restaurant. First, as we settled into our seats in the tree-lined sidewalk square, the server suggested I put my purse under the table, rather than on the chair beside me (Barcelona being known for its vibrant pick-pocket culture). Then, before we had even opened our menus, one of the birds in one of the aforementioned trees dropped two bright white spots of shit on our table (convincing us to move inside). Finally, just as we were tucking into our appetizers, a very sickly mouse staggered across the dining room floor (whereupon a man hurried out of the kitchen with a dustpan and broom and swept the creature up).

You might read this as a traveler’s nightmare. But it didn’t feel that way to me. I felt welcomed and at home, buoyed by the bond that was forged as the mouse was swept away. That’s when David commented to our hostess, “That’s not good for business.”

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, it’s not good for business,” she agreed.

That good-natured acknowledgement made us – if only for as long as dinner lasted – family. And that made all the difference.

We had five breakfasts in Barcelona. We ate the first two at the “gastro-pub” across the street from our hotel – faux-distressed walls and leather club chairs, Odetta on the sound system, menus in four languages, tourists and local hipsters studying their smartphones while sipping their coffee.

On our third morning, we decided to try the Patisserie around the corner. There were no tourists or hipsters here, just housewives buying desserts from the glass cases out front, and in back a handful of Formica tables and plastic chairs where people on their way to work were eating breakfast rolls and ham sandwiches. The woman behind the counter smiled warmly, but called over her English-speaking co-worker – a young man with curly brown hair and half-inch plugs in his earlobes – to negotiate our order.

We returned to the patisserie two days later – our last morning in Barcelona. It was early, and the only employee in evidence was the woman with the warm smile who didn’t speak any English. But between our fractured Catalan and with much pointing and pantomiming and laughing good will all around, we managed to convey our order. Half an hour later, as we were settling our bill (with more gestures and pointing), the young man with the ear-plugs arrived. As we were leaving, he called after us what sounded like, “Ah-vey-o!”

We hadn’t heard the word before, but understood that he was saying, “Adieu,” and read into his greeting so much more – that he remembered us happily from the other day, that most of the people they served were regulars, and if we came back another time or two, we could become regulars, too.

“Ah-vey-o!” We called back, sorry that we wouldn’t have a chance to use our newly learned word with him again.

The cabbie who drove us to the airport was eager to practice his English. He was very good at it, and where he lacked the vocabulary, he compensated with eloquent sound effects and skits. Speeding along the highway, shifting lanes and dodging traffic, he kissed his steering wheel to help convey how glad he was to have a job in this economic climate, and thumbed through the screens on his phone to show us a photo of a newspaper story about the 100-kilo wild boars that recently come down out of the mountains to forage through the trash in a local suburb.

As we neared the airport, he discussed the travesty of building it on the river delta, a “water land” where countless species of birds once stopped as they migrated from Africa to northern Europe.

“Now a different kind of bird stops here,” I said. “Big ones!”

It took a moment, but then he got it. “Yes!” he said, laughing triumphantly. “There is a 747! I can tell by the shape of its bill!”

After he’d unloaded our luggage at the curb and we’d paid our fare, he shook our hands and said he was to have met us.

Inside the airport, the atmosphere wasn’t nearly so friendly. The security line was a mess, with minimal signage and no people to tell anyone what to do. We tried to figure out the local rules by watching the passengers ahead of us. But there wasn’t any pattern. A few people took their shoes off, but most didn’t. Some people removed their laptops from their bags, but others didn’t. We took off our shoes but left our laptops in our bags.

David passed through the metal detector and collected his bag from the conveyor belt without incident, but when I tried to collect my bags, the woman in the uniform called out to me in a scolding voice. “Lady! Computer!” and pointed to the back of the line. I took my computer out and walked back through security area, where I had to squeeze back in among the crush of passengers.

I ended up behind an elderly man. As he stood inside the metal detector, a second security agent, this one a burly man, planted himself in directly in front of him and made a series of faces at him. After what felt like a painfully long time, the agent asked, “Why are you waiting?” and the humiliated passenger hurried on his way.

Both agents were making themselves perfectly clear, in a universal language. They were saying, “We have all the power here, and take great pleasure in exercising it for its own sake. Our goal isn’t to keep the skies safe, but to keep you in your place.”

That was also a form of connection.


February 28, 2013


Last week, David and I were in New Orleans. He was presenting a paper about disagreement and rational belief. I was being a tourist. And we both got to see a dear old friend from David’s grad school days. Back in the 1980s, we were all very close. He dandled our daughter when she was a baby, and David and I flew across the continent to be at his wedding. But we hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, and have only sporadically kept in touch.

