Last week my daughter Abi came to stay for a few days. She spent the prior weekend in Mexico City for work and visiting with some friends. Once all the fun had ended, she came over to our place and stayed with us. She lives in London, so we don’t get to see her that often; the last time was in August when Sue and I went there to visit her for a few days.
Monday and Tuesday were work days, so we mostly sat in silence and stared at our respective computer screens. We did manage to go out to dinner on Monday night to Páramo, where Sue and I ate the other week. We wanted to do something pretty fast and pretty close, both of which it was. The food was once again, delicious, and after a dinner we headed to Freddo’s for ice cream. We knew of Freddo’s from Buenos Aires. The store in Mexico City was much smaller, but the ice cream was just as good.
Wednesday we strapped on our walking shoes and headed back to Bosque de Chapultepec. Abi and I wandered through the Museo Nacional de Antropología while Sue hung out in the park and took some photos. After the museum, Abi and I visited the Castillo de Chapultepec. Once again Sue wandered the park as we had just visited there a couple of weeks ago. It is interesting, but apart from a couple of murals, it isn’t really worth a second visit.
On Friday, Abi and I had a tour of the Teotihuacan pyramids with Roberto from Cyrviaje Consultores De Viaje. (For those who do not speak Spanish, Consultores de viaje translates to travel consultants.) Sue and I went there last year and so she decided to pass on this trip too. (I suspect she was letting Abi and I get as much father/daughter time as possible. True, plus it was nice to have a few hours to myself.) Roberto picked up us at 7 a.m., so that we could get to the site before it got too hot. It’s about 30 miles north of the city, which meant that it would take about an hour to get there and nearly two hours to return. Mexico City traffic is just unbelievable.
We started at the south end of the site, near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and walked the 2km north towards the Pyramid of the Sun. The pyramids are magnificent and there was much more to see this time as things continue to open after the Covid shutdowns. Roberto is a great tour guide, he had lots of information and at every turn seemed to have something interesting and relevant to say. He has traveled all over the world and when we weren’t talking about Teotihuacan, we were discussing where else we should visit, both inside and outside of Mexico. The entire story of the city is amazing and also very jarring: How could a civilization that could solve complex mathematical and engineering problems leave no written history and simply vanish with no trace? It is eerie.
Saturday we didn’t do very much of any note other have dinner at a Thai/Viet restaurant called Kiin that is literally (and I mean that in the literal sense) around the corner from our AirBnB. They have a website, but it’s just their menu, so I have linked to their Facebook page — sorry if you don’t have access to it. Sue and I have eaten there before and their food is fabulous, and appropriately spicy. Abi had a 6:30 a.m. flight on Sunday so she was up somewhere around 4 a.m., but her terrible father said goodbye before he went to sleep, just so he wouldn’t have a wake up before dawn to do that.
A week or so before Abi arrived Sue bought a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle based on a 1594 map of the world. She dumped out the pieces onto our dining table and has been diligently working on it. I don’t have the patience (nor the eyesight) for such things, so with the exception of maybe a dozen pieces, she has done all the work. I figured this was a good time to post a photo of how far she has progressed and will post more as the work continues.
On Sunday, we did a full day tour to La Leona Petrified Forest. It is about an hour and a half outside of El Calafate. Our driver and guide, Leon, picked us up at the hotel and drove us north through the scrub desert. We stopped at roadside hotel/bar/restaurant/gift shop, and picked up another couple for the tour. The landscape is very similar to the desert in Arizona but without cacti, just low scrub plants and grasses.
We reached the petrified forest, which is much less of a forest and much more of a huge rock formation with eroded sandstone and basalt. It is very stark, beautiful, and extremely windy. We hiked along the ridges of several the rock outcrops and slowly headed down in the lower portion of the valley. Along the way, Leon explained the rock formations, how the different layers were formed, and how they are eroding at different speeds based on the type of rock that they are. We found dinosaur bones where you could clearly still see the marrow and he explained that one way to test if a rock is a dinosaur bone is to lick your finger and if the rock (only small ones obviously) stuck to your finger, it was likely to be a dinosaur bone. We also saw many petrified trees, some of which looked like they were just bleached wood. It is always incredible to see how well the organic material has been preserved by the minerals, the tree’s rings and features are clearly visible. As we circled down into the valley, I did notice that our van was significantly higher than we were, which gave me some minor cause for concern. Anyway, we hiked around the valley finding lots of petrified trees, interesting geological features and a few dinosaur fossils.
As many of you know, I am terrified of heights. It is quite frustrating for me. The logic and reason portion of my brain knows that I am not in any real danger, that I have great balance and never stumble or fall when walking, and just because I am near an edge, should not in any way make it more likely I will fall. However, the old reptilian, flee or flight section of my brain cannot grasp these details and just keeps shouting into my head NO! DON’T DO THAT! MOVE AWAY, DON’T GO THERE. Oddly, I have terrible balance, but no fear of heights or the edge of cliffs. Hmmmm, maybe I need more reptilian brain. I work hard to keep my mind quiet and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Our hike out of the canyon was one of the times that I could keep my mind mostly quiet. We zigzagged across one of the walls (which to be truthful was not a sheer drop, but it was a pretty steep drop) and up to the van, rising perhaps 300 meters. Neither Sue nor Robin were the least bit bothered by the climb, I on the other hand, needed a few minutes to collect myself after we reached the top.
