The Little Bookshop in Venice

On my first visit to Venice in 2003, I stayed in Cannaregio, one of six historic districts in this City of Canals. Exploring, I found the simple Santa Maria dei Miracoli, known as the ‘marble church’, which sits prettily next to the Campo dei Miracoli (a plaza) but it was closed at that hour.  I had just met my future son-in-law’s parents and learned they married in this church, and Cannaregio is where their children were born and raised.

The next day, I leaned out my hotel window and shot photographs of delivery guys in high galoshes slosh through ‘aqua alta’ (high water) while forcing flatbed carts piled high with UPS and FedEx packages.  Two hours and a couple of espressos later, the water levels finally subsided and I could walk back to see inside the church.

Midway to the altar, I sat immersed in peace, quiet, and streams of dust motes colored by reflections from stained glass. All of a sudden, I was disturbed by loud crinkling noises and talking; it was a gaggle of chattering tourists who walked in wearing black garbage bags over their shoes and tied at their kneecaps.

Outside the 15th century church, two shops flanked one side of the campo (plaza). After peering into the pristine stationery shop window, I headed to the bookshop next door. The tinkle of a bell was triggered as I opened a heavy glass-inset wooden door.  I immediately noted very little semblance of order. It was my dream come true and a librarian’s nightmare. Wooden tables and bookcases held stacks of books ascending several feet while postcard racks with a mixture of cards were pushed up against the little bit of wall space available in the shop.

A weathered, yet dapper-looking, elderly gentleman appeared from the back while chirpily announcing “Buongiorno!”  He wore a business suit, a sweater vest and tie which looked like it was all from a much earlier decade. We hand gestured, due to language barriers, miming my wish to browse and his delight to have a customer. Soon, a children’s book, legal-sized with a water-color cover, caught my eye.  The artwork included Basilica San Marco, Venice’s iconic image.

The title “Ondina e Pesce Gatto” was loosely translated to “Water-Nymph and Catfish from Paris to Venice” by Claude Morhange and Cassandra Wainhouse.   As I picked the book up, the gentleman became animated.  “Molto bene!”  he exclaimed.  Pointing to the English words, he said, “You speak!”  With a twinkle in his eye and a gentle smile, I found him too endearing to refuse.The story was printed in both English and Italian;  I read the English side aloud and ten minutes later while closing the magical book, I noticed a wistful look on the old man’s face as he said, “Grazie mille.” (“Thank you, very much.”)  If I had small children in my family, I would have bought it, but my children were grown and there were no grandchildren.  Back into the chilly November sunshine, postcards in hand, I felt as if I had been in a magical time warp sprinkled with stardust.

Two years later I returned to Venice and ventured back to Campo dei Miracoli.  It was going to be my first grandchild’s baptism and I was searching for the right gift. In a beautiful stationery shop, I purchased a hand-blown glass wax seal with Gabriel’s initials. Going back outside to the sunshine, I strolled over to the bookshop. The elderly man who I met before was not there but I met his son who helped me find “Ondina e Pesce Gatto” on a table outside. I bought it, while I also inquired about his father; he told me ‘papa’ was home that day but was doing well.

Both items I bought were treasures for my six month old grandson whose baptism would be the following day in a villa near Venice. Happily, there was now a small child in my family, even an Italian one, who would someday read “Odina e Pesce Gatto“, perhaps he will be able to read and understand the Italian version, too.Ondina








Genetic Connections or Just Another Pretty ‘Face’

My mother and grandmother arrived in San Francisco via ship from Shanghai in 1947. Almost 70 years later, I sat in San Francisco International Airport waiting for my flight to Shanghai for my very first visit to my mother’s birthplace. What had once been a figment of my imagination when seeing family photos and hearing stories, was soon becoming a reality. Since I was born in San Francisco in 1949, it seemed only fitting to change planes there after my Seattle flight. I purposely chose SF over LA for this familiararity.

The noise in the SF airport was deafening. The international wing of the concourse had mainly  Asian flights arriving and departing and I had a feeling I was experiencing only a small fraction of the chaos, noise, and flurry of activity which will soon overload my senses for the next ten days. Along with primarily Asian families,  there are a few very elderly people who are perhaps finally returning home to China after fleeing so long ago. (My imagination is working overtime again.) And, to make it all a bit more crazy, there was a very large contingent of children on the flight, too. They were elementary students visiting their sister-school in Shanghai, as I find out later. 

So many unknowns are before me; this trip feels very different from other journeys I have taken.  I am glad there is the security knowing I have a hotel room, and am meeting my cousin and cousin-in-law the day after I arrive. Additionally, we have also arranged a guide to show us many of our family landmarks; Mr. Wong showed another cousin the same itinerary 2 years ago. (My grandfather was the uncle of my cousins.) 

