Bridge Lessons

The game of Bridge, the game of my parents, has finally hunted and overtaken me. Retirement can be a time to pick up new hobbies and try new activities.  Retirement can also be a time to revisit past challenges.  Looks like, despite my better judgment, I’m learning to play Bridge, which illustrates all of the above.   And it’s more than a bit ironic since I’ve spent my entire life vigorously avoiding the game.

My parents were avid Bridge players.  My mother played with the ladies in various groups and clubs over the years, and both parents enjoyed Bridge parties with other couples.  It was seemingly polite social activity, but make no mistake —–they were both highly competitive and loved nothing more than crushing their opponents.

My first encounter came when I was about seven years old.  My parents determined (since Bridge requires four people, two more than them) that they needed a ready pool of Bridge players, presumably to hone their skills for the kill at Bridge Club, and looked no further than their offspring to inflict Bridge lessons.   Thank God Almighty I am the THIRD child and have two older brothers.   Tom and Jim, who must have been about 12 and 14, were led to the card table like sheep to the slaughter.   My dad claimed my younger brother as his partner and Jim took the news like a prisoner receiving a week of hard labor.

I quickly deduced what was about to transpire was not going to be pleasant and wisely decided to go underground in my room the remainder of the evening.   Not even Mary Poppins (the sole record I had, volume turned high) could drown the distinct sounds of irritation (parents) and misery (brothers) coming from the living room.  I heard sounds of shouting and crying and words like “Trump” and “No Trump” and “Three Spades” floating down the hall.    I heard Dad bellow, “Mary, Jim trumped my ace!!!!”  (Dad spoke through Mom when he was particularly agitated or flabbergasted.) I did not know what this meant, but I knew it spelled big trouble for Jim.  I thought I heard Jim whimpering. It was about this time I formulated my life-long goal of avoiding Bridge at all costs.

Family Bridge lessons were perpetrated over the years but I always managed to evade them.   There were a few close calls – for example, when I was older and Mom hosted the bridge ladies, one of whom cancelled at the last minute.  My mom sweetly suggested she could “give me a quick lesson” so I could fill in, but I knew better than to take that bait!   I understood it would be a slippery slope if I capitulated, so I quickly manufactured urgent errands and fled.

You can imagine my reaction, then, when one night in November our good friends proposed a pleasant game of Bridge.  Now, Renee and Stan (names changed) are dear friends who host us in their lovely home when we visit Annapolis.  They have been more than generous to our family and we love them dearly.  Anyone else, upon mere utterance of the word Bridge, I would have refused immediately.  But I knew this was music that I must face.   My time had come.

So there I was seated at the table, with Renee as my partner.  She is affable, warm and outgoing, but with that same steely competitiveness as my mom.  Renee loves to play Bridge. She rattled off the rules and described the basics of strategy, and I tried to listen (through the buzz of anxiety in my brain and the chattering of teeth) while simultaneously controlling the terror in my belly as bad memories came flooding back. As the night wore on, I relaxed a little (once I realized Renee wasn’t going to yell at me) but it also became clear I am not a natural.  I was hoping one or both parents had genetically passed on knowledge or skill that would render me a prodigy once I got going, but sadly that was not the case.  In fact, I was rather a dolt.  I loved when I was “dummy,” which is a perfect role for me, and could just lay down my cards and cheer Renee on.  As part of my training Renee usually told me exactly what to do every step, which worked really well.  Until, she suddenly announced that I should play a hand with no help – and I still hadn’t a clue what I was doing.  Renee was gracious enough to remain calm but did say things like  “Now, why would you do that?”  It was clear I was no Goren.   I counted and recounted on my fingers the points in my hand, the bidding made no sense to me, and I could only think about playing one trick at a time.  Forget counting cards or any grand strategy for winning a round. It was pure survival.

We played Bridge a few more times while we were there and I was starting to get the basics.  But Bridge makes as much as sense to me as my son’s electrical engineering class.  There are the basic rules, and then the more advanced rules, and then the rules that good Bridge players just somehow know, and then there is the larger strategy that very good Bridge players have a mind for.   Renee assures me that Bridge is a complicated game and I will learn with practice.  I’m not so sure, but for Stan and Renee, and for Mom and Dad, I’m going to keep trying.

The All Guys Dinner Party

My son came home from college last week for Christmas break and I threw him the most wonderfully ridiculous welcome home dinner party.  The welcome home party has become a tradition since he left for college – when he comes home on vacation he likes to reinsert himself into the local social scene as soon as possible.  But for past parties we typically set up his XBox, PlayStation and/or GameCube in the family room, put some pizza and soda on the kitchen island, and let him and his friends go for it.

This year, as usual, I decorated the house for Christmas.  I trimmed the tree and hung the stockings.  I spent a whole day baking cookies.  (See previous post).  Then I went above and beyond.  I cleaned out all the boxes in the dining room (which had become a storage space since we normally eat in the kitchen), and then decorated the room.  I had my husband pull the boxes of our Spode Christmas Tree china out of the garage.  I unpacked and washed the china.  I cleaned out the hutch in the dining room so I could put the Spode away.  I went through all the linens I’ve collected over the years, and found coordinating tablecloth and napkins.  I read somewhere that it is trendy to mix and match napkins and tablecloth and china, so I was swinging for the trendy fences.

And then I went shopping.  First I went to Michaels Arts and Crafts – during the workweek, which almost felt naughty.  I felt an odd rush of exhilaration as I walked the aisles with hordes of women whose carts were overflowing with stuff, while Christmas carols blared over the sound system.  I don’t know why I found it all so amusing, but I could barely contain myself as I watched one lady, who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and could barely see over the mound of loot in her cart, collide with a display of snow globes.  When all was said and done, the cashier refused to give me the discount on the candles I thought were 60% off, so in a moment of liberating defiance, I announced I wanted nothing in my cart and walked out the door.  (I never would’ve done that when I was working because I wouldn’t have had the time to search elsewhere).

Then I headed to Stats, which is a veritable local Christmas wonderland and superstore.  I wandered wide-eyed through the rooms of floral displays and wreaths and Santa Claus figurines. There I bought garlands and candles and pinecones.  Then I went to World Market and found napkins and rings and bowls.  After that I went to Home Goods and Pier One and Marshalls and TJ Maxx and Ross and Party City.  I don’t even remember what I found where at this point.  But I was a woman on a mission.

