Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Barcelona to Abu Dhabi: A Stop in Haifa

First, a little orientation. On the map above, in the upper left corner, you will see Acre, and just south of Acre you will see Haifa. At the bottom central, you will see Jerusalem / Bethlehem / Hebron and a short distance to the east of Jerusalem you will see Amman, Jordan, where we lived for two years several years ago.

Early, early in the morning, we make port in Haifa. It isn’t picturesque, the port, and we are instructed that every person on board has to make a face-to-face immigration visit even if they are planning to stay aboard.

Those of us on trips have to do it en route to our tour bus. It is bureaucratic and annoying. The lines are long. There are two other larger tour boats in town, an Azamara and a Costa (full of Italians) so there are a LOT of people processing, and there is also a lot of noise.

The lines more quickly, and we find our bus, which is fairly full, and . . . there is more coughing and sneezing. Some of us are masked. My forehead and upper cheeks feel a little tight, like some little allergen is bothering me.

The trip is to Acre, an old Crusader stronghold with a fascinating history, but we don’t get a lot of the history, but we do get a lot of the guide’s perspective on Israelis and Arabs and threats to Israel, and generalities about the medieval times.

He takes us first to a large souvenir shop with two meager restrooms, and lets us spend a long time there before even beginning our trip.

We spent our time wandering around – nearby – and taking photos. It was a waste of our time, and there was so much we could have seen.

He won’t tell us where we will meet, does not want us wandering off, and because we don’t know when and where we have to meet, we have to stay with the group, my least favorite thing. He may have known a lot about Acre and the Fort, but he failed to convey the significance of what we were seeing, and he failed to place events in their context. “This is the Knight’s Hall” he would say, and let us look at a barren room with a slide show.

We found a map to help us out – except that it was in Hebrew

When we left the fort, the guide led us to the Arab market, we had about an hour. We could hear the call to prayer. Everything was about to come to a halt and we were starving. AdventureMan found a really good – really busy – falafel stand. It took us about half an hour just to get the meal, but it was so worth it – lots of vegetables, pickled eggplants, onion, etc, and the falafel were fresh out of the pot for each sandwich. That, and being able to watch all the regular customers as they ordered take-out for their families, was a lot of fun, and the best part of this trip to Acre. 

I have visited Acre before. It is an old city, with a long history, back and forth. It was a sleepy old seaport, then a Crusader Citadel, then the site of a lengthy battle, which the Moslems won. A few Crusaders escaped alive through a secret hidden tunnel. I was so looking forward to visiting this site. I feel short-changed. If I had it to do over again, I would skip the Oceania tour and take the local ferry to Acre (Acre is a very short distance from Haifa) and we could wander at will (it is not a large location) and take the ferry back and see the things we want to see at our own pace.

When we got back on the bus, it was a hassle getting out of the lot, one couple was missing, and a lot more people were coughing. I couldn’t wait to get back to our quiet room on board. I also had allergies, or sinus, an almost-sore throat and I was just tired.

We considered ordering dinner in our room but decided it would be quicker to just run up to the Terrace buffet and grab something quick. We both had the asparagus salmon soup (not a lot of salmon) and I had a variety of vegetables – a pickled rolled up eggplant called involtini, a little mousse of sweet red pepper, some olives. 

We ate outside – we have a table we like a lot to the far right, shaded from the breeze. It was actually warmer eating outside than inside. I drank a lot of mint tea with lemon and honey for my throat and head. Moustafa, our Turkish waiter, told us about farming practices near Ephesus, where he is from, about yoghurt, and fat content, and wanted to know about the varying kinds of cattle in the US. We didn’t know a lot, he was asking really good questions. We love those kinds of conversations.

By the time we got back to the room, all I wanted to do was go to bed.

I slept poorly, my sinuses swollen, not able to breathe well, feeling like a cold was coming on, until some point I got up and went to the couch where I could sleep in a more vertical position. It worked. I could breathe again, and when I woke up, I was feeling pretty good.

January 26, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Customer Service, Eating Out, ExPat Life, Geography / Maps, Health Issues, Hot drinks, Middle East, Travel | , , , | Leave a comment

At Sea: We Need to Talk About Ashok

Those of you who know AdventureMan and I personally know that we are relentlessly self-reliant. With all our years of moving and living in a variety of countries, we have needed to be, but in truth, we are wired that way. You will laugh when I say I am uncomfortable even introducing this topic.

Our beautiful room comes with a butler.

It has been an awkward dance, but Ashok, our butler, is a pro at assessing people and working with their preferences. We don’t need a lot of service, and he has found ways to make himself useful to us anyway. Discovering I like Ginger Beer, he scoured the bars, alerted his contacts, and made sure our little refrigerator was well stocked with AdventureMan’s Coca Cola, and my Ginger Beer. He was always polite and pleasant.

The night we had decided to have dinner on the balcony after our day in Taormina and had saved parts of our sandwiches from lunch, we also found a generous tray of hors d’oeuvres waiting for us when we arrived late back to the ship. We had to admit, it was really nice, he had intuited well what we might like.

When we got tired of dressing for dinner and asked to have dinner in our room (part of the perks), he served us with elegance and grace, and made it so much fun that we indulged every few nights.

When AdventureMan wanted his laundry done professionally, Ashok made sure it came back very quickly.

In spite of our self-reliance, Ashok learned how to make himself invaluable to us. And, in truth, we really liked him, and loved our discussions with him. We were impressed with his resourcefulness, and his delight in making things happen. He seemed to delight in delighting us.

We are at sea for two days, en route from Messina to Haifa, Israel.

I was wide awake by five, so I got up quietly and dressed, grabbed my computer, found a cup of coffee at Barista’s, and headed up to Horizon’s, the forward observation lounge to check e-mails. Over 300 e-mails, horrors! I spent a while just deleting, then responding to the few requiring attention – requests from Air France for rating how I liked my flights, and a couple e-mails from friends. Most of the time, in this large lounge, it was just me and one or two others. I did get a nice photo of the sun coming up; it looks a lot like the day before.

