Road Trip 2016: Our Canadian Waiters

An unexpectedly entertaining part of our travel experience has been the waiters we’ve met along the way. Now, this is a group for whom I already have a soft spot in my heart, since I put myself through college and law school by waiting tables. I still believe I learned most of my critical life skills working in restaurants. I acquired multi-tasking, teamwork, and process management skills, while learning to read and interact with people, plus some basic crisis management and finance. There was the time I worked the early evening shift (by myself) when the entire cast of “Oklahoma!” from the Community Theatre next door arrived for dinner.   Then there was the time the Bloody Mary slipped off my tray and onto the beautiful white jacket of my elderly female customer. You just don’t learn how to handle this stuff in business school.

I find that waiters and waitresses typically have a good side story. They are often waiting tables while pursuing some other career or their education. They usually have interesting hobbies and diversions, and are generally engaging personalities. A waiter is like a good tale waiting to unfold.

The Canadian waitpersons we met on our recent road trip were a particularly interesting bunch. Whether they were a microcosm of Canadians in general or we hit the jackpot I don’t know, but we thoroughly enjoyed our interactions with each of them.

First was Kyle at the Grant Hall Dining Room, in a lovely restored hotel in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. We met him earlier in the day on the way to the elevator, when we asked him where the World’s Largest Moose statue (I happened to read about in my guide book) was located in town. He gave us a lively and detailed run-down on the location and history of the Moose, Moose Jaw and the historic hotel. Later, as he waited on us in the restaurant, we learned that his day job was as a Personal Life Coach. He was also contemplating a move to British Columbia so he could better pursue his semi-professional love of outdoor sports such as rock climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding and kayaking. His enthusiasm for life was contagious.

In Calgary, we stopped at the Galaxie Diner, a hole-in-the-wall place noted for having the best breakfast in town. Our waitress was Brie (“like the cheese”), an energetic young woman with spikey purple and black hair. As she calmly and methodically waited on the packed diner single-handedly, she engaged us in a running conversation, in clipped question and answer format. We looked forward to hearing the next installment each time she appeared at our table. We learned that she also freelances as a photojournalist, blogger and event planner. She recently passed sommelier exams, not because she wants to be one, but because she enjoys learning about wine and someone told her women are under-represented in the field (“that bothered me”).

That night, also in Calgary, we dined at Vero Bistro Moderne, which I noticed was rated the #1 restaurant in Calgary by Trip Advisor. We called ahead to be sure we could get in and were told to come “right now.” The place was packed, but Michael (who was also our waiter) greeted us warmly and seated us quickly. Michael, we soon learned, was also co-owner with his wife Jenny, the chef.  That night, for whatever reason (mistaken identity perhaps?) we were treated like VIPs. Michael spent a shocking amount of time at our table telling us how the restaurant came about, how he and Jenny close the restaurant for 3-4 weeks each fall and travel to Italy to sample food, while singing the praises of his wife’s cooking skills (she can pick out tastes and smells of individual ingredients from complex flavor combinations) and sharing some of the specialties of the restaurant. He even brought us food and drink samples and Jenny came out from the kitchen to greet us. When he came to our table to say good-bye, we thanked him for his gracious hospitality, and he told us how much he enjoyed talking to Americans.

Our chateaubriand dinner for two at the Post Hotel in Lake Louise, expertly served by Savin

Our chateaubriand dinner for two at the Post Hotel in Lake Louise, expertly served by Savin

Finally, we spent three nights in the Lake Louise/Banff area. Savin was our waiter at the Post Hotel restaurant, and we called him our Renaissance Man. Besides us, he had a wedding party and a table with three food critics, and he never missed a beat. He was pure sunshine and optimism, with a sparkling personality, and he managed to attentively and expertly wait on us all while carrying on a lively conversation over the course of the evening. We learned that there was nothing Savin couldn’t do. Among other things, he is an expert camper, skier, and hunter, fly fisherman, musician, cook, and food and wine connoisseur.

The next night, we dined at the Fairmont in Lake Louise, and met Adam. He was an excellent waiter, a bit more reserved, and his back-story came out a little slower. But by the end of dinner, we learned that he was a trained astro-physicist and engineer working in the oil and gas industry, and, at age 32, decided to leave that field.  He is currently “taking a break” and will next be transitioning to a new career in sales in the alternative energy industry. He came from a family of engineers, medical doctors and scientists. Holy cow!

Our breakfast waiter each morning at the Post was a burly young man named Darcy, who formerly played on the Canadian national soccer team. He was all sass and swagger, and we enjoyed trading jokes and barbs and anecdotes with him. The day we left, he told us he would miss us, even more than “that table” (he said, pointing at the people next to us).

We’re going to miss Darcy, too, and all the other delightful Canadian waitpersons we met.  They’re a good crew, eh?

Island Living, Canadian Style

Per typical for us, planning for our latest road trip began with a couple of destinations in mind, then grew organically as we thought of more things to do and then strung it all together. When all was said and done, we were gone 50 days, traveled over 8,500 miles, visited 14 states and 4 provinces (Canada).

