Stress buster

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

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

Miriam, my mom (1917-2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrice and Richard’s 2017 Experience

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

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

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July 17 – Ireland

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

August 2 – Scotland

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

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August 20 – England

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

FullSizeRender (77).jpgAugust 23 – France

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

September 1 – Belgium

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

Sept. 4 – The Netherlands

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

Sept. 11 – Germany

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

Sept. 19 – Austria

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

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Sept. 26 – Italy

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

Oct. 10 – Thailand

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

FullSizeRender (63).jpgOct. 16 – Vietnam

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

Oct. 31 – Singapore

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

Nov. 2 – Australia

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

Nov. 21 – New Zealand

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

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Dec. 4 – Tahiti

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

FullSizeRender (76).jpgDec. 21 – California

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

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

Dec. 30 – Oregon

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

April, 2018 – Connecticut

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

Here’s wishing all of you a fabulous 2018.

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

Patrice and Richard

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What Is Too Little?

Space.  The final frontier…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gauguin in his element

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

Woman with a Flower

Lovers of Leaving: Traveling Styles

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

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

On the morning of check-out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bikes… So Many Bikes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we?

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

IRELAND

Dublin – July 17-21

Killarney – July 21-26

Doolin – July 26-28

Sligo – July 28-29

Galway – July 29-August 2

 

SCOTLAND 

Edinburgh – August 2-14

Leslie (Insch) – August 14-16

Aberdeen – August 16-20

ENGLAND

London – August 20-23

FRANCE

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

LeMans – August 26-28

Parce sur Sarthe – August 28-September 1

BELGIUM

Brussels – September 1-4

NETHERLANDS

Amsterdam – September 4-11

GERMANY 

Berlin – September 11-19

UPCOMING

AUSTRIA

Vienna – September 19-25

ITALY

Florence – September 25-30

Rome – September 30-October 2

THAILAND

Bangkok

VIETNAM

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

SINGAPORE

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

TAHITI

USA! (CALIFORNIA)

HAWAII

 

Restaurants, Tipping and Other Hidden Treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris, Traffic, and Pedestrians — the Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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