Miriam, my mom (1917-2008)

Mom passed away in the night of September 25, 2008, after living a rather unhappy four years confined to a wheelchair, unable to sit up on her own, and basically unable to do the things she loved to do.  I start with this note of sadness not to look on the dark side, but the opposite:  I wanted to show that the last years, though not happy for her, were the exception.

For most of her life Mom was a busy, energetic, opinionated and practical woman.  Miriam was the friend who drove people at her condo to the doctor, who took walks, and on those walks routinely found four-leaf clover along the Cape Rail Trail that adjoined the condo property.

When I was a kid we wanted a dog.  Dad said absolutely not to the idea of a dog, but as you can see, young Freckles quickly learned to schmooze Dad so that they were inseparable.  

Daily care of Freckles, however, fell to Mom.  She was the one who went looking for him when he ran off, and she would scold him like one of us kids.  “Fre-e-e-e-eckles!  Come home right this minute!!” She would clap her hands sharply so that the dog could hear it. When the dog slunk guiltily up the driveway, he knew from Mom’s voice that he had screwed up.  “I know he’s been in someone’s garbage, I can smell it on his breath!”  Freckles would hang his head and wait for her to forgive him.

There was no mistaking Mom when she was mad at us, and over the years, we gave her reason to get upset, as well as sprout gray hairs.  Mom was the one who lost the most sleep over my scrape with the law at age 13, and Mom was the one who was home with us 100 percent of the time while Dad traveled to clients as part of his job as a dyestuffs salesman.  But in the family hierarchy, Mom put herself clearly in the position of the supporting spouse, as women tended to do in the sixties.  She stayed in the background while Dad held forth at the dinner table, and in fact did this so well that we never gave it a second thought.  None of us noticed that she was there, in the background, until Dad would say something inaccurate in telling a story.  “Kenneth, that was in Orleans, not Truro!” Dad, being Dad, took it as criticism.  But in time, I learned that this was just Mom’s style. She told it the way she saw it.  After Dad died, in 2001, I would go up to the Cape to visit, and we would have a quiet supper together.  And it truly was quiet, for she had so little to say, having spent over half a century correcting, amplifying, interjecting.  With Dad gone, she had to learn a whole new conversational style.

One funny thing about trying to document someone like my mom is that it’s hard to find a good picture of her.  Why? Because in our busy family life, Mom took all the pictures! The snapshot at the top of this article is of Miriam and Dad admiring infant Joan, their first-born and my oldest sister. I happen to think this is one of the most beautiful pictures of Mom, showing her in her prime as a young mother.

Mom grew up in West Redding, Connecticut, and enjoyed the special benefits of living life in the country.  Once, on a visit to the old house, she pointed out the place where, many years earlier,  she had slid down a slope in the snow, dressed in her Sunday best.  There is also a tale about the joy ride that her baby brother Howard took her on in the family car.  The story goes that in his excitement to be driving, he managed to run it into a ditch.  Looking at the vehicle stuck in the ditch, Miriam made a split-second decision:  she told Howard they would tell the authorities (and their mother) that she had been behind the wheel, because Howard, at the time, was too young to drive and would have gotten in bigger trouble than his big sister.  Howard would later write that tale into Mom’s memory book which we kids put together for her 80th birthday.

Her father, Joe Stehlik, worked as a local handyman, driving a tractor or performing other odd jobs that local neighbors needed done. Here he appears at the bottom of a ladder while young Miriam picks fruit out of a tree.

But Mom did not have an easy life.  Joe died of cancer when she was ten years old, and she told us that as part of Joe’s funeral arrangements, the coffin was placed in the parlour, as was the custom back in those days.  She had had to quickly run past Joe’s coffin when she went downstairs, which is easy to imagine must have been a vivid memory for her.

Life for Anna and her three kids, Miriam, Ruth and Howard, changed radically when Joe was gone.  Gramma had to take in mending, and their already frugal existence became even more restricted.  Years later, when she and Dad had us kids, we all picked up a lot of that uncertainty and anxiety, which was exacerbated by their experience of living through the Great Depression of 1929 through 1939.  We felt their pessimism and extreme caution in life as odd and unnecessary.  Growing up in post-World War II Ramsey, New Jersey, we had a nice house, a TV (black & white until after Dad had retired), and we went on vacations in the car to faraway places like Lake Willoughby, Vermont.  To Miriam and Kenneth,  our life must have felt luxurious, but that didn’t stop us from complaining that our own lives were so hard.

Here we are in 1960, with Mom presiding over us all, looking slightly off-camera, as if she knew what worries were coming next.

Dad, sweet Dad

April 1 is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 107 today. He used to tell the joke about how how his grandfather would have been considered a remarkable man. Why? Because he would be over a hundred years old. I can hear him telling that on himself, chuckling.

Kenneth E. Leslie, father, salesman, veteran, jokester. He was all of these things.

With infant Joan

That was pretty much Dad’s jokes – familiar, well-worn gimmicks. Repetition was his specialty. He loved the tale of “Silent Cal” Coolidge, our thirtieth President, who supposedly was asked, on leaving church, what the preacher spoke about. “Sin,” he replied. Asked what the preacher said about it, he replied, “He was against it.” We got to be reminded of this tale every Sunday, when my mom dragged the three of us kids to church (Redeemer Lutheran, if you are from Ramsey) while Dad stayed home. Afterward, when we pulled into the driveway, Dad would come up from his garden to greet us. “Well, what did the minister talk about? Did he talk about sin?” (wince) “Was he against it?” (wince) Often he played straight man to his own jokes; it was the only way he could get to tell them.

He was a terrible tease. He grew up with his brothers Wally, Burton and Ernie, who all kidded each other mercilessly. He must have made a life decision at some point always to be the guy who pokes fun at people, or looks for funny things that they do. He and I went on a camping trip together and watched a family in the adjoining campsite, where a guy was sitting in a camp chair, shouting orders to his wife and kids as they struggled to put up the tent. “Look at that guy – the big boss, shouting the orders while everyone else does all the work!” Another example is a family member who didn’t have the best of grammar, who would say stuff like “We was going…” Dad would turn to me, and in an undertone, go “we was!!” Years and years of this helped me become the irritating and satirical genius that I am today.

With Freckles, Ramsey, NJ, about 1957

This came out where his parenting was concerned, in his repeating of the same joke endlessly, or calling attention to something that bugged you. He knew I liked music, so he would say, “Why do people waste time with music? They could be trading on the Stock Market.” Despite his purported dislike of music, he could hum melodies with cornball lyrics, like this little gem, “George Washington Bridge,”  He was actually a very talented guy, for someone who pretended to hate that stuff.  We all heard the story of how Dad played a female part in the school play, at Lowell Textile School, because there were no women.  (Today, Lowell is a full engineering school, and is coed.)

With Aunt Ruth and Uncle Norman, around 1989. That day Derek crawled off the couch and rolled onto the floor.  He survived just fine.

And yet he was the tenderest soul. You couldn’t criticize or make fun of him. That was just how it was. But the plus side of this was that he almost never yelled. He just got upset. And for a dad, he had what I would call a healthy, sensible attitude toward sports, in other words, it wasn’t a religion for him. He enjoyed watching a ball game once in a while, but I never saw the “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!!!!!” kind of screaming at the tv set. He asked that I try at least one sport in school. I tried two – wrestling and cross country, so in my mind I had met the budget, and it was OK with him. Rather than worry that his son would not be sporty enough, he worried I was going to get killed in junior football, because of my ineptitude in the game. (That’s the subject of another essay.)

To balance his satirical side, he had the softest heart of anyone I have ever met. When his kid brother, Ernie, died of a massive heart attack at age 43, he wept openly in front of the whole family. He never hid tears, and that was a powerful, positive lesson for me. It was OK to cry! Later I learned that many men grew up otherwise. He loved poetry, and would quote his favorites from time to time. (“Hardly a man is now alive…”) Some poems triggered something tender in him, such as Frost’s The Death of the Hired Hand. He frequently quoted this line, and you could hear the emotion in his voice:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,  
They have to take you in.

He loved plants, which to my young, teenaged mind was boring, but today I’m grateful that on some level, I must have been listening. I can’t tell how often I have looked at a rhododendrons (his favorite – he belonged to the American Rhododendron Society) and been grateful that he taught me so much about plants. It’s as if the knowledge came alive when I became an adult. I don’t know how many people I have told that the name refers to the reddish colored bark (‘rhodo’ = red, ‘dendron’ = branch).    I suppose I’ve picked up Dad’s habit of endlessly repeating stuff. Of course you can ask my sons, Derek and Ian, about that. They can tell you just how repetitious their dad is.

With Sue, at Derek’s christening, 1988

Dad had a wonderful talent for understanding people, and would share insights about people we both observed. He once took me on a couple of his regular sales calls, and coached me on how to shake a person’s hand: look them in the eye, and shake firmly, giving them a good smile. He would continually lecture me about the importance of enthusiasm. Again, in my youth I rolled my eyes, but today, I benefit from Dad’s talks. He talked about his work as a seller of dyestuff, how proud he was that he had loyal customers who would buy from him rather than a competitor who offered a lower price. His customers, he said, depended on him always to tell the truth, and not try and do a big sell job on them.

He had a curious habit of self-limitation. For example, he claimed that he could never hear a conversation if there was any other competing noise at all. Sometimes, when my mom would turn on a little soft music on the radio, he would stride over and snap it off. Occasionally, in the middle of a discussion in which I was trying to explain something to him, he would shake his head, say, “ I don’t follow you, I’m in a fog.” He also struggled to remember things, always reinforcing the difficulty by mentioning how difficult it was.  I found his methodical, plodding style bothersome, so to spark things up a bit I would walk around the house flipping a knife in my hand, over and over. I actually got pretty good at knife-flipping.

While I was a teenager, he and I would go camping up to Lake George, and enjoy the ice-cold water, the fresh air, and the fishing. The first year we went, he rented a boat and motor. We set out from a little inlet at a placed called Hulett’s Landing. We loaded the boat to the gills with gear, got in, and he said, “I’ll steer us out of the inlet, and then you can try running the boat.”  Immediately the boat roared toward the rocks along the inlet, and he panicked, turning the rudder sharply, and around in a big circle we went, barely missing the rocks.  Finally, he managed to slow it down and get it under control.  “Why don’t you take it over right now,” he said, a sheepish look on his face.

With Sue, at Derek’s christening

The very core of my relationship to Dad was that we could talk about stuff. He and I would go on fishing trips on the Delaware, at a placed called Pond Eddy, where the water sort of swirled lazily around in a circle, rather than rushing in a powerful current. It was the perfect spot to fish for bass, and it was the perfect time for us to talk.  So often his stories dealt with some admission of weakness or insecurity.  That was Dad 101: the truth is a golden ideal, to be sought out at all costs. Even to his own detriment. When offered a job in management, he took it against his better judgement, and found himself in a strange, new world. He described his frustration, shuffling papers on his desk, dealing with a new-fangled idea called Marketing that he just didn’t understand.

Dad, sweet Dad, I so loved those conversations. They were golden. Thank you for all that you did.