The primary impetus for the trip was to visit our friends Sted and Robin, who invited us to spend a couple of weeks with them on their island on Georgian Bay, in Ontario, Canada. Yes, they have their own island and compound where they’ve spent every summer for the past thirty years.

Sted and Robin also have a home in Annapolis, MD, which they generously opened to us while our son attended the Naval Academy, and which basically became our second home for four years. Sted and my husband rowed crew together as midshipmen at the Academy, but we became close friends with them during our son’s stint in Annapolis.

During the many hours we spent with Sted, he spoke tenderly about Georgian Bay. His grandparents and parents owned lake cottages there, and he recalled how summers in Canada were his fondest memories from childhood. Many friends and relatives from Cincinnati, OH (his hometown) also summered there. Shortly after turning 40, he talked Robin into buying their own place on Georgian Bay, and they have spent every summer there since. Their four kids and 7 grandchildren grew up going to the island. It was always clear to me that Georgian Bay is key to Sted’s heart, and only by visiting would we truly know him.

Our ride is here!

Our ride is here!

With that in mind, and dearly missing Sted and Robin since our son graduated, we accepted their invitation to visit the island this summer (not an easy proposition since we live in Southern California).   In late July we left home for our trek across country on the Lincoln Highway (see my previous post The Lincoln Highway for that part of the trip). On August 11, we pulled into the marina at Pointe au Baril, ONT, parked our car, and waited for Sted and Robin to pick us up. Ten minutes later, they appeared in their 20-ft motor boat, loaded our suitcases and took us to the island.

The island

The island

After hearing so many of Sted’s island stories, I had a mental picture of the place, but didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had imagined a bay, with the various cottages in a rather straight line along the water. Instead, we discovered a vast body of water (Lake Huron) with inlets and islands dotting the bay, requiring navigation through a maze of twists and turns. Their island compound was about what I expected, but more comfortable, although not at all ostentatious. There was a dock for the boats, then a short walk up to the main cabin (where we stayed). They have two small guest houses (for their two daughters with kids) and their own small cottage on the opposite side.

The view from the main cottage

The view from the main cottage

We spent 12 blissful days on the bay, and got a real taste for island living. Every morning, my husband would go down and take a dip off the dock (it was a little too chilly for me, but I never tired of telling him to go jump in the lake). We woke at our leisure, made our own breakfast and lunch, and then had dinner together. There was no TV, and unless we had something planned, we spent our days reading, writing, talking, or napping. One day, we took Sted’s large boat out to Western Island harbor, jumped in the water, and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs onboard for lunch. Another morning, my husband joined Sted’s mens’ kayaking group for a morning paddle. As I waited on the dock to take pictures, I was astonished to see an armada of old guys in kayaks sweep around the bend. Later in the week, I reprised most of kayak route with my husband and Sted. The up-close views of the landscape and wildlife were breathtaking from the quiet of a kayak.

Another beauty of life on the bay is that, as an alternative to the solitude of the island, one can enjoy an active social life. During our time with Robin and Sted, we accompanied them to two cocktail parties, one dinner and a morning Bible study on other islands. We simply dressed up (a little), got in the boat, and motored over to the other island, where we were typically met at the dock by our hosts, who greeted us and helped tie up our boat. On our last Friday evening, Robin and Sted hosted a dinner party, and we spent a fair amount of time helping them prepare. We learned that menus are often driven more by what ingredients are available in the cottage, or at the small store at the marina. The only alternative is to take the boat to the marina, pick up the car and drive 45 minutes to the grocery store in the nearest town.

As comfortable as our island stay was, we were appreciative of the hardiness and resourcefulness of the Bay community.   Each island must be largely self-sufficient. They each have their own septic and power systems, and many don’t have electricity. Any large equipment for repairs or building must be brought in by barge. To go anywhere off the island requires a boat trip – day or night, good or bad weather – and most residents, from older kids to adults, are skilled in boating. Robin talked of her first few summers on the island, unfamiliar with water life, when she was basically left to fend for herself (when Sted had to return to work for several weeks) with four small kids and a boat. She learned ingenuity, but she also learned the mutual dependence of the community. We witnessed firsthand how the residents support each other, be it borrowing items, coordinating rides, or sharing information. On the morning that the guys went kayaking, Robin volunteered to make the coffee for their post-kayaking breakfast at a cottage with no electricity. We woke up early to start two large percolators, filled several large carafes with coffee, and waited with them on the dock for the hostess to pick them up in her boat.

Sunset on the bay

Sunset on the bay

Our time on Georgian Bay was a gift on so many levels. It was beautiful and relaxing. It was a joy to spend time with Sted and Robin. It was fun to meet their friends and enjoy a taste of the Bay social life. Most of all, it was a profoundly special experience to be invited into, and enjoy, the cherished place of a dear friend’s heart.

Travels with Flat Monica

I have been neglecting my blog lately, but only because I’ve been traveling and having way too much fun. I particularly enjoyed a recent trip to the Big Apple with my new close friend Flat Monica.

Originally, the trip was conceived as an epic birthday gala for my friend Real Monica. We have a tradition in our book club of celebrating milestone birthdays with a special expedition. In the past, we’ve typically stayed closer to home in Southern California, but Real Monica decided, for her milestone birthday festivity this year, she wanted us all to visit Tracy, a book club member who moved to New York a few years ago.

