The Cradle of American History

After leaving Cuba we returned to the east coast to check in with our DC area kids and pick up our car before moving on.  This meant returning to our regular trivia game, watching playoff hockey (Go Pens!) as well as catching up with our youngest grandkids which included: soccer, karaoke and an early birthday celebration.

We also had tickets to see a play at Ford’s Theatre. “Ragtime” is a musical that follows three turn-of-the-century families.  The music is great and it was hard to believe we were watching it in such an historic building.

After a week of relaxing in DC we were ready to take off for Boston. Sort of moving from one part of early American history to another! We decided to drive some of the backroads to enjoy and learn more about the smaller towns in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  We stopped in Lititz for lunch at a fabulous deli. We had remembered the town (although not the deli) from a visit here with the kids back in the early 1980s. We toured The Lititz  Pretzel Factory then and learned about the history of pretzles dating back to the 1600’s. From Lititz Bob and I decided we wanted to visit Crossings, PA. This is the place where Washington and his troops crossed the Deleware on Christmas 1776.

We then went on to spend the night in Valley Forge and toured the encampment the following day. I’m always astounded at what the Patriots had to endure to gain our independence.  More than 2500 men died at Valley Forge from starvation, the cold and disease. It’s overwhelming to imagine.

And to think how far away from home many of them were and how concerned they must have been for their families, wondering if they’d ever see them again. I think we take our republic for granted not realizing how fragile it really is. But I digress…  We had intended to spend an hour or so there and three  and a half hours later decided we’d better get on our way if we wanted to make much progress toward our destination.

I reserved a place in Hull, Massachusetts, located on a peninsula just south of Boston. The location is great. We are a block from the ocean one direction and three blocks the other.  We have a great front porch where we can sit and enjoy our morning coffee on those few days when it is warm enough. We are also just a 10 minute drive from the commuter rail that has us at South Station in downtown Boston in half an hour. South Station is an amazing place.  As well as the commuter rail, many Amtrak trains arrive and depart for DC and parts beyond.  You can also access the T (subway) here making it a hub for travelers whatever their destinations!

The Airbnb house we’re renting is a duplex and the young man we’re renting from lives right next door. It makes it very convenient to ask questions. I love that it’s a two story with three bedrooms upstairs..feels very much like home!  And as an added bonus we can park right out front!  Boston traffic is unbelievable and parking horrific so we make good use of the commuter rail.  The fact that we qualify for a half price senior citizen ticket makes the trip reasonable as well as convenient.  Hull was founded in the 1600s by Puritans. Nearby our house is Fort Revere with spectacular views of Hull and Boston. It dates from the Revolution when it was used to protect Boston Harbor.

We briefly visited Boston years ago but as I’ve said in previous entries when we have a month to visit a place we feel more like residents and less like tourists.  It’s nice not to have to jam everything we want to do into a couple of days.

We were thrilled that my good friend Rita, from Pittsburgh, could visit us.  It seemed easiest to pick her up at the airport instead of relying on public transportation so that we could stop and visit the JFK Library on our return.IMG_20170519_112410833[1]  When Bob and I had been in Boston 1980 we had located the then new JFK library on our Rand McNally map and when we couldn’t find it stopped to ask a local. We were told, “Oh that’s where they were going to build it. They decided instead to put it out near the water.”  What a perfect location. Seeing JFK’s sailboat leaning on the shore took my breath away! I think this is one of the few museums I’ve ever visited where I could connect to and recall the stories about nearly every exhibit!

History is everywhere you turn in Boston.  We stopped to visit John Adams’ home and the national park service guide gave us a private tour of the home. It’s hard to envision the area as farmland much less Abigail managing the farm, as well as her family, while fighting is going on all around her and John is miles away! We also stopped at his library and later family home!

Most amazingly we met Keith, a young man in his 30’s I would guess, on the commuter rail on our first trip into Boston and he shared with us some sights he felt we’d enjoy.  He mentioned the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and went on to describe some of the particular artists that were among his favorites.  There was a special Matisse Exhibit currently on display so we had put the MFA at the top of our list. Also there was a lovely Chihuly glass piece in the lobby.

Keith also gave us some practical tips about how to get around and other areas to see. We were stunned when after we left the train he tracked us down in South Station to give us his business card telling us not to hesitate to contact him if he could be of any assistance! We continue to meet the most gracious people!

Cambridge is a lovely city.  We walked through the Harvard Campus, downtown,  Lesley College and down Brattle Street past Longfellow’s Home. IMG_20170520_163711277 I had no idea that this was George Washington’s heaquarters from 1775-1776. Longfellows’ father-in-law bought the home in 1843 as a wedding gift. It’s the house where Longfellow lived until he died. We also learned that The Harvard Museum of National History houses The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass. We decided this was something we had to see! These models of plants are made entirely of glass. There are more than 4000 models of more than 800 species of flowers.

They were made between 1887 and 1936 and were created because a Harvard professsor wanted lifelike models for teaching botany. Prior to this time there were only papier mache or wax models available.

One of my very favorite parts of Boston is The Freedom Trail. This trail is embedded in the sidewalk making it incredibly easy to follow and it’s like walking through a textbook of early American history.IMG_20170604_132647870[1] On this trail are marked the sites of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s home, the Granary Cemetery (where Samuel Adams, Crispus Attacks,  as well as Ben Franklin’s parents are buried). The Corner Bookstore was originally the home of Anne Hutchinson (who was kicked out of Massachusetts for heresy) and was later a meeting place for authors including: Longfellow, Hawthorne and Emerson.  Perhaps because it has a commercial history that spans a couple of centuries I shouldn’t be upset that it is now the home of a commercial entity of the 2000’s. (Chipotle) But it really does bother me!

We paid to enter the Old State House which was particularly interesting because there were several informative narrations we could download on our phones that explained the history of the building! A realitively new addition to the Freedom Trail is The New England Holocaust Memorial built in 1995. IMG_20170520_120251170[1]This moving memorial consists of six towers which represent the six camps and six is also significant for the six years that the camps were in existence.  On a lighter note, also along the Freedom Trail, in front of the Old City Hall is a donkey.  For over 100 years Boston politics was dominated by Democratic mayors  In 2004 this donkey was dubbed “The Democratic Donkey.”  Next to the donkey are footprints with the inscription, “Stand in Opposition.”

We had seen the exhibit for Robert McCloskey’s book, Make Way for Ducklings at the Museum of Fine Arts. img_20170604_1249521891.jpg I  remembered the book from when I was a child about Mr and Mrs. Mallard who find the perfect place to raise their family in Boston Public Gardens.  So I definitely wanted to see the sculpture.  Because we had missed it on our first trip, we made a second trek to the gardens to see it.

And while I loved the Museum of Fine Arts perhaps my favorite museum in all of Boston  is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.   It’s an eclectic collection of art, sculpture, textiles and antiques and housed in beautiful rooms that were designed to resemble a Venetian palace of the 1400’s.  It’s unlike any museum I’ve visited anywhere!

We also drove out to Cape Cod. Because we were located south of Boston and didn’t have to drive through the city it made a much easier trip out to the Cape. And although there were lots of people, because we were visiting in late May we didn’t have to contend with the summer mobs.  Provincetown has lots of cute little shops and I found a place to get my haircut.  Another day we drove Falmouth which is about an hour south of Boston but not out on the Cape.  We were particularly interested in this area because of the work at Woods Hole that environmentalist Rachel Carson had done in the 1960s. Ms Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 about the harmful effects of pesticides.IMG_20170601_134802574 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter and because she was a family friend of Bob’s aunts (having grown up in the same small western Pennsylvania town) we particularly wanted to visit her statue in Falmouth.  We fell in love with the area finding it even more beautiful than the Cape itself.

Our temperatures in Boston were cool.  The locals tell us that it has been exceedingly cool this year.  We also had quite a bit of rain, but it rarely rained all day and we found we could generally dodge between the showers. We like to read near the beach and we can do that in jackets just as long as the wind doesn’t gust too much.  Another favorite in Boston for us is the chowder.  We’ve tried it nearly everywhere we’ve gone and the cool weather only makes it taste that much better.  We will definitely miss this special taste of New England when we leave!  It seems too like we are following the flowers this spring. Starting on our drive up to DC from Florida in late February all the way to Boston in May, we find the rhododendrons gorgeous, one just exceeding the previous in its beauty. Rhododendrons have always been among my favorite bloom, but I have never witnessed any as large as we have seen this year.  Some stand almost as high as houses!

The night before we were to leave Boston we found a small wonderful Italian restaurant not far from our house. We chatted with the owner (also waitress and cook) who wanted to know more about our lifestyle.  As we were talking about all the things we love about Boston she commented, “Wow, you sound like locals!” I guess that’s what we love best…getting to really know a city, how to maneuver it, what makes it interesting, what’s its history, talking with the locals.  In this case we definitely want to know more about this cradle of American history. Guess we’ll have to put Boston/Hull on our list of places to return to!

 

 

 

 

 

 

CUBA: A Whole New Experience

Because there are not a lot of flights to Havana we had to leave Washington DC on the 7:35 am flight—another ungodly departure time and our flight was out of Baltimore Washington International meaning it was about an hour drive from our Airbnb in Columbia Heights. At 4:15 am our Uber picked us up for the uneventful drive to the airport. Boy, were we surprised when we got there and saw the mob of people at the Delta counter. We were more than 2 hours early for our flight and the line seemed endless.

Airports teach me patience! The trip to Atlanta is not a long one and we were impressed with the efficiency of Delta to guide us to the right gate where we were met by folks who helped us complete our visa forms. Upon arrival in Havana, however, we ran into the same problem we had before. Our driver, whom we had arranged for through our Airbnb was no where to be found. We exchanged money at the airport (as American credit cards are generally not accepted in Cuba) and when a gentleman came up and asked if we needed a taxi we took him up on his offer. He walked us across the parking lot to his 1953 Plymouth.  IMG_20170411_153731016_BURST000_COVER_TOPHe spoke no English but we had written the address of our Airbnb on a piece of paper knowing there is no internet at the Havana airport and in a short time we had arrived at our destination. (The best we can surmise is that our original driver went to the wrong terminal.)

Our Airbnb is lovely. It’s upstairs in the Vedado neighborhood, one of three major areas of Havana. Vedado, the Spanish word for forbidden, is where the mobsters and big shots from the 1920’s lived!

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Our apartment was at the top of the stairs to the right. Lidea and her assistant, Tonya, are standing at the top of the steps.

Our apartment has a large sitting room area with a kitchen and two bedrooms each with its own bath.  It has lovely terrazzo floors, a flatscreen TV, a gas stove. Each Cuban is allowed to own only one property so our apartment is separated from the owner’s by folding doors. But the very best part of our abode is the porch with chairs and swing. We’ve found Latinos, in Costa Rica, Panama and now Cuba really make good use of their outdoor spaces!

The woman we rent from is lovely and to have her right next door makes asking questions very convenient. She speaks more English than I speak Spanish and together we communicate pretty well.  She has an assistant who speaks no English but again with hand signals and my limited Spanish we do okay.

The old cars are everywhere. We are a block off a main street with a constant flow of taxis…both old classics as well as newer ones.

The old cars are so ubiquitous that we began to think every man in Havana must be a mechanic. (We did have a few female cab drivers while in Cuba but we met no women who drove classic cars. ) The interiors of the cars are interesting as well…with different sources of music.IMG_20170428_170947368_TOP

The outside may be a 55 Chevy, or a 53 Buick but the inside is a conglomeration of whatever parts can be found. In addition, some have flash drives that are rigged into the dash. One even had a screen that showed the video with the music. Some have air conditioning.  Some are plush. One we rode in had metal floor boards. But all the owners are very proud of their possessions! One can only imagine what they would sell for in the US.