When I headed back to our cabin, AdventureMan was just getting up, so we went together to breakfast where I am so delighted to find marinated herring and smoked salmon, two of my favorite things in the world. (It’s my Swedish blood talking.) AdventureMan finds herring abhorrent, and so does the Indonesian lady dishing it up; when I say a bright cheery “thank you!” her response was meant to be a smile, but it was a little twisted by disgust. I also had my virtuous oatmeal, with virtuous fresh blueberries – so much temptation, but my blood sugar is well within normal and I want to keep it there.

After breakfast I introduced AdventureMan to a new thrill – the spa pool at the front of the ship. It is just below the Horizons Lounge, and we had noticed that if you enter the pool by the stairs, you are visible to the people in the lounge. It doesn’t bother AdventureMan, but I figured out how to enter from the side, so as to remain unseen. The spa is very warm to hot, and can be made to bubble, so we had a wonderful twenty minutes in the hot tub in the fresh air, then we headed back to our room.

This early morning trip to the spa, having it all to ourselves, became another guilty pleasure. So lovely, so indulgent.

This quiet sea day, I napped a lot. I meant to read. I meant to update this journal. I napped. I don’t even feel guilty, it felt so good. 

Our cabin as all shades of grayish green, sea colors. The walls look almost gray, but there are streaks of green in the wall paper. The upholstered headboard is a very pale shade of sea-green. The furniture and pillows a little bit darker shade of green, and the two pashmina throws to keep us warm are almost an exact match to the furniture. It’s all very soothing.

There is a little “couch,” really more of a love-seat, where I can fall asleep very easily.

Space is smartly allocated so that there is plenty of closet space, with doors that open so you can see everything, and enough hangers. (Enough hangers! I didn’t have to ask for more!) There are enough drawers to stow things in neatly. The bathroom has two upper-side cupboards, and two lower cupboards with shelves, too. There is more cupboard space in the bathroom than we need; we can keep everything in cupboards, out of sight. (This is a first.)

The ship is very silent. We don’t hear the motors, or the anchors dropping or lifting. We feel little sways and jerks now and then. At one point the weather changed briefly, we had rain. At night the ship swayed enough to cause some to have problems with balance, but it wasn’t much. We can feel the boat rock side to side, just a little, now and then. It is like being a baby again, held against your Mama as she walks about, feeling safe and secure. I napped a lot.

Dinner this night at sea was an Italian Market special, and we ate once again in the casual restaurant but dressed up a little. As it was a little cold and windy, we ate inside instead of at our usual table on the back terrace. It was one of my favorite meals – grilled Italian vegetables (mostly eggplant and peppers) and a big bowl of an Italian kind of Bouillabaisse, a fish stew, and it was wonderful. 

In the restaurant, I could overhear a conversation I longed to join, two tables away, about Amor Towles and A Gentleman in Moscow. I tried to see who the people were, an assortment of six, but I am not sure I would recognize them again. Another woman, seated nearby, was very blonde with a bright red pashmina wrapped around her shoulders – I’ve always envied that drama, and know it isn’t really my style.

Even though I napped a lot during the day, I slept well this night for the first time since Barcelona.

We slept fairly well through the night, awakening around five but getting back to sleep again for another day at sea. Nice breakfast on the Terrace (my virtuous oatmeal, this time with fresh raspberries), followed by another early visit to the spa, where at that early hour, we have it all to ourselves. We were out in time to get ready for the Veteran’s Day/ Remembrance Day Ceremony at 9:15 in the Nautica Lounge. It was simple, short and sweet.

We were back at the Nautica Lounge just a short while later for another enrichment lecture on the Knights Hospitaler and Knights Templar, which helps put everything in context for our upcoming trip to Acre while we stop in Haifa. 

We nap and read through the quiet afternoon as we pass south of Crete and Greece, never seeing a speck of land. Tonight is dinner at Toscana, the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant; we have dinner reservations at seven. We know a waiter who works there, Buti, and he has been waiting for us to come see him. 

The problem, for us, is that by late afternoon we are already closing down. We’ve always been this way, but when we were younger, we really didn’t know it. We dress, I wear the one little black dress I have brought for special evenings, with a red scarf, my own toast to a little drama. When we get to Toscana, there is a line, the restaurant isn’t open yet so we go into the library. Shortly, the Jewish Shabbat began, and we left to give them privacy, got in the line, and very shortly got in and asked to be seated in Buti’s section.

Buti treated us like gold. We felt so special. When I ordered, he insisted I add a small dish of pasta, angel hair aglio oglio, and when he brought it, it was perfect. He also brought a small bowl of sambol oelek sauce, which I know from Kuwait and Qatar, spicy hot peppers in a little vinegar, absolutely divine. I also had Veal Marsala, and AdventureMan had a Caprese Salad and Linguini Cioppiono. Altogether, it was a lovely meal. All around us people were laughing and talking, a single man at the next table was reading Saul Bellow, and as nice as it all was, it was slowly elegant and we got restless. We skipped dessert, which is a really good thing, because my blood sugar was 123 the next day, which gave me a good wake-up call. 

I loved the sambol oelek, and I loved the angel hair pasta. It’s hard for me to be gracious after five at night. When we got home, we were exhausted. Everyone is so kind, wanting to make us feel so special, and I just feel tired and happy to be back in my room getting ready for bed.

January 25, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Civility, Cooking, Cultural, Customer Service, Education, Geography / Maps, Health Issues, Living Conditions, Quality of Life Issues, Restaurant, Stranger in a Strange Land, Travel | , | Leave a comment

At Sea On U.S. Election Day

It is wonderful to be at sea in the turmoil of this year’s election. No one is talking about it onboard. What a relief.

We are told there are passengers from 39 nations on board, and crew from more nations. The entire day, we hear not a word about the American election.

The demographic is very much our age group. If anything, we are younger than most. Hard to say, but we see some very old but still adventuresome travelers, which gives us hope for our own future travels.

