Thursday, May 31, 2007

Friends In Need, Friends Indeed

After spending the better part of two days crouched on the floor of the shower, it feels good to stand upright once again. I appreciate caulk, or mastic as they call it here. It certainly comes in handy. But my mastic predecessor must have read different instructions; his/hers being something more like: "Adjust blindfold. Cut tip in jagged movement. Squeeze mastic applicateur with jerking motion, leaving peaking tips of mastic wherever possible. DO NOT SMOOTH." Doug ran numerous tests to determine where the leak into the salon downstairs originated, but once I easily poked a finger through the layers of mastic I knew we hit paydirt. So, after several showerless days, we are now relatively presentable.

For those of you worried that we don't ever have fun, remember that's it's all relative. From the moment that we sat in John and Lee-anne's jardin celebrating our signing of the Acte on our maison de village with Joan and Drew, every day has been revealing. The camaraderie of the English-speakers welcoming the 'newbies' is something I have never experienced. Billy and Sally supplied us with sheets, blankets, bathmats and towels until Smokey arrived. John and Lee-anne offered that cyberspace lifelink while France Telecom routed their paperwork. Alan and Eileen back in England kept emailing "go ahead and take anything you want". Oh, how they might regret that!

In the course of our flitting between runs to Pamiers and Lavelenet and Carcassonne, we happened upon Depot Vente or brocante, the USA version of antique/secondhand stores. Not for a second will I ever forget my allegiance to Wabi Sabi, the nonprofit thrift store where I work in Moab. It is my heart and soul. But these places are treasure troves if only because their "stuff" has been around for so long. My first purchase for my pitiful petit cour (tiny courtyard---pictures to follow) were three rusted but very classic chairs.

It seems that the villages rotate their fetes and last weekend Mirepoix overdosed with a brocante, flower and postcard jamboree. We headed on to a tiny bastide (fortified) town of Camon, one of France's most beautiful villages, for it's Rose Festival. The sky thankfully cooperated and every doorway that was entwined by blooming roses was also so identified. Booths were set up for the local truffle enterprise, rose farmers, and every imaginable product in between. Doug was sweet-talked into buying a much-needed jar of honey from a real saleswoman, or so he said. We sat in the glorious sun and soaked it all in.

After we returned back to Leran I decided to stretch my legs and headed out on one of the backroads, and found myself walking to Belloc then round the upper road back to Leran which wasn't signed well at all. I always knew I could retrace. When I got back, the door was locked so I headed down Cours St. Jacques and joined Doug, Billy and Sally for a quick thirst-quencher as we watched our world go by.

P.S. I apologize that none of these pictures are in order according to text, but the blogger has a mind of its own. If you are interested, the photos are as follows (from top left to bottom): the sweet-talking honey-eyed honey sales girl; horse-drawn wagon in Camon; Lee-anne and John Furness ( the kindly Kangaroos); Billy and Sally Jaye (the beneficent Brits); a caged wild animal; Drew Rothrock, Nancy, John Furness and Doug celebrating signing the Acte; and Lee-anne, Joan Rothrock and John. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Note in the Mailbox

The note written on a small square of paper stuffed in the mailbox was signed Christian et Francette. As best we can translate (with help, of course) it reads “A little kiss in passing to take to the new people.” We have yet to match faces to authors but are deeply touched.

Living right on the street as village houses are intended to be, it is inevitable to connect with the locals in some way even with our limited language skills. Rue du Four is barely wide enough for any two vehicles to pass each other, and this made impossible by parking on opposite sides of the street for its two block length. The regulars walk or ride their bicycles by several times a day carting their items: baguettes or flutes of bread from the boulangerie, small bundles of kindling or newly picked greens from the garden plots along the river, sac jaune or sac noir headed to the dumpster, or a mother pushing a stroller. Elderly women wearing floral print housedresses with white piping around the neck and armholes sit on the step in their doorways and greet us coming and going “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur” as we conduct our errands (which includes going to the bar).