Cuba is very safe. Whenever we are home, the door to our apartment is open, not just unlocked, but actually open throughout the day until we go to bed. We walk places after dark without hesitation.  People are very friendly.   We aren’t far from a large hotel, La Melia Cohiba, part of a Spanish chain. IMG_20170423_122945342 Shortly after we arrived, we wandered in and asked the concierge, Osiris, about suggestions for a couple of side trips we wanted to make.  Take about a wealth of knowledge!  We weren’t thrilled with the idea of a bus trip so we were delighted when Osiris suggested a private driver. She called him and for $150 a day he would be ours 24/7! He would take us wherever we wanted to go. Our son, Patrick, was coming to spend a week with us, so we decided to schedule two trips while he was in Cuba. Actually hiring a private driver was cheaper than it would have been for the three of us to take a bus trip! Osiris also arranged a three hour tour in a classic convertible for us and gave us numerous suggestions for other entertainment!

Cuba uses two currencies:  the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso, moneda nacional (MN).  It’s not difficult to maneuver. There are about 23 Cuban pesos to the CUC though it varies from place to place and item to item.  As a tourist all we really had to know were CUCs. The only tricky parts are: 1) estimating how much money you’ll need for the time you’re visiting since once we arrived we wouldn’t be able to access any money from the States and 2) converting to CUCs only the money we would spend. Cuba charges the US tourist an extra 10% on the exchange. They don’t do that on Euros or Pounds Sterling so if you can bring either of those currencies, you’re money ahead! Also when we left we didn’t want to have money left over because they will charge that same 10% again to change back into dollars.

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Codecas change monies to Cucs

There are various codecas (places that just change money) throughout the country and we found hotels will change money for us as well. The exchange rate at the time of this writing has been .87 including the 10% so the CUC costs $1.13. One really good thing is that the exchange rate is the same throughout the country; it doesn’t vary from hotel, to bank, to codeca.

Cuba is a very poor country economically and we were told that the average Cuban earns about $35 a month. We’re confused how that’s calculated because it would seem that the tips (from foreigners) that taxi drivers and wait staff receive would skew that number. But maybe that’s just in Havana. In any event, the average Cuban has little disposable income.

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This receipt shows the amount first in CUCS; then in dollars, Euros, and finally in the currency of the locals. Divide that total 378.25 by 23 and you understand that our breakfast would be out of reach for most locals!

Because American credit cards are not generally accepted Americans have to do everything in cash. We had booked our Airbnb online with our credit card so we were just bringing money for food, entertainment, and souvenirs.  We have not found Cuba to be an expensive country except for their taxis and those fares are always negotiable. We’ve found taxis, at least in Havana, to be about the same as Ubers in DC. Gas is about $5 a gallon, and I’m certain the old cars do not get very good mileage. In addition taxis are primarily used by tourists allowing the drivers to charge more. There are also shared taxis, old cars that stop and pick up people along the street and then along the way to their destination others pile in. The charges for these are about 50 cents, and I believe they’re mostly used by locals. We always try to keep some money in a separate place for the taxi or the incidentals so we aren’t bringing out large bills for every exchange. And generally when we go out, we take no more than a hundred dollars each with us, keeping most of our money back in our apartment along with our passports. We carry copies with us as foreigners are supposed to have identification on them at all times. The hotel clerk suggested small bills and we’ve found it’s also helpful to have some small coins for street performers, bathroom attendants, etc.

While we really enjoy Cuba there are a few drawbacks. The air, in Havana in particular, is really polluted. The old cars, as well as trucks and busses, belch out dark noxious smoke.  Also, tap water is not drinkable. So you have to rely on bottled water and in the heat, we consume a lot. We found most grocery stores have lots of empty shelves and I think being a creative cook here is really a gift.   It would be difficult to plan your meals and then go to the store and purchase the items. In any case, you would have to stop at numerous stores. For instance, the grocery store nearest our apartment never had water. We never saw cheese or milk in any store. Paper products also seem to be in short supply. We only found toilet paper for sale on one occasion. (I carried a roll in my day pack when we traveled because so many bathrooms, including museums, often do not have any.) And fresh vegetables are in short supply. Sunday must be a delivery day as we saw on two different occasions lots more items available on Sunday than any other day. But the lines are long and because there are no scanners and cashiers have to enter all items in by hand, they’re very slow!

It’s not uncommon when going to a restaurant for staff to tell you a particular entre isn’t available, or a juice (even if you had it the previous day) or ice! But restaurant staff are exceedingly pleasant and most speak some English! We encountered numerous street venders walking through the neighborhood calling out the offerings: bananas, onions, garlic and tamales,  among them. The first time the ice cream man came down the street we smiled at the recorded music coming from his cart:  Clementine, No Place Like Home and Happy Birthday.  Most restaurants and some shops are air conditioned and if we avoided the middle of the day, the heat wasn’t repressive. And evenings were very comfortable. (Everyone one, including animals has their unique way of keeping cool!)

While our Airbnb had free wifi, the wifi is available only for limited hours during the day, and never when I needed it. We did buy Cuban data cards on Amazon before we left the country (for $25 for 100 mb).  These worked fine on our phones but 100 mb goes really fast.  In most hotels you can buy a wifi card for 4.5 cucs for an hour. While we originally thought it would be nice to be disconnected, there were times when it was terribly inconvenient especially at the airport.

Havana seems to have more museums than any city we’ve visited. The one we particularly wanted to see was The Museo de la Revolucion.  It’s housed in the former presidential palace. The Salon de los Espejos (Room of Mirrors) was designed by Tiffany’s and modeled after Versailles.

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Hall o f Mirrors

It’s a very beautiful building.  Starting on the top floor this museum tells the story of the revolution from its beginning to today. We were relieved that the text was almost totally in Spanish with few English captions so we didn’t have to read everything. It’s obviously the Cuban perspective on the revolution. And like the rest of Cuba, there’s no shortage of propaganda.  It also includes caricatures of several American presidents (along side Batista) that we found amusing.IMG_20170501_153432 After touring the building, there is a second structure behind the museum where the Granma is displayed in a glass case.  The Granma is the yacht that carried Castro and 81 other revolutionaries from Tuxpan, Mexico to Cuba in 1956.

Everywhere we look there are banners of the organization of the revolution also known as July 26. Throughout the country we’ve seen signs and posters celebrating this the 59th anniversary.

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CDR House that was just down the block from our Airbnb.

Every neighborhood has a CDR House. These houses are staffed with volunteers who help ensure that people are being compliant. And while we have seen few pictures of Fidel anywhere in the country, everywhere we turn we are confronted with another statue, poster, billboard or picture of Che.  It appears that Jose Marti is the real hero for the Cuban people. He was a poet journalist and philosopher and led the Cuban people in the Second War of Independence in the 1890’s prior to the Spanish American War. He was Fidel Castro’s hero.

One of the first trips we asked Osiris to arrange for us was a visit to a tobacco plantation.  She contacted Lazuro for us and on Monday morning he picked us up in his 2002 (very new by Cuba standards) air conditioned Toyota and off we went. It was about a 3 hour drive to the southwestern part of Cuba where the best tobacco in Cuba, some say in the world, is grown.  When we arrived there, we were impressed by how non-commercial the tour was.  Lazuro knew the owners and there probably were another 50 – 100 tourists milling around the plantation. We first went to the drying shed. One of the plantation tour guides explained (in English and Spanish) the quality of the leaves, growing conditions and then passed around tobacco for us to smell the difference before and after it had been processed.  From there we climbed to a shed on stilts where we could view the plantation and here a different plantation tour guide demonstrated the rolling of a cigar. He offered each of a free cigar. We could also buy cigars from him: either in packs of 14 (45 cucs) or 20 (60 cucs).  (Cuban cigars don’t get their product branding until they leave the country. And in the US each of these would sell for $20 – $30.) All product is owned by the government; they take 90% the individual owners get 10%. But we were told tobacco growers do well.

After the tour Lazuro took us to Ecologica, a restaurant well hidden in the valley.  Everyone there appeared to either be a local or be accompanied by one. The food was unbelievable. Lazuro explained the there was no menu. They served tables. First they brought yucca chips and plantain chips, next they brought the most amazing vegetable soup which was served with a platter of additional chunks of sweet potato we could add to our soup. We commented that we would have been happy with that alone for lunch. But that was soon followed salad which was tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, lettuce and cabbage.

That was followed by black beans and rice and platters of pork, fish, chicken and beef. This dinner made Thanksgiving look like a light meal. Finally we were offered coffee and dessert which was flan. A coconut milk drink was also served and accompanied by a bottle of rum that was placed on the table to be added to the drink as diners desired.  All the food was served family style and all courses were eaten in the soup bowl. (The total bill for our four was 40 cucs!) After dinner we viewed and wandered briefly through the farm on the way back to the car. They raise all their own food and the owners are very proud of their accomplishment! (It’s only been since 2010 that private restaurants could exist in Cuba.)

On the way back to Havana we stopped at the Parque Nacional in Vinales.  Here The Mural de la Prehistoria is painted on the rock walls. The mural represents evolution and was placed here because of all the fossils found in the area. It was designed in 1961 and took four years to complete.IMG_20170424_150119

Besides cigars, rum is Cuba’s other big export! So it seemed appropriate that we should visit the Museo de Ron located in old town. While the tour is only about half an hour long it’s very interesting.

The guide took us through the historical building describing the history and process as we went. One of the most interesting parts was the model train of the sugar cane plantation. (It was built by a Pennsylvanian who won an international competition for it.) Of course at the end we got to sip the product! But again 90% of profit goes to the government and the plantation owners only get 10%!

We had read that Trinidad is a very interesting city south of Havana so we decided to take a two day jaunt there and on the way stop in Santa Clara which is located right in the middle of the island.  We particularly wanted to visit the Ernesto Che Guevara monument, mausoleum and museum. After Marti Che is Cuba’s second hero! Santa Clara is important because it’s the site where in December 1958 Che and other revolutionaries blew up a Cuban armored train and just a few days later Batista fled the country.

This appears to be when Dictator Fulgencio Batista began to take the revolutionaries seriously. It’s difficult to describe how omnipresent Che is in Cuba, even half a century after his death. Everywhere we turned there were  busts, billboards, signs on buildings, tote bags, tee shirts, hats, all with his iconic picture on them.  In 1987, on the 20th anniversary of Che’s murder in Bolivia, the statue in the plaza in Santa Clara was dedicated to his life. There’s an eternal flame in the mausoleum that was lit by Fidel in 1997. Most of the exhibits were labeled only in Spanish but when I got out my phone to translate I was immediately accosted by a guard who yelled at me: “No, no, no!” I quickly put my phone away, afraid that I could have it confiscated.  We also wanted to see the statue of Che and Nino. This turned out to be a challenge. Our driver must have stopped a half dozen times to ask for directions. Finally, we spotted it. Because it is much smaller than the massive statue we had seen on the other side of town, we had missed it. This one shows Che with a baby in his arms symbolizing the next generation.  His belt buckle also displays likenesses of the 28 men who were with him when he was killed in Bolivia.

Before moving on, Lazuro asked a local for a place for lunch.  Bob and Patrick said it was the best beans and rice they had ever had. Lunch for four, including beverages, entre and the rice and beans came to less than $12.IMG_20170426_132943891

The drive on to Trinidad was another three hours and the roads in Cuba are a challenge.  Lazuro weaved in and out to avoid the largest pot holes and to protect his car. Along the road are occasional check points. And while we were never stopped, the police can wave over any car they wish and search it as well as the occupants’ papers.

