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?

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.

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.

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…

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.