Waltzing through Vienna

Driving into Vienna following the Danube and listening to Strauss waltzes on Spotify is like being in a dream but I was snapped back to reality when Bob asked how to get to our Airbnb.  Erik, our host, had agreed to meet us early and let us into our apartment.  As usual it was just as we expected.  While the kitchen is compact, he has provided us with a toaster, microwave, boiler and coffee maker (although we generally have to unplug each appliance in order to plug in the one we want to use at the moment).  He showed us little things like how the quirky dishwasher works, provided us with the wifi password, explained to us where we can park (including when it’s free and when we have to pay), gave us a map of the area and provided us with a key.  I enjoy meeting our hosts as they give us little details about the area, and we can ask any questions we may have.  It’s sort of like having a friend in every locale.

Our Airbnb is located in an area near a university with a lot of students, and lots of restaurants.

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Our street and our apartment is about a half block up on the right.

We are amazed at the amount of English we hear spoken.  Many young people around us speak English with accents that seem to be neither British nor American.  It does make it exceedingly easy for us to communicate!  After quickly settling in, we headed down to the Zur Grunen Hutte (The Green Hut), an authentic Austrian restaurant that Erik had recommended.  It’s been around since 1917.  Bob opted for the goulash dumplings with sauerkrat and gravy.  I had the grilled chicken breast on spinach leaves with buttered rice!  And of course the local beer!  The dinner was yummy and we were particularly pleased to see so many locals!

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Messe Prater Station (about a block from our apartment)

While we usually take trams and busses in order to get a better feel for the city, the metro is a block from our apartment and far closer than the trams or busses and very easy to use! The trip to the center of the historical sights is only a few stops away and costs about $4.00  each for a senior round trip ticket (the machines have an English option) and we never have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train.  We’re learning that many European public transportation systems run on the honor system but if the control agent comes through and asks for your ticket and you can’t produce one, fines are hefty!  We are taking no chances.  We are very pleased to have an efficient, clean system so close by!

In order to get the lay of the land we decided to first take a walking tour of the historical center. We found the maps to be extraordinarily confusing and must have really looked baffled when a local came up and in perfect English asked if he could help.  We finally got our bearings and set about to find Stephanplatz.

 

I find the mix of the new and old buildings in Vienna very interesting. We came upon Mozart’s Statue and the Vienna Opera House in new and busy parts of the city and just beyond we’d be wandering down narrow windy streets. While I understand that there is great religious significance to the Stephansdom, we have seen so many churches in Europe that they’re all beginning to look alike (We came upon three large churches and mistook all before we finally found Stephansdom.) We often pass on touring the inside (which is what we did in this case).

 

Perhaps the most moving site for me in all of Vienna is the Monument Against War and Facism. This monument was built on the spot where during WWII several hundred people were buried alive when their shelter was demolished.

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Monument Against War & Facism

At the top of my list of Things to Do in Vienna was attend a concert.  While walking along the old streets we came upon a guy selling tickets for a concert on Sunday night at the Palais Palffy just across the street from the Hofburg Palace.  We looked at the program and recognized much of what they were playing, and the tickets were reasonably priced so we decided to give it a go.  After we got home that evening, I checked it out on Trip Advisor and was really disappointed with the terrible reviews it received.  Described the hall as shabby and the seating as crowded chairs. Wow!  It seemed we had really blown this one but at least we hadn’t forked out a lot of money!  We definitely lowered our expectations.  How pleasantly surprised we were when the concert turned out to be fabulous!

 

No, it wasn’t in an elaborate hall, but the musicians were all top rate.  The first half of the show was Mozart with the chamber group all decked out in period costumes and the second half was Strauss for which the group changed to appropriate attire for that time period!  It was a small venue but we noticed that several tour groups came in and we figured they had paid significantly more for their tickets than we had.  Many of the concerts are for the tourists and perhaps we aren’t sophisticated music buffs but we certainly enjoyed the performance and are really glad we didn’t read the reviews before we bought the tickets!

We also took the metro out to the Schonbrunn Palace and Gardens, the summer home of the Habsburgs built in the 1740’s under the reign of Maria Theresa.  Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, had sixteen children.  Their youngest was Marie Antoinette.  (We’re beginning to remember how all the European ruling families were intertwined! American students thank your lucky stars! I can’t imagine studying European history in school and trying to keep all these people straight!) Franz Joseph, Maria Theresa’s grandson and Austria’s longest reining emperor, was born at Schonbrunn Palace in 1830 and died there in 1916. (Franz Josef’s younger brother was Emperor Maximillian. And it was Arch Duke Ferninand, Franz Josef’s nephew, whose assassination precipitated World War I.  I told you this is all confusing! )

Anyway, I love formal palace gardens and these were amazingly beautiful particularly because we were there in October and the majority of flowers were still blooming.  Plus, the trees were beginning to turn.  What a combination.

