Finding the Calm, Ignoring the Chaos

So hubby and I are exercising restraint and practicing a slightly modified home stay as recommended by local health authorities. We plan to limit outside excursions to one or two things we cannot cancel this month. Once the weather clears, we’ll head back to Newhall Park to enjoy the brilliant spring greens and the view of our beloved Mt. Diablo. We figure no one is going to tell us we can’t spend time in nature.

Many of our usual activities have been postponed or canceled. Our meetings and classes with artists and other friends will be on hiatus for an unknown period of time. Realizing so much more free time could lead to both anxiety and depression, we have been thinking about ways to create a positive experience that maybe opens up new adventures for us.

We’re starting by establishing new habits which we think will protect our health and reduce stress. Here is our daily list in no particular order:

  • Sanitize hard surfaces like handles, door knobs, faucet levers, light switches
  • Wipe iPhones and iPads with alcohol wipes
  • Change kitchen and bathroom hand towels
  • Meditate
  • Listen to our favorite music-break out those old CD’s
  • Create-a small art piece or a poem or a journal entry
  • Check in with friends and family
  • Prepare healthy meals-maybe two per day instead of three!
  • Limit time reading the news to ten minutes
  • Find a new comedy series and make that the last thing we watch before bed
  • Avoid sharing a lot of negative news on Facebook
  • At least five days per week, get out of the yoga clothes or pajamas and dress up
  • Establish a definite bed time and stick to it
  • For me: wear something cute every day! Like these darling French shoes! Brand new and never worn outside…they may be my new house shoes!

There and Back Once More

Once again, we are preparing for an overseas adventure. This trip seems a little crazier than most. We’ll be traveling for two months and staying in eight different countries with day trips to two more. The beginning weeks will focus on areas that are very new to us while the end of the trip will take us to places we know and love. We are excited to be traveling unfamiliar roads, savoring new cuisines, and making new friends. And, we’ll enjoy returning to cities we love and hanging out with old friends. So, onward to Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Malta, Italy, Austria, Germany, and France!

In His Honor-A Memory

Making Like Anthony Bourdain

“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” Bill said.

I replied, “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.” We were cruising the Holland America website exploring excursions for our Alaska vacation. As always, the conflict between my craving for adventure and Bill’s practical nature had to be taken into account. I added, “Honey, this ATV tour really does look terrific! We can fit it in the day we arrive in Denali. We’ll get to see a glacial moraine and a braided river!”

“Neither of us have ever ridden one of these things.”

“No, but I’ve driven a snowmobile, you’ve driven a motorcycle, and the website shows this is a level two adventure—perfect for us! If it were really dangerous it would be a level three. Please, please, can we sign up?”

My husband nodded. I added the ATV tour to our list of excursions and clicked “buy”. We started counting down the days until our departure for the fiftieth state and the vacation dreamed about for years.

After a scenic all-day train ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park, Bill and I checked into our rustic cabin, grabbed a quick dinner, and hopped on a van for a short drive to the Black Diamond ATV resort. Three handsome young men garbed in mud splattered rain suits greeted us as we clambered off the van and stumbled over water-filled ruts to the resort office. The tallest of the group yelled, “Okay, peoples, first you watch safety film, then you grab helmet, gloves and raincoat!” They herded us into a drafty shed with our twenty or so fellow adventurers.

“See, honey, they obviously have been doing this a while or they wouldn’t make us watch this safety film and oh, uh, read this two-page liability release form…” The mandatory film was a well-produced infomercial for a popular brand of ATVs. There was some mention of things like wearing a helmet, following instructions, using the hand brakes. The liability release form was vague enough that one couple decided to wait in the van rather than experience the adventure.

We donned our gear, laughing a bit at the awkward fit of the helmets and the dirt-encrusted gloves. Chatting with our guides, we discovered that they were college students from Bulgaria working in Alaska for the summer to learn the tourist business. The crew hustled our crowd to the muddy yard to select our ATVs.  “Womens take big machines! Much safer! Mens, little ones goes faster!” shouted one of our guides.

I pulled myself up onto a big, green four-wheeled ATV. Somewhere during our suiting up, I think we were told how to start the machine, but between the guide’s rough accent, his distracting smile, and the muffling of my helmet, I missed most of the instructions. Bill sped off while I was still trying to find the on switch. After a few minutes my guide strode over, turned on the engine, and urged, “Go quick! You are behind!”