Life in Leran happens in the street because while many of the houses have terraces or courtyards, the street brings it all together. Kids play up and down the street, not worried about traffic. Their screaming and rippling laughter, while sometimes as piercing as fingernails on a chalkboard, makes us chuckle instead. Maybe it’s because these kids aren’t inside playing video games.

Jean-Pierre, our neighbor a few doors down, speaks graciously slow French for us and we reciprocate with equally slow English. He is a journalist of sorts, author, passionate military historian and we some day we hope to have the time to chat for hours. He is so patient that perhaps even our French could not frazzle him.

Since Smokey’s arrival, it has been interesting to observe people’s reaction not only to the vehicle itself, but also the anti-Bush bumper stickers. I caught Jacqueline from across the street smiling at the “Worst. President. Ever.” sticker. She then pointed at the one of Bush standing in a ‘Napoleon pose’ and with disgust exclaimed “Sarkozy!” (the newly elected right-wing French president). She obviously disapproved his election. I commented that I felt we must think alike and we smiled at each other in confirmation.

The Fete Locale is being held in Leran this weekend. We dutifully went to the mairie today to purchase our tickets for the ‘repas anime’ (lively meal) held in the plaza on Saturday evening and Doug was concerned about low turnout. Our tickets had numbers 11 and 12 on them, and this was the last day for ticket sales, and so these might have been only the 11th and 12th ones sold. It is slated to be Moroccan fare, so that’s all I need to know. It gave us a chance to meet the maire’s secretary Chantal, and try our damnedest to complete at least one full sentence in French. A “SIXTIES” dance follows the dinner. Friday night there will be a candlelight parade through the streets of the village and Sunday the majorettes will perform a spectacle. Of course, this is all based upon my interpretation of the flyer distributed. In reality, it could be a car wash and bake sale.

Doug commented the other day that he always wondered why some immigrants hung out in cliques in the States, and refused asimilation. He was referring to Hispanics with whom he had some experience. After landing in France two weeks ago and just beginning to settle in, it has become eminently clear to us why. Negotiating any activity of daily living in a language or culture different from one’s own is challenging, rewarding, frustrating, consuming. It’s not just purchasing a specific item (i.e. grout sealer, voltage tester), but trying to ask specific questions is where it gets real limiting. And when given the fall-back opportunity to just not have to think extra hard to get anything done, that’s what we do. We are not trying to blend in or become French, but maybe we’re trying to get to the point where it just ain’t so damn hard. But we sure appreciate the English table at the Bar! And who knows, perhaps one day Christian et Francette will join us…..

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Internet Soon

You may have noticed the lack of photographs in the blog lately. We are still without internet service in the house. And therein lies a story. Americans may find this astounding. If you are French you may say “Qu’est-ce que la problem?” If you are British, I don’t know what you’ll think. Anyway, we mentioned a couple of posts ago that we had gone to France Telecom and arranged for phone service and that would grant us the ability to have internet. Well, right on schedule, a week later at 4:00 in the afternoon, the phone line was working so we rushed off to Lavalenet, a larger town nearby, to get ourselves a phone and a router box. The France Telecom store there had been reorganized into the one in Pamiers, which is 37 clicks from Leran. So we decided to get there as early as possible. Their doors opened bright and early at the crack of 9:30 the next morning. Other folks had the same idea, and since we were 20 minutes early we were first in line. Nancy counted 13 others behind us. We would have had to wait for two or three hours just in time to close for lunch. But, being first, we transacted our business in record speed. We got a phone and a livebox (a router box) and were finalizing the details when Nancy asked if we could get hooked up to the internet as soon as we got home. The agent, Alain, said “No, you must wait ten days.” Ten days? TEN DAYS? Why must we wait ten days? It wasn’t clear to us why we had to wait and we thought maybe it was a joke.

