The value of the splurge: How to know when and when not to go all out

Splurge: Soca River

Hisa Franko, site of our splurge, lies outside of Kobarid, Slovenia through which runs the gloriously blue Soca River

Splurge: the act of spending money freely or extravagantly

The making of a good splurge

I’m a big fan of splurges, experiences where you go big and spend a lot on some special occasion that will stand out and be remembered, potentially, for the rest of your life. But splurges come with some significant caveats if they are to work as intended.

  • First, they need to be rare. Justifying that fancy new outfit as a splurge doesn’t work if you just did the same thing last week.
  • Second, they need to be somewhat reasonable. Spending a month’s salary on great seats at a playoff game or an opera performed in some exotic setting makes sense if you know you can make up that expense later on. If it leaves you in debt or jeopardizes necessities, you better think twice. Splurges should stretch you, not break you. Optimally, you save up for them beforehand. Doing so builds your anticipation for the event and helps insure you can afford it.
  • Third, they should align with your greatest passions, not just a passing interest. If you’re going to spend that much money, make sure it’s on something you’re pretty sure ahead of time will be both memorable and meaningful to you.
  • Fourth, they need to deliver. And that’s not easy. The problem with splurges is the pressure they create. You’re spending a lot of money, so your expectations are somewhere north of Saturn. If one or two aspects of the activity don’t turn out perfect, the whole experience is diminished. Maybe even ruined. And all you’re left with is disappointment and the deep dread of receiving your next credit card statement.

Let me give you an example of a recent splurge on a trip to Slovenia with my wife, son and daughter-in-law to give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to splurges.

Splurge - Plum five ways

Plum in five consistencies filled with sour cottage cheese and served with a spicy plum nectar

Splurging in Slovenia

We decided to visit Slovenia in large part to try out the restaurant Hisa Franko outside the small town of Kobarid. The chef, Ana Ros, was not only profiled on the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, she was also deemed the world’s best female chef last year. Not Slovenia’s or even Europe’s. But the best female chef on the planet. Dining at her restaurant seemed splurge-worthy. The problem was, we didn’t realize ahead of time just how much of a splurge it would turn out to be.

Splurge: Ravioli

Goat-cow cottage cheese ravioli, corn, prosciutto and hazelnut broth

Let’s be clear up front: The dinner was astounding. We had eleven official courses (plus a few additional starters and a third — yep, third — dessert thrown in), each offering combinations of tastes I’ve never (or rarely) had before (you can read the menu for yourself if you’re interested). However, all of that goodness still didn’t push it over-the-top in terms of a splurge that becomes a “defining moment” on a trip. What follows are some of the reasons why.

Splurge: Trout

Trout, whey, roasted poppy seeds, beets in tonka vinegar, sour cress

Expensive

First of all, I messed up on the price. We booked way back in March for an October dinner and at the time, I had read that the price for the eight-course tasting menu was 75 euros per person. I unfortunately didn’t bother to double check the price when I received an email a week before we left for the trip informing me that the eight-course menu was no longer being offered at dinner time. I figured we’d pay a bit more for the 11-course meal. But I didn’t realize it would cost us 150 euros (about US$175 per person, not including drinks or tip). Thus, the shock of the price when we sat down to eat created cognitive dissonance that was hard to overcome. What made it worse was realizing it was my fault for not confirming the price ahead of time.

Splurge - Potato cooked in hay

Potato cooked in hay. Again, it was helpful that they explained that the thing in the lower right corner is what the potato cooked in and is not edible.

High Expectations

Second, our expectations were so high that while we enjoyed most of the dishes (the parsley and porcini mushroom crumbles on sour milk ice cream was a stretch too far for some of us), they didn’t blow our taste buds away the way we had hoped. That’s not a knock against Ana Ros’s amazing food. Her creativity and the presentation of each item are dazzling. It’s the inherent problem of expensive splurges: You go in with such unrealistic expectations that nothing in reality can reasonably match them.

Splurge - beef tongue

“I love red” – beef tongue, oysters, redbell peppers and roasted salad of
purslane and borage

Limited Appreciation

Third, if you’re going to splurge, make sure you’re able to grasp the nuances of the experience. Personally, I may not really be able to appreciate the genius of Ana Ros. When I was younger, I once noted that I could tell the difference between a $50 stereo speaker and a $500 one but my hearing and training were incapable of discerning the difference between a $500 speaker and a $5,000 one. Such is likely the case for us at Hisa Franko. I recognized and applauded the inventiveness and the unusual combinations – these truly are works of culinary art rather than simply food prepared in a novel manner. But I may not have been able to value it as much as say, a food critic with a more discerning palette.

