ADVERTISEMENT
Advertise Here

Home Planet

Archive for May 2012

Memorial Day: White Crosses at Flanders Field

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    In a quiet corner of Belgium, tucked into what is now a residential area, behind a low brick wall and evergreen hedge and just beyond an avenue of stately Linden trees, 368 American soldiers are buried at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.


    One of 24 cemeteries outside the United States maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Flanders Field American Cemetery is the only American cemetery in Belgium. It was established on the site of the battlefield where almost 94 years ago, from October 30 to November 11, 1918, the 91st Division fought to liberate Belgium.


    I was there on a raw spring day in April and a cold rain fell on my umbrella as I walked between the rows of white marble crosses. The weather only added to the solemnity of the moment. Coming from Spokane, I took special note of Northwest names: Bernard Meyers and Edward Condon from Washington State, Frank Osborn from Montana. There were others from Idaho and Wyoming, and I wondered if the descendants of any of these men might be my neighbors.


    Sadly, the War to End All Wars was hardly that. Almost a century later we are still in conflict, still living under the threat of war and terror. Men and women continue to die on foreign soil. Supreme sacrifices continue to be made.


    In the elaborate marble chapel at the Flanders Field cemetery I stooped to read the messages on the wreaths of paper Poppies—the symbol of Flanders Fields and the almost unimaginable losses there—and other memorial flowers. One stood out. The card attached to the ring of red paper flowers was printed with the words, “From an American who remembers.”


    There was no name, no way to tell to whom the wreath had been dedicated. But thinking about the names on the simple white crosses, the generations altered and impacted by the cruelties of war and the men and women who are coming home now to a society grown so accustomed to conflict we forget to thank and acknowledge those who deliberately step into harm’s way , it crossed my mind I should pull out my pen and add the words, “From all of us.”

You can see more photos of the Flanders Field American Cemetery on my CAMera: Travel and Photo blog.
  

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, 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 catmillsap@gmail.com


  

Giving Voice to the Writer Within

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   We meet a couple of times a month, schedules permitting. We drink a cup of coffee and if I’m lucky there’s cake or pie. Then we spend an hour or two working on the words she has put on paper since we last met.

    In her mid-80s, she is writing down the memories she spent a lifetime collecting, organizing them as a surprise gift for her children, great-grandchildren and newborn great-grandson.

    My job is more than just editing what she’s written or giving her advice about the choice of words or a turn of phrase. I’m her coach, there to give her confidence.

    “I’m not a writer,” she said the first time we spoke by phone. “I’m not a writer,” she says as she hands me the paper. Oh, but she is. And like all of us, she has a unique story to tell.

    She married young and stayed married for half a century. She raised a family, navigating the upheaval and shifting social landscape of the late 1960s and 70s. She volunteered at her church, traveled some and survived the loss of a spouse.

    Now, grounded by arthritis and failing eyesight, she wants to leave her family with a window to who she was and how she came to be the woman they know as mother and grandmother. The stories she is writing down aren’t grand, sweeping dramas. They’re the quiet stuff of an ordinary life.

    Her children know their parents took a cruise through the Panama Canal but they don’t the couple sat on the deck one night and, holding hands, began to talk, looking back over their years together. And that both ended up in tears, crying over the flush of first love, over the harsh words, the occasional cold nights and wasted time given over to the ordinary spats and grudges of any marriage. They wept over the sweetness of family and the beauty of the life they’d had together. In less than a year he was gone and she’s never told anyone about that night. Until now.

    The children know the dishes on the table each Christmas belonged to a great-grandmother, but they’ve never heard the story of how that china, packed in excelsior and shipped in a big wood barrel, made its way across an ocean as a wedding gift only to arrive just after the groom succumbed to influenza and died leaving a grieving young widow. And the barrel was passed down, still unpacked, to the next generation.

    She is writing about the scar on her knee and how she got it when she fell through the ice as a child, ripping the skin on a jagged rock on the edge of the lake. She’s putting into words just how it felt to hear the ice break beneath her and feel herself plunge into water so cold it stole her breath. How her legs were so numb she didn’t know she was injured until she was pulled to shore and the blood trailed bright scarlet across the ice. The memory is still so terrifying she’s never talked about it to anyone. Until now.

