Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

Lessons from travel

“Piano, piano,” our tour guide Giacomo advised our group of ten as we navigated the cobblestone streets of medieval towns in Tuscany and Umbria. “Piano, piano,” he repeated as we climbed stone steps that have been worn down by centuries of use and had no handrails to steady us.

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Piano, piano means slowly, slowly in Italian.

Good advice, I thought. Not just for traversing medieval towns in Italy, but for me, good advice for daily life, because I tend to move too fast, rushing as though I was always running late.

Travel makes me slow down, because I am aware of how dangerous rushing across cobblestones can be.

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Traveling with a group makes me slow down because I sometimes need to wait for those who can’t move as quickly as I do.

It is good for me to slow down, and every time I had to stop and wait for someone to catch up, I felt invited to look up and take in the sights around me (walking on cobblestones requires lots of looking down). Those moments of waiting were invitations to notice what was in front of me, like little carvings in walls or unique shapes of doorknockers.

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Slowly, slowly invites me to appreciate the here and now.

Travel also shakes things up. It is like a snow globe where I am tossed around a bit and when the snow settles, everything looks different. The people, places and food are unfamiliar, and my equilibrium is off. I join Dorothy in saying, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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A man at church recently toured the Holy Land. Before he left, he told me he had been nervous about traveling to such a potentially dangerous place until he learned they were staying in a Westin Hotel and then he thought, “If I didn’t know any different, I could still be at home.”

“Then what is the point of going?” I asked.

When I travel, I want to be shaken up and to experience what is different. I want to know how it is for people who live in that place and to have my assumptions and stereotypes challenged. I want to be changed by my experiences, to learn something about another people and place—and about myself.

One of the features of touring with Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) is that we visit people in their homes. On this tour, our group was split up among three homes in Carrera (after a tour of the nearby marble quarry). My small group had lunch with a couple and one of their sons.

Later in the tour, we visited Spello and were entertained by an Umbrian folk music group in the home of one of the musicians.

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Massimo Liberatori & La Società dei Musici

During my two weeks in Italy, slowly, slowly became my go-to gear, and I pledged to myself that when I got home, I would try harder to stay in slow gear, to remind myself every day (and even multiple times a day), piano, piano.

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Our Overseas Adventure Travel Group Tour Leader, Giacomo, aka Captain America

A stop in Tournon-sur-Rhone

Our walking tour in Tournon-sur-Rhone included the old city, with the high walls, and a walk across the bridge for a wine tasting and a stop at a chocolate shop.

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Part of the walls around the Old City

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Many buildings throughout the parts of France I have visited have these nooks with statues, often of Mary or a patron saint of the town.
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A door in the Old City
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Pedestrian bridge across the Rhone, leading to the vineyards.

Cruising the Rhone River

Last month, I went on an AmaWaterways river cruise called Colors of Provence, and we sailed from Lyon to Avignon, with stops in Vienne, Tournon, Tarascon and Avignon.

Previously, I had gone on two large ship cruises (Alaska and Hawaii) and a windjammer sailing cruise off the coast of Maine (with 24 passengers), but this was my first river cruise, so I did not know what to expect.

The AmaKristina was built in 2017 and can hold 156 passengers. Most days offered three excursions (included in the cruise price) and a good variety of sights. I did the daily walking tour option and found the local guides to be very knowledgable.

Morning and afternoon exercise classes were offered most days and other amenities (massage, fitness room, laundry, etc.) were available. An e-postcard was offered through the myAmaCruise app, and I found that an easy way to share my cruise with family and friends back home. Here is the e-postcase I send after our stop in Vienne.

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Meals were available in the Main Restaurant, the upstairs lounge (casual dining) and the Chef’s Table, a seven-course meal for a small number of people–I celebrated my birthday in the Chef’s Table, and it was a real treat. Here is my cake:

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Nightly, on-board entertainment was, well, entertaining. A pianist/opera singer jouneyed with us, and we enjoyed his musical talents throughout the days.

While we were still in port in Lyon, a representative from a silk company presented the process by which silk is produced and also had silk scarves for sale. And one afternoon, the sommelier played a wine game where we learned about wine regions in France.