We were wide awake before seven. I got up and went to get some coffee. We can have it delivered to the room, but on these relaxed days at sea, we don’t like to commit to a time and it is just as easy to go get my own cup at the dedicated coffee bar. Actually, coffee is available in many places on the ship, and the smell of coffee early in the morning wafts everywhere.

We had decided to try The Grand Dining Room for breakfast, wanting to be less formal in a very formal environment.

The waiters are all white-jacketed and very pleasant. The menu is lovely – the tastiest item was smoked salmon with cream and capers and white onion, a great way to start the day. AdventureMan shared with me. The fruit platters were large enough for two; I cut most of mine into small pieces to stir into my virtuous oatmeal. Don’t you think smoked salmon is virtuous too? I think I prefer virtuous tasty smoked salmon to virtuous oatmeal. 

I am not complaining. I eat oatmeal every day at home. As a diabetic, it is great for keeping my blood sugar levels down. The Nautica had really nice oatmeal. And oatmeal just pales in comparison to all the lovely choices available for breakfast, all the beautiful pastries, croissants, breakfast breads, all the lovely foods with a lot of fats and sugars. Yes, even on a cruise, I pay attention. I will try not to whine again.

After breakfast, I grabbed some of my hotter weather clothes to iron – the compression bags puts some serious wrinkles into linen clothing.

The laundry room is much smaller than it appears on the ship map, but the iron was hot and efficient, and there were other passengers doing small loads of washing and drying. It is handy that it is all free. There is a laundry on board, and although we have laundry service I prefer doing my own laundry. We have a line in the shower where we can hang items we have hand laundered in the sink, and we found little detergent slips on Amazon that are very compact and efficient for hand laundry.

Then we walked the walking track, windy, invigorating; we have a lovely sunny day, warm enough but sometimes the wind was so strong it blew me into AdventureMan. I am happy we packed some of our cool-weather gear; when we are at sea, it can be windy and chilly. We checked out the gym, where AdventureMan found mats available for stretching as I look eagerly at the outside spa overlooking the bow of the ship. Heaven!

Back in the room, AdventureMan naps as we wait for the eleven o-clock enrichment lecture on the Origins of the First Crusade, in preparation for our time in Sicily and Israel. I am excited we will be going to Acre, the old Crusader stronghold, the day we arrive there.

 The lecture was well attended, probably four hundred or so passengers.

And then off we went to lunch at The Terrace restaurant.

We have found a table we love; sheltered by a small wall but still with a good view out over the aft of the ship. The Terrace is the ship’s buffet restaurant, except that it is not like a buffet where you dish up your own portions. There are very pleasant wait-staff every few feet who put food on your plate. You can say “a very small portion, please” or “could I have a little more of that?” and they will give you exactly what you wish. Don’t you love having choices?

It all feels so indulgent.

After lunch, I read while AdventureMan attended an afternoon lecture on How Man Learned to Navigate by the Stars, which he said turns out to be very complicated. Here is the truth, I will admit it, I needed a nap. I am not yet fully adapted to the time change. The little couch is a perfect size for me, and there is a soft sea-green throw I can cover up with and I am out like a light.

Dinner this night is at the Polo Grill, and, sadly, while these reservations are greatly coveted, by dinner time I don’t care. I don’t much want to dress up; I wish they would just deliver the dinner to the room, but this is part of the Oceania experience and so we dress and go up for dinner. The code is “country-club casual.” There are many interpretations of what that might mean. Here is ours.

I had a shrimp cocktail, tomato salad, and lobster, AdventureMan had the Lobster Bisque, Fois Gras en Croute, and the lobster, and we split a Creme Brûlée. The Creme Brûlée was very good.

It is a lovely kind of evening, and we enjoyed ourselves because we do this so rarely. The night is sweet and warm, the moon is full, and we can’t resist a lap or two around the walking track before we go to sleep.

January 20, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Aging, Beauty, Bureaucracy, Community, Cultural, Customer Service, Diet / Weight Loss, Eating Out, Food, Health Issues, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Quality of Life Issues, Travel | , , | Leave a comment

The Great Sea Voyage: Barcelona to Abu Dhabi

So, my friends, I promised you a new trip, and I apologize for making you wait. We got back just in time to step back into our normal Pensacola routines and then to whirl into the celebrations of Christmas. I like to plan, I like to execute, and I like to give myself time to process. It’s time to begin.

We chose this trip three years ago. We loved the destinations, and we loved the idea of this journey, especially going through the Suez Canal. We love the idea of visiting new places, and we loved the opportunity to revisit some old favorites, especially Wadi Rum, in Jordan, where we lived in another life.

The trip itself took three weeks. We went early to Barcelona. I had been to Barcelona for an international quilt show years ago and loved it; I’ve been so eager for AdventureMan to experience the aliveness of Barcelona. We chose to go a few days early to enjoy the city.

We were traveling with Oceania, a line we haven’t sailed with before. People handle air reservations differently; we choose to let the cruise line set up the travel so that if there are changes (and in the last three years we saw lots of changes) the cruise line is ultimately responsible for getting us where we need to go.

It’s tough giving up our autonomy. This time, it was a struggle, and we finally paid extra for “custom” reservations when they kept offering us bizarre routes we didn’t want to take. At one point, we had reservations that were direct, and we liked, and then they changed, again, because of an airline time change, and we found the new ones unacceptable. At some point, we gave up. We accepted a bizarre routing and the fact that we were responsible for getting ourselves to Atlanta and back, not such a big deal, except for when things change. Right?

This is how we were routed to Barcelona: (Pensacola) – Atlanta – Detroit – Paris – Barcelona.

And here are the bags I took, except at the last minute I took everything out of the backpack and put it in a duffel, not much bigger but the space was more flexible.

We decided to go minimal and to carry everything with us. It caused a lot of agonizing, but in the end, I had everything I needed. It was enough. I think carry-on is a great idea, except it is such a hassle, I like the luxury of checking a bag and carrying a purse and a book. Having had bags go missing so many times in my life (they always caught up with us – eventually), we opted for this illusion of control.