We packed ourselves back into the van and Leon drove us back to El Calafate in time for dinner. Robin craved meat for dinner so she headed off to a parrilla (steak house) while Sue and I headed back to Pura Vida for another home-style dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine called Fabula, which sounded like fabulous to me, but actually means fable. Despite the disappointing name, the wine was great.
Monday morning, we checked out of Hotel Posada los Alamos in El Calafate and headed for Torres del Paine in Chile. It was about a five-hour drive, once again across the scrub desert. After about three and a half hours we turned off the road and down gravel road, and at this point, I thought to myself, sheesh, we are in a van with a driver we don’t know, we have no cell phone coverage, on a dirt road and have no idea where we are going. Sometimes I wonder about our decision making. However, it turns out that down the dirt road leads to the border crossing into Chile. We waited in a tiny shack for about 10 minutes for the Argentine immigration guard to do something with our passports and then finally hand them back to us and we were able to exit Argentina. We drove about a half a mile down the road, there was a sign that said “Bienvenido a la Republica de Chile” and the road was paved. We went another half a mile and reached immigration and customs for Chile. Once again, we entered a tiny shack where a young woman reviewed our passports and gave us some sort of paper. It appears that she has ample free time as there was a hair straightener plugged in next to her computer. We walked to the next little building which housed the police and customs. The police reviewed our passports and the piece of paper that the passport woman gave us and then stamped our passports. At customs, we put our luggage through a scanner, but the customs official didn’t seem to look at the scans. Once we finished crossing the border, our driver put our luggage back in the van and drove us about 50 feet to the next little building and put our luggage into a van run by our hotel which took us the rest of the way.
A few scenes from the drive
We are staying at the Hotel Las Torres, which is inside the national park, but still private land. They offer an all inclusive package that includes all food and excursions. The location in unbelievable and it is a perfect place for a respite from the outside world. We have no cellphone coverage and only have single digit speed internet in the hotel itself. Once we checked in, we talked to the excursions team and booked some hikes.
Sue and I decided that on our first full day, we would do one of the most famous hikes, called Mirador Torres del Paine, on our own. It is a 17km hike with about a 1,000 meter vertical climb. We woke up, grabbed some breakfast and hit the trail by 8:30 a.m. The hike is broken into three sections. Section 1 is from the hotel to the Chilean refuge (green circle with a white triangle on the right). It is 4 km up through the scrub desert and across the face of the mountain gaining about 400 meters, not particularly difficult, but there were sections with a 20%+ grade.
At about the 2.5 km mark, the course turned and there was a 300-400 meter stretch of very exposed, relatively sheer cliff. It is called Windy Pass, because typically the wind is blowing right through making it extra scary. We were lucky and had a calm day. Also, Steven is very brave. The path was easily two-people wide and while I was very uncomfortable, we made it through. The rest of the way to the 4 km mark was reasonably steep downhill to a refuge and we arrived there after a couple of hours. At the refuge, there is camping, bathrooms, a small store and picnic tables to sit and relax.
We rested for a little while then headed to section 2, the forest section. It is about 3.5 km, and as the name says, it is through a forest. It is a fairly easy walk, gaining only about 200 meters over the course of the entire section and it took us another hour or so. Section 3 is the tough part (starts at the green circle with a white triangle on the left). It is only 1.5 km long, but gains about 400 meters, with sections that are 40% grade and you are literally climbing over boulders. I hate boulders! The last 250 meters are once again across the face of the mountain, with a fairly steep falloff. This was one of those times that my inner voice could not be quieted. Yes, I know no one ever falls, that hundreds of people cross that rock field every day, that I should be more frightened crossing the road, but no matter what I was telling myself, I could go no further. I told Sue to carry on and I found a nice protected place and waited for her to return. I think she double timed it to the end of the trail, took a couple of pictures and double timed back to me. I am so grateful that she knows how to motivate me, when I need it, but also how to read the terror in my eyes and realize that I can go no further.
Once Sue had returned, we headed down. Now, my usual thinking is that down is always easy, but boy that last section was the hardest easy I have ever had. Climbing down rocks is nearly as hard as climbing up and I was especially glad we had our hiking poles. Once we hit the start of the forest section, we stopped and ate our lunch as it was just about 3 pm. The forest was relatively easy, although both of our quads had started to tell us that they were unhappy, we still had quite a long way to go and bunch of height to gain and lose. But mostly it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other to get to the Chilean refuge.
We arrived at the Chilean refuge at 4 p.m. and decided to rest for a few minutes. The remainder of the hike would be a climb of about 75 meters over a 300 meter stretch, along the exposed rock face, then about 3.5 km of relatively slow downward slope all the way to the hotel. We trudged up first 300 meters, reminding ourselves that we did this for fun. Once we reached the top, we turned the corner and were on the final downward stretch to the hotel. We arrived back at the hotel by 5:30 p.m. and collapsed into our room for a little while. We showered, headed to bar, had a drink, some dinner and were both asleep by 9 p.m.. It was a very long hard, but rewarding day. Even if I didn’t reach the end of the trail.
For our second day, Sue and I decided to do a half day excursion with a guide. Robin headed off on a full day excursion to another part of the park to see a glacier. Sue and I, along with about half a dozen other people, hopped into one of the hotel’s vans and headed for a hike that they describe as “Patagonia flat.” The walk is across the Patagonian steppes and features lots of guanaco, some cave paintings, and the possibility of seeing a puma. The drive to the trailhead took about 40 minutes and since it was drizzling, we all pulled on our rain gear. “Patagonia lat” means rolling hills, lots of 30-40 meter ups and downs and one big climb upward to reach the cave paintings. The “caves” are actually covered rock overhangs and compared to the cave paintings in France, they are quite limited. We rested there for a little while, then hiked back down off the rock outcrop and across the steppes. We saw lots of guanaco, learned lots about the plants and wildlife of the area, and happily, at least in my mind, did not see a puma. The whole hike took about 2 hours, it was a perfect amount of effort for us following the very strenuous prior day.