I gunned the engine. My ATV roared out of the yard and onto the gravel-strewn trail. In seconds, I was running off the trail and skewing into dense brush. I clamped down hard on the hand brake and shuddered to a stop. I jockeyed my weighty machine back and forth to regain the trail. After a few minutes of strenuous effort, I gunned the engine again and set off to find my group.

The trail took a sharp left turn. I pulled to the left with all my strength. I negotiated that turn only to be confronted by a ninety-degree right turn and an ill-placed boulder. I yanked hard, but the ATV knew I was no match. The big green monster bounced over the boulder and flew off the trail and down the steep hillside. I hung on with an iron grip as the monster sought level ground. We traveled faster and faster smashing over wildflowers and boulders alike.

“Oh, my God, I’m going to die my first day in Alaska!” Suddenly an image flashed before my eyes. Just the week before while watching the Travel Channel, I had seen host Anthony Bourdain in a very similar predicament. Frantically, I recalled his heavy ATV rolling over him twice as he crashed down a steep sand mound. “What did Anthony say he should have done?”

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” I leapt off at the next bounce. The monster galloped downhill. I was airborne for a few seconds and then I hit the ground hard. Opening my eyes, I found I had landed in a large patch of brilliant purple fireweed. The dense foliage and the daypack I had cleverly worn front-wise broke my fall.

I moved my head and each limb in turn. “Nothing’s broken!” I extricated myself from the smashed blossoms and stood up. A head appeared above me on the trail.

My guide looked at me with a quizzical expression and asked, “Why you drive off trail, lady?”

After figuring out that I was not the litigious sort, my dark-eyed escort said, “Lady, maybe you ride with me now. I got plenty room. You have more fun, okay, lady?” Georges and I quickly caught up with our group.

“Honey, I drove off the trail and crashed my ATV, so Georges suggested I ride with him,” I explained to my shocked husband. After a quick hug and a shake of his head, Bill chased off after one of his new buddies. It turned out that Bill took to ATV’ing like a grizzly to ground squirrels. He sped around turns, raced up hills, splashed through puddles and generally behaved in a totally un-Bill manner. I escaped my adventure with only bruises and scrapes. Word of my derring-do soon spread within our tour group and I dined out on the heroic story for several days.

A couple of months later, we acquired coveted tickets to a lecture given by my favorite chef, author, and adventurer. His talk was funny. I bought his latest book and stood in line to have it autographed. As I waited, I rehearsed a fifty-word version of my amazing story to share with him.

I sauntered up to the signing table. “Chef Bourdain,” I said, “Remember the ATV accident you had in New Zealand, you know, the one where you almost got crushed on the sand dune? The exact same thing happened to me in Alaska, only I remembered what you said you should have done and I jumped. So, here I am!”

Tony favored me with a blank stare.

“You saved my life!” I gushed.

My hero’s mouth turned up in a scornful smile. He scrawled something illegible in my book. In his jaded eyes, I could see the question, “What the hell kind of numbskull middle-aged broad talked herself into driving an ATV in the wilds of Alaska?”

Moving on…or maybe not

Monday marked fifteen years since the death of my mother. In that strange bifurcated way that one perceives personal events, it seems like she has been gone forever, but also like she departed only yesterday. For years after she died, I dreamed that she had wandered off on some kind of junket. Our family searched for her in vain. In one vivid dream, Mom walked into our family home carrying a small briefcase and wearing a non-descript coat. We greeted her with joy leavened by consternation. I grabbed her hands and demanded, “where have you been? How could you have left us for so long?” She replied in a stern, no-nonsense tone, very unlike the real her, “I had other things I needed to do.” Dreams of her have faded, yet I can still hear her laugh, feel her soft hands, see the sparkle in her eyes.

My mother had just recuperated from multiple surgeries for oral cancer, when a sudden onset of severe heartburn prompted her to visit yet another doctor. Tests revealed that this non-smoking, tee-totaler had esophageal cancer. After a long recovery from the surgery to remove the tumor, Mom’s life returned to normal for some months. We all pretended to ourselves that her fine surgeon had eradicated all of the cancer. The reality was that her disease was far advanced by the time she had surgery and there was no way she would survive for long. But, we ignored that fact and continued to live as if she would be with us for many years. 

