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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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.

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…

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.