I even decorated the coffee table to serve appetizers. I knew the small plates and cocktail napkins would be curious to the guys but they would enjoy the extra food.

The coffee table decorated to serve appetizers. The small plates and cocktail napkins were a curiosity to the guys but they enjoyed the extra food before dinner.

And what exactly was this mission?   For goodness sake, this was a party for a group of eight to twelve 20-21 year old guys. Do you think guys that age (or any age for that matter) care whether they are sitting at the dining room table with Spode china in front of them?  Do they appreciate having a decorated house?   Of course not! In a moment of complete and utter lunacy, and which made me laugh out loud like a crazy woman, I raced to Big Lots the day of the party and bought a garland of poinsettias and a Santa yard stake because I decided the light fixture in the dining room and our front yard needed more decoration.

No, this wasn’t just about the boys.   It was about me.  For one thing, I spent the past 10 years, when I was in a senior management role, working really hard at my job and the holiday season was one of the busiest times.  I didn’t have time to plan Christmas parties and it was about as much as I could handle to decorate the house and trim the tree and buy the gifts and send out the cards each year.  I didn’t have time to savor the season.  For another thing, I want to hone my entertaining skills.  While I was busy working, my husband did most of the cooking and I have become rusty (and to tell the truth, I was never that good in the first place).  In September, just for fun, I attended a party planning class with my good friend John at a local high school. The instructor advised us to practice by putting on our own dinner party, and what better guinea pigs than a group of guys who don’t know their salad plate from their dinner plate and are happy simply having something edible placed in front of them?

With my collected merchandise, I decorated and set the dining room table.  Using my party planning class workbook, I developed a menu and a schedule for the party.   I scoped Costco for appetizers and gave my husband a shopping list for the food.  We worked together on the meal, since he is not quite ready to trust me with the keys to his kitchen kingdom.   (Probably itself another post topic.)

The All Guys Dinner Party

The All Guys Dinner Party. Notice the garland of poinsettias on the light fixture and the trendy mix of linens and china.

And was all this overkill for a group of college-age guys?  Absolutely! Did any of them make one peep about the decorations or the china or the music?  Of course not!  Did they enjoy themselves?  Enormously!   How do I know?  By the smiles and laughter I heard from the dining room as they sat around the [beautifully decorated dining] table talking to each other, and later from the family room as they played a board game and I listened in while doing dishes.  And they all thanked me before they left.  Was it worth all the work?  Totally!  Did I have fun?  You bet!  And yesterday, best of all, as I was walking out the door with my son, he asked to take a picture of me in front of the tree.  Then he wanted a picture of himself in front of the house.  After we got in the car, he showed me the “Snapchat Story” he just made.  Which is, after all, the way his generation communicates.  It was a photo of my decorated dining table with a caption that read “Ready to celebrate with friends” and then a photo of me in front of the tree with the caption “Family” and a photo of him in front of our house that read “Glad to be home.  Merry Christmas!”

The Fellowship of the Cookie

Among the things I miss most about my former work life are a few really good friends.  After working closely with some of them for over 25 years, I find myself yearning for that day to day contact, sharing the up’s and down’s of each other’s lives, and working on projects together.   When I retired, I had no doubt that I would stay in touch with my closest friends; however, I underestimated the loss of that daily contact.  It takes effort to set up lunch dates and even phone calls when no longer coworkers.  In my ideal fantasy world, I would have my own office where I would see my pals at the beginning of each day over coffee and at the end of the day to share our stories.   Sometimes we’d also have lunch.  (The time in between I don’t really want to do any work; hence, this is my fantasy world.)

Which is why last Sunday I was in heaven.   I decided to invite my former work group to my house for a holiday multi-tasking party.  I reckoned since I’m not working, I’d decorate my house early and we could bake, wrap and address cards together.   I remember being under such stress this time of year, with much to do, and my idea was to provide a festive environment where we could complete tasks together.   As it happened, because it is such a busy season, only my good friend John could join me.

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

But, oh, did we have fun!  John and I baked cookies together.  For SIX hours.  We planned our recipes during the course of the week and coordinated our ingredients.  On Sunday morning, we plotted our cookie strategy and then made adjustments to our project plan (oops, we forgot to take the 14 sticks of butter out of the fridge to soften) and more adjustments (oops, we hadn’t read the part about chilling the dough for several hours).  We helped each other by holding bowls and spatulas and measuring ingredients.   And we made SIX recipes together.  We talked and we laughed and we invented inside jokes about our baking adventure (“those damn pecan balls!”).   During the course of the following week, we texted gags to each other about our cookies.   Very little of our conversation was about work.

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

In some ways it was just like the old days working together on a joint project.  But in other ways, it is a delightful new relationship that transcends our work history.  By carving out a block of time for our friendship (my husband watched football in the other room while we worked and John’s partner was visiting his mother) we underscored its importance in our changed circumstances.  We did more than bake cookies together.  We created new memories and a new tradition for our friendship.

My First Post-Retirement Performance Review

Unbelievably, I’ve been retired for an entire quarter already.  Since I’ve positioned Year One of retirement as scientific experimentation (which warrants some level of rigor) AND old corporate habits die hard, I feel compelled to give myself a post-retirement quarterly review.  Dusting off the old performance review templates from memory banks (and causing myself stress just thinking about it) here goes:

On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = bad/you suck, 5 = excellent/good job):

(1) Progress toward stated Year One goals:

Paris trip – 5

Rest/recuperation – 4 (points off for jet lag)

Have fun – 5

Clean-up projects around the house – 2

Clean-up projects in garage – Q2 – AFTER HOUSE

Route 66 driving trip – Q3 – AFTER HOUSE AND GARAGE

Observations: Q1 was dominated by R&R, travel and fun. I was primarily a big goof-off, which fit my objectives perfectly.  After catching up on sleep the first two weeks, the majority of waking hours was spent planning and executing our fabulous Paris trip, two reunion weekends (my law school and my husband’s high school) and then three additional trips to Annapolis and one trip to San Jose for Navy football games.  We managed to attend all five Navy home games AND the Navy–SJSU game (resulting in all W’s which should bump me up to a 5+ rating on some scale).  Out of curiosity, I tallied days home v. days away and we were clearly away more than home, almost twice as much September through November. Which is a perfect excuse for why I didn’t get more done at home.

