While I don't go ga-ga over famous sites, my heart warms to both Nelson atop his pedestal at Trafalgar and The Little Mermaid looking very little in Copenhagen Harbor. "Just like the picture," I always say. But it's the unexpected, unheralded and sometimes unspectacular I thrill to. My husband Jerry and I make the wrong turn in the city of London and wind up on Threadneedle Street in front of an austere stone building discreetly inscribed "Bank of England."
Bank of England be damned! It's the legendary "Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.” She was a favorite of political cartoonists for centuries. The English know how to personalize stodgy institutions. Near the "Old Lady" we found "Old Bailey," the Courts of Law, another cartoonists' favorite.
Discoveries like these I dine out on. Crushing disappointments I keep to myself. It's just too embarrassing to admit flying over Everest and not being awed. But that's the truth. I not only wasn't awed, I didn't frame the certificate the Royal Nepal Airlines gave each of us as proof of our flight. Flying over the Himalaya doesn't hold a candle to driving through the foothills or day-trekking. I guess I like to be in a place not over it. Mountains, anyway.
If that's the case how come I was disappointed in Switzerland? There I've said it. I swore I'd never reveal my feelings about the Alps. Bor-ing! The cleanliness, the neatness, the sameness. On every house a balcony, on every balcony a window box, in every window box, geraniums, red geraniums, of course, to contrast with snowy slopes and verdant meadows. Even the cattle are alike, small and dappled, a bell tinkling from each and every throat. In time! In harmony!
Swiss towns are scarcely more interesting than the countryside Moreover, they're cleaner and quieter than they have any right to be. I grant you their watches, their chocolate, their civility are legendary. Jerry's Bucherer has kept perfect time for thirty years. As for sweets make mine Perugina. Civility I prefer with an undercurrent of intrigue, men in fedoras at outdoor cafes, exiles like Joyce and Lenin. Guess their time has passed. All my friends love Switzerland. Jerry loves Switzerland. Must be something wrong with me.
I must be out of sync to travel 6000 miles and be unmoved by the world's greatest site. I'm talking about the one and only Taj Mahal. There it was, slender minarets and dome, pointed arches and square corners reflected in a long narrow pool and people all around me sighing. What a love story! Fabled Mogul emperor builds perfect monument to perfect wife, perfect mother of fourteen perfect children, well, not all of them perfect. Alas, I've seen it all before, in magazines, movies, colleagues' slide shows, seen it ad nauseum. It is perfect. The Taj Mahal is perfect and its perfection wears me out. I guess I just can't take perfection.
I don't go into a state of other-worldly bliss in Assisi either. It's cleaner than any Swiss town, more colorful too with red-tiled roofs, period churches and quaint convents, each building painted yearly, each street scrubbed daily. Religious and secular pilgrims right at home in God's own Disneyland. Not me! I'm not at home any place too clean, too perfect, too meticulously replicated. For that reason I've never been to Williamsburg, Virginia. My shorts and baseball cap wouldn't fit in with hoopskirts and bonnets.
Frankly, I can't stand an assault on my imagination. Take Troy. The first time we were at the Schlieman digs in southern Turkey I stared deep into the excavation down to the seventh level, presumed site of Homer's Troy. In my mind's eye I saw more than a partial brick wall, a few tools. All the Trojan royals paraded before me: Priam and Hecuba, Hector and Andromache, foolish Paris and easily-seduced Helen. Three years later we returned to the digs. Horror of horrors! On the plains of Troy between the digs and the sea, Turkish Tourism had erected a wooden horse. I swear I saw Homer's ghost writhing in agony.
Thank God Turkish Tourism hasn't discovered Istanbul's Serkecki Train Station. Once it was the terminus of the Simplon Orient Express, end of the line for beautiful people in search of romance and adventure or relief from boredom. Jerry and I discovered the station on our way to the waterfront. We almost missed it we were so engrossed in the wharf scene ahead of us: ferries from the Asian side of the Bosporus docking and disgorging passengers, fishing trawlers unloading their catch, drays and buses and cars and pedestrians fighting for space. But something made us look to the right. Maybe it was the ghost of Mata Hari or of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. There through a triple-storied entrance we saw a vast empty space enclosed by grimy tiled walls and floor, topped by a glass dome that hadn't seen a squeegee in a century. Even before we read the sign we knew it was the Serkecki Station. Inside we looked for movie stars and international spies. All we saw were suburbanites on their way to and from the Sea of Marmara beaches. We didn't care. We were there.
That's the way it usually happens. We're on our way to Istanbul's docks and we end up at the Serkecki Station.
In Mysore, one of south India's loveliest cities, we were on our way to the university. I wanted to take a taxi. In India, taxis aren't expensive and the little three-wheelers that look as though they're put together with tin foil and staples are a reminder of how far we are from home. As usual Jerry insisted on the bus. We stopped at the Karnataka State Tourist Office to get our bearings. Like all south Indians the clerk was friendly. How long were we staying in Mysore? A week or two. Here for the music festival? Yes. Had we seen the Hoysala Temples, Brindavan Dam, Bird Sanctuary, zoo, race track. He rattled off a list of tourist attractions already on our agenda. But the bus to the university? "Number six." We thanked him and turned to leave.
"Have you by any chance an interest in folk art?"
"Very much so."
"Did you know that Mysore University has one of the world's greases collections?" He read our surprise. "Look," he said, "I only found out last year myself and I'm a graduate." The year before, a French filmmaker had stopped at the tourist office for directions explaining he was going to do a documentary on the University's world class folklore collection. That's how the clerk found out and that's how we found out.
In terms of sophisticated display it isn't much of a museum, just a series of rooms, lots and lots of rooms, some the size of a closet, others as large as a lecture hall. Open shelves and wooden tables are packed, three and four artifacts deep. The domestic life of each Karnataka village is represented: furniture, cooking utensils, shrines, farm tools, plus bangles and beads and pots of henna to apply in intricate design on hands and feet of women at marriage and other festive occasions. My favorite rooms were hung with shadow puppets.
"Ah," I said, proud of making the connection, "just like Indonesian shadow puppets."
"Yes," said Ramana, the museum guide, "the Indonesians learned how to make and to use them from us."
What a marvelous jumble. Every bit as sensational as Athens's Benaki, Kabul's National, Santa Fe's Gerard Collection. If we'd taxied to the university we'd have missed it. That's the way travel is: a thrill of recognition here, a chill of disappointment there, and, if you're lucky, just what you'd hoped for - even if you didn't know it was there.