We went about planning our trip, finding dates that worked for everyone, exploring various activities and shows, and coordinating travel schedules. Ultimately, three of us (in addition to Real Monica) committed to the trip.

A few weeks after we purchased our airline tickets, Real Monica announced she couldn’t go (it’s a long story). The rest of us conferred and decided (what the heck!) we would go anyway. Our imaginative and creative friend Kathy hatched the idea of taking Flat Monica (a takeoff from the old “Flat Stanley” craze I only slightly remember) and showed up with two laminated photos of Real Monica (now Flat Monica) for us to haul around New York City.

Flat Monica proved to be an ideal travel companion. She fit in our purses and backpacks, did not require travel costs, space, food or her own bed, went along with all of our plans, never complained or got lost, and, no matter what happened, kept the same smile on her face.

We had a ball planning, staging and executing Flat Monica photo shoots all over town and posting them on our group page. To kick things off, we filmed a video tribute of Flat Monica behind a pie with a lighted candle, while we sang happy birthday, ending dramatically as one of us (off-stage left) blew out the candle on cue. We photographed Flat Monica kayaking on the Hudson, enjoying two plays, listening to commentary on an architectural boat cruise, sampling rice pudding at a trendy eatery, and strolling through Central Park. In fact, at Strawberry Fields, in Central Park, we ran into two young men from Australia, one of whom was carrying a life-size Flat Mom (a photo of his mother) and we introduced and photographed Flat Monica with Flat Mom.

Some of the many Adventures of Flat Monica

Some of the many Adventures of Flat Monica

At one of the (Way Off-Broadway) plays, an odd affair involving puppetry and video, we took Flat Monica backstage post-play and photographed her with the star, a Flat Monica-sized puppet (he waived the “no touching” rule and put his arm around her). We took Monica to a 7-Eleven store on 7/11 and plied her with a free Slurpee, and then took her on a mine tour in New Jersey. And when we dropped our friend Sara off at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (where she was staying the following weekend while she visited her son) we photographed Flat Monica in the lobby with the ornate London-built clock and under the 800-thread-count sheets in Sara’s room.

Real Monica seemed to enjoy traveling vicariously through Flat Monica. And Flat Monica made a delightful portable companion, providing us with hours of amusement. All in all, I highly recommend taking Flat Friends along on travels, especially when Real Friends can’t go. Since I was the last to leave New York, I flew home with Flat Monica (in my carry-on, although I let her look out the window a few times, much to the amusement of the 8-year-old girl sitting next to me). As I now write, Flat Monica is smiling at me from the coffee table, and, since we had so much fun together, I’m seriously considering taking her along on more trips.

Texas!

We just finished a three-week road trip, two weeks of it in Texas. Our excuse this time was to visit our son in Corpus Christi for Mother’s Day weekend. And since we’re retired, our thought process went, why not make it a road trip and do a little exploring?

Our rather random itinerary

Our rather random itinerary

We were pedal to the metal to get to Corpus Christ in time, but then took our time meandering home. Even so, it’s a big state, and we only scratched the surface. But, after a full two weeks in the great state of Texas, here’s some of my take-aways:

Everything is big! The state is big, the roads are long, and the steaks are huge. It was important to plan stops carefully as it’s a long way between towns and there’s extended stretches with no cell coverage to check hours and options. One day we visited Fort McKavett State Historic Park, which was 17 miles west of Menard. When we arrived in Menard at 11:30 am, it seemed too early to eat, so we continued to the Fort. When we returned at 2:10 pm, our lunch spot had closed (at 2:00 pm), so we continued to the next town. We reached Ballinger at 3:05 pm and found everything there shut at 3 pm.  It all worked out, though, as that night our appetites matched our massive rib eyes at Joe Allen’s Steakhouse in Abilene.

The weather can change on a dime. Being accustomed to Southern California, where we never think to check the weather before going out, I was surprised at how often, and quickly, the weather can change in Texas. We had a beautiful Saturday in San Antonio, and decided to drive to Austin on Sunday. About halfway there, we suddenly hit torrential rain. We had the windshield wipers working on high gear, and still couldn’t see ten feet in front of us. We continued our snail’s pace and got there safely. Fortunately, we were going to the LBJ Presidential Library, a perfect rainy-day activity. By the time we finished, it was bright and sunny again.

Texas wildflowers

Texas wildflowers

The wildflowers are spectacular. As we drove through the hill country of western Texas, the countryside was strewn with vivid displays of wildflowers in every shape and color. I especially loved one type of wildflower that had a red center and bright yellow petals. I’m not sure what it is, but it made me very happy.

Texans are friendly. People were very sociable, proud of their towns, and eager to talk to newcomers. My husband has a habit of blurting random things (like “looks like you got your hands full!”) to complete strangers (a habit our son found mortifying as a teenager) and he fit in perfectly. They’d smile and blurt right back, or even blurt first. When we ate at Joe Allen’s Steakhouse, the Texan with the boots and hat at the next table looked over at my steak and asked (loudly) what I was eating and if I wanted to share. I smiled sweetly and said, “Get your own!” which caused the whole group to howl with laughter.