One more day here, then we are off to Punta Arenas.
Our last week in Buenos Aires was a bit of a whirlwind. My cousin Robin, an experienced traveler on her own, joined us on Monday. We spent the rest of the week working and visiting the last few places on our must see/eat list. On Thursday night we had a goodbye dinner with our friends Marco ndt Barbara at their place where they provided a wonderful feast, and we said a bit of a tearful goodbye.
Saturday morning we headed to the airport four hours early for our flight to El Calafate, having learned from our trip to Porto Alegre that the line to check in would be enormous. We were not disappointed, but what we did not count on was that Robin is a Delta Skymiles bigshot and her status with Delta allowed us to skip all the lines and check in quickly and easily. We zipped through the security screening and were in the boarding lounge in under 30 minutes. Since we had three hours to kill, we hunkered down and had coffee and breakfast. Good thing because the woman who was cleaning our apartment WhatsApped me a photo of the clothes Steven left hanging in the closet. Steven had time to taxi back, get his shirts, and still have time to finish his coffee at the airport. Usually we are good about checking every spot for left items, but somehow wit slipped our minds.) Our flight was on time (as it seems all Aerolineas flights are – even if they only allow 10 minutes to board) and relatively quiet. Not unexpectedly, we hit some turbulence over the mountains, but nothing to write home about – although, since my mother reads this, I guess I just have.
El Calafate is desert. Sue likened it to Arizona, but it is much colder and you can easily see the Andes mountains with snow on them. We checked into our hotels and then took the opportunity to meet at the Patagonia brewing company to watch the Argentina vs. Australia match. The USA lost while we flying, so I guess I was spared the disappointment of watching the games. Oh well, and good luck to Tyler Adams – the U.S. Men’s national team champion who went to the same high school as I did, and now plays for Leeds United in the English Premier league. Anyway, we watched as Argentina made easy work of Australia and all the Argentines (and us non-Argentines) enjoyed the game and the result. Afterwards, the main street was flooded with cars driving around honking their horns and there were several impromptu parades down the street.
We had dinner at a place called Pura Vida. I would call the style Argentine home cooking. Sue had pumpkin soup and lentil stew. Which she said was the first true vegetarian food she has had in a restaurant since we arrived. It was muy rico! Robin had lamb stew and I had a chicken pie. All were very delicious and quite large.
Sunday morning we woke up, put on our cold weather gear (multiple layers, winter coats, hats and gloves and we headed to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Iguazu Falls which we visited a few weeks ago, demonstrated nature’s raw unbridled and immediate power. The Perito Moreno showed us nature’s glory in a whole different way. It stands about 30 kilometers (18 miles) long and about 80 meters (250 feet) tall at the face. The ice on the face is mostly white with an eerie blue that looks like back lighting. As you would expect from an ice formation, the temperature hovered in the low single digits centigrade. Our bus dropped us off that the visitor’s center on the south side of the glacier. The park has about four miles of walkways and steps (many many steps) that went from about 100 feet higher than the glacier (where the visitor center was) to the waterline. Sue, Robin and I walked all of them in our allotted 2.5 hours. Words simply cannot describe the amazing beauty of it, hopefully some of our (read Sue’s) amateur pictures will.
After a quick pack lunch we hit the bus again for a quick drive over to what the sign called “Safari Nautical.” It is a boat ride that takes people right up to the face of the glacier. We were quickly and efficiently loaded onto the boat and we headed up the lake to get a whole new perspective on the glacier. Once again it was glorious. The boat takes you close enough to almost reach out and grab the glacier.
Please try and remember that the face of the glacier is 80 meters tall.
We headed back onto the bus, and back to the hotel, quite exhausted, but with views like this out of the bus.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the U.S., so my work was closed. Sue and I decided that since we had been back in Buenos Aires for three whole days, it was important for us to leave again – no more accurately, we decided that since we had a free day, we would head to Uruguay. There is a little town called Colonia del Sacramento just across the river Uruguay from Buenos Aries and there are ferries that run back and forth every hour or so. Sue got us tickets for a 10:30 a.m. outward bound ferry and an 18:00 (6 p.m.) ferry back.
As many of you might remember, Sue gets terribly seasick, just looking at the water. She has scopolamine patches that really help her but have the side effect of making her terribly thirsty. She put on her patch the night before and in the morning we headed for the ferry. We sat out in the sunshine at the back of the boat and enjoyed the breeze and the rays. It has turned quite warm here and ride to Colonia took an hour and a half, and was very enjoyable.
We disembarked and walked around the town. We were expecting a cute little tourist town, with colorful buildings and a nice little central square. It was quite disappointing. First, the town is fairly run down, I guess the pandemic has taken its toll. Second, many of the places were closed, we suspect because Uruguay was playing in the world cup that morning. We made of the best of what was there, wandering through the town and walking along the river. Sometime around 2 o’clock we sat down and had lunch on the terrace of a little restaurant that overlooked the river.
After lunch we wandered some more, but by 4 p.m. we were done, and headed back to the ferry terminal to await our return trip. Once again we sat outside in the back of the ferry and enjoyed the breeze and sunshine. We both agreed that the best part of the trip was the boat ride. We cleared immigration in Argentina for the fourth and final time during this trip and headed back the AirBnB.
