Travels with My Niece

A few years ago, for her bat mitzvah, I took my niece to Paris. She picked the spot and I am lucky enough to have friends who live there, so we had a homey Parisian extravaganza. Now, with high school graduation just around the corner (wow, that was fast!) we are planning our next trip. Once she got into the college of her choice (!), she was able to pin down a spot: Italy. So right after graduation in May, off we go.

I have only been to northern Italy and that was in a different life, so I am figuring it is a hit-the-hot-spots tour. We already have plane tickets to Rome and back. I have learned from Steven, so I have a spreadsheet with three different itineraries to show my niece. They are basically Rome, Florence, Venice, and sometimes Sorrento/Capri. I am leaning toward a long day trip to Venice from a base in Florence, but Aunt Susie will do whatever her niece prefers.

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Yes to the Trevi Fountain. When in Rome, be total tourists!

When I travel with my niece or nephew (and mostly with Steven, too), I prefer an AirBnB because we can each have our own space and stock up on snacks or breakfast. I get that Americans are spoiled, but I am trying to avoid the places that have a sofa bed as a second bed. I don’t want to sleep on that, and I’m not going to ask anyone else to either. I will write another post on how I go about choosing AirBnBs, but for now: no sofa beds!

Maybe I am weird, but Rome has never been at the top of my list. Now that I know I am going, I am excited. Plus, I grew up in New York, so crowded, loud, frenetic, a little grimy (this was New York before it was invaded by Disney) mixed into my culture don’t bother me. In fact, I like it that way. It’s homey. All suggestions on what we can’t miss are welcome.

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Venice: See it before it sinks

Florence is one of Steven’s favorite cities, so seeing it without him is a little sad, but I am sure that if we went back, there’d be plenty more to see and do. My niece has her heart set on Venice, a place I would skip, but once again, Aunt Susie will do whatever her niece desires. I think we will both enjoy Sorrento and a ferry ride to Capri. I would like to go to Pompei, and while it’s not the top of my niece’s list, I’m sure she will endure.

Oh yes, we might do a little shopping and partaking of the local cuisine.

 

Working in the Sunshine

I woke up today to see snow on the ground; true, was only a light dusting, but I am reminded once again, that I live in Chicago in the winter (my feeling are summed up by this song). On the bright side, tomorrow will be mid-40s and more importantly, I have started the countdown to our first trip of the year.

Our trip to Costa Rica starts on February 1, so at this time I have 28 days to get through—really 27 because it is already evening here and we leave very early in the morning on the 1st.  I am counting the days. As Sue mentioned, she will be learning to Scuba dive, sitting on the beach, taking day trips who knows where and living the Pure Vida while  hitting the cerveza. (I am really hoping to have some work. Honest!)

I will be working.

I am in no way complaining. I will sitting (hopefully outside) at Karl’s place in shorts, a T-shirt and wearing sun screen—not bad for February. However, since I will be working, I am beginning to worry about being connected and all the things I will need to lug down there in order to be able to work.

my laptop
My new laptop

Let’s start with my laptop, of course. I will need power, micro and USB-C cables for various peripherals, and a long Cat-5 Ethernet cable in case the WiFi isn’t so good. I am also thinking I might bring along a WiFi repeater that I have stored in the junk box downstairs. We don’t use it at home, and if the WiFi isn’t so good, perhaps I will set it up somewhere to get a boost (so I can sit outside of course). In the next week or so, I will have a look at Playa Flamingo to see if there is a coffee shop that says it has WiFi, so that if the coverage isn’t good at Karl’s, I can head there and get connected. Then me being me, I will need backups for pretty much of everything—just in case.

Brick phone
Only the latest cell phone for me!

I will need a working mobile phone.  Like most people these days, I live on my phone. (He is worse than the Millennials and Gen Z.) My company does not have a phone system; we all work on our cell phones and have a soft number assigned for work.  I hope we have decent phone coverage there, but if we don’t it works fine on WiFi (see the discussion above about the WiFi extender).  I will contact my provider and arrange for an international call package. I get a half gig of high speed data per day on the plan for $10, so unless I need to use the phone as I hot spot, that won’t be an issue.

 

All in I am really excited for the trip. This post has taken me 30 minutes to write, which means I am 30 minutes closer to the warm sunny weather. In my head, I see this:

me working

But I do worry about it being this…

me not working

Maybe I need an extra backup plan….