We left France Telecom and headed to Toulouse……for today was the day to buy our furniture. IKEA was not too crowded and being old IKEA hands (translation: we now understood how to follow the directional arrows on the floor) we took care of business and got us some Ektorps, a couple of Toulstas, one Bromma, and one Norden, and a Varde and two Arstid. (For those of you who don’t speak IKEA, which I guess is related to Swedish, that’s a couch and armchair and ottoman, two side chairs, a kitchen work surface, a shelving unit and two lamps.) Being led to believe that all IKEA furniture comes disassembled and flat-packed, we naively assumed old Smokey could rise to the occasion. Too much assumption on our part---flat-packing is for delivery. We crammed the Norden, the Varde and the Toulstas into old Smokey and headed back to Leran, unloaded, and went back to Toulouse for the Ektorps and the Bromma. Needless to say it was a long day. Like going from Moab to Grand Junction twice in a day. Not as many miles but through more traffic.

Weary from driving and shopping, we unloaded the pickup and tried to hookup to the internet. Alain, our FT agent, was true to his word; we had a signal but couldn’t access it. Some functionary in Paris must type in a code or throw a switch. We have asked around, and indeed, it will take ten days, give or take a few. So, the moral of the story is that life moves at a slower pace here than in the United States. (It is hard to imagine a pace slower than Livingston or Moab, but, yes, it is slower.) We must learn to accept it. We will get used to it and appreciate it someday. However, I do think even the French are a little frustrated with the bureaucratic hocus pocus. Wisecracks are uttered about French efficiency, in English by the French.

For now, we write our posts on a word processing program and quickly download it when we can find WiFi somewhere. So we have a few more days, seven or eight, to wait for internet service. Then maybe you’ll see pictures of Drew, Joan, John, Lee-anne, Nancy and me drinking champagne after the house closing, the beautiful French countryside, the wooden shoes with leather tops at the Brocante Fair, the views from our hike up to Rocquefixade, the ruined Cathar stronghold, the snowcapped Pyrenees and pictures we haven’t taken yet. In seven or eight days I might e-mail you. In seven or eight days I may catch up on the news of the world and the USA and I’ll find George Bush is still president.

We are looking forward to the time very soon when we can begin reporting on the reason we came over here instead of the frustrations and tribulations of the neophytes. Progress is being made, things are going according to plan, and the house is becoming quite comfortable, if rather Spartan. We have identified the leak in the shower as something possibly quite manageable. If not, we already know M. Boulbes the plombier. And if not M. Boulbes, Lac Montbel will be open for swimming soon.

A bientot.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Smokey is FREE!

After a 12 hour jaunt to Barcelona and back, our victorious return to Leran was cheered by the Brits at the Leran Bar with cries of “There’s Doug and Nancy driving their big American gas guzzler!” Later, we had a hard time convincing them that our petite camionette would be way down on the list of gas guzzlers in the good old USA.

As Paul Harvey would say, “Now, the rest of the story!” Smokey is FREE! The 577.76 Euro ransom has been paid, the proper documentation has materialized, and the hostage has been released. Doug commented last night that everything actually does seem to be going falling into place---not without obstacles, however. We headed out from Leran at 7 am, imagining a leisurely four hour drive for the 350 km to Barcelona. I thought about returning the rental car in Barcelona, but it gets doubly expensive to drop off in another country. We have already blown the budget sky-high, so we’d be convoying back with two vehicles.

Our internet directions left a lot to be desired, so purchasing a Michelin map of Barcelona along the way was in order. About 100 km into the journey, Doug discovered he had left his wallet at home. He was without driver’s license and most of the cash to bail out Smokey. We could replenish the cash at an ATM, but what if Customs or----worse yet, a gendarme---asked for the document. It was too late to turn around, we both decided. Forty-five minutes later the cash fund was replenished, we picked up a map, and we were back on track…for a bit.

When you have been living in towns with populations of 5,000 mild-mannered souls, Barcelona comes on pretty strong. Neither of us realized just how significant a port city it is. I guess we were imagining a few docks like Seattle. Now picture a dock area about the size of Seattle, called Zona Franca. We were looking for Carrer Numero 4, then Carrer de la Iletra C, but nothing followed logic. Go figure. We drove around Zona Franca endlessly, dodging tractor-trailers with containers, forklifts with forks ominously extended, occasionally stopping to ask people for directions that were answered in rapid-fire Barcelona Spanish with arms and hands waving in all directions. We knew we were getting warmer when the arms and hands were waving less, and finally we stumbled into an office and I was greeted with “Hola, Nancy” by Carlos Oto himself. I looked at my watch and it was nearly 12:30. Perhaps Carlos didn’t take the requisite 2 hour lunch break. Aaaaah!