Splurge - Roebuck

Roebuck (venison), forest mushrooms, parsley root, spruce

Knowing Your Own Interests

Finally, and in hindsight, probably the most important, I believe we did the whole splurge for the wrong reasons. We have friends who have splurged on fine restaurants like this and they love it. But for us, for all the value in trying one-of-a-kind food like Hisa Franko’s, we realized that it’s not really our thing. We dined at a restaurant in Kobarid the next evening that specialized in local cuisine. It wasn’t fancy. But for us, the atmosphere, the new tastes and the hospitality made it as enjoyable an evening as the meal the night before that costs us ten times the price. Thus, it comes down to this: Know what matters to you. Discovering a simple family-owned restaurant on our own that produces a remarkable meal for little money, that’s more of what delights us. Or if we’d taken a cooking course with Ana and had hands-on involvement in the meal – learning from a great chef, combined with eating – that would have been worth the same investment as eating at Hisa Franko – to us. And that’s the key. To us. Know your own longings and pursue them. Hunt down experiences that satisfy you, not what others tell you works for them. In short, choose your splurges carefully to maximize the likelihood that they will reward you well.

Splurge - Rowan ice cream

Rowan ice cream, aged goat cheese, foam of apple and butter, brown butter shortbread

Close, but not quite there

In summary, our evening at Hisa Franko was one we’ll likely remember, but not a defining moment. Yes, it had elements of a defining moment, but not enough of them. It was, in part, an elevated experience. (We don’t dine, for example, on beef tongue, oysters, red bell peppers and roasted salad of purslane and borage every night. Not even every Wednesday night.) There was also some accomplishment in getting there (it’s way out in the Slovenian countryside) but not really a sense of pride. In fact, when we looked around the dining room and realized that Americans (including us) occupied six of the eight tables, even what we’d thought would be a contributing factor to the experience – finding a place far from home that few others get to – even that got knocked down a notch. We did have taste combinations that provided new insights, but not ones that stuck with us beyond the evening. And finally, over the four-hour span of the full meal, we definitely had a great sense of connection, to each other and to the charming, yet very down-to-earth wait staff. (When my wife mentioned, for example, that she didn’t like the parsley on the ice cream, one server scrunched up her nose and amiably concurred).

What prevented it from rising to the level of a magic or defining moment – a splurge worthy of the investment – was the combination of value for the money and investing in the wrong kind of experience for us.

Splurge - Sour milk ice cream

Sour milk ice cream, parsley granite, porcini crumble

The Bottom Line

In reality, splurges will always be a gamble. You never know until you try. But if you want to increase the likelihood of creating defining moments on a trip, don’t assume that spending more money alone will do the trick. Splurge where all the factors are in your favor:

  1. You have some sense of what you’re getting into. The more expensive the splurge, the more careful research you should do up front.
  2. The splurge feels worth the extravagant expense.
  3. You do something that aligns with your values, interests and, since it’s a splurge after all, your deep longings.
  4. You keep your expectations low so you leave room for surprise. Surprise is critical to a splurge. That probably was the biggest missing piece of all for us: There were some intriguing new tastes, but no true revelations. What the evening lacked most was the crucial element of surprise that is key to delight and essential for that even higher-level response, wonder.

Finally, if you haven’t done so already, check out my piece on defining moments noted above. It shows that sometimes the most powerful experiences, the magic moments that stick with you forever, don’t have to be splurges. In fact, often when they align more with what you know delights you, you can substitute ingenuity and personal attention for money and come out with a richer experience. It’s a splurge of an entirely different nature with only upside possibilities.

 

Creating defining moments on a trip

Seminary Library Ceiling

Ceiling of the Seminary Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia

The best moments on a trip, defining moments, often occur serendipitously, or so they seem. You go looking for one thing and then suddenly, something unexpected occurs and without warning, your jaw is dangling, your eyes expand to Ping-Pong ball size and you’re babbling like a baby or, conversely, bereft of any words.

But these magic or defining moments don’t have to be accidental.