We had a quick change and headed out for dinner. We were meeting Marco at 9 p.m. at La Cabrera, one of Buenos Aires’ best steak restaurants. I believe the total count of vegetarian entrées on the menu was two. One was pasta, the other was grilled vegetables – and that may have been a side dish, not a real entrée. Not surprisingly, Marco and I each had a huge hunk of meat, while Sue had grilled vegetables. The food, wine and desserts were all great and finished up the meal right about on schedule – three hours after we sat down.
Today, we took a bit of time and made reservations for a weekend trip to the Atacama desert in Chile. It looks amazing and is the driest non-polar desert in the world. We will write more about that once it gets closer.
This coming weekend is our last in Buenos Aries before we head to Patagonia so we are going to pack a lot in.
This weekend was all about family. When I was in college, my parents hosted an exchange student from Porto Alegre, Brazil, named Vitor. Our families have been close ever since and we think of Vitor and his family as our family. My mother decided that for her 85th birthday she wanted to visit Vitor and his family. Sue and I had already planned to be in Buenos Aires and so we quickly agreed to hop a flight and join her and her traveling partner, my sister, Judie.
Tonight’s cast of characters:
My mother: Turned 85 on Saturday and is still walking 3 miles a day
Judie: My much younger sister (she and Sue are the same age – currently 39 and holding) Judie is MUCH older than I am. She was born in April; I, in June.
Vitor: Our brother from another mother and chief host of the insanity that is to follow
Alexia: Vitor’s fabulous wife who is smarter, better looking and in every way better than Vitor
Alice: Alexia aad Vitor’s daughter; she has recently passed the Brazilian equivalent of the bar and is beyond wonderful. She speaks fluent English and is happy to help everyone with everything.
Lucas: Alexia and Vitor’s son; He always has a smile and is just starting at college. As a teenage boy, he has an appetite that doesn’t end.
Bruno: Alice’s boyfriend who is also a lawyer, speaks immaculate English but has two strikes against him in my book because 1) he drinks Budweiser and 2) is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys.
…and now back to our story…
Mom and Judie arrived on Thursday morning. For reasons we cannot recall, Sue and I decided to book our flight on Friday at 5:30 AM (IN THE MORNING). We figured that we would get to the airport at about 4, as we didn’t expect that it would be crowded. Boy were we wrong! Luckily Aerolineas Argentina has a “great” system. Everyone waits on huge lines until your flight is about to depart and they call up your flight and you bypass the line. At about 4:45 they called our flight; we bypassed the rest of our our line, checked in and were on our way. Boarding started at 5:10 and amazingly we left on time for the 90-minute trip to Brazil.
Vitor picked us up at the airport, whisked us to our AirBnB and then to his place. We met up with everyone and then piled into two cars for a trip to a winery called Casa Valduga, about 90 minutes away. We arrived at lunchtime and headed for their restaurant. The food is served continuously, by which I mean the waiters carry trays of food from table to table and you can take or not as you choose. I was not aware of this when the service started, so by the time we reached the seventh or eight dish, all of it either meat or pasta, I was struggling. The food was fabulous, and I was very full. Luckily, after lunch, we headed to a winery named Casa Miolo for a tour and some tasting. It was nice to walk around and stretch our legs. The tour was in Portuguese, but come on, it is a winery, so we all know what they do and how they do it. After the tour and tasting were done, we headed back to Vitor and Alexia’s house and relaxed for the evening.
Saturday was my mother’s birthday party, so preparations needed to be made. Vitor ran here there and everywhere getting meat, meat and more meat. Alexia made salads, vegetables, tabouleh and potato salad. The rest of the cast tried to help or just stay out of the way. The party was held in a party room at Bruno’s parents’ apartment building. Many of Vitor’s family and friends showed up and quite a few spoke enough English to have conversations, which is really great because my Portuguese is even worse than my Spanish, which is nearly non-existent. The “boys” (Vitor, Bruno, and Bruno’s dad and brother) fired up the indoor BBQ (what a great invention!) and promptly roasted approximately one full herd of cattle. The challenge tonight was to try each different cut of beef without bursting – it was a tough challenge, but I rose to the occasion. Sue was of no help whatsoever as she is a vegetarian. The party lasted until after midnight and everyone was exhausted by the time we got back. I would like to take a quick moment to say how welcoming everyone was. Many had never met us nor my mother, but that didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to them. In their minds, we are friends of Vitor and Alexia and therefore we are friends of theirs. It is so nice to make new friends.
Luckily for us, Vitor planned a quiet day of football on Sunday. In the morning, we watched American football on TV (there was a game being played in Germany, so it was on early in the day). We had a “light” meal of about 30 pounds of pasta and Alice’s wonderful homemade sauce. Then we hopped into the cars and headed for the nearest 50,000-person stadium to see the last game of the season of SC Inter. We sat in some box seats behind the goal and what we in the U.S. would call the bleacher bums. The area by the goals is all standing room only and the crowd sings and chants the entire game. Inter scored their first goal after 11 minutes and then piled on, winning 3-0. I hope the videos give you some idea of the electricity in the stadium.
After the match we retired back to Vitor’s and watched more American football and had beer, wings and pizza – because we hadn’t eaten enough the previous few hours/days. Somewhere around midnight, we called it a weekend.