 

There were fountains and a maze and fake Roman ruins. (Nope, I didn’t get that either!) And we learn the most interesting things along the way in our travels.  For instance, a focus of the formal gardens is the Gloriette.  We learned that a gloriette is a garden building that is often elevated over its surroundings and generally has open sides.  Never heard of it before. But this one was spectacular! As we walked from the metro to the palace we were reading all the posters, looking at what the venders had to offer and generally taking in the sights. There was a large portrait of a man. I nearly jumped when as I looked closely at it, he winked! I so love buscars! Then there was the anachronistic woman who stood in her period costume using her cell phone!

 

On the way back from Schonbrunn while we were already on the green line we decided to get off and see the Ringstrasse, a wide tree-lined boulevard that circles much of the inner city of Vienna.  The  idea was the brain child of Emperor Franz Josef who decided to tear down the military fortifications in the middle 1800’s and replace them with historical monuments.  I had read reviews that there were cheaper ways to see it but we opted for the special Ringstrasse tourist tram because we wanted to know what we were seeing.  And after walking around Schonbrunn for more than two hours a seated half hour tour sounded wonderful! On our way back to the apartment we stopped at McDonalds.

 

Our sandwiches actually looked like they do in advertisements and I could order a beer with it.  Then we realized the people two booths down from us had their large dog with them and people nonchalantly just walked over him.  We Americans could learn a lot from the Europeans!

Years ago I had taken our kids to see the Lipizzaner when they came to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. We called them the Lipizzans but Lipizzans or Lipizzaner they are amazing horses!  I wanted to see them in their Austrian home at the Spanish Riding School attached to the Hofburg Palace.

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Hofburg Palace (Entrance to the Spanish Riding School under big archway)

These fantastic horses date back to the 1500’s when they were first imported from Spain.  I think it’s interesting to note that during World War II they ended up in Bohemia.  And the Amerians were afraid that they might fall into the hands of the Russians so in 1945 Amerian forces  moved them back to Austria.

 

We had seats to watch the Saturday performance.  The movements are known, according to Wikipedia, as “airs above the ground” and are often appropriately referred to as a ballet. It was unbelievable!  The horses “danced” to classical music on a surface that looks like turf that has been groomed with a zamboni with chandeliers suspended over the field!  What a sight!  Just as we were leaving the building we realized that the groomers were moving many of the horses from their stables to the school for their practices which gave us an opportunity to see them up close!

We have had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people in our travels and this was especially true in Vienna. Cary had recently attended a wedding in Turkey of a good friend. There she met a wonderful couple and their daughter who live in Vienna.  Cary arranged for us to meet them while we were here.   Omer, the husband, texted me that they’d pick us up at a metro stop and I sent him pictures of us so they’d know who they were looking for. Shortly after we arrived at the metro stop, Omer and his family pulled up in his taxi.  From the moment we met, we felt like we had always known them: Omer, his lovely wife Pakizeh and their daughter, Rana, who speaks fluent English and is an amazing accomplished young lady!   When we first met, they asked if we’d prefer traditional Austrian food for lunch or would we like to try a Turkish restaurant.  Here we were with new friends who had lived most of their lives in Vienna but they were Turks by birth, so we opted for Turkish food. Omer said he knew the perfect place! We all piled back in his cab and when we walked into the restaurant and were greeted in Turkish we knew we had made a great decision. We know absolutely nothing about Turkish cuisine so Omer and Pakizeh explained (often translated by Rana) various dishes particularly those that are the most popular in Turkey.  Talk about yummy!  The food was amazing!  After we completed our meal, Omer asked if we had been to Kahlenberg .  Of course, we hadn’t, so he set about taking us to this most beautiful location in the Vienna Woods. (And in my mind I began humming Strauss’, Tales from the Vienna Woods, a recital piece from half a century ago!) From Mt. Kahlenberg,  high above the city,  we could see all of Vienna beneath us.  IMG_20171016_150456462.jpgIt was a hazy day and Omer and Pakizeh explained on a clearer day we would see all the way to Bratislavah, Slovakia.  Still it was an impressive view.  On the way down from the point, we stopped to have a glass of wine in a local wine garden.

 

During the harvest this time of year, sturm (called Sturm in Austria, and Federweisser in Bavaria and Fiederwaissen in Luxenburg and Junger Wein in Germany) is available and the best we can surmise it is a sort of grape juice.  And because Omer was driving he opted for the sturm.   What a fabulous afternoon we had had with our new friends!  They said they’d love to visit the United States and we would so like the opportunity to show them at least part of our country!

