Bikes… So Many Bikes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we?

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

IRELAND

Dublin – July 17-21

Killarney – July 21-26

Doolin – July 26-28

Sligo – July 28-29

Galway – July 29-August 2

 

SCOTLAND 

Edinburgh – August 2-14

Leslie (Insch) – August 14-16

Aberdeen – August 16-20

ENGLAND

London – August 20-23

FRANCE

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

LeMans – August 26-28

Parce sur Sarthe – August 28-September 1

BELGIUM

Brussels – September 1-4

NETHERLANDS

Amsterdam – September 4-11

GERMANY 

Berlin – September 11-19

UPCOMING

AUSTRIA

Vienna – September 19-25

ITALY

Florence – September 25-30

Rome – September 30-October 2

THAILAND

Bangkok

VIETNAM

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

SINGAPORE

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

TAHITI

USA! (CALIFORNIA)

HAWAII

 

Restaurants, Tipping and Other Hidden Treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris, Traffic, and Pedestrians — the Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Bumpity-Bump

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

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

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

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

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

Living on the Outside

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

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

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

So many questions to be answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baron of Leslie Castle

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

Leslie Castle from afar.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What Now???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Richness of Time

When did you start racing through life?

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

Well, this is not like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, this is like that.

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

 

The Hearing Thing – an Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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