Patrice and Richard’s 2017 Experience

Oh, what a year we had! Have you heard about our travels? (Observe us below at a Maori “Living Village” in New Zealand. I think we need to work on the challenge of lowering our eyebrows while sticking our tongues out.)

FullSizeRender (69).jpg In June Richard retired from full-time work, and we spent a crazy month emptying the house, selling it just before we left for our loooong trip around the world. On July 16th, we were off!

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July 17 – Ireland

PMF windy Ireland.jpg We started in Dublin, and then went up to County Donegal where Patrice met three new Irish second cousins. See her at right, standing in the field where her maternal grandfather was born—and yes, there was a cottage there back in the day. We saw the glorious Ring of Kerry, drove on the “wrong” side of the road, and felt right at home in this gorgeous country.

August 2 – Scotland

It’s been our dream to sing at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, and this year we finally did it, giving a cabaret performance and leading a worship service the next weekend, both at St. Mark’s Unitarian Church. The city was packed with excitement, performers, and attendees for the 75th Fringe Festival. After Edinburgh, we went north to the tiny town of Leslie, in Insch. We stayed in the Leslie Room at Leslie Castle, and we weren’t the only Leslies there! Our visit included an impromptu concert for the owner—the daughter of the Baron of Leslie—in the Baronial Hall.

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August 20 – England

We zipped down to London and saw the fabulous “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” with Audra McDonald… and we got a chance to meet her outside the stage door. An amazing talent, and very gracious to her fans.

FullSizeRender (77).jpgAugust 23 – France

We flew Paris for Patrice’s birthday at the end of August. Highlights of France included mouth-watering crepes, the rental of a snazzy black Jaguar (not our choice—it was probably the last car they had left), and a visit to a charming medieval town where we stayed with Facebook friends who offered a cottage to us sight unseen. Another friend-of-a-friend in Paris showed us around and took us to a fascinating open-air market with delicious Moroccan food. Throughout this trip, we managed to connect with kind, never-before-met friends who generously shared their towns, their homes, and often their yummy cooking. Thank you—you know who you are!

September 1 – Belgium

Our brief stop in Brussels featured a jam-packed beer festival set smack in the middle of the Grand Place, and Belgian waffles that had to be seen to be believed.

Sept. 4 – The Netherlands

In Amsterdam Patrice connected with a law school chum and friends from Connecticut, while Kathleen joined us from California. Loved the city, the incredible art, and the charm, but found the streets full of bikes difficult to navigate.

Sept. 11 – Germany

Kathleen continued to Berlin, where we took a long walking tour ending up at the Holocaust Memorial. We had just been to see the Ann Frank House in Amsterdam, and the next day we toured the Jewish Museum. Powerful and meaningful, yet full of disturbing truths.

Sept. 19 – Austria

Next up was Vienna where we got a fabulous personal tour of the Wiener Staatsoper from our friend Speedo, a rising international opera star. In contrast to her visit years ago as a student (while living on bread and cheese and staying in youth hostels) Patrice wanted to spring for tickets for both the Vienna Choirboys and the Lipizzaner Stallions. Absolutely worth it.

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Sept. 26 – Italy

Florence and Rome. What else needs to be said? We spent hours and got sore feet walking around the Uffizi Gallery, and we adored our Airbnb view of the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. A highlight was a trip to a farm in the Tuscan countryside, where we made pasta by hand and enjoyed a concert featuring a soprano diva and harpist—and then stepped in ourselves to sing a duet!

Oct. 10 – Thailand

Then for something completely different, we went to Thailand. Loved the food and the people and had trouble with the heat and the humidity. Our trip up to Chiang Mai to visit an elephant rescue park was phenomenal. A very different world.

FullSizeRender (63).jpgOct. 16 – Vietnam

More heat and humidity, delicious food, and lovely people. We went to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The traffic and the hordes of motorcyclists were somewhat scary. We visited the War Remembrance Museum, a sobering experience for Americans, despite the fact that 90% of the Vietnamese are too young to remember the war. We sang for our Airbnb hosts in Hoi An to thank them and their neighbors, tailors who made us cool custom clothing.

Oct. 31 – Singapore

The orderliness of Singapore was in startling contrast to Vietnam. We were there only a couple of nights, but we were impressed with this city-state, one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Nov. 2 – Australia

Australia is a gorgeous country that is so big that we could visit only a small part of it. We rented a car and made our way to Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne, and then had a grand time at a friend’s sheep farm in the wilds of Victoria. Along the way we saw kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras, and assorted other creatures—including little penguins on parade—and had an altogether excellent experience down under.

Nov. 21 – New Zealand

New Zealand was one of our favorite places on the whole trip. Miles and miles of beauty, clean water, and friendly people. Plus Hobbits! We adored it. It’s not cheap to live there, but it would be high on our list of spots to settle in, if only it weren’t so far from our kids.

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Dec. 4 – Tahiti

At the end of our journey, we spent two weeks in glorious French Polynesia, visiting Moorea, Bora Bora, and Papeete on the main island of Tahiti Nui. It doesn’t get any lovelier than this paradise in the middle of the Pacific. And Patrice got a chance to dance with the locals.

FullSizeRender (76).jpgDec. 21 – California

We spent Christmas with Kathleen in Los Angeles, where we were thrilled to jump in with her local UU choir for their Christmas Eve service. It was amazing to be back in the U.S. Water you can drink. People who not only speak English but pronounce it the way we do. Money that doesn’t make you feel like an idiot as you puzzle over the coins in your hand when trying to pay the guy at the 7-Eleven!

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After Los Angeles, we visited Richard’s sister Joan in Oakland. It was great to have time to be with her and see her current digs. We then went on to…

Dec. 30 – Oregon

… where we are checking out Portland for three months. Seems very cool so far (and not, fortunately, as freezing as New England right now).

April, 2018 – Connecticut

We plan to be in the Hartford area from about mid-April through October. We will catch up with friends, decide where we want to visit/live next, and celebrate a family wedding—Derek and Lindsey are getting married!

Here’s wishing all of you a fabulous 2018.

Watch this space for news from us next year… living who knows where?

Patrice and Richard

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What Is Too Little?

Space.  The final frontier…

We’ve done a lot of thinking about where we want to end up after our big trip, and how we want to live.  And in particular, how much space we actually need for the two of us.

We stayed in a lot of very small places.  Here is Richard in a tiny room we occupied in Amsterdam, where buildings tend to be old, stairs tend to be narrow, and rooms tend to be tight.

We got by, but we couldn’t open the suitcases at the same time.  We could barely fit the suitcases in, even while they were closed up.  And it was hard for Richard to stretch out on the floor to do his exercises. There was no space long enough for his body.

As we traveled around the globe, we stayed primarily in Airbnb rentals (typically more roomy than hotels, with a bit of a kitchen, and usually a washing machine), in a few B&Bs, and in the occasional hotel room, with star levels ranging from the bare minimum to the somewhat luxurious.  We have been calling this long trip a “reset,” and we definitely had a chance to reset our expectations in terms of space.

It’s become obvious that in general, people live in smaller spaces in most of the world.  It’s a good lesson in how much we need, or don’t need.

When we left Connecticut, we sold our grand house–more than 3,000 square feet, on just over an acre of land.  It was clearly far more space than we required, but it felt so luxurious to have room for offices for both of us, a spare bedroom for guests, 2.5 bathrooms, and tables all over the place: in the dining room, in the breakfast “nook,” in the spectacular music room, and out on the two-level deck.  It wouldn’t be wrong to say that we were spoiled with space.

We need to go smaller.  I’m trying to picture us in a place where we are more in each other’s face–which will be very different than it was when Richard was working away from home full-time.  We’ve managed to go all the way around the world, spending more than five months together nearly every moment of every day, with very little friction.  But now we’re going back to real life.  No separate offices, I  imagine, and no huge music rooms to sing in.  We aren’t likely to be in a house where we can get so far apart that we can’t hear each other when we ask, “Where are you, honey?”

So now there is the question of what is enough.  As I write this, I’m sitting in a pleasant (and free) space courtesy of Richard’s sister Joan, who lives in co-housing in California.  It’s perfectly adequate for two people; a room with a queen bed, plus a kitchenette/living room with a sink, refrigerator, microwave, table, and two comfy chairs.  But I can’t quite imagine living this tiny.  At least… not yet.

How much space do we really need–how much privacy, and how much independence?  How much is reasonable in a big world where some have a lot and some have so little?

Gauguin in his element

Our trip to French Polynesia has brought me back to a preoccupation of my twenties. I was fascinated with the artist Paul Gauguin. While on a trip to Europe with my college choir, I began reading Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” a novel that is based loosely on the life of Gauguin. That book formed a backdrop for the trip through France, and when our group visited the Musée d’Orsay, I made a beeline for the Gauguin collection, even sneaking a quick snapshot or two, until I was told to stop by a guard. The trip continued to
Germany and about a dozen other countries, but the travels did not get anywhere near French Polynesia. 
Now this visit has completed the circle and reawakened my interest. Looking back on the period, I am quite a different person than I was then. As a young person, becoming an artist was a far-off dream. Now I simply view it as a choice to make the necessary sacrifices and work hard to develop your artistry. Then, put it out there.
 
The story left a picture in my mind of Gauguin — encouraged largely by Maugham’s book — of a successful businessman who decided one day to abandon his family, travel to Tahiti and become a painter. The truth is not as romantic, but just as interesting. While a stock broker in Paris, Gauguin also worked as an art dealer, and did his own paintings as well, becoming a protégé of Camille Pisarro. He was very much intrigued with painting scenes and people from the countryside, and some of his earlier work includes paintings of Bretons going about their business, as well as scenes from a trip to Martinique. The Tahitian women came later.
 
Through the promotion of an art dealer friend of his, Gauguin’s work gradually gained in popularity, and eventually he was able to fund a trip to Tahiti, where he became involved in local affairs there, and found himself a Tahitian wife. This is the part that most closely resembles the myth, for he was still married to his wife back in Paris. Contrary to the myth of his abruptly abandoning the family, their relationship was fraught for a long time, and in fact Mette, his wife, asked him to leave because he had abandoned their values.  A biography of Gauguin,  Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life, paints a more explicit picture: Letters and other documents reveal that he was in fact a brutal man who physically abused Mette.  It seems she had good reason to send him away.
 