One day we stopped in Beeville, where my husband did his advanced flight training in the late 60’s. The former Navy base is now an eerie ghost town, with the structures and runways still there, but abandoned. As we were leaving, we came across the general manager. When my husband explained our situation, he smiled warmly and offered to give us a personal tour of the old base. The GM, who turned out to be the same age as my husband and grew up in Beeville, was a wonderful host as he drove us around for almost an hour, filling us in on the fascinating post-Navy history of the facility.

Texas made my hair curl. I could gauge the humidity by my hair. The whole time I was in Texas, my hair was abnormally curly. I gave up trying to style it. I’d wash it, brush it out of my face and then let it go wild. Some days, I closely resembled a French poodle. I noticed that the further from the gulf coast we drove, the straighter my hair. If I ever lived in Texas, I’d need to learn and incorporate some humidity-busting tricks into my beauty routine.

They talk funny in Texas. This is one accent I really enjoy. For some reason, stories are funnier with a Texas drawl. And they seem to really enjoy spinning their yarns. In our conversations, there was rarely a quick answer to anything. Instead, there was usually a “great story” that bolstered any normal response, and I didn’t always understand the connection…but the tales were always entertaining. And the word “y’all” is sheer genius.

Thank you, Texas, for a wonderful trip. And y’all take care of my boy, you hear?!

Only in Vegas, Baby

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind two-night trip to Las Vegas. In my corporate days, I traveled there frequently,  but this had to be my most Vegas-y experience ever.

I know they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but, since I’m basically an open book I’ll reveal what happened. I got a “free” Vegas trip. The “free” trip required attendance at a Mandatory Presentation. We dined at two fabulous restaurants, scored front-row seats at Cirque du Soleil and tickets to Celine Dion at Caesars Palace.  We bought a time-share for a day.  And we were barely two days in Vegas.

And now the full story.   My good friend Lakita called a couple months ago to offer me a “free” Las Vegas vacation that she couldn’t use. I had just been thinking about a Vegas trip, so I saw this as an omen. When I called “Ryan” (as directed by Lakita) to schedule my “free” trip, he demanded a refundable $200 credit card deposit and said we’d be required to attend a 90-minute sales presentation to receive our free gifts and our $200 back. I  almost hung up on Ryan at least four times, but he kept adding more freebies, including meals and shows. When I finally agreed to the deal and then broke the news to my husband (who hates sales pitches), a pained look came over his face, and he unconvincingly said he thought it would all be fine and we wouldn’t get swindled. Our agreed strategy was to say no to whatever they tried to sell us, and hope they didn’t separate and lock us in windowless rooms or clean out our bank account.

There's no place like Vegas!

There’s no place like Vegas!

Fast forward to Monday, when we arrived in Las Vegas. Our “free” hotel was adequate but certainly not posh and miles from the Strip. We walked to the discount ticket booth and picked up two half-price tickets to Mystere.  Prior to the show, we enjoyed a magical sunset dinner at Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant (chef of French Laundry in Napa Valley) on a rooftop patio at the Venetian by a fountain. At the show, we were upgraded to middle orchestra seats.  Acrobats were flying overhead, and we could almost touch the performers. What a wonderful, fun night. Boy, was our trip off to an excellent start!

On Tuesday morning, we arrived promptly for our Mandatory Presentation in Just Say No mode and quickly discovered the sale items were time-shares. My husband won the fun group credit card bingo game and received ANOTHER dinner gift card. Then Jeff, the head sales guy, showed slides of all the fantastic properties we would own and spoke movingly of how our lives would be enriched by the program. Then we moved to a table with our assigned sales guy, Norm, who started the conversation by telling us about his late wife who died from cancer and the son he had to raise singly, and how he recently moved to Vegas to care for his aged mother. After which he hit us with time-share numbers and dollars and figures. Jeff came back and earnestly answered our questions. I could now hear the Sirens’ Song – time-share ownership WOULD be perfect AND a good deal with all the money we’d save on hotels – but I knew I had to stay strong and disciplined. Then they left my husband and me alone to talk it over.

My husband, one of the most skeptical people I know, looked at me very sincerely, and said that he thought a time-share would be great for us. That it would give us exciting new travel opportunities and a structure through which we could make great time-share memories together. I found this somewhat preposterous but I have never loved my husband more than I did at that moment. So the two of us, three graduate degrees between us, impulsively agreed to buy a time-share. After we signed all the papers (finishing at about the three hours mark) they took our picture, had us spin a roulette wheel and gave us another $100 VISA gift certificate prize, while everybody cheered.

How did this happen? We never had the slightest interest in buying a time-share; we always research the heck out of everything we buy, and we never make spur-of-the-moment major financial decisions. It can only be that we drank the Vegas Kool-Aid. A party atmosphere with balloons and music from our youth (designed to evoke warm feelings of family vacations?) combined with the lure of a great deal and a total play on emotions. I’m pretty sure Jeff made up most of his stories about how time-shares saved marriages and families and I’m doubtful that Norm even has a mother in Las Vegas.