For those of you trying to keep track of where are/will be here is our schedule for the next few months:
11/15 – 11/21 (or 15/11 – 21/11 depending on how you read dates) – Porto Alegre Brazil
11/21-12/3 (21/11 – 3/12) – Buenos Aires
12/3 – 12/17 (3/12-17/12) – various stops in Patagonia
Today we arrived in Buenos Aires. It is the first time either of us has been to South America and the first day of about seven months away.
We flew from Miami on Saturday night – our flight left at 11:15 p.m. and arrived in Buenos Aires at 9 a.m. The flight was really easy, in part because American Airlines offered a last-minute cheap upgrade to business class. We have never flown business class before, and for an overnight flight, the lay flat seats were really useful. We both slept quite a bit and arrived reasonably rested. I decided I love business class, but Steven told me not to get used to it. Spoil sport.
A colleague of a former colleague of mine is a native of Buenos Aires and was kind enough to pick us up from the airport and take us to our apartment. He and his wife found us as we wandered into the international terminal lobby and whisked us to our new digs. They both speak excellent English and one of us (the other one) speaks passable Spanish. It never ceases to amaze me how kind strangers are. This is a young couple with whom we have only a passing connection, but they went of their way to pick us up at the airport, sent us a ton of material on what to do in the city and would not leave until we were safely in the apartment. Our new friends are Marco and Barbara.
We quickly unpacked our stuff, checked the internet speed (100mb!), had a little nap to recharge our batteries and then headed out to get the lay of the land. Martin, the manager from the apartment agency gave us some ideas about where to find things and we headed out to find a grocery store. We wandered a few blocks, found a few small stores, picked up some staples for dinner and, more importantly, coffee for the morning. It was surprisingly difficult to find coffee here as everyone here drink a type of tea called Yerba Mate. We haven’t tried it yet, but when we do, we will include a review. I am pretty sure I had some bad American version of it and did not like it, but I am game to try again.
One of the interesting (at least for me, being a money guy) is that there are two exchange rates for the Argentine peso. The official rate is about 150 Argentine pesos to 1 U.S. dollar. The unofficial, or blue, rate is roughly double that and it is so common that the rates are published in the newspaper. The way it works is that if you are accessing the banking system either through an ATM or through a credit card you receive the official rate. If you have U.S. dollars you can exchange them at a cambio (imagine the currency exchanges you see at an international airport) or on the street for the blue rate. If we exchange our dollars for pesos at the blue rate, the prices fall by half for us. Western Union will send dollars at the blue rate and so on Monday we are going to try that and see how it works. I will update this later and let you know how it goes.
Later in the afternoon, we headed out for a walk. There are a series of large parks in our neighborhood, so we took a walk around them. To give you some idea of distance on the map, from our place to the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes is about one kilometer. We walked all around the parks and in the park across from the Cementerio de la Recoleta (where Eva Peron is buried, but we have saved Dead Person Bingo for another day) there was a large arts and crafts fair that we walked through, but of course did not buy anything.
Monday is also a national holiday in Argentina. It is the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity. The link is to a Wikipedia article which is in Spanish, but given my brilliant understanding of español (and chrome’s auto translate feature), I have found that that it commemorates when people from Western Europe first arrived on the continent. I got all excited about the respect for cultural diversity thing until I realized they just meant white Europeans. Oh well.
So here is the update on using Western Union….I transferred $300 and received 91,080 Argentine pesos. The Western Union office is quite conveniently inside a Carrefour grocery store. Carrefour is a large French-based grocery chain, and we often shopped in them when we were in France and Italy. We even found one in Morocco when we were there in 2017, but that was before we were blogging. The process is very easy. Western Union gave me a code number when I sent the funds. I presented that and my passport to the agent, confirmed my phone number and gave him my address in Buenos Aires and he handed me the pesos.
On confusing thing is that the symbol for the peso is the same as the one for the dollar, so when we look at prices, we naturally think of dollars, but the price is actually 1/300 of that price. Since we were there, we also did some shopping at the Carrefour and bought some wine that was $1,092 – in my head – in reality US$3.64. It was one of the most expensive wines on the shelf…and it was US$3. Our wine from last night was about 400 pesos, about US$1.30. Overall, the prices in the grocery store seemed reasonable at the official exchange rate, but at the blue rate, it was all very inexpensive.
We were lucky enough to have two weekends in London and we packed the second one as full as we could. On Friday night, Abi, Laurens, Sue & I went to London’s Chinatown for a relatively early dinner at Joy King Lau. We ordered about 10 different dishes all of which were yummy and managed to finish all of them. After dinner we had reservations at the Comedy Store for an evening of stand up. They had seven comedians, an MC, the other four shown on the poster and then two more who did short sets of about 10 minutes each. They were all very good and we had a great time. After the show, Sue and I grabbed a cab back to the AirBnB driven by a very funny and talkative cab driver name Josie.
Saturday, Sue and I went on a nice little stroll from Hackney to Highgate (circa 4 miles). Our destination, was, of course, Highgate Cemetery. We stopped on the way at the Lord Palmerston pub for a real British pub lunch. Sue had fish and chips and a cider while I had a Caesar salad (ok, not really British pub lunch, but I was still full from dinner the night before) and a pint of beer. We sat outside in the sunshine (yes really, there was sunshine) and watched the world go by.
We left the Highgate via the overground trains (which Sue has dubbed the overtube) on our way to meet up with Abi & Laurens to celebrate Laurens’ birthday. We met them and a bunch of their friends at a canalside bar called Crate Brewery. A good time was had by all. When the sun started to go down, Sue & I decided to have Indian food for dinner at Bengal Village on Brick Lane. The food was delicious a great end to a really enjoyable day.