I did start working on home cleanup projects in between trips.  I managed to make my way through 2 ½ rooms (including closets), as part of Operation Purge, which entails sorting, tossing and trips to Goodwill.  After the holidays, our travel will slow down and Operation Purge will swing into high gear.

(2) Positives:

Flexibility – I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility.  It’s fun to do things spontaneously and go places, like restaurants or the mall or movies, during off-hours and avoid crowds.   When planning trips we can go an extra day or two or (what the heck!) week to take advantage of lower fares or less traffic.

Free time – my free time is now truly free.  In the past, I rarely had a vacation where there was no BlackBerry to check, no email to return, no conference call THAT I JUST HAD TO dial into.  I can really relax and be present and enjoy myself.  On several of our fall trips to Annapolis for football games, we booked extra days and explored the area – we visited small towns we’d never seen, museums we’d never discovered, scenic drives we’d never taken.  With free time, the world becomes an oyster!

Less stress – See two points above.  Friends have commented (with no prodding on my part) that I look physically younger, happier and more relaxed.  I sleep better and my energy level is higher. I didn’t realize how much stress I was under until I was away from the job for a while.

Time with hubby – I was worried (as was my husband!) that too much together time might lead to unpleasant consequences, such as one of us killing the other.  It has been an adjustment (mostly with our home routine that I have disrupted).  However, for the most part it has surprisingly been a non-issue.   In fact, we are really enjoying doing things together, especially the travel.   I am thankful my husband is an available partner in my retirement activities.  If he was still working, I don’t think it would be nearly as enjoyable.

Travel – something I loved about my job was the travel.  I relished staying in hotels, visiting new places and exploring cities.   However, I often didn’t have time to do much sightseeing when I was working.  Although I was perfectly happy traveling solo, expeditions with a partner are much more rewarding. Now, we can go to those bucket list places and do those bucket list things we’ve always talked about, and at our own pace.  I was gratified that our inaugural trip to Paris was a success and gave us the confidence and incentive to do more big trips.

(3) Challenges:

An office – it may sound silly, but I do miss having my own office.  When I was working, I shared our home office with my husband.  But there’s something important about having your own space.  Even in retirement, there are things to do – bills to be paid, appointments to be scheduled, events and travel to be planned, etc.  I am, for the time being, using my laptop and cellphone in our den as my office.    But I have no desk or desk chair or file cabinets (or IT department or administrative assistant or receptionist, but I need to get over that). For now it is working fine, but at some point I would like to set up my own home office space (maybe in my son’s room once he graduates college but don’t tell him yet).

Time management – after being constantly under the gun in the corporate world for the past 25 years, it’s difficult to approach a To Do list with anything other than a fanatic urge to finish as quickly as possible.   I find myself with that old familiar stress when I still have (horrors!) unchecked items on my list, even if they are things like “Look for Ribbon for the suitcases at Jo-Ann Fabrics” or “Sort Magazines on the Coffee Table.”  The other trap is that I am often unsure of what day of the week it is (forget ever knowing the date) and sometimes I have to think hard about what month it is.   Without the structure of work, it is easy to lose track of time. I know I have more time now, but the days seem to just fly by.  How did I ever have time for a job?

Lack of routine – since Q1 was all about travel, I haven’t really settled into a “normal” routine.  I still feel like I’m on an extended vacation.  In Q2, once our travel abates and I start working around the house, I would expect a more normal (or less abnormal?) daily rhythm to develop.

Post-retirement activities – somewhat related to the previous points, I have purposely not made any decisions about how I will spend my time after this first year and have in fact turned down several offers.  It has not yet become clear to me how I would like to spend the bulk of my future time in retirement.  I know that, in addition to our travel, I would like to get involved in ongoing “work,” whether that be volunteer, part-time or non-profit, that will be meaningful to me.    As much fun as I’m having with my life of merriment, I can already sense a need for some “greater good” purpose to be significantly reflected in my activities.  I also miss the camaraderie of co-workers and the sense of pride that comes with team/organizational accomplishments.  Once I have my major home projects under control, I will embark on a more focused search.

(4) 360 feedback:

For purposes of this review, I asked my sole “co-worker” (my husband) for feedback on how my retirement is going thus far.  His response was “You’re doing fine.”  Okay, then! Whether that answer stemmed from an understandable fear of the repercussions of saying anything negative or from extreme laziness in answering one stupid question, (hey I was in the same boat for 25 years, I know the game!) or was, in fact, an accurate assessment (albeit somewhat sparse), I can’t say for sure.  I will therefore interpret his response as akin to the proverbial “Pleasure to have in class” comment I always received from my teachers in grade school and leave it at that.

(5) Overall rating: 

5

That’s the other beauty of retirement.  I’m now the boss and I can rate myself whatever I want!

Travel with the Spouse: The Togetherness Test

I liken international travel with one’s spouse (especially when not on an organized tour) to an Advanced Placement Exam in Marital Compatibility.  And I admit to some apprehension approaching our recent 2-½ week trip to France.  My husband and I had not done much foreign travel together, and had certainly not been together, just the two of us, 24/7 for that length of time since our honeymoon in 1988; and even then (1) our honeymoon was not that long and (2) we both still thought the other perfect.

Although I am not a fan of reality TV (so the following comparisons may not be 100% accurate) I was hoping our trip to Paris would be more “The Bachelorette” (those episodes in which starry-eyed couples are whisked away to romantic far-flung scenic locations) and not “Survivor” (where contestants conspire to rid themselves of each other) but maybe a bit of “The Amazing Race” thrown in.    Though, with respect to the “The Amazing Race,” which I actually enjoy, I had always been vocal in my opinion that I would much rather be on a team with my son than my husband.   My son has a better sense of humor, and I could envision my husband and I being that bickering couple that can’t even agree on how to get the envelope with the next clue open.  We can both be rather, um, opinionated.