When they dropped us off at the metro we realized we were close to the Nachsmarkt, which was also on my list of places to visit. We spent a couple hours wandering through the stalls.  Like most European markets the Nachsmarkt has many stands selling the same things.  A few things that set this market apart: different sweets and nuts as well as middle eastern treats we were not familiar with, an entire line of sit down restaurants and throughout the market vendors calling out in English. We have also visited neighborhood markets near our apartment and find many interesting things:  fruits that are new to us, lots of local beers, and even a marijuana grow shop!

 

Two weeks in Vienna.  Like all our other stays, the time passes at lightening speed and it’s time to move on.  We say goodbye to Vienna, we’ll spend a day in Bratislova and then head to Krakow, Poland!  What an unbelievable two weeks it’s been!

 

Leaving Switzerland, a blink of Leichtenstein and on to Austria…

We left Lucerne and started toward Innsbruck, Austria, where we were to spend the night. We drove for a bit before stopping for breakfast.  We found a wonderful stop right on the autobahn, Freshmarket!IMG_20170927_105936142  It had an amazing choice of options:  croissants and coffee, a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, sweets and ice cream, amazing choices of main dishes.  And as we sat enjoying our selections we were once again surprised to see a dog curled up at his owner’s feet.  It would be so much easier to travel with a dog in Europe than in the US!

We had planned to arrive early enough in Innsbruck to do some sightseeing and then also have a couple of hours there in the morning before driving on to our stay just outside Salzburg.IMG_0180 Because of the Alps the motorway is a mass of tunnels.  (I think we counted 41 on just this single day of driving.) We left Switzerland and crossed into tiny Leichtenstein.  While there was a small building that at one time must have been the border crossing it was vacant this morning.IMG_0219 (2) I think it took us no more than fifteen minutes to cross the country.  I read where in 2011 Snoop Dogg tried to rent the country.  It’s unclear whether it ever went through but at one time it was advertised that it was possible to rent out the entire country for $70,000 a night complete with customized street signs. Novel idea!

The countryside throughout the day was stunning! We understood before we set out in the morning that a major tunnel just outside Innsbruck was closed for construction and we’d have to go over the pass.  As it turned out it was one of the most spectacular views of the day and because this had been the major route before the tunnel was built, it was well-marked and well-maintained.  I think it might be the only time in all of our travels we’ve ever encountered a traffic jam on a mountain pass.

Innsbruck is a beautiful city that sits on the Inn River (a tributary of the Danube). And we never tire of walking the streets of the old cities in Europe. Early evening is a particularly lovely time to walk among the old buildings. The Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) was definitely a high point. The roof was completed in 1500 and designed to mark the wedding of Emperor Maximillian I. The emperor and his wife would often appear on the balcony to celebrate festivals and tournaments. An interesting fact is that in 1536 Jakob Hutter, preacher of the Baptists, was burned alive in the yard in front of the the building.

On to Salzburg…we had rented an Airbnb just outside Salzburg near Frielassing, Germany.IMG_20170930_185202648  We later read that Frielassing was an imporant Allied target near the end of World War II.  Although it had no real strategic importance it was the area where Hitler, Goering, Bormann and others had vacation homes and where they would gather to do strategic planning.

We visited the new museum, Dokumentation Obersalzberg which gives  the history of National Socialism. This area has been a tourist mecca since the 1800’s and Hitler had a summer home here since the 1920’s.

He later converted it into an “off limits” area forcing all the local inhabitants out. The region was occupied by American forces after May 1945 and was used for recreation by the US Army. The area was returned to the Bavarians in 1996 (even though they technically owned it since the end of the war).  We were able to rent an English audio guide that explained the many posters, photos and documents.  We found the museum interesting; the views from the museum stunning, but it’s also very depressing.  And we found far too many comparisons to our present situation in the US: the blatant racism, fear of people who are different from us and the willingness of thousands to follow a leader without ever questioning his ideas or motives.

Freilassing has a wonderful huge supermarket.  Two escalators facilitate customers use of the two floors.  IMG_20170928_133814371They have a huge selection of just about anything we could want from fresh vegetables and fruits to frozen food, to entrees we could heat in the oven.  My daughter had introduced me to Google Translate which is a handy free app that allows you to translate on the fly.  This had been a great help in our previous travels.  But I recently learned that you can also take a picture with Google Translate and it translates signs or any other text instantaneously!  I found this particularly useful at the grocery store when I could take a picture of a package and immediately know what the product was.  It was really helpful in deciphering subleties…like diced tomatoes from tomato paste, etc.  I also really like the app when dealing with home appliances.  For instance, when I want to do the laundry.  You may recall that two years ago we got our wash locked in a washing machine in Prien, Germany, because we couldn’t understand the signs on the machine.  With the app all I had to do was aim my phone at the machine and it translated: short wash (big difference between 1 hr 55 min and 40 minutes!), prewash, machine lock, etc.  Really helpful!