One afternoon, while David was presenting his paper, Martin and I went sightseeing. Since it was Martin’s first time in New Orleans and my third, he deferred to me. I suggested taking the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District. David and I had done that the last time we’d been in town, maybe 20 years earlier. We had walked down leafy streets lined with beautiful old homes, and explored a cool old cemetery.

I kept my guide book and map in my bag, as Martin and I caught up. But as our streetcar rattled past stately houses that looked like the neighborhood I remembered, it occurred to me that I was the tour guide. After a quick check of the map, I yanked the bell, and we hopped off at the next stop.

Looking back at the map, it was easy enough to find the cemetery. There was a grey rectangle filled with crosses on Washington Avenue, just a few blocks away. We blithely headed off in that direction, happily chatting about my son’s job and his daughter’s high school.

But something wasn’t right. The buildings we were passing were much more modest than I’d expected. Paint was peeling. Porches sagged. Yards were strewn with litter. In another block, more and more houses were more than neglected. They were abandoned. One was boarded up, the plywood spray-painted with a black x. I remembered seeing photographs of those markings after Katrina. They were FEMA’s way of showing which houses they had searched, and whether they’d found bodies. But that was seven years ago. And now, between the broken houses, we were passing empty lots. And where were the people? Not a single car had gone by since we’d turned up the street. And other than one old man sitting on a stoop and a group of young men standing on a side street, we had hardly seen a soul.

“I’m not sure about this neighborhood,” I told Martin.

“It seems okay to me,” he said. “But I’m Canadian, so you’re probably more culturally attuned.”

When someone questions my instincts, my automatic response is to doubt my judgment. And I know that travel plays havoc with my instincts. Being in a new place, removed from my routine, observing my surroundings through the lens of my camera, makes the world seem romantic. Unreal. This air of unreality can convey a false sense of immunity.

So why couldn’t it also do the opposite—create an exaggerated sense of danger? Could I be unconsciously guarding against a  false sense of security by putting myself on higher alert than was justified?

And was something else going on here? Martin and I are both white, and the few people we had seen since turning off  St. Charles Avenue were all black. How much of my unease was being fueled by latent racism? This last question made me even more uneasy, and cast doubt on all my instincts.

“It’s just a few more blocks,” I told Martin, and we continued.

One block up and across the street, we reached a patch of green surrounded by a tall fence. A sign on the fence said Lafayette Cemetery #2. I tried to square what we were seeing with what I remembered. Had that chained link fence been there? With that barbed wire? Had the gate been padlocked? Was the grass that overgrown? The mausoleums that decrepit? The whole place such a wreck? Cemeteries are supposed to be sad. This was a whole different level of sadness.

We walked back toward St. Charles on the opposite side of the street.

“Are there any dominoes down there?” A man called from a balcony.

“No,” I called back without thinking. Then I noticed the men sitting around a table in the yard, and felt like a fool. But no one seemed to have heard me.

A few doors down, a woman said, “Excuse me.” She was sitting on a porch with a few other people, and she was definitely talking to us. “Would y’all like a dog?” Or maybe she said puppy.

It was a little dog, on a leash. Schnauzer? Terrier? The kind of dog a certain kind of person carries around like a fashion accessory, and dolls up with an argyle vest or a silly bow. This dog wasn’t dolled up. Its fur was matted and filthy.

They had found the dog wandering around, and couldn’t keep it, the woman was saying. Would we take it?

We couldn’t. “It looks like a nice dog though,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s alright,” she answered. She may or may not have told us to have a nice day. Either way, I felt as if she had.

When we reached St. Charles Avenue, we figured out our mistake. The cemetery we’d wanted, the one the guide books promote and tourists flock to, is also on Washington Avenue. But on the other side of St. Charles. Literally, the other side of the tracks. We had been looking for Lafayette Cemetery #1, and had found Lafayette Cemetery #2.

Back in Rhode Island, I did some research. The neighborhood where we’d been walking is called Central City. “In mid-2006,” I read, “the area was considered the most dangerous part of the city.” After Katrina, I learned, Central City became notorious as a place where rival gangs and drug dealers exchanged gunfire in the streets. The crime rate has gone down since then, but Wikitravel advises that the neighborhood is still “not recommended for casual visitors.”

So my judgment was correct. But was it justified?

That afternoon, I didn’t know anything about crime hot spots. I just knew that after we crossed St. Charles Avenue, we entered a different world. Lush trees lined the streets. Impeccable gardens surrounded stately homes. Everything was opulent, clean and well-kempt. Cars and pedestrians quietly came and went. Just about everyone we saw was white. And I felt perfectly safe.


Artsy in New Orleans

February 26, 2013


We just got back from New Orleans, where the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association was holding its annual conference. While David attended his important philosophical sessions, I wandered around town, taking pictures. When David didn’t have any important philosophical sessions, he wandered with me. Our first time out, of course, we visited the French Quarter. The next day, we went to the Warehouse District—which local boosters now call the Arts District, and Forbes calls America’s tenth best hipster neighborhood. Because David and I might be too dorky to stay out past 10 pm to hear live music, but that doesn’t mean we’re not… Never mind.