Indeed, our first few days in Paris were trying.    If the journey was an AP Exam for us as a couple, it was a physical endurance test for my husband.  For starters, he is very tall, doesn’t particularly like big cities or crowds, and is lactose intolerant. Consequently, he deserves bonus points right off the bat for venturing to the most densely populated city in Europe, where the apartments are so small he could barely fit in the shower with the door closed (much less turn around), and which is chock-full of cheese.    Add fatigue, jet lag, inclement weather, and the language barrier to the mix and we had a recipe for disaster brewing.  In fact, observing my husband, clearly at first a fish out of water in Paris, I was initially worried that my “dream” trip was headed towards spectacular calamity.  The fatigue led to grumpiness and unlike home, where one can simply go to the other side of the house or run errands, there was nowhere to escape each other and those irritating moods, quirks and habits. (Yes, we have discovered some imperfections in each other in the ensuing 25 years.)  I have also learned, over the years, that my husband is not a “Gee whiz, we are in Paris and isn’t this swell!”  kind of a guy.   He will instead often plod through a day impassively and then later declare it a wonderful experience.  Accordingly, all I could do was trust that this trip would ultimately prove to be at least retroactively fun.

On our recent trip to Paris

On our recent trip to Paris

As the days progressed and we recovered from our fatigue and jet lag, got our bearings and the weather mercifully improved (and we learned to ignore the French) we fell into a happier, more comfortable rhythm.  The days were mostly  “The Amazing Race” and we learned to function like a team.  Happily, our evenings truly were “The Bachelorette” and we had wonderful, romantic evenings with candlelit dinners and strolls back to our apartment along the River Seine.   And to my great relief, we never had a serious “Survivor” moment where we wished we could vote the other off the island.

Traveling with one’s spouse can be both rewarding and risky business.  Here’s my take-aways from the whole experience:

Teamwork and engagement are important.  I’m the planner in the family so I did all the pre-trip planning, and consequently began to think of it as “my trip.” I initially approached our days in Paris like a self-appointed Tour Guide and did all the legwork and made all the arrangements and it began to feel like a job. Even though part of me had trouble giving up control of “my trip”, I found to my relief that things worked much better and we both had more fun once my husband fully engaged and took on tasks.  There was much to figure out on the ground with respect to transportation (metro system, trains, street maps, etc.). He became our Chief Navigation Officer and was responsible for getting us to and from places with his iPhone navigation apps, and took ownership for some of the planning, as when he spearheaded a wonderfully memorable night walk to take photos at some of our favorite monuments.    Next time, I will look for ways to get him more involved earlier.

Go with the flow.  When traveling to a foreign country, especially on your own like we did, there are numerous surprises and things that don’t go according to plan. We both had to learn to be flexible with our plans and with each other.  There were times when I really wanted to do something, but I could see from my husband’s face that that something might put him over the edge.  It’s also important to recognize when one or both parties might need some alone time to recharge, or to do separate activities.  And some of our favorite experiences stemmed from spontaneous detours from plan that I might have initially resisted.  I hated the idea of going to a falafel place in Paris but we did and it was great.

Girlfriend trips are different.  I have gone on great trips over the years with my female friends.  We usually laugh, shop, talk and do all the other things girlfriends do when they get together.  A trip with my husband is fundamentally different, because the relationship is fundamentally different.  I love both types of trips , but I have learned the types of trips and activities that work better with my friends and those that work better with my husband, and its better not to mix the two..   Trying to get my husband to spend a day shopping or wandering aimlessly or playing bingo with me on a cruise ship is just not going to work.   That’s what my girlfriends are for!

Know when to bite your tongue.  Big one for me!  Once one or both of us gets tired and cranky, it doesn’t take much from the other for things to quickly escalate out of control.  And when together constantly, it can become a pressure cooker situation with no place to hide. It can start over the silliest things – like when I stopped to take a picture of a flower stand and then realized that my husband had taken off without me and then I finally caught up with him on busy Blvd St Germaine and was ready to tear his head off but thankfully thought better of it before I got too far in my “commentary”.  We had made a pact before we left home not to let any disagreements ruin our time together on this trip.  There were some minor flare-ups, but nothing serious, and it helped to count to ten and remember our pact.

Granted, these take-aways may seem to be rather basic relationship advice, but are things that can trip my husband and I up under normal circumstances, and it was important to recognize that extended togetherness can put additional strain on a marriage or other relationship and must be carefully managed.  International travel can be hard work!

And if this trip was an AP exam, what was the result?   We certainly didn’t get a perfect score, but we found ourselves to be surprisingly compatible!  That we successfully overcame every trial we faced together (sometimes smoothly, sometimes ugly) was a real boost to our relationship.  It was a challenging, incredible, life changing and shared experience.   If I had done this trip with someone else, I would not have been able to adequately convey what I saw and experienced to my husband.   Now that we’re back home, I love hearing him enthusiastically tell other people about all the things we did in France and his perspectives on the experience.   The trip confirmed and deepened our level of trust with each other.  When I got sick on the train coming back from Giverny (I’ll spare the details), I was exceedingly grateful that I was with my husband because I have the utmost confidence in him.   After years of balancing careers and family and tag teaming and co-parenting, now that we’re retired empty nesters, we re-discovered our abiding friendship.  We still really like each other! My husband may have some really annoying habits, but so do I (although I’m convinced mine are less annoying). Nonetheless our more unvarnished acceptance and affection for each other is a richer and more satisfying companionship.

Probably the single best indicator occurred before we had even left Paris, enroute to the airport for our flight home, when my husband turned to me and said (with palpable enthusiasm in his voice) ”So where should we go on our next big trip?!”

Normandy: Paying Our Respects

I wish every American could visit the D-Day Beaches in Normandy and pay tribute to the servicemen who risked or sacrificed their lives there.  We were privileged to do so on our recent trip to France and it was one of the most unforgettable parts of our journey.

Prior to leaving Paris for Normandy, my husband and I watched “Saving Private Ryan” on DVD.  I previously eschewed this movie; afraid I would be unable to stomach the gristly D-Day battle scenes.  However, in preparation for our D-Day tour, I felt it important to watch to gain a small measure of appreciation for what the troops braved.