Sunday, Sue and I walked down to Borough Market just to see what was there. Broadway Market, which we visited last weekend, was all prepared and ready to eat food, Borough Market had a much greater mix of prepared and grocery foods. The walk there took us past a few of the buildings that worked in when I lived in London, back during the 1980s, which made me a bit nostalgic. After walking through the market we decided to have lunch at the Anchor Pub, which has been open since 1615. I used to work around the corner from it, and when I lived in London, I would often go there for lunch. After a nice lunch, we had some time to kill until me were meeting Abi & Laurens, so we continued down the south side of the Thames to Tate Modern Museum. We wandered around looking at the installations for about an hour, and to be truthful, I just don’t get it. I think I am going to give up on modern art museums, I just don’t understand why the pieces that they are showing are good art. Some are interesting to look at, but what makes them great art? After being thoroughly bewildered by the Tate, we walked back to meet Abi and Laurens for a drink and then headed back to our AirBnB. Back to back 10 mile days, my legs were tired.
Monday was a bank holiday in Great Britain, called August Bank Holiday (pretty clever huh?). Unfortunately, we had to work, because none of our clients are British. Sue and I did yoga in the morning (as if my legs didn’t hurt enough) and we met Abi & Laurens for dinner our last dinner in the UK at a Jamaican place called Ma Petite Jamaica. The food was good and we had a nice, if a little melancholy time, knowing that this was our last night together for a while.
Steven neglects to mention that Sue went on a 4-mile walk on the Regents Canal to Camden Market. The walk was the goal, not the market. In fact, the market, which is pretty famous, has every type of food you could want and plenty of knickknacks, leather goods, souvenir junk, and jewelry. If you don’t mind crowds, it’s a fun visit. That’s where I found Amy Winehouse. It used to be a haven for punks and goths, but like everywhere else, it just seemed touristy and hipstery.
Just some random photos of London courtesy of Sue:
Tuesday morning, we took the Chunnel to Paris and Wednesday morning we flew back to Chicago.
The Chicago skyline from the window of our plane – the color is due to the tinting on the window:
Wow, it has been over a month since our last post. Sorry dear readers. We spent July in Chicago visiting our friends and family and so there didn’t seem to be much to write. We have a love/hate relationship with that city. What we love: our friends and family, the food, the food, the food, the parks are plentiful and beautiful, the lake front, the vibrant night life and of course, the food. What we hate…That winter is 9 months long. I used to say that Chicago in the summer is a Siren calling us to crash into the rocks. It is so beautiful, the weather is so nice, the food so good, the entertainment so plentiful for 2 months of the year. The rest of the year it is like living in a very large freezer.
Once the calendar page turned to August, it was time to hit the road again and return to Paris. We landed at De Gaulle on Monday morning and after a relatively short wait at immigration (the sign said less than 30 minutes, and it took us about 90) we hopped a cab and headed toward the apartment. We are once again cat sitting the fabulous, but ancient Seuss. Our friend sent us a video reminding us of the front door code, how the Dutch appliances work (Extra Drugge!), the alarm system codes and where to find the keys. We said hello to Seuss, unpacked and settled in.
It is amazing how quickly we fall back into a rhythm when we return somewhere. We headed to the Casino grocery store, the home of the infamous “We can’t get out” incident and picked up some necessities. We grabbed our favorite grocery cart (see pic) and walked over. It was as if we never left. Muscle memory knew where to go, the shop was familiar, yet still fun to wander through.
A quick side note to let you know that France is suffering from a mustard shortage. Yes, as horrific as the rest of the world’s news is, it pales in comparison to the dreaded mustard shortage in France. When I read the article, I assumed it was overblown and while there might be a shortage, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding mustard. I was wrong. The Casino had no mustard!!!! It was terrible. I even screwed up my courage to ask someone in the store where the mustard was (où est la moutarde?). She kindly took me to the spot and pointed to an empty shelf. Hmm…This could be an issue, I thought to myself.
We only bought the absolute necessities today – milk for my coffee, salad fixings, cheese, some easy to make pasta for lunch, bread and of course a bottle of wine – we headed back to the apartment and had lunch.
After lunch we had our required jet lag nap and then got down to work. One of the nice things about being six hours ahead of New York is that we have the entire morning to do as we wish, and then just work in the afternoon and evening. I really like this schedule.
We had a simple dinner of salad, bread, cheese and wine. Afterwards we settled into the evening trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour. I tapped out at 10:30, Sue made it to about midnight.
Last year, we did not have any luck with the espresso maker, so we bought what we in the US call a French press, but which the French call a piston (say it in French, accent on the first syllable and more or less just hint at that last letter). However, this year, Sue quickly remembered how to work the giver of the sacred caffeine and on Tuesday morning we had great coffee in the morning. Thank you, Sue. (You’re welcome, although it really was mostly self-preservation.)
We ventured back to the grocery store during the day to pick up more necessities and then worked all day. Not exciting and I would have stopped the blog before it, but I wanted to get to Wednesday morning – so fast forward to Wednesday morning. We woke up late and headed down to the local farmers market. There are many of the them in Paris, and ours runs from the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet down a few blocks towards the Palais de Tokyo on the avenue du Président Wilson – Charles, I included this in case you wanted to look it up on Google Maps 😉. At the very end of the market, is a Lebanese stand that has great falafel. So we wandered over there and bought a bunch of stuff (falafel, kibbeh, vegetarian kibbeh, Jerusalem salad, hummus, garlic sauce, pita) for a lunch. Well, actually lunches because I am not very good at portion control and we bought way too much. Oh well, we will eat it up. We also stopped at one of the vegetable stands and bought more fruit and veg.