After winding through the Escambray Mountains, we first stopped at the Manaca Iznaga. This is an estate dating from the 1700s and was owned by one of the area’s richest men who made his money in slave trading. There is a huge observation tower that was used to watch the slaves. We viewed the enormous sugar press that was powered by the slaves and while the heat and humidity were really stifling just to sightsee, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves. We could only wonder how many lives were lost.

Another half hour and we arrived at our destination! Trinidad is a colonial city of about 52,000 located not far from the southern coast of Cuba and declared a UNESCO site in 1988. It’s like something out of a novel.  Cobblestone streets, horse carts and automobiles mix like a mismatch of time periods. Although there were lots of tourists, the city still feels very authentic. We wandered through the streets visiting the Municipal Museum and also the Museum of Architecture.  The Plaza Mayor, is the center square of the town. Warm and tired we found a table and sipped drinks as we listened to Cuban music.

Lazuro had called in advance and arranged for a room for us to stay at a local hostel. From the city he wound our way on cobblestones and dirt streets. How he knew where to turn we still aren’t sure but finally he arrived at the door of Chachi’s Hostal (Calle A#14 el Carretera La Boca y Calle 2da, (Rpto La Purisima), Trinidad  Phone: (+53) 53 419520) What a find!  The owners are lovely people!  Our room had a double bed and single bed. There was an air conditioner. A television. We had a private bath with shower. Because we thought we were pretty far from restaurants we had decided to eat at the hostel. Bob and Patrick went down without me as I was pretty tired. IMG_20170427_085528896When they returned after dinner I asked what they had eaten.  Lobster and barracuda they responded. I thought they were kidding.  But no, that’s what they ate!  IMG_20170426_201246491Chachi’s friend had caught the barracuda, and lobster is caught off the coast of Cuba as well. (So much for my theory that lobster comes from the cold waters of the North Atlantic!) And breakfast was just as amazing the next day with ham and egg omelets, toast, fresh fruit and juice and coffee. And even though the hosts spoke no English, and Lazuro’s English was limited as was our Spanish, we all managed to communicate.  When we went to check out our bill which included: our room, Lazuro’s room, 3 dinners, and 4 breakfasts totalled 75 cucs! I highly recommend this hostel.

After wandering a bit through the city we checked out Playa Ancon, a pretty Caribbean beach.  We settled ourselves under a thatched umbrella and enjoyed the view for an hour or so.

Then we headed back to Havana via Cien Fuegos.  Cien Fuegos is perhaps the loveliest town we saw.  The Lonely Planet refers to it as the Paris of Cuba, if Cuba has a Paris.  The main street is lined with building after building fronted with columns. I read (also in The Lonely Planet) that some Canadians offer a two week Spanish immersion program in Cien Fuegos.  Academia Cienfuegos offers 30 hours of language classes with 25 hours of cultural activities.  This really sounds like a fabulous course.  Anyone out there want to join me in taking it?

We hired (once again with Osiris’ help) a driver for a three hour tour of Havana. We decided on late afternoon when the heat wouldn’t be as intense. Ramses, our guide, was a young man, a recent economics graduate from the University of Havana. His car was a red 1955 chevy convertible. IMG_20170425_155526391 He first took us to see the embassys, and then Gandhi Park with a statue of Gandhi surrounded by beautiful banyan trees.  The American Embassy is near the sea with the Anti-Imperialist Park in front of it and with large poles which were installed to block the view of the Embassy.

We walked through a lovely neighborhood, Fusterlandia, started twenty years ago that is filled with ceramic art work.

(We’ve generally been impressed with the emphasis on art in Cuba. The limited television stations show a lot of classical music. And PBS type shows.) The artist, Jose Fuster, started the artwork in his home and now it permeates the entire neighborhood. From a variety of mosaic tiles, he has created pictures of the granma, of Che.

We visited the Plaza Revolucion. This is where Castro made most of his speeches.  There is a huge memorial to Jose Marti that is about 340 feet and is the tallest building in Havana. The Building of the Interior has the likeness of Che on it and the Cienfuegos is memorialized on the Ministry of Informatics and Communications.  When we were there Cubans were practicing for the big May Day celebration.

We also walked through the Hotel Nacional, a classic hotel that made me feel like I was back in the 1920’s.  There are tables al fresco with gorgeous views of the straits of Florida. (Our son is pretty sure he caught a glimpse of Benecio del Toro walking out of the hotel.) And finally we drove along the Malecon, an 8 kilometer stretch of road along the sea.

We find that Ernest Hemingway is almost as omnipresent in our travels as Che is in Cuba.  When we were in the Florida Keys, there are several “Ernest Hemingway was here” sorts of places.

In Pamplona Spain there is a statue to him outside the bull ring. And in Havana there are several bars that claim to have been his hangout. (We decided not to visit his home here because you can’t enter the building only look through the windows.)  As we were walking one day, a guy passed Bob and remarked, “Hemingway!” (Hmmm….that happened in Rome as well!)

It’s hard to say if Cuba met my expectations because I had no idea what to expect. But it’s been a fabulous three weeks.  My favorite part of Cuba has been the people. They are exceedingly friendly!  Patrick was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap and getting out of a taxi the hotel doorman commented, “Chicago Cubs World Champions!” When Patrick’s flight was over 3 hours late arriving and our taxi driver couldn’t wait with us any longer at the airport because he had another appointment, he apologized and refused to take a tip. The neighbors where we live are all very friendly. People on the street initiate conversation always interested in sharing their connections to the United States.

One afternoon the woman we rented from said she and her assistant would like to make us lunch.  No charge; it was just something they wanted to do.  The next day we were treated to several of Cuba’s national dishes: salad, chicken, black beans, rice, and wonderful local coffee!  Really delicious.

Because Patrick’s departing flight, three days earlier, was delayed several hours we decided to get to the airport really early but were pleasantly surprised by how easily we got checked into our flight.IMG_20170502_122306820 The clerk asked if we had enjoyed our stay and when we responded positively, he said, “Tell your friends.”  After moving through security, I was waiting for Bob to put his belt back on and it was a bit unsettling to have a guard come up to me and ask to see my passport and boarding pass. Then she asked to see Bob’s and then replied, “Ok, no problems.” Whew! I wasn’t ready for that.

The idea of the CDR houses expecting volunteers to tattle on their neighbors, the inability  of citizens to travel beyond Cuba, the constant monitoring of activities, the lack of access to the internet, as well as the constant propaganda becomes stiffling over time and makes me realize how very lucky I am to have been born an American. Hopefully, with increased access to the internet and the rest of the world, things will continue to become more open for the Cubans.  In the meantime I am really glad we were able to travel to this very interesting place and meet such wonderful people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panama: An Engineering Marvel

We always try to get to our “new” location during daylight hours. We prefer to arrive when we aren’t exhausted and for us we’re more comfortable getting our bearings before sunset. But this isn’t always possible and while we weren’t thrilled with arriving in Panama City at 9:36 pm with the obstacles of customs and immigration ahead of us, we had arranged with the woman who ran our Airbnb, Sarah, to have a driver, Matt, meet us.  Coming through customs was surprisingly easy, and as walked through the gate to the main terminal we saw lots of people lined up with signs in their hand, but no where did we see Matt. We went back again, still no Matt.  Thankful for my cell phone I tried Matt’s number, no answer; I tried Sarah, no answer.  I tried Matt again. This time he answered. Oh, he told us, he was tied up in traffic (At 9:30 on a Wed night this seemed unlikely, but who knows?) and he had sent Hilary instead. (Frustrated, I wondered why he hadn’t bothered to send me a text indicating the change! But again it was late and I was tired!)  We went back and sure enough we found Hilary with a piece of paper with “Jane” written in light pencil.  Hilary, a young lady who appeared to be in her early 20s, spoke little English, but was very friendly and walked us to her car and then headed into the city, about 45 minutes away to find our apartment.  One problem was she really didn’t know where the apartment was. She asked us a few questions, the answers to which we had no clue and she chatted with someone on her phone. Finally we arrived at a skyscraper in downtown Panama, talked with a doorman, and then Hilary asked if I had keys to the apartment…which I didn’t, but I thought Sarah had said they would be left at the door. And alas! They were.  Hilary and the doorman escorted us up the elevator to the seventeenth floor and we were FINALLY (a few minutes after midnight) exactly where we were supposed to be. It was about this time that it occurred to me how much trust we have in process as we travel.  I had met someone online, who had been reviewed and verified by Airbnb, and I had talked on the phone with someone they had connected me with and then we had just crawled in the car with a complete stranger trusting that she would get us where we needed to be!  And the amazing thing?  It worked just the way it should!

The view from our apartment was spectacular:  during the day, at sunset, in the evening. It was even a fascinating place to watch heavy rain showers and we were lucky there were few of those and they usually found us inside.

We found we couldn’t tire of it. Several nights we even enjoyed fireworks displays across the harbor! We had never stayed in a high rise before and a couple of times when we had power outages we did wonder about elevator access but that never turned out to be an issue as the outages never lasted more than a few hours. Looking at the building from a distance we found that we could easily locate our specific apartment because it was the one that had bouganvilla blooming from the balcony.

This Airbnb was the first one I missed the mark on.  On paper it looked perfect.  The apartment was comfortable, the view great, but the location truly didn’t work for us.  We were located on a small triangle of land near Avenida Balboa–one article I read estimated more than 75,000 vehicles travel it in a day, and I think they were all next to our apartment. Our spit of land was bordered on both sides by lanes and lanes of traffic and as is typical with many larger Central American and Asian cities with little urban planning there were no pedestrian crossings. And the resulting noise was not to be believed. While we enjoy city life, here it wasn’t the cacophony of people and the neighborhood; the noise came from cars, trucks and most often, and annoying, motorcycles! We watched with wonder as locals strolled right out among the cars, busses and trucks, often indicating by a slight tilt of the hand that the cars should stop so they could cross.  On the corner by the busiest of crossings stood a huge sign that warned walkers to cross with care!

Uber once again come to our rescue. In Panama you can order an Uber or an Uber English. And while they are extremely reasonable (I don’t think we ever paid more than $7 for any ride) we found it unnecessary to use an Uber English.  I know a little bit of Spanish and when I would initiate conversation with the driver (who was most often Panamanian or Venezuelan) they were pleased to communicate! Unfortunately, while I can usually figure out how to ask a question in Spanish, I’m often perplexed by the response I get. But with a lot of questioning looks, smiles and laughter we usually got it figured out. The biggest problem with Uber is that the drivers rely on electronic maps while the city taxi drivers know the city! So many times my phone would say 5 minutes to pick up and then change to 10 or 15 or sometimes they would even cancel!  Our building had a Papa John’s around the corner and that became our location point since everyone seemed to know where “Papa John’s in Paitilla” was!

But even with the great Uber service we often felt like we were hostages in our apartment since we couldn’t just go out and walk. (I did point out in my review of the Airbnb that this feeling could very much be just Bob’s and my perspectives. I’m sure many young people or those who grew up in similar environments wouldn’t have any issue!)

One of our first places to visit was Casco Viejo which was established in the late 1600’s by the Spanish colonialists.  It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. This is an area of Panama that is in the process of being restored. We often forgot that Panama is a national capital and like most capital cities there are lots of monuments. New buildings are mixed in among the ruins.