We took a 2-hour train from Paris on Friday evening and spent the weekend at the Hotel Churchill (reputed to have been Eisenhower’s favorite hotel during the war) in Bayeux, which was the closest village to the D-Day beaches that was left untouched during the conflict.  On Saturday, we toured the American D-Day beaches.

Our guide was Dominique, a French woman whose family resided in the area for generations.  She was extremely knowledgeable, spoke excellent English due to a stint in Santa Barbara, CA, and gave us a local perspective on historical events.  She peppered her commentary with personal stories of relatives who participated in the French Resistance and their involvement with the occupation and liberation, which was fascinating.

What I learned, from a historical perspective, was that the D-Day beaches were code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah, for purposes of the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. The Americans were responsible for Omaha and Utah and these were the beaches we visited.   Young soldiers (many of them 18 – 20 years old with no previous combat experience) carrying 70 libs of battle gear apiece were transported in flat bottom boats in rough waters to the shore (many becoming seasick) and dropped into the cold water, several drowning under the weight of their gear even before reaching shore.

The first units, taking advantage of surprise, made their way quickly to farmland at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.  Americans at Omaha were not that lucky.  There, in the center of the battlefront, soldiers walked into a wall of German gunfire.  Earlier bombing raids had been largely ineffective in taking out the heavy German armaments.  Attempting to scale a bluff well covered by German defenders, more than 2,000 GIs were killed or wounded.   After penetrating corpse-laden beaches, the soldiers ran into a maze of hedgerows in which the Germans had stationed machine gunners, invisible to the Allies until they were virtually on top of them. But by nightfall, they had secured the bluff and later proceeded to join troops enroute to liberating France.

No one is certain of the exact numbers, but there were probably around 4,500 American and Allied casualties the first day, horrific yet considerably less than the 75,000 some planners had feared. That more troops were not killed is testimony to the planning, training and weaponry of the Allies.

My husband wading into the waters at Omaha Beach

My husband wading into the waters at Omaha Beach

Watching “Saving Private Ryan” beforehand helped to personalized the story of Omaha Beach.  The movie conveys the terror, anxiety, sadness and horror felt by the young men who participated in D-Day.  During our tour, even though the weather was blustery and cold (but warmer than the actual D-Day), my husband (himself a military veteran) wore shorts and sandals, and he walked down the beach and into the water so he could feel what the troops felt and, looking back at the shore, see what they saw.  We observed the immense width of the beaches (which were not as low tide as on the actual D-Day) GIs were required to traverse in the face of withering enemy fire, remnants of the heavily fortified German bunkers and weaponry, the craters still visible from Allied bombing, the lethal hedgerows; all combined to leave us overcome with a profound sense of sadness for the loss of so many and a deep gratitude for their courage. We were heartened to witness the gratitude still felt and exhibited by the French in Normandy toward Americans.

The American Cemetery in Normandy

The American Cemetery in Normandy

The next stop after Omaha Beach was the American Cemetery, overlooking Omaha, where 9,300 U.S. service men and women are buried, representing only a third of the total U.S. casualties in Normandy (the remaining two-thirds were returned home at their families’ request).   Half of those killed in Normandy had no previous combat experience.  This I found the most emotional part of the visit.   Rows and rows of marble crosses and Stars of David stretched as far as the eye could see.  As I walked through these sacred grounds, with tears streaming down my face, I read the names and ages and hometowns of those resting there.  Age 19, age 20, age 18—– it was heartbreaking and I considered my anguish if one of these were my own 20-year-old son.   I said quiet prayers of gratitude for them and prayers of comfort for their families.

The British Cemetery in Bayeux

The British Cemetery in Bayeux

The next day, after we returned to Bayeux, we visited the British Cemetery, where 4,650 are buried (including some Germans).  It was a lovely cemetery with rows of stone markers decorated with colorful flowers.   I again felt overcome with emotion, particularly as I read the personal messages on the gravestones.  One in particular caught my eye and tugged at my heartstrings:

TREASURED MEMORIES OF A DEAR SON

HE WAS SO YOUNG TO GIVE SO MUCH

"He was so young to give so much"

“He was so young to give so much”

We should always remember the sacrifices made by these young men and remember that they were just that – young men.  Each had a story and a future and a family and hopes and dreams.  No matter how terrified, they said “yes” to the call, and the result was the preservation of life and freedom for others.  I am grateful that I was able to travel to this awful, beautiful, and blessed place to personally say thank you to these valiant heroes of the “Greatest Generation”.

Paris: The Highlight Reel

After spending over 2 weeks in Paris recently, I’ve been repeatedly asked what I enjoyed most about the trip.  Rather than show the 30-minute slide show (with music!) that I’ve been subjecting my friends to, I’ll do a quick run-down. Note that my opinions are completely based on this, my one and only, trip to Paris, but here goes:

A typical view on our night-time walk back to our apartment

A typical view on our night-time walks back to our apartment

The nights – The city is at its absolute magical and romantic best at night.  With the lights illuminating the buildings, monuments and the Seine, Paris by night is spectacularly beautiful.  My husband and I would find a restaurant each night, where we would enjoy a magnificent. 3-hour dinner with a bottle of wine (we never had a bad meal) and then walk back to our apartment hand-in-hand, completely mesmerized with the city and each other.  It was as if we were under Paris’s spell.

Me and my "vela" across from Notre DameBike riding – We went on two bike tours in Paris.  One was a day tour with Bike About Tours and the other a night tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours.  Both cater to English-speaking tourists and provide young spunky guides to steer their charges through the perils of Paris boulevards and provide some commentary along the way.  We were at first skeptical of the wisdom of taking on Paris by bike, but the tours came highly recommended so we decided to chance it…and loved it!    We found biking an easier and faster way to cover more ground than walking. For our day tour, we rode all over the city with a lovely young Swedish guide named Angelica.  She gave us historical commentary as well as her personal perspective as a young student immigrant to Paris.   For our night tour, we had a young burly German-American guide named Nick who was in Paris working on a master’s degree in information technology.  His main goal was to keep us all alive.  I have never been more terrified (and more euphoric) than on our ride down Boulevard St Germaine at night in heavy traffic.  Nick’s often-repeated survival strategy was for us to all stay together in a block and when faced with oncoming traffic use “The Power of the Palm” (i.e., holding the hand in a bold gesture toward the oncoming vehicle.)  My gratitude at outliving that stretch turned to wonderment when we crossed the Seine and biked into the courtyard of the Louvre.  I was overcome with emotion at the beauty of the scene.  I remember thinking to myself “I can’t friggin’ believe that I am actually here at the Louvre… at night…on a bike!”  It was beyond cool.