Over a series of phone calls the past several days, and Carlos’ excellent English, we were finally able to secure customs clearance. All the additional passport stamp documentation that I had just been required to mail was now unnecessary. For me, though, the big question still loomed. Was all the ‘stuff’ I packed still there? Carlos couldn’t say, but he showed me the bill of lading that mysteriously did not indicate any personal possessions. After we paid up and recouped the original title, we followed Carlos’ colleague Senor Suarez a few km to the warehouse where Smokey was waiting. The layer of dust on Smokey moreorless confirmed that it really hadn’t been kept in the locked building since its arrival a week ago. The back of the camper shell was unlocked and I feared the worst when I opened it up. As of this writing, we can think of nothing missing that we will miss.

A gallon of gas to prime the pump, and Smokey was up and running. A few roundabouts later we bid adios to Barcelona, promising to return someday under different circumstances. Skies were brilliant blue and traffic had thinned out near the French border. Customs just waved old Smokey right on through as if they saw Delicate Arch on a license plate every day. We just kept handing out Euros at the peage (tollgates) along the way. By the time we reached Bram and left the motorway for the backroads to Leran, the low light on the green, undulating fields was a photographer’s dream. I finally started to relax, remembering why I was here, and began to take in all the countryside surrounding me. It occurred to Doug and myself, independently, in our separate vehicles, that we had not seen such a beautiful landscape since we had left Leran that morning.

We unloaded a few bags, looked at each other and trotted the one block to the bar. They all wanted to come look at the American gas guzzler. Unlike us, Smokey will remain in France, a French citizen with Utah plates. So we ask all you Francophiles out there to help us baptize Smokey with a new French name, one to last its life in this new home. Suggestions please?????

I apologize for the obvious lack of PHOTOGRAPHS lately. We are eagerly awaiting internet hookup which will occur at a time not necessarily known to us. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not. We hope to stand lookout for the France Telecom person who must first connect the phone line before we can then proceed to Step 2. Thanks to John and Lee-anne for their gracious use of their wireless patio. Sorry, Alan and Eileen, your system just didn’t like us this time round---bummer.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Stand Up and Cheer Us in Our Fight Against the Bureaucrats

I got an e-mail from my sister, Leslie, asking all sorts of questions so I thought the answers might be of interest to everyone. It gives me a chance to vent my frustration. One of these days we shall write about the glories of the Pyrenean spring, the wonderful food at the markets, the pleasures of the French lifestyle. But for now, we will grumble and bitch and moan about the struggles of fighting the good fight against the bureaucrats.

My sister asked about the state of the house and what’s in it. It is not quite vacant. We need lots of things to make it a home. We have only books for entertainment and damn few of those. No music, no internet, no DVD’s. No easy chairs, no rugs, no lamps, no coffee tables to put them on. We bought from Monsieur Lamond a bed, some wardrobe cabinets, a table and six or seven chairs, a couch/futon (which resides upstairs awaiting guests), a washing machine and the halogen lights, and a complimentary a phone book (which Drew and Joan said was a pretty hard thing to get). In other words, we have a few of the basics but we need the comforts of home.

Wednesday, we went with Drew and Joan to Pamiers armed with their good French, where we signed up for telephone service which for some reason also allows us to have cable internet service. French Telecom is the equivalent of the IRS. You can’t ignore them, and you can’t deal with them either. So, here is what we learned. Someone will arrive at some time, we don’t know when, and hook us up. He may need access to the house, and he may not. They will bill us perhaps 55, or maybe 110 Euro for this service. After that mysterious time we can return to Pamiers and get ourselves a telephone and a router box. We’re not sure how we will know when to do that, because they can’t call us, but perhaps it will be obvious. I think we buy the phone and rent the router box and I know they will bill us some amount every month. This murkiness is not due to the translation abilities of Drew and Joan, because our agent spoke passable English, but to the fact that French Telecom must, by law, keep everything very murky.