Later he became friends with Vincent Van Gogh, and their friendship lasted for many years. There were signs of Van Gogh’s impending troubles with insanity; in 1888 Van Gogh confronted his friend with a razor, after which Gauguin decided to move out of the flat they were sharing. In 1890 Van Gogh sliced off his left ear and handed it to a prostitute they both knew, with a note saying “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.” Both men employed this particular lady.
While in Tahiti, his output of paintings, pastels, and wood carvings increased, but he had only moderate success selling the works back in Paris.  A contentious sort of fellow, he quarreled with local officials controlling Tahiti, generally expressing disapproval of the Colonial government, although he did not particularly support local causes on behalf of the native population.
 Among his projects was a travelogue, “Noa Noa,” in which he reveals that he took a thirteen-year-old girl, Teha’amana, as his wife, who was featured in several of his paintings.  Whatever you might think of his choosing such a young girl, it should be noted here that he was still married to his wife, Mette, at the time, although they were estranged.
 Although I am fairly certain that I would not want to have met Gauguin, based on the more unsavory details of his life, I think that, looking around us here on Bora Bora, he accurately captured the essence of the local people and life here.  The faces, the skin, but also the attitude is all there. Paradise is a state of mind as much as it is a place.
Woman with a Flower

Lovers of Leaving: Traveling Styles

Over the course of nearly four months, we have traveled in thirteen different countries, and we have traveled by plane, bus, train, rental car, underground train, overhead tramway, and of course, our own feet.  One aspect of all this traveling is the physical act of getting up and leaving the place where we currently have our stuff, and getting ourselves and our belongings transported to another place.  And by now we have it down to a routine — more or less. The night before, depending on how early we have to check out, I perform a few preliminary steps:

  • Open closets and pull any clothes off their hangers;
  • Consolidate the many bottles of shampoo and shower gel, and place them in the shaving kit;
  • Put away all miscellaneous electronics, including adapters, USB cords, and power cables, and have them ready to pack up the next day, when phones are disconnected from the charger;
  • Fold and pack any clothes that were taken out for the present hotel room / Airbnb / whatever space we have occupied, and carefully layer them into our respective bags;
  • Decide which food items we will bring.  I like to pack a bag of granola or muesli that can be eaten for breakfast, plus a few fruits.  Weight is a consideration when it comes to items placed in the bags that will be checked, but we can carry quite a bit in a backpack for the purpose.

On the morning of check-out:

  • Find a place to deposit miscellaneous small change, especially if we are traveling to a country where a different currency is used.  I generally pour these into a spare pocket of the shaving kit;
  • Jam shaving kit into the bag;
  • Place Patrice’s toiletries bag into my bag, trying not to crush it (notice I am more careful with her stuff);
  • Close up our respective bags;
  • On second thought, remove some of the smaller change from the shaving kit, and place in the room someplace (the bags often get overweight due to this stuff);
  • Close the bag;
  • Remember that I have not yet packed the miscellaneous electronics, and swiftly reopen and re-close my bag;
  • Hope that the zipper holds up when I close my suitcase — every time;
  • Roll out the door.  Wait! Take one more peek under the bed, in the bathroom, or wherever there are likely to be belongings hidden away.

(Side-note:  Patrice claims that she can pack in ten minutes.  That is her super power.)

While the routine is much the same, the space we occupy adds a special challenge.  I am what I would describe as a “geographic” type of organizer:  I need to have my shaving kit, Kindle, smartphone, etc.,  kept in the “same” place, so I don’t lose them.  See the challenge here?  Every rental space is layed out a little differently, and it takes about a week for me to get used to where things are — just in time to move again…

Every city is different and has its own climate, and every temporary living quarters, whether an Airbnb, a freebie from friends (rare, but welcome), or a fancy hotel (equally rare, and usually in reaction to issues where we lived previously), has its own personality. One recent place, in Singapore, was fairly small, with a very minimalist kitchen, and an enormous bed that took up fully a third of the entire place. But on the other hand, affordable food places were readily available, and the condo complex that it was part of had three gyms (one women-only, one men-only, one coed), plus a huge outdoor swimming pool.  There were inviting outdoor spots where you could enjoy the cooler air in the evening and watch kids having a swimming lesson.   We stayed over Halloween, and were entertained by a little costume party for little kids, as they excitedly flitted this way and that in their costumes.  The concept seems to be that people tolerate a small footprint in terms of personal living space, but the common space is generous and very actively used by the membership. It made me think about the big, wasteful homes I have lived in for the past few years.

With rare exceptions, we have found something to like about each of the spaces we’ve traveled to.  Amsterdam had a great, roomy kitchen, and the hosts had left us a number of yummy snacks to tide us over while we got used to the neighborhood. Florence had a nice, long table that could double as work area and dining place.  Singapore, besides the wonderful pool, had a bathroom scale, which we used to weigh our bags.  Most airlines were allowing no more than 20 kg per bag, or for two people traveling together, a total of 40 kg.  Sydney had, among other things, an actual overstuffed couch that was so comfortable we would sometimes stay there for hours.  That was a rare treat after many hard sitting surfaces in other spots.

One characteristic of all the places we have stayed is that they are temporary; as “lovers of leaving” we somehow look forward to the next place, the next experience.  Truth be told, some of us like the leaving more than others.  😉

The last phase of this trip will be to pick out a place (or several places) in which we plan to stay for at least six months, before we decide where to settle “forever.”  I confess I am looking forward to that, so at least I’ll know where my Kindle is.

Bikes… So Many Bikes!

On our first afternoon in Amsterdam, I took a walk down Marnixstraat, where our hotel is located, and I saw a large group of bikers going down the street.  My first thought was that it was a bike club traveling through the city, but then I took a look around, and saw bikes rolling up and down the roads everywhere.  Everywhere in their designated area, that is. Wherever you go, there is a serious, well-marked bike path on both sides of the street.  Riders stream by, heads held high, all the while casually smoking, eating, or checking social media on their phones, with their hair streaming along behind them.  No one wears a helmet.

The idea of a bike path does suggest a safe, controlled environment, but it is not quite as simple and orderly as that. At times the sidewalk is fair game, too.  I noticed a woman on her bike a couple of feet away, trying to  position herself with her companions, who were located up the street from where she was.  But in order to get there on the bike path, she would have had to cross the busy street, ride a few yards down, then cross back to her companions.  So she ran her bike slowly toward us, front wheel wobbling from side to side, looking like she might knock someone down at any moment. But passersby hardly looked up. The constant presence of bikers is simply a fact of life here.

According to the website iamsterdam.com, there are an estimated 800,000 bicycles in the city, and 63 percent of Amsterdammers use their bike every day. The site 13 Fun Facts about Bicycles in Amsterdam estimates that combined, Amsterdammers “bicycle about two million kilometers every day”.

Bicycles really dominate the traffic here, in terms of sheer numbers alone, but  there are also special protections afforded cyclists by local statutes.   According to one local resident I spoke to, bicycles have the right of way over pedestrians.  I have not checked the books to verify this claim, but what I have observed bears this out. If you cross the street, you’re as likely to be surprised by a speeding bicycle coming out of nowhere as you are by an automobile or a tramway car.  They swarm around motor vehicles, ride over the tramway tracks, and jet across the sidewalk as necessary to get to where they want to go.  More than one Uber driver we hired has made soft clucking sounds — or more audible sounds resembling swear words — when a bike suddenly darted in front of us.   You may appreciate why we have chosen not to drive in this city.

A bicycle parking area is a sight to behold.   Bikes, sometimes on multiple levels, are crammed a few inches apart, hundreds of bikes in a single rack, and you wonder how you would ever find your bike in this mess. There are around 250,000 racks in public parking spaces alone (more in private areas), and if you ride around town, you will need to deal with these.  The sight of these racks is a little like the racks at a ski lodge, where everybody props their skis and poles before running into the lodge for lunch.

Incidentally, bicycle theft is a thing in this city:  in 2014, a grand total of 9,616 bikes were reported stolen, which works out to 26 a day.  The local residents I talked to speak about it casually, as an inevitable consequence of bicycling’s popularity.  Part of that is a kind of pragmatism that is characteristic of Amsterdammers:  if you want to bike, protect it or expect it to be stolen.  And as always they go, hair blowing behind them as they ride swiftly away. 

Where are we?

Lots of people are asking us where we’ve been and where we’re going.  So here’s a rundown of places we’ve stopped in to date:

IRELAND

Dublin – July 17-21

Killarney – July 21-26

Doolin – July 26-28

Sligo – July 28-29

Galway – July 29-August 2

 

SCOTLAND 

Edinburgh – August 2-14

Leslie (Insch) – August 14-16

Aberdeen – August 16-20

ENGLAND

London – August 20-23

FRANCE

Paris – August 23-26 (For Patrice’s birthday!)

LeMans – August 26-28

Parce sur Sarthe – August 28-September 1

BELGIUM

Brussels – September 1-4

NETHERLANDS

Amsterdam – September 4-11

GERMANY 

Berlin – September 11-19

UPCOMING

AUSTRIA

Vienna – September 19-25

ITALY

Florence – September 25-30

Rome – September 30-October 2

THAILAND

Bangkok

VIETNAM

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

SINGAPORE

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

TAHITI

USA! (CALIFORNIA)

HAWAII

 

Restaurants, Tipping and Other Hidden Treasures

There have been many words written on this topic, some of them useful, but as with so many other aspects of getting along in the world (never mind on a trip abroad), there are subtleties and exceptions, and this is particularly true of the experience of eating in restaurants.

First, let’s look at restaurants from the perspective of an American:  When I walk into a restaurant in the U.S. and am escorted to a table, fairly soon afterward a server walks over an introduces her- or himself, saying something like “Hello, my name is Jake, and I’ll be taking care of you today.”  From that moment, you know that your server is eager to earn their tip, and will do his or her best to do so.

The main thing about restaurants (and other institutions) in the U.S. is that service workers rely on tips.  Everyone who eats in restaurants or rides in taxicabs learns this.  So, during your meal, the server is going to swing by and ask, “How is everything?  Do you need another beer there?” This is to make sure no one is unhappy, but it’s also your server’s way of reminding you that you are receiving special service, and it should be rewarded.  In monetary terms, this generally means that, at the end of the meal, the server will expect to see a 20 percent tip.  Anything less and they will wonder either (a) what went wrong? or (b) what kind of jerk leaves me less than 20 percent?

Now, let’s compare that with restaurants in Europe.   The experience of eating in a restaurant there is different, and takes a little getting used to.  When we walk in and sit down, it may take a few minutes for a server to come by and notice me.  And once the server comes over, I am greeted with a sincere smile, and no high-octane greeting like “Hi, I am Tiffany…”  The server may ask, “Where are you from?” since it will be obvious that we are Americans.  Further, once I give my order, it may take a while.  From the over-programmed, task-oriented perspective of an American, this may look like poor service, and we may even mutter “this is ridiculous” while waiting for our cappuccino and tart to arrive.

The food finally arrives, and we dig into our food.   Then, after we have cleared our plates, we begin looking for the server to bring the check.  But very possibly, the server has busied him- or herself on other customers, or may even be seen taking a break.

Let’s broaden our view of this European scene. Look around, and you will likely see other customers lingering over the empty plates, talking, laughing, maybe having a cigarette (typically only if they are dining outside).  In short, European customers, especially those who are on holiday, are in no hurry.  After all, that’s what holidays are for, right?  You may see a group of several people seated around a table, everyone talking at once, and no one looking at a phone or watch.  Holidays are family occasions, and families are people you hang out with, not some people you avoid contact with except at Christmas or Thanksgiving.  A U.S. couple seated nearby, meanwhile, has a pile of brochures spread on the table, and they are trying to figure out how to see everything before the end of the day.  There is a grim expression on the husband’s face, as he consults messages on his iPhone.  Does he even notice where he is?  Could he describe this place to someone in a meaningful way?