Seine River cruise – I signed us up for the evening of the first full day we were in Paris, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city.  But we couldn’t find the boat launch and it was one frustrating experience walking around the docks dressed up trying to find the right spot and not able to ask for directions (see my previous post about my issues with French).  Later in the week, after I read the instructions more carefully and realized we actually walked right by the launch twice, we did the cruise on what proved to be a much better, clearer night.   We saw a dramatic sunset onboard during dinner, and then the lights of the city. The waiter was kind enough to move us to a window seat.  And by this time, having spent a little time walking around the city, it was enjoyable to see familiar sights from the water.

Musee D’Orsay – This was by far my favorite museum.  It is housed in a former train station, which itself is stunning.  The D’Orsay holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, by painters including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.  It was also where the seemingly meek museum security guard suddenly shouted “Madame!” at me from across the lobby when I took an unauthorized photo (I couldn’t help myself).  My second favorite museum was the Musee de l’Orangerie, which contains the famous water lilies paintings by Monet.  This was a quick 20-minute stop but one of the most unforgettable.

Luxembourg Gardens – I’ve been to several famous parks and gardens in the U.S., including New York’s Central Park, but I have never seen anything like Luxembourg Gardens.  The flowers!  The lake!  The fountains!  We strolled through during the middle of a weekday afternoon and it was bustling with Parisians soaking up sun, children on the playground, tennis matches and bocce ball games in progress.  It was an explosion of color and beauty and activity.  I later read that the French equivalent CIA has it headquarters under the park, which only added to its appeal.

Waiting at the "Midnight in Paris" stairs for the Magic Cab to pick me up!

Waiting at the “Midnight in Paris” stairs for the Magic Cab to pick me up!

Walking  – We loved exploring the neighborhoods of Paris.  One day on a whim we did a “Midnight in Paris” treasure hunt.  We re-watched the Woody Allen movie before we left home and decided to find the scene locations.  We found a self-tour someone had posted on-line and set off on our quest. We found two of Hemingway’s apartments, Gertrude Stein’s salon, homes of Cole Porter and Ezra Pound, and the famous “stairs,” where the character played by Owen Wilson stops and rests after getting lost in Paris one evening.  Around the corner comes a vintage 1920s cab, which picks him up and transports him back in time, where he meets Hemingway, Porter, Stein and others.  The actual stairs used in the movie are at the Church of St Etienne du Mont near the Pantheon. We also did a self-tour of the Montmartre area, and found an eclectic mix of sites including Picasso’s studio, Renoir’s apartment, Van Gogh’s house, the café from the French film Amelie and the last remaining vineyard in Paris.

The Jupiter Fountain Water Show

The Jupiter Fountain Water Show

The Gardens of Versailles – I didn’t care much for the Chateau (palace) of the Louis’ (XIV – XVI).  It was definitely worth seeing — beautiful in an ostentatious, over-the-top sort of way.  But the crowds were horrific and I was happy to be spilled out the back door to what I found most spectacular and memorable about the visit – the gardens.  It was a stunningly gorgeous day and we were fortunate to visit on a day when the water fountains were flowing.  The last thing we saw before leaving was a 15-minute water display at the “Jupiter Fountain” made up of at least 40 individual fountains.  It was not high-tech, with lights or lasers or gadgetry,  but rather a lovely and graceful water display on a beautiful day with period music playing in the background.  At the conclusion, I noticed a young worker who carried what proved to be an enormous ancient metal sprinkler key (not unlike a gigantic version of ours before we installed automatic timers) open a cap in the pavement, turn a valve with the key, and off went the water!  Just as they’ve been doing since the 1790s no doubt.

Normandy and Giverny – We took two side-trips, one to Normandy to tour the D-day Beaches and Mont St Michel, and the other to Giverny to see Monet’s house and garden.  Both were highlights of the trip and warrant posts of their own to describe.

My first night-time viewof the Eiffel Tower, doing its sparkle show!

My first night-time view of the Eiffel Tower, doing its sparkle show!

Eiffel Tower – Even though I’d seen a zillion pictures my entire life, the Eiffel Tower in person is still hands down the most spectacular sight in Paris.  I’d already been to Epcot Center and Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casinso (with its scale model of the Tower) so I thought I’d already pretty much seen it.  But the sight of the real thing in person at night takes your breath away. The night of our ill-fated dinner cruise (when we couldn’t find the launch spot) we instead went to dinner at a restaurant nearby.  As we rounded a corner, I caught my first sight of the Eiffel Tower all lit up.  Not only that…every hour on the hour for five minutes there is a sparkly light display on the Tower……and that was my first view.   I immediately burst into tears at the sight.   I realized that, even though we missed our dinner cruise and I was initially terribly disappointed, in this city there are countless other splendors just waiting around the corner.

Paris: Pahr-Lay Voo?

I always thought French was such a beautiful language…until I got in a wrestling match with it.  Some people have a knack for languages.  That group would not include me. In addition to English, I struggled through four years of Spanish in school.  Although I’m not great at it, if I find myself in a foreign country, any foreign country, I for some reason reflexively revert to random Spanish.  I once greeted (Hola!”)  and tried to give instructions in Spanish to a cab driver in Japan.  My brain evidently divides the world into English-speaking and Everything Else.

My husband was no help – he took German in school. In anticipation of our trip to Paris, we had every intention of learning some French.  I looked into potentially taking a community college course but couldn’t find one that fit my schedule.  Then I downloaded a French app on my iPhone that proved to be useless (“the cat is black”) and with which I developed a weird love-hate relationship.  (A bell would ring when a correct answer was given and an obnoxious gong would sound when I messed up.) We still have the “Quick and Easy” French language CDs that someone lent us sitting, un-cracked, on the kitchen counter.   And, I got busy with other preparations.