The Power of Moments

As Chip and Dan Heath point out in their excellent book, The Power of Moments, such occurrences can be created. Moments that are both meaningful and memorable don’t lose any of their appeal because they are manufactured. In fact, as I recently discovered on a trip to northern Italy and Slovenia with my wife, 24-year-old son and his recent bride, the intentionality put into crafting such defining moments can actually enhance them.

The Power of Moments provides a framework for these “defining moments.” Such experiences demonstrate one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Elevated – they occur outside of our normal routines.
  • Insight – they provide a new understanding, often an “aha” moment of clarity or awareness.
  • Pride – they reflect a sense of accomplishment.
  • Connection – they make you keenly aware of your relationships and draw you closer to others.

Applying The Power of Moments to a trip

In an effort to enhance our trip, I suggested that each of us take on the responsibility to create a learning experience for the others. Each person could choose whatever they wanted, but the goal was to make it meaningful for the other travelers as well. For example, I would have loved to have attended an all-day photography workshop, but that likely wouldn’t have thrilled my non-photographer family.

I honestly expected some pushback from the clan on this. I steeled myself for responses such as, “This feels like homework,” or “We don’t have time for this on our trip.” But nope. They all took it as a welcome challenge.

And here’s what happened.

If at first you don’t succeed, try cheese

My son had planned on having us all learn how to yodel. We were, after all, in the Italian Alps with Switzerland a nearby neighbor. But the timing and location of the yodeling school (yes, there is such a thing) didn’t work out. So he shifted to plan B.

In the small town of Feldthurn where we stayed for several days, he found a class teaching traditional woodcarving, a specialty in the region. But once again the timing didn’t fit our itinerary. On to Plan C: cheese tasting.

Creating defining moments on a trip - cheese tasting

Our four cheeses complete with warm wine/apple juice drink and jam to mix within

We’d passed through several regions famous for their cheesemaking. In one of these, my son purchased a variety of different cheeses. Then one evening in our rented apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he had us taste four types. Our goal was to identify the flavors and bonus points if we could name the cheese. I’m not a huge fan of cheese, but he carefully selected mild ones with interesting flavors: smoky, spicy, and rosemary, for example. He explained each, provided apple slices, crackers and sparkling water to “cleanse the palette” and made the whole experience surprisingly (even for me, the non-cheese guy) enjoyable.

Of vines and blooms

Creating defining moments on a trip - wreath making

Making the final touches on one of the wreaths

My daughter-in-law presented her “experience” the same evening. She had been gathering a variety of flowers along the way, most dried already. She then used those as raw material to teach each of us how to make small wreathes of vines and flowers. It’s not a craft I’d have chosen myself, but as with the cheese, it became a wonderful creative and bonding event. In addition, on our first day in Italy, she ran across an article in a magazine about a local drink for a cold evening made of wine, apple juice and cranberry jam, all heated and mixed together. She served that while we made the wreathes.

It’s all about how we felt

Creating defining moments on a trip - felt sheep

The final product, a felt sheep, with elements in the background of works in progress

Two evenings before our cheese/wreathe/warm toddy event, my wife had arranged her “experience” in the small town of Solcava near the stunning yet remote Logar Valley in Slovenia. The region is known for its production of felt. Through a helpful woman at the tourist information center there, my wife contacted a local felt artist who agreed to do a workshop for the four of us that evening. At 5:00 p.m., we showed up at her studio and soon we were taking pieces of raw wool, layering them, adding a mixture of soap and water, and rolling the wool in our hands until, as we joked, our fingers began to lose the whorls of their fingerprints. Taking soft wool from the local sheep and rolling it long enough until it stiffens is like magic. We came away with little felt sheep, a felt mushroom and a deep respect for what it takes to make felt by hand. I would likely never have bought such cutesy items as souvenirs. But because we made them ourselves, they took on much greater significance.