Lovely plazas are dedicated to historic leaders: Balboa, Bolivar, leaders of Central American countries. We visited the church with the gold altar which legend has it was painted black by its priests in the seventeenth century to protect it from pirates. IMG_0042 But everywhere we travel among my favorite monuments are those dedicated to the Ministry of Education which usually feature a child and a book. IMG_0016 (At the time of this writing I am hopeful we’ll never have a statue in the US of Betsy Devos, but I digress…)

Panama City is on the Pacific side of the country and we loved how we could watch from our bedroom as ships in the distance lined up to enter the canal. Its construction was first attempted by a Frenchman, de Lesseps, who had previously designed the Suez Canal.  As we walked through Casco Viejo following a pretty promenade along the water we saw a lot of French influence and the breeze off the water was a welcome accompaniment. IMG_0024There’s a lot of French history here including a French Embassy. While there is the old city and also the ancient city it’s really the canal that is the reason for Panama City’s existence. We met a family visiting from Germany and asked that they take our picture at what we thought was a particularly pretty point along the walkway! How surprised we were when our son, Patrick, shared with us a picture taken of him and a friend in the same exact location seven years ago. (The causeway in the background of our photo hadn’t been constructed when his picture was taken!)

 

One morning we took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks, the first locks boats encounter as they enter from the Pacific heading to the Caribbean. We had seen online that it was important to view the locks in the morning to see the boats heading east (or really north) toward the Caribbean because by 11 am the stream of ships would shift from east to west and there would be few coming through for several hours. We found this explanation confusing as the canal is open 24/7 but didn’t question and we arrived just in time to see the boat in the locks that a couple hours earlier we had viewed from our bedroom window lined up waiting to enter.

Patrick, sent us a link to  https://www.vesselfinder.com that made the viewing even more fascinating.  This site is live and gives specific locations of ships as they enter the canal describing their tonnage and cargo and also their ports of origin as well as their destinations.

For my birthday Bob and I visited the Biomuseo (designed by Frank Gehry) and located on the Amador Causeway. This road was built with the debris excavated from the canal’s construction and is today a very beautiful location with restaurants, marinas, hotels and a popular location for Sunday strolls.  Until control of the Canal was turned over to Panama this causeway was off limits to the local people. It’s easy to understand the frustration the Panamanians felt during the second half of the twentieth century given how much control Americans had over their lives (and economy)!  The construction of the museum is still in progress but it’s very interesting with lots of hands on exhibits.

Afterwards we visited Mi Ranchito http://www.restaurantemiranchito.com/en/home.html which became one of our favorite restaurants. It is also located on the causeway, is partially inside and partially outside with thatched roofs covering tables.

 

We particularly enjoyed the view of the skyline, the soft breeze off the water AND the great food!.  I had the shrimp creole which was yummy.  The restaurant is also a favorite with locals; its menu is diverse with lots of Panamanian choices and prices are reasonable. We returned several times during the month.

We made a trip via ferry to the Isle of Taboga, often referred to as the Island of Flowers.  It’s another favorite with locals as there are few nice beaches in Panama. Even with the crazy traffic, we found life to be pretty laid back in Panama.  And the ferry schedule to Taboga was no exception. The ferry landing was a modest affair, a tent behind a parking lot near the water. IMG_0022 (2)When checking in we were told there was an issue on the ferry and that when it was resolved they’d call us to board. People didn’t complain; perhaps they were used to it, and about 40 minutes later we were on our way. Our reservations were for the 9:30 trip but because we had way over estimated our travel time, we were boarding the 8:30 ferry departing at 9:15.  Funny how things work out!  It cost $20 for a round trip ticket and the majority of passengers seemed to be locals off for a day at the beach. (Although there is a sizeable expat community in Panama, we found that the majority of tourists tend to travel with organized tours.) Taboga is a lovely island. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The island has a lot of history including one of the oldest churches in the western hemisphere dating to the 1500s.  But the heat was so intense that after a short stroll up the hill to visit the church, and a stop for breakfast in a small hole in the wall (where we were waited on by an expat about our age from Wisconsin), we headed to the beach to enjoy the view under a sun umbrella. On the way we passed a mobile Uber stand.IMG_0047 (2)  Ever the ubiquitous Uber!  How strange, we thought! Taboga has no cars or trucks except for service vehicles.  The stand was closed so we couldn’t ask! (Then again the fact they were closed might answer the question!)  We found it interesting as we waited for our return ferry that residents returning to Taboga came loaded down with bags and boxes of groceries. Obviously they have to do their shopping on the mainland.  Then as we got underway for our twenty minute ride back we realized the boat was turning in a circle and returning to the dock.  What was happening?  Ah, we learned a woman, perhaps a regular? had missed the ferry and we were returning to pick her up!  Now just imagine that in the US or Europe!

At the top of our must do list was a trip through the canal! After researching the various options we finally decided on a partial tour. We would leave Panama City on a bus and head to Gamboa, about 40 minutes away, where we would board a boat in the locks at Gatun Lake. While both oceans are at sea level, the major problem with the construction is the height between the two. Gatun Lake is significantly higher so we would travel through three locks, each lowering us until finally, after approximately four hours, we would be at sea level again when we entered the Pacific Ocean. Our boat accommodated 300 people and because there were only about 100 in our party we had plenty of room to move about. Sailboats in front of us were tethered together. (And all ships that pass through the canal must have a canal guide.)

There were other small tour ships, huge cargo ships. As I watched the smooth water of the canal, I realized the stick I had been following wasn’t a stick at all but a crocodile.  I had read that the flooding was often so bad during construction that the men had to sleep in the trees. I don’t know what obstacle would have been the greatest: the climate, the snakes and crocodiles, the disease or the work itself. It truly is an engineering feat! As we entered the Pacific we were able to get a glimpse of the new lock, the one just opened in 2016 to accommodate larger ships. (It was also interesting to see a US Coast Guard ship sitting at its entrance!) At the end of the tour passing under the Bridge of the Americas, I felt like I was inside David McCullough’s book, Pathway Between the Seas.

We later toured the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama.  Here in addition to reading about the history of the construction of the canal, starting with the French, we watched videos and read newspaper accounts of the Americans turning over control to Panama. I think it’s interesting to note that there was some doubt that the Panamanians would be able to manage the canal effectively. In reality they’ve done an amazing job far exceeding expectations! (Ever the jingoistic Americans!) We also read with fascination the United States Senate voting rolls from March 1978 that showed the individual votes cast by each senator including among others Biden, Byah, McGovern.

There were unusual exhibits as well:  posters from the campaign for national sovereignty and a caricature portrait of world leaders from World War II.

Finally before leaving we decided to take a vacation of sorts. (Yes, even in our travels we sometimes want a break from what we’re doing.) And so we made a reservation for two nights at the Country Inn and Suites right on the canal.  It had a wonderful pool where we could swim and watch the ships on the canal at the same time. Talk about up close and personal!  We virtually sat mesmorized watching ship after ship until it became so dark we couldn’t see any more!

At dinner, we met a couple of expats from Canada and when we first began chatting the wife told us that she thought what we were doing was great, that they had made the mistake of selling their place in Canada and buying in Panama. It’s difficult to know how to respond to such a confession! That’s a pretty costly mistake that may be difficult, if not impossible, to correct. She spoke with a certain melancholy tone of her annual trips back to Canada. The conversation did a lot to reinforce that I’ve not yet found a place where I’m willing to settle permanently.

When I was booking our Airbnb’s and plane tickets for Panama and Cuba I had thought we’d travel from one to the other, but as I looked at prices of plane tickets, it was much more expensive to fly to Havana from Panama than it was to fly back to DC and then on to Havana from there. Perhaps it was because it involved one way tickets; I’m not sure. I only know that on a Wednesday morning at the ungodly hour of 4:45 Jose, our charming taxi driver, met us at our door and took us to the airport!  But at least our last jaunt out of downtown Panama left us with a picture of traffic that was a bit less chaotic!

From Florida, to DC, to Panama

Hard to get tired of this view: Sunrise from our apartment on Amelia Island

Wow!  It’s almost spring!  We’ve found, as we’ve heard other retirees say, that it’s difficult to remember what day of the week it is.  In Michigan I often felt like winter lasted forever, but now that we can escape the cold and the snow, we sometimes even forget what season it is. We are continuously reviewing and revising our upcoming travel plans.  We spent January and part of February back on Amelia Island because we enjoyed it so much last year. We even went back to the same complex but when we found the one we rented last year had gone up considerably in price, we kept on looking and lo and behold the condo literally next door was $900 dollars cheaper. All the things we loved about last year’s condo but at a price we could afford!

We found a few new places to visit. One we particularly enjoyed was Jekyll Island.  It has a lot of history.  In the early 1500’s Spain claimed a colony there and later in the mid 1500’s the French came.  Many battles ensued with the Spanish eventually winning out. Then in the mid-1600’s the English expanded their colonies from Jamestown south and allied themselves with the Cherokee, Creeks, and Yuchi tribes and eventually won out over the Spanish.

Horton’s home made from Tabby

When James Ogelthorpe established Georgia as a colony in 1722 he named the area for his friend, James Jekyll, who had contributed 600 pounds toward the establishment of Georgia as a colony.  Ogelthorpe assigned William Horton in the 1730s to set up a military base to protect the fort on nearby St. Simons.  That home still exists. Our first reaction when seeing the house was how did he get the cement? But then we read that it was built from tabby…a combination of lime, crushed shells and water that creates a sort of cement like composition.  Horton’s plantation raised barley and indigo and provided the nearby fort with beef and corn. The labor was provided by slaves. Spanish attacks continued and by the end of the 1740’s Horton was dead. The plantation was continued by an owner who had escaped the French Revolution and who also imported slaves onto the island. But by the time of the American Civil War the plantation was pretty much deserted.  Really interesting place.

March and April we’re going to be in Panama and Cuba. So we decided in mid-February to head back to DC, and to return to favorite haunts including our Thursday Trivia game at Zeba’s. One of the things I love best about DC is the passion with which people voice their beliefs. Weeks after the Women’s March these signs say it all:


 People often ask why when we return to DC we go to the same area instead of exploring new places. It’s kind of a no-brainer for us.  Because we don’t own a house, it’s fun to return to something familiar.  It’s comfortable to know the neighborhood, have favorite restaurants and grocery stores.  It’s close to one of our son’s and has easy access to another son’s family (so we can spend time with some of our grandkids!) in nearby Maryland.  Anyone who knows DC knows that one can spend hours in traffic just trying to make it across town. Our son in Maryland only lives about 14 miles from Columbia Heights and on a good day we can make that in half an hour.  From other parts of DC and south it could easily take us three times that amount of time. As a result, Columbia Heights has sort of become, at least for now, our home away from home.

We were really fortunate that for the last days of February when we were there the weather was amazing!  It was generally in the 70s with the sun shining!  There was a lot of concern that the cherry blossoms were going to bloom way early!

We were thrilled when our son, Stephen, asked if we’d be interested in going to the Hirshhorn Museum for the opening day of Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit, “Infinity Mirrors.” While we didn’t know anything about her work, we quickly researched it online and found this exhibit reflects the body of her work over the last six plus decades. It also may very well be her last trip to the United States.  We jumped on the bus Thursday morning, and within half an hour we were at the Hirshhorn. The tickets were timed and the display was an unbelievable sensory experience.  We feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see this wonderful exhibit! Check it out: http://hirshhorn.si.edu/kusama/the-exhibition/

One of the things I like best about seeing my grandkids often is being part of their everyday experiences, like walking them to and home from school. So on Wednesday morning after walking them to school, Bob and I called an Uber and headed to National Airport to head for Panama.  The spring-like weather had created the right conditions for some really heavy thunderstorms so we were delayed taking off. And our two and a half hour layover virtually disappeared in Atlanta. So when we landed, we really had to hustle to make the flight to Panama City, but we did it!  And we were extra lucky in that we had no one sitting in the middle seat so instead of being packed like sardines we were able to stretch out a bit!