We generally don’t drive in big cities because of the chaos and also the expense of parking. From where we stayed it took us about 10 minutes to drive to the train station and then another 10 minutes by train into Salzburg.  Because Freilassing is a small town, the ticket machine at the train station was only in German. Before I could translate with my phone a young man came by and quickly showed us how to get the tickets we needed. The cost was about nine dollars for round trip for two of us (second class).  You can’t beat that!  And trains run about every 20 minutes.

We wanted to see the traditional tourist sights.  The old city is a pretty city with the Hohensalzburg Castle looming over it. IMG_20170930_145123682It is a small area that was easy to traverse by foot.  The castle was used as a prison in the 20th century first holding Italian soldiers during World War I and then Nazi activists before the Anschluss with Germany (or annexation of Austria by Germany). Salzburg is Mozart’s home; that’s what I most wanted to see.  So we walked to his birthplace and then also to his residence. We decided we’d wait and attend a concert when we get to Vienna! (We did notice a street sign near Mozart’s birthplace that read, “Urban Decay.”  We had to wonder about the history of that sign!)

The Mirabell Palace has a lovely garden that we enjoyed!   We’ve been particularly lucky this fall to have generally warm, sunny weather which is perfect for our sightseeing.

I was a bit disappointed with Salzburg; it seemed more “touristy” than most places we’ve been.  And I think I generally enjoyed the sidetrips more than Salzburg itself.

One particular day trip we enjoyed was driving to Mondsee.   It’s a pretty resort city in the Alps. This is the location of the church where the famous wedding in the Sound of Music was filmed! The village is located right on the water and while on most summer weekends it is mobbed with tourists, we found it beautiful, quiet and relaxing on a Monday in early October!

The ladies we rented from had a meditation room and were definitely into energy healing. The pastoral location seemed perfect for that!  IMG_20170929_110303508They told us a lot about Salzburg and the area’s salt history and suggested we go to Bad Reichenhall just a short distance from where we were. The salt works from this area date from the 1840’s. For hundreds of years the “white gold was mined here.” I was surprised to learn that salt comes in different colors and that it’s often white because the other colors are bleached out of it. IMG_0043The colors come from natural elements incorporated into the salt crystals.

Two years ago when we were in Bavaria I wasn’t thrilled with German food.  I found it heavy, even their salads. But I have a different opinion this time and maybe because I’ve found my favorite foods among the offerings.  We found three absolutely wonderful restaurants.  These are restaurants that are local favorites. They had great selections, wonderful staff that would help us translate to English and all were very busy locations.  One of them was a hotel restaurant (Gasthof Moosleitner), right on the edge of Frielassing.  There I had boiled beef with parsley potatoes and creamed spinach and applesauce with horseradish!  Spinach and horseradish are two of my favorite foods!  But whoever decided to add horseradish to applesauce was pure genius!  Wow!  Amazing.  We went to another, more of a tavern, and they brewed their own beer which was available throughout the area (Braustuberl Schonram). Lots and lots of locals. And wow!  I was amazed when my boiled beef, creamed spinach and applesauce with horseradish was on the menu! Yep, I got it again! And finally there was another restaurant, we found on Yelp, a local restaurant in Frielassing (Gasthaus Zollhausl). There I had the most amazing spareribs!  Bob is becoming a gourmond when it comes to his favorite: schnitzel!  He knows that the REAL schnizel is veal but he’s had pork, chicken and his favorite?  Maybe that’s what he’s eating at the moment!  And of course, German and Austrian beer are wonderful! (We hear the best is Czech beer. We’ll let you know what we think when we get to Prague!)

Soon it was time to move on to Vienna but I had a friend who said we should visit Melk with its  Benedictine abbey that dates back to the eleventh century. As we meandered through the town we came upon a memorial that honored the 4801 people (Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, French and Italians) who were brought to death in the KZ-Nebelagenmelk in 1944-1945.

We found a hotel there right in the city center, complete with parking and breakfast for $65.  The parking, however, was located through a gate, in the back of the hotel.  I had suggested to Bob that if he were to turn around it might be easier to drive out in the morning. Just as we are manuevering; Bob behind the wheel, me outside directing, a man from the hotel, I think perhaps the owner? came out to assist. Obviously, we didn’t look like we knew what we were doing.  He spoke no English but every five seonds or so, he would holler, “Stoppen!” We finally gave up and just parked faced forward! The next morning after we checked out we were pleased he was no where in sight!  We began our manuevering just as we had in the afternoon previous when, “Oh no!” He reappeared! This time we just ignored his calls, continued our process and waved a friendly goodbye as we pulled out the gate!