When I later pulled out the freebies we received for attending the Mandatory Presentation, I discovered that the “free” $200 dinner was instead a couple of restaurant.com cards that are redeemable only at limited cheapo places, and the “free” show tickets were random two-for-one coupons for completely unappealing shows. So we headed back to the discount ticket booth and found low-priced tickets to a Celine concert (hoping to get upgraded again) and used most of our $200 refund to cover the cost.

Before the show, we used the rest of our $200 refund and our $100 VISA gift certificate on Delmonico’s, another great restaurant in the Venetian, and I was rolling on a gift card high. Another great evening!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar's Palace. It was still fantastic!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar’s Palace. It was still fantastic!

However, while waiting for Celine to come on, I Googled time-shares and the company we now co-owned, and I wasn’t happy with some of what I found. I paused to enjoy a beautiful, passionate and poignant show (its was Celine’s first week back after her husband passed away). Later, I continued my due diligence back at the hotel, and found we had only five days to cancel under the contract. Based on some potential red flags we uncovered, our lack of adequate research, and our newfound Buyer’s Remorse, we decided to pull out, and I drafted a written cancellation notice to deliver the next day.

After a fairly sleepless night, we showed up at the time-share sales office, and they seemed to know exactly why we were there. We were quickly ushered into an office with Jeff, who irritably and rather half-heartedly tried to talk us out of cancelling. He soon realized our minds were set and he was not nearly as nice as he’d been the previous day. He even asked us to return the $100 VISA GIFT card. Really?!

After a thankfully brief 10 minutes with Jeff, we were time-share divested and on our way home. We celebrated with a grand slam breakfast at Denny’s (since we were out of cash). But you know what? We had a blast in Vegas. The only real deal we got was a $15-dollar-a-night mediocre hotel, but it was all so, you know, Vegas. We sampled world-class food and wine, we saw two unforgettable shows, I used my legal training, we came home with a pocketful of discount cards. I learned a lot about time-shares, and we even owned one for a day.

A Love Letter to Paris

Our first trip after I retired two years ago, was to Paris, a city I’d wanted to visit my entire life, and where, I informed my husband at about the 15 year mark, we would celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. And so, we celebrated my retirement and our silver wedding anniversary with a 2-1/2 week, magical, unforgettable, Parisian holiday.  Following the abject evil that has visited Paris this week,  I am reposting this blog I wrote soon after our trip as a tribute to this beautiful city and my tender memories of our French hosts.  “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”

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.

The Best Trip Ever

Whenever someone asks me which was my favorite retirement trip so far, my answer is usually “The last one!” But, I have to say, with all due sincerity, this last trip may have really really truly been the Best. Trip. Ever.

Looking back, one of my stated goals, in my quest to be ‘Alive and Well’ in retirement, was to “discover rewarding activities that feed me physically, spiritually and emotionally.” In part, to pursue joy and beauty in my world.

In thinking about our last adventure, a road trip from the Pacific Northwest (Washington state) down the Pacific coast to California, there were so many elements that I’m recognizing are the building blocks (for me) of pure happiness:

Travel Bliss. Many urged me to find something my husband and I would enjoy doing together in retirement. We don’t have many common hobbies (other than our son, who technically shouldn’t be labeled a hobby) so we’ve experimented with a few of the obvious things, like hiking, biking, golf and tennis, with some success, but none of them a home run. Our “thing” seems to be travel, especially driving trips.  Some have marveled that we can be cooped up together in a car for weeks at a time, not only without killing each other, but actually enjoying ourselves. A very odd and magical thing happens on the road, and we actually seem more compatible. We have a sense of freedom when away from the responsibilities (and the unfinished projects) of home, we enjoy similar sights and activities, and we work well together as a team. With each trip, we fine-tune our processes (preparation, packing, etc.) so our travel has progressively become more fun and less stressful. On our last trip, I was particularly struck by a profound sense of joy and gratitude to have a partner, in my husband, with whom I can experience these great adventures.

Girl Time. An added bonus was that this trip started with girlfriends. I initially left home with two female friends on a two-day road trip (see my previous blog The Girls Road Trip), then spent the weekend in Sunriver, Oregon with four girlfriends. After the weekend, my husband drove up to join me. First of all, this set-up was brilliant in that I avoided the whole joint packing and departure step – by far The Most Stressful part of any trip with my husband. But more importantly, our girls weekend was pure joy and beauty in itself. Beyond the beautiful location, shopping, cupcakes, giggling, and super fun activities (like canoeing down a river á la Lewis and Clark), there was something restorative, which blessed me deeply, in being with close female friends for an extended time.

Connection with Friends. After the girls weekend, most left, one stayed, and my husband and her husband joined us for a few days. We had not previously spent extended time together as couples, but we had a delightful time getting acquainted and playing together as twosomes. We rode tandem bikes, frolicked in the pool and water slides, went for ice cream, and generally enjoyed an extended, enchanted old-fashioned double date. On our next stop, we had lunch in Portland with a college sorority sister I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years. In Seattle, we were treated to a lovely dinner with three of my favorite former work colleagues and spouses (at the charming Bainbridge Island home of one of them). The next day, we traveled via car and two ferries to a fairly remote location in Washington to visit a good friend who previously lived around the corner but moved a few years ago. We spent the afternoon touring her new town and savored a fresh salmon dinner together. Rekindling long-lost or neglected friendships or spending time and deepening bonds with current friends, has proven to be one of the best parts of retirement. I’ve met a few new friends, but I have mostly cherished the opportunity to spend more time with the people I already know and love. I generally only spend time now with the people that I want to. What a marvelously liberating realization that was!