One highlight of the trip was a day trip to Les Baux and the Carrieres des Lumieres. Les Baux is a town built high atop a craggy mountain, offering expansive views of Provence and plenty of shops and restaurants.

At the bottom of the hill is an old limestone quarry which has been repurposed as a theater presenting the Carrieres des Lumieres, an immersive light show inside the quarry. We saw a presentation of the art of Venice, and it was amazing.

I learned a great deal during this cruise and appreciated the excellent service on the AmaKristina. Travel usually includes some hiccups, and the staff responded to the unexpected with calm confidence.

As I reflect on those days, what stands out the most were the conversations I had with other travellers. I was traveling with two friends, and we connected with other women travelers, including a mother/daughter duo. Our travel tribe ranged in age from 24 to 86, and I marveled at the level of trust that developed in so short a time.

I was grateful for this opportunity to see a part of France from the vantage point of a river.

Walled cities

I am drawn to walled cities.

I first became aware of this attraction when I visited Krakow, Poland, thirteen years ago and stayed inside the walls. Even though the walls are no longer intact, a park surrounds the Old City and marks where the walls had once been. I felt safe being inside the Old City.

On my second visit to Krakow a year later, I stayed outside the walls. Every morning, I crossed over into the Old City, and something about being inside the walls felt secure to me.

A few years later, a friend visited Carcassone, a walled city in France, and sent me videos. As soon as I saw the videos, I knew I wanted to visit. It took a few years, but I went last spring, and I specifically chose to travel with Overseas Adventure Travels (O.A.T.) because they offered the opportunity to stay inside the walls of Carcassone.

The tour started further north, though, in Angers, another city with walls. Once again, I felt drawn to being within the walls. When we got to Carcassone, I felt completely at home within the walls.

Last month, I visited Avignon, another walled city, and I again found myself drawn to the inside.

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Avignon, France

And then last week, I visited Italy and spent a few days in Lucca, a walled city in Tuscany.

The walls around Lucca are intact and the top of the wall is a wide path where people walk, run or bike. I walked the path several times during my stay, enjoying the views of the Old City below.

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One of the gates into the walled city of Lucca, named after St. Donato
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Inside the gate, I came across this fireplace and painting.

Not only is Lucca surrounded by a wall, but beyond the walls are mountains, creating the impression of a double boundary.

What is it that draws me to these enclosed places?

Walking the path on the walls of Lucca one day, I pondered the mystery of my attraction to walled cities, and I thought about growing up in Detroit.

Detroit is anything but walled, but there were certain streets which I never crossed. I stayed within the confines of an area around my house, never venturing beyond Woodward Avenue or Eight Mile Road. Without being told to, I had created my own walls.

Awareness brings an invitation, and my awareness of being drawn to walled cities and of creating physical boundaries, makes me think about other walls I have built—not necessarily physical walls but any kind of boundary that gives me a sense of security.

I find myself asking if my walls are a matter of security or a limitation, and if I being invited to step out from beyond the walls and take a chance on what is on the other side.

Travels from Lyon

After a few days in Lyon, my two friends and I boarded an Amawaterways river boat to begin our cruise south on the Rhone River to Avignon. But before we left Lyon, we took a tour of Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse–an indoor market where the specialities of Lyon are found in abundance.

We tasted cheeses and meats (always with wine) and then dessert.

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Cheese tasting at the Market
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Macarons in many colors

We also took a walk along the river to the point where the Rhone and Saone Rivers meet. Along the way, we passed some interesting buildings.

Lyon is a city with a great deal of history and also innovative architecture.

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ONLY LYON at the confluence of the two rivers

A few more pics from Lyon, France

Here are a few more pictues from my recent trip to Lyon, France.

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The Baptism of Jesus, Fine Arts Museum, Lyon.
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This replica of the Statue of Liberty is in the Fine Arts Museum

Lyon has many passageways called Traboules which were used during the days of silk making and later used by resistors during World War II. This stairway is part of an interior passageway in an apartment building.