Slumber Party

 

I love traveling with my husband, but sometimes I need something different. Travel with my women friends feeds a different aspect of my soul. Friday, I drove to Sawyer, Michigan, where three of my friends and I spent a night drinking wine, talking, and creating soul collages. As much as I love Steven, I don’t think he would spend a day losing track of time as he hunted through magazines for the perfect picture to complete his collage (So right on so many levels). In fact, I got the quizzical look I expected when I told him what we had done.

20191109_145315There wasn’t really anything to do: no WiFi, no TV (horrors of horrors! No TV or Internet! – I am so happy I wasn’t invited), no real town to go to. It was fabulous! We were surrounded by woods, apple trees, and quiet. I am blessed with amazing friends around whom I feel both supported and loved. I feel like I can be my true self around them. In fact, I am at an age where if I can’t be my true self around someone, I don’t bother, but these are women I feel at peace around.

As you already know, when I travel, I want to be on the go: doing, seeing, exploring. I didn’t understand the power of stillness. I’m not saying I want to do this every weekend, or even once a month, but the restorative nature of it was amazing. Plus, I got to pretend I can create artwork without words.

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Soul-collage table

We are lucky that one of us has generous friends who lent us their beautiful home. While I don’t want to own a second home, I now understand the appeal.

Update: We have decided to put off our grand adventure to Southeast Asia for a year. We are in the midst of too much uncertainty and upheaval. I am sad, but I am also sure we will not give up on it.

Happy Birthday

 

It is my mother’s 82nd birthday next week. Ever since she turned 80, we (my brother, sister and I) have been working extra hard to give her special birthdays. This year, we decided that it would be good fun for all of us to pay her a surprise visit in Florida, where she lives during the winter.

My brother lives in Dallas, my sister in Pennsylvania and I live in Chicago, so the first step was finding a weekend near her birthday that would work. We settled on the week before, as both of them were traveling for work the following weekend and my daughter is coming to Chicago the one after that. OK. Step one was completed⁠—we knew when we were going⁠—Thursday, Oct. 31 to Sunday, Nov. 3.

Move to step 2. Arrange travel. We all hopped on to our favorite travel sites and looked for flights that would all arrive around the same time. One quick round of confirmation texts and we all booked our tickets. My sister and brother were set to arrive at 2:00 and 2:30, my flight is scheduled for 3. My mother lives about 30 minutes from the airport, so all in we figured we get to her at about 4.

Move to step 3. Figure out how to ensure that my mother was at home when we arrived. Time to call in the co-conspirators. I called my Aunt Es and Uncle Albert who live about 20 minutes from my mother. After quickly letting them know that nothing was wrong (seems like anytime anyone calls these days, the first thought is what is wrong), I explained our plan. They were more than happy to help. To quote (or at lease paraphrase) my uncle: “Not to worry, we will tell her (my mother) that we are going to be up there and want to take her to dinner, then we will arrive, have a glass of wine and, you know, stall until you all arrive.”

The plans were set, all we needed to do was wait for the day. My brother and sister had uneventful flights and arrived right on time. However, Chicago weather is never your friend, and once again it did not disappoint. Snow. Yes, snow on Wednesday (just about an inch at the airport) and then then snow again on Halloween. My flight was delayed. Not too much, about 45 minutes, but then I had to check my carry on bag, which would have to be collected at baggage claim, not on the jet bridge. Oh dear, now we are arriving around 5.

My brother and sister texted my aunt and uncle to let them know. Luckily for us, they have concocted a story for my mother that involved waiting for my cousin to arrive. They quite admirably stretched out the stall for another hour while we got my luggage, piled into an Uber and headed to my mother’s condo.

20191102_112119We are planners. My brother, sister and I all thought through the approach as my mother’s living room faces the building entrance way.  We asked our Uber driver to drop us off at the next building and we circled around to entrance at that back of the building.

We snuck up to the door.

Knocked.

My mother yelled come in.

We yelled, “Trick or Treat,” and walked in.

To say she looked confused would be an understatement. We burst into a very very very very off key (and for me out of time) rendition of Happy Birthday.