Another known fact will be seeing the iconic Shanghai skyline, the church where my grandparents were married, which is the same one where my mother was baptized. The apartment house where they lived is still standing, too. I am not clear if any of the old British and Japanese police stations where my grandfather worked as a policeman, an inspector, and then acting superintendent-in-charge still stand, but that will become clear very soon.

Will I feel a genetic connection or will Shanghai just be another pretty city? I have a very long 12 hour flight ahead of me before I find out. 

View of Leaving the San Francisco, California Coastline Flying to Shanghai (probably over Pacifica in this photo, which is a little south of the City)


Roatan, March 2014, Part One


Roatan, off the coast of Honduras

It was two years ago, for 3 weeks in April-May, when my son, daughter-in-law, then 3  1/2 year old granddaughter, Jordan, and I last travelled, internationally, as a family.  On that adventure we explored the Andulusian region of Spain and a few places in Portugal.  Awesome adventure. Beautiful areas.

And, one year ago in March, I had an extraordinary ‘heritage walk’ in England with new found cousins which, like the trip to Spain and Portugal, is all chronicled in this blog (previously under the blog name: grammietravels).

Now I move on to a new blog heading of Paper, Pen, Journey as Vivian C. Murray while reinventing the site to be all-inclusive of multigenerational travel, my family’s experiences in Shanghai as expats in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and my own personal explorations.


This year, 2014, we traveled again as a 3 generation family and arrived in Roatan, Honduras on the last day of February, leaving 12 days later.

As in previous travels, we used VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), renting a 3 bedroom house on Tamarind Drive which was closer to West Bay than West End. (And that was a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.)  The house was about 500 feet (down and back up a steep hill) from the beach. Of course this is not far when a person is fit and used to hiking. For moi, it was a bit of a stretch coming back up that hill.

One hot afternoon, a guy rolled past in his golf cart and asked if I needed a ride down the hill. I told him to come back when I needed a ride back up! He laughed while commenting that he could relate. Another day, a young worker at the boutique hotel (Xbalanque Resort) next to the beach called out asking if I needed a ride back up and while catching my breath I declined saying I was almost there. I had pulled something in my left foot and was using a walking stick to help climb back up the hill. I must have been a pitiful sight all sweaty, sandy, huffing and puffing.  I wouldn’t be caught dead looking like this back home.

In our very nice house, the bedrooms and living area had sliding glass doors to the deck where there’s an infinity plunge pool. Is was deep enough to fully submerge, float and Jordan could easily run and canon-barrel into the water.

01af0638e4adca5032621e847e764c798d601dba87 Cannonball in plunge pool


Plunge Pool



The guidebooks and house instructions mention the “pleasant” 45 minute beachwalk from West Bay to West End. Our yellow house-on-stilts is in the middle between those two towns and I was pretty much scratching on death’s door by the time we walked to and from West Bay the first week there. It didn’t help matters to have a bum foot.

What the guidebooks also fail to mention is a high metal bridge over a small waterway near Gambolinda Park. There are many stairs which need to be negotiated as well as a rocky area of about 50 feet which needed careful attention (these rocks have now been removed).

Did I mention the fact that these walks are in 85 degrees with 95% humidity?

The water taxi stops at the comfortable and pricey boutique hotel dock below the house (Xbalanque Resort). Jordan and I paired up as a team to take the taxis on two occasions, once to West End and the other to Infinity Bay at West Bay.


Riding the water taxi.


A couple of things I love about Central America besides the warm temps and warm oceans, are the geckos chirping in the rooms and the occasional colorful bird perched nearby squawking its head off. But, in Roatan I missed the sounds of the howler monkeys which we heard in Costa Rica, as well as toucans, and parrots. We did have the geckos, bats, vultures, crows, and the odd squawking bird here and there.



Two of the dozen bats outside the kitchen window.



This guy was hanging on off our balcony for one evening.

Upside down Roatan bird

Pretty bird with a loud squawk.


The Hondurian vendors on beaches are naturally annoying but not as bad as in Mexico. Here, it usually takes one “No gratias” and they go away. In Mexico they nag incessantly.

Ice cream boy on beach

Ice cream on the beach

At West Bay there was the ‘Banana Donut Man’ a grizzled old guy with a long white beard, a bit rotund, sweet and kind. He fed the little children left over donuts as well as the fish.  (Sanding in the water when he threw a piece of donut and have the fish swarm around my legs was a very cool sensation.) We bought one from him at West Bay.

The ‘famous’ banana-donut-man fed the fish and the children. Even though I spoke with him a short time, I knew he had a good heart.

Pretending to be a shark and grabbing our legs

This young boy had fun grabbing our ankles as we went into the water.



There were young Garifuna boys selling conch shells and dried, plasticized seahorses.  It had just been the day before when I talked to ‘the kids’ about how I wondered what ever happened to the beautiful conch shell she had for years, after she passed on.  Naturally I was drawn to purchasing the shell which looked just like the one my mom had. The boy wanted $10, I said $5. He said no. The seahorse he wanted $6 and I said $2. I sat on my beach batik throw from Costa Rica, and just shook my head no. He walked away with his little friend, who was trying to sell me more inferior products for my price, so I went to snorkel to get a break.