Mom did live long enough to meet two more of my grandchildren, boy cousins born three days apart in August. By the beginning of November, our fantasy of many more years with Mom was coming unspun. The entire family including her favorite sister and all three of my grandchildren gathered at my parent’s home for Thanksgiving. Some of my most precious memories are of Mom and Aunt Ellen holding and bouncing the baby boys.

Within a few days after our family celebration, Mom agreed it was time for hospice. Visiting nurses came and went, checking vitals, ordering increased dosages of the pain-killing drugs she now needed, counseling all of us on what to expect. My father veered between anxiety about Mom’s diminished appetite and free-floating anger at everyone within earshot especially me. I saved my tears for the drive to and from work. Mom asked for help cleaning out her closet. “I won’t need these large-size tops and pants this spring. I’ll have to get a whole new wardrobe.” To me, at least, she displayed an unquenchable optimism. Somehow she would beat the cancer.

Just after Christmas Mom fell and broke her hip. As our family doctor put it, “the fall was just another stage of her cancer.” An eager young bone surgeon prepped to perform a hip replacement. With the counsel of the middle-aged anesthesiologist who recognized the brevity of Mom’s life at this point, we suggested that pinning the hip to alleviate her pain made more sense. Mom surprised everyone by surviving the surgery. Within a day or two she was sitting in a chair, forcing herself to eat so she could go home, joking with her son-in-law and grandson, flirting with the doctors.

Despite the successful hip surgery, Mom soon slipped into a coma. We had her moved to a large private room with a sofa-bed for family sleepovers. Family members, including our son and his breast-feeding wife and one of our best friends became her guardians. We made sure she was never alone. My sister and I worked with hospice and they worked with the orthopedic staff to manage her medications and hydration. I was desperate to get her home and tried every tactic I could with the doctors, but she was too fragile to travel in an ambulance.

The night my mother died, my husband Bill and I were her guardians. Mom had not spoken for several days, nor opened her eyes. She no longer squeezed back when I squeezed her hand. In the middle of the night, Bill and I stood at either side of her bed and watched her chest rise and fall. We stroked her hair and assured her that if it was her time to go, the family would be okay after a time. I knelt by her side for a long while, holding her hand, thinking about the thirty-some hours of labor she endured bringing me into the world. At last, exhaustion drove me to the sofa-bed. Bill joined me a little later. 

At about 3:30 in the morning, Bill awoke to a rustling sound. A nurse held a stethoscope on my mother’s chest. Bill shook me out of a deep sleep. As we struggled off the bed, the nurse turned to us and whispered, “she’s passed.” I was stunned. Mom had been breathing quietly when I laid down…less then twenty minutes before. It was so like my very private mother to wait until Bill and I were asleep before drawing her last breath. 

Bill pulled on his coat and rushed out of the room to carry the news to Dad, leaving me alone with my mother. I grabbed her now-cool hand and wished for her to come back to me, not for just an instant; I wanted her back forever. Fifteen years later, I still feel that way. 

In the Bubble…

So we spent the last hour relaxing on our verandah here on the MS Maasdam. While we finished off a bottle of bubbly, courtesy of our travel agent, we had time to observe the late afternoon activity at the Port of Otago…Otago being the name of the peninsula where our ship has been docked all day. The nearest town is Port Chalmers and the big city on the peninsula is Dunedin, population about 120,000. 

For such a lightly populated area, the port seems quite busy. With a backdrop of emerald green hills and a foreground of  turquoise bay water, the various fork lifts and other machinery of the port carry on their activities, which seem to consist of moving brightly painted containers from one stack to another. As we watched, the stacks at one end of the dock became taller, while at the other end they became shorter.

We wonder what all this constant activity means. Where are those containers destined? Do they contain supplies for this area? Outbound material for export? There is no way to tell from our perch on Deck 9 of the Maasdam, but seeing the name Maersk on so many of the containers I wonder if that is a company in which we should invest.

Today was our first ashore after three days at sea. Yesterday we did see land…Milford Sound and another fjord, but other than those magnificent areas, our world has been the ship and the sea as far as we could see. It began to feel rather strange and maybe naive, to be ensconced on this lovely ship with all of the glamorous touches of decor and style. 

There can be a complete disconnect on board ship from everything going on in the land-bound world. Yes, there is internet and each morning someone prints out a news digest which can be picked up at the front desk. If we wanted to, we could probably watch one of the cable news stations on our stateroom television. However, the atmosphere aboard discourages one from overly serious pursuits. 