Everyone assured us, however, that “Parisians all speak English” and “you only need to know a few key phrases.”  I listened to Rick Steves podcasts which I interpreted as saying that as long as you start any communication with pleasantries such as “Bonjour Madame,” (to create some goodwill) you would then be forgiven for either not speaking or butchering the language.

I never left the apartment without my key tools of communication

I never left the apartment without my key tools of communication

So off we headed to France, having memorized about 3 key phrases, most of which we already knew from movies and It’s a Small World. Just to be safe, I downloaded iTranslate on my iPhone, and a friend lent me a little Berlitz “French for Travelers” book.

On the flight over, I pulled out the Berlitz and glanced over the special rules of French.  For example, a “G” is pronounced “J” or “Z,”  the last consonant in a syllable is usually silent or picked up at the beginning of the next, and an “R” is a weird throat sound.  I was starting to get nervous.   The phrases were listed phonetically and I noticed that they were pronounced much differently than they were spelled.  The French seem to disregard whole chunks of letters in a word and add or mispronounce others.  I spent much of the flight repeating over and over to myself “pahrlay voo ahnggleh” (do you speak English?) and  “zher ner pahrlpah frahngsseh”  (I don’t speak French.).  How stupid was that – learning how to say you can’t speak a language…in that language?!

Our language troubles in France began almost immediately.  When we arrived at our apartment, a young fellow named Leandro met us.   He spoke no English.   He gave us the keys and explained everything we needed to know in French…. and pantomime.  When it came time to agree on a time for check-out, we pulled out our iPhones and negotiated via iTranslate, When he left I wasn’t completely sure how anything worked or what I had just agreed to.  Then we walked to the Metro station to buy either a weekly pass or a carnet (I wasn’t sure which was best or how to buy).  We found the Information Desk, as Rick Steves advised to get help, and I did my best “Bonjour Madame, pahrlay voo ahnggleh” and she looked at me, unimpressed, and said (in perfect English I might add) “No”.  The next trial was finding supplies at the market.  Everything was in French! (And why did that surprise me?) I found a friendly young Parisian who admitted to speaking a “little” English but “soy milk” wasn’t in her vocabulary.  By the end of the first day, we were mentally exhausted.

Over the course of our visit, I found the language barrier more problematic than anticipated.  English was not as widely spoken as I had expected. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t learned more French and that I probably epitomized the stereotypical ignorant American who expects everyone to speak English.  When I did attempt French, I’m sure I bungled it horribly.  The French word for “where” is pronounced “oo-ay” so when I asked for directions I’d try to say “oo-ay  toilet or oo-ay metro.”  One entire day, I got puzzled looks with my requests for directions—- since I couldn’t remember, I was alternating between “ee-ay” or “i-ay” or “oy-vay”.  When a proper response to a question was “oui” I often said “si” (back to my random Spanish).  My husband, despite my frequent coaching, never quite mastered the “Bonjour Madame” lead-in, and charged into every conversation in English without any pleasantries either in French or English.  We became accustomed to that Look of Disdain that Parisians do so well.  While on a train to Normandy, it came to a halt, an announcement was made in French only, and many people got off.  Some time later, another announcement in French, and everyone got back on.  We still have no idea what happened.  At that point, I mentioned to my husband that not speaking or understanding the language gave me the sense of being deaf and dumb.

But more importantly, not speaking the language impeded our ability to connect with the locals.  One thing I enjoy about traveling is meeting people in the places we visit.  Since we stayed in an apartment rather than a hotel, locals rather than English-speaking support staff and fellow guests surrounded us. I shared my frustration with an Australian woman we met in Normandy and she told me she had taken French lessons but it didn’t help that much.  So, I’m not sure I could’ve learned enough French to have the level of engagement I enjoy, but I think next time I visit a non-English speaking country I would like to make more of an effort to learn the language.  At least so I could say “I speak a little of your language” in their language.

Paris: Mort de Musee (Death by Museum)

I can now cross a major item off my Bucket List – my husband and I just returned from a 15-day dream trip to Paris.  The first five days of our trip, however, nearly contributed to an Early Bucket, triggered equally by fatigue and a husband-led revolt.

Since we weren’t going on an organized tour, I spent an inordinate amount of time working on the itinerary in the four weeks following my retirement and before we left.  (I had hoped to use my last days in the office to plan my trip but I was kept busy until the bitter end.)  I used the Rick Steves “Paris” book as my Bible and received numerous tips from almost everyone I know who heard I was going to Paris and had been there before.   Of course I didn’t want to miss anything, so it was a challenge putting an itinerary together.   I’m the planner in our family and due to both choice and circumstances my husband was completely uninvolved until he started packing.

The Four-Day Museum Passes seemed like a good idea

The Four-Day Museum Passes seemed like a good idea

The Rick Steves book recommended the purchase of Paris Museum Passes, which cover many of the major museums and sites in Paris.  The passes both save money and allow holders to bypass long lines, and come in two, four or six day versions (but must be used on consecutive days).   The strategy I decided to employ (based on Rick Steves advice) was to list all the Museum Pass attractions I wanted to see, add up how much they would cost without the pass, and then assess which version would be most cost- and time-effective.   Based on this analysis, I decided on 4-day passes (5-day passes would have been ideal but they don’t exist).  Since the various sites are open different hours and days, the next puzzle was to identify the four consecutive days that would work for the sites identified.  Unfortunately, the only four-consecutive-day block that would work was right smack at the beginning of our trip.  We would have one day to get settled and then, BAM!, we’d start our Museum Pass days.  I thought it would be aggressive in terms of slightly grueling days at the beginning of our trip, but hey, we could do it!