Anyway, we liked the abandoned, century-old industrial buildings, some of them reclaimed as museums and galleries and groovy restaurants, and some still waiting in shabby-chic suspension. We stopped into three or four galleries, where we saw colorful balloons carved from wood, a wall covered with ceramic blossoms, acrylic close-ups of glistening oysters on the half shell, and detailed feathers rendered in silver on black, which were either gorgeous or tacky, but probably both.

More than once, we crossed paths with a pair of art handlers, wrapping paintings in quilts and loading them onto their truck. In one place, quilts were piled on the floor and paintings were leaning against the wall. In another, a woman in black was checking just-hung artworks with a digital level while a man and another woman, both of them also dressed in black, stood back assessing, fingertips to their chins.


The sign on the door of an auction house said the items inside would be available for public viewing at the end of the week. But the door was open, so in we went. Room after room was crammed with stunning antiques. We saw carved sideboards with inlaid wood, over-the-top mirrors,  paintings so huge they could only fit in mansions, and a collection of life-sized religious statuary. What we didn’t see were any actual people.

We kept expecting to encounter someone—around the next bend, in the next room, behind that 150-year-old armoire. I had my line ready. “Oh. I’m sorry. We didn’t realize. The door was open.”

But the only indication that we weren’t alone was the woman’s voice suddenly asking over an unseen p.a. system, “Could someone bring some shelves upstairs?”

We decided not to go upstairs.



Urban Arts

October 22, 2012

David and I spent this past weekend in New York City, where we got to watch a workshop production of “Fun Home: The Musical,” which is based on our friend Alison’s 2006 graphic memoir about her closeted gay father’s suicide and her own coming out as a lesbian. The show is still being tweaked, and the final production may be quite different from the performance we saw. So all I’ll say about it this. That it was fascinating to see how the producers translated the book’s multi-layered structure and nonlinear chronology to the stage. That the cast was incredible. And that it is very strange to watch an actor portraying someone you know in real life.

The whole experience naturally got me thinking about how we turn life into art, and bring art into life. New York City is a great place for this, because it’s so packed with people who are doing both those things, and very often in public. Walk around town with this mindset, and the abundance of free drama, art and entertainment is staggering. Most of it is even intentional.

Our walk from the bus to our hotel took us through the Avenue of the Americas street fair. We didn’t buy anything. But lots of the wares sure were pretty.

On Saturday night, we went to dinner and the show with my aunt — a great evening all around.

The next morning, we walked out of our hotel to discover a bit of unplanned drama. Thick grey smoke, rank with the smell of electric things burning, billowed from two manholes at the corner of St. Mark’s Place and 3rd Avenue. Firefighters, police officers, and passers-by stood around and watched. The occasional pops and sparks and smoke rings were mesmerizing. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

We walked west to Washington Square Park,

where we paused to listen to a little piano music.

Sitting in the sun beside the fountain, we watched a crew from Dr. Playground retrieve the lime-green shoe a toddler had dropped through the grate.

On Waverly Place, we enjoyed an over-the-top, fantasy feast, courtesy of Babbo.

Continuing through Greenwich Village,

we admired the streetscape…

…and took in some local history.

Then we headed over to the High Line.

I would have been happy to have spent the rest of the day there, just listening to the snatches of passing conversations, trying to fill in the blanks or, in lots of cases, identify the language.

But we didn’t have all day. For one thing, we had to eat, which we did at Bombay Talkie. Our waiter was eager to chat. He told us about economics and religion in his native Nepal, his college courses in criminal justice, his brother’s life as a monk back home, his hopes for the future. “When I tell my professor I want to go into law enforcement, he says I’m too skinny to be a police officer,” our waiter told us. “I want to tell him the police commissioner for the city of New York is also skinny.” We wished him good luck, and he thanked us as if our words had the weight of coins.

Back on the High Line, the sensory stimuli kept stimulating, almost too much to take in.

We strolled the High Line to its end, and then walked around the rail yards to catch our ride back to Providence. We were ready to sit down and rest our senses. But as we waited for our bus, the weekend offered one last aesthetic gesture, cast by the sun through the chain-link fence on the back of one of another departing visitor.

Things We Did in Colorado Springs

July 16, 2012

–Attended sister-in-law’s annual pig roast: live music, a 90-pound beast laid out with apple in mouth, live music, silly dancing, and marriage proposal (bride-to-be said yes).

–Helped sister-in-law purchase IPad. Developed IPad envy.

–Walked in Rock Ledge Ranch and Garden of Gods. Admired rock & cloud formations.