Not all is totally frivolous. There are lectures and such on the culture of the places we’ll visit. Many activities on this ship emphasize nature with tours, talks and films on the environment of New Zealand.
But, it is easy to just float in a bubble of contentment. To live very much in the moment…whether it is a moment of gazing at the dawn sky, or spotting a waterfall cascading down a high cliff, or reveling in the antics of the seabirds. Maybe, this is what we need once in a while…a divorce from the reality of civilization and a chance to connect with the quiet beauty of our natural world.

Shopping at the Woolworth’s

Staying in a rented flat or apartment hotel  when traveling outside the US allows us to cook some meals instead of eating out three times a day. And cooking, of course, means grocery shopping, always an amusing and interesting activity in a foreign city.

Our first day in Sydney, stocking the larder landed first on our to-do list. Right around the corner from our hotel is a Woolworth’s…not the US drug store of our childhood memories, but a fully stocked multi-story grocery store. 

We strolled through the door only to be caught up in a cyclone of shoppers. Duh, we should have thought twice before venturing into a grocery store at 5:30 pm mid-week. Harried shoppers rushed around grabbing steaks here, veggies there, piling up their little green shopping baskets. We wandered the aisles in a post-fourteen-hour-flight daze, trying not to get trampled.

A tad overwhelmed by the crush, we limited our purchases to those items critical for our breakfast…crumpets, marmalade, apples, milk, yoghurt, bircher mix. Shaken, but un-bruised, we escaped to the street.

A couple of days later, we needed to restock the breakfast pantry and pick up  veggies and pasta for dinner. In a moment of clarity (still suffering from jet lag), we decided to shop a little earlier to beat the post-work insanity. 

Now this was fun! Like most big-city grocery stores, Woolworth’s reflects the diversity of the population and the breadth of products available in a cosmopolitan area. Gleaming veggies and lush fruits bore the proud, “Australian Grown” label. Aisle after aisle featured Indian or Asian cuisine. We had time to peruse the tinned goods aisle and marvel at all the ways the rest of the world comes up with to package staples like tuna fish. The candy aisle held us in thrall, but more on that in a future post! We love to buy products not available in the US…like real crumpets, fennel-fig paste, Bircher mix…(just add water or milk to oatmeal and dried fruit and refrigerate overnight! Yum!)

We filled to overflowing two little green shopping baskets. Overloaded with too many heavy sacks, we staggered back to the hotel, but no worries! That evening we savored a delicious dinner of pasta with fresh pesto cheese sauce (created from the cheese we bought at our previous day’s stop at the Smelly Cheese Factory) and a huge salad with the freshest, tastiest greens and veggies. 

Just a Typical First Day Abroad

As we have matured, my husband and I have found that we don’t have the stamina to rush around seeing three or four sights in a day when we are on vacation. We never really were that efficient, but we did pretty well with two, or sometimes three, like Notre Dame in the morning, Tuileries in the afternoon, and a boat ride on the Seine in the evening. It was easy in a compact city like Florence to go to the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace in one day and squeeze in a wine-tasting tour in the evening. Now, we find that one major “thing” a day is enough.

Before our sight-seeing day begins, we follow a routine that starts our day at a relaxed pace. We try to get into the routine the very first day so that the little housekeeping things we need to do become habits. 

Today, however, did not start like a typical first day. At 1:50am Bill’s phone screeched with a notice from our alarm company that one of the sensors had gone off. He woke me up and we panicked together. We’re over 7000 miles from home. We figured out what time it was in the states, decided it was not too early to call our alarm contact and a neighbor. They soon decided that there had been no break in. So Bill called our police department (luckily there had been no dispatch yet) to tell them it was a false alarm. Then he spent half an hour on the phone with tech support for our alarm company working through the various scenarios. By 3:00am we were back in bed and asleep within minutes.

I arose too early, but fell easily into my travel habits. While my husband slumbered on, I set up on my iPad the spreadsheet we’ll use to track our daily expenses to help us stay within our daily budget. Then I wrote in our journal the stories of our first two travel days. I pulled together the maps and vouchers we’ll need today. After Bill stumbled out of bed, we made a pile of our Aussie currency and divided it up equally, a third for each of us and a third for the safe in our closet. 

We breakfasted on crumpets with peanut butter and cups of black tea. One of the things we have found that really works for us is renting an apartment or staying in an apartment hotel such as this one, the Meriton. It is lovely to fix breakfast and enjoy a quiet time together before the activities of our day.

