Have You Been Hugged by a 90 Year Old and Other Deep Thoughts for the New Year

Have you ever been hugged by a 90-year old relative or someone close to you? If you have, you know that words can not adequately describe the moment. It is a moment filled with joy and sadness, but mostly joy. The thoughts that this could indeed be the last moment the two of you will ever share quickly transition towards a serene thankfulness for the moment you do have.

2013 was a year of mixed blessings, as we were afforded the opportunity to travel abroad for a second time in two years and it ended with me once again seeking new career opportunities. I enjoyed working for my last employer and am disappointed in not being there to help the team overcome some significant hurdles in their business. I have chronicled some of our 2013 visit to Spain on this blog in the past year and ‘resolve’ to include more in the near future. Yet, as I recently reflect upon our visit my mind is brought back to the events back home in Minnesota and in Rome, Italy that coincided with preparing to return home.

On June 19, 2013 my mobile phone buzzed twice. I was expecting a text from the airline notifying that our flight would be on-time. It was from my buddy back home, notifying me that actor James Gandolfini had died while in Rome of a heart attack. While not a surprise that my buddy would text me when celebrity dies, (it is our thing, I will leave it at that 🙂 ) it was a bit more shocking when I received a text hours later stating that noted Minnesota author Vince Flynn had died of cancer at the age of 47. While I was only a casual Vince Flynn fan, I enjoyed his local media appearances and took pride that ‘one of us’ was a world-renown author. My only first hand encounter with Mr. Flynn was giving him the ‘where do I know you?’ stare at a bookstore in the MSP airport. He kindly blew me off, but yet his passing really hit home, age 47 is far too young to go.

As we were finishing preparing to leave Spain, my mind began to wonder. I began to process our visit, the new and old friends met, and the incredible sites seen. I honestly wondered for the first time if we would see them again. In the fifteen minutes that eclipsed after picking up that text and finishing the packing of my bags, the inevitability and invincibility of youth left in my mind seemed to be gone. In a moment, the tears in our friends’ eyes as we left their homes in France in 2012 and Spain in 2013 made perfect sense to me. This could be the last time.

While there are no guarantees that we will travel to Europe again, there really were not any guarantees that we would be there again after my visit in 1995 or either of our visits in 2002 and 2012. We were blessed to have these opportunities and even more fortunate that we embraced everything in our visits, leaving no regrets of what we should have done or seen. My hopes for 2014 go beyond travel and into life. Embrace it with thankfulness for that moment, realizing that another moment quite like the one you are in is not inevitable. Embrace it, like a 90-year old would embrace it.

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Grave Encounters

Americans are fascinated by how steeped in history European countries are in comparison to the United States. The buildings are not decades, but hundreds of years old. The signature design of most cities includes a medieval old city at the center. The city grew around its medieval center, keeping the rich history and remembrance of the past. The old buildings are kept intact no matter how dark and dank the building may be, as it is part of the history and part of the present all at once. Intertwined with the rich attachment to the past is the presence of the dearly departed. Cemeteries, pantheons, sarcophagus’s, and tombs are everywhere. In historic buildings, in churches, in neighborhood cemeteries, the departed are never far away, part of the past and present all at once. In our travels, we sought out the final resting places of a few of history’s notable people, but also came across others by surprise!

The Lizard King

The grave of Jim Morrison’s is perhaps the most famous grave site of an American found outside the United States. We visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 2002 and sought out the grave of the legendary front man for the classic rock group The Doors. In the grand scheme of history and culture, fellow luminaries interred at Père Lachaise Oscar Wilde and Frederic Chopin offered more cultural significance, but for some reason Jim Morrison’s grave is the magnet that draws in people from all walks of life. It is the only grave in with Père Lachaise constant security and visitors pay their respects with flowers, cigarettes, pieces of clothing and in other non-traditional ways.

There was an undeniable vibe around the grave site. While we visited, there were ten to 20 people gathered around, all of us under watchful eye of a nearby security guard. I wasn’t sure how long one should pay homage to the Lizard King, but after snapping a few shots and taking in the scene, it was time to move on. Père Lachaise was a bit too confusing for us to find the graves of Chopin or Oscar Wilde, but I could cross visiting Jim Morrison’s grave off my bucket list.

Jim Morrison’s Grave – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002

The Emperor 

The Invalides of Paris today serves as the French military museum. It houses monuments and museums, but is renown for being the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is entombed in a red quartzite sarcophagus in a primary atrium. The enomority of Napoleon’s legacy was on full display as it was a shoulder to shoulder, capacity crowd in the atrium on our visit in 2002. Several of Napoleon’s family who commanded under him are also entombed in the Invalides, including his son, Napoleon II.