If this is a half-decent place, service will be quite satisfactory, in that pains are taken to make sure the customer is happy with her meal.  The server is friendly (in a sincere and attentive way), and even more importantly, the food is excellent and fresh; unlike most of what you’ve experienced back home.  And there is a hidden benefit:  we are not whisked out of the place by a management that wants to get the next customer quickly into our chair.  We are free to sit, and talk, and enjoy, for as long as we wish.  If there is WiFi, we could check online, work on that memoir we’ve been meaning to get around to.  But here’s a thought:  put away the iPhone, look up, and have a conversation with your partner.

My point in all this is that what we view as “neglect” or “indifferent service” is just a reflection of a philosophy of life:  enjoy the moment, breathe in the freedom from jobs, from deadlines.  Enjoy your family.  And for heaven’s sake, try to avoid seeing your vacation as a to-do list of must-see’s.  You are not required to do anything, by anyone.  (Read that sentence over a few times; it can’t hurt.) No one will quiz you on the sights you managed to find time for. It’s that simple.  Just think about what would make you happy, and do that.

Now as to tipping in Europe:  there is no hard and fast rule, but generally a 10 percent tip is considered quite satisfactory, and not by any means required.  Working as wait staff in a good restaurant is considered an honorable occupation, something to take pride in.  Tips are not expected.  Emigre friends of ours suggested that in the classier places, it is considered dishonorable to receive a tip.

This does not mean that there are not servers out there working their tails off, in hopes of getting a nice tip from a rich American.  (We’re all rich, right?) It’s so difficult to generalize about these things.  But you can’t go wrong if you remember to relax, watch what people around you do, and above all, take the time to enjoy.

Paris, Traffic, and Pedestrians — the Ballet

In Paris, we got around either by cab, Uber or foot.  In any city, there are streets marked with designated crossing areas, with a series of signals (auditory for blind pedestrians), and strict regulations on drivers.  Clear lines of demarcation for anything moving through the busy streets, and all very orderly.

In both London and Paris, we have noticed, the lines are a bit blurred:  there are situations when vehicles can ease through an intersection as it changes, but more often the rules are bent by the pedestrians.  There seems to be an attitude among local pedestrians that they can come and go when and how they please.  It is not uncommon to see a young man or woman scanning their phones, head down, walking directly into the street, without so much as a glance to see if an automobile or lorry (truck) is heading their way.  On a couple of occasions when we have chosen a taxi, we heard the driver mutter under his/her breath words to the effect of, “What the *&*^%%$## do you think you’re doing, idiot???”

August 24 was Patrice’s Sweet Sixteen birthday (or somewhere in that vicinity, maybe something with sixty-two in it), so she got to do whatever she liked.  (As far as I am concerned, every day should be like one’s birthday, so this is a mere formality.) So, the birthday girl got to spent the day wandering to and inside of Notre Dame, and that evening we went to a nice place for dinner, a place recommended by a local friend, called Brasserie Bofinger (pronounced something like “Bo-fahn-ZCHAY”, not like the 1999 Eddie Murphy film), which is known for its Alsatian fare.  The walk to Notre Dame and back burned quite a few of our calories and left our feet pretty tired, so the natural thing to do was to take an Uber to the restaurant.  Our driver, Mohamed, took us briskly to the place.  (I suspect that he wanted to get us there quickly, as this was not a large fare and he wanted to get in the queue for his next fare.)  We approached an intersection where the light was green, and at the corner a young couple approached, and the woman stepped out confidently.  He slammed on the brakes, and there followed a rapid exchange between Mohamed and the young lady, the essence of which was “You had a red.  Why did you cross in front of me?  Do you not value your life?”   (hands gesticulating expressively)  She, in her confident way, assured him that she, not he, had the green, and that he should be more careful (hands thrown up in exasperation).  The conversation concluded quickly with him offering his hand in a gesture of friendship, while the young man who accompanied the woman looked on, shaking his head and smiling, as if to say, “Oh, this is nothing.  You should have seen her yesterday…”

Later, we spent time in Le Mans, a much smaller city, which practically shuts down during the month of August.  Thus, we didn’t see anything like typical traffic. (Sunday was ver-r-r-r-y quiet, and after 5:00 they start putting the oxygen away till Monday morning. ) But what traffic there was, was calmly ignored by pedestrians.  Luckily for the pedestrians, motorized vehicles are careful here in Le Mans as in Paris to look out for people walking in their way, and no walker as much as gives a merci beaucoup wave.  The first couple of times that someone stopped, waiting for us to cross, I gave a wave, as I usually do.  But it became clear that this is simply expected, and what’s more, you are expected to be completely cool about walking out in front of traffic.  Don’t be gauche, signaling your gratitude.  I compare it to Japanese men eating fugu.

By the way, the Uber service in Paris is excellent.  We took three rides, and in all cases the car appeared as if by magic, so quickly that I didn’t actually believe it was my ride, and our drivers were professional and polite, even if their English was far from perfect, giving Patrice a chance to practice her French.  Uber is safe, quick, and totally prepackaged, meaning that tips are completely optional.  In contrast, I would almost never take a traditional taxicab without leaving some kind of tip.  The remuneration for Uber drivers is different from that of taxi drivers, and a driver who even hints at wanting to be tipped is extremely rare.

Incidentally, in a separate post I tell of one bad experience with a London cab.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have had lots of wonderful rides with both ‘official’ taxis and Uber.  Every ride is a unique experience.

The Old Bumpity-Bump

(Note to the reader: the following is a lovely, harrowing tale, but do not be deceived by the unusual title.  It’s probably not what you think.)

Our tale begins in London… actually, at the end of our London visit.  We stayed in a Premier Inn located near County Hall.  (Nice location, but Worst WiFi Ever.)  We wanted to get to Saint Pancras train station, so we could pick up the shuttle to London Luton Airport to take a flight to Paris.  We wanted to avoid hauling our luggage up and down stairs as much as possible.  This is essential for us, since we travel with about as much luggage as a symphony orchestra plus a couple of soccer teams, with a handful of bicycles thrown in for good measure. The nearest underground to us, Waterloo Station, could take us there, but it is quite old and badly in need of an upgrade, which means NO ramps!!!  Just bumpity-bump up and down steps all the way.  

To avoid stress, we hailed a taxi, and told him to take us to Saint Pancras train station.  (It’s worth noting that for a long time I could not help calling this station Saint Pancreas.) Inside the taxi was the usual unsmiling mug shot of the driver, plus all sorts of signs explaining how much training London taxi drivers must receive before they are allowed on the road, and how they are tested on hundreds of locations and over 20,000 streets.  Apparently our driver must have fudged his exam for this particular part of town, because of what happened next.  He brought us to the Saint Pancras station, and I was about to hand the driver his fare, when he suddenly got a flash of insight.  He said, “Really, you need the Charing Cross Saint Pancras station; people get that confused.”  So he whisked us off a few blocks away to another station, and dropped us off.  So here we were, bags in tow.  We stepped into the station, which, it turns out, was strictly an Underground station, and not the one we needed to find the train to the airport.

We looked at each other, shrugged, and I hauled out my phone and asked Google Maps to get us to the station, and it did as it sometimes does, issuing instructions that no human can follow.  (The extreme logic of Google Maps is another topic, which I will cover in a future post.)  We ended up following a couple of local people’s directions, which proved slightly more useful and less confusing.  Patrice very kindly performed this chore, since hearing on a busy street for me is a bit of a challenge.  Eventually, we got to the correct station, purchased our tickets, and set off downstairs to the track.  By this time, our generous margin of error had been reduced to a thinnish line, enough to get us to the Luton airport in time for the flight, but not as much as we had hoped.  On the way, we had to lift our heavy bags, the very act we had been trying to avoid, as we went down a couple of flights of stairs.  (That’s right, the old bumpity-bump.)  I’m sure that the effort we expend while schlepping these bags around would qualify as the U.S. Marine Physical Fitness Regimen.

And speaking of going up and down, here are shots of the London Eye, best described as a Ferris Wheel for adults, which very, very slowly presents a 360-degree view of the Thames and surrounding areas around London.  The Eye was right next door to our hotel, as was a Starbucks.

Living on the Outside

Now it’s time to talk about a question that we sometimes get from people who meet us when we travel:  What’s it really like, traveling from place to place, being away from home (and in our case, not having a “home” that we own at all)?

The short answer is, Great.  It’s really great to travel to different places, meet different people, see a lot of wonderful sights.  The longer answer is that it’s a bit complicated. We do enjoy the change of scenery, the many choices we have, the element of chance that always has the potential to spice up our lives — or, in some cases, throw a monkey wrench in our plans.

It can actually be a bit intimidating, to have all these choices.  For example, when we started planning where we wanted to end up after Scotland, first we had to decide where we want to go next — Paris, Rennes, London? Do we stay at an AirBnB, a hotel, or what… and for how long?  How many floors does the place have?  (Richard does not like to carry his 50 lb. bag up too many flights.) How many nights do we want to stay in Aberdeen where we happen to be at the moment, before we take off?

So many questions to be answered.

What shall I do in the morning when we get up?  When should I get up?  When is breakfast? What day is it, anyway? Is it time for another of my famous naps?  (Patrice estimates that I had five naps between Wednesday and Thursday, or was it Thursday and Friday?)

Actually, in between naps we have been doing quite a bit — researching, writing, and publishing blog posts and pictures, and occasionally taking time to do necessary chores.  And I make it my business to check out the surrounding countryside, whatever it might be.  Yesterday I stepped out of our Doubletree Hotel, which is located close to Aberdeen’s coast, and took a five-minute walk.  I was greeted with this view:

It felt like I had just stumbled into Heaven, and I did what I will likely do when I reach that place, should it actually exist:  I took off my shoes and socks, hung them over my shoulder by the laces, and immediately set off down the beach, soaking in the sunshine.  Around me, mothers in dress clothing enjoyed the serendipity, and watched their toddlers run gleefully up and down on the sand, playing chicken with the waves, while whole families gathered for impromptu picnics, right on the sand, without even bothering to lay a blanket.  Finally, I started hearing the tune to “Dancing Cheek-to-Cheek” in my head.  That’s the one that goes:

Heaven, I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.

Oddly, no adults were in the water, and no one was actually swimming.  Wondering why, I approached a man who held the hand of a bouncy child eager to get splashy with the waves.  

“I think it has to do with the riptides,” he said after a moment’s thought.  (His thick Scots accent cannot easily be conveyed here, and is another topic altogether, perhaps the subject of another blog post.)

It happened that this particular day was a gift, because the very next day, Mother Nature gave us an opportunity to appreciate this sunny visit to the sand by turning cold and rainy.  It’s all good, although personally I would take the sunshine over the other stuff.

Then there is the whole aspect of travel and lodgings.  When planning this trip, we made a conscious decision to leave our travel arrangements very loose: we knew we wanted to spend some time in Ireland, spend some time in Scotland, then spend some time elsewhere in Europe, but we have no detailed itinerary; some might say no itinerary at all.  Tickets to France or the Netherlands have not yet been purchased, but we have a general (again, some would say vague) idea of where we are going, and when.  Occasionally we will have a conversation that goes something like this:  Gee, Honey, we need to figure out where we will be staying in France, and decide whether we want to take trains and ferries across the Chunnel, or just fly there.