Our first travel day was, in almost every way, a breeze. Our son picked us up on his way to work and dropped us at the airport, giving us time for a leisurely breakfast after an uneventful check-in. The flight schedule was eccentric, even convoluted, but every flight left on time and came in minutes early. Our last two flights of the day were with Air France and were delightful.

Getting to Barcelona took almost two days. We flew from Pensacola to Atlanta on our dime and picked up our cruise-related reservations in Atlanta. We checked in and had time for lunch at PF Changs. Out of Atlanta, we flew to Detroit – I’d never been to Detroit before. I had never seen a Great Lake in person. I was blown away by the vastness of Lake Erie and Lake Superior – so HUGE. I thought of Detroit and its terrible water problem and crumbling infrastructure, surrounded by water, and it seemed so infinitely sad. 

Our flight out of Detroit was an Air France flight – we love Air France. Once we board an Air France, the vacation begins – they take such good of their passengers. 

We had a late dinner on board; Air France does a really cool thing. They serve an appetizer course, an entree, a dessert, and drinks. They also have an express meal which is just the appetizer, bread (with French butter, better than butter I have had anywhere else), and desserts, and the dessert course features really tiny tastes. We chose the express, and then curled up and went to sleep.

I usually sleep badly on planes, but on this flight, it was all grown-ups and somehow it was mostly very quiet. I remember vaguely hearing a bell once when the air got a little turbulent, but it only awakened me slightly and I went back to sleep. My quick breakfast was yogurt and fruit and coffee, and boom, we were at Charles de Gaulle.

Big difference from prior times. While we love Air France, we always dreaded the bag drag through CdG. In years past, there were crowds pushing and snaking for hours, people pushing in line, people crying that they were going to miss their flight – it was a kind of purgatory for travelers. This time, however, it was streamlined, a piece of cake. We had a close connection, which we made with time to spare. 

On the flight to Barcelona, we had a snack meal, and AdventureMan had wine, I had coffee. I asked for more, and Sophia, our flight attendant said “Oh, you like my coffee?” and I said “yes!” because it was really good. Then AdventureMan said “And I really like this wine” and she brought him a small bottle of white wine to take with him, then turned to me and said “And which wine would you like? White? Red?” and I chose a red Bordeaux, the start of our cabin collection since we don’t buy the ships drink package, but pay as we go.

We found the Oceania representative waiting outside the immigration door, and very shortly, she had us taken to our hotel with Ingrid and Juanita, who had also been on our flight. We heard Ingrid speaking harshly to Juanita, and Ingrid caught our exchanged glance and said “Oh I’m just bossy. Juanita is 92 and I have to keep her organized.”

While Juanita was toting two large bags, she might have a hearing problem and might need Ingrid’s explanations and organizing. I was amazed at how strong Juanita was.

This is a longer trip than we usually take, with a variety of temperatures. I have a small carry-on suitcase and a small duffel. They were not stuffed. Our airports are huge, however, and when you have to tote two bags from gate to gate, even take trains or underground trams and still walk a long way, those bags can get heavy. I told AdventureMan that it is different when we go West and wear jeans and casual clothes all the time and no one cares, a cruise ship is a different situation. If our future is carry-on, we will need to go on shorter cruises.

The upside is you just whiz through customs – no waiting around at the baggage carousel. So I like the carry-on idea, I just don’t like the reality of toting bags.

The limousine driver was kind and helpful and gave us lots of good information on the way to our hotel, the Hotel Barcelona Almanac.

December 23, 2022 Posted by | Adventure, Air France, Customer Service, Experiment, Family Issues, Geography / Maps, Quality of Life Issues, Travel | , , , , | Leave a comment

Chasing Petroglyphs: Mostly Remote

Arrival in Denver

How often in life do you get to say “Best Trip Ever!” I can think of two or three trips we have taken which qualify, even though on two of them one of us ended up sick a couple days. This trip, no one got sick, and there were no bad surprises.

You’ve seen this map before, when we were in the planning stages; nothing changed. We flew to Denver with American Airlines. Because we believe COVID is contagious, we chose to fly Business Class and to wear masks. The unpublished contagion rate in Florida hit almost 20% this week, so we are trying to eliminate as many opportunities to catch COVID as possible.

As AdventureMan says, “On a good flight, the number of landings is equal to the number of take-offs.” Our standards are low, but exacting. We had a great ride to the airport (our son) and plenty of time to get through TSA. We had two segments, plenty of time in Dallas-Fort Worth to connect for Denver, and while the food was negligible, there were no fights on board that we know of, we boarded and deplaned quickly; we have no complaints.

Denver was easy. When we got to the car rental lot, they did not have our reservation but with some work, were able to find it and gave AdventureMan his choice of cars, so he chose a sporty Nissan Rogue with ski racks on top. It’s 90 degrees F in Denver, but so dry we have to apply Vaseline to our lips every fifteen minutes or so.

LOL, notice the Florida license plates. We can run, but we can’t hide.

We chose to go VRBO in Denver; we wanted to be near to Little Diamond, who used to come visit us in Germany, in Doha and in Kuwait. We wanted to have time where we could catch up, and we wanted to have some time with her two beautiful children.

The VRBO was lovely, cool and spacious, and surrounded by a gorgeous garden that smelled good! The lilacs – so many lilacs! – were in full bloom, the iris were in full bloom, Spring was springing forth with exuberance!

We were hungry. We had landed around lunch time; by the time we rounded up the car and found the VRBO, we were really hungry, so we headed for Colfax Street, full of eating opportunities. We laughed that we would end up at YaYa’s, but it was so much fun. YaYa is Turkish, his wife is Nepalese, and his employees are Saudi Arabian, Tunisian and Yemini. It’s like a mini-UN, and they all work together and get along. The food was also delicious.

Yaya in cap

We started with the lentil soup, and shared a hummus. AdventureMan chose a felafel sandwich and I chose a lamb kebab.