The weather here is unseasonably hot. Today will reach 36˚C (96˚F), which is about 11˚C (19˚F) higher than normal. Our apartment has no air conditioning, but the high ceilings and a few fans keep the temperature reasonable. It gets cool at night – 18˚C (64˚F), so we sleep with the windows open. Lucky for us we are on the second floor (in the US this would be the third floor).
The rest of the week will likely be the same, out for a walk and errands in the morning, followed by work in the afternoon. We haven’t made any plans yet for the weekend, but I am sure we will do some fun things.
And finally – Just some random photos of Paris until we get out and get some of our own:
We spent Monday visiting two islands off Venice. We took a vaporetto (water bus) over to Murano in the morning. Murano is famous for blown glass, which is on sale everywhere on the island and in Venice. It is very pretty and you can go see it being blown at many of the factories. However, even before the war in the Ukraine, the price of gas had skyrocketed and many had stopped production. We wandered around the island and once we were away from the crowds it was very pleasant. We took another vaporetto to another island called Burano, which is famous for its brightly colored houses. It was also very pretty, but truth be told, after 30 minutes or so of brightly colored houses, they all looked the same.
Tuesday we headed for Amsterdam. Our flight was a little late due to air traffic control issues at Schipohl, which made more sense once we found out that Wednesday was the King’s birthday and many people have the week off.
Happy King’s day! Yesterday was the Dutch King, William’s birthday. Not surprisingly it is a national holiday in the Netherlands. Sue’s friend Ellen gave us the heads up and let us know that wearing orange clothes were an absolute requirement (the Dutch monarchy is the House of Orange). Sue had some already and I quickly bought an orange T-shirt before we left Venice so that we could blend in with the natives. Our hotel gave us a short document telling us some of the rules for the day. For those of you from Chicago, imagine St. Patrick’s Day, where the entire nation is closed, but without any parades and everyone is nice. The second important part of King’s Day is that much of the city is turned into flea markets. Many of the roads are closed and everyone just puts their stuff out on the sidewalk and sells it. The Dutch lifestyle is much more use it and resell it focused than in the U.S. I suspect in part because everything is so expensive, but also it seems to be part of their very straight forward approach to life. Their logic seems to be that I am done with it, I will sell it and someone else can use it. There was everything from clothes, toys, home goods and fresh donuts on sale on the sidewalks.
Ellen and her family invited us to spend the day with them so we walked over and met Ellen about midway between our hotel and their house. We wandered through the area around their house and Ellen picked up a few things for her kids. All of us then headed to a local bar for lunch. We had beer (Heineken of course) nachos, French fries (No MAYO!) and something called bitterballen, which is deep fried gravy. After lunch we headed to their house to visit and then back to the hotel. After a brief rest, we went out again for a wander towards the center of town (which is called the Centrum). By now it was about 7 p.m. and the party was in full swing. People were partying in the streets, on the bridges and in boats on the canals. It was wild. The best part was that it was very good-natured; everyone is there for a good time and any accidental bumps, pushes, feet stepped on were easily dismissed with a wave and holding up your can of Heineken. We had a reservation for dinner at an Indian restaurant called Lumbini. The food was great and was a nice change from the pasta and pizza diet we had been on for the last couple of months. As we walked back to the hotel at about 9 p.m. the sun was just setting and the street party was beginning to thin out. From what we understand it moves inside with lots of dance parties that go on well into the night.
Thursday morning we woke up and the city was spotless. Nothing on the streets, the overflowing trash bins were gone, no detritus in the canal and everyone was back at work as if nothing had happened. We were amazed. Ellen picked us up at the hotel and took us to see the tulip fields as they are in bloom at the moment. It is an incredible sight, just rows and rows and rows of flowers each section is one color, except for the odd interloper from another row. We simply stopped by the side of a road and wandered into the fields for a while. The most interesting thing is that the farmers are not cultivating the flowers. They are cultivating the bulbs. After the flowers bloom, the farmers cut off the flowers at the base of the stem and harvest the bulbs for sale. From there we went to the Kuekenhopf Castle and wandered in their gardens and woods with Ellen’s dog Albany (and Ellen of course). After our fill of flowers and woods, Ellen dropped us back at our hotel. We each did a bit of work, grabbed lunch at a vegetarian street food place and walked in the Centrum.
Later in the afternoon we set our sights on Wynand Fockink, one of the oldest tasting rooms in Amsterdam, to sample jenever. We learned two important things from the bartender. First, that jenever (or genever) is the ancestor of modern gin. The Dutch made it for years with just a little bit of juniper in it; the British then went to replicate it and added tons more juniper. Second, that if you are asked in Amsterdam if you have ever tried anything before say no, and the bartender will give you a sample. We tried the various types of jenever, and some of the other types of spirits that they make. For dinner, we tried to get into an Indonesian restaurant, which are very popular in the Netherlands, that one of the bartenders suggested, but they were fully booked, so we settled on a reasonably good Mexican place near our hotel. We have learned that you should always make a reservation in Amsterdam.
On Thursday, we headed out for a couple of days in Florence. Stacey had organized the travel, so it was smooth and easy. After an hour and a half train ride, we were in Florence. We grabbed lunch and checked into a fabulous AirBnB (link), which is two doors down from the first Medici palace. Once we had unpacked and settled in for a bit, (and gawked at what a fabulous and fancy place we had) Sue, Stacey & David headed out explore, while I sat down to work for the afternoon and evening.