We had a short drive to Vienna, but we knew we wanted to drive the Wachau Valley following the Danube into the city.  Googlemaps makes traveling much easier when you want the most efficient directions to a location but it’s not quite as easy if you want to take the scenic road.  Again and again it wanted to guide us back to the motorway.  We finally decided just to try the old fashioned way and use a paper map!  The drive through the rolling vineyards and encountering castles along the way was like a trip back in time.  We encountered river boat cruises along the way, and roadside fruit and vegetable stands.  Definitely a slower way that allows the traveler to savor life along the way.

Switzerland, Leichtenstein and Austria are most amazing places and really the first landlocked countries we’ve visited.  We look forward to our next two weeks in Vienna!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Europe!

Our main destination this fall was Rome!  Cary had invited us to watch her defend her doctoral thesis in the middle of September. After doing a lot of checking on flight prices, we decided to fly into Amsterdam and on to Pisa the next day. I try not to schedule flights on two different airlines on the same day because there’s the chance the flights won’t connect as planned. When leaving Dulles the pilot told us we were going to have to wait half an hour or so before take off as Amsterdam was getting tired of this United flight coming in early. We were pleasantly surprised that even with this wait we arrived at Schiphol nearly an hour before our scheduled time! Gotta love shortened trips across the Atlantic! And we definitely knew we had arrived in Holland when we saw the bulb shop right inside the airport.  IMG_20170911_092157257

We had a wonderful hotel room in Pisa, very reasonably priced ($69 +$14 taxes), included breakfast, and provided us with a view of the leaning tower. When arriving in a new city without a car we indulge ourselves by using a taxi to our hotel or Airbnb.  We’re often tired after travel and it’s one less thing to worry about. The taxi from the airport in Pisa to the Hotel Villa Kinzica was 12 euros.  The desk clerk at our hotel was astounded. He said it usually cost him 18 euros when he took a taxi from the airport to work!

We didn’t realize that the tower, which began leaning during its construction, took over two hundred years to build beginning in the 1100s and not finished until 1399. We spent the day wandering around the old town square and toured through the baptistry where Galileo was baptized in 1565 as well as the famous cathedral where he conducted many of his experiments!  We can never quite get our minds wrapped around the fact that we are looking at buildings centuries old.  Imagine! Constructed in the twelfth century! The surprising thing in Europe is not just how old the edifices are but that they are still being used!

From Pisa we took the train to Rome where Cary met us.  Her apartment is centrally located with lots of restaurants and shops in the area. She is within walking distance of her office at the Farm and Agriculture Organization (FAO, part of the United Nations). The only drawback is the 110 steps up to the fourth floor (remember in Europe you first climb a flight to get to the first floor)!  But once there it’s a lovely comfortable place.  We ordered Chinese on the first night we were there and we were amazed that delivery folks don’t think anything about the climb!  As we explored her neighborhood we found it hard to get used to ancient ruins popping up among the busy streets and modern buildings! On the tram ride back to her house from the university, we passed the Colosseum.

We have been blessed with amazing kids and spouses (and significant others). And watching Cary defend her doctoral thesis was amazing! The European process is different from the American procedure which was interesting in and of itself. And after the stress of the defense, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to get to chat with the members of her committee.  In the evening we celebrated even more over dinner with her friends and colleagues.

We had decided when we left Rome we’d take a couple of days traveling to Lyon, France where we’d pick up our leased Peugeot. You may remember from previous blogs that we’ve leased before.  Peugeot has reasonable leases for extended periods. Iinsurance is automatically included and there are no extra charges for dropping the car off in a different city from where we pick it up (as long as they are both in France). This works well for us. We can get the car in Lyon, and two months later return it in Paris.

The morning after Cary’s celebration we took a train from Rome to Turin. Again we had lovely sunny weather and it was great to stroll among Turin’s beautiful piazzas. IMG_20170917_115612581We only had a day in Turin and we had been told about the Egyptian Museum that is supposed to be the best outside of Egypt and the only one outside of Cairo that is totally dedicated to Egyptian art and culture.  Bob says he’d never seen so many mummies in his life.  We found it interesting how the burial rituals slowly changed over time. For instance, at first all the individual’s possessions were placed with him to take to the afterlife. Then over time that was changed to representations of the food. We also learned that a cubit is the distance between the tip of one’s middle finger and the elbow! Interesting tidbit!