Booking a library

Creating a defining moment on a trip - Seminary Library

The Seminary Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia

My experience occurred in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (lewb-liana). I had arranged for us to visit the Seminary Library there. It was the first public library in the country, set up in the early 18th century. This isn’t your neighborhood branch public library. The few images of it I’d seen of it reminded me of something out of Harry Potter. Unfortunately (or maybe not – there’s added value to the elusive nature of the place), you can’t just show up and visit. You have to arrange for a private tour in advance. And so I did. The idea was to create an experience that would remind us all of our love for books. The plan was to immerse ourselves in this beautiful space with all the old, leather-clad volumes, ornate wooden shelves and stunning ceiling frescoes. Then, primed with bibliophilic zeal, we were to walk to a charming nearby bookstore I’d researched that carried art books and supplies, hand-made journals and a good selection of English-language books. I would then give each person a 20-euro bill that they could use to buy any book or item in the bookstore of their choosing. We’d then visit one of Ljubljana’s many riverside cafes for coffee, gelato and the chance to share about our purchases and favorite books. The whole experience seemed like a sure winner for my reading-obsessed family. Until my son picked up some bug early that morning that wiped him out that entire day. Thus, only my wife and I visited the library. It was wonderful, but not the meaningful moment for the whole family I’d envisioned.

What we learned

The library visit ended up being more of a typical trip excursion, highly enjoyable – the librarian, our guide, was gracious and wonderful at explaining the history and context, plus it is simply a gorgeous room – but because it was incomplete from the original plan, not a defining moment per se.

The other experiences, however, were phenomenal. In fact, at the end of the trip, all four of us agreed that the two evenings, one making felt and the other doing the cheese tasting and wreath making, were the peaks of our trip. Why?

  • They involved elements that could only have happened by being where we were on the trip (adding to the already elevated nature of travel).
  • They demonstrated effort and creativity on the part of each participant to put together an experience that they knew the others would enjoy. As a result, the connection for us as a family was dramatically heightened.
  • We actually made things with the felting and the wreathes. That provided a strong sense of accomplishment and pride and gave us tangible reminders of the experience to take home.
  • We learned about areas most of us knew nothing about, particularly the felting workshop. Insight was thus a key factor.
  • Best of all, the very act of being intentional on a trip to use “ingredients” we gathered along the way and to design experiences that meant something to all of us, that truly helped to turn these into defining moments.

It proved to me that magic, defining moments can be planned. They can be crafted. They don’t take away from other activities on a trip. In fact, they add to them. For example, because all but the library took place in the evening, we still did our hiking, sightseeing and other activities during the day. But the events gave us something to look forward to at day’s end.

Honestly, even at the start of our trip, I was skeptical that this would come off well. I figured people would flake on doing it or that what we did wouldn’t be all that special. I was wrong. I hope to incorporate other such experiences in future trips because they add so much. They created peak experiences during the trip and then, on our last evening together, by recalling what we did, it created a wonderful end experience.

What you can do

If you want to try to create a defining moment on your trip, start by reading The Power of Moments. Understanding more about elevated, insight, pride and connection will help. Then, do a bit of research to know about what your traveling companions like and how that aligns with the specialties of the area you’re visiting. Finally, if, like us, the original plans don’t work out, just be open to alternatives. They’ll present themselves along the way and that too can add to the meaning and fun.

We’re a family that loves art and craft. If that’s not your thing, find something that is. Sports, history, cooking, music, adventure activities or any hobby you and your traveling companions enjoy likely has a relevant outlet on your trip. Just discovering what that might be is half the enjoyment.

 

 

Explore Your Worlds: What it means and why it matters

Explore Your Worlds: Cotswolds architecture in Bradford-on-Avon

Explore your worlds, not just the world

I’ve spent a lot of my life exploring the world. Then, several years ago, I realized that for everything I’d seen, there was so much I hadn’t simply because I couldn’t.

Some of the most important elements of life – love, hope and our deepest yearnings, for example – aren’t visible. In the pursuit of witnessing all I could from the world around me, I’d neglected the world within me. I’d seen great sights, but hadn’t fully brought my interior life – that invisible world of emotions, longings, creative interests and purpose – into the mix. But when I started to explore both of my worlds – the one around me and the one within me – everything changed. Travel took on greater meaning, purpose and joy while life back at home started to feel more like a great trip.

Exploring your worlds happens best when you not only explore your worlds, but you connect them and in so doing, derive the greatest pleasure from both. Let me give you an example from a recent trip to England of what it means to explore and connect your worlds.

Connecting your worlds

My wife and I were flitting about the Cotswolds region, exploring villages and vales. We’d seen plenty of old churches, shops and other architectural examples. For all the pleasure in beholding them, after several days, they started to look alike. With no real understanding of the history, cultural significance or making of the place, I only connected to it superficially.