My mother clutched her chest (a heart attack looked possible!!!!), tears streaming down her cheeks and great big smile on her face. Isn’t my husband the sweetest?!?!?!

ma

After a few minutes of hugs and kisses, everything settled down. We knew my mother was fine when she looked at my aunt and uncle and promptly declared. “You knew this! I will never speak to you again. Now let’s figure out where to have dinner.”

We are spending the weekend doing what we do best together.  Sitting around, eating, talking about our respective families and basking in the glow of a really great surprise.

…and in case you were concerned.  Aunt Es and Uncle Albert were forgiven by the time we got to the Thai restaurant for dinner.

Graduation Trip #2: The Early Stages

Image result for europe
Yes, we will be going somewhere here 🙂

Yesterday was the first day of my niece’s senior year of high school, so we are definitely overdue for planning her graduation trip. There’s something amazingly special about traveling with my niece and nephew. You may remember my trip to London with my nephew for his graduation. It was fabulous, and not just because the weather was great, but also because I get to see the world through the eyes of smart, young people who are grateful and enjoying every minute.

My niece and nephew are very different. He had a definite plan and settled on London rather quickly. My niece has also narrowed down her hot spots … to Europe. To be fair, I think she is mostly talking about Spain, France, Italy, and maybe Croatia. She mentioned Copenhagen, but then decided that it was very expensive, but she’s open to ideas. There’s always Iceland, everybody’s favorite these days it seems. The only thing she knows for sure is that she doesn’t want to go to Greece, with me. She has a Greek friend and they are planning a trip someday.

We have more than enough time, but still, part of the fun is letting your imagination go wild and entertaining all the options. Here are a few of the items we still need to narrow down:

  • Are we going to one place? Two? A sampler plate?
  • If we decide on the sampler, what type of transportation?
  • How about a cruise? Yes, we both get seasick, but we can get patches. (I don’t believe anyone who says I won’t feel the boat; I get seasick looking at boats. I’m still game, though.) (when she refers to “anyone” that means me…I have never felt the boat when I have been on cruises).
  • How long is the trip? (will they even bother to come home?)
  • City? Country? Beach? Mountains? All of the above?
  • On our own or package tour? 
  • Mediterranean? Scandinavian? East? West?

I could go on, and the truth is that it is entirely up to my niece. There are tons of places I want to go and even if we end up somewhere I have already been, it will be a completely different experience with her. Ultimately, I don’t care. You only get one graduation trip with your niece, so wherever we end up, it’ll be the best.

The Utah Desert in August

File:Woodbury Desert Study Area.Par.4030.Image.jpgYes, we are going to the desert … in August. Why? Good question. Here’s the thing: Whenever I go on vacation, I think, “I could live here. It’s so relaxing, beautiful, exciting, peaceful, happening, etc.” You can fill in whatever adjective floats your boat. Then I think, “But of course it’s great. There’s no dog waking me up early. No alarm, no schedule. Vacation money is different and I’m not sitting in traffic.” Reality bites.

The trick, if you’re really exploring places as more than vacation destinations, is to go completely off-season. St. George weather in August: High temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s. I have no problem with that, especially because it cools off into the 70s. My cutoff for feeling comfortable is 75. After that, I need a jacket or pants. But, what’s it like wandering around St. George when it’s 100 degrees? Are the streets deserted? What about the flipside? Is there heating in the houses? I don’t like to be cold.

When I travel, I can pretty much find something great about everywhere, because I am an explorer. Something new is something awesome. It may only be awesome once, but that’s OK because I tend not to go back to places unless friends and family are involved (or it’s Paris). There’s always a new place on the list.

The difference this time is that we are thinking of this as a place to live. Eek! Not, as one of my dear friends would say, “our forever home,” but a home nonetheless. This is a different kind of travel. Somewhere between vacationer and wanderer. Wanderer is appealing, except for the 11-year-old German shepherd, so this is a good compromise. Nevertheless, it’s a grand adventure, and I’m not keen on travel (or life) without adventure. Who knows? We may love it and find our “forever winter home.”

The “Joy” of Booking Travel

We are all set to go to St. George. We spent this week searching airfares, hotels in Las Vegas, AirBnB’s in St. George, and rental cars. It always ends up being more complicated than it should be and there are way too many permutations that can’t be searched at once. Our plan is to fly to Las Vegas on Saturday, stay overnight, then drive to St. George in the morning. We will look around St. George from Sunday to Wednesday and then fly home from Las Vegas on Wednesday evening.