Family Time. Our first stop after Sunriver was a 3-night visit with our niece and her family in southern Washington at their new house. Our two adorable little grandnephews had grown leaps and bounds since we last saw them in May. I played as much as I could with the boys (until they wore me out), and we had great unhurried conversations with our niece and her husband. Finally, our last stop before heading home was a night with my sister-in-law in the Bay Area. She and her husband are preparing to sell their house, which was the site of many family gatherings and weddings, and we enjoyed reminiscing. Time to visit with family across the country has been another unexpected blessing of retirement. Since we are essentially on our own (as far as family is concerned) where we live, the more frequent contact with family has been precious.

This was the view from our breakfast table at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Washington

This was the view from our breakfast table at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Washington

Breathtaking Scenery. On top of everything else, the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was arguably the most beautiful of any of our trips. At times I was stunned by God’s creation so spectacularly laid before me. We took scenic ferry rides; saw rain forests, waterfalls and redwood forests. We stayed in historic national park service lodges. We saw a long list of wildlife – gray whales, seals, seal lions, sea otters, sea elephants, elk, deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, fox, bobcat, bear. We went for long hikes through forests and walks through picturesque small towns. A refinement that worked well was to plan shorter daily drives with plenty of time for active stops (walking, hiking and physical activity). On previous trips, we’ve found that long unbroken stretches in the car not only wreak havoc on us physically, but also inhibit us from truly experiencing the land we are touring.

To summarize:

Travel Bliss + Girl Time + Connection with Friends + Family Time + Breathtaking Scenery = Best.Trip.Ever.

WHAT COULD BE BETTER THAN THAT?   Just ask me after our next trip.

The Girls Road Trip

I love road trips. I’ve been on many with my husband and have become quite accustomed to the drill. I recently completed a two-day 800-mile road trip with a couple of female friends.  I knew almost immediately it was going to be a horse of a different color. We barely made it 80 miles when someone needed a bathroom break, we stopped at an outlet mall, and, three hours and untold dollars later, we were finally back on the road.

The start of our Girls Road Trip. All smiles following on boarding and loading.

The start of our Girls Road Trip. All smiles following expedited  loading/onboarding process.

The dissimilarities between husband road trips and girls road trips were striking and amusing. If I were a sociologist, I might explain the cultural, biological and psychological reasons. But I’m not, so instead, I’ll present my, cheeky, light-hearted, and completely non-scientific compare-and-contrast observations.

 

Husband Road Trip Girls Road Trip
Preparation Required Extensive. I prepare detailed itinerary, with destinations, stops and activities; then submit to husband for navigational planning.  I must be ever ready to respond to random “where, when and how” questions (which means committing said itinerary to memory). Minimal. As long as we know where we are headed and what day we get there, we’re good.
Ease of Departure Low. Actual departure typically 2+ hours after estimated time; follows a stressful and complex on-boarding and loading process. Mood out of gate typically tense. High. Actual departure time same as estimate, onboarding process a snap, all in good spirits on embarkment.
Driver open to passenger instructions Minimal. Unless collision with incoming vehicle is imminent, better to keep suggestions to myself Maximum. Driving considered group activity with suggestions (“look a gas station!” “hey, there’s where we turn”) appreciated
Permissible stops Minimal. Mainly to eat or pee (but only if medically necessary) or other planned stops. Maximum. Mainly to eat, pee, Starbucks or shop, but really anything goes.
Sight-seeing stops Usually outdoor or museums (preferably military, not art); NO shopping Usually indoor, maybe museums (preferably art); shopping always
Likelihood of making planned stops Very high. If stops are programmed into itinerary, we will stop at each one, according to schedule.   Even if it kills us. One of the benefits of doing the planning is that we go where I want to go. Mixed. Depends on what “group” wants to do. High likelihood planned stops ditched in favor of shopping. Even if it kills us.
Activities enroute Listening (and singing to) loud music or “can’t miss” sporting events, talking when necessary Talking constantly, with occasional breaks for audiobooks or podcasts
Potential Conflicts A big game (e.g., Navy, 49ers, or Giants) may take precedent over planned activity. (Or I tour while husband listens to game.) Frequent calls from husbands, kids (usually daughters) given high priority and may cause stops or detours.
Syncing with time estimates Usually make up for late start with aggressive driving and total ban on stops. Somehow complete trip within 30 minutes of time estimate What time estimate?
Number of GPS devices used on board At least four – car GPS, Garmin and two iPhones. Oh, and a radar detector. Just one iPhone.   (We don’t know how the car GPS works and no one brought their Garmin)
Overall trip satisfaction High. I get to see lots of things and spend time with my husband. High. I may or may not see much, but I get to shop, talk, and spend time with my girlfriends.