–“Didn’t notice” Local Traffic Only signs at entrance to Waldo-fire-ravished Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Snapped drive-by photos of devastation. Felt guilty. And lucky.

–Walked mile up and mile back down High Drive, near Cheyenne Mountain. Admired road-side flowers and octogenarian in-laws’ stamina.

–Saw 87-year-old mother-in-law through appendectomy. Relieved and astounded at patient’s resilience. 48 hours post-op, patient was strolling condo complex, supervising son’s gardening work, and even (briefly) picking up hoe herself.

–Ran in Garden of the Gods, 7-7:30, several mornings. Impressed by relative difficulty of running on steep, rock-and-sand trails at 6000 feet, compared to doing same on level pavement, at sea-level. And by how much more beautiful.

–Helped ‘rents-in-law hang pictures that have been sitting in piles since house in Rochester was sold, five years ago. Family photos, American Indian and Inuit prints, art by family members. Noted psychological/philosophical/poetic/whatever significance of said activity taking place so soon after in-laws’ being evacuated due to wild fires.

–Swam in condo-complex pool. Managed to remain placidly in lounge chair while obnoxious neighbor, unsolicited, stood in the water, shaking finger holding forth about likely demise of life as we know it if POTUS is re-elected. Left pool area as soon as politely possible.

–Sorted & divided ancestral textiles, mostly from India– embroidered, woven, silk, fine wool – with sister-in-law.

–Savored time with loved ones we see far too infrequently.

The Cemetery at Kabelvag

June 6, 2012

Twenty minutes out of Svolvaer, on my first drive through arctic Norway’s Lofoten Islands, I stopped to admire the handsome wooden church at Kabelvag. The day was very still, with dark clouds threatening rain. One other car was parked in the lot, but I saw no sign of any people. I was photographing the angled roof lines and the building storm clouds when I heard shouting. The voices didn’t sound angry or alarmed. Just needing to communicate across a distance. They were coming from the other side of the road, where there was a cemetery I hadn’t noticed before.

Maybe the cemetery was worth seeing. But now the rain had started. I returned to my car just as the shouters — a man and a woman — climbed into theirs. They were white-haired, with straight backs and a general look of fitness, in that Norwegian way. They were carrying rakes and trowels. Gardening tools. They eyed me briefly before looking away. We didn’t speak.

I drove on along E10, the two-lane road that’s the closest thing the Lofotens have to a highway. I passed quiet ponds and sodden fields, silver bays and cloud-capped mountain islands. The grays of the sky shifted. The rain came and went. It was chilly, more like my idea of March than late May. At Rorvik, I turned South, towards Henningsvaer, a fishing village with beautifully preserved wooden houses. In a restaurant overlooking a canal, I treated myself to a bowl of fish soup and a cup of hot coffee. I spent the next hour wandering around the little town, taking pictures. Fish hung out to ferment. Hand-blown glassware in a gallery window. A yard filled with odd sculptures assembled from found objects. Spring buds on the birch trees. The white clapboard siding of the Lofoten Arctic Hotel.

I headed back toward Svolvaer, retracing the route I’d taken in the morning. When I reached the wooden church at Kabelvag, I stopped once again. This time, the lot was empty. I crossed the road to the cemetery, not sure what I was looking for.

What I found were neat rows of headstones, not terribly old. Statues of angels, not particularly attractive. Pretty stone birds perched on the stones of children. And everywhere, fresh flowers. Pentecost was just a few days off. Is that a traditional time for remembering the dead? Or is tending cemeteries as soon as the ground thaws an annual rite of spring in this harsh climate? I could only speculate – just as I could only guess at the meanings of the inscriptions (the Norwegian tantalizingly close to English, but still beyond reach), and conjecture about the lives behind the names and dates of the dead.

I like cemeteries. I have photographed them in southern France, in Burlington,Vermont, and here in Rhode Island. The day after I explored the Kabelvag cemetery, I visited another one in worse weather, outside the hard-edged fishing town of Stamsund, two islands over. In my novel, two important scenes are set in a cemetery.

Why do these places that appeal to me so much? I like seeing how the old stones weather. I like thinking about the people who selected each stone – chose the words, picked out the pictures or the carvings, planted the flowers, maybe as recently as that morning. Gravestones don’t just memorialize the dead. They also reflect the sensibilities of the survivors, and convey the conventions of the times and cultures in which they lived. When my father traveled, he liked to read the phone books that were then standard in hotel rooms. Skimming the lists of residents in Omaha or Sausalito, he would remark on the area’s ethnic make-up. I read graveyards in this same way. But I also peruse them for more personal stories.