We were waiting for take-off when the guy sitting in the row in front of us called over the flight attendant and pointed out to her that his luggage was still sitting on the cart that he could see from the window. The flight attendant immediately called it to the attention of someone who could solve that problem and it was quickly put on the plane.  Several of us were really impressed that he could recognize his bag while seated in the middle seat of the plane.  “That” he remarked, “is why I have a pink suitcase!”  It occurred to me then that all travelers have their little secrets for making travel easier! Little did I know that upon arrival in Panama City, Bob and I would be facing an obstacle of our own! Just when you think everything’s in order…

 

Happy New Year 2017!

Since we started our nomadic life two years ago, people often ask, “Don’t you miss your family?” What do your kids think?” To me living physically close to one another isn’t synonymous with being emotionally close. I’ve always believed my primary job as a parent is to love and guide my kids to become educated independent adults who have the confidence to fly toward their own dreams!  I think that’s why I like Krismas so much.  (It’s always been Krismas at our house because our oldest son is Kristoffer.) There’s a ten year span between our oldest and youngest child and for many years our family has been spread all over.  Several years ago we gave up the notion of gift giving (except for the grandchildren) and instead as many of us as possible try to gather together sometime during the holiday season.  This past year has been a challenging one for many of our family so we decided it would be a great year to gather in some place warm. img_20161213_141352 Florida seemed to be the easiest location for everyone to get to. Bob and I found a five bedroom house in suburban Orlando with private pool, less traffic and interesting wildlife.

Krismas isn’t a day to us but a time of year. Many young families want to be home with their own kids on the day itself and I think that goes for Stephen’s and Kris’ families as well.  All four of our kids and their spouses managed to arrange their calendars so their visits could overlap. Some would be able to stay for a few weeks, others for a few days. It didn’t matter, we’d all have a time together when everyone could catch up, laugh and cousins could have fun and get to know each other better!

An important part of any of our family gatherings is always game time.  We drew names for Charades teams.  Then each person wrote names of movies, books, songs and television shows on slips of paper for the other team to act out! Oh my!  What fun! Our age range was from 14 – 71 so you can only imagine how foreign some of the titles seemed to others.  “Really?” some asked.  “Sentimental Journey?”  “Ebb tide?”  On the other hand there were those from a younger generation that some of us older folk were absolutely no help with. “Reservoir Dogs?” Or “Narcos? Or “Parents Suck?” I had the luck to draw, “Dave and Mike Need Wedding Dates!”  Get one word and you don’t necessarily have the title. Guess that’s why it’s an acting game!  Then there were the rules…no props!  And ”No, you can’t point to yourself and your wife to get someone to say, married.”  Or can you?  I think you get the picture: we are a highly competitive family who take our games very seriously! But there was lots of laughter, and I don’t think any hard feelings, and it worked out well that we played two games and each team won one. download_20170130_123130 Every year we try to add a new game and this year Patrick had created a trivia game about the hometown of all but two of the adults. He had divided us into two person teams.  Talk about tough!  After the third question, my teammate, Allison, and I decided we needed to latch onto another team.  I truly think someone in Big Rapids ought to think about marketing this game to locals! (Perhaps whomever teaches Big Rapids history in the schools!)

Another fun game we played was Heads Up.  This game is played on the phone with one person showing the clue on the phone while holding the phone on her forehead and her teammate giving clues to get her to say it.  This game can be played with fewer people but the drawback is it tends to get really loud so it makes it difficult for others to sleep while the game is being played.  I’m sure it didn’t help the noise level that the grown-ups were all consuming large amounts of beer and prosecco as they played!

But the game we usually resorted to was euchre, a card game played a lot in the Midwest.  I think we managed to get in at least a couple of games each day and partners were always changing. In fact on the night before our oldest son’s family was leaving, my two oldest grandchildren, Alli and Brian and my daughter and I played euchre until 3 in the morning (knowing they’d have to get up at 5:30 to make the flight home).  I think it was one way we felt we could keep the visit from ending. (Too Brian and I kept thinking if we played one more hand, perhaps we could win! Doesn’t matter we’ll get em next time!)

One thing I really like about our family get-togethers is the lack of schedule and routine, the spontaneous way we can do whatever we want to do. (A belief I’ve held as I raised my own kids is that overly scheduled kids tied to a routine tend to grow up to be pretty inflexible adults!)  When we’re together people purpose ideas and those who are interested join them. People got their own breakfast when they got up. Lunch when they were hungry. Dinner was whatever was thought of at the time: a planned dinner, or pizza was ordered, or Chinese. A couple times we ate out. (After all, on New Years it only seems appropriate we’d go to the All You Can Eat Seafood Buffet.)

Stephen and his wife, Sadie, have two little girls ages 6 and 4, a perfect age to see Disney. So off they went for a day along with Kris and Alli. The rest of us stayed back. I’d say we did it to babysit Desmond, their 14 month old, but truly Andria, Kris’ wife, had that well in hand.

One day some of us drove up to Blue Spring State Park to see the manatees who gather there in the winter in the warm water while others chose to stay behind and see the new Star Wars movie.

A big must do for many was an airboat tour.  After researching it on the web a decision was made to visit one close by on New Years Day.  In the end, nine folks went. They saw a lot of wildlife and because it was a warm afternoon, they got to see a lot of alligators.  (Evidently when it’s cool the alligators submerge themselves in the water to stay warm.) The guide started to lift into the boat a small, well maybe not so small, Bob described the gator as about 3 feet from nose to tail. The guide first grabbed it by its back, and then by the tail and as he was trying to hold it closer to the head it nipped him. The guide then reached down and washed his bloody hand in the water. Having situation well in hand he held the gator up and asked if anyone wanted to touch it, no one responded, so he tossed it back into the water.  Our four year old granddaughter, Meta, was not thrilled. She snuggled into her cousin and started crying.  The poor guide tried to console her, apologizing again and again but she was having none of it.  I’m not sure what Meta’s “take aways” were from the experience but I’m thinking she may never ever want to get in an airboat again. But sometime in the future it may make for a pretty good story about the time I was in an airboat and the guide got bit by an alligator.

After Krismas Cary’s friend, Claudio, flew in to spend a week with us. (You may remember that we visited his family in Sicily last fall.) It was his first time in the States so Cary felt compelled to provide him with An American Experience.  So what would that entail?  Well, for starters there was American food:  Waffle House is a definite part of the American Experience (at least in the south). img_20170107_131041-1  Absolutely wonderful food, the fact that it perhaps has no nutritional value is a different story.  Then of course, he had to try wings.  And barbequed ribs!  Can’t forget those. And while we’re on the subject of food…what’s a trip to the US without a trip to Costco and making a meal out of all those samples?img_20170107_122254  Trivia is always a big deal for our family and we had already played once before he arrived. Claudio is fluent in English…fluent enough to play trivia in a second language is pretty impressive! At half time we were in first place, but only managed to get third when the game ended. Even so it came with a gift certificate for a later date but since we were leaving soon, we passed it on to folks at a nearby table.

People first arrived on December 20 and too soon it was January 13 and the house was empty except for Bob and me.  But oh what happy memories we’ve made: games, miniature golf, swimming, just relaxing and enjoying each other.  We feel so lucky to have family who genuinely like, as well as love, each other and look for those times when we can all gather!  It truly is a Happy New Year!

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Tidbits we’ve learned…

img_1936At the end of this month it will have been two years since we embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives. Many have asked us for more details. How do you do this? Where do you live? How do you get around?   It’s been an incredible two years and has far exceeded the expectations I had before we started our peripatetic lifestyle.  It’s also been a lot more work than I ever imagined.  We knew we had to have a home address and our oldest son and his wife graciously let us use their home for our base.  This made sense since they live just a few blocks from where we had last owned a house. (It also helped that they monitored our mail when I received a notice to appear for jury duty!) But I never realized when we started out the amount of time and energy it would take for us to attend to all the details that come with full time travel.

There are things like deciding where we want to go and how long we want to stay.  And then we need to actually find those places to stay. Airbnb and VRBO have been our most used sites but we’ve also used Holiday Lettings.  And we also have to consider, will we need motels or short term places between our stops?  Then how do we get from one place to the next. Will be we need to fly? Because time is never a factor we try to fly as little as possible.  It’s uncomfortable, a hassle, you see nothing and generally not a pleasant experience. What about rental cars? Can we get along with public transportation?  How do we make arrangements for plane tickets and bus tickets?  Then there’s the ongoing decision of what do we keep and what do we store?  And do we store it or can we get rid of it?

We’ve learned a lot of things along the way that I wish someone had shared with us before we started out.

One of the first things we learned was to find a REALLY good credit card. I set up a spreadsheet so we’d be able to live within our budget.  We always live on the income of the previous month and we budget for our rent, transportation, medical bills, car insurance, cell phone and monthly savings.  We budget a monthly amount for day-to-day expenses and I set that up in a checkbook spreadsheet.  This has worked well but it does take time. I run EVERYTHING through our credit card.  I deduct it from our account, just like I would in a checking account so that at the end of the month I can pay the credit card bill in full.  I do this EVERY month.  While we try to never outspend out monthly budget the advantage of the credit card is that we get travel miles. We found as of 2016 the very best credit card for us is the Capital One signature card.  It allows us to get two times the dollars spent on every purchase.  (So if we spent $250 we get $5.00 credit.)  And we can use the dollars to pay any travel expense we incur:  Airbnb, airplane tickets, motels.  It’s amazing.  We’ve booked round trip tickets to Europe using our miles. Again, we pay it off every single month.  We also learned that we always want to make purchases in the local currency.  Our credit card generally has given us a much better rate than the local place where we make purchases.  So when the local merchant says in local currency or dollars, I always say, “Local currency.” While I generally stay loyal to only one credit card I recently was offered a new credit card with a bonus of significant airplane miles, and I took them up on it because I was given 30,000 free miles, as well as $100 off my first flight and a free checked first bag on every flight. It just made sense.

As I mention credit cards, I must share one of our biggest mistakes.  We use a credit card for all our purchases, but use a bank card for withdrawing cash (so we don’t get charged interest for cash withdrawn on our credit card).  We were in Dublin, short on cash, went to the cash machine and lo and behold it was denied.  We knew there was money in the account.  We couldn’t figure it out…until…we looked closer…the card had expired.  We called the company and sure enough they had mailed a new card to our US address, but we weren’t having our mail forwarded to us in Europe.  Could we get a duplicate?  Nope, not without involving a notary public, and in some cases an attorney.  Security was tight, as we would generally want it to be.  Finally we asked our son to send it via expedited mail.  In the meantime we gathered all the US cash we had and went to the bank and converted it to Euros.  It worked, but you can rest assured that in the future I will be checking expiration dates of all our cards before leaving the US.

Likewise, we’ve found benefits in free hotel loyalty programs.  In Dublin this resulted in free upgraded wifi, Cadberry chocolates and cookies.  In the US we’ve received free nights by sticking with Choice Hotels (making sure we always check to see if there is some ongoing promotion we need to register for). We don’t need fancy; we just want clean and convenient.