Then showered, dressed and fed we’re ready for the day…and our one planned activity…a cruise of Sydney Harbor.

Pretty Money

Bill picked up our currency for Australia and New Zealand today. We like to arrive in a foreign country with enough cash to cover transportation to our hotel and the first couple of meals. Both of these currencies are pretty and colorful with handsome  images (several of prominent women) and intriguing security factors like transparent windows with holograms. Unfortunately the various denominations for Australia and New Zealand are exactly the same dimension and some are similar colors. So, a ten dollar Aussie note is easy to confuse with a ten dollar Kiwi note. This has me a little worried as the values are, of course, not exactly the same.

My concern stems from a very embarrassing moment in Prague last year. On our first night in town, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at a bistro near our hotel in the old center. I knew that my husband was low on cash so when the check came, I pulled out some bills. Several minutes after he picked up our cash, our waiter marched back to our table. An indignant scowl spoiled his otherwise handsome face. He sputtered as he slammed one of the notes in front of me. “A forint! A lousy forint! Worth nothing here! What are you trying to pull? Are you some crooks?”

I tried to slide under the table. Egad, I must have missed one of the 500 forint notes when we were exchanging them for koruna at the train station in Budapest. The Hungarian 500 forint and the Czech 500 koruna are very similar in size and color…but definitely not in value. Hungary has many denominations of bills and a 500 forint note is one of the smaller ones. I had proffered about $1.75 for the equivalent of twenty dollars. Oops! I stuffed the forint in my pocket and snagged a koruna from my wallet. Apologizing in French, the only language that came to mind, we slunk out of the restaurant.

For this trip, we’ll make sure to separate our Aussie and Kiwi money!

28 Days at Sea? Really?

Originally, we planned a fourteen day cruise on Holland America’s Maasdam in the middle of what was to be a four-week Australia/New Zealand vacation. After listening to my struggle with arranging a post-cruise train tour of New Zealand, my husband asked, “Why not take another cruise? Isn’t there a ship returning to Sydney from Auckland?”

Of course there was a ship…the same one on which we would arrive in Auckland. At first I was dumbfounded at my husband’s suggestion. This is the man who for years was reluctant to cruise and now…28 days! Really?

As we talked about it, the advantages of our new plan because clear…extra days in each of our New Zealand ports and on the return cruise, a visit to Burnie, Tasmania instead of Hobart. Plus, we’d have a long day in Melbourne. Within minutes I phoned our travel agent who was able to book a cabin on the same deck for our second cruise on MS Maasdam.

And then we had to adjust our itinerary…changing our return flight on Qantas and booking a hotel for a long Christmas-shopping weekend in Sydney. Our trip grew from four to six weeks, but as retirees time is our friend.

I dream now of 28 days at sea…al fresco lunches poolside, walks along the promenade after dinner and views of the Southern Cross from our balcony as we cross the Tasmanian Sea. Of course, we’ll be off ship many days exploring the towns and countryside of New Zealand. I’ll share stories and photos of those adventures as we go along.



Traveling through Two Worlds

We planned this year’s vacation some months ago. At the time we were vaguely aware that there was an increase in the numbers of refugees migrating to Europe. We didn’t see this migration as influencing our list of countries to visit. Now on the eve of our trip, we realize that our lavish adventure is likely to intersect with the harrowing journeys of our fellow human beings as they escape from the firestorms of Syria and Iraq and strive to find safe havens in Europe.

I am reading news feeds incessantly, both to plot our course through the largest human migration in our generation and because I am trying to think of a way we can help. In the mail today was an appeal from the United Nations Relief Agency. We’ll send off a check before we leave town. Somehow, I don’t think that will quite assuage the guilt I feel as we set out on this trip.

Every news photo of a small child sleeping on a dirty train platform, or trudging along a railroad track or thrusting a tiny hand out to grab some food snaps me into the reality that there are two worlds on this planet. We, along with all of our friends and family, are so incredibly fortunate to have been born in a country with a stable government and lawful civic institutions. I sometimes think we don’t appreciate enough the security and bounty of the United State. We are so used to sleeping in a warm place, eating good food, living without fear. But, most of the earth’s population live in another world.

I’ll share our experiences as we journey from France to Greece, Turkey, Austria, Hungary and other countries through which the refugees are traveling. I hope to be able to write that we connected with a volunteer organization where we can contribute time and energy to helping these other travelers on a path so different from our own.