Friday, we had a walking tour of Florence, which is a small city and totally walkable. We started by going to the Galleria dell’Academia, which is the art museum that displays Michelangelo’s statue of David (I had never thought about it, but David has a nice tushy too!), among is other works. It is incredible to realize that he sculpted the Pieta at age 23 and the David at age 26. Our tour guide was very informative and she brought our attention to many of the techniques that Michelangelo used to make the masterpiece, such as his enlarged hands and feet.
We spent about an hour in the Academia and then headed to the Duomo or Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, one of the main attractions of Florence. It is a soaring 13th century Gothic-style cathedral, financed by the di Medici family to let everyone know how rich (and pious?) the city of Florence was. The dome is 90-meters high and can be seen from miles around. (I am sure if you have seen a photo of Florence, you have seen the dome of the Duomo.) It is also the third largest Catholic church in the world.
We headed toward the river to see the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence, and the only one the Germans did not destroy when they evacuated the city. The Italians have a complicated relationship with World War 2, which seems to focus only on the liberation of Italy by the Allies. Mussolini has only been mentioned twice, and both times derisively. The bridge houses a long line of jewelry stores, and I, of course, bought Sue one large piece from each store – or not. We really just wandered across and looked in the windows. We did, however, learn that the stores were originally butcher shops, so that the waste could be tossed into the river. But when the Medici’s built their third palace on the other side of the river, they also built an enclosed walkway that went from the second to the third. The route it took was through the Uffizi Gallery and then across the bridge above all the shops. Not surprisingly, they decided it would be nicer to walk above jewelry stores, than smelly butcher shops.
From there, we walked over to the second Medici palace, called Palazzo Vecchio. It now houses the city government of Florence but was originally a fort and palace for the Medici family. The square in front of the palace is called Piazza della Signoria. It contains a number of important statues and Michelangelo’s David originally stood here before being moved to the Galleria in 1873. My personal favorite is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, in part because the sculpture (Benvenuto Cellini) seems to have carved his face into the back of Perseus’ head. Unfortunately, due to the lighting, we did not get a good photo of this. Interestingly, our guide pointed out that there are three statues with heads that are, or are about to be, cut off. Perhaps as a warning to those who wished to oppose the government? On the south side of the piazza is the Uffizi Gallery, which we did not have time to visit, but Sue and I are returning to Florence in a few weeks, so we will perhaps go in then. Can’t get enough Jesus pictures when you’re in Italy.
After lunch (yes, that was all before lunch) and a short rest, we headed for the Basilica of Santa Croce to play our favorite game – dead person bingo. The basilica houses the mortal remains of Galileo, Dante and Michelangelo. Imagine the conversations going on at night between those three! The church dates from the 13th century – or at least parts of it do. There are many people buried under the floor and wandering through it is easy to find markers as old as the 15th century.
Once we had completed our bingo card, we headed back to the AirBnb and then out for dinner. After dinner, as we were relaxing, there was a protest outside our place by the communists, demanding peace, which seemed somewhat ironic.
Saturday, we just lazed around and did nothing.
Yeah right. Not a chance – Stacey had booked an all day wine tasting trip to Chianti. I know, tough job, but someone had to do it. Our driver, Eduardo – Eddy – picked us up at 10 a.m. and drove us out into the beautiful countryside. We learned the history of how border between Florence and Siena was set and why the local mascot is a black rooster. Here is a link to the very short story. We first went to a vineyard called Fattoria Montecchio and learned about the different types of Chianti (Chianti, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva) and Super Tuscans. We tasted each of the wines that they make and also tried their balsamic which was a revelation to me. I loved it. (It does not involve vinegar, but is simply an aged grape reduction.)
We then headed to Casa Emma, a very small organic winery. They served us lunch and paired the very delicious food with their different wines. Once again the had the three types of Chiantis and a super Tuscan, along with two different balsamics, one of which was aged 20 years.
After a very long leisurely lunch with great company and great food, we staggered back to the van and Eddy took us to the small market town of Greve in one of the valleys, which is known for its smoked meats. Then we climbed (Eddy drove us in the van) up to the top of one of the hills and explored a village that was the defensive fortress for the valley. Finally, we headed to the birthplace of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who apparently did quite a bit of exploring, but more importantly managed to have a bridge named after himself in New York. (It helps to be born into privilege. The Verrazzano castle was quite lovely.)
Sunday morning, Stacey and David headed to Venice while we stayed in Florence for a few more hours. Sue indulged me by going back to the da Vinci museum (which she had seen on Thursday) and then we went to the Galileo Museum. The da Vinci museum is quite small and has replicas of many of his machines. It is incredible how wide his knowledge and interests were. The Galileo Museum was brilliant. It displays the history of astronomy, measurement and other science starting with Galileo and going into the 18th century. They even have his middle finger on display (they also have his index and thumb, but they are less interesting).
We left the museum wandered for a while then stumbled upon a place called La Ricettario for lunch. Sue had a bean soup and I had lasagna. The food was perfect. Simple ingredients, prepared well, served plainly. No fanciness, no experimental ingredients, no fuss, no bother. The meal was brilliant. We sat for close to two hours enjoying the place then headed to the train station and back to Rome.
The end of a perfect week, traveling with those we love, enjoying the sights, sounds and experiences of two new cities in one. Life is sweet.