Storefront
Addas
Hummos

As we finished, a man was washing the front window, so we got to walk through the kitchen, really fun for us to go behind the scenes. Yaya told us he had served both the Royals and the Cowboys that day, a very busy day, but that it was really wonderful to have customers IN the restaurant again. This was a lovely way to start our time in Denver.

We took Colfax into downtown Denver, loving the vibe. Downtown is alive, people really live there, it is full of businesses – and high cost parking. Lots of public art, a feeling of energy and optimism in Denver.

We headed back, stopped by Little Diamond’s house and took her dog for a walk, headed over to our VRBO for a little late afternoon snooze. As the VRBO was close to Little Diamond’s house, she popped by and we all went to dinner at the True Food Kitchen in nearby Cherry Creek. As usual with her, once we start talking, it never stops. We had so much catching up to do, and her life is so busy, complex and satisfying. We hated for the evening to end.

At the VRBO, I am noticing the internet works great. In fact, almost every place we stayed, the internet worked great. So great that I am forced to think I need to commit to confronting my behemoth provider in Pensacola about how often my service drops connection, even after they provided me with something they said would blow my mind with its speed and connection. I am not blown away, and using the speedy, reliable internet along this trip has brought that to my attention in a way I can’t ignore.

June 9, 2022 Posted by | Adventure, Cultural, Customer Service, Eating Out, Family Issues, Food, Geography / Maps, Interconnected, Living Conditions, Public Art, Road Trips, Travel, Weather | , , | Leave a comment

Going Postal

We have a great insurance company who sent us this notice this morning:

USAA is a government-friendly organization, providing insurance to people associated with the military. They have a first-class reputation.

It is a sad day when even government-friendly conservative organizations have to take notice of the disgusting failure of our current postal leadership.

As we were growing up, living in Alaska and in foreign countries, we had opportunities to compare our system to others. Americans put a priority on getting the mail delivered in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. Other nations admired our efficiency, and our emphasis on the public service our postal system provided to the American people.

We need to get back to these very public-service-oriented values. The postal system is worth subsidizing to provide valuable services to citizens of the United States of America.

December 13, 2021 Posted by | Bureaucracy, Character, Civility, Community, Cultural, Customer Service, ExPat Life, Financial Issues, Interconnected, Leadership, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Quality of Life Issues, Social Issues, Values, Work Related Issues | Leave a comment

Leaving Bozeman, Day 14

AdventureMan hates my phone alarm, which is a tune called “Twinkle.” He always says it reminds him of hotel mornings when we have to get up at what he calls “The Cr#p of Dawn.” This was one of those mornings, we need to be up, get to the airport, turn in the car, check in two hours in advance, etc. 

Don’t you love this Mama Bear’s big claws?

It all goes smoothly. We drop our keys in the drop box, still a little nervous that we never received a contract for the upgraded vehicle. By the time we reached Dallas, I had a confirmation of the car rental return and a copy of the contract. Go figure.

The airline people were not at the airport two hours before the flight. Oh well. We checked in and had time for breakfast at the Copper Horse before boarding for our flight. In Dallas, we found a BBQ take-out and ate in the waiting room. 

We arrived safely back in Pensacola, on time, and there were zero taxis and about six sets of people in front of us. We never do this, but we called our son and asked if he would pick us up. He arrived, fully masked, welcomed us back, and drove us home. That night, he texted that he and our grandson both tested positive for COVID and the family would be quarantined, They live just blocks from us, so we were able to see them, to bring groceries or whatever they might need. They were tired and achey, but never got very very sick. 

I just took a break; AdventureMan asked me how the trip report was coming and I said I was finishing up and I was astonished at how much COVID had been an influence on this trip. From the start, when Viking cancelled our planned cruise in May, to the end, with hotels and restaurants struggling to find staffing, COVID had played a major role. We need to be paying attention. Things are changing. We are going to need to do things differently. We need to start figuring out those strategies now.

September 16, 2021 Posted by | Adventure, Climate Change, Counter-terrorism, Cross Cultural, Customer Service, Eating Out, Interconnected, Living Conditions, Pensacola, Public Art, Quality of Life Issues, Road Trips, Safety, Travel, Wildlife | , | Leave a comment

Into The Great Wide Open, Day 8, Roaring Mountain, Norris Geyser Basin and Old Faithful

This is the book we use that tells us everything we didn’t know we didn’t know.

It’s hard to believe we’ve already been traveling a week, and only have a week to go. We are having so much fun, and time is skimming by.

Today we drive south. We are up early, to avoid the crowds. Too late, there is already a line for coffee. They have delicious biscotti; huckleberry for AdventureMan and Cinnamon for me. It is cold, so cold I put on my levis for the only time on this trip. We are headed to one of my favorite places, the Norris Geyser Basin.

We beat the tour groups for the only morning

On the way, we stop at Roaring Mountain, another of my favorite spots. It is a cloudy day, but that is OK at Roaring Mountain, a sulpherous, misty site full of fumaroles, holes out of which pour hot steam. In the cold morning air, the steam shoots out, and then billows dramatically around the mountain. 

Clearwater Springs
Roaring Mountain
Emerald Springs

The Norris Geyser Basin had two great hikes, and the parking lot has what we call Rock Star Parking when we get there, very few people. 

We love this hike. The first attraction is Steamboat Geyser, which is unpredictable but is always looking promising when we see it, burbling up with little bursts of geyser enthusiasm. Along the track are many geysers, but also bubbling pits and brilliantly colored springs of boiling water. All the steaminess is exaggerated in the morning cold. We can’t believe it can be this cold in mid-August. 

Steamboat Geyser at Dawn
It’s inviting, and deadly

AdventureMan tells me – and this is really true – that a man fell into one of the springs at Norris Basin, and died, and that his body dissolved in the chemical rich pool. He didn’t die on purpose, but, like many tourists, he wanted to take a dip. His sister says he tripped over his own flip-flop, fell in and died a terrible death, boiling to death. Aargh. 