Napoleon is one of the icons of world history. On the International stage, his legacy is mixed. Napoleon is credited for breaking the back of the Roman Empire, breaking the cycle of feudalism in Europe and to Americans he sold us Louisiana! He also rejected democracy in France by establishing himself as Emperor, quelled a slave rebellion in Haiti, led France into costly wars, and finally left his country bankrupt and barren of her colonies.

With his defeat in Belgium at Waterloo, Napoleon was deposed for the last time until his death in 1821. The Waterloo monument wax museum displays a wax mold taken of Napoleon following his death.

(Fore shadow for future post. 🙂 )

Napoleons Tomb - 2002

Napoleons Tomb – 2002

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Waterloo – 2012

Napoleon II Tomb – 2002

Jules Verne

In 2012 as we mapped out our journey from Normany to Champagne in France, my wife suggested we take the route through the city of Amiens to see the renown Cathedral, but to also find the grave of the famous science fiction writer Jules Verne. The guidebooks listed the remarkable stonework and design of the tomb as the second highlight of Ameins. I was game for the adventure as Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorite classic novels.

As I’ve chronicled in past posts, our ability to get from point a to point b is largely limited to our GPS and the information we feed into it. The guidebook listed the incorrect address for the cemetery, but somehow, someway we found the cemetery. The cemetery was located on the fringes between a residential area and the business part of the city, much like one would be located in the United States. We did not see a legend or map of the cemetery available, so we just started walking, and walking, and walking.

There was no sign of Jules Verne’s grave anywhere. Then as we took a turn to make our way out of the cemetery, there it was. This most unique tomb, fit for the godfather of science fiction. The sculpture adorning his tomb illustrates an image of Verne himself pushing aside the slab to emerge from the grave!

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Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012

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Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012

Normandy Cemetery

Visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy is a moving experience. I considered it my patriotic duty to visit the cemetery and found myself on a whole other journey following the discovery of a grave marker for Albin B Hagen.

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American Cemetery – Normandy, France – 2012

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Grave of Unknown Soldier – Normandy, France – 2012

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Grave of Pvt. Albin B. Hagen, Normandy, France – 2012

Christopher Columbus

The massive cathedrals of Europe are often the final resting place for esteemed clergy, bishops, cardinals and even saints. It was in the cathedral in Seville, Spain where we stumbled across the tomb of another historic icon. Seville’s cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest in the world! (Just what is the difference between a Gothic cathedral and any other cathedral, we’ll get to that in a later post.)

As we made our way through the cathedral, there was an usually large crowd gathered around a very impressive monument. I listened in to an English speaking tour guide speaking to a crowd of American students to see what was going on. I have to admit I had not done any homework on the Cathedral and what were going to see. I was amazed as I overheard the guide’s description that this monument was actually the tomb of Christopher Columbus!

Well, at least the tomb contains part of Christopher Columbus. Many claim that Columbus is buried in the Dominican Republic. However, the curators of the Cathedral point to Columbus’s remains being moved from Santo Domingo in 1795 to Havana when the Spanish lost control of the Dominican Republic, with the remains coming back to Spain in 1895. The tomb may only contain part of Christopher Columbus, but I am still amazed.

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

Tomb of Cardinal Juan de Cervantes, Seville Cathedral – 2013

Getting There

“Kids, Big Ben, Parliament….again”

Everyone who has ever traveled has had a Griswold moment at some point, whether they are at home or abroad. The combination of air travel, sleep deprivation and simply being in a strange country will make Griswolds out of the best of us. Some of us more than once.


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Narrow, hilly streets in a Lozere village.

We were traveling to a small village in the Southern French department of Lozerein June 2012. Our plans included flying through Paris to a smaller regional airport in Claremont-Ferrand which was approximately an hour and a half from our bed and breakfast in that sphotomall village of Le Villard. Understanding that this was a small village, we took it in stride that the GPS in our rental car was unable to find the address of the B&B in its database.We did what we thought was the next best thing and entered an address in Le Malzieuville, the next village over, hoping there would be road signs or something that would lead us to our destination. It had been a few years, say ten or eleven, since I had driven a car with manual transmission. I was riding the clutch hard, but doing alright, only killing it a few times in lower gear through the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets of Le Malzieuville. We may have only drove around the village for fifteen minutes, but it felt like an hour. A long night of flying and a four hour layover in Paris had left both us dazed and confused as we searched for any sign of “Le Villard.” Finally we conceded defeat and stopped for directions in a park where an older couple happened to be sitting. My wife got out, explained our situation. (My wife speaks both French and Spanish and I speak neither. Therefore she got the job of admitting we were lost.) My wife contended that not only could the old couple have been not been more nice and we happened to be only a few kilometers away from our destination! Great news indeed!