Then one day, while visiting the small town of Corsham, not far from Bath, it started to rain. We ducked into a nearby bookstore and quickly forgot all about the showers outside. While glancing through the shelves, one book stood out: Rice’s Architectural Primer. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I had to have this book.

Explore Your Worlds - Cover of Rice's Architectural Primer

Initially, I was attracted to the whimsical illustrations (you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate a book filled with pictures). These were watercolors showing various buildings throughout English history and the architectural styles they represented. Pages revealed whole buildings and discrete architectural details along with their names.

Later, after the rain ended and we headed back to our B&B, I spent a few hours going through the book. Even this quick perusal equipped me to “read” a building, its elements and the story they tell. I remembered then — not for the first or last time — that understanding something, even to a small degree, increases your enjoyment of it.

That proved true the next morning in the village of Lacock when we attended St. Cyriac’s, a small parish church dating back to the 14th century. As we sat through a wonderful service and later were given a tour by one of the friendly ushers, I experienced the breathtaking joy of both exploring and connecting my worlds.

Explore Your Worlds - Lacock street and St. Cyriac's church

Explore with both your head and your heart

Even my brief exposure to Rice’s Primer enabled me to have a completely different conversation with the architecture of that church. I beheld stone joints, posts and windows similar to what we’d seen elsewhere. But now, each of them had a name: crockets, finials, spandrels, tie beams, cuspings, imposts and mullians. There’s something almost mystical about the personalizing power of knowing a name and what it does to change how you identify with someone or something. My relationship with the place changed because I not only saw it anew, I experienced it on a different level. There in that church, my love for books (and the specific one acquired the day before), connected with what I’d learned from that book and was now applying to the stone, stained glass and wood around me. This was more than learning. It was a shift in relating. And with that came an inexplicable joy because I was not just seeing this place in a new way, I was a different person because of it.

Explore Your Worlds - Cover of Rice's Architectural Primer

Why it matters to explore your worlds

Exploring your worlds and making these generative connections isn’t just a better way to travel. It’s about seeing in a different way by exploring in a different way which leads to more meaningful discoveries and, ultimately, a better way to live. It feels like Dorothy, landing in Oz and walking out of her small, black-and-white house into a Technicolor universe. Such moments and connections can be astounding and they are available to us far more than we realize.

Join me back here in the coming weeks as we scout out different — and often surprising — ways to explore your worlds so that you can get the best out of each trip…and each day.

 

Travel and Terrariums: An unlikely combination

Travel affects how we think about and experience not just the places we visit, but the place to which we return.

Recently, after almost a half year of weekly travel, I’ve become more appreciative of my home. Not just the concept of it and connections to family, but the space itself. A form of nesting has enveloped me, a reaction, I believe, to stabilize or offset the inherent dynamics of waking up in a different city each week.

Part of that nesting instinct has led me to a sudden interest in a very untravel-like object: a terrarium.

Travel and terrariums - fish bowl

I started with the classic fish bowl terrarium – and promptly over-planted it. This is after taking out the plant that didn’t survive.

The wonder of terrariums

Terrariums? Yes. Those miniature greenhouses that now come in all shapes and sizes from a simple jar filled with a single tropical plant to vast Victorian-era Wardian cases containing unusual varieties of foliage.

Travel and terrariums - detail of fishbowl terrarium

Part of the fascination of terrariums lies in seeing all the details of the plants but presented as if in a museum case

When you become pregnant (or are married to someone who is), the world suddenly seems overrun with other pregnant women. Where’d they all come from? Similarly, I didn’t realize that terrariums are fast becoming a thing until I started dabbling with the notion. But now I’m understanding their popularity. Unlike floral arrangements that last maybe a week or potted plants that just sit there, terrariums beautify your abode and inspire your imagination. You get to build your own miniature world of green in a glass container of your choosing. And best of all, you get to experience nature up close, every day, without even stepping outside. All that in essentially a jar filled with dirt and plants.

Travel and terrariums - textures of leaves

Unlike with a single houseplant, you get to see a variety of textures and colors in a terrarium

Taking the first steps

I started my adventure in indoor gardens by grabbing some books at the local library on the subject. I then headed to a nearby big box store to get cheap glass containers and plants. I figured that, at about $3.00 for each plant and some glass containers all less than $5.00 each, the expense wouldn’t devastate my personal economy too badly if this whole idea turned out to be a black thumb failure.