Rockslide en route holds us up a couple minutes while blockage is cleared
Firehole River and Falls, a great side route

We head on to Old Faithful. There is a long boardwalk there I have never walked, and we have little hope it will be uncrowded. We decide to have breakfast first, and discover the dining room is not open, does not seem to be serving meals at all. The grill is open, all grab and go, so we pick up breakfast and for me, coffee, and ask if we can eat on the terrace. They tell us yes, so we head upstairs, and there is a lovely spot with a bench and two tables overlooking Old Faithful, so we set up there and have one of the most unexpectedly lovely breakfasts of our trip. 

Old Faithful Inn
Last time we stayed here we were in the room in the upper right corner

We could watch Old Faithful erupt from our front row seat, but we decide to leave our location for someone else, and to hike out to another vantage spot good for watching the eruption. It is a great walk, we find a good place and just as I am about to walk to the prime location, a family stops there and claims it. We sit nearby, and a bison comes near. The family can’t resist, they decide to follow the bison, so we get the place after all. 

We sit, and an EcoTour comes and joins us. We get the advantage of all this knowledgeable young guide’s experience just sitting there and listening. As we are listening, a Park Ranger comes hustling up to try to keep people from getting too near the bison. It seems to be a never-ending battle; people seem to think this is like Disneyland and nobody gets hurt. Wrong. People get hurt all the time. These are WILD animals and they are becoming less and less afraid of human beings. That is a bad thing, and can become disastrous. 

The Bison is in the upper right quadrant of the photo

AdventureMan took the guide aside after Old Faithful did its thing and tipped him, told him to have a beer on us because we benefitted from his discussions even though we weren’t a part of his group. We love young people who love their jobs and do them so well. 

We learned that early-mid morning is a great time to visit Old Faithful. There were people, but not so many, even in this near peak of summer visitors.

What we noticed is that there were no buses full of Chinese. No buses full of Japanese. No large groups of visiting Indians. No large groups of students. No European youths. We met one French-Canadian biker along the Firehole Falls road; he had started at the Canadian border and said he had 20,000 more miles to go. The bikers in Yellowstone and Glacier earned our unalloyed admiration – they were riding up very long high hills with gear. They had their sleeping bags and small camp stoves and their clothing. I cannot imagine how they persisted, but they almost all looked strong and wiry and like they were loving every minute of their biking experience.

We got in over 12,000 steps today. AdventureMan is happy.

We went into Gardiner for dinner, to the Wonderland, a restaurant we discovered the last time we were in Yellowstone, a couple years ago. We were astonished – we went early. Almost every table was full! They did have a table for us, and we were very grateful. I had trout with aioli sauce, AdventureMan had elk chili (it was sprinkled with powdered sugar, and was sweet!) with their famous jalapeño cornbread. Wonderland was hopping busy; we were so impressed with the way the team all worked together. While the servers were taking orders, others would be taking plates away, filling glasses, bringing food from the kitchens – everyone helping each other. It was awesome to behold. 

Trout with mashed potatoes and aioli sauce
Elk chili with jalepeno corn bread

Back at our cabin, coming back from a post-dinner walk, we looked up the hill behind our cabin and there was a huge bull elk! It had a huge rack of horns, and looked so noble as he sauntered along the hill. Word spread quickly and people grabbed their cameras, mostly cell phones, and ran out to the street to catch a photo of this magnificent animal. He was far enough away that the few people who gathered didn’t bother him, he barely noticed our existence, and we were very quiet and respectful. I didn’t have my camera, only my cell phone. I took pictures anyway. Nothing could capture the full grandeur of this creature, but we all clicked away in sheer astonishment and admiration. There are hundreds of female elk and little elk calfs around, but this is the only bull elk I ever saw in Yellowstone. 

Bull elk behind cabins
Such a thrill I had to put in two photos

September 14, 2021 Posted by | Adventure, Beauty, Cultural, Customer Service, Eating Out, Fitness / FitBit, Food, Hotels, Local Lore, Road Trips, Safety, Travel, Wildlife | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Into the Great Wide Open: Day 6, Helena to Livingston and Chico Hot Springs

Breakfast was lovely. There were beautiful hot scones waiting on the table for us, light and fluffy scones, not the crusty tough kind. The hostess, Pat, baked them herself, as well as the breakfast frittata, served with sausages and hot pots of coffee and cream. It was a great way to start the day. 

Carolina B&B Breakfast Room
Coffee and Tea Service
Sun Porch/Reading Room
Carolina Frittata, Sausage and Fruit
Pat’s Famous Scones

At breakfast we met Dave and Carol, from Everett, WA, who were married five years ago at The Carolina and who come back every year to celebrate their anniversary there, they love it so much. 

We drive towards our next stop, Chico Hot Springs, but we stop once again in Townsend. We have been looking for a car wash, our time in Glacier National Park has left us mud-stained and mud splashed; we have dead bugs on our windshield and every time I lean on the car to take a photo, I end up with mud on my legs.

We have MUD everywhere

We really like Townsend. We love the sign in the car wash. I love that while I am reading some Montana mysteries, Townsend is mentioned here and there, and I have a photo of the Commercial Bar, notorious among alcoholic cops and people who start drinking early in the morning. 

The Great Wide Open
“You know those are not real horses don’t you?” No. I didn’t recognize it was an art installation.

It is a beautiful day. 

On every trip, I try to schedule a wild card. A wild card means I don’t really know if we are going to like this or not, it might be out of our comfort zone, but we might also stretch and find we enjoy it. I had found Chico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley, another place frequently mentioned in Montana detective series, and had reserved a rustic cabin, which happened to be all they had left that looked like what we might like. I was making reservations early in December, so I thought it odd that so much was already reserved.

So on our drive, I experience a few little anxieties, like did I make sure this “rustic cabin” has it’s own bathroom? What if it has a musty smell? What if this is some kind of tawdry experience that we might find distasteful?

We stop in Livingston en route; we want to visit the Railroad Museum and to have lunch at the Murray Hotel, where we had reservations last year we had to cancel when COVID overturned everyone’s lives.