We started on the big search sites like Orbitz and Travelocity. The nice things about them is that we can search for a package of airfare, hotel, and car. The drawbacks: We could not exclude the basic economy flights from the search and so any pricing required us to separately search for airfare and add back any additional costs if the site allowed us to “upgrade” to regular economy. (I am sure Sue will use a blog post at some point to rant about the injustice of the multi-economy pricing model, but we will leave that for another time. You know it.) I will confine my whine to say that the option to upgrade–if available at all–is usually buried somewhere towards the end of the booking.

We also searched the airline websites, which also offer packages and while we are able to book the right airfare, the hotel booking option is limited–at least on American (and United as far as I could tell) –to a hotel in the city where you are flying and for the entire time you are there. Not what we are looking for, so strike two. We were able to book the flights and then a separate booking on the airline site for the hotel (which got us extra miles!), but it is the same price as booking the hotel from the hotel site. Both of those exclude the mandatory resort fee from the price of the room. I don’t mind if they exclude the costs of options that we may not use (breakfast, internet, parking, etc.) from the listed price of the room. I might not want those extras and so I shouldn’t have to pay for them. But the “resort fee” is mandatory so I don’t have any option but to pay it. Seems like that should be part of the room fee. What next? Mandatory check-in fee? Or perhaps an elevator use tax? Please, just add $35 to the price of the room and just be done with it.

Parking is another issue. Since we need a car, we will have to park at the hotel for one night. I thought it might be a better idea to pick up the car Sunday morning–one fewer day of rental and not paying for the parking would be offset by the cost of two taxi/Uber/Lyft rides from/to the airport. The taxi/Uber/Lyft ride would be $10 each way. When I searched the cars, it is somewhat counter-intuitively $10 less expensive to rent the car on Saturday rather than on Sunday. No idea why. Perhaps there is a sin tax for renting on Sunday, although not likely as it is Las Vegas and if they were going to tax sin, renting a car on Sunday would have to be pretty far down the list. Either way, we have now booked it for Saturday and will pay the $15 to park.

We booked an AirBnB in St. George and I have the same sort of issue with their pricing. he place was listed at about $70 per night but the total was about $350. Last time I checked, and I realize I have been out of school for a long time (although he is allegedly an accountant) 4 nights@$70 per night should be about $280 (for those of you following along with your calculators do this: press the 4, press the * key press the 7 and then press the 0. Now press Enter; you should see 280. I don’t mind paying $350 per 4 nights, but that is NOT $70 per night.

So, here is my recap for this post. 1. Please let me search your site for what I want. 2. Give me a break and allow me to define what options I want/don’t want up front 3. Please organize the prices in a reasonable and logical order and 4. (and finally) JUST TELL ME THE DAMN PRICE. NO MANDATORY FEES OR NO HIDDEN CHARGES.

Where’s the zero?

We apologize, we haven’t been writing for the last few weeks. I would like to claim that there are good reasons, but really there haven’t been. It was my birthday a few weeks ago, then Sue’s was this week, we had a bunch of stuff to do around the house and work, as always is busy—but really, we have just been a bit lazy.

I got an email from a friend of mine with the title of this post as a subject and instantly I knew what happened. He stole my vacation. I know! What kind of friend steals your vacation, and how did he steal my vacation?

As many of you know, I am an accountant and a bit of a numbers geek. Yup, imagine that, a guy who spends all day looking at numbers goes home and thinks about them some more.

The tablet

Like most of you, I learned that zero was invented by the Arabs and spread to the West along with Arabic numerals as part of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. However, a few years ago, I read a book called “Finding Zero: A Mathematicians Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers.” It was really interesting and the author stated that a tablet found in Cambodia has a zero that predates the Ottoman Empire by 500 years; based on carbon dating, it is the oldest zero ever found. The tablet is now in a museum in Phnom Penh. This is a link to an article that he wrote in Smithsonian magazine. I was fascinated and knew that I had to convince Sue we had to see it. (Can you imagine that conversation? Steven: I have a great idea for a vacation. Sue: Where? Steven: Cambodia to see the oldest known zero!!!!. Sue: Um, yeah. How about someplace interesting? I am completely on board for Cambodia and if a zero gets Steven there, so be it.) We had a quick look at what that trip would be like and decided that it wouldn’t be this year.

