Quite a while ago, long before anyone knew of my cancer diagnosis, my parents booked a Smithsonian tour to Portugal and Spain. As with their trips to Greece and Europe, it seemed a good opportunity for me snag a mini-vacation by hopping a quick flight and joining them at one end of their trip. Luckily, we opted for a pre-tour visit, which allowed me to meet up with them in Lisbon just a few days before, as it turned out, my chemotherapy would be scheduled to start. It was the perfect last-minute fling.
I’ve been to several countries that are, in many ways, like Portugal–I immediately saw reminders of France, Spain, Italy, and Greece–but I’d never been to Portugal itself. When friends heard of my upcoming trip, many told me how lucky I was and said that Lisbon was one of their favorite cities in Europe. I was, therefore, expecting a bit more than I got, but I worry that I am being overly harsh because of the somewhat stressful circumstances of the visit.
To start with, my parents’ transatlantic flight was delayed by a day, so they ended up arriving the morning after my arrival rather than the morning before. Additionally, nobody had really done any planning because we were all too distracted by the whole cancer thing. My parents’ Smithsonian tour itinerary was all taken care of, but none of us had actually put much thought into what the three of us would do while we were in the city together; this resulted in a lot of shrugging and winging it. Normally, I’m quite happy to roll with the punches in this way, and so I didn’t anticipate that these issues would be that problematic. However, I don’t think any of us felt particularly drawn to Lisbon itself–although perhaps my parents found it more appealing once their more rigorous tour began in earnest.
The city had some nice enough features and areas, but, on the whole, I wasn’t as blown away by it as I had been expecting given everyone’s comments prior to the trip. The adjective I kept mentally applying to the city was “crumbly”. Luckily, it has just enough cobblestone streets, and is slathered with just enough ornate tiling, that my eyes could tolerate the many boxy communist-style offices and apartment buildings that crowded the skyline; there are also a number of interesting statues and monuments dotted around the city, along with a fair amount of attractive greenery lining the streets.
Our first day–when all of us were still battling with fatigue from our respective journeys–was probably our most pleasant and relaxing. After a leisurely late breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Lisbon’s renowned Oceanario. The aquarium features a massive central tank where you can see several types of sharks, rays, eels, sunfish, and various other species of saltwater fauna. There were also many smaller exhibits were you could view more delicate specimens such as sea dragons, jellies, flatfish, and garden eels.
Afterwards, we hopped on the Telecabine, which is a cable car ride that runs along the Tagus River in the Parque das Nacoes that incorporates the Oceanario. It wasn’t a very long ride, but it was an extremely pleasant one, offering views of the Lisbon skyline and the many jellyfish down in the water. (Photos from that portion of the journey can be found on Facebook.)
The defining moment of the trip–the thing that has probably forever prevented me (however unfairly) from ranking Lisbon in my top 10 vacation destination list–is the loss of my parents’ backpack, and the subsequent loss of my cell phone, at the Santa Apolonia train station. We’d been riding a hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus and had accidentally gotten on board the blue line rather than the red line. This prompted us to make such a hasty departure at the train station that the backpack was left behind. I dashed after the bus for several blocks, hoping it might eventually reach a stoplight, but eventually I had to call it quits. Stranded with no other way to get to our next destination, we opted to take a taxi; as we got into the car, my phone–unbeknownst to me–slipped out of my bag and fell onto the sidewalk. Although I discovered its absence within seconds, and subsequently performed a thorough inspection of the interior of the station, the taxi waiting area, and the lost and found, I had no luck finding it.
Amazingly, though this misadventure necessitated a 90-minute phone call that caused me to miss our entire visit to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, it does actually have a happy ending. The phone was found by a man who was traveling to Porta to visit his daughter–who had the technical savvy to track me down via social media so that she could coordinate a way to return the phone to me; it is, as I type, en route to Cornwall.
This grand gesture is only one of the many kindnesses we were shown during our time in Lisbon, and that is what I will remember most about the trip: The people were generous, friendly, and incredibly helpful. From shopkeepers to waitstaff to strangers on the street, there was a consistent attitude of openness and welcome. For example, when we left the Gulbenkian, one of the employees insisted on walking us to the nearest metro stop to ensure that we wouldn’t get lost; there was no need for him to do more than point, but he graciously took the extra step–literally–to guarantee that we reached our goal.
I suspect that I would probably enjoy Lisbon more if I had the time to visit it again in better health, over an extended period, and with more of an opportunity to really explore the ins and outs of the city rather than take such a hectic, scattered approach. That said, I still feel lucky to have been able set aside a few days to go and enjoy some late summer sunshine in great company, and to replace “lymphoma” with “Lisbon” as the L-word most prominent in my mind!
(For more photos of Lisbon, visit my Flickr gallery)
Inevitably, when people go home for the holidays, they make jokes about how insane their families are, or how they’ll go mad if they have to spend too much time hanging out in their hometown. This year, my family took all the crazy talk seriously and literally went to the asylum–the Athens Lunatic Asylum, or, as it’s now known, The Ridges.
The Ridges is one of my favorite places in town. It’s got beautiful old buildings, peaceful grounds, and lots of interesting history–which I recently read about in The Asylum on the Hill. Prior to that, I’d also had the privilege of getting a guided tour of the main building (now home to the Kennedy Museum) shortly after the facility was taken over by Ohio University. Of course, I’ve also heard many stories over the years from people who were probably more interested in drama than in accuracy–especially in relation to the story of “The Stain”, which was caused by decomposition of the body of an escaped patient who hid away, and died in, the asylum’s attic.
To counteract bad and inaccurate press, and also to give visitors a chance to hear about the asylum from an experienced insider, the Athens Historical Society now runs tours led by George Eberts–a mental health expert who was based at the facility for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare building across the river.
Ebert told us about the construction of the facilities, which were built from blueprints crafted by the architect Levi Scofield shortly after he left the army. The asylum was the first building designed by Scofield, who went on to create numerous other structures around Ohio.
In addition to hearing about the architecture at the Ridges, we also found out about mental health treatment over the years. When the Athens Lunatic Asylum first opened, patients who were able led very “normal” lives there–they tilled fields, harvested crops, took care of livestock, went on walks, held picnics, and generally enjoyed as peaceful an existence as the caretakers could create for them.
Eberts said that the system worked well for a couple of decades, but then began to experience difficulties as patient numbers exceeded the capacity of the building. Later on, there were also some issues associated with more unsavory treatment practices, such as electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Interestingly, Eberts reported that both of these techniques were sometimes successful (and, in fact, the former is still used today), but are now viewed negatively at least partly because they were employed somewhat indiscriminately–and not always with sufficient permission from the patients.
We also got to hear about some of the things that George experienced first-hand, including finding secret spots where patients relaxed and partied out of the view of their caretakers. He also told us about a time when some orderlies accidentally locked themselves in a room with one patient, leaving the rest of the residents on their floor to run wild; he also had a story about a caretaker who outwitted the authorities who came to bust him for taking a woman back to his room.
Or doors. I just like portals, generally.
While working at the asylum, Eberts often came face-to-face with its history. He got the opportunity to explore many of its nooks and crannies, including the creepy basement. (However, asbestos prevented him from checking out the women’s wing, which he described as the atmospheric part of the building that everyone would visit if only they could.) He told us how he was once called out to help move a heavy stone staircase (shown below). Historical photos later revealed that it had been used by visitors who needed help gracefully descending from their carriages. On another occasion, he was sent into town to retrieve the decorative fountain that used to sit out front and had been sent off for repairs. The metal angel couldn’t be salvaged, but the stone base was returned and is now located in the asylum’s back “yard”–where it is overrun by weeds and is no longer home to the two alligators that used to lounge in its waters during the warmer months.
Although we spent the majority of the time focused on the main building, we also wandered around other portions of the grounds. We passed several of the “cottages” where later patients could live together in small groups, and we took in the one remaining greenhouse and root cellar. We also headed up the hill to visit one of the asylum’s three cemeteries; we saw the two graves where former Civil War soldiers–one white man from the Confederate side, and one black man from the Union side–are buried in close proximity.
At the end of the tour, George gave us permission (though I’m not exactly sure he was empowered to do so!) to head up the fire escape and peek through the windows into the abandoned women’s wing. You couldn’t see much except for some photogenically peely paint on the walls of empty rooms.
Perhaps the best part of George’s presentation was the calm and humanizing way that he spoke about mental health issues, which left me with a greater sense of empathy and gave me a real appreciation for the work that he and his colleagues have done over the years at both the old and new incarnations of the asylum.
I’m sure most people would raise an eyebrow if invited to visit an old mental asylum for the holidays, but, in our case at least, it was well worth the trip. We got to spend time outdoors on a beautiful sunny afternoon and hear about some fascinating local history. Hats off to George and the Athens Historical Society for hosting such an educational and generally pleasant event–their last one of the year, and a novel way to celebrate the winter solstice and my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, which happened to fall on the same day. [Feel free to mentally insert your own joke about marriage and mental institutions.] Thanks to the addition of an atmospheric flock of vultures and a prowling Cooper’s hawk, there was really nothing else I could ask for. Now we just have to figure out what kind of outing we can do next year in order to top this one!
Updates: My dad did a newspaper story about George’s tours earlier this year. You can read it here. He also took some photos during our tour:
Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.
Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT. This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.
Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).
Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:
We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.
One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.
My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.
If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.
I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.
That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:
We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.
Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.
As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:
Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:
I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.
Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.
Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.
Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.
Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.
The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.
Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.