We have worked out a relaxed approach to getting where we want to go:  when we know we will spend a lot of time in one place, as we did in Edinburgh, we generally look for an AirBnB. Staying in an AirBnB apartment is a rarified mix of all-the-comforts-of-home and something-out-of-the-ordinary.   All kinds of people rent out their living spaces, in many cases their own homes, and in the process visitors get to meet some of the most fascinating and possibly the nicest people on the planet.  Whether the place you rent is just like the home you left behind, or not, there is a real person behind the space, and the act of communicating with them, and frequently meeting them in person, adds a dimension of something other than mere comfort or convenience.  A stay at an AirBnB  can be way more rewarding and interesting than staying in a faceless room in some anonymous hotel with garish carpets and clunky furniture.

It has to be said that hotels have a lot of attributes themselves.  Price, for one.  The hotel where we are now costs half of what we paid for our last AirBnB.  Free and reliable WiFi, is another.  We have been staying at a Doubletree Hilton in Aberdeen for a few days, catching up on paperwork, correspondence, etc.  Prior to Aberdeen, we stayed at Leslie Castle (see earlier post), which despite its many charms, lacked even the most feeble internet signal; even the cell service failed to penetrate the thick walls.  I know people will tell you how wonderful it is to get “off the grid,” but I’m still looking for my own personal reason to prefer off-grid living. Even a few days without any internet feels like punishment.  Call that extreme, but that’s how I roll.

Every AirBnB has its own rules.  The lady from one potential Paris flat we looked at had this in her Rules:  “Please be careful of my luster, and don’t touch the heater. ” Not sure why anyone would mess with her luster, and whether after disturbing the luster, people tend to move on to mucking with the heater? Almost worth renting the place just to find out.

Food is a whole other topic.  It’s really phenomenal how everyone here in Europe thinks seriously about food.  No sloughing off on the food.  In a month, I had exactly one bad meal; ironically, on my last day in Edinburgh. Bad falafel.  Which serves me right; it isn’t even typical Scottish food.  But one caveat:  the traveler should be careful of over-indulging in rich food, and for that matter, over-spending.  It is very easy to fall into the habit of eating out in a nice restaurant every night, as we started doing for a while in Edinburgh.  We stopped that with the purchase of a few items at a local convenience store, including fresh fruit, which often is lacking in restaurant fare.  A single box of Alpen cereal and a packet of Activa yogurts kept me in breakfast for over a week.

When you travel for a long time, you will need to wash clothes, unless you have more money than God and can just buy new every few days.  AirBnB will tell you whether a place has a washing machine, and in Europe we have found that they tend to be combo washer/dryers, which have a single drum that doubles as the dryer.  You put in dirty clothes, and a few hours later (it takes quite a long time), you pull out clean, fluffy clothes.  Magic!  Well, not quite:  we find that often you need to add more than one extra dryer cycle before you are done.   The trick with these is to put a modest amount of laundry in.  The tendency for us Americans with high-power dryers is to stuff.  What happens if you do that with combo dryers is that it will run endlessly.  Less is better.

Happiness is having clean clothes.  To paraphrase the good book, Blessed is he who is pure of heart and clean of sock. And now, a little music…

Baron of Leslie Castle

Following Edinburgh, we sat down and decided what we would like to do next.  We looked at the map of Scotland, and ended up choosing a visit to Leslie Castle, to claim my birthright and take up my new duties as Baron of Leslie.

Leslie Castle from afar.

Conveniently, Leslie Castle is a B&B, so we booked a room (“the Leslie Room”) and headed north by train to the nearest stop on the ScotRail network, actually the nearest town, full stop — the village of Insch (population 2,282) — and got a cab to the castle.  A woman got off the train with us, and asked if she could use our phone to call her husband.  I looked at her and immediately decided that this person could be trusted not to run off with my phone, so I handed it to her.

We got a taxi to take us to the castle, and drop us at the door.  The entire experience of entering the castle had all the earmarks of a Hollywood cliché:  there was a massive, black door, and nothing that looked like a doorbell, so we pushed it open. If you listened closely, you might hear an eerie creak.  Inside, no office, no front desk, no smiling hoteliers to greet us.  Just an empty vestibule and a circular stair.  We climbed, calling out “Hel-l-l-l-l-l-o!  Is anybody there???”  After a while we heard a voice from above us, “Hello????” and eventually we were greeted by a woman with her hair wrapped in a towel.  “Hello, what are you doing in my house, and who are you???” It turns out that there is a doorbell out front, but you work it by pulling a long chain, much like the bell rope that one pulls to call Igor, the manservant of Count Drac.  I really expected Igor (pronounced “eye-gore”) to appear at the door and say, “No one is home… go away before it is too late!”

So, no Igor, no Drac.  Just a nice lady to whom we gave a little fright, because she was not expecting us till later.  She had a most charming way of speaking, especially when there was an opportunity for drama.  “Oh… you are the American Leslie’s, and you want the Leslie Room…”  She then told us that there was a Rob Leslie already there, with his wife, from Australia.  Soon we met Zeus, a fast-moving doberman, a noble beast, who came running in bellowing protectively at these strangers who had invaded his house.

The Hollywood stereotype continued, as we ascended the many stair landings of the castle.  Our room, a grand space with a canopy bed and turret windows, resembled the accommodations in Frankenstein Castle, where Igor says, “The Master hopes you will be comfortable here tonight.  Just be sure not to wander about the castle at night.  One never knows what one might encounter.”  But we had no fear of goblins or other beasties at night.  In fact, on our last night there we gave a little farewell and thank-you concert in the Baronial Hall, because it has such a lovely resonance.  After our singing selections (‘Dona nobis pacem’, ‘If Ever I would Leave You’ and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ ), we were treated to fine, single malt Scotch whiskey.

One thing we discovered here was the solid, sincere decency of the people in rural Scotland.  On our last evening at the castle, we decided to go to the only sit-down restaurant in Insch, and walking down the main street, we passed perfect strangers who enthusiastically greeted us as if we were neighbors.  It’s a bit of a cultural shock after living in the big city of Edinburgh, but it was a welcome change.  After our visit to the castle, we hopped on a train to Aberdeen, and booked a room in the Doubletree Hilton in town.  We had a wonderful dinner in the restaurant associated with the hotel — Footdee’s, it’s called — and had a nice conversation with our server, Kayleigh, who hearing of our travel plans resolved to take her own trip soon.  Everywhere we go we have wonderful conversations with everyone we talk to.  It really is quite amazing.

 

 

What Now???

So last night I was eating some baklava for dessert when c-r-u-n-c-h .. a tooth popped out.  Ack! This is a side of my mouth where another tooth has vacated in recent years, and a bit of a surprise.  And it happens to be the right side of my mouth.  If you were paying attention, you will remember that it is my right ear that has been giving me trouble.  I mean, is it a coincidence that this is the same side of my head that currently hears about 10% of what it once did?  Or is the right side of my body taking off on a vacation? Stay tuned.

This is my way of dealing with this latest example of things falling apart on this old frame.  What is one to make of it?

In a way, losing teeth is just a matter of parts wearing out.  Teeth are the closest to a purely mechanical part that we have on our bodies.  But like tummy aches and fevers, that affect our appetite, bad teeth affect our ability to eat.  This little setback makes me realize how much I enjoy eating.  Virginia Woolf summed up my feelings on the subject when she said “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, unless one has dined well.”  I mean, this is serious!

My favorite food quote is from the sci-fi writer Douglas Adams:  “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?’”

Today we ate at a wonderful, hidden watering hole in Edinburgh:  the Tea Room at Edinburgh Castle.  The Castle is a vast, slanty stone structure which offers visitors far too much surface to clamber over, in my opinion.  But there is a little door on the site of the castle that one can walk through and suddenly find oneself comfortable and level, and more important, find oneself a lovely meal.

We entered, gave our names to a receptionist, who then thanked us and told us to return in 15 minutes, which we did.  We were seated, and then told by a server that unfortunately, none of the food items could be ordered, due to a delay in the kitchen.  We were, however, free to order any drinks or desserts, so we ordered a pear-ginger-apple cake and elderberry-lemon tea for Patrice, and Edinburgh Castle Ale and and a double chocolate cake for Richard.

So here’s where the tooth problem comes in:  I had to very carefully confine my chewing to the left side of my mouth.  This is a little like taking a nice walk but having to do it as part of a sack race, with your right leg tied to some stranger walking alongside you.  “It’s a nice day for a walk, … er, say, would you mind keeping up?” With the current state of my dental situation as of right now, biting down on that side gives me the equivalent of a jolt of electricity, combined with the sensation of a Vice Grips around my jaw.  Ouch!   But, you see, I like to eat and there is all this delicious stuff to eat.

It turns out the  ban on ordering entrees was temporary, for the server then told us to go ahead and order, which we did.  Ordinarily, when we dine, Patrice and I share a dessert, ordering it with two spoons, and I just have a coffee.  The temporary ban caused us to order more food than usual, and I broke with my usual practice of not ordering alcohol before 6:00 p.m. It was all so much food.  But we survived.  The irony was the limited equipment I had to enjoy it.

After lunch, we crawled home to our flat, and I headed to a dentist appointment a few minutes away. Tomorrow I will have some work done on the tooth, so I can at least attempt to eat without pain.

The Richness of Time

When did you start racing through life?

When your mom told you to hurry up and get ready for school?  When you had to get that report written stat for your new boss?  When you took the kids to Disney World and managed to hustle them, whining, onto one more ride… just so you’d get your money’s worth out of those expensive tickets?

Well, this is not like that.

Going on this projected nine month — nine MONTH! — trip has given me a whole new perspective on time.  We aren’t having an “If This Is Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” experience here. We’re having a three-or-four-weeks-for-each-country, what-would-we-have-fun-doing-next, darling? kind of trip.

We have the relaxed joy of having enough days and weeks and months to savor the trip.  How often does that come along in life?  It certainly makes the journey very different.

Just yesterday we had a grand time performing our Great American Songbook cabaret as part of the Festival Fringe, and because of the energy it takes to get up in front of a crowd and sing (not to mention amuse them between songs with charming patter) we were both feeling depleted today.  So we didn’t push ourselves.  We didn’t have to!

We lolled around in the morning enjoying the fact that there was no alarm to wake up to.  Then we wandered over to the church where we sang to set up a rehearsal with the accompanist for the service we’re leading next Sunday. Afterward, we walked along the Royal Mile, stopping to watch buskers as they entertained the crowds, popping into the spectacular St. Giles’ Cathedral to ooh and ah over the stained glass windows, and eating dinner at Angels with Bagpipes, a restaurant with the most scrumptiously delicious mascarpone I’ve ever tasted.  Yum.

Such a fantastic abundance!  It’s almost obscene.  To have this absence of time pressure is amazing.  And rare.

Remember when you were a kid and all summer stretched out before you, so ripe and full of sunshiny hours to come that you couldn’t see the end of it?

Well, this is like that.

I wish you all a day, a week, a month, a year with such an indulgent richness of time.