Idar Bjornar Rodi was born in 1937. That would have made him 3 the year the Nazis occupied Norway, and 8 when the war ended. How did this early experience shape his life? Eirik Bergstetdt Henningsvaer died at 6. Was he sickly? Or did he die in an accident? It was impossible not to wonder, and humbling to acknowledge how much I would never know. It was humbling to acknowledge these people – parents and children, neighbors, generation after generation – who had lived out their lives in this place that for me was the end of the world, a remote location I was lucky to be getting a glimpse of.

I felt lucky. The clouds were lifting. I felt safe, sheltered by my solitude, and secure from the dangers of real life, the way one often does (foolishly, no doubt), in foreign countries. It’s a trick of the mind that comes from being happily alone and far from home, while knowing that in a little while you’ll be back where you belong. But it wasn’t just the foreignness that made me feel safe. It was also the cemetery itself, a sanctuary not just for the dead, but also the living. A protected place where I was free to snoop around in strangers’ lives without fear of encountering any actual human beings.

And anyway, I wasn’t alone. Someone was nearby — unseen, but close enough to hear. Someone who was typing. A clerk, maybe. Or a person composing a letter. Or maybe a writer, like me. Whoever it was must have been just beyond those trees. The sound of the typewriter was perfectly clear – quick bursts of the typehammers striking the paper, followed by long pauses, as the typist searched for the next receipt that needed to be recorded, or pondered the next word.

It was the sound of my father composing a travel piece at  his desk in the sun room. Of my mother organizing her remarks for the Board of Education in the bedroom beside mine. It was the sound of my own writing, back in the days when I dreamed of one day selling a story and spending the earnings to trade in my manual typewriter for an electric. It had been a long time since I’d heard the sound.

All this passed through my mind before I registered what I was thinking. As soon as I did, I knew that of course I was wrong. There was no desk nearby. And even if there had been one, the person working at it wouldn’t have been using a typewriter. Even here in the arctic, typewriters were anachronisms.

So what was I hearing? Birds. Those large brown ones, flapping between the trees. Their voices (it couldn’t have been their wings, could it?) sounded exactly like typewriters. I smiled at my mistake. But as I turned back to the graves, knowing I was wrong, I couldn’t shake the sense that I had company – and comforting company, at that.

The Other Red Meat

June 3, 2012

Do you eat meat? All meat, or just kosher? Halal? If just kosher or halal, are you strict about slaughtering, or do you just avoid certain species? Do you avoid red meat? Non-organic meat? Sad meat, from animals that were factory farmed? If you don’t eat meat, what about fish? Would that be all fish, or just wild-caught? What about bottom feeders? If you don’t eat meat or fish, what about eggs and dairy? Honey? What’s your position on wheat? Tree nuts? Peanuts? MSG?

Are your food taboos based on religion? If so, which flavor? Is it ethics you care about? Meaning cruelty? The environment? Labor policy? Localism? Is it your health? And if so,  are you worried about weight? Allergies? Something else? Or are your dietary decisions more of a gut thing? Maybe you just don’t like peas.

It’s complicated, this business of eating. And even after you’ve gotten your food rules worked out, new information or questions might force you to rethink your rubric. (Pigs aren’t as smart as you think. Sea bass are endangered. If road kill is fresh and healthy, isn’t it wrong not to eat it?)

My own food outlook has been evolving. When dinner hosts ask my husband David and me what we eat, our standard answer is “everything.” But that’s not really true anymore. Because we’re concerned about cruelty, we try to eat meat only from animals that have been raised humanely. We eat fish (fin- and shell-) because we figure they’re equally happy whether they live in the wild or in fish farms, but we avoid over-fished species, out of environmental concerns. For health reasons, I try to go light on the fat, and favor whole grains over white. I also generally steer clear of ice cream and other dairy products, for reasons I won’t go into.

That’s how we eat at home and in restaurants. When people have us over, however, we just say we eat “everything,” because we don’t want to be a bother to our hosts. But I’m beginning to think it might be time to change our public eating status.

The question came up last week, when we were at a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands, in Norway’s far north. The conference was held at a “base camp” of cottages with an associated restaurant, where most attendees ate three meals a day.

Breakfast was available for several hours, and served buffet-style – the default arrangement at Scandinavian hotels, where the morning meal is standardly included in the price of the room. The basic menu includes breads, cheese, cold meats, fish and vegetables, as well as fruit, nuts, cereal and yogurt, boiled eggs, some sort of sweet pastry, and maybe, for the tourists, scrambled eggs and sausages on a steam table. Cushier lodgings mean classier rations. At the conference hotel, the cheeses were scrumptious, the smoked salmon luxe, and tiny croissants dusted with lightly caramelized sugar to die for. The range of options, and the help-yourself set-up, was ideal for people who want stay in charge of what they consume.