 

The Return of the Blog

This is no Japanese horror movie (that was Return of the Blob). Rather, it’s the first post I’ve written since August, in which I commemorated my one-year anniversary of retirement, or my “Retireversary.” Since then, my new norm life has been so abundantly eventful and hectic that I haven’t either found or taken the time to write. Yet, to my surprise and delight, many friends have asked about my blog. And I’ve found that I’ve missed the writing. But where do I pick up?

I have become increasingly aware that the single most meaningful thread weaving through my current life, the central emergent theme, is the significance of my personal relationships. With the corporate career over, the kids gone, the merry-go-round paused; retirement has been a time to take stock. Although I have been busy with travel and activities, what has truly fed me emotionally and spiritually has been the time spent nurturing (and in some cases re-establishing) close family and friendship ties.

In fact, travel has been, most importantly and somewhat unexpectedly, an avenue for my husband and I to reconnect. After years of co-parenting, tag teaming and separations while I traveled extensively for work, adjustments were required when I was suddenly home full-time. I blithely anticipated that all of our “challenges” would miraculously disappear once the stress of work was gone. Instead, not only were many of the “challenges” that we’d successfully ignored for 25 years still there, but now we had new ones. We’ve since gone on 3 major trips together (Paris, our cross-country Routes 50 and 66 road trip, and Ireland) and they were akin to enrolling in an intensive Marriage 101 Lab. Not always easy, we’ve learned (or re-learned) skills such as teamwork, how to live alongside each other, how to compromise and manage expectations, and in the process found renewed enjoyment, companionship and discovered a shared passion for travel.   Most importantly, we find ourselves exceedingly grateful and content in this “Just the Two of Us” stage of life.

Similarly, I’ve been blessed by the rich camaraderie of friends. I’ve enjoyed meeting some new friends through recent activities, like yoga and study groups. But mainly, I find myself enthusiastically devoting time and energy to nurturing longstanding relationships (friends and family) that, in many cases, had been relegated to the back burner in years past due to other demands on my time. I am finding that I am most energized and renewed by the company of dear friends. My husband warned me before I retired that my friends would all be too busy working to spend any time with me, but I’ve happily found I have more social opportunities than I have time for!

I was recently reminded how precious, and fragile, long-term friendships can be. Near the end of our recent trip to Ireland, not long after we arrived in Dublin for a 3-night stay, I was notified that a very dear friend of mine was critically ill. We’d been friends since I was eleven years old. We were close friends through high school, and roomed together in college. Not long after college, she moved across country, but we kept in touch over the years. I had hoped to finally be able to visit her in Green Bay, Wisconsin, now that I was retired. But two days after my friend was admitted to ICU, on the last day I was in Dublin, she passed away. That night, I went to a pub and sang a ballad and raised an ale for my beloved friend Sue, who once told me she would love to go to Ireland together.

Some of the anam cara in my life

Some of the anam cara in my life

When I returned home, I organized a gathering of a group of close friends from grade school for a Day of Remembrance.  After thinking how I could best grieve the loss of my friend Sue, I turned to this group for love and support.  We had all been close friends with Sue through the years, and together we celebrated her life and our enduring friendships.

Someone recommended to me a beautiful book called “Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom” by John O’Dohohue. The book almost poetically explores the spiritual landscape of friendship:

“In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam ċara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and ċara is the word for friend. So anam ċara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam ċara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam ċara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam ċara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”

What this book has illuminated for me, something I already sensed but not completely understood, is that there is a spiritual aspect to our friendships and the effort we devote to them. As I’ve become more aware of their significance, I am grateful that I have anam ċara in my life, and that I have been given this season of life to be open to them.

Advice for the Route 66 Road-Tripper

Since my husband and I recently drove the entire length of Route 66 westbound from Chicago to LA (and can now call ourselves experts) it is my newfound responsibility to give sage advice to future Route 66 travelers. So then, here’s my Top 5 List:

 

We loved the freedom of the open road, the small towns and lack of traffic

We loved the freedom of the open road, the small towns and lack of traffic

1)   Do it!

The trip was far more interesting and rewarding than I anticipated. We saw parts of the country we never would’ve seen otherwise, and gained an unexpected real-time education about American history, culture, geography and science. We found certain sections we yearn to revisit for further exploration, and we would absolutely consider doing the whole thing again. I was disappointed when I heard that Route 66 road trips are far more popular among foreigners than Americans.   Anyone, especially an American, who loves a good road trip AND a good story unfolding before their eyes, should drive Route 66 at least once in their life!

2)   Give yourself plenty of time

Once you decide to do a Route 66 road trip, you should determine how long you are able and/or willing to spend on it, and that will dictate your itinerary. I didn’t quite appreciate this before our trip, but I can now unequivocally state that one could literally spend weeks or even months on Route 66 — if one stopped and explored all sights and side trips along the way  (like the Palo Duro or Grand Canyons). At a minimum, however, you should allocate at least two weeks (one-way), which still means a fairly aggressive timetable with minimal stops and side trips, but allowing for a reasonable daily pace. We discovered that, due to the road conditions, we couldn’t go more than about 150 – 180 miles (or 6-7 hours) per day. Plus, we made a daily stop for lunch (a highlight!) and never drove at night. If you are not able to devote two weeks, consider doing a smaller section of Route 66, giving yourself ample time to enjoy it.