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A visit to Lyon, France

Last spring, I spent three weeks touring France, and Lyon was my favorite city (sorry, Paris). I decided to visit Lyon again in the fall and just spent another week there. The City still enchants me. Here are a few photos:

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A florist shop in the Old Ciity

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A fruit and veggie market next to the florist shop

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Doors of Lyon’s Old City

Mother Teresa speaks to me

Mother Teresa has been speaking to me recently. Not directly, of course, but through a daily reflection book I have been reading this year, Do Something Beautiful for God.

Sometimes, they are pithy sayings like the entry for October 19:

Life is an adventure; dare it.

I, too, believe that life is an adventure, and I am doing my best to dare it, by taking risks, traveling, saying yes to opportunities. I am doing things I love and enjoying life. I wonder, though, if that is what Mother Teresa meant. Her life seemed totally devoted to service, so when she says adventure, what does she mean?

Last month, I participated in two opportunities to serve meals at two churches in the city, and I was reminded of the importance of direct contact with people who live closer to the edge than I do. Most of the volunteer work I do now is organizational (boards and committees), so cooking and serving meals felt like an invitation to return to the kind of service I used to do. A different kind of adventure.

Other times, Mother Teresa’s words seem to be inviting me to a movement in prayer. The entry for October 14: Every moment of prayer, especially before our Lord in the tabernacle, is a sure, positive gain. The time we spend each day sitting with God is the most precious part of the whole day.

This one spoke to me on several levels. First, I don’t tend to spend time before our Lord in the tabernacle, perhaps because it was not part of my religious upbringing and because I have to go someplace to find a tabernacle. I pray in the morning at home, but I know that when I have prayed in chapel (on retreat mostly), I have found it peaceful. When I read this reflection, I wondered why I don’t go to chapel more often.

That led me to reflect on my time in prayer every morning and if it is the most precious part of the whole day. I know that when I am on retreat, spending a whole week in silence and focused on God 24/7, my prayer seems to be deeper and more precious.  Perhaps the invitation is to be more attentive to God throughout the day—on retreat or not.

The entry for October 16: If you were to die today, what would others say about you? What was in you that was beautiful, that was Christlike, that helped others to pray better? Face yourself, with Jesus at our side, and do not be satisfied with just any answer. Go deep into the question. Examine your life.

When I left Pennsylvania nine years ago—after having lived there for twenty-eight years—friends had a going-away party for me and one after another, people said all kinds of wonderful things about me. My friend Ted said it was like being at my own wake, and I still smile when I recall that party. One thing that stood out to me was how many people thanked me for doing some small thing that I did not even remember doing—a kind word or some small favor that meant little to me but had a big impact on them.

That reminded me of Mother Teresa’s saying: Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

Mutual admiration society

Someone was telling me about a friend who had died, sharing the admirable characteristics this person had, which made me think of my own friends and what I admire about them.

One of my friends, someone I have known for almost fifty years, endured a debilitating disease when she was in her fifties. She recovered, but she was left financially depleted, and so she took a job overseas where she could make enough money to restore her retirement nest egg. I am not sure I could have uprooted myself and lived in the different places she lived, and I admire her courage and determination.

Another friend has incredible clarity about her values. When I think about standing up for what one believes, I think of her. She is unwavering in her commitment and untiring in deepening her knowledge about the issues that shape her life. I admire her clarity and commitment.

My dog died two years ago and rather than get another dog, I started dog sitting—inspired by the woman who had been my dog-sitter. Her love of dogs is pure, and the joy she gets from them is delightful to see. She helped shape me into the dog-lover I have become and she inspires me by her willingness to tell the world how much she loves dogs. I admire her childlike love of dogs and her freedom to express that love.

Several friends have lived in non-traditional communities—such as Catholic Worker Houses and l’Arche—and I admire their ability to successfully navigate community living.

Several friends inspire me by their generosity. One friend loves to cook and to share what she cooks, and another loves to garden and has helped me in my garden. I admire people who find their passion and are generous in sharing it.

I could go on and on, but I will stop there and invite you to think of your friends and what you admire in them. And once you have a good list going, start telling your friends what you admire about them. Perhaps they, in return, will share what they admire about you, and you can start you own mutual admiration society.

All that positive energy has the potential to transform us and our world.