One of our greatest finds we learned about from a young  American couple we met at an Airbnb bed and breakfast in Kevlavik Iceland.  They explained that they were using TMobile because it has free data in Europe!  Wow!  That is huge!  As soon as we came back to the States we changed.  We’ve really been happy.  There are a few places in the US where the coverage isn’t great, but in the larger cities it works!  In Europe and the US we’ve been able to use Spotify and connect via Bluetooth to our car with no charge.  But the biggest perk is that we can use Googlemaps all over Europe for free. It may be 2G but for maps that’s sufficient, and it makes us feel so much more secure!

One of the biggest advantages to travelling full time is that we can take our time.  We can visit the sites, take a day off to relax and read, wander through neighborhoods, but also we found that when we book stays for three weeks to a month we can get quite substantial discounts. We just booked a place outside Boston for the month of May and got a 60% discount!  There’s lots we want to see in Boston and we’re not there in the dead of winter but rather in spring and before all the chaos of summer travelers.  It works for us!

One thing that saves us (and our kids a lot of headaches) is that we got credit cards for each of our kids so when we ask them to forward mail to us, or send us a package, or if we’re leaving the car with them and it need repairs, we don’t have to figure out a way to pay them.  They just put it on our credit card.  It doesn’t seem like a biggy but anything that saves time and hassle is a plus.

When we rent a place, we read the ads very carefully. We look for what’s on our must have list.  Does it include a microwave, a coffee pot? Europeans generally have boilers for tea, but fewer provide coffee pots. We are big coffee drinkers but have purchased a French Press that we carry in Europe and it works fine for us. Is there an oven?  While we prefer there was, we know we can do without.  We do require a washer. And while few places in Europe have dryers (they do have drying racks) we travel with so few clothes that it is imperative that we have a washer. What about steps?  It’s important to remember that the first floor in Europe is the second floor in the US.  This doesn’t seem really important unless we’re renting on the third floor without an elevator and then it really is a climb. When we first started traveling, I loved the term, “garden apartment.” Now that I realize that just euphemistic way of saying basement apartment it’s not so charming!

Because we book online and I do a blog and we want to communicate with family, wifi is very important to us.  If it doesn’t say in the ad I contact the host and ask! Three weeks or a month is a long time to do without something that is important to us. And while I am sure there are many people who would disagree with me, we carry a Chromecast with us.  We find when we’re out of the country that we really enjoy a movie (Netflix), a hockey game or a family television show for bit of home.

We haven’t needed converters as we’ve traveled abroad because the only electronics we use are our phones, computers, tablets and readers. (I bought a European hair dryer.) And while those things need adapters they do not need converters.  We found it much cheaper to buy adapters for the UK and Europe through Amazon before leaving home.  We carry a half dozen of each in our suitcases.

We also have learned not to try to have prescription sent to us abroad. Our son mailed 90 days worth to us in Spain and we never received them.  We did find out that we could get all of Bob’s seven prescriptions over the counter in Spain for a very reasonable out of pocket cost.  (Lucky thing I’m not sure what we would have done otherwise!)

Cab drivers, we’ve found, are very good sources of info.  In Dublin our driver gave us advice about how to avoid certain tourist traps.  Our Polish drive in London offered suggestions when we asked what we should see in his native land. Our Uber driver from Victoria Station to our Airbnb pointed out things along the way we should see including Abbey Road. We’ve also gleaned a lot of ideas from locals we’ve met.  We stayed in a lovely complex in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands where virtually everyone but us owned an apartment in the complex.  There were lots of Brits, Scots and Irish and they gave us wonderful suggestions on what to see when we visited their home countries.  In addition, we found that the pool in the complex was a great gathering place and we spent many enjoyable hours making new friends from around the globe.

There are some customs and vocabulary we’ve found confusing even when many do speak English. But usually if you just seek out information, locals graciously help you out.  For instance in England we found that when ordering at pubs, we were to go to the bar, order, and then give them our table number (which was found on the corner of our table).  We also learned that when we have a question, the straight forwardness of Americans can be perceived as rude.  It’s much preferable to preface all requests with, “May I chat with you?” or “I hate to bother you..” or “Hello, how are you today?”  It does seem like a much more civilized way to do interact.

These are just a few of the many things we’ve learned along the way. Wishing you all the best…and looking forward to new adventures in 2017 when our plans are to visit Panama, Cuba, Boston and Quebec City and then who knows?   Happy Holidays!

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Home Again…

While we love our travels abroad, it always feels good to come back to the US for a break.  This time we’re spending a month in DC catching up with family there. Besides taking in the historical sights of the city, we enjoy the zoo, movies and local farm festivals with our kids and grandkids. img_0041Ever since I made the reservations a couple of months ago I had been dreading the ten hour flight from Rome to DC.  It was not nearly as grueling as I was expecting. And it came with the added advantage of knowing when we got to our destination we didn’t have to get on a connecting flight which is always a hassle!  Bob and I had splurged and as an anniversary gift to ourselves, we had upgraded our seats on United to Premium Economy. And boy was it worth it. Don’t get me wrong this was not nearly as luxurious as first class but then it came with a much lower price! I understand that every airline does their premium economy a bit differently. But for us it meant we had seats in the bulkhead…two seats where there are normally three (not nearly as large as first class) but we didn’t have to crawl over anyone and we had the luxury of extra room which allowed us to stand up and stretch. We’ll definitely consider it again for transatlantic flights.

Upon arriving in DC we called for an Uber to take us to our Airbnb in Columbia Heights. Since we had arrived during rush hour on a Friday it was pleasant to sit back and let someone else worry about the traffic. As usual Uber was a great experience.  Our driver even carried our bags up the few steps to our apartment entrance.  What a gentleman!

DC is one of my favorite cities in the world. Once again we had rented a place in Columbia Heights, not far from our January location. We particularly like this area because it’s close to our family making it easy to see them without having to drive across the city which as anyone who knows DC understands is never a pleasant undertaking. However, after spending just a couple of days in Rome, we do have a different perspective of DC traffic.  It may be slow but compared to the weaving in and out and often missing traffic signals as well as the constant onslaught of scooters in Rome, we found DC to be a piece of cake. And we have a new appreciation of our daughter’s driving skills as she safely maneuvered us throughout Rome!

We also enjoy the DC neighborhoods with their multi-colored houses, how we can walk to restaurants, the grocery and the easy (not to mention cheap for senior citizens) bus system. img_20160927_174321The mild climate DC as compared to Michigan is an added plus. (But then again we’ve never spent a summer there so perhaps that’s an equal trade off for a Michigan winter.) We returned to our favorite trivia bar and were so pleased when they remembered us! And our team finished first resulting in a $20 prize!img_20161006_202329

Our youngest son had thoughtfully signed us up for timed-tickets to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Tuesday after it had opened the previous Saturday. The experience was beyond words.  The building is spectacularly beautiful inside and out. It’s like walking through history. img_20160927_104829 We spent more than three hours there and didn’t begin to see it all. I had no idea that Denmark-Norway was dealing in slave trade in the 1600’s or that at the same time the Netherlands was shipping slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa to the northeast coast of South America. There was so much to take in. One man was constantly taking pictures; he explained to us that when he got home he’d be able to read it and process all that he was seeing. img_20160927_123151 As I was stood absorbed in a newscast from the 1960’s a woman about my age came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it?  And I think we’re headed back there.” And yet despite the struggle, there was something very uplifting about the experience. I think it defines in large part what it means to be an American.

We still had a few places on our “DC List” that we hadn’t done yet. Among them was the Congressional Cemetery which is located at 1801 E Street SE.img_0165  Although this is the first national cemetery, over time it had not been kept up until in the 1990’s when a group of volunteers took it on.  It is in this cemetery that John Philip Sousa (along with much of his family) is buried.img_0169 And every November 6 the Marine Corps Band, also known as the President’s Band, marches to his grave and plays.  (Just as we take something off our bucket list, another gets added!) Among other famous people buried here are: John Quincy Adams, Elbridge Gerry, who although a signer of the Declaration of Independence refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights and who later served as fifth vice president of the United States. He was perhaps best known for the concept of gerrymandering. Some of the more infamous include: J Edgar Hoover and Mary Ann Hall. Ms Hall ran a luxurious brothel about four blocks from the White House (at 349 Maryland Ave SW) in the middle 1800’s serving many of DC’s rich and powerful. I found it interesting that her gravesite has a guardian angel protecting it.img_0179

It’s also a popular place for folks to walk their dogs. A group called the K9 Corps was started in the 1990’s.  They taxed themselves to help pay for the mowing of the cemetery. In order to walk your dog in the cemetery you must belong to this group. The first burial was in 1807. But it’s still possible to be buried in the cemetery. Think about it: it’s possible to be buried on a site that L’Enfant had included in his city plan!

The cemetery is free and in addition to having paper maps, they also have a nifty app that allows you to locate a burial site and then guides the user from her present location to the gravesite!  The whole place is just amazing!  And so few know about its existence!

We also got tickets to see “Unelectable You” at the Kennedy Center.  I am always awestruck when I enter the Kennedy Center.

Tonight we would see a joint production by Second City and Slate. Taking an Uber to the Kennedy Center turned out to be a great decision. When we arrived there was a table outside the Eisenhower Theatre that was selling wine and beer. I asked if it were possible to take my drink into the performance and was a little taken aback when the woman replied, “Yes, in a sippy cup.” That turned out to be a plastic souvenir cup with a lid and while I had never had pinot grigio in a sippy cup. It was pretty good! The performance, just as expected, was hysterical! After the show we headed to The Hamilton for a late dinner. Having never been there before we didn’t know what to expect but the reviews sounded great! How thrilled we were that all their sushi was half price. I guess at 11 at night they don’t want it left over! At 2 am we once again called Uber for our ride home.  How funny that the driver had a sweet little dog in his lap!

We regularly encounter little hiccups as we travel. And this stop was no different.  We had left our car with our family in Rockville six months previous. This is a 2006 Chrysler minivan with 256,000 miles on it. And while it was currently running fine we also knew that at any time it could stop. So we decided it was time to bite the bullet and buy a new car. We also decided that we’d like to donate the minivan to the public radio station at American University. Bob contacted them and they said they’d love to have it.  The university contracts out to a company to pick up the car.  The arrangements were to have the car picked up, and they would contact us an hour prior so we could meet them at the car. When I got up at 7 am, there was already a message that we had missed their call. When I called back they said unfortunately the day’s schedule had already been set and they couldn’t add our vehicle to the schedule. They said they’d pick it up the ,following day but we didn’t need to be there. The next day came and went with the car still at the house. So on the third day Bob called and was told they needed to schedule a time for us to be there. No, he explained everything was under the mat of the car and we had been told we didn’t need to be there. The next day I got a text from my daughter-in-law. She had been home from work and when they came to pick up the car, there was a knock at the door and the man from the company said that while the title and keys were there, there was a lien on the car and they couldn’t take it. Really?  A lien on the car?  I’m pretty sure I must have had a release for the lien but in the sorting and pitching of the papers in our move, I must have thrown it out.  We finally got the telephone number of the company where we’d had the lien and they said they’d fax us a release.  It would cost us $60 but they’d expedite it and we would get it on 48 hours. We drove out to Rockville, the release was indeed in the door. We put it with the other materials and contacted both the radio station and the folks doing the pick up that everything was in place.  For the next week, my son or daughter-in-law would text us daily that they were home from work but that the car was still there. It had now been three weeks since we initiated the donation process and so once again we called the radio station to express our frustration. My husband by this point was saying he truly wished someone would just steal the car. There were keys, the title, the release of the lien and the car was unlocked. Just please someone walk off with the car! I asked the guy with the company to please let me know where the car would be taken after it was picked up.  He gave me the address and then told me to wait a minute while he got their hours. “Oh no,” I explained, “You don’t understand. I don’t care if they’re open or not. I intend to just leave it there if it’s not picked up as you promise it will be next Tuesday.”  Lo and behold at the end of the day on Tuesday, my daughter-in-law texted me to say, “It’s gone!” So beware the next time you see a billboard proclaiming, “Donate your car!  It’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do!” Obviously, that wasn’t our experience.