Lunches and dinners were a different matter. The thirty or so philosophers and their guests all sat down at the same time, at two long tables. When everyone was settled, the server called us to attention with the tap of a spoon on a glass, and announced the menu. “For dinner tonight you will have stockfish in pastry, followed by halibut with leek puree and roasted potatoes, and for dessert you will have panna cotta with blueberry coulis.”

Fish dominated the menus, which was just fine with me. And substitute dishes were available for those philosophers who had registered their dietary desiderata in advance. Several ate fish, but not meat. Others were pure vegetarians. At least two others were vegans; at the chef’s request, they had sent ahead links to websites with appropriate recipes. One philosopher ate meat, but not fish or wheat. In the parlance of our English-speaking Norwegian servers, fish-eaters were “vegetarians,” and anyone on a more restricted diet “vegan.” The simplified terminology worked well enough until the second night.

The server stood before us and tapped a glass with a spoon. “I will announce tonight’s menu,” she told us, quite happily. “You will start with a whale carpaccio served with cream cheese, watercress and beet puree.”

Cue the gasps and murmurs. (“Hang on a sec. Did she say whale?”)

“But what if we don’t want to eat whale?” someone asked.

“Those who do not want whale will have salmon,” the server smartly replied.

More murmurs. “I won’t eat whale,” someone called out. “Me neither,” said someone else, amid the general clamor. The server – a slight woman, about the age of the undergraduates the philosophers taught back home, managed to get our attention.

“Who will not eat whale?” she asked. Hands shot up all over the room. “We have seven servings of salmon,” she added.

More murmurs.

“But what if more than seven people want the salmon?”

“The salmon is only for the vegetarians.”

“Pescaterians,” someone corrected her.

“If you are a vegetarian you want salmon,” the server said firmly. “If you are not a vegetarian or a vegan, you want whale.”

Clearly, we were having a communication problem. But what was getting lost in translation wasn’t the nuances of vegetarianism and veganism, but the meaning of want.

As the servers went off to fetch our plates, we did some quick calculations. Whale are way smarter than fish, but it’s hard to imagine another animal with a more free-range existence. Aren’t they endangered, though? I thought of the great sperm whale, hunted nearly to extinction. Whales’ majestic size. The awesome distances they travel. The grace with which they propel their huge bodies through the water. The romance of their songs – of singing through water. The sweetness of their calves. Rafi, “Baby Baluga,” and the days when our children were babies. It was like asking us to eat Barney, the big purple dinosaur.

I stacked all of that up against the fact that the whale had already been purchased, prepared and plated. It seemed unlikely that refusing it would make much of an impact. And weren’t we always saying it was important to be good guests?

We were visitors in someone else’s home – a country where intelligent, ethical people eat not only whale, but reindeer. Also sheep’s head, boiled whole and served with mashed rutabagas. For Christmas. If we were in Korea, the dish du jour could be dog. And where is it, Indonesia? Where they eat the brains of live monkeys? A friend of ours who once traveled to somewhere in Africa representing a nonprofit claimed to have been honored at a feast where she was served live insects. “I could feel their legs wiggling as they went down my throat,” she said. What are the limits of accepting hospitality?

“The whales that are eaten here are not endangered,” the one Norwegian philosopher at our table assured us. “There are strict rules about how they’re caught and killed. Policemen go out on the boats to make sure everything is done right. The way they are killed is much less cruel than the way factory farmed pigs, for example, are slaughtered. And I have seen no convincing studies proving that they are more intelligent than other species, such as pigs.”

Our plates arrived. And reader, we ate it. The meat was deep red and delicious — dense, clean and meaty like grass-fed beef, but richer on the tongue, and when you sank you teeth into it, a soft, silky texture.

If you’re going to challenge your dietary principles, it might as well taste good.

Postcards from the Lofoten Islands

May 29, 2012

My husband attended a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands last week. I got to tag along. From the air, Norway looks more like a topographical map than any other place I have ever flown into.

The Loftotens are an archipelago of islands strung along Norway’s coast, above the line where the Arctic Circle begins. The conference was held in Svolvaer, a city of 9000 and the Lofotens’ administrative center. Svolvaer’s deep harbors accommodate cruise and excursion ships, freight ships, enormous shipbuilding facilities, and the fishing and fish-export concerns that have driven the local economy for thousands of years.

We could watch the ships from the deck outside our rooms at Svinoya Rorbu, the conference hotel. A rorbu is a traditional fishermen’s house. The wooden red boxes, set on stilts, line harbors throughout the Lofotens. Some are still used for their original purpose, but many have been converted into tourist camps.

The “rorbus” at our place were two-story houses built to mimic the old buildings. We had two decks, two sitting areas, two bathrooms (one with a sauna), a fully equipped kitchen and three bedrooms. We shared it with two other philosophers. Meals were served in the hotel restaurant. Papers were presented in the art gallery across the way.