When I resurfaced from a wonderful escape with the fish, the boy popped into my face and agreed to my prices.  “OK, it’s a deal.” he said.  He and I laughed over the whole game of it. He was probably no more than 9 years old, just a year older than my grandson in Seattle.

There were also women offering hair braiding and massages, along with an ice cream cart pushed back and forth from a very pleasant local selling a frozen ice cream for $3 but at the end of the day, agreeing to $2.

However, vendors at the West End were another story, especially the ‘masseurs.’ They ganged up on the tourists and had no mercy. Be very careful with these women, unless you want to spend a lot of money for a massage on the beach.

Jordan and I landed at West End on the water taxi and immediately saw this would be a different experience. After running into the Banana-Donut-Man again and buying 3 for the family, we made our way to the first stop for Jordan’s promised ice cream, and then to the beach which was just outside the ice cream shop.  Stopping to ask people on the street where to find ice cream or the main beach is a must-do unless you want to wander aimlessly in the heat.

Roatan West End

Jordan arrives at West End, Roatan


West End has much more in the way of a “hip scene”


Note the beer and glass the marlin is holding.




Half Moon Bay was a calm mass of sparkling turquoise and swimming was great. But we landed very close to the town beach bum whom I didn’t trust because of the grizzled appearance and beer in one brown, leathery hand. He was watching Jordan and I very intently when we were in the water so I opted to go back to our spot to keep an eye on Jordan, our bags, and feel less than relaxed. But the old man was probably not the biggest problem on the beach. At least he eventually climbed into his hammock, strung between two palms behind me and which I swear I didn’t notice when choosing the spot initially, and fell fast asleep.

The massage vendors were beyond annoying and were really a crooked bunch of lovely looking young women led by what appeared to be the older matriarch of all Roatan masseurs. This woman was relentlessly trying to massage my neck while saying ‘just a demo’ and then whispering God-only-knows-what into my ears. I was sufficiently creeped out and finally brushed her away as I would an annoying fly.  I’m a patient person but she was pushing my limits.

Not so lucky for the young couple next to where I sat who fell under the spell of Massage Mama and her ‘little pretties.’ Before I knew it, this couple were laying face down and getting worked on, in more than one way. About 6 women were massaging these unsuspecting two people. They even I clasped the woman’s bikini top.



Half Moon Bay, West End



Half Moon Bay, West End, Roatan

Little did we know we were walking into a den of crazed masseuse women.

Boat people were swinging off the mast

There were people swinging on rope from the masts of this boat into the water.


While  keeping my eye on the beach scene, still waving to Jordan who was having a blast in the water,  out of my peripheral vision I saw the couple sit up and heard the voices getting louder. The man was saying, “But you said this was a demo! I am only giving you $20, the only cash I brought, exactly in case of a situation like this coming up!” Mama Masseuse is yelling, “No, no Mister! $80 for each half hour massage!” The ‘Mister’ held his ground and the women walked off all clucking like a multi-colored group of disgruntled hens.

The couple and I started chatting. They were from New Orleans and taking a break from the Royal Caribbean cruise they were on. I liked them immediately and we chatted for awhile laughing at the audacity of Mama Masseuse. He was very pissed off and his voice and accent reminded me of Matthew McConaughey. He laughed to tell me while being massaged he overheard me tell Jordan to just “pee in the ocean” after she had run up to me frantic about her need.

He found it funny while I felt a bit embarrassed for about half a second. He also offered to drive us back to the cruise ship, which of course wasn’t necessary since we weren’t on a cruise.  His wife also told me she was pretty uncomfortable about her bikini top being undone by the massage team.

After a bit, Jordan ran up to say she was hungry, a common event on this trip, so we went off in search of a cash machine and a restaurant. My card wouldn’t work in the cash machine, but the Coconut Tree hawker said they accepted credit cards so up the stairs we went.

I had Lionfish fish cakes, presented prettily and tasting especially good. Jordan had cheese quesadillas which she didn’t like and wouldn’t eat. Now I understand why she is so thin. Thrilled to see a tv on in the open aired lounge area, she went to sit and watch Sponge Bob and I had a few minutes to myself. I began watching a bunch of young people swing off the mast of a sailboat into the sea wondering how safe that was but knowing they were having a blast.



It was an easy decision not to fuss with the water taxi (getting in and out was as challenging as I was afraid it would be) so I hailed a $10 cab ride back to Sienna House. Jordan was totally fine to be taxied by land back to the house, and seemed as relieved as I was. Her parents were out and about so the two of us slipped into easy naps under the ceiling fan in my sea-blue and yellow bedroom.

To be continued…