We also found the church where the Shroud of Turin is supposedly displayed but what we found was that there are pictures of it but the shroud itself is buried in a metal vault beneath so you kinda gotta take their word that it’s there!

From Turin we took the train to Lyon, France, a trip of about four hours. Sometimes there are places for baggage on trains and other times there is not.  On the train to Lyon we were presented with a new problem, understanding the stops.  We’d not had a problem up to this time but now we were unsure where to get off.  Bob asked the women next to us and through limited English they told him they were getting off at the same stop.  Unfortunately they too were confused, but luckily we figured out because the majority of the passengers were getting off we would too! Our stops in hotels are usually for one or two nights when we want to see things on the way to our next destination. I am careful to make these reservations within walking distances to the local sites. Sometimes I do this because parking in cities anywhere is difficult and expensive and sometimes I do this because we don’t have a car. Lyon is a lovely city with a beautiful castle towering over it.  We also saw interesting murals painted on the exterior walls of buildings.

Whenever we pick up a car it takes us a few minutes to figure it all out. I often wonder why simple things like windshield wipers can’t be in standard places on all cars, but this car has an extremely deluxe dash showing us every detail of the car we could possibly want or need. The trouble is finding what we want when we want it.  When we first turned the car on, the gas gauge was displayed, but shortly after it disappeared and it took us nearly 50 miles to get it back.  It’s very scary to not know how much gas we have!

After a short distance, we entered Switzerland. I read we would need a visa to drive the motorways in Switzerland and sure enough right at the border was a guard who stopped us. They sold us a permit for the equivalent of about forty dollars.  We quite like the idea as the pass is good for nearly every toll in the country, and it sure beats stopping every few miles and putting in our debit card the way we do in France!

All of a sudden the snowcapped mountains came into view. I am such a tourist!  I spent the next hour saying “Oh wow!”  or “Oh, my goodness!”  or “Look at that!” and snapping picture after picture along the way.  It’s a good thing our GPS is accurate because I’m afraid I wasn’t much help as a navigator!

In Switzerland we also encountered a new currency, the Swiss Franc (CHF). Because it’s almost on par with the American dollar, it is easier to calculate costs than using the euro that currently is about $1.18.  But we changed as little cash as possible knowing that we’d only be in the country for a week and once we left we’d have no use for the cash.

Not knowing Switzerland at all we really lucked out.  I wanted to find a place to stay near Lake Lucerne and I found an apartment on Airbnb in the village of Brunnen right on the lake. Evidently in the summer this is a big resort area. This is the town where Winston Churchill spent his honeymoon.  The clerk in the tourist information office told us he had met both Hillary and George HW Bush here.  The view from our apartment was like something out of National Geographic. IMG_20170921_100836417 Brunnen is also the home of the Swiss Army Knife. They have a museum dedicated to it which in reality is just another gift shop.

On one of our walks in the village, we stopped at the ticket office to inquire about taking the boat into Lucerne. The woman was incredibly helpful explaining that we could buy a ticket for the boat in (It takes two and a half hours) and the train back (It takes less than an hour). And then if we changed our mind we could get on the boat and pay the difference. IMG_20170924_160505802 She also gave us a map of Lucerne so we could plan out our trip in advance. Europeans are so much more accomodating regarding dogs!  The ticket office had a sign reminding passengers that their dog would need a ticket as well.

We tend to travel by train (and boat) in second class.  The difference between second class and first in this case seemed to be main floor for second class with first class being upstairs. Both had areas where folks could sit outside. But given it was in the low 50’s with a bit of a breeze off the water, we chose to sit inside and watch the spectacular landscapes while sipping on our cappuccinos! Often as we travel Bob and I wonder aloud if folks get used to the scenery. As the boat crisscrossed the lake, I noticed a man standing on the balcony of his apartment brushing his teeth!  Ah, I guess you don’t get used to the view!

First on our list to see in Lucerne was Lowendenkmal (the Lion Monument).  This monument is perhaps my very favorite outside of Washington DC.  It is a huge lion carved in stone and honors the Swiss guards who were killed in 1792 during the French Revolution when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris.  The monument was the idea of a Swiss guard who was on leave in Switzerland at the time of the attack. The dying lion has a spear in his side with a shield that displays the fleur-di-lis and another shield with the coat of arms of Switzerland.  Mark Twain described the monument:

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The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is. (Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880)

The old town is a much smaller area than it first appears on the map.  From the Lion we walked to the Kapellbrucke (chapel bridge) and Wasserman (water tower).  The bridge is the oldest covered bridge in Europe and crosses the Reuss River.  The paintings inside the bridge date back to the 1700’s.  The Wasserman in the past was used as a prison.  The bridge was built in the middle 1300’s.

