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.

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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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. 

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.