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The nice old farmer who helped us out.

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Our B&B.

As we found Le Villard, saying it was tiny, would be overestimating its stature. First glance provided us with a view of three, maybe four houses and one farm, but no sign for the bed and breakfast. Where else was there to drive to? The only road into the village ended up in a farmyard. We were left thinking how can we be lost in a village the size of a backyard?? We were again fortunate that a local was out and about. This gentlemen appeared to be the farmer and an old one at that. My wife explained to him that we’ve been driving all over and could not find the bed and breakfast. I assumed that we had taken yet another wrong turn and would be heading back to the main road. As my wife got back into the car, she had quite a different message. We were a mere 50 feet away from our destination. We had passed the bed and breakfast…twice, and by golly there was a sign on the building with the name of the bed and breakfast. After hearing our story of driving all over the next town and the countryside looking for the bed and breakfast. The old farmer, like all old farmers I’ve ever met, shared a nice bit of wisdom with wife, “at least you were able to see more of Lozere.” Indeed we had.


Fast forward to one year later and we move on to Spain. Our arrival story had a very familiar Griswold-theme. We were due to arrive in Malaga at approximately 4pm local time, after a connecting flight in Paris. The plan was to arrive in the city, pick up some food and water, hit our hotel sleep the night and start experiencing Andalucia right away in the morning. Our plans were thrown a bit of curveball due to a three-day French air traffic controller strike. Our flight into Malaga from Paris was delayed four hours, pushing our arrival time to after 8pm. At least our flight wasn’t cancelled. We fared far better than many other travelers we witnessed at the Charles de Gaulle Paris airport. It was not a great start for our travels, but not a catastrophe.The reviews of the Ibis Cuidad Centro Malaga hotel on Trip Advisor completed it as a nice and affordable hotel, but hard to find. Learning from our previous experience, I pre-configured our own GPS with the hotel’s coordinates and even printed a Google map to use as a back up. When we arrived and were picking up the rental car, the experience could not have been more pleasant. The gentleman behind the counter didn’t try to pressure us into buying the collision insurance and offered the option to upgrade our rental for 80 Euros. 80 Euros not only gave us the next size up in car, it was an automatic. It was red and it was a Mercedes. He had us at “it is an automatic,” but a Mercedes B-series was icing on the cake. Things were looking up for a smooth journey to our hotel.

Our Chariot

Our Chariot

We stopped at a nearby supermarket for some food and water, the drove towards the hotel in Malaga’s city center. Our GPS was doing well and it was not yet dark, and off the left our left we spotted our hotel across a

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The pedestrian bridge to our hotel.

large aqueduct that ran right through the heart of the city. As I was looking for a left turn or roundabout, the GPS told us to go right, so we went right. There must be some turn off that will take us across the aqueduct. As we snaked through the narrow streets, we were going in the wrong direction and further and further away from our hotel. We knew we were off course when the GPS took us right back to the spot where it told us to turn right. And guess which direction it told us to turn? You guessed it. Right. Which direction did we turn. Yes. Right again. And if you are following along, where do you think the GPS took us to this time? If you guess that it took us back in a circle to the exact same spot, you would be correct. We could see bridges over the aqueduct ahead and attempted to take a different turn here or there on the subsequent attempts (Yes there were more than two or three) to find some magical turn that we missed to get towards the bridges. The bridges were a mere mirage, as they were in fact pedestrian bridges and we circled around to end up at the exact same spot again and again. It was now pitch dark, we were mentally and physically exhausted. We needed to get to the left, but could not. We were the Griswold’s….again.

“..there’s Big Ben…Parliament..again. Why can’t I go left..”

After a few tense moments, we regrouped to take a left turn prior to the aqueduct and most likely committed the first of many moving violations in Spain. We managed to snake through a new set of narrow streets in the dark to find an Ibis Hotel, but it was not our Ibis. My wife managed to talk to the parking garage attendant of this Ibis who was quite animated in conversing with me wife. From my point of view, I wasn’t sure if he was angry or trying to be helpful. Regardless, his gestures were unmistakable. He was pointing for us to park our car there. Then he marched his two fore fingers on his hand and pointed to building a block or so away, in some attempt to tell us to walk in that direction. My wife confirmed that we were to park there and the building in the near distance was in fact our hotel. I was sick to my stomach and ready to pass out, but once again thanks to a total stranger in a strange land, we at last found our hotel.

The wit and wisdom of the old farmer from Lozere was lost on two cranky and exhausted travelers from Minnesota. We were just thankful that there was no more of Malaga for us to see that night.