Lisbon: Portugal’s newer old city

To finish up our trip, on Monday, after exploring Porto, Braga, and Coimbra, we traveled by train to Lisbon, Portugal’s largest city.

Lisbon simultaneously holds the title of Europe’s second oldest capital and the newest city of any we’ve explored thus far in Portugal, although it’s still ancient by US standards. This is because it was almost completely redesigned and rebuilt after a 1755 earthquake measuring 8 to 9 on the Richter scale destroyed nearly 85% of the city.

Sebastiao de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, is credited with spearheading the new design: replacing medieval alleyways with wide streets and plazas on a central grid, and also engineering buildings to collapse in on themselves in the event of another catastrophic event.

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Sintra: wine, castles, coastline, and a near death experience

I think our favorite day for the most unexpected adventure in Portugal was our our visit to Sintra.

When I thought about a day trip to this UNESCO World Heritage area from Lisbon, I expected to take a train ride and then spend the day hoofing it from castle to castle. I hoped for good weather, but at this point in our trip, that was kind of iffy.

We had a couple of credits on Airbnb due to pandemic trip cancellations, as well as a gift certificate (which, by the way, is a FANTASTIC gift idea for the person who has everything and likes to travel), so we splurged on a Jeep safari.

The day started with a near disaster as our driver stopped to pick us up in front of our building in the middle of the busy Rua da Prata in rush hour, then gestured at us to jump in the car as the approaching traffic collectively slammed on their brakes.

At this point half of my freaking family (in particular, the two I would have expected to know better) darted across the road while all I could manage was to squeak out “bus!” by way of warning.

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Our brush with revolution in Coimbra

Our original plan was to rent a car in Porto, drive inland to Coimbra for a night, then drive further inland to stay at a mountain town called Monsanto for another night. After reading a few blogs, and then a few more blogs about the driving and parking experience in Portugal for the inexperienced, we decided to stick to places we could access by train and save our Portuguese countryside tour for another trip.

After seeing drivers thread the needle through the narrow streets of Porto, we were certain driving here might not be our thing, like, ever.

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More Porto, a little Braga and a Bishop maybe too big for his britches

If Porto is any indication, humans have been working on the proper stair height for more than 2,000 years, and only just recently agreed upon a standard.

I never appreciated that standard until now. In this ancient town, you’ll find differences in height between flights located in the same building, and even stairs in the same flight. Aaand, fun thing about bifocals, they make me a lot more clumsy with stairs. Introduce a mask into the equation (which can make said bifocals easy to slip off), I’m a walking disaster waiting to happen.

Most days we’re averaging 40 to 50 flights a day, and while I’m glad to have the stamina, I feel like I’m missing a lot because I’m concentrating so hard on not falling to my death. Good thing I’m traveling with some patient people….

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One day in Portugal: 300 stairs, one life lesson, and a sandwich bigger than a human head

One of my favorite things about travel is stepping off an airplane and into a place where all the sights, sounds, and smells are unfamiliar. It’s kind of like ascending the first hump of a roller coaster. I’m excited and scared about what’s going to happen next.

Of course, it’s not until right at this moment I remember how this analogy breaks down when it comes to family travel. The arrival point is the funhouse-that’s-not-actually-fun part of the carnival, and for us it typically includes one kid who’s mad at me for “doing it wrong” (this trip: the way I rode an escalator), another who’s sulking and hangry, and an argument about which train stop will take us closest to our hotel, followed by a kilometer of dragging too-heavy suitcases over wonky cobblestones to lodging we won’t have access to for an indeterminate period of time.

Louis I Bridge, Porto, Portugal

Throw in a very near miss by about seven pounds of sea gull poop, and you’ve got the gist of the first half of our first day in Portugal.

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A post that’s a little like speed dating, but with more frogs

You guys, I just noticed the 10th anniversary* of this blog has quietly come and gone and I did nothing to make note of it. What started as a simple task to keep family from freaking out while we traveled, burgeoned into an up-to-thrice weekly effort to build an audience platform that might make me more attractive to publishers, and then waxed and waned according to how funny (or pissed off, embarrassed, caustic, or inspired) I was feeling week by week has really atrophied as of late. And I feel terrible about that.

Someone asked me recently “are you even writing anymore?” as if it’s something like a tree falling in the forest: not really there unless someone is able to respond to it in some way.

In short, writing? Yes! Pushing pithy material out on this poor blog? Not so much.

Buckle in, I’mma going to catch you all up:

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A morning at Minidoka

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka

Uncle Jim doesn’t remember much about the place, except the long, dusty road leading to it. He would have been too young for school by the time it closed in 1945, and neither of my grandparents ever spoke about it much, save the story my dad used to tell about grandmother gathering money and taking notes on what to buy in town for Christmas.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
From the Minidoka Interlude, September • 1942 to October 1943

Once the war ended, and the internees had been sent home to try to rebuild their lives, most of the nearly 600 buildings were given away, the land parceled out to returning (white) war veterans on a lottery-based system. Until recently, there was nothing left of the sprawling compound locals called Hunt Camp but a couple of shacks, a dilapidated root cellar and a modest, blue house marked “visitor’s center.”

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka

What today is rolling farmland was once sagebrush covered ash soil and basalt. Like other sites, this was chosen carefully: public land, far enough from any large urban center to attract undue attention. Clearing the brush exposed the fine soil and silt to the wind. Row upon row of barracks were hastily built of green wood that shrunk as it dried, leaving cracks in the walls. There was no insulation and dust fell on everything inside and out. The high temperature the summer of 1942, when the internees started arriving, was 102. The following winter saw record lows of 21 below zero.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka

Minidoka back then was a town of fewer than 200. At its peak, Hunt Camp hosted 7,318. In all, more than 13,000 Japanese immigrants (Issei) and second-generation Americans (Nisei) at one point or another called it home. They developed the surrounding farmland. They built the canals and irrigation systems still in use today. They provided cheap labor to area farmers during the day, returning to their barracks at night. They sent their sons to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in US military history, whose members helped liberate one of the satellite labor camps at Dachau while their own families waited for them in American barbed wire-fenced compounds.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
“You have to understand the sentiment of the time”

“You have to understand the sentiment of the time,” a woman in the audience explained at a presentation I attended last spring. “People were very nervous about the war.” Maybe. But war-time hysteria grossly oversimplifies the issue and sidesteps the hostility against Asians that had been building since Chinese workers were recruited by the mining and railroad industries the century before. Japanese and other east Asian workers followed.

By the time of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese movements had been active all along the west coast.  Alarm over the attack stoked existing racism and fueled rumors and lies. Early news stories were of Japanese Americans in Honolulu staging elaborate acts of sabotage that somehow facilitated the attack when what they were actually doing was storming the blood bank center shortly after the bombing with offers to donate.

I first heard about the camp from my dad, who told me about my grandmother’s Christmas errands. That’s really the only insight any of us has into their time there, that and the friend Dad found in Hunt Camp survivor Ron Yakota while serving in the Army Reserves. Ron had introduced himself to Dad, recognizing his name as that of the baby born in 1944 to the camp’s chief of internal security and his wife. The two became friends and then later lost touch. Ron’s gift to my family of an ornately decorated bottle of sake remains unopened to this day.

Embarrassingly enough, I never thought much about the camps nor my grandparents’ experience until I was a young adult. Having recently read David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, I broached the topic with dad in an unfortunately bourbon-fueled conversation that was forever after (mistakenly) known as “That time Beth compared Granddad to a Nazi”* (which I most certainly did not, nor ever would**). Owing to the potentially explosive nature of the subject––given, I suppose, a youthful lack of diplomacy and a recently realized sense of righteous indignation on the topic––neither Dad nor I ever broached the topic with each other again.

Still, I remained curious about the camp and how my family came to be involved. Last year we happened to pass through a Japanese festival downtown, and I talked to a woman at the National Park Service about it. I interviewed the director of the Friends of Minidoka on my radio show and attended her presentation at my Rotary meeting.

I briefly considered signing us all up for the Minidoka Pilgrimage as well, a four-day retreat in Southern Idaho for survivors, their families and others who want to learn more about life in the camps. Recognizing what a feat it is to carve out even one day of family time with two employed teens, we decided instead to attend the dedication of a new Visitors Center and tour the site with the boys.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
Formerly Warehouse #5, now the new Minidoka Visitor’s Center

The Visitor’s Center was once Warehouse #5, the camp’s tire and motor repair shop. Today it houses displays and a bookshop, a ranger information desk, and auditorium. The entire historical site includes land that has been donated to the NPS and a few buildings, a dilapidated root cellar, a rebuilt guard tower and a long row of barbed wire fencing.

On the tour, our guide encouraged the survivors among us to share their stories. We gathered in a cramped, sweltering building that once housed four to six families, while one woman recounted winters of bitter cold in a building with neither insulation nor running water.

“Our mother bought a pot so we wouldn’t have to walk to the latrine in the middle of the night,” she said, then called out over her shoulder, “that’s how you were potty-trained, Eddie!”

“I’m still not!” her brother called back, and we all laughed with their family.

The mood was jovial all afternoon. Teenagers took the arms of elders as we walked, taking pictures and listening to stories.

In the mess hall, Atsushi “Ats” Kiuchi, an affable man with a floppy hat, talked about his life there as a teenager.

“Each block had their own mess hall,” he said, “but the kids knew which blocks had the best cooks, and we’d eat there instead.” His playful reference to the dismantling of the cherished Japanese family tradition of eating meals together elicited a smattering of laughter.

I walked with Ats later while he told me about the teens separating themselves into groups. There were the Country Boys who came from the rural areas, and the O.T.s (“that’s ‘odiferous turds’” he said, leaning in with a chuckle) like himself from the cities.

The groups formed baseball teams that regularly whooped teams of guards and farmers. The compound boasted thirteen baseball fields, a swimming hole (dug after a couple of drownings in the nearby canal), and a rough golf course. Our group passed one rebuilt field, and someone started tossing a ball. A few others ran bases, stirring up silt that hovered above the ground in the summer heat.

Along the perimeter of the camp the mood turned somber as we contemplated lengths of barbed wire fence. The original barrier was absent when the first internees arrived––where would they go, off into the desert? When it was later installed, incensed residents regularly cut through the wire until the contractor briefly electrified it (no word on whether anyone was hurt before this practice was halted).

A reconstructed guard tower stands at the entrance to the park. The original was said to have been erected as a fire watch, but armed guards faced inward, toward the cleared land of the camp.

Throughout the tour, I was struck by the grace with which the internees met such injustice. Some had been given days to prepare to abandon their homes, others mere hours. Many returned after the war to find little remaining of their lives. They who’d sent their sons off to fight for a country that then asked them to sign loyalty pledges, they’d posed for photos showing the nation a rosy portrait of life at the “camps” to which they’d been “evacuated” as though for their own safety.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
Members of the 442nd from Hunt Camp

I’d long wondered about my own family history here. Like the Issei, Granddad was notoriously tight-lipped about that time. His quote in the Minidoka Interlude, the camp’s commemorative yearbook, was “very satisfactory,” something he once told Uncle Jim was more fit to publish than his actual thoughts about the place.

It wasn’t until Uncle Jim reminded me of another story that I started to think of the context under which my grandfather might have accepted such a posting.

Prior to the war, Granddad was a Twin Falls police officer. In 1939, early one May morning he and his partner, Officer Craig Bracken, had stopped and were attempting to arrest two convicted felons who had robbed a gas station and stolen a car in which the owner had stashed a loaded .38. As they approached, Officer Bracken was shot and Granddad returned fire. Both of the suspects fled but were later captured and convicted of armed robbery, the one who fired the gun also convicted of murder. Officer Bracken left behind a wife and three children.