Livingston, MT
Murray Hotel, where we would have stayed

The railroad museum was fabulous. AdventureMan loves history and loves railroads. I found some really cool movies, one in particular, Invisible Boundaries which tracks Yellowstone’s Great Animal Migrations. The film was gorgeous. Some of was filmed from helicopters, some by an independent filmmaker who trekked with wildlife specialists and a wildlife artist. The film is lush with color and action; the still shots and the artwork are breathtaking. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

The Cashier at the Railroad Museum told us many people come to Livingston to visit Dan Bailey’s, famous for angling outfitting

We had thought we would eat at the Murray, but saw Fiesta de Jalisco and had a craving for Mexican food, so we ate there. It was another restaurant which was careful – seating was separated, people were masked (not while eating). Best of all, the food was really good. I had a chicken mole’ and AdventureMan had a tamale and taco. 

“You have to see the rest room!” AdventureMan tells me

(We were greatly surprised that in all the tourist spots, prices were so reasonable. We think Pensacola has a reasonable cost-of-living; the places we found in Montana and Wyoming – OUTSIDE the national parks – were not more expensive than Pensacola.)

We walked after lunch, and found a cute gift shop where I asked if they had any cherry juice from the Flathead valley, and the woman running the shop looked at me and said “We don’t have it here, but I think I know someone who does” and called a friend. “Yes! She has it!” she told me, so we walked to the Copper Moose where we found the cherry juice and all kinds of wonderful Montana specialties, and some great conversation. We love bringing back local treasures to our family when we travel, and we found some really great treasures at the Copper Moose. We bough the large bottle of cherry juice; we should have bought two bottles, we love it so much. It is tasty, without being too sweet. It mixes well with water or with gin or tonic or seltzer. We were looking for a liqueur to pour over ice cream, like Chambord, but we never found it.

Chico Hot Springs was just a short drive down Paradise Valley from Livingston. Chico Hot Springs was really fun. Our cabin was not ready, but they checked us in, gave us wrist bands to use for the hot springs, and towels and said they would call when the cabin was ready. Just as we had parked, our cabin was ready, so we quickly drove up the hill to our cabin, dropped our gear, (checked to make sure there was a bathroom, and there was) and headed back to the springs.

C.J.Box, in his Highway Series, refers to the old Chico Springs as a former Sanitarium.

AdventureMan had told me he would just sit in the sun; not me! Hot Springs are natural! They have minerals! We used to live in Wiesbaden where people came from miles away and paid a lot to “take the waters.” I hadn’t been in ten minutes when AdventureMan came and joined me. I was delighted. It’s out of his comfort zone. We need experiences out of our comfort zone, we are still capable of growth and new experiences.

After a short while, we headed back to the room for a short nap before dinner. I caught up on my trip notes while AdventureMan went deep into sleep. By dinnertime, we were both relaxed, refreshed and ready.

View toward mountains
Dining Room at Chico Hot Springs

Reservations were a must. The Hotel had contacted me a couple months before and notified me that because of COVID, and employee shortages, and a requirement to socially distance, and the high volume of people wanting to eat in their dining room, if we wanted to eat there, we really needed to make a reservation, which I had made. 

We had an isolated table. Everyone there did. We had a delightful server, Purity, who really knew the menu and the wines. I discovered they had a very large wine tasting room just off the nearby bar, with a lovely selection of amazing wines.

Everything I ordered was off the evening specials menu – they had me at Butternut squash soup and Alaskan halibut. AdventureMan had Prince Edward Island Mussels and the Alaskan halibut, we both had white Bordeaux to drink and ended the meal by sharing a creme brûlée. The meal was magnificent, one of the best on our trip, probably because the wine was so perfect with the meals.

It was nearing sunset. We decided to take a drive along an unpaved road leading out of the hot springs area down into a valley area. We saw a mother deer with two fawns, and we watched the sun set behind a mountain. When we got back to the cabin, there was a fowl – a grouse (?) without fear, waiting to greet us. AdventureMan said he heard coyotes yipping nearby during the night; I slept through it. Our cabin was isolated from the main part of the hot springs complex, and very quiet. We had a wonderful sleep in this rustic cabin. 

One of the things AdventureMan says he loved about these rustic cabins was that they had great lights for reading. We don’t understand why hotels and inns have beautiful nightstands, and even maybe beautiful lights, but the bulbs are puny and they don’t put out enough light by which to read. Chico Hot Springs rustic cabins had good lighting to read by, and lots of hooks to hang up our clothes. We also had all the privacy in the world; the rustic cabins were relatively remote. 

September 14, 2021 Posted by | Adventure, Beauty, Cultural, Customer Service, Food, Geography / Maps, Health Issues, Hotels, Local Lore, Privacy, Restaurant, Road Trips, Travel | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Into The Great Wide Open, Day 2

Bozeman to East Glacier

Nice breakfast, then back to Walmart looking for a couple more layers; it is cold. We’re on the road to East Glacier Park by 0900, with the luxury of time to talk and catch up. 

The major topic, as it will remain throughout the trip, is demographics. Many of the businesses we have interacted with don’t have enough people working for them. It is a constant topic. Hotels aren’t renting out all their rooms; they can’t get them cleaned and serviced fast enough. Restaurants have to limit the number of people, they don’t have the staff to cook and serve the meals. Many restaurants are closed altogether, with signs saying “we will re-open when we can find people to work.” 

Some people feel very hostile about this. I believe it has to do with demographics, and my age group is greatly complicit. For years people have worked well beyond retirement age, not just out of need, although that has driven some, but also because they loved working. COVID changed a lot of that. COVID made having a lot of public contact more risky. People who might still be working have retired, decided to live on less and to enjoy life more. OK, Boomer, you have that right.

COVID also impacts on young families, what mother or father of a young child wants to take a job which could expose their vulnerable children to the ravages of COVID? And, who is going to take care of the children? COVID had made parents reluctant to use child care centers, and child care centers are nearly non-existent because caretakers are also vulnerable, physically and financially. 