     So we meet. And one day at a time, one word at a time, I encourage her. Together we tell her story as she becomes the writer she never believed herself to be.

    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet , Treasure Hunting blogs, she chronicles her travels on CAMera: Travel and Photo. 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

We have asparagus season. Germany has Spargelzeit.

   (Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

 

   Just after the morning’s first cup of coffee, I pedaled my bicycle to the organic market near my house. I’d been drawn by the sign advertising fresh local asparagus and I came home with bundles of the tender green vegetable in the wicker basket on the front of my bike.  That night, grilled in butter and olive oil, sprinkled with a bit of sea salt, it was as delicious as I’d expected. The quintessential taste of spring.

   Halfway around the world, in Germany, I know another woman was probably doing the same thing. Only her bicycle basket would be filled with the pale, white asparagus. It would be more delicately flavored, grown in tall mounds of earth, sheltered from the sun until harvest.

   From April to late June, Germans are mad for asparagus. Eaten only in season, the tender, pale, stalks set off a frenzy of dining and celebrating. We have asparagus season. They have Spargelzeit. Once the delicacy of kings, and regarded as a medicinal luxury in the Middle Ages, the “edible Ivory” stalks are brought out like treasure. Harvested, displayed and consumed with adoration.

   Weekly markets—usually held in the historic squares of the old cities—are sprinkled with stalls featuring rows of  white asparagus bundles paired with other early fruits and vegetables like radishes or strawberries. The effect is as colorful and appealing as any still-life composed by an artist.

   Restaurants create special menus dedicated to asparagus, each trying to outdo the other. It is blended into cocktails, pickled, chopped into salads, draped across main courses and even sweetened and turned into dessert.  One might have it in the morning’s omelet, lunchtime salad and again at the evening meal. With a glass of German wine, of course. There is no moderation.

   Like the country’s exuberant Christmas decorations, Asparagus is the star of spring. There are asparagus festivals, complete with Kings and Queens and districts organize asparagus trails and tours similar to the well-traveled wine routes that meander through the Rhine valley.  The Lower Saxony region produces a fifth of all the asparagus Germany consumes each season and in the Baden fields devotees, eager for the freshest bites, can pitch in and join the harvest.

   Here, in my part of the world, the sign is back. A new harvest of local Northwest asparagus is on display at the market so I’ll hop back on my bike and fill the basket again. I’ll serve it up and savor each bite. But I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. Sure, we have asparagus season. But Germany? Well, they get Spargelzeit.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Sleeping with the KGB

(Photo of the Hotel Viru KGB Museum by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

   It’s usually done without thinking. I check into a hotel, unpack, take a photo if the view from the window is a good one, maybe even take a nap or, if there's time, a bubble bath.  Then, as I leave for the afternoon or turn in for the night, I slip the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and that’s that. My valuables are locked in the safe. My door is locked. My privacy is secured.

    I never gave much thought to that privacy as a luxury but recently, touring Estonia and the beautiful city of Tallinn on the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, I got a glimpse into an altogether different world. I took the one-hour KGB Hotel Museum at the Sokos Viru Hotel.

    The Hotel Viru, built in 1972, was Estonia’s first skyscraper and one of the very few luxury hotels in the Soviet Union. With a glitzy Vegas-meets-Moscow interior, complete with showgirls, the Varu was built to bring in much-needed tourism dollars. It was where visiting celebrities and VIPs stayed. But, as was later discovered when Estonia gained independence in 1991, the hotel was riddled with microphones and other surveillance secrets. Hospitality KGB style.

    Small unseen rooms were secreted between guest rooms to make it easy for KGB agents to eavesdrop and monitor guest’s activities. And on the 23rd floor (the elevator went only to the 22nd floor) in a cramped space occupied by two men and filled with equipment, private conversations were recorded and monitored 24 hours a day. On each floor, matrons sat in hallways and marked the comings and goings of each guest.