Travel and terrariums - light fixture terrarium

Almost any glass container can be used as a terrarium. We had two old hallway light fixtures that I converted into this novel mini-greenhouse.

If you’re interested in creating a terrarium yourself, there are numerous helpful resources out there. I’ve found this book helpful for inspiration and this one useful for the step-by-step how-to of creating your first terrarium. If you’re not the book-loving type (gasp! say it ain’t so!) you can check out this site for the process of creating a terrarium and this one for a visual guide to plants that thrive in the moist enclosed environment of a terrarium.

Travel and terrariums - glass planter

Not a true terrarium, I just like how it looks.

Build your own world

The photos here show some of my experiments with terrariums. As you’ll see, I stretch the definition of terrarium to include some that are essentially plants in glass pots, meaning that they aren’t really terrariums that enclose the plants and retain the moisture. But so what? I liken these faux terrariums to drinking an ordinary beverage out of a crystal glass: Being able to see the stones and all makes the planter more aesthetically pleasing. At least to me. What do you think? Besides, I don’t think any Terrarium Police will show up to tell me my plants need to be more enclosed. That’s the beauty of terrariums: You’re free to create your own miniature worlds of plants and other objects any way you like.

Travel and terrariums - faux terrarium with stone and glass

This is one of my favorite faux terrariums. I like the stones as much as the plant.

The compelling nature of terrariums

The appeal to me of terrariums was initially aesthetic: I loved the look of carefully arranged plants in a confined space, my own private jungle. But add to it the low-maintenance nature of a self-contained environment that recycles its own moisture, and I was entranced. But I also think that being away from home so much triggered a form of nostalgia that factors in here.

Travel and terrariums - plant inset

It was my wife’s idea to create this planter with an inset so you can take the plant out and give it a good soaking.

Travel and terrarium - inserting the plant

Note how the stones hide the container’s sides and the moss covers the rim. Beautifully practical.

For example, when I was a little kid, my aunt had a bonsai tree in a planter filled with mounds of brilliant green moss, unusual stones and a miniature pond. I could play for hours with small figures and toys in that tranquil miniature landscape. I think of terrariums now in a similar manner: microcosms of forests and jungles that sit on a shelf and evoke both memories and associations.

Travel and terrariums - another faux terrarium

Another faux terrarium

They also make me appreciate plants in a new way, particularly as living, growing objects. With family and friends, growth takes so long you’re only aware of it in hindsight or after a great absence. With my terrariums, a new shoot or bud can appear in days. I treat each appearance as a delightful celebration of beauty and life. Each new leaf is a tiny victory. I look at plants differently now because I realize how much more there is to see.

Travel and terrariums - Cactus

This one doesn’t even get the label of “faux terrarium.” It’s a cactus in a bowl. But the idea of using the stones as ground cover came from making the terrariums.

Will it last?

Finally, as we enter summer and my work travel slows down, I wonder if I’ll still be as enthralled by these indoor gardens as I am now. Are they a passing fad? A one-time reaction to being away from home too much? Maybe.

Travel and terrariums - new growth on cactus

When you see new growth on a plant, it just makes you happy.

But here’s why I suspect I will continue my new-found zeal for terrariums for some time. They are not just miniature landscapes. They are miniature worlds to explore without ever leaving home. There’s an ever-changing variety of color and pattern and of growth and decay (I learned too late that placing a terrarium near a window where it gets direct sun can roast its inhabitants like ants under a mischievous tween’s magnifying glass).

Most of all, they bring me joy when I behold them.

Try a small terrarium for yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.

 

Waiting for the cake

Chocolate CakeThe plane from Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia lands around 1:30 p.m.

“We have about two hours here,” says what I presume is the grandfather, in the seat across the aisle from me.

“I’m ready for lunch” says the 11-or-so-year-old boy kitty-corner to me, who turns around and perches his hands and chin on the headrest “Kilroy was here” style to address his grandfather. The elder man seems not to notice. Instead, the grandfather carries on a discussion with what I guess to be his wife regarding the logistics of the stopover and the birthday of a relative in their final destination.

“I’m ready for lunch,” repeats the boy.

More adult conversation.