Afterwards, we had a nice, relaxing lunch outside of Mirepoix. (Remember, kids, one of our first posts shows a map of the area.) Then back to the house to await arrival of the refrigerator and other appliances and to do some cleaning tasks which Joan and Drew jumped right into. Late in the afternoon they headed back home to Provence, vowing their return to see the AFTER version of the house.

Yesterday, Thursday, was a holiday here. We don’t know who or what was being honored, but most everything was closed for the day. That meant we couldn’t get insurance for the truck which sits on the dock in Barcelona. Nancy is in constant contact and paperwork flies across the Atlantic and the Pyrenees to Barcelona with the goal of getting our truck out of bureaucratic hock. We had previously faxed a copy of Nancy’s passport photo to Barcelona as requested, but were now informed they needed every page within the document that is stamped. And don’t attempt to fax it again, we are told, mail it instead. Mysteriously, the license plate left behind the seat and the registration papers from the glove box disappeared. Customs officials will not clear the vehicle without some documentation linking a license plate with the VIN#. We now must call the Grand County Assessor’s office in Moab to see if they can help us with this aspect of our dilemma. Carlos Oto in Barcelona has also informed Nancy that the cost of retrieving the vehicle (should we ever be able to be reunited with old Smokey) will be 577 Euros, a somewhat (SOMEWHAT!!!) higher estimate than the 300-350 Euros quoted by the auto shipping outfit in Houston. They are getting dangerously close to what Smokey is worth.

With no offices or stores open it presented a challenge to get copies and faxes and so it became clear we were not travelling to Barcelona to get the truck. Therefore, with our fingers crossed, and thinking that enterprising Swedes might not be observing the holiday, we turned our attention to the kitchen and we headed to Toulouse and IKEA, where indeed it was open for business. Naturally, with nothing open and nothing else to do on a rainy Thursday, the place had the bulk of the population of southern France furiously shopping away. We got dishes, cups, glasses, wastebaskets, silverware, spoons, spatulas and the like. However, we haven’t a single pot or pan. They are in transport. With our fingers double-crossed, we hope that we won’t be returning to IKEA to replace all the ‘stuff’ we shipped over in old Smokey; that not everything disappeared like the registration and license plate.

The little Citron we rented is the smallest one we have driven yet. I need to do some serious maneuvering to squeeze myself into the little spot intended for the driver. The worst part, of course, is the space they think is adequate for brake, clutch and gas pedals in addition to a pair of size 13 shoes. Also, the space between the brake pedal and the steering wheel is exactly the length of my leg from knee to foot making it difficult to quickly apply the brakes. Nonetheless we were able to get ourselves in the car with our purchases, and head back to Leran where Nancy was able to continue her crusade to free our hostage from its Barcelona prison.

We’d really like to get Smokey out of jail for the obvious reason of having a nice medium size truck to drive, with lots of legroom, but also it has (or did have) in it; clothes, tools, brand new pots and pans from Crate and Barrel, cooking knives, blankets, CD’s, and things we’ve forgotten about and will be surprised to see.

I hope your questions are answered, but if not, you know how to comment.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

We Done the Deal

Yesterday was busy from morning to way past my bedtime. We had to pack up our baggage and leave the Impasse du Temple and head over to Chalabre to pick up our cheque certifiee for the transaction. Then over to Mirepoix to buy camping and cleaning supplies for today. Then back to Leran to borrow some sheets, blankets and pillows from Sally, a gracious British friend. Then back to Mirepoix to sit in the sun in the main square for a few moments before going to the Notaire at 2:30 to do the deal. Apparently the Notaire had sent a letter to us in Moab last week to inform us the exact amount of the cheque certifie. Unfortunately the letter is still in transit, so the amount we presented was incorrect and there was another moment of miffedness on M. Cathala’s part. Oh well, after some humiliation on our part, it was ultimately easily resolved by a simple additional cheque of 160 Euros. After a few hair raising moments of confusion over whether Manhattan, Montana was indeed the place we got married, rather than Manhattan, New York state, we handed over the checks and got the keys. But not before we signed our names and initials on numerous unknown pages.