 

The Hearing Thing – an Update

Toward the end of July, and as it happened, also toward the end of our visit to Ireland, the hearing in my right ear started to diminish, and within hours I had basically no hearing at all in that ear. It was very strange.  And along with that, I noticed that when changing from a horizontal to a vertical position, or vice versa, I felt dizzy.  This has something to do with the fluids that regulate equilibrium.  Mornings when I first rose from bed were most noticeable.  It usually took an hour or more before I was able to navigate comfortably without nausea.

As soon as this cropped up, we found a clinic in Galway that specializes in weekend hours, and had an exam from a very thorough and very approachable G.P., Dr. Mary McGarry.  She got me referred to a local ENT in Galway.

Under the care of the ENT specialist, I was given a hearing test and MRI. The hearing test indicated normal hearing in the left ear (slight hearing loss – normal for someone my age), and in the right ear, moderate to profound hearing loss, depending on the frequency of sounds.  The MRI, I was told, was “completely normal,” and I am still waiting to hear back from the ENT clinic as to just what ‘normal’ means in terms of this condition.  The ENT also used the term “nerve damage” to describe what happened.  This was a bit of a surprise, since I had assumed it was merely a blockage caused by excessive fluid.  This is apparently not the case.  And would it help to point out that I didn’t order this??

The ENT put me on a 10-day treatment of steroids, which is just about finished.  My hearing has returned just slightly since the beginning of the treatment.

In addition, each day Patrice and I conduct an informal hearing test, in which she speaks in each ear at normal volume, to see if there is any change in the right’s ability to pick up sound.  The procedure is simply to plug the other ear, and listen to Patrice’s voice.  So far, the results have varied with (a) the time of day, and (b) how tired I am.  Because hearing is a rather complicated thing: we not only receive sounds, but we interpret and parse them.  When hearing is very faint, as it is with the right now, I have to concentrate more to distinguish what is being said.

This weekend we did our big performance at the Festival Fringe, and it was fascinating to be able to do what I have been doing all of my life — singing and playing trumpet — but basically with only one ear.  My friend and voice teacher John Macurdy has always told me that we singers don’t really hear ourselves the way an audience would, and it certainly is true in my case.  Patrice has assured me that not only did I sound OK, she says the trumpet playing is as good as it has ever been!

But performing like this takes its toll.  It takes extra energy to do the trick of projecting the voice or horn, listening for cues from the accompanist, and keeping it all rolling.  Doing so with reduced hearing further complicates things.  At the end of the performance I was quite spent, and all I wanted to do was schlepp our stuff back to the flat, the trumpet case slung over my shoulder, backpack slung on my back, and umbrellas ready to unfurl.  After a good night’s rest, I was much improved; ready to do it all over again.  This year we did only one performance, but next year I feel we will want to do three or four, or ten.

The hearing thing is a constant presence.  When we walk through the streets of Edinburgh, I generally stand to Patrice’s right, the better to hear her.  Today I started testing my ability to hear with the bum ear, to encourage it to respond to improvements.  I find that higher frequencies come through better than lower, and when Patrice speaks in the right ear, there is a slight crackle, but I can hear most of what is being said.

It’s not certain what’s next at this point, as I have not heard back from the ENT’s office.

So how do I feel about all this?  I have managed to get through 67 years of life with very little contact with the medical profession, apart from the usual cold a couple of times a year, and the odd bump or scrape.  So it is a bit weird at this point, to have something rather significant come up.

What I will say at this point is stay “tuned” as this story unfolds.

Catch-a-Baby Road

While visiting Killarney, in Ireland, we stayed at a “B&B” of dubious distinction, located on Lewis Road, a busy thoroughfare on a slope that connects a residential area of town with the commercial district, and lots of American tourists were driving uncertainly up and down it in rented cars, probably a little faster than they should.  We traveled up and down this road many times during our visit, in all kinds of weather at all different times of the day.

One evening, as we were headed back to our room after dinner, we spotted a young family headed our way, or rather a mom and four children hurrying down the hill. They were apparently on their way to some event that involved bringing flowers, for each kid carried either a single flower or a sprig of a few blossoms as they rushed to keep up with Mom, whose shirt was flapping in the breeze as she pushed a stroller carrying a toddler.  The older kids walked alongside, the big brother next to his sister of about nine, and bringing up the rear was a little girl of about four or so, carrying a single rose, wearing colorful, plastic sandals.  She was skipping wildly, dodging the cracks in the sidewalk as kids do.  By this time we were quite close to her, and I was about to ask Mom what the flower event was all about, when it happened:  The little girl’s leg went out from under her, and down she went, sort of scraping the sidewalk on the way.  The shrieking started at a high pitch, and Mom turned, seeing her daughter go down.  She reacted quickly, letting the baby go, and spun around to catch her daughter’s arm, the shrieks continuing and getting louder.  The next thing I knew, I was holding the stroller with my feet, to keep it from rolling into the street, and the baby was staring up at me, a shocked expression on his face, lip trembling.  All I could think to say was “Oh, hello, there!  I’m a stranger, and will keep you safe,” and was again about to ask Mom about the flower festival, but the look of determination and exasperation on her face made me think better of it.  They continued on, as hurriedly as before, but Mom was holding the daughter in one hand and the stroller in the other.  Off they went.

On not turning to mush

Having made a radical shift in my lifestyle, I have the inevitable job of stepping back and reassessing my situation.  What am I doing? Why or why not?  Just who do I think I am? Explain.

First, I am the same person I was while working for Eppendorf in their Enfield, CT, facility, finishing up a 7-year stint as a back-office software specialist.  That job was the rather quiet conclusion to a long career as a software developer and consultant specializing in collaborative software, primarily utilizing Lotus Notes.  Writing Notes applications has kept me busy and fed my family for around 20 years, and allowed me to work for clients like MasterCard, Bayer AG, GE Capital, and FujiFilm.   I rode the Lotus Notes pony into the sunset, and on this last assignment, I helped put a few of Eppendorf’s Notes applications out to pasture, soon to be replaced by other software.  In any case, my part in Eppendorf’s destiny has ended for me.  Nothing dramatic, no weeping, or for that matter, shouts of joy. It’s just over.  Once in a while, one of my former colleagues may go, “Remember that guy Leslie?  He’s the one who was always pounding the desk and swearing at his computer.”  They might even remember to send me a friendly email once in a while.  It’s a little like the 2002 movie “About Schmidt,” starring Jack Nicholson, where Schmidt tells the much-younger office manager on his last day on the job, “So you’ll be sure to give me a call if you ever have a question, won’t you?” The manager says, “Oh, sure, sure we will,” and it’s clear that no such thing will ever happen.  So that’s where I am coming from.   I am no longer a cog in that particular machine.

So here is where the quiz comes in:  Which of these statements is correct?

  • I am retired.
  • I have stopped working.
  • I am out to pasture.

Retired…  First, I use the term “retired from my full-time job” to describe myself.  But I haven’t actually stopped working, I just choose which things to work on. Stopped working…  I have stopped doing the sort of work I did for Eppendorf, yes, but will continue working on what is important to us.  Three tasks are on my plate at the moment:

  • Contributing to this blog, and staying in readiness for our upcoming cabaret performance on 6 August, at St Marks Church, Edinburgh, at 3:30 p.m).  The latter involves doing quiet lip trills on the mouthpiece in hotel rooms — especially when there is other noise to disguise it!
  • Refreshing lyrics for songs we plan to sing.  And do the occasional vocalise when it won’t annoy people too much.  (Yeah, just up to the point where they are about to make a phone call to the front desk.)
  • The rest is dealing with the basics of ensuring that we have a bed to sleep in every night, enough diesel in the tank, and enough Euros in the wallet. This is worthy employment for what we are doing right now, and actually a lot more relevant than providing anonymous software support. Out to Pasture??  It should be clear that I am definitely not.  This  quaint term for “have become a useless, idle person” does not apply.

The real challenge, for me, is dealing with all the change in my status, my purpose, my life.  That is my real employment.  I tend to describe myself as being open to change, relishing new challenges, blah blah blah. But I have found that I have a very real limit to how intensive the change can be before I cry Wait!  Not so fast.   One day, I had a full-time job, and the next, I had left that job forever.  One day, we had a house in Connecticut, the next, we didn’t, and in fact we didn’t own any property at all!  Everything, including the cars, were shed to help us focus on this grand trip.  One day, I knew where all my stuff was (more or less), next day, no clue where most of it was.  (What we kept, is now stored in a 10 x 10 storage cage in Newington, CT.)   We are technically “homeless,” but not really; we just pick up our pallets and walk (actually drive or take public transportation) to the next stop in the journey.  And most importantly, we keep recording the particulars of what we discover, and whom we meet along the way. Just who do I think I am?  This is actually a serious question:  what is my new role in society?  Do I matter? Does what I do matter?  Am I doing something useful?  These are all actually trick questions, in that they usually come wrapped in the cloak of the Responsible Citizen, the Good Parent, the Reliable Employee.  Well guess what?? The cloak is flying off.  The answers to each of these is, respectively:  Let’s work out the answers  each day, and generally speaking, the short answers are Yes, Yes, and Yes.   It is far from clear how it will all pan out, but there is only one way to find out.

When I was a young college graduate, my dad retired at age 62.  My dad was a man of very regular habits, and retirement initially was stressful for him. He found himself without his familiar trappings, even though he looked forward to a new, relaxed phase.  His blood pressure shot up, and he drove my mom crazy fretting about every detail connected with selling their house in Ramsey, New Jersey, and moving into the new home they built on Cape Cod.  After a while, he calmed down, and my folks proceeded to have a wonderful retirement.   I have had similar moments in this post-retirement phase of my life, but more days than not, it feels right.

By the way, here’s an update on some of the minor successes we have achieved along the way:

  • I got used to driving on the weird side of the road, and haven’t crunched a single bumper, nor sheared off a single side mirror.  Many times on our drive from Killarney to Doolin, we had very narrow, country roads, and frequently had to pull way over to let lorries (trucks) and tractors by.  No sweat.
  • I got an Irish SIM card from Vodafone, the local wireless provider here in Ireland, and this has given us a very powerful tool in navigating through Ireland, allowing us to search for whatever we needed, and use Google Maps to guide us to our destination.  High five! Great success!  (Hopefully there are a few Borat fans left out there.)
  • Patrice found us suitable accommodations several times, with no more than a day’s advance calling ahead.   Flexibility is a wonderful thing, if you can deal with a little uncertainty, and have decent internet. (see previous bullet)

All suitable employment, and we have been well rewarded.

Driving wrong

We rented our first car today since arriving in Ireland July 17, having avoided using an automobile by taking buses or enjoying rides from local friends. But Ireland, while a relatively small country (32,599 square miles), is too big to navigate by bus alone.  Besides, we have plans to journey north to Sligo and Bundoran, where trains or buses simply aren’t practical.

Here’s the thing with renting a car in the British isles:  they drive on the wrong side of the road, and the driver even sits on the right side of the car.  So right away you have that emotional reaction, that “That’s just plain crazy” that occurs to you.  Intellectually, it’s a bit different.  Driving on the left, surprisingly, is easy to get used to, as we found out this afternoon.  We set out to find the entrance to a park, and ended up driving around a number of blocks, getting farther and farther away, eventually finding the gate, which was closed.  But it was good driving practice.  A Youtube clip we came across gave us a handy bit of advice when driving here:  Keep Left, Look Right.  So by the end of the afternoon, we had it down to a science.  It’s mostly a matter of raising your awareness of where the other cars are, and what the drivers are doing, which after all, is a pretty good thing to do when driving around boring old home.  (Have we mentioned that we don’t have one of those at the moment?  Read other blog entries for details.)