The gallery featured the work of Gunnar Berg, a painter who lived on Svinoya, the tiny island for which Svinoya Rorbu is named. A short walk to the east side of the island takes you past the house where Berg was born. The place where he is buried is a small park with rocks that offer quiet views of some of Svinoya’s fancier homes, and sublime ones of the wild Norwegian mainland.

On Tuesday, when we arrived, the weather was unseasonably warm (close to 60). The sun was astonishingly bright.  The conference would begin on Wednesday. A message at the desk where we checked in announced that Wednesday’s schedule had been changed. Breakfast would begin at 7, and at 8 there would be a three-hour cruise to nearby Trollfjord.

The philosophers and their families filled the boat.

The scenery was nothing short of spectacular.

Our destination, Trollfjord, is named for the Norwegian folklore figure that inspired those long-haired dolls I played with when I was a kid. The place is best known for the 1890 battle between people operating modern steam-driven fishing boats and fishermen in traditional sailing boats, over access to the fjord’s fish.

On the return trip, our guide started feeding the sea gulls. She whistled loudly and threw chunks of bread into the water, and the gulls swooped in. When she cut up raw fish, the birds perched on her hand to eat it. The whole performance was actually pretty alarming. Should she be interfering with the birds like that? Wasn’t it dangerous to have them swooping in so close? Do we even like seagulls? In lots of places in the States, it’s illegal to feed them. They’re considered dirty nuisances. Flying rats.

Then a sea eagle suddenly arced in, cut through the fluttering gulls, and grabbed a bit of fish the guide had laid before her. That shut up our objections. A little later, a second eagle appeared. For this one the guide tossed a whole fish into the water. We watched the eagle snatch it up.

That pose of the eagle’s — wings raised, talons forward, beak down — is a favorite in the Lofotens. You see it as a silhouette nailed to the sides of houses, always with a fish clutched between the claws. It suggests the power and brutality of the fishing life, and also a sense of the natural order. The naturalness of predation.

Houses with these eagles sometimes also have their own private line of fish hanging out to ferment. This is the torrfisk — stockfish — for which the Lofotens are famous (at least among fans of cured fish).

Cod, haddock, and other species are fresh dried (that is, without salt) on wooden racks for three months, during which they naturally ferment.

The fish is then taken inside to mature for another two months.

You see the racks everywhere. The smell permeates the air. Commercially packaged stockfish snacks are displayed as impulse items beside the checkout counter at the supermarket. And stockfish shows up at meal after meal. The taste is mild but distinctive. Not bad, but boring. Especially after the third or fourth go-round.

This meal wasn’t much better.  This was my lunch on Friday, eaten as I sat behind the wheel of my rented car in the parking lot outside the Mini Rimi supermarket in the fishing village of Stamsund. Tapioca pudding with lingonberries, and two moisture-sucking wasa crackers with a mildly nutty spread the texture of Crisco sandwiched in between. I probably could have chosen better, if I had been willing to ask someone to translate the labels on the packages. And I might have found a better place for my picnic if it hadn’t been about 45 degrees out, not to mention windy and raining.

Here’s the better lunch David and I had together on Saturday. His conference was over. We stayed on an extra day and used the time to drive the length of the islands, working our way west on highway E10. The weather was still nasty, and at noon we found ourselves in the sprawling metropolis of Leknes, which has more than 10,000 residents, as well as an airport. This is falafel, served on a “baguette” (really a soft, oversized hotdog roll), garnished with coleslaw and spicy, Indian-style lime pickle. It wasn’t bad. And the young woman who served it to us (dark-eyed, head-scarfed), had a nice, warm smile.  Smile or not, eating in the Lofotens isn’t the greatest. The food is horrifyingly expensive, and generally mediocre.

And it doesn’t matter. Because food is beside the point when the scenery is this spectacular. Here’s Glassoy beach, on the North Sea, where David and I watched the waves lick the sand and the clouds hide and reveal the surrounding cliffs.

Here’s the harbor at Reine, where we decided it was time to turn around. (If we had pushed on another few kilometers we would have come to the town of Å, where highway E10 ends.).

Oh, and here’s a little tidal pond we happened to pass on Sunday, on our way to the airport. How could I not pull over and get this one last glimpse of the sublime before leaving this place I never imagined I would get to visit — if I had imagined it existed?

The Lofoten Islands — Seeing may be believing. Or not.

May 23, 2012

Here’s how I heard the story. Philosopher A (let’s call him “Jocko”) is talking to Philosopher B (let’s call her Xena).

Jocko: What do you think is the most beautiful place on earth?

Xena: The Lofoten Islands, duh.

Jocko: That’s the place. I’ll bet you I can arrange for us to have a conference there.

Xena: I’ll believe that when I see it.

Jocko: If that’s the case, I am 100% certain that you will believe it.