We arrived in Paris at 6:00 AM on a Tuesday morning.  It was cold and rainy and we were severely jet-lagged and tired.   We spent most of Tuesday sleeping and getting oriented to our apartment and neighborhood.  Then Wednesday dawned and it was time to buy our Museum Passes and start ticking off the list.  Here was our itinerary for Wed – Sat:

Wednesday:

Historic Paris Walk (Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Conciergerie, Deportation Memorial, Ile St Louis, Latin Quarater, Pont Neuf)

Thursday:

Orsay Museum, Rodin Museum, Napoleon’s Tomb and Army Museum, Rue Cler Walk and “relax” at Cafe

Friday:

Champs Elysees Walk (starting at Arc de Triomph and ending at Tuileries Garden for lunch), Orangerie Museum, Louvre

Saturday: 

Versailles (Château, Gardens,  Trianon Palaces, and Domaine de Marie Antoinette)

My husband at the end of one of our Museum Pass days

My husband at the end of one of our Museum Pass days

I approached the days like a drill sergeant with special orders. My husband was doing his best to be a good sport and would dutifully ask “What’s Next?” after finishing each site, but he soon began to resemble a prisoner on a death march. The real trouble began somewhere between Napoleon’s Tomb and the Arc de Triomph when his mood turned suddenly foul.  It got so bad on the Champs Elysees (not even a hot chocolate and pastries at Laduree broke the mood) that I briefly considered waving the white flag and declaring a Free Day (Museum Pass be damned!)   Luckily, there was some relief when we met an American couple from Davis, CA, at the café for lunch who turned out to be SF Giants fans.  I looked to the heavens in the Tuilleries Garden and said a prayer of thankfulness. Talking about the World Series last year lifted my husband’s spirits and gave him that extra boost he needed to get up and attack the Louvre.

A moment I will never forget came around 4:30 pm near the end of our last Museum Pass Day, at Versailles (which was an entire day trip in itself and a 30-minute train ride from Paris).  My husband looked at me with the most pathetic disoriented look in his eyes and asked “Are We Going to Giverny today, too?”

In hindsight, we might have either stretched out the museums, broken them up or done them after we got our Paris legs under us.  On the other hand, we both felt like we got the “work” out of the way early, saw the Things You Must See When You Go To Paris and were now free to wander freely…and THAT was fun!  More on that later.

Please Stand By…..I Am Currently Experiencing Technical Difficulties..Potentially Forever

OK, I admit, besides my friends, there are a few things I miss about the job.   In no particular order:

  • My office
  • My Administrative Assistant (who counts double since I consider him a friend)
  • IT Support

Up until I was getting close to retirement, I primarily used my work laptop to store files, my company email address for all correspondence, and my office phone number and my company BlackBerry to communicate.   We have an iMac at home for my husband that I rarely used.  At work, I had a great office, one down from the corner on the outside, with a great view of the city from the 20th floor.

I was the Queen of my technology.  I had my email organized in archives by year and subject matter. My laptop files were organized such that I could find almost anything from any client, any topic, any year, within a matter of minutes.  Just try me! I had the best Administrative Assistant in the office, and he took care of all my travel arrangements, created kick-ass PowerPoint, Word and Excel documents for me, finished tasks with minimal direction (because I’m convinced he is part gypsy mind-reader), and was always calm, kind and patient.  When I had a computer problem that Mel couldn’t handle, we had an IT department and a help desk that I could call 24/7.

In anticipation of retirement, my husband and I bought iPhones. an iPad and a Mac Book Pro laptop.  Then I started transitioning files and contacts to all our various devices.

And that’s when the trouble began.  First, I tried to download scores of personal documents onto a flash drive and then transfer them to my home laptop.  On first blush, everything looked copacetic and I marveled at how easy this transition was going to be.  A week before my last day in the office, however, on a whim I tried to actually open one of these files and got an ominous error message.   I then spent half a day furiously emailing documents from the office to home.

A few days AFTER I surrendered my company laptop, I noticed that messages in my personal email inbox (including the personal file attachments I so valiantly saved) were mysteriously disappearing after 7 days. All this occurring from my new base of operations: the den at home, with no desk, no view, with its own weather system of 85 – 90 degrees in the summer even with the A/C on and the ceiling fan that routinely blows all of my papers off the coffee table and under the futon couch causing me to constantly think I have lost my mind because I can never find anything.

 

As part of his lecture to me at the Apple Store, the Genius drew this chart because he could tell I had no clue what he was talking about

As part of his really annoying lecture to me at the Apple Store, the Genius drew this chart to illustrate his points. I just wanted to know why my emails were disappearing.

By this time, the closest thing I had to an IT helpdesk was my husband.  I approached him at what was apparently an inconvenient moment about my disappearing email problem and he suggested I leave him alone and make an appointment with the Genius at the Apple Store.  The next day I met with Sean O’Twentysomething, the Apple Genius, who really irritated me when he didn’t just push a button and fix my problem immediately but instead schooled me about IMAP and POP and the CLOUD (as if I really cared).  But not half as much as I irritated my husband when I showed him Sean’s IMAP/POP/ICLOUD  drawings and told him that Sean O’Twentysomething said I should delete all our emails and start over.  My husband muttered something about multiple devices and iCloud and how much easier it was with just him on the home computer.

A series of further technical crises ensued, including a need to determine how to print from the laptop in the den to the computer in the family room, my inability to print attachments from an email, trouble deciphering how Apple mail organizes emails by “conversation” (causing me to shriek “HELP ME….THE EMAILS ARE DISAPPEARING AGAIN!!!), and messing up both of our shared calendars. One morning, after I marched into the kitchen a third or fourth time to have a word with the IT department (my husband) who was in the middle of slicing apples, he said, “You sure are demanding.  Were you like this at work?”  And then he went back to slicing apples. My reply that I was only being about a third as demanding as I was at work and that I missed Mel who was always patient and helpful with me certainly didn’t help the situation.

In my minds eye, I saw flashbacks of my father, who retired as a Navy captain after a distinguished 30-year career.  The first thing my mom did when he retired was to assign him chores around the house.  Mainly to send a clear message as to who was in charge. The two chores I clearly remember were vacuuming the stairs and cleaning the toilets.  My father instinctively knew that he would never issue orders again.  In this moment of clarity, I too, realized that I have lost my clout in my new world order.  I’m going to just have to wait my turn with the IT department, until he’s good and ready to help me, or just get used to a life of technical difficulties…or, horrors!…..start to figure things out myself.