The real bugaboo, or rather two bugaboos (do bugaboos come in pairs?) are first, the great likelihood that if you rent a car here, you will get a manual transmission, because that is what folks drive here.  This is what drives the tour business: most tourists wanting to see the Ring of Kerry are frightened at the prospect of dealing with narrow, winding country roads, while trying to shift and clutch.  I confess that I was one of those frightened people.  We took our Ring bus tour a couple of days ago.   But, in a continuation of our amazing streak of luck, we managed to dodge this particular bullet: the rent-a-car guy at Budget told us categorically that we were likely to get a manual, but miraculously, he had an early return from a lady who decided to take that Ring of Kerry trip on the bus, so she didn’t need her car, which happened to have an automatic!!  Our luck has been phenomenal, that’s all there is to it.  Drinking enough Guinness warms the hearts of the locals so they take pity on us poor tourons.

The other bugaboo is fuel:  most vehicles here use diesel, and you must remember to put the right fuel in the tank. To add to the challenge, signs indicating diesel here are black, and petrol green, the direct opposite of the U.S.  I’ve never heard of anyone actually getting the wrong fuel into the tank, but the web sites about driving in Ireland that I checked before starting on our journey contain repeated warnings about the cost of having the tank drained and causing fatal damage to the engine, so I assume that it is occasionally a problem.

In the end, the real issue is not driving in a funny backwards land (did I mention they have red POTS and DLEIY signs at intersections?).  It’s all about dealing with the goofy drivers and goofier pedestrians.  People roll along, paying no attention to clueless people walking dreamily across the street, their guardian angels silently rolling their eyes.

-Richard

Where to lay our heads?

One of the challenges of planning as you go (or not planning, to be more accurate) is figuring out where to sleep each night.  So far, we’ve spent four nights in an AirBnB apartment in Dublin, one night in a hotel in Dublin, two nights in a so-called B&B in Killarney, and we spent last night in a hotel in Killarney.

Only one of those spots was reserved from back in Connecticut.

We’ve stayed in a number of AirBnB locations over the years, with great success.  The upside is that you usually have quite a bit of space, good privacy, and often a small kitchen.  In Europe, they sometimes have a washer/dryer as well.  AirBnB used to be a bargain, but as the service has gotten more popular, it is more expensive. The place we stayed at in Dublin was in an excellent location and had a comfy layout, but the bathroom sink drove me crazy.  The cold water faucet was just a trickle, and the hot water was too hot.  So we brushed our teeth in the kitchen.  The bathroom also had an old, loud fan that went on… and stayed on… every time you turned on the light.  Good thing Richard and I know each other well enough to leave the door open…

Also, the shower power was weak.  Oh, and the bed was bouncy and uncomfortable, and the pillows were shot.  That AirBnB rental cost about $163 per day.

We splurged and treated ourselves to a nice hotel the next night.  Which was in the middle of the Dublin city center, and quite nice, at 309 Euro.  A Euro is about equal to $1.16 these days, so that’s the equivalent of approximately $360.  Even there, the bed was small, though the pillows were better.  We were underwhelmed at twice the price.

The next two nights were spent in Killarney at a so-called B&B… which turned out not to include breakfast.  This room was so tiny we could only open one suitcase at a time.  Admittedly, we have big suitcases!  And a trumpet, and a big backpack with two laptops, and another day pack.  We’re planning to send home the trumpet after the performance in Edinburgh, and I might get rid of some clothes.  This is a lot to travel around with.  That little B&B room cost 129 Euros.

We switched last night to a really nice hotel called Killarney Towers.  120 Euros per night, and a huge bed and a nice shower.  Also a pool, which we made use of!  Of course, that leaves us with wet bathing suits this morning.  This is the best room so far, and a bargain at that.  They warned us about the noisy bar directly below, but the music was standard Irish fare, and only last until 11:30, so it wasn’t a problem for us.

We just rented a car.  !!!  Not only do they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, most of the cars use a stick shift.  So everything is backwards.  We were lucky enough to get an automatic, and Richard has already tooled around the block a couple times.  No one is dead yet.

I give my name instead of Richard’s in Ireland… they love hearing Fitzgerald, and I tell them my grandfather was born here.  Glad I upped the red in my hair before we left.  😉  The car hire man gave us a deal.

So off we go today to parts unknown, hoping to learn to drive as we explore.  Wish us luck!

 

Here in Dublin

This is Patrice, waving hello from our “splurge” hotel right by ChristChurch Cathedral in the center of Dublin.  The bells have been ringing for hours, and we understand that Friday evening is sometimes the time for practice … it’s quite a’pealing!

We’re off to dinner soon, but I just wanted to add some quick impressions of what we’ve experienced since our VERY early Monday morning arrival:

  1. Leaving everything is freeing, exciting, and a bit disorienting.
  2. We have to pace ourselves.  Flying overnight, the time change, walking everywhere, an unfamiliar bed and everything else… leads to fatigue.
  3. It’s great fun to do new things and meet new people.
  4. Getting used to the idea that we have months and months to do whatever we want, enough money saved to do it, and that no one is going to tell us what our agenda should be is kind of mind-boggling.  What do you choose to do when you can do whatever you want?
  5. We’re having a grand time already, but it very much resembles what I used to joke about when my parents traveled–we called theirs “walk and eat” vacations.  Well, that’s what we’re having!
  6. Despite feeling that we have enough cash for the nine-month journey, we’re writing down every penny (or, in this case, Euro) so that we can keep track of it.  We’re going to tell you what we spend to give you an idea of what it actually costs to go around the world.

Look for a “What does it cost?” page, a “Where do you stay” page, and a link to both books by Patrice and musical events for the two of us as we grow this site.  If you have suggestions for where we could sing, be in touch!

The plan is to visit Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti, with a zip back to California before spending three months in Hawaii…

 

 

We are not coming back…

 

“When are you coming back?”

We’re not.  At least, we don’t think so.

Inspired by a dream we’ve shared since we met, Richard and I sold our house, ditched nearly all our possessions, gave our cars to the kids, and got outta town.

It wasn’t pretty.

But thanks to the kindness of friends who put us up prior to the trip, we had a place to lay our heads while we did many frantic last-minute runs to our 10×10 storage cube, mailed packages one of us (Patrice) had been putting off mailing for years–such as the wedding gifts to my niece who is now a mother of two–and handled not one but two sudden car repairs and mutual dental emergencies.

To those dear friends, we express sincere regret about our surprise late-night arrival when we showed up a day early and caused you to leap out of bed and venture cautiously down from the bedroom to see who the home invaders were.  They were us, and Richard was discovered red-handed, munching dangerously on purloined Wasa Brot!

Mucking out the house, filled with Patrice’s stuff, Richard’s stuff, Patrice’s Dad’s stuff, Richard’s Mom’s stuff, and our respective kids’ stuff, as well as boatloads of books and masses of music, turned out to be a journey of exhaustion leading to despair.  We thought it would never end.

Despite all the chaos and confusion, we eventually got it done.  Like labor, the end of a gargantuan life change like this becomes so painful that you want it over no matter how much it hurts.

And so we took off from West Hartford, Connecticut, home to Richard for six years and Patrice for nearly thirty, and headed for our nine-month trip around the world.  It will all be worth it.  We hope.

So when are we coming back?  We might, but we have no plans to at this point.  Our minds wander to thoughts of Oregon, California, Hawaii, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy… who knows where we’ll end up.

 

 

 

 

 

Get ready, on your marks..

First task… move out of our house and get ready for the start of our travels…

Move every blessed possession out of house: accomplished! Every single item was either moved into a 10×10 storage cubicle, loaded into trash bags, donated, or put into our two cars in preparation for the big trip. This project had a special logistical challenge – combining two tasks together, like packing for a long trip, AND moving all your stuff. This has the effect of making me feel at sea (pun intended) and without an anchor. How do you pack for a trip if you home base is scattered in various boxes, bags and open laundry baskets? And this past week I have done more manual labor than I recall ever doing even in my twenties, having assembled and sealed dozens of boxes, loaded same in my car, and made at least 10 runs to the storage facility, wherein I hauled a flatbed cart loaded to the gills up a steep ramp, and pulled it through the labyrinth of hallways which light up as you enter, and arrange the boxes carefully. I tapped reserves I didn’t know I had or needed, then blew through the reserve reserves. As a result I am a bit ragged. After we moved everything, and I mean everything, I suggested we celebrate by having burgers and drinks at Max Burger. We were a sweaty mess, but they liked our money so they let us in.
I think we deserve at least a round of Huzzah’s, what do you say?

The adventure begins

In a little bit less than a month, we step on a plane and fly to Dublin.  In the meantime we have a lot to do, and are busy preparing… for what we will bring but also music that we will perform in Edinburgh at St Marks Church.

Home, again

Readers of this blog will remember that a while back, Patrice and I took a long trip that took us to Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Far East including Australia and New Zealand. Since that five-month journey, starting in mid-2017 and ending in December of that year, during which we stayed at over 40 different B&Bs and met countless fascinating and friendly people, we returned to the U.S., first stopping in Los Angeles to spend the holidays with our daughter Kathleen, then traveled north to the San Francisco Bay area to spend a few days with my sister, Joan, and then headed up to Portland, Oregon, where we stayed for three months in an Airbnb in the Northeast part of the city.

Our travels had a twofold purpose: one, to see places that intrigued us; and two, to find a place to retire to, a permanent place to live.

There are a lot of ways to measure the desirability of a place. U.S. News published a list of best places to live in 2018, basing it on responses from readers as well as data collected from the U.S. Census, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the FBI Uniform Crime Report, and other data. Researching places is useful, but in the end, you have to rely on your own feelings about a place. In our many discussions of the most suitable place for us, one thought that preoccupied me was that I had always lived in the Northeast part of the U.S., and that it was time for a complete reset. The West called us, with its huge mountain ranges, its lattes, and its relaxed, friendly people. But there were lots of other places we could call home, or so we thought before thinking them through more carefully. While traveling overseas we kept a skeptical eye on places that looked and felt congenial, like Scotland (rainy, very rainy), or New Zealand (perfect in many ways, but way too far away from family).

But we wanted to take a serious look at the West. That is how we found ourselves in Portland, OR, in January. Visiting it in summer and loving the sunshine and ideal temperatures, we knew it wasn’t like that year-round. We wanted to experience the Northwest in winter, the rainy season, to give us an answer to the question: How awful could it be? It wasn’t at all awful, as it turned out, but it wasn’t exactly home, either, and we had business to conduct back east, including my son Derek’s wedding in Connecticut, which took place in July, where all the guests were treated to a New England summer shower; actually a deluge, really, with rain straining the tarps over our heads as we enjoyed the festivities.