    In Tallinn, everybody wanted to work at the hotel. In Soviet Estonia, the next best thing to having some kind of power or prestige was having a friend who worked at the Viru. In a society where black-market trading was the only way to thwart severe and deliberate communist deprivation, who you knew was was like money in the bank. The Viru was a source of foreign currency. Of scarce food supplies, basic toiletries and any number of other desirable things.You could, for instance, if you were lucky enough to make an under-the-table deal, procure a cake baked by one of the hotel pastry chefs. A cake!


    The KGB tour starts in the lobby before taking the elevator and a flight of stairs up to the  secret room. The hideout’s interior is just as it was found when KGB agents fled. There are still cigarette butts in the ashtray. Our guide obviously relishes her job. She sprinkled her historical comments with “wink wink, nudge nudge”asides about the “micro-concrete” construction and the “special” bread plates which were wired with microphones and placed on the dinner table when KGB agents were particularly interested in what certain guests had to say.

    She told us that when Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Viru, she threw a Movie Star tantrum and ripped open a feather pillow. Unfortunately, Ms. Taylor then tried, unsuccessfully, to flush the feathers down the toilet and caused quite the plumbing headache. Score one for Americans, I guess. (Astronaut Neil Armstrong was also a guest but was apparently less temperamental.)

    While the cloak-and-dagger machinations sound almost comic now, it’s worth remembering that life for the residents of Estonia during the Soviet years was anything but funny. There was no abundance of anything. Scarcity was real. So were travel restrictions and lack of personal freedom. The things we take for granted—like privacy—were sometimes unattainable. Think about that the next time you check into a hotel. And if you’re ever in Tallinn, a beautiful city in an independent country, check out the KGB museum at the Hotel Viru. It's worth the trip. And the reminder.
    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Little Souvenirs

Preparing to take a taxi to the Brussels airport, I’ve removed everything from my suitcase and spread it across the bed in my hotel room and I am, one by one, refolding and repacking each piece. Looking at the things I’ve gathered, even though I was trying to be prudent and to remember the charges the airlines level against heavy bags, I realize again how difficult it is for those of us who are susceptible to the romance of ordinary objects. Much more than the expensive souvenirs, we know the little things carry with them the most evocative memories of the places we explore.

Other cities and other countries haunt my house.  I can pull a book of matches out of a drawer in my kitchen and be instantly transported back to a cafe in a faraway place; strong coffee, conversation and an unfamiliar view through the window. Matchbooks are not so common these days and most I find were brought home years ago, but I occasionally still run across one and a tiny flame from Prague or Pennsylvania, will light the barbecue on my very American patio.

I frequently, if I like the scent, slip hotels soaps into my luggage between sweaters or folded pajamas to keep them fresh. When I unpack at home the fragrant soaps go into the linen closet. Again, when I least expect it, I’ll come across a bit of Paris or Brussels or Zurich or San Francisco tucked between pillowcases or folded into sheets.

At each museum I visit I purchase a postcard of the painting or sculpture I loved the most and the cards become bookmarks in whatever book I was reading on the plane or are slipped into travel guides. Some escape the pins on the cork board behind my desk and turn up when furniture is rearranged.

A bottle of wine, wrapped and slipped into a boot in my suitcase, is opened later bringing with it a reminder of a special meal or a special moment in Tuscany. Or Napa.

Now, after a week traveling across Belgium, my bags are full of such odds and ends. The silk scarves I collect as I go, gifts and souvenirs for my family, maps, travel guides and destination pamphlets picked up along the way are added to a few favorite hotel lotions and soaps. Finally, when it is all done I pull out the practical gift given to me last Christmas by my youngest daughter and prepare for the worst. Slipping the portable travel scale over the handle of my luggage I lift it, biting my lip as the numbers flash and then finally stop. Good news. For all my worrying, I am a pound or two under the limit.

That means there is just enough room for the big box of Belgian chocolate.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, 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 catmillsap@gmail.com

Get blog updates by email

About this blog

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."

Search this blog
Subscribe to this blog
ADVERTISEMENT
Advertise Here