There is also the Spreuer Bridge. This bridge was completed in 1408 and this is the only place where chaf (spreur) could be dumped in the river. Between the two bridges is the Nodelwehr Dam or Needle Dam.  This dam was installed in 1859 and still regulates the water level of Lake Lucerne manually by insertion or removal of the dam’s timbers (or needles).

When it was time to head back to Brunnen, we thought we’d try the train. It would be a different route than we had seen previously. The woman who had been so helpful told us she thought the train would leave from track 11 but we should check.  Yep, she was right.  And it was only a 10 minute wait for our train to arrive.  We find it interesting in Europe that on several occasions we’ve not been asked to show our train tickets.  I’m quite certain, however, if we didn’t have one we’d definitely be asked for it!

After a week in Switzerland we were now ready to move on to Salzburg.  Two years ago we were really close to Salzburg when we went to Octoberfest. But because of the immigration crisis at the time we were advised by locals in Germany not to try to cross into Austria because of the enormous queues both for cars and at train stations.  The fact that we are not from the EU and instead have US passports only further complicated the issue.  So now that things are a bit calmer at the borders we’ve decided we want to see Austria, particularly Salzburg and Vienna!

So we said goodbye to beautiful Switzerland and are ready to move on Austria.

 

 

Cradle of French America

Summer has been a busy time.  We left Boston in June and headed for Quebec City. Leaving Boston we decided to stop in Gloucester, a one time fishing and whaling port.  It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like when men would head out to sea without modern day navigation and meteorological resources. Placed near the sea, the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial reads, “They that go down to the sea in ships.  1623 – 1923” In a semi-circle in front of the memorial are plaques with the names of those who set off but never returned.

IMG_20170608_132304698 (1)We were struck by the number of men who have the same last name making us wonder were they brothers or fathers and sons? Further down the boulevard is a statue of a mother with two small children. Standing at the water’s edge and taking this all in on a beautiful spring day was a very moving experience.

From Gloucester we headed up through Maine and its beautiful scenery. We continued to keep our eyes peeled for moose but the closest we got was a huge statue.

 

 

The drive into Quebec itself was spectacular with the road following the St. Lawrence River.   Our Airbnb was located right in the center of the old city with a gate that opened to a small walkway that led to a lovely apartment, old and quaint but updated with modern appliances and furniture, great wifi and even cable television with some English speaking channels. Our host was a lovely French Canadian who lucky for us, spoke English.

We had come, quite accidentally, at a time with lots of holidays:  St. Jean the Baptiste Day, Canada Day and Quebec Day. IMG_0001 There were bands, parades and locals handing out Quebec and Canadian flags. The Hotel Frontenac is a Quebec icon.  I have a picture my dad took of my mother, my sister and me in front of the hotel back in 1954.

With the changes from the last half century it is difficult to determine exactly where the picture was taken. IMG_20170611_144922244_BURST000_COVER_TOPBecause of the holidays during our stay this time, The Hotel Frontanac was decked out each evening in red and white lights. There was a small Salvador Dali exhibit at the hotel that we found very interesting. They were having a lottery for one of his paintings and I was convinced I was going to win but having not received a phone call I guess I didn’t.

 

We wandered down the Old Town’s narrow streets that are loaded with pretty sidewalk cafes and artists selling their paintings. From our apartment we could hear the constant clomp clomp clomp of the horse and buggy tours.

Quebec City has a real European feel to it.  And while French is the official language we found, just as we have with our visits abroad, that most people, speak at least some English and are happy to do so.  I generally tried a few (very few) French phrases and always tried to remember to thank the locals for speaking to me in English. As one young waiter pointed out there isn’t a big call for French unless one is in France or Quebec.

Hockey is Canada’s sport and Bob and I are big hockey fans. The finals of the Stanley Cup were playing during our first week in Quebec, with my favorite team, The Pittsburgh Penguins facing the Nashville Predators.  We had watched playoff games all spring but this was game 6 of the finals with the Pens up 3 games to 2.

So Bob and I trekked off to a nearby bar for supper and the game.  It was great fun to listen as the bar crowd cheered and sighed for goals and near goals. And I’ll never forget being able watch my team win in a country where just about everyone loves hockey.

We spent one day on the Ile d’Orleans located in the St. Lawrence river, a short drive from Quebec City. We visited Montmorency Falls on previous visits but still found the view of it from the islands lovely.

And the strawberries!  Wow!  Just as good as we remembered. The small French villages are reminiscent of a time long passed.  I particularly love the laundry hanging on the lines.

We also stopped at the Basilica of Sainte Anne de Beaupre, a spectacularly beautiful church. Each year nearly half a million people make pilgrimages to the church which was originally built in the 1600s. It was initially built as a place of worship for early settlers.