3)   Decide how purist you want to be

Contrary to popular belief, Route 66 no longer technically exists. Even in its heyday, it was a patchwork of roads and highways that were designated as Route 66, and the route was constantly evolving as new roads and interstates were built and older sections replaced. The entire Route 66 was decommissioned in the 1980s.  Today it is not a well-defined or well-marked route, which is both fun and challenging.

So, when planning a Route 66 road trip, there are many choices of alternate routes and you should realistically assess your style, preferences and patience. One can follow the older versions of Route 66 (some parts of which are now dirt or gravel roads or completely disappeared) or the latest versions (which include stretches of modern Interstates) or some combination. There are guidebooks and maps available (see below) that will help you find these routes. Don’t leave home without them! We chose to mostly follow the older versions (unless it was really rough or nonexistent or there was something we wanted to see along a newer stretch), which took us through small towns and scenic countryside unfettered by traffic, but it also meant slower going and more stamina required.

 4)   Don’t over-plan….and be adventurous!

We did not leave home with a detailed pre-planned itinerary for our trip.  We knew when we needed to be back home, and had a rough itinerary (which got us home with plenty of time to spare) sketched out, but left the exact timing and route flexible.  Once we got on the road, we quickly discovered we couldn’t go as far as we anticipated each day, so our original schedule was out the door.  We basically planned each night how far we would go the next day, where we would stop for lunch, and any special sights or side trips.  We also left time to explore along the way, which gave us plenty of leeway to meander without pressure to be anywhere at a certain time. It was a very liberating way to travel!

We stopped for lunch (and often dinner) at older cafes and diners in small towns that gave us a flavor for the fare served on old Route 66. We learned much about regional food, and about the people and history from the townsfolk we met in these eateries. We found these restaurants through our Route 66 guidebooks (and then double-checked TripAdvisor to weed out the dogs). Some of the places looked dicey from the outside but, with few exceptions, they proved to be enjoyable, typically inexpensive, memorable and, almost always, tasty experiences for us. The restaurants truly appreciated our patronage (many small towns rely on Route 66 tourism for survival) and the proprietors and workers went out of their way to make us feel welcome and provide any assistance we needed.

In addition to our restaurant adventures, some of our best memories stemmed from impromptu stops or side trips that completely surprised and delighted us. Like the stop at a restored schoolhouse in an abandoned California town in the Mojave Desert where we were met at the door by the gentleman and his wife who had labored to restore the building and who gave us a personal 45-minute tour of the property. Or the visit to “Blue Hole” a natural spring in New Mexico, where we watched teenagers gleefully jumping in off the surrounding rocks. There were countless visits to Route 66 ghost towns that were both intriguing and eerie to explore.

When it came to hotels, however, we were guilty of being less than adventurous. I originally intended to stay at some of the “vintage” motels along the way. We heard that the European Route 66 road trippers love these old motels. But we found that after a long day of driving and navigating the Route 66 maps and guidebooks, we preferred a comfortable modern hotel (not Ritz Carlton but Hampton or Holiday Inn) with amenities (like a hot tub) and we learned that AAA consistently offered the best rates. Although there were some nice exceptions, most of the “historic” or “vintage” motels were more like “seedy” to me. (I admit – after many years of business travel, I’m a hotel snob.)

The bottom line is — be open to adventures to get the most out of your trip, but accept your limits and be comfortable in your journey. Nobody is going to mark you down if you occassionally drive an Interstate, or eat at a Morton’s Steakhouse, or stay at a Hilton.

5)   Do your research and use the great tools available!

Since Route 66 is fairly complicated to follow, you must do some advance research, unless you enjoy getting lost.   And even then, prepare to get lost. There are some excellent Route 66 guidebooks and maps that will save time and make your journey much easier. Our Bible was the “EZ66 Guide for Travelers” by Jerry McClanahan (we even stopped in Chandler, OK to meet him and he signed our book). It gives detailed turn-by-turn instructions for following Route 66 (and its various incarnations) and lists interesting sights along the way. When we talked to Jerry, he mentioned that his book has reportedly saved countless marriages. My husband also found “The Route 66 Map Series” by Jerry McClanahan and Jim Ross, which is a set of eight foldout maps showing the route through the 8 states through which Route 66 runs. We brought the “Route 66 Adventure Handbook” by Drew Knowles, which describes offbeat roadside attractions, vintage motels and cafes, and which we used for color commentary along the way. For finding restaurants (and theoretically lodging) we consulted “The Route 66 Dining and Lodging Guide” published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation. Pre-trip I visited the local AAA office and picked up 2 bags of maps and guidebooks, covering every state that we would be visiting. And since my husband hates to get lost, he went the extra step of using the “EZ66 Guide” to program the route for the next day into our Garmin GPS. Even so, we did lose our way a few times, but never hopelessly, and after a few days under our belt we really mastered our navigation techniques which worked like a charm. I really can’t imagine trying to follow Route 66 without the help of these maps and books.

In short, Route 66 may seem like a daunting proposition, but with a little thought and preparation, it can be the trip of a lifetime…and you t0o will be hooked!