Next we’ll head to Michigan to spend time with that part of the family and good friends. And we’ll also check in for a couple of weeks with my sister in Seattle.  We feel fortunate to have family living in such interesting parts of the country.img_0917

 

 

Ciao from Sicily

We meet a lot of people in our travels who are excited to tell us they’ve been to the United States. When we ask where, their responses are usually the same:  New York City, Washington DC, Orlando and sometimes Los Angeles or Chicago.  We tend to believe that any one of these places is not representative of the US as a whole.  Yet, I think we, and I believe many other Americans, do the same thing.

“Have you been to France?”  “Oh, yes, I love Paris.”  Or, “Have you been to Italy?” ” We think Rome is wonderful.”  This became my realization when we spent September in Sicily.  Having visited Rome I was surprised at how different Sicily is…not better not worse…just different. We think of Italy as a country of ancient ruins but it’s really a very young country. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the different states were consolidated into the Kingdom of Italy.  And from 1815 – 1860 there existed the Kingdom of the two Sicilies with capitals in Naples and Palermo. Sicily even has its own language, not a dialect but an actual language.

We landed in Palermo and were met by Cary and her friend Claudio.  We had been invited to stay with Claudio’s parents, Franca and Pippo, who have a summer location in Triscina close to the Mediterranean Sea.  The drive to their home from Palermo was gorgeous with the road meandering between the mountains and the sea. img_20160902_111918 We were very lucky to be able to stay with local residents, and while neither Franca nor Pippo speak English, Cary and Claudio both speak fluent Italian and English so little was lost in the conversations.  Claudio’s mother is an amazing cook and we were overwhelmed by the quantity of the food.  Pasta would be a whole meal for us. But it was just the beginning of her lunch. And I never realized how many different forms of pasta there were.  They are chosen for the way they blend with the sauce…some thinner, some heavier. But ALL DELICIOUS!  Each one would be my favorite until the next day when I tried one that I liked even better.

On Sunday morning we headed to the local fish market and watched as Claudio’s mother bought a whole swordfish which was then sliced into individual steaks right in front of our eyes.

A couple of hours later this wonderful fish was served for lunch (in the course AFTER the pasta).  Talk about fresh!  It seemed like his mother was continuously cooking!  Their home was very warm and welcoming and we felt very lucky to have been invited to stay with these gracious people.

Even though the Kingdom of Italy is new, Sicily is an ancient region. We visited the Selinunte Ruins not far from Triscina. Selinunte is a Greek city dating from 600 BC.

At one point it is believed there were as many as 30,000 citizens, not including the slaves.   It was marked by the ruins of Greek Temples (A, B, C, and O) and the Acropolis. Some have deteriorated over time and some have damage caused by the earthquake in 1968.

From the ruins we drove on to Marsala to visit the natural reserve, Stagnone Lagoon, which is a marine area with salt ponds and windmills.    img_0254(Marsala is also known for Marsala wine.) We ate dinner at Mama Caura’s and sat outside sipping our wine as we watched the sun set over the Lagoon. It was like sitting in front of a great painting.

We visited the hill town of Salemi with Toto, a close friend of Claudio’s family, as our tour guide. Because Toto grew up in Salemi he was able to guide us through the winding climbing streets of the town pointing out various sites and adding little known tidbits of information. The town has a very rich history having been controlled over time by: the Romans, The Arabs, and The Normans. The city also had a Jewish quarter. The Arabs (in the 800’s) brought many new agricultural products to the area among them citrus fruits, apricots, and saffron.

The Arab influence can still be seen in the town’s architecture.  Toto told how as a small boy he could remember the American troops marching into the city and handing out chocolates to the children! Wow!  That was something I could picture from old movies! I could have listened to his stories forever!

On a different day we were invited to appetizers by another of Franca’s and Pippo’s friends, Milly and Eino who are originally from Estonia. Their home is at the end of the street looking right out at the Mediterranean. Eino prepared wonderful hors d’oeuvres  that we ate as sat on their porch overlooking their lovely pool directly in front of us and the sea beyond.  We had to pinch ourselves at how fortunate we were to be visiting with and learning about the area with people who lived here!

Most of the area where we were visiting was in the region of Trapani and since we have a daughter-in-law with that maiden name we really wanted to visit the city itself.  We walked through the local market and found that it was much like all the other markets we’ve visited throughout Europe.

I think there was probably a time when these markets featured local crafts but generally now we find the same things throughout Europe: fruit, olives, meat, fish, leather goods, clothes and if we closed our eyes we often wouldn’t know what city we were in.  The downtown had a lot of lovely old buildings. But the high point of the day was our drive to Erice.  The town is located at the top of Mount Erice and overlooks the city of Trapani.  Bob and I walked only a short distance up the steep street but thoroughly enjoyed the drive both up and back down the mountain.

On one of our last evenings in Triscina we met up for dinner. There would be twelve of us including our new friends. This time we went to Marzara del Vallo a beautiful city and major fishing center. The center is called the Casbah with a lot of Arab architectural influence.

What fun we had wandering through the town before heading to Ristorante Lo Scoiattolo for dinner.  I think 8 of us had mussels!  It’s the only time I ever remember being served more mussels than I could eat!  Really yummy!

Two days later we headed out stopping to drop Cary and Claudio at the airport for their flights back to the continent. We then continued to the eastern side of Sicily.  Driving through Palermo we headed on to Cefalu, a town of about 14,000, located on the northern coast of Sicily right on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The main draw of Cefalu is the cathedral that was built in the 1100’s.

We were amazed at how crowded this little town was but we were able to find a parking place and it proved a lovely break in a day of driving. We continued from Cefalu aiming for Catania. The center of Sicily is very sparsely populated. There are a few small towns on the mountainsides but for the most part the rest areas along the highway were the only places of civilization we encountered. The scenery was pretty in a very barren sense…reminding us of  Lanzarote.

Catania is a gritty city but we had made hotel reservations close by the sites we wanted to see and always felt safe wherever we walked.  (We rented a car in Sicily but chose not to use it in the cities due to congestion and hassles with parking.) Catania sits at the foot of Mt. Etna which was one of the reasons we wanted to visit. How ironic that we only got one glimpse of the mountain as we were leaving and heading further south.

For the two days we were there I think I always held the possibility of an earthquake in the back of my mind.  I’m not sure how people who live in areas of earthquakes deal with that but perhaps it’s nimg_0542o different than living in an area that has tornadoes! One benefit of the volcano is the ash that provides fertile soil for the growth of grapes for wine! From Catania we drove to Messina where we could watch the ferry as it approached the mainland.

The Catania fish market, the largest fish market in Europe, is a rowdy mass of wall to wall people. Fish mongers yell continuously as they work furiously beneath canvas covers that protect the fish (and the sellers) from the warm Sicilian sun.  Every morning the fishermen come in with their catch, and we wonder what happens to all that is not sold. Does it go to local restaurants? Supermarkets? Charities? The symbol of the city is a huge black elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk in the city center.  The elephant was created in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini.  We aren’t sure of its significance but it’s definitely impressive.

Catania was repeatedly bombed by the Allies during World War II so it’s amazing that the statue and so many of the city’s classical buildings survived.

From Catania we headed to Siracusa, the ancient city in southeast Sicily. We had been told by many that we wanted to stay in Ortigia. We found a small bed and breakfast on a narrow street. The owner had texted me that we could park in the Plaza di Archimede (making sure someone stayed with the car since it was illegal to park there) while the other person would walk to the B&B with the belongings.  Bob would stay with the car and I’d take our stuff and check in. img_0591Of course in the piazza I chose the wrong direction (Picture a circle with five exits around it.) But soon I had figured it out. The B&B was new and the owner told us that the building had belonged to her sister and as they began restoring it, they found old archways and walls and had tried to restore it to its original plan.  Breakfast was served each img_20160917_211958morning on the terrace on the top floor. The location was perfect, beautiful and close to everything!

We’d walk each day to visit various historic sites and then come back to our room to relax before going out in the evening for dinner and another walk.  My favorite site was El Duomo (Cathedral of Syracuse) dating back to the 600’s. The cathedral became a mosque in the late 800’s and the converted back to a church in the late 1000’s. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Doric columns from the original church are integrated into the current church.

The Fonta Aretusa is a fresh water spring right next to the sea. Lengend has it that the nynph Arethusa was trying to escape from an unwanted suiter Alpheus and so was changed into a spring by the goddess Artemis.The  whole island and its plazas were particularly beautiful at night.

From Siracusa we drove back toward Palermo to spend a couple of days before flying to Rome.  Because we had been in very populated areas that past week we chose to stay at the Tenute Plaia Agriturismo between the quaint village of Scopello and the larger city of Castellammare del Golfo.

As we drove to the rural site uphill and down dale winding along the sea only to turn again up into the hills, we began to wonder just how remote this location was going to be. But as we turned into the drive we were stunned by the beauty of the sea in front of us.  A perfect place to unwind for a couple of days before heading to Rome.  Scopello, a small village less than a mile away, was a great place to spend a morning.

It’s a very short flight from Palermo to Rome and we were thrilled that Cary would meet us when we landed.img_20160921_093545 Even though we only had two days with her Cary had rented a car and planned a great schedule. We spent a day in Tivoli at Villa d’Este which was commissioned in the 1500’s. Tivoli has always been a popular summer spot because of its cooler temperatures. On the day we visited rain threatened but we really lucked out missing most of the rain and temperatures in the high 70’s. Just perfect!  The villa itself is beautiful but it was the gardens and fountains that we wanted to see.  The gardens are on a variety of levels and contain fountains, water spouts, waterfalls and it’s all been created using gravity. There are no pumps.  The water decorations are scattered among sculptures, mosaics, a variety of landscaping with paths and balconies throughout. I loved it. But judge for yourself!

Again time had passed far too quickly and it was time to move on. It’s hard to believe it’s been seven months since we had arrived in Europe. We hugged Cary good bye, made a bit easier knowing that we’d see her again at Christmas and boarded our 10 hour flight to DC!  Good bye Europe. Hello US!

Scotland: The Fringe, The Tattoo, Loch Ness and St Andrews…

In May while we were in the Canary Islands we were thrilled to meet some folks from Scotland since that’s where we were planning to spend August. We told them we’d like to pick their brains on what we should see and do during our time there.  They explained we were really lucky to be in Edinburgh during “The Fringe” and then in the next breath asked if we had booked our place to stay as “The Fringe” is the biggest cultural extravaganza in the world. We had no idea!  I immediately got online and began to search for a place to stay…that would be convenient yet affordable.  As luck would have it, a woman had just listed her apartment that day.  After a few interactions we booked it!  And I’m so glad we did.

On our train trip from Inverness to Edinburgh we sat with a lovely couple from Inverness who were travelling to see friends in a small town near Edinburgh just as they do every year during “The Fringe.”  They go annually for three or four days and offered some suggestions on what they had seen that we might like.  Word of mouth has helped direct us to so many interesting places!