One quick point that I would like to mention that the Bodelian library at Oxford University has a manuscript called the Bakhshali that some people claim has the oldest known zero. However, this is disputed by some as the manuscript has a number of parts from different ages and the zero in the manuscript is being used as decimal place holder rather than a “true zero.” (Did you all follow that? There’s a difference between signifying nothing and holding a place in, say, the number 101.)

All of which leads me to my stolen vacation. I have been talking my friends (and really anyone who is willing to listen to me) about wanting to go to Southeast Asia, to see, among other things this tablet. So what happens? My friend sends the above mentioned email, with the photo gloating that he had reached the holy zero place before me!

I hate my friend.

Road Trip!

The summer is soon upon us and we are thinking about getting in the car and driving. The Saab is still in good shape (for a 13 year old car) and so we are getting into planning mode. As Sue told you in her last post, I have started a new job where, horrors of horrors, they actually expect me to show up and work. Not sure what I was thinking when I agreed to this. But, I have now been there 2 weeks so it is time to explain to them that every summer I need to be on the road for (hopefully) 3 weeks.

This year, we have to be in Boston in late July for a wedding, so our thought is to drive there via Canada. The outline of the plan is to head for Montreal via Toronto, then to Quebec City to see three great Canadian cities. Then drop south into Maine and visit Acadia National Park. After we hang out with the blue bloods in Bar Harbor (pronounced Bah Hahbah) for a few days, will set our sites on Boston for the wedding.

Thank you SomeEcards for capturing my sentiments perfectly.

While in Boston, we will (hopefully) have time to go to Fenway (and lustily root AGAINST the Red Sox). From Beantown, we will head to the Big Apple (home of the Yankees–the greatest baseball team EVER (he is delusional) and Sue’s team–the Mets!!!!!!!), because we both love that city. From New York, it is pretty much a straight shot westward across Pennsylvania, Ohio & Indiana until we get back home to the Windy City. All in, about 2,500 miles and 42 hours of driving. Sue would to go to Nova Scotia from Quebec City, but that will add another 700 miles and 10 hours of driving, so we will see.

All in, I figure it is a 20-day trip, give or take. That assumes a minimum of 2 days in each city and no driving days of more than 6 hours. We haven’t really started to do the nuts and bolts planning (hotels, what we want to see, odd ball places to stop, etc.–ahem, who’s going to watch that giant beast of a dog?), but I think we will probably start that pretty shortly–once I ask for the time off…

El Avion

El Avion

Reading the news today, I saw that Oliver North was stepping down as the President of the National Rifle Association. This reminded me of something that made the Hotel Costa Verde unique and fun.

You may recall that when we were staying there, we spent one night in the cockpit cottage. They also had another “room” called the 727 Fuselage Home which was constructed from the fuselage of a 727 built in 1965. Additionally, they had one other airplane themed attraction. A restaurant called El Avion.

The thing that makes this restaurant so interesting is that it is built around an entire C-123 Fairchild cargo plane. “Big deal,” I hear you say (or maybe it was “What is a C-123 cargo plane?”). Either way, the type of plane is less important than its history.

For those of you who do not remember Ronald Reagan’s presidency, let me spend a few lines enlightening you. The Iranian people had overthrown the Shah in favor of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah, an Iranian backed organization, was fighting a civil war in Lebanon and had taken a number of Americans hostage, Nicaragua had elected the socialist Sandinistas for their government. The president and his advisers were trying to support a group called the Contras who were attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas. Iran’s government was using American weapons bought when the Shah was in power to fight a war with Iraq and was desperate for resupply. It was illegal for the US to provide money or arms to both Iran and the Contras.

In steps our friend Oliver North, who was a lieutenant colonel and member of the National Security Council. Through a complicated web of transactions, he facilitated the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, and then diverted the money to illegally fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. All was going well…until people found out. There were Congressional hearings; various members of the executive branch were convicted of various crimes, then pardoned; the Contras attempt to overthrow the Sandinistas collapsed; and Iran’s war with Iraq continued for another 3 brutal years and ended in a stalemate.

So, back to the restaurant: The C-123 plane is one of the ones that Oliver North contracted to ferry the arms to the Contras. Here is how they tell the story.

The restaurant surrounds the plane and is like so many places in Costa Rica, open-sided. We sat upstairs with a beautiful view of Pacific Ocean and had a very nice dinner.