Then a quick trip over to the store to get a kilo of coffee and a bottle of wine for later, then to Veronica’s office for some help getting electricity and water into our names. Then back to Leran. Right on cue, there were Drew and Joan outside the l’Impasse du Temple. We took them on a tour of the new house so they could see it in the “BEFORE” condition. Around five o’clock we retired to John and Lee-anne’s garden to work on a bottle of champagne that they had brought with them. John joined us for a glass, and then Lee-anne, and so we opened up the bottle of blanquette (the precursor to champagne, which you will remember from an earlier post) we had been keeping in their refrigerator. Well….then another bottle of champagne, some cheese and bread, and voila, we were all happy.

Drew and Joan then carted us off to a restaurant in Mirepoix, our third trip that day. The Remparts was an exquisite restaurant complete with a highly informed and friendly waiter, wonderful food with squiggles on the plates, and a fine bottle of wine. Wow. Thanks, Joan and Drew. We had a really fine dinner, and better yet---wonderful company and conversation. And then….we staggered back to Leran.

As Sally and Joan pointed out, we should have made the bed before we opened the champagne. Or before we went to dinner. But we slept in our house last night.

Refrigeration devices, coffee makers, microwave ovens and dryers arrive this afternoon. Money continues to evaporate. That’s it from Leran.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

There being no place to sit in the room, we laid on the lumpy bed at the Rama Hotel near Victoria Station in London, clicking through the TV channels. We caught the tail end of the great Spencer Tracy - Katharine Hepburn - Sidney Potier movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" from the 60's. We were still adjusting to jet lag, and the fine accommodations at the Rama weren't helping. (You perhaps remember earlier posts where we discussed toilets all by themselves in a little room? Craming a sink into the little room about where your right shoulder should be when at toilette does not help the situation, at least for big guys like Doug.)
The American dollar doesn't buy much in Great Britain any more. Doug has had this theory that you judge the cost of living somewhere by the cost of beer at the pub. We drank very little beere. At 2USD to 1GBP, money was flying out of our hands like confetti. I decided it was more comforting just to kid myself and not think of our expenses for these two days.

Our EasyJet flight to Toulouse left early Sunday morning, so we spent a little time figuring out logistics, then headed out walking around to see some sights we missed 20 years ago---Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliment, and Camden Town Market. The statue of Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square commemorates the "resilience of the human spirit". Ms. Lapper, a thalidomide baby born in London in 1964, is 8 months pregnant when depicted in the sculpture. Doug went to the Winston Churchill and War Cabinet Museums while I sat outside and people watched and listened. I occasionally heard English spoken. We rode the double-decker buses like any good tourist should. I most looked forward to feasting on ethnic Indian food during our stay and I had my chicken tiki masalla fix to last awhile.
Checking email messages at the Rama, we were more than pleasantly surprised to learn that some good friends of Doug's sister in Seattle are driving over from Provence to "crack open a bottle of champagne" and celebrate our new life in France. Joan and Drew will be our first 'visitors' in Leran. They have been splitting their time between Seattle and Vaison la Romaine where they have a villa in that most charming town in the Vacluse. As our role models in France for this venture, allowing their brains to be picked along the way, it is only fitting that they be here for the christening.
We're now in Leran and heading this morning to the bank to get a certified check for the transaction. It feels good to be here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

I Love the Word "Itinerary"

I love the word "Itinerary". When I use it, it usually means I'm travelling somewhere far away. I don't think I used the word when I went to Houston. Not at all.

We head out of Moab on Wednesday, tomorrow morning, heading for Denver. Thursday, we leave the truck in Denver and fly to Washington D.C. and then on London. Rumor has it we'll be flying with the portion of the Queen's entourage that doesn't fly with her; the wine steward, Phillip's butler, the downstairs maid, the press, the limo driver. If we have internet service in London we might check in with some observations. On Sunday morning we take an EasyJet flight to Toulouse. We'll make a quick trip to Ikea for plates, knives, forks, spoons and other camping supplies, and then on to Leran to check in at l'Impasse du Temple for a couple of nights. If all goes well, we'll sleep in our new house on Wednesday night. If all does not go well....

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Europe by "Barge" 1987

It occurred to Doug the other day that 20 years ago this summer we pedaled our way around Europe for over three months. I certainly have never forgotten that somewhat epic trip for me, but I had neglected to make the connection that this was an ‘anniversary’ year.

Photos Above L-R: Our "barge bikes" resting on the coast of western Ireland; Stepping stones from campsite to the pub in Wales. It was one way to ensure some level of sobriety on the ride home; Doug crossing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Northern Ireland. Not shown is the deep narrow canyon beneath.

I was just finishing an internship at the first of several return trips to school, so my participation in the planning process was negligible. It was also my first trip abroad. In those pre-Google days, however, about all an international bicycle traveler really needed was a good Michelin map. What we didn’t know ahead, we just figured out as we went along. Shudder to think we would consider doing that now!

When we arrived at London Heathrow, we sadly discovered our bikes did not make the plane transfers. Our change of plans required a few days layover and we headed out looking for the dirt cheapest place to stay. It turned out to be the “Polish Relief Center”---not that either one of us is Polish, but I did go through high school with a yearbook full of names like Wojciechowski and Mazurkiewicz. The accommodations befit the name; it was barely one rung above being on the streets. The Underground Tube (I swear) ran through our room.

Photos Below L - R: Riding across three passes and 60 miles on the Brecon Beacons in Wales. That evening I swore I had the best meal in my entire life at the pub; Doug enjoying cocktail hour at Mont St. Michel while waiting for the tide to go out and snap that world famous picture; Cheering on the lawn bowlers in Scotland. We passed them on the way to dinner at the pub, and they were still hard at it on the way home at 10 pm.

Our bikes arrived somewhat battered two days after us, and we hopped a train out of London to be on our way to find the backroads of Europe. 21 speed mountain bikes were not all that common on the roads in Europe in 1987. They held the weight of the front and rear panniers better than road bikes, but still rode like “barges”, so after a week we dumped a significant amount of expendable gear. We basically spent the summer with one extra T-shirt and shorts, a ‘going-to-dinner’ outfit, and rain jacket. We’d rinse out our shirts at night and air-dry them off the bikes while we rode. Tent, sleeping bag/foam pad, water bottles, cooking gear, reading/writing stuff, food, etc. consumed the rest of the space.

Photo L: A dapper (and highly successful) Welsh fisherman. When asked for his photo, he insisted on straightening his tie and arighting his suit jacket and hat. Doug asked about what fly he was using, underingstanding only about 1% of his thick Welsh accent.

Doug promised that he would never miss an opportunity to take photos along the way, and he kept his word. He would drop pre-paid Kodak 35mm mailers in the Post so they would be waiting when we arrived home. Photos of the scenery and architecture were no-brainers; but he really wanted to capture some of the people. At first he was shy asking them, but once he realized how charmed most of them were, he pursued it with great zeal. Although in recent years I have been known to shoot more photos, on that trip my only camera time was insisting upon a few pictures of Doug just to prove he was there.

We camped six out of seven nights in our miniature tent, dwarfed by the apartment-sized European outfits. With no set itinerary, when we tired of an area or its weather, we’d hop a train and head somewhere else. We still disagree about how many miles we logged during those 3+ months. The bike computer was damaged in transit, so it will forever remain a guess---Doug says 3,000 miles, I claim more like 4,000. If we really wanted to know, we could retrace our route on our well-worn maps. We still occasionally go back to our journals to refresh and recharge. We naturally complained a lot---it’s lunchtime and nothing’s open; cold showers in the camp; pub closed til 7 pm; the number of spokes Doug had to replace; wind, hills, rain---sometimes all three at once.

Photos Above & L: An equally dapper 2-wheeled bike commuter. Brits would call their cycles "push bikes", and there were a few hills where our barges earned that reputation; Kids outside a Cotswold grocery---they asked if we worked for the police department in America. We asked why would they think that? All they knew of America was T.J. Hooker, the most popular TV show at the time.

A year ago we were emptying out the storage locker where the hundreds of these slides had been stored, only to discover there had been a “water surge” under the locker door. Water wicked up and destroyed many of them. Memories flooded (emphasis intended) back about the trip. Remember the time….? 20 years has taken its toll on the slides, they’ve started to deteriorate. Guess I could say the same about myself.

Photo L: Our only picnic table in 3+ months! We stayed an extra night just to savor the good times.

But, here I am 20 years later, beginning another great adventure. We fly back into London next week before heading to France. Just for the heck of it, I tried Google-ing the “Polish Relief Center” to see if they we could book our old room. If they’re still in business, they’re one of the few without a website. If so, it's good to know some things might never change.

Photos Below L - R: Nancy's horns come out at a French market over a tasty pastry; street artist chalking Madonna & child in London or Paris??; a Cotswold butcher; at least a century-old Frenchman in his blue 'boiler suit' on bicycle with leather panniers.

Photo L: Women in traditional dress in Spaakenburg Netherlands. They didn't like to have their photos taken.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

I'll Be Missing Moab

I got an email the other day from some good friends from Montana who spend six months a year in New Zealand. They're at the end of their southern hemisphere trip this year, and beginning their "departure check list" as they put it. I've been working on mine for months now; but they've been living dual-continent for 10 years so they've got it down to a science.

As we put the finishing touches on those last "To Do" lists, I thought I'd post some photos of our little compound in Moab. That way, when I get homesick, I can just look at the blog. Brilliant!

Above is what we've dubbed the "Shaqteau" or Moab French for the little guest bedroom, our most recent and (we swear to god) last building on the property. Rumor has it that it's comfy, so when any of you come to visit it's all yours.

The yellow 2-story shingled 'cottage' house is our current living space. We originally planned it to be an apartment over a garage/workshop, and it evolved into all living space since we've never used a garage to park a car. We lived in the old house (on the left) during construction, then began renovation on what we now call Mr. O's Place, a nightly/weekly guest rental.

When we bought the property four years ago, there was hardly a blade of vegetation on site except for two aging cottonwoods and a juniper. One of these days I threaten to count how many native plants I have actually put in the ground. Educating ourselves about xeriscaping and drip irrigation is a continuous learning process. The payoff, however, is nurturing a little secret oasis that is drought-tolerant and water-wise. Oops, except for the aspen, that is---we had to have a little piece of Montana.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Reader Photo Submissions

Oh so sadly must I admit that this deck, just waiting for wine, olives and relaxing bodies, is not attached to #14 Rue du Four in Leran. Luckily it will only be across the street at Alan and Eileen's, so I think I can carry my wine and olives that far. Thanks for emailing the pics and making me beyond jealous.

The other three photos are courtesy of old friends from Montana who used to live around the corner. Judy and Ron ran the Torch and Toes Bed & Breakfast(truth be known, Judy
did all the work; Ron did all the bullshitting) . However, Ron's other life as an architecture prof came in handy as it provided them with some interesting world travels.

Click on the photos to enlarge. Email commentary from Judy states that the "P" Parking + "No Car Farting" sign is on the street in Yarisloval Russia. I guess the Czechs in Prague aren't well acquainted enough with toilet paper, so they must have an illustrated user manual included on the packaging. And the sign welcoming visitors to the Moscow city park lists just a few activities that aren't allowed: biking, walking dogs, picking leaves, sunbathing, swimming, fishing, walking on the grass, drinking vodka (WHAT???), starting fires, driving through the park, picking flowers. Judy didn't say if there were more symbols on the reverse side.

Reader comments and photo submissions are always welcome.