“I’m ready for lunch.” The now familiar refrain isn’t a demand or an example of tween entitlement. He makes his declaration in calm, measured tones.

Three more times.

The grandfather, in an adroit demonstration of multitasking, keeps his focus on his wife but mentions that they likely have enough time during their stopover in Atlanta to grab some lunch.

The grandson ceases his mantra, turns back to face the front of the plane. A long pause. Then, he turns a quarter of the way back so that he’s facing the aisle where no one is yet standing (we’re still taxiing across the runway in what feels as if we’re spending more time driving in this plane than flying in it). In the same level tone of voice but with a dreaminess that was lacking in his lunch remarks, he says to no one in particular, “I can’t wait to eat chocolate cake.”

*******

Personally, I can get pretty jaded flying almost every week for work. I find myself making comments — hopefully only in my head — about “amateur hour” at the airport, especially this time of year when Spring Break is underway. And it is always underway somewhere it seems, from the end of February (how is that “spring” anywhere?) to early May. People who clearly have either never been on a plane or at least not for some time shuffle around the airport dazed and distracted, like someone texting as they walk. Only these travelers walk eyes up, glancing around in a whiplash manner as they try to find their gate, wandering child or missing composure. They make for tricky obstacles to navigate around at the airport and challenges to on-time departures on board as they try to get a suitcase that exceeds the carry-on restriction by at least 50% into an overhead bin that was already full back during Zone 2 boarding.

Travel snob? Spoiled elite traveler? Not a very nice person at airports? I’ll own the first two but I still try to put people over efficiency. Unless I’m late for a flight. Then, it’s probably three for three, alas.

But then, on that endless taxiing across the tarmac, I overhear this conversation. And suddenly, all the hassles and judgments of travel and travelers melt away. Because in that boy’s single sentence, I remember what it’s like. The long journey. The pinched cheek by an aunt with too much rouge on hers. All the adult chitchat and maybe, hanging out with cousins you rarely see. And then, the cake and all it represents.

I hope those folks — especially the boy — had a great lunch at the airport. I hope the birthday was a wonderful event for all. And I hope the chocolate cake tasted as good in reality as it did in that boy’s mind on the plane.

It all makes me think I’ve been on too many planes myself lately. There’s more to life than flights or travel or even work. There’s family and home. Arrival and lunch. And somewhere, after a long journey, maybe a piece of chocolate cake waiting just for me.

 

Li Huayi: a new take on an old artform

Li Hauyi painting

I recently returned from a trip with my elder son, 23, to China. The theme of our trip was design. We intended to sketch and photograph our way through three different regions of China, getting a better sense of both classical and contemporary forms of design. To refine the concept of design, I focused mostly on understanding the design element of line. From architecture to fashion, room interiors to tea ceremonies, line plays a big role in defining the Chinese experience. But nowhere is the sense of line clearer than in Chinese calligraphy (which is nothing but line) and painting. And no where on our trip did I find paintings that moved me as much as the work of artist Li Huayi.

Li Huayi, born in 1948, learned painting in the traditional style in Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, he survived by painting works of propaganda. In 1982, he departed China for San Francisco, working there and delving into the world of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990’s, however, he returned back both to China and to a focus on traditional Chinese landscape subjects and techniques. Today, he splits his time between studios in San Francisco and Beijing.

To say that Li Huayi’s work is merely a modern rendering of traditional subjects would be to miss what makes them so special. His paintings are currently part of a solo exhibition at the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. These works, on paper and silk, some shimmering with gold foil, reflect both Eastern and Western influences. But it is less a fusion of cultures and more one of eras that add depth to Li’s paintings. In them, some several meters in width or length, he blends themes going back to the Song dynasty with contemporary sensibilities and even subjects: some of his windswept trees seem more likely to be found in Carmel, California than Huangshan, China. The influence of Abstract Expressionism emerges in the atmospheric perspective of his backgrounds: you’re not quite sure on some what you’re seeing. This rendering of old and new also shows up in the presentation of some of the works with vertical scrolls hanging over longer horizontal pieces but the scenes blending perfectly.

This is contemporary art that surprises because you don’t expect it to be that.

Learn more about Li Huayi and the exhibition at the Suzhou Museum.

Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting detail

Li Huayi painting Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting detailLi Huayi painting on gold foil

Li Huayi painting