Following the wedding, we continued our quest. We got back on a plane, taking the one large suitcase and one smaller one that functioned as our traveling home, and headed for southern California, where we spent several weeks in Pasadena, followed by a few weeks in Monrovia, a half hour up the coast. It was lovely, there was lots of great hiking and sightseeing, it was very, very hot and dry, but as with Portland, it just wasn’t home.

I want to take a moment here to stop and look at exactly what is meant by “home”: We were in quite comfortable surroundings, especially in Pasadena, where we stayed in a large (for California) house with a wonderful yard filled with fresh fruit growing on trees that had been lovingly watered, weeded, and trimmed to keep them alive in that desert environment. And people were nice enough. But we would have left behind something very important, so important that we decided that it outweighed all the other attractive qualities we found elsewhere. That was connections: friendships, and for us, as musicians we relied on good accompanists, churches that would hire us to sing and play. And finally, I think I realized that I missed the quirky, unpredictable weather of New England. As Mark Twain, a long-time Hartford resident, said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” That turns out to be a point of pride for many of us New Englanders.

To be fair, there are aspects of New England culture that are a bit of a challenge. One is the incessant, persistent movement of people everywhere. On the sidewalks, on the highways, people are always passing one another, rushing to get ahead. This seems to be tied to the Protestant Ethic that is so famous in this part of the country: this is a region of Doers, getters of things done, movers on to the next thing. At times it seems that drivers and pedestrians are oblivious of one another, and might collide at any moment. Sometimes they do. In a residential district of West Hartford, on an otherwise quiet street, I saw a stop light ringed with powerful, blinking lights. Beneath the stop sign was another sign that said, “Look left and right – twice”. No doubt there was a good reason the road department had singled out that particular intersection. On almost any street, narrow little residential back-street or wide, flat drive, people are likely to travel as fast as the road surface will tolerate, much faster than the speed limit.

Anywhere in New England, one has to watch out for surprises. It’s almost like a reflection of that famous weather. It’s the land where change is the norm. And here is where I have so many friends and colleagues that keep me young, as we continue to pursue the endeavor known as Retirement. Don’t care for retirement now? Just wait a minute. And by the way, that includes taking the occasional trip back west to experience the mountain ranges, the lattes, and the relaxed, friendly people. And, as it happens, the city of Hartford, very close by our city of choice, was ranked in that same list: number 46. So our personal preferences align with statistics. That counts for something.

 

 

Intimate with words

I write Facebook posts. I write blog posts. I write my sister. I write coy texts to my wife. Writing is how I know I am alive and registering something, really paying attention. Writing, for me, is a means for connecting the many unconnected bits of my life. Lately I’ve been thinking about how the physical act of writing had a lot to do with those connections.

As a young writer, laboring on term papers in high school and college, I had very little in the way of technology. My tech, if you want to call it that, was a gift from my parents, an Olympia manual typewriter. At the time it felt like this cool, shiny new gizmo, but that wore off after the first term paper. Having taken a speed-typing class the summer before, I was pretty fast, boasting that I could easily type 60 mpm (mistakes per minute). It was a very noisy class, with 20 clattering keys shattering the hot, dry air in the classroom. I didn’t know the teacher, who taught the business courses (I was college bound), and found her to be about as mechanical as the rattling machines. “Get your hands on those home-row keys… go!” she would cry, and we’d be off to the races, typing some drivel, like
“asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;” on and on, and then we’d write about that famous brown fox, the quick, brown one that jumped over the lazy dog.

Typing a term paper usually — no, always — involved batting out the whole thing on the night before it was due, which meant that the time for careful analysis was over, if it had ever begun. I would make some statement, and sometimes go looking for a quote to corroborate that, then looking back on the resulting page or two, I would abandon it and start over, either because what I had created was pure dreck, or because no such quote by any sane writer existed in the many books I had hauled from the library to my dorm room. At some point I would reach the point where my mind was fully engaged, and I was personally in a sweat, it being about midnight by that time, and many pages of thinking yet to be conceived and typed. At a certain point in this state, I started pulling words out of back corners of my unconscious, laying them on the page, and bit by bit, I gave birth to the paper.

When I first opened my Olympia typewriter, it came in a sleek, gray case with a single page of paper inserted in it — a typing sample, in German, saying something about the wonderful qualities of this typewriter, and of course it was crisp and beautiful to look at. I don’t remember the exact wording of the sample page, but it ended with “… der ganze Welt” (“the whole world”). The machine weighed about 25 pounds and appeared practically indestructible, a word processor for the industrial age.

My papers usually started out looking pretty good, despite the occasional correction tape laid over misspelled words, and characters that somehow had become misaligned. The times when I was aware that the ribbon needed replacing was at about 1:30 a.m., when I was in the last third of my paper which boldly (and rather foolishly, as it turned out) tried to find something in common among three wildly different plays, Oedipus at Colonus, Faustus, and The Nuncio. After over a month of thinking — pure procrastination, really — I plunged into the writing of the paper, which I was desperate to complete. After a few false starts, I hit on the fact that Oedipus had blinded himself, and was dealing with his miserable life, post-gouging. Blindness was a quality that all the characters shared, in one way or another. (I would give anything to find that paper.)

When I say ‘false starts’, I’m not talking about opening a new file, copying and pasting what I had from the previous draft, something like that. I had to take the page I had in the roller at the time, and either angrily crumple it and hurl it across the room, or just put it aside so I could recopy it. Either way, I put a fresh piece of paper between the rollers, got myself settled, and typed.

The machine had a built-in governor of sorts: if you tried to type too fast, the keys would all mash together where they met in the middle, and you had to carefully pull each key apart from the others, and hope that you didn’t bend any keys. This usually involved getting ink on your fingers, ink which if you weren’t careful would wind up on the sheet of paper you had in the rollers. If you did, you had to rip out that sheet and retype.

Now here’s where the magic took place: each time I had to redo a page, I re-formulated, re-combined, re-imagined, and expanded, and the result, as I was sweating about the lateness of the hour, was a better statement of the topic than any of the previous drafts. These were what I call circumstantial drafts. You don’t decide to re-think, re-word, you just do. After all, you might as well, and the sheer frustration with the plodding mechanism of the thing brought forth some amazing words, a cake baked with a completely new recipe. Another dividend was that my word choices became more sophisticated. I became very intimate with the structure, the texture of words. The proof of the paper, if there was any, was in what the professor would later write on the front cover. Not all my papers were a hit with my teachers, but the ones that received praise enjoyed the unexpected attention, the extra practice I got putting those words, carefully and laboriously, on the page. I feel as if I should thank my parents for providing me such a rudimentary tool to work with; it prepared me for all the future writing I would do, including this piece.

 

My word processor in 1970

 

 

 

Some of My Favorites

Here are some of my favorite things:

  • Walking in the woods, taking lousy photographs along the way. My specialty is close-ups. Occasionally I aim the camera into the sunlight, with trees or other objects filtering the light. Direct-sunlight pictures are a sure-fire way to impress your friends, even if you have absolutely no ability as a photographer. I’m glad it pleases them, but it’s all the work of the sun, not of any craft on my part.
  • In said woods, sitting on a rock and recording the sounds. I usually do this by starting a video recording, and pointing the camera in a big arc. All I really want is the sounds that are going on in the woods; the circular view is just to make it resemble a video, rather than a mistake. (“Did he accidentally switch it on record? Is he livestreaming??”) More often than not, I don’t post the result on social media. Frequently I don’t even listen to the thing. But still, it’s valuable, because the act of recording makes me aware of those sounds. So much technology is about the person using the tech; the gizmo is just a tool. It’s easy to forget that.
  • The first cup of coffee of the day.
  • Carrying that very last shovelful of wet, sticky snow from the driveway. Or, that last chunk of lawn that needs to be cut. It reminds me of when I was in my twenties, working for a guy named Jim Terpstra, an old Dutchman who did painting and paperhanging in Bergen County, New Jersey. He used wooden ladders and mixed his own paint, giving his own version of native wit and wisdom along the way. Occasionally he’d enlist me to help him paint the shutters for a house. It was a pretty labor-intensive task. As he removed each shutter, he’d carefully mark it with a Roman numeral on the edge with a chisel, so he could get the right shutter back on the right hinge. Shutters back in the day were hand made, and there were minor variations in each. We stacked them all up in the garage, set up sawhorses and set the first one on top, first dry-brushing it to remove the cobwebs and dirt, then painting inner edges, top, and outer edges. My part was to paint the opposite edge, so he didn’t have to move the shutter around. The wonder of it was that he’d get all the edges except those that were on my side, lay in the top panels and gingerbread, in the time that it took me to do my two edges. Working as a team, we blazed through the pile quickly. Then, finally the boss would pick up a shutter and say, “That’s the one I was looking for.” Which one was that? I’d ask, and he’d say, “The last one.” So not only do I experience satisfaction along with the tiredness, when I carefully carry that last heavy hunk of sloppy, wet snow, teetering on the snow shovel. If you are reading this in fall or summer, imagine me mowing the grass instead. I guess I should mention here that I tend to write pieces like this, then let them sit for a while, in hopes that they will improve with time. Generally, this doesn’t work, and I have to edit it like everybody else.
  • Writing blog posts like this one.
  • Gazing up at the large oak tree in front my house, covered in wet, sticky snow. I look up at this noble giant, and think, ‘You’ve seen owners come and go, and still you’re here, just steadily thriving and growing.’
  • Sharing music with friends. On Saturday we sang a few songs for the folks who showed up at our housewarming party.
  • Falling asleep. Usually I read a book on my Kindle, and usually I don’t drop the Kindle on my face as I get sleepy. My wife can’t understand how I do that. If she starts reading in bed, she’ll be reading till 2:30 a.m. I’m lucky to get through two pages.

O sleep, it is a gentle thing
Belov’d from pole to pole!
To Mary-queen the praise be yeven
She sent the gentle sleep from heaven
That slid into my soul.

Rime of the Ancyent Marinere by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Being hungry, and having food. Food in itself is not necessarily a sensual delight, because it goes hand in hand with hunger. Having exactly the food you crave, and eating it, Cookie Monster style, mum mum, that is a perfect combination. And being hungry without food to satisfy it is not much fun at all. I’d extend that to other types of hunger, like:
    • loneliness–>company;
    • boredom–>something fun to do;
    • noise and chaos–>silence.

Stress buster

I know that I am the epitome of calm and equanimity. Yet here are a few things I do to reduce stress:

  • A well-worn phrase that someone said to me continues to work pretty well: ‘This too shall pass.’ Whatever it is — a gigantic pain in the butt, or a gigantic moment of joy — all of it will pass, letting in the next experience. Just go with the flow and let it happen.
  • One word: chocolate. Need I say more? So get on it right away.
  • Exercise. I find that much of my stress transmits itself in verbal form, because we are most of us encased in a web of words all the time. I find that taking a walk, and imagining that I am floating over all the stuff of the day, provides relief. Walk, dance, cavort, whatever floats your boat.
  • Sometimes as I walk, I take bad photos of nature to take my mind off stuff. There are hundreds and hundreds of these on my phone’s hard drive.
  • Sometimes I have to remind myself of times when I was stressed about some event — like, for instance, preparing for a visit from the kids; trying to make everybody happy — turns out to be groundless. My kids like me anyway, who’d thunk it?