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Home Planet

Archive for June 2011

Leipzig: Back to Bach

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)




The day before I left Spokane and caught an early flight to Germany, the weather was wet and cold. More like late winter than late spring. Everywhere I went people were grumbling about the rain.

“Sorry you have to be out in this,” the usually-cheerful student at the coffee-shop told me. I just shrugged. I’ve given up trying to convince people I don’t mind the rain. There are times, in fact, like when I travel, that I prefer it.

Rain changes the landscape. Especially in a beautiful old city. Colors fade and stone buildings settle into shades of gray like an old black and white photograph. Cobblestones are more pronounced, glossed by the moisture.

When the sun shines we lose our focus. We squint and turn our faces up to the sky. We are tourists, even in our own cities; driven to get out and play. We wilt in the heat and fret about the crowd and the irritations of too many people in tight quarters.

Rainy days set a mood. In the right light, the scene could be set in any time. Old and new blend and blur. It’s easy to imagine things that would, in the bright light of sunshine, be implausible.

I arrived in Leipzig, Germany,  the city of Bach and Schumann and Wagner and Mendelssohn, just as an unseasonable rainy spell set in. Skies would pour, then clear, then pour again. Rain fell off and on as I wandered around the city.  As they went about their day, people huddled under umbrellas, heads down, until the sun came out again.

Leipzig is the place where Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last 25 years of his life. Where he raised a family and lived his life as both busy academic and musician.
The sun was out when I toured the Bach museum and in a darkened “treasure room” looked down on a cantata written in his own hand. I saw the house where his family’s closest friends lived, the place where the only remaining organ played by Bach is housed. Where a chest decorated with his family crest is on display.
I looked down on his grave - or, what scholars are reasonably certain is his grave - in St. Thomas Church. I studied the statue and all the artifacts, but it wasn’t until the skies clouded again that I felt like had found the man.

In the spell cast by the rain, I could imagine him, worried, distracted, his mind on everyday irritations and ordinary concerns, barreling down the same narrow streets or striding across the square. It wasn’t hard to picture him dodging puddles as he walked, turning over in his mind all the worry and aggravation of work and home, lost in thought, focusing on numbers, budgets, a choir of rowdy  boys; juggling the burden of a large family or the purchase of instruments for the orchestra or consumed by the composition of a cantata.

I ducked into one of the small shops looking for chocolates to bring home.  The clerk, realizing I was an American, apologized for the weather.
“Yesterday was so much more beautiful,” she told me. “Perhaps tomorrow will be better.”

 “Oh, no, today was perfect” I said, taking the shopping bag full of sweet souvenirs for my family back home. “I saw exactly what I was hoping to see.”

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Friday Night Around the World

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)   



   On my last day in Switzerland, I walked around Zurich, visiting museums, wandering up and down cobblestoned streets window-shopping and trying to lock it all in my memory.  I strolled along the river and over bridges, people-watching, stopping to look at the sailboats on the lake. I was leaving in the morning, catching a Saturday flight and I was tired, ready to get back home and to see my family. But I didn’t want to miss a moment while I was in such a beautiful place, because Zurich is very beautiful.

    Finally, after an early dinner, I made my way back to the hotel. Back to one of those spaces Americans just don’t appreciate. We’re too used to modern boxes with uniform spaces. My room was the last room on the hallway on the seventh floor, the top floor of the building. The elevator stopped at the sixth floor and I had to carry my suitcase up one more flight. I thought how my friends would fuss and grumble about that little inconvenience, but, perversely, I liked the idea of being tucked away.

    Inside the room a double bed was tucked against the wall under a sloping ceiling and a single, tall, narrow, arched window opened up to a splendid view of the city.  It was a storybook place, like something from a movie or one of the romantic novels I’d read as a girl. I propped my suitcase in the corner and crossed over to open the window, grateful for the cool breeze that filled the room, making the curtains dance.

    I could see the tower on the Uetilberg - I’d been there the day before - and all the buildings of the city spread out below me. The train station and landmark hotels were easy to identify. The lake was just out of sight. On one side was the tall spire of the cathedral. On the other a row of old attached houses curved along the street in the University district. As they do in so many European cities, many of the houses had small patios or terraces built on the narrow, flat rooftops and the owners had decorated these private spaces with potted trees and hanging plants. Where there was room, some owners had added a small table and chairs. 

    The view was so different from what I see when I am at home, I stood there a long time, soaking it all in before turning back into my room to pack.

    Just a few minutes later laughter drew me back to the window, and the sound of knives and forks on crockery and corks being pulled from wine bottles.

    When I looked this time, I noticed that all around me the skyline had come alive with movement. Men and women, college students and young couples had moved up to the roof and were silhouetted against the sunset. The day was dying but the air was  suddenly filled with the musical sound of people at ease and happy; celebrating the end of the week; just as they do in my neighborhood when people sit on the patio and fire up the grill, laughing, calling out to one another or children as they play in the back yard.

    As I watched, one by one, lights came on in the houses around me and windows glowed like golden gems in the deepening twilight. It was nothing special but it was, at that moment, extraordinarily beautiful.

    That’s the thing about travel. You can cross oceans and continents, time zones and cultural divides, but ultimately, in the most ordinary, unexpected ways, like the universal sounds of people relaxing on a Friday night, you discover not just the ways we are different, but the simple and striking ways we are all alike.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Charmed Pillows and Sweet Dreams

   I brought the sheets and pillowcases in from the clothesline, stiffened by the wind and still warm from the late afternoon sun. Before I folded each piece, I buried my face in the fabric and breathed deeply.

   Who doesn’t love that smell? Like sunlight spun into thread.

    I made up the bed and the fragrance was still there when I turned out the light and drifted off to sleep. As I dozed, I don’t know what exactly triggered the memory, my mind drifted back to charm-pillows.

    One day when I was a girl, no more than six or seven, in the morning of what would be a long, hot, southern summer day, my grandmother mentioned charm pillows as we folded laundry from the big willow basket. The were sachets to be tucked under your pillow, she told me, filled with grasses or herbs that were said to sweeten your dreams.

     Naturally, I had to have one. So she led me out to the backyard and we gathered fat white blossoms from a broad patch of clover. She’d already shown me how to make a chain of the flowers – woven together by their stems -  to wear in my hair or around my neck, and my sister and I spent hours sitting in the field stringing them together. But that day my grandmother and I picked the blooms and spread them out on the child-sized picnic table – the place I usually sat to have my lunch of peanut butter sandwiches cut into quarters - to dry in the hot sun.

    By the end of the day they were ready. As I stood looking over her shoulder, she stitched a tiny pillow out of fabric pulled from the bag of quilting scraps, leaving it open at one end. Together, we filled the bag with the dried clover and using small, neat stitches, she sealed it.

  That night she tucked me into bed, the bed my mother had slept in when she was a child. I was cocooned by sheets that had dried in the sun, just like the clover. Beside my head, was the pillow we’d made.

  The truth is, I don’t remember what I dreamed that night; if the sachet worked its magic then. But the magic is with me now. Last night, thinking of that day, I returned to a place that is gone. To a woman who is gone. To a childhood long gone.

  Perhaps that is the true magic of the charm pilloe. The thing itself is lost to time. But the perfume lingers to catch you by surprise, so that years later, when you least expect it, you fall under its spell and into sweet, sweet dreams.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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