All of this happened before Uncle Jim was born. I imagine my grandmother, home with her first child, stridently insisting Granddad find another line of work. It wouldn’t have easy in the midst of the Depression, but less difficult than denying my feisty 4’11” tall grandmother. If she’d wanted Granddad to find another job, that’s precisely what he would have done.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I was five when Granddad died, and much older before I’d begun to question the events surrounding one of the most shameful eras in US history to date, or the role any of my family might have played.

It’s been twelve years since Dad’s passing, and much as I’d like, I can’t remind him I never meant to call my Granddad a Nazi. But I can share this history with my own children at a time when it seems more important than ever we remember even a country that purports to hold freedom as its highest virtue is still capable of inflicting horrors of such magnitude.

Before leaving the rolling farmland bordered by a wide canal and barbed wire, I stopped in the visitor’s center one last time to drop off the keepsake bottle my mom had kept closed in its box for fifty years. I’ve seen exhibits of gifts the internees made to townspeople and farmers who’d done them small favors. Maybe they’ll include it with those.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
A gift from a friend

* I did not, in fact, nor ever would compare my grandad to a Nazi. What I said was “how is it possible people could assume Japanese Americans were in league with the Japanese empire against the United States, but our family, of German heritage, didn’t have to worry about false association with Nazis?” My family’s German heritage is on my mother’s side, by the way.

** With God as my witness, I did not call my Granddad a Nazi.

Teens in New Orleans: A family trip to the Big Easy

Midlife Sentence | Teens in New Orleans

First of all, don’t come at me about the title, you guys. I know teens does’t rhyme with the way you’re supposed to say New Orleans, but it’s cute and kitschy and SEO friendly, and y’all know I’m all about the market.

Secondly, you should know this trip just about didn’t happen, even though we’ve been planning it for months. We were going to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon as Mike’s official 50th half before age 50, and show our son, his girlfriend, and our exchange student one of our favorite cities in the world, which we’ve been unable to visit since before Hurricane Katrina.

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Day trips to Baden and Vienna and the view from a doorway

Midlife Sentence | Baden and Vienna, Austria

After a couple days of getting Jack situated in his new digs in Wiener Neustadt, we had some time for sightseeing. We’d contacted Hanna, a former exchange student who lives with her family in nearby Baden bei Wien, a spa town famous for its hot springs. Baden is a short train ride from Wr. Neustadt, and Hanna met us at the station to take us to her home for lunch with her mother, Monika.

Afterwards we took a walking tour through town, and Monika pointed out the sights. It had been really warm in Austria since we arrived. It was a relief to have some cloud cover and cooler temperatures.

Baden is the premier resort town of Austria, surrounded by forested hills. It’s historically known for being the favored retreat of Austrian emperors and famous composers. During the summer it hosts Europe’s largest outdoor photography exhibit. The theme this year is “I love Africa,” and we strolled through photos displays of wildlife and people from a different continent.

Midlife Sentence | Baden and Vienna, Austria

The town has a very upscale but relaxed vibe. It felt a lot to me like our own Sun Valley, only less cowboy and more Mozart.

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Moving my kid abroad and practice in managing my expectations – our first two days in Austria

Midlife Sentence | Weiner Neustadt Austria

I don’t ever remember being that little girl who envisions her wedding. I don’t remember setting any particular expectations of parenthood, or thinking about what my first house might look like.

There is one little daydream I have long entertained, though, without really ever thinking about it: that of our kids going to the same university their dad and I were attending when we started dating.

Since the boys were little, we’ve been taking the six-hour drive North to Moscow, Idaho, for a football game every fall as often as possible. There were years we couldn’t make the time, or waited too long to get a hotel room, but there was a while when we made it a regular habit.

We joked about indoctrinating our kids as future Vandals. We bought all the swag, we took tours through living groups, we showed them where we’d lived and hung out. They dug it. And who wouldn’t? The Palouse is ridiculously gorgeous in the fall when we would visit, and the 130 year-old campus is the picture of time-honored tradition, with cobblestone lanes weaving through stately brick buildings. I’m sure most of it doesn’t look much different from when my grandparents attended in the 1920s.

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