And so, here we are. Or rather, here they are. A bevy of brilliant philosophers. And here I am, the lucky faculty spouse. Perq #1: I get to tag along for the ride. Perq #2: I don’t have to do any philosophy.

To get from our home in Providence, Rhode Island, to this island in northern Norway, in the Arctic Circle, we took four flights and two taxis. The total journey in real time (not accounting for time zones) lasted 24.5 hours. No one ever said philosophy was easy.

On our first flight, from Providence to Newark, I watched the preppy student-type guy across the aisle reading a book and taking notes in a little turquoise journal. He was taking a lot of notes, filling a page or two every few minutes. I couldn’t catch much of what he was writing, just a few stray phrases. “I believe,” “it’s important,” “humility.”

What book could possibly generate such interest? Something about it ( the layout of the page? The fact that the chapter heading I could see was “Next of Kin”?) suggested  that it was either a novel or a memoir. As soon as I made the guess, I had to know if I was right.

I kept watching until he turned to a page spread with the author and title printed on top. Anna Quindlen. Many Candles, Lots of Cake. Bingo.

On this same leg, the flight attendant was very pretty and young, her long, black hair worn loose and a little messy, a much more casual style than I usually expect from people who have her job. I couldn’t stop looking at her.

I wasn’t just attracted. I was also intrigued. She was obviously ethnically Asian. But was she Japanese? Chinese? Or something else? I guessed Japanese, but I didn’t really know, and this bothered me. People who are Japanese and Chinese have no trouble recognizing the differences. I don’t like to think of myself as ignorant in this way.

When she came down the aisle, I caught a quick glimpse of her nametag. I didn’t have time to read her whole name. But I did notice that her last name was relatively long, maybe six or seven letters, and that it started with an I. From my limited knowledge of Chinese and Japanese names, I decided that my guess had been right. But maybe if I had guessed Chinese, I would have found some evidence to support that conclusion.

This is what I do when I’m bored. I make guesses about things, and then try to prove that I’m right. Temperature, time, distance, weight, the name of a song, the meaning of a word in a foreign language. That sort of thing. The actual fact of the matter isn’t what I care about. It’s showing that I can find clues, draw inferences, and get it right.

Among the passengers on the leg from Newark to Oslo were eight or nine generously tattooed men in their thirties, several carrying guitar cases. Obviously they were members of a head-banger band, come to Norway for a gig. I say obviously, but I didn’t know for sure until Passport control in the Oslo airport.

I happened to be behind one of the guys when I heard him him tell the Norwegian border-control guy, “I’m with [indistinct]. [Indistinct] tomorrow. I’m handling security.” Right again! Maybe. Unless those indistinct utterances completed the sentences so they said, “I’m with The International Society of Salt-Water Aquarium Enthusiasts.” And “I’m getting my wisdom teeth out tomorrow. And even if I did fill in the blanks correctly, that would only tell me that I correctly guessed the story the guy told about himself. How do I know he wasn’t lying? Or speaking in code?

While I was busying myself with these idle speculations, David was doing his homework for the conference. The branch of philosophy that brings us here is epistemology, the study of knowledge. How can we know our beliefs are justified? What counts as reliable evidence? That sort of thing. His own particular corner of this corner of philosophy is disagreement. He’s an expert on why he shouldn’t trust his own view too much if someone equally smart and well-informed has a different opinion. (And for this we get to go to the Lofoten Islands!)

As the trip dragged on and on and I got more and more tired and stiff and bored, I kept telling myself it was worth it. After all, how many people ever get to visit the most beautiful place on earth? But is it really the most beautiful? Maybe the jaw-droppingly gorgeous photograph Jocko pasted into the invitation he emailed to David was a fake. And even if it wasn’t a fake, why should I believe that just because that one incredible view existed somewhere in the Lofoten Islands, the rest of the place wasn’t a dump.Or maybe everything had been spoiled since the picture was taken. Those breathtaking cliffs removed to make room for a Wal-mart. I wouldn’t know until I actually saw for myself. Seeing would be believing.

As I write this, we have been here for twenty-one hours. In that time, we have seen some jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas – from the third plane (from Oslo to Bodo) and the fourth plane (from Bodo to Svolvaer), from the “maxi taxi” that took us to our hotel, while walking around town, and from a boat ride we took up Troll Fjord this morning. The beautiful vistas aren’t just occasional sights that take you by surprise when you crest a hill or turn a corner. They’re everywhere you look. In every direction.

Do I believe that Jocko and Yolanda are correct when they claim this the most beautiful place on earth? In order to form a truly informed belief, I would first have to visit every other place on earth and make a comparison. But until I am able do that, I will say this. In terms of amount of  jaw-dropping natural spendor per square inch, this is place is about as good a candidate for the title of Most Beautiful Place on Earth as any place I have ever seen.