“The Fringe” is a three week arts festival in August.  While the majority of performances are comedy and theatre, there is lots of dance and music.  Each performance lasts about an hour and prices vary.  Some are free but the most expensive tickets we saw were 15 euros. Most were in the 5 or 6 euro range.  There are over 40,000 performances in virtually every available nook and cranny in the city.  And in addition, there are street performers everywhere.

Fringe programs are free for the taking and available at every performance and street corner, although we found it easiest to look online and sort by venue or time. How anyone puts together the program is beyond my comprehension! To make the festival even more special, both Cary and Patrick flew in to spend a week with us.  We couldn’t resist going to see Trumpageddon.  He had Trump’s mannerisms down pat. img_20160822_135648And it was especially funny seeing Trump through the eyes of a European performer. He even took questions from the audience.  A favorite show for the four of us was Aladdin and His Magical European Refugee Tour 2016 performed by Asleik & Jon, a Norwegian duo  who did a wonderful comedic routine about the immigrant crisis. So good in fact we thought it would be wonderful to show to school children throughout the world! There were also some big names.  We went to see Ron White on the last day of the festival. He was hilarious.

Several had told us that while we were in Edinburgh that the Military Tattoo was a must do!   We had read that The Military Tattoo was first performed in 1950.  The name comes from British Regiment’s Practice of playing to notify taverns t0 turn off their taps. Later in the eighteenth century the term Tattoo came to mean the last duty call of the day. This year we watched military bands, dancers, singers and various other performers from more than 16 countries. The event always takes place on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle and incorporates both pyrotechnics and lasers using the castle as a backdrop!  It’s really spectacular.

The Tattoo has been sold out for the past eighteen years and never once in its 67 year history has it been cancelled because of inclement weather. Nearly two hours of nonstop music! (Check this out if you want to see the 2016 Tattoo in its entirety: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvWGB8gDLDE)

England’s national anthem, was followed by Auld Lang Syne and the Evening Hymn remembering all who died a century ago in World War I.  Finally, the lone piper played “Sleep Soldier Sleep” which was really moving and then the massed bands performed a finale to end the amazing evening, one which none of us will ever forget.

While we love the cities of Scotland we decided that our kids should see the Highlands in order to have a more complete picture of the country. I found a bus tour that took us first through Dean’s Distillary.  img_20160825_091805After touring  the distillary we were invited for a taste…although 10 o’clock in the morning is a bit early for whiskey, it still was pretty good!  We then traveled on through the Highlands heading for Loch Ness making various short stops along the way.  The scenery was spectacular!  By the time we arrived at Loch Ness the sun was shining and it had warmed up considerably.  We took an hour cruise peeling our eyes for a glimpse of Nessie but no luck.

Some have suggested that the chances of seeing Nessie improve with a few drinks of the famous Scotch whiskey!  Instead we settled for the local brews on board the boat.  Heading back we traveled briefly through Cairngorms National Park, with its lovely glens and lochs.  The coach driver once again impressed us with his knowledge of the history of the area.

Whenever we think of Scotland, St. Andrews usually comes to mind and its famous golf course.  Our family has always had a special love for miniature golf so when we found out that St. Andrews has a miniature golf course right next to its old course we thought we’d like to play it.  We found a train that came quite near to the the city and from there we took a taxi.  We had checked online to make sure the course was open so when we got there and found that it was going to close from noon to 4 for a special function we were really disappointed, but then we decided we’d just venture on into the city, have some lunch, take a look around and then come back and play at 4.

St. Andrews is a really pretty city with a lovely castle dating from the late 1100’s  right on the edge of the North Sea.  It’s also home to St. Andrews University which dates from 1410 making it the third oldest in the UK (after Oxford and Cambridge) and the place where Prince William met Kate Middleton. There’s even a restaurant marking the spot. The Brits do like their royalty!

Patrick and I walked around the city while Cary and her dad enjoyed the sun (and caught a little shuteye) on the campus.  We got back to the golf course just as it opened.  I don’t know what I was expecting to pay but when the woman at the gate said it would be 4 euros total for the 4 of us I was really surprised.

While we only used a putter, the course was on real undulating greens (and not much like a putt putt course) but it was really fun. Patrick came in first and I was thrilled because for the first time in my life I beat Bob! And the four of us can now reference the time we played golf at St. Andrews!

The day before Patrick was to fly home we decided we’d like to at least get a taste of Glasgow.  The train trip is less than an hour. Glasgow struck me as far more a regular city than Edinburgh and with less history. But still it was an interesting place. As usual we did the Hop On Hop Off bus to get an overview of the city. Glasgow is a city of murals! St. Mungo is one I particularly like. It was done by the Australian street artist, Smug, of Mungo who lived in the sixth century but in the mural is attired in the clothing of today.  The story goes that children were throwing stones at robins and then ran away, but Mungo ran toward the bird, revived it and it flew away. It’s thought to be a miracle thus making Mungo the patron saint of Glasgow.  Smug also painted the mural, “The Swimmer” to celebrate the Commonwealth Games in 2014.  It’s huge and strategically placed at a stoplight so that folks have time to gaze upon the massive piece!

The statue of the first Duke of Wellington in the center of Glasgow traditionally has a cone on his head indicating the humor of the people of Glasgow. It’s been quite the controversy.img_0987 Fines have been issued; they’ve even attempted to make the statue taller thus making it more difficult to put the cone on his head. All has failed…so far! And we also wandered through the pedestrian streets downtown and stopped and tried the local beer.

Cary had headed back to her job. Patrick had headed home as well. It was soon time to wind up our travels in the UK and now that we had been out of the Schengen countries for 90 days we were allowed to re-enter. We had booked a train from Edinburgh to London in order to see more of the English countryside.  Then we spent the night in London and are headed next to Sicily! We’re really looking forward to warmer weather!

 

On to northern Scotland

We left Belfast on board the Stena ferry bound across the Irish Sea to Scotland. Ferry travel, on calm days, has become my favorite form of public transportation.  There’s plenty of room to move about and your luggage is checked (without charge) when you board. The two hour crossing was pleasant enough going from sunny to cloudy by the time we arrived in Scotland. From there we took a coach to Ayr, a small resort city sitting at the  the River Ay spot where it flows into the Irish Sea on the west coast of the country. IMG_0387Unfortunately it was cold and windy in Ayr and by the time we arrived at our Bed and Breakfast the rain had begun and the beach didn’t seem very appealing. Nevertheless, we took a walk to the ocean front and found a small wonderful local restaurant for dinner.

The Bed and Breakfast, which would be our home for the next two nights had a comfortable large living room with a bar in the corner.  We enjoyed chatting with a group of four men from England who were staying there while they were working in Ayr replacing seating a local theatre.  The owner was an interesting lady who said she always wanted to own a B&B so after her sons grew up and left home she bought the Arrandale Hotel .  She seemed to be a one-person show checking guests in, doing the cooking and in charge of the cleaning as well. The weather was cold enough that we didn’t hesitate when we headed upstairs to bed but hurried into our pajamas and jumped beneath the covers to get warm.  And this is August.  Wow!  What must their winters be like! We do wonder how often it is that folks get to use the Ayr beach for sunbathing!

Alloway is just two miles south of Ayr and was the home of Robert Burns. So off we went in the morning to the Robert Burns Home and Museum. We walked a short distance to the bus stop and must have looked unsure of ourselves because a gentleman who is a curator at the museum asked if he could help us and showed us which bus to take and also where to get off!  The home is a modest place that dates from the early 1760s.

We walked from the home to the museum and past the bridge,  Brigadoon, that was mentioned in the final verse of his poem, Tam o’ Shanter.     When we entered the museum there was a group of young girls performing Scottish dances.  Interestingly they were from Canada and on tour.IMG_0424 In the museum itself we learned a lot about Burns and his personal life (He was quite the ladies man!) and how he had great influence on many American writers including: John Steinbeck, James Whitcomb Riley and JD Salinger. In the light rain we continued on to the Burns statue and then the churchyard where his parents are buried.  Even though the day was cold and rainy it sort of fit with what we expected of Burns’ Scotland. Imagine our surprise when as we waited for a return bus, the gentleman who had given us directions in the morning was at the same bus stop for the trip back.  He explained that he had been to the Scotland Cricket Match. We told him that we didn’t know much about cricket but it was the scoring we found particularly difficult to figure out.  He told us that sometimes cricket matches can go on for three or even four days.  That was enough to convince me that perhaps I didn’t need to understand any more about the sport!

The next morning we boarded a Scotrail train for Inverness in the Highlands of northern Scotland.  The check in with our Airbnb was a bit unusual because no one met us or even connected with us but once we figured out the key and let ourselves in we found the apartment to be very comfortable and in a great location. We felt a bit silly when we asked our taxi driver the name of the river next to us and he responded, “The Ness.”  Ah yes, the town was Inverness.  Made sense!  We had been warned that northern Scotland in general, and Inverness in particular would be cold.  But again we got lucky with the weather and while we had some rain, generally our weather was in the high 60s to low 70s, very comfortable indeed. We had learned by this time that whenever we ventured out to put our rain hats and umbrellas in my day pack just as a matter of habit. Inverness is a lovely city with just less than 50,000 residents.IMG_0440 Inverness Castle is a red sandstone structure that is perched over the city. Although this castle was built in 1836 it is situated on the site of an 11th century defensive structure where Macbeth supposedly killed Mael Colium III’s father.There’s also an interesting local museum that helped us better understand Scottish history. But most of all Bob and I enjoyed walks along the river.

We decided that since our daughter Cary and our son Patrick are going to meet up with us next week in Edinburgh that we would wait to make the trip to Loch Ness with them.  In the meantime, Bob checked out other coach trips and suggested the trip to the Isle of Skye. The coach trips we’ve taken since we arrived in Ireland are usually very reasonably priced and the drivers and/or guides are very knowledgeable and provide an interesting and enjoyable day. We walked to the bus stop in Inverness, about 15 minutes from our apartment. Once again we were lucky with predominately sunny skies. For eight pounds each we were provided with sack meals for lunch and supper. The twelve hour tour took us from Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, across the northern section of Scotland through glens and over mountains to the Isle of Skye. The heather I’ve read so much about in Scottish novels was particularly pretty.IMG_0464

And then there’s the ubiquitous sheep… The guide explained that it is imperative that sheep are sheared as the wool becomes very heavy. And if the sheep aren’t sheared they’ll die because they can no longer get up.

But because the sheep were absolutely everywhere we looked, we wondered how the farmer ever rounds up his flock.

One of my favorite stops was Kilt Rock named because of its likeness to a kilt and features a waterfall of more than 180 feet.

Standing also at the site was a bagpiper.  The music seemed so appropriate in this setting. We also passed a school ferry on the Isle of Skye.  Imagine what it must be like to travel for several hours via ferry to school. IMG_0501Some students, we were told, stay the week in order to not have to endure daily treks.  I’m sure it saves a great deal of money as well. From Skye we could see the Outer Hebrides. One of these islands is Harris Island which is where Harris Tweed originates. We passed brochs (prehistoric Scottish hollowed wall structures) and medieval forts and castles. We learned about the bloody battles of the clans. We even traveled down a single track road to the Faerie Glen, but because the faeries shy away from the sun they stayed hidden from us. We visited Portree a busy fishing port with multi-colored houses.

Everywhere we turned there was a loch or mountain view more beautiful than the last.

When we arrived back in Inverness we stopped at a local bar on the way home for a beer and some Scottish music.

The next day it was time to leave northern Scotland and head down to Edinburgh.   It would be less than a four hour journey and we looked forward to seeing more of the Scottish countryside.