And supposedly the man who was hired to build it was cured of his rheumatism while laying initial stones in the foundation. This made it a place where people began to visit in the hope of being cured of their illnesses. The church has been enlarged several times since then. And upon entering the church you see two columns filled with crutches and braces of those who were healed.  The current basilica was constructed in the 1920’s.

We decided to take a side trip and spend a few days driving around the Gaspe Peninsula. The peninsula, known as “The cradle of French America” sticks out far into the Atlantic Ocean. It was here that Jacques Cartier first claimed the land, “New France,” in 1534.  On the four hundredth anniversary of this date a 32 foot granite cross was constructed in the town of Gaspe.  For centuries the area was an important fishing center, especially for cod. (When Jacques Cartier came to the area he found thousands of Basque fishermen already there. They had been fishing there for more than a century previous but kept the place as a well-guarded secret.)

There is much less English spoken in the Gaspe villages.  Bob needed a beard trim so when we came upon a barbershop as we were wandering down the main street of a quaint village it seemed like the time was right.  The woman barber spoke very little English and we speak no French so once again we were using a lot of hand gestures and smiling and laughing. It did strike us odd having just returned a few weeks earlier from Cuba that on the wall over the barber’s chair was a picture of Che Gueverra, the ubiquitous Cuban hero!

We had read that the Redford Gardens (Also known as Les Jardins de Metis) was a lovely spot so we spent a couple of hours wandering through the English garden of the estate and enjoying the variety of flowers. Elsie Redford had originally built a fishing camp on the site that she converted into a garden in the 1920’s. She was a rugged early settler who during her recovery following surgery followed her doctor’s suggestion that she take up gardening.

This lovely garden is the result. Because of its location near the St. Lawrence River which tempers the climate, plants grow here that are unable to grow elsewhere in Canada. I was struck once again, just like I was in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the role that gardens played in the estates of the very wealthy back in the day and how lucky we are that many have been maintained and are now open to the public.

I have some random memories of the Gaspe from when I visited with my family back in 1950’s.  In particular I remember following a dirt road that connected fishing villages. I still have a small carved boat that my parents purchased for me at a roadside stand. Boy, has that changed. The drive, now a totally paved road while still beautiful, has become far more touristy. But the natural beauty is still there. This time we spent a night in a hotel that looked out on Perce Rock, a huge monolith with a natural archway that protrudes from the Atlantic Ocean not far from the road.  I remember my sister, a teenager in 1954, commenting, “We drove all this way just to see a rock!”

The Gaspe also has its share of unusual sites: Given the proximity to the sea, the Gaspe is a huge source of wind power and we, of course, had to drive through Le Nordais Windmill Park where there are more than130 windmills. The park claims to be one of the largest in North America.  While the huge vertical windmill is no longer in use, the village of Cap Chat started giving tours of it in 1987 and continue to do so.  The windmill is considered by the locals to be a static sculpture. Near the town of Sainte-Flavie we came upon a sculpture garden by Maurice Gagnon.  There the artist has created a gathering of people on the beach standing out into the water. We found the display very odd, but extremely interesting.   And of course, I made Bob stop in Rimouski, one of the biggest towns along the peninsula so I could visit the L’Oceanic Ice Colisee, where Sydney Crosby played junior hockey.

Coming upon a covered bridge or passing a home with a thatched roof or seeing a phone booth on the side of the street made us often feel like we were traveling in a previous time.

But perhaps among the most unique were the sculptures of the fish and the man with the moose antlers.

But our favorite part was the spectacular views that seemed to be around every bend. And to top it off we had wonderful sunny weather to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery for the entire four days (which we understand from locals is very unusual).

After a fabulous month of being surrounded by everything French we were headed back to spend a couple of weeks with our son Kris, and his family in Big Rapids.  IMG_20170709_184753526But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop in Fairport, New York to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of our  daughter-in-law, Sadie’s grandmother. We don’t know many people who get to celebrate that special day!  And it was great fun!

We hadn’t been “home” in Big Rapids since last November.  And Kris and his wife, Andria, went out of their way to make our visit special.  We played euchre, and as they are both great chefs of course we ate amazing meals. We learned a new yard game, Kubb, went on a boat ride with good friends, Ken and Ginny.  Andria even made arrangements for us to visit her sister’s family in Manistee so we could spend time on the Lake Michigan beach, which we consider among the nicest in the world. We also got to celebrate our oldest grandchild’s sixteenth birthday.  It was a wonderful two weeks that passed by far too quickly.

We’re now getting ready to head to Rome to watch Cary defend her dissertation and then on new cities and new adventures! What lucky people we are!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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