In Bozeman, there are a lot of people happy to work outdoors. Not so many willing to work in the service industry. Some believe that the end of federal employment subsidies will make a difference. I imagine it will, for those with the fewest choices, but will not make the difference people expect. Is not one of our inalienable rights the right to protect our own health and that of our children? Montana, like Florida, has a governor who does not allow mask mandates. To me, that is insanity. We know masks plus social distancing work to lower the rates of transmission. Why would we not choose this rational, proven formula which works? 

AdventureMan and I wore masks in public places. We also spent a lot of time in wide open spaces where there were few people. That was part of the whole point of choosing Montana and Wyoming. 

It is also raining, and rain is a big topic of conversation. Montanans tells us they are thankful for this rain, there is been a huge drought which has been hard on the cows and hard on the crops. The rain dampens the forests, and helps the fire fighters. 

Because the roads are nearly empty and we are driving kind of fast, we also have a long raucous discussion of embarrassing speeding tickets we have earned over the years.

My most embarrassing traffic ticket was presented to me by a German policeman who delivered it to my house. He gives me a photo. I am sitting in the front seat, driving my Volvo with a big smile, and chatting with my cousin, who is visiting me. It is taken just outside Heidelberg, in a notorious speed trap. I am well over the speed-limit, and oblivious. When the policeman sits down on the couch I have been working on re-upholstering, the leg falls off and he jumps up very embarrassed and apologetic, which saves me from a very uncomfortable lecture. He delivers the fine, I accept and sign, and he is too embarrassed at “breaking” my couch to even scold me or warn me not to do it again. It was a hefty fine, but I am an expat, and I was thankful just to pay the fine. 

A couple hours into our drive, we come to Townsend, a town we didn’t know we were going to like as much as we did. It started with a restroom in a gas station which was also a town True Value Hardware store. The restroom was beautiful and very clean, and the store was wonderful, with really cool useful things. They had barrels of nails and screws and farm items we could not begin to identify. People stopped in to pick up what they needed, but also to exchange news of what was going on in Townsend. 

We decided to take a look around, and liked the neatness of the place, some old houses, some new. AdventureMan spotted a bakery, his weakness, and found a parking spot. 

Often mentioned in C.J. Box Montana Mystery series

I laughed. “Do you see where you have parked?” I kidded him, and he saw that he had parked in front of the Quilt shop, and it was open. Sometimes fate just works that way. 

The quilt shop was full of wonderful fabrics. I restrained myself; my suitcase capacity is limited, but I allowed myself a little, and a James Lee Burke novel from the used book shelves in the back that I had read before but knew I would love reading again. I could see that this shop was also a great Townsend gathering place, and a good place to learn what is going on with your neighbors. We really liked Townsend, and we liked that almost every town and city we visited in Montana had a bookshop.

We arrived in Augusta around lunch time, and found a place we couldn’t resist. There was a horse carrier out front. Inside, yep, were real cowboys who kept their cowboy hats on while they ate lunch, and one of them ordered GIZZARDS.  I had a crispy chicken salad, which was really pretty good, and AdventureMan had a Ham and cheese sandwich with salad, also pretty good. It was a welcome surprise to find more salads and more vegetables in Montana than we have found on previous trips.

The entire restaurant is decorated with antlers, mostly from elk, but maybe a Moose and some smaller deer, too. What I liked, in addition to the very courteous service to people who clearly “aren’t from around here” was that they had tiny bottles on every table with fresh wildflowers, a nice touch in a very masculine restaurant. 

Many times I might ask people if I can take their photos, but I didn’t ask the cowboys and I didn’t take their photo. They did not seem to be people who would like to be thought of as local color, and I did not want to offend them. 

Montana has a lot of long rural stretches.

We arrived at Traveler’s Rest and our cabin was ready. We’ve stayed here before and really love that the owners built these cabins themselves. They are beautifully crafted, and well thought out. This time we are staying in the cabin they call Two Medicine (also one of our favorite drives) which is in the back. All the cabins are somewhat together, but the porches all face in different directions, and none looks on each other’s porch or into another’s windows. There are poplar trees between and amongst the cabins, and a wind which blows through them and makes the leaves quiver and whisper. They have metal roofs, so when it rains, you can hear the drops hit the roof. 

View from Traveler’s Rest toward Glacier National Park and Mountains

We unpack, and drive to the East Glacier Trading Post for fresh milk for our breakfast and for my coffee. It is half a mile down the road, and full of just about anything you could need, and some fun stuff you don’t need but can’t resist. In front of the store is the first time we see the notice that masking is required on Blackfeet Nation property, and what is really cool is that there is a box of masks on a table in front of the store free for people who do not have masks to use. The Glacier Trading Post also sells ice cream, and ice cream cones.

We take a quick drive on Two Medicine Drive to the lake.

We also take a quick hike to Running Eagle Falls, greatly reduced from when we visited them in the Spring, a year and a half ago. Then, they were double in height. I just love the story of Running Eagle, and it’s a quick, easy hike.

For dinner Friday night, we choose Serranos, a Mexican restaurant that wasn’t there the last time we stayed in East Glacier. We both ordered Devil’s Stew – WOW. It was mostly pork, stewed in some fiery concoction. I had a bowl, AdventureMan ordered a cup but got a bowl, and he also ordered a tostada. The stew was out of this world, although we are usually a little cautious about eating fiery dishes near to bedtime, oh well. (LOL yes, we suffered, but it was worth it.) We ended up with boxes, and the waitress, who was inexperienced but very kind and a very good server, gave us an extra bag of fresh hot taco chips to take with us.

This was Flathead Cherry cider, not the same as cherry juice. Packed a punch.

It’s little things that people remember. I remember that waitress, and how attentive she was, and how caring, even though she told us she was new on the job. 

September 13, 2021 Posted by | Adventure, Community, Cultural, Customer Service, Eating Out, Hotels, Photos, Restaurant, Road Trips, Travel | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment