Category Archives: Adventure

Settled In

I am now fully settled into my house-cat-chicken sitting and remote-work gig.  I guess I’m what is now called a digital nomad.

I have crossed some hurdles that I dreaded.

How would I ever figure out the trash and recycling system?  Just look at the “helpful” aids!

I did it, but the hardest part was getting it through my head that the green bin is for trash, not recycling.  All my life, green has equaled recycling.

I like how the A to Zed wheel suggests composting tissues.  I use a lot of tissues.  My nose starts running as soon as winter comes and drips continuously through May.  But I will not be composting my tissues.

Laundry.  I made the mistake of putting in a load of sheets and choosing the Cotton setting.  Four and a half hours later, they were done.  From now on I’ll use the Super Speed setting for every load, which on this Samsung machine still takes an hour.

I am a good foot shorter than the home owners, so I have had to stand on a footstool to hang laundry in the spare room that’s set up for that.  I couldn’t find the light switch for the cocktail lounge, and finally messaged one of the owners about it.  It’s located just above my head so I couldn’t see it.

Small challenges overcome, small mysteries solved.

A bigger psychological and financial hurdle was joining a gym.  I finally settled on FeelFit, which seemed to be the cheapest and closest.  It still cost $80 for one month. On the website it claimed to have state of the art equipment. Yep, state of the art for 1987.  The treadmills have dot matrix displays!  The weight machines take me back—I feel like I’m in a museum of weight lifting equipment.

The gym is in a mall in a very chav (low rent) district.  Lots of teen mothers hanging around smoking.  Lots of young men with tattoos on their necks and faces and wearing all black.  Many very obese people buying packets of crisps (potato chips) and biscuits (cookies) and giant bottles of Coke.  If I walk home, the neighborhood is also run down and it’s depressing.

I figured out how to take the bus so I can bypass the run-down people and houses and get in and out quickly.  The bus is expensive, about $5 for a one-mile round trip.  So on top of $80 I’ll spend $40 to get to and from the place twice a week.

I’m just going there to lift weights, and I’m thinking of it as a trip down nostalgia lane.  I’m actually enjoying it because it’s hilarious and hey, the old machines do the trick.  Weight is weight.

I have committed to two yoga classes per week.  One is a new format called Tara Yoga that is new to me and quite a workout.  It’s taught by different soft-talking people each week.  On Fridays I do Iyenegar, my favored type of yoga, with a guy named Toby.  He kind of yells at us, “No, Penelope, no, no, no!  Pull your bum back and tuck in your tum!”  I would pay just to watch him yell at people.  I brought Toby a half carton of eggs last week and that seemed to mellow him out a bit, at least towards me.

I’ve run into a few finance snags.  Toby wants to be paid by standing order, which means an auto deducted payment on the first of each month from a current (checking) account.  This would require me to have a British checking account, which ain’t gonna happen.  I tried to hand him cash and he recoiled, “I certainly don’t take cash!” Not sure what that was about.  We compromised with PayPal.

I’ve been unable to deposit a check using the fabulous Zelle mobile app because it doesn’t work outside the US.  Foiled!  I had to mail it to my US bank, hoping it doesn’t get lost between Royal Mail and the USPS.

And now, some food photos.

The obligatory fish and chips.

It’s easy to be vegan in Oxford.

You could eat cock instead of chicken

But burgers with onion rings and chips (fries) are better.

Back in the Shire

Oxfordshire, that is.

I’ve put off writing because I didn’t know which angle to take.  Should I document all the things I’ve seen and done in the last 10 days?  Should I write about odd happenings, like me falling on an escalator and attracting the attention of dozens of shoppers and shop keepers, all asking solicitously, “are you all right?”  (I was embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise all right.).  I could contract American and British things. I could write about the history of Oxford and its famous university, or chronicle my inner journey of relocating to another country.

All this was a good excuse to procrastinate, but to be fair to myself, I’ve been putting in a lot of work hours and keeping busy gadding about town.

I’ll start with my base, the house where I am house sitting, which affords me a sanctuary from which I emerge and explore.  I will share some photos eventually, but I want to be careful about not creeping out the homeowners.

It’s a terraced house, a typical type of housing in the UK.  Probably dates to the Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910.  There are windows and doors front and back and neighbors on either side.

I haven’t heard much of or even seen the neighbors.  I heard water whooshing on the other side of a wall one day, a door slamming once.  Last night around 3am I smelled toast.

On the ground floor, which in America we call the first floor, there’s a living room, which they call the lounge.  There’s a dining room, kitchen, and sunroom, which my homeowner calls The Cocktail Lounge. Up a steep set of narrow stairs is what they call the first floor and Americans call the second floor.  Here there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.  In this house, the owners have very cleverly opened up the rafters to build a loft office.  Getting up there involves climbing an even steeper set of stairs.

There’s a back garden, which in America we call the back yard.  With terraced housing back gardens are very long, narrow spaces.  In my case, the back garden has been bisected by a fence.  The front half is for people and the back half is for chickens.

Yes, I am tending four hens who my homeowners rescued from a laying factory.  They make adorable noises like “bwaaaaaaa, buh buh buh” and the usual clucking.  Every morning I go out to collect one to three eggs.  I let the hens out to free range and top up their food and water.  Once a week I clean out their little house and hose down the sidewalk that has become mucky with chicken poo (Americans say poop—why?).

One of the hens is hen pecked by the others.  She has hardly any feathers except on her head, which makes her look like a little pot-bellied naked person wearing a chicken-head costume.

There are also three cats, one of whom rarely makes an appearance.  They poo outside so I don’t have to deal with a litter box.  They have a smart cat door which reads their microchips and won’t open to neighborhood cats.

My seven housemates are low maintenance.  Caring for them gives me a little routine to ground myself each day.

I live in Cowley, the vibrant, diverse neighborhood east of Oxford city center where real people live.

I live a half hour walk from Oxford city center.  Since my arrival I’ve walked at least an hour a day just to get around.  I could take a bus, but why, if I am able to walk?

There is so much going on here, and it’s cheap or free if you look.  The highlight so far was a free concert at Christchurch Cathedral.

The program was Chopin, and the pianist played the funeral march from Sonata Number 2.

This piece has become almost a joke, but if you listen to the whole thing you will hear it is not only a beautiful piece of music but a celebration of life with all its ups and downs and frustrations and joys.

Which pretty much sums up my life so far.

Good-Bye, Minnesota

Has it really been a month since I’ve written a post?  Writing about Japan took a ton of time and energy.  I needed a break.

I returned determined to cook and eat Japanese-ish.  I bought tiny dishes at the Salvation Army to add to the Siroton dishes I bought at the airport, then tried my hand at making pickled vegetables, tofu, and eggplant with dengaku, the super oishi (delicious) sauce.  I arranged everything beautifully on a bamboo tray and ate with chopsticks.

It was okay.  I did this for a few weeks, then reverted to my usual habit of making crock pot and hot-dish-type meals.

I will turn 60 in a few weeks.  I’ll be in the UK, so I threw an early party for myself.  I made big pans of vegetarian lasagna and moussaka.  My cousin Molly made two cakes—chocolate torte and cardamom lingonberry.

Vince brought a charcuterie board with so much cheese I sent friends home with baggies full.

It was a fun night.  I requested no presents, and most everyone took me at my word.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to London.  My subletter will roll in this evening.  I’ve been cleaning and packing and doing laundry and taking care of business at a nice steady pace for a couple weeks.  I didn’t need any more stuff to make decisions on, thus the “no gifts” request.

I don’t need anything except warm clothes and books, and I have plenty of both.

I was super happy to see, when I checked in, rows of empty seats.  If it’s really true, I may actually be able to lie down across four seats and sleep a couple hours.  Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but a certain family member is slipping me a couple Restless Legs prescription pills for the flight.

I’ll arrive in London at 7:30am, catch the bus to Oxford, and stay in a guest house for a couple nights before I move in to the house where I’ll be a cat and chicken carer for three months.

I’ll also be very busy working on proposals for my former employer, the torture rehabilitation NGO.

Believe it or not, I will miss working at the YMCA.  Child care is on the opposite end of the spectrum from my proposal work as far as pay, benefits, and prestige.  But I love little kids, it got me out of the house, and I took full advantage of the free Y membership that was the one perc of the job.

I will have to work to find things to do to pry myself away from the house in Oxford.  One thing that will help is that it’s already spring there—daffodils are blooming!  I will not miss the snow and cold of Minnesota.  I’ve shoveled the walks nine times thus far this year, and it’s now snowing again.  Blech.

I’ve gone through my usual phases of preparing myself emotionally and mentally for this sojourn.  The initial excitement.  The panic of organizing it all.  The last-minute thoughts of, “I don’t want to go!” and finally the readiness.

I feel guilty about leaving my mother.  She and her husband have so many health problems and she has depended on me to take her shopping, etc.  But it’s my youngest brother’s turn to play this role.  And my mother and her hubby have both told me, “Go!  Go while you can still do it.”

I will miss my friends and Vince and his wife and (I admit) most of all my new granddaughters.  I spent New Year’s Eve babysitting them, and it was a blast.  We went to a confetti drop at the zoo, gazed awe struck at manta rays and baby giraffes, waked through the St. Paul Cathedral and looked up at the stained glass windows, did art projects, went to the library, and (they) played with blue slime, a product that produces farting noises and is impossible to remove from sheets, pillows, hair, and clothes.

Please, try not to be jealous of my whoop-dee-doo NYE.

I didn’t want to write a post, but I did, and I’ll keep doing so once I’m on the other side.

Happy New Year!

Sayonara, Japan

It was pouring so I splurged and asked the front desk to call a taxi.  The cab hit a traffic jam; I was impressed there could be one in Shimoda.  The driver started down a maze of tiny back alleys that didn’t appear to be legit driving routes but as long as the car didn’t get stuck in the narrow passages what did I care?

We ran up to the ticket taker at the station, who pronounced, “Tickets, no good!”  He shook his head, made an “X” with his fingers, and indicated I should get into the ticket purchase line.  I could feel Charlie’s anxiety rising.

“Wait, wait!  Are we gonna miss our train?  Are we gonna miss our flight back home?!” he asked.

“No, Mr. Worry Wart.  We’re not going to miss either,” I said calmly, although I was feeling anything but calm inside.

And so began a very stressful day I wrote about that night.  I can feel my anxiety rising as I write this, so I won’t go over it again.

We did get to Tokyo and we ended the day with me watching Crazy Rich Asians and Charlie watching Charlie and Chocolate Factory.

He had requested Titanic but his mother nixed that.  Probably not the best choice the night before a 13-hour trans Pacific flight anyway.

We arrived early at the airport, well before Fred and Hiromi, who were coming to see us off.  We had our last meal in Japan; I gave Charlie my raw egg so he got to slurp down two, which made me gag.

We walked around and checked out the shops.  “Tokyo banana” was some kind of gift thing but not a thing I was curious enough to purchase.

I bought books—a collection of Japanese short stories; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, and A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute (which has a WWII South Pacific theme).

Following a comment in the introduction to the short stories written by Murakami Haruki (as his name is used in Japan), I hit upon my favorite Japanese-themed book so far, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.  All these somehow led me to another great book with a WWII South Pacific sub-theme, A Gesture Life, by Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee.

Each of these has brought me many hours of absorbed contentment, some laughs, and some pain due to difficult content.

We turned a corner and there were Fred and Hiromi with Charlie’s cousin Ichiro.  They had planned to take us out for breakfast but since we’d beat them to it,  Plan B was coffee and ice cream.  Charlie grabbed Fred’s phone and dove into Pokémon Go while Ichiro played on Hiromi’s phone.

Next, grandma treated the boys to many games in the top-floor arcade while I grabbed my last chance to by “authentic” plastic souvenirs.

At last we walked across this bridge, where I took photos of grandparents and grandsons, who put on faces like they were being tortured.

Charlie and I walked through security, waved good-bye once more, and boarded our plane.

And that was Japan!

People have asked me how much it all cost.  I did do a reckoning and estimated my tab was around $4,000 all in for the month, including airfare and minus the $1,000 I got for subletting my duplex.

A person could do better by skipping the Nara Hotel, which was the outlier for accommodations.  But then they would miss out on the all-you-can-drink rooftop deal.

Tokyo:

Meilparque Hotel: $107/night for a tiny, sterile room with glaring lights but a good breakfast and close to three stations and a major shrine

New Tohoku Hotel: $101 for a filthy/worn but quiet room with good beds and breakfast and great location

Air BnB in Omiya: $73—you get what you pay for

Hotel Monday Toyosu: $99 for a microscopic room near the fish market

Nikko: Annex Turtle Inn, $87, horrid beds but homey with a lovely onsen

Kyoto: Koiyama Hotel, $67, spotless, kitchenette and washer, hard beds

Nara Hotel: $149, charming, enormous room, free shuttle

Koyasan: Shojoshin-in Monastery, $120, including two fantastic vegan meals per day, futons

Shimoda: $94, lovely views and room but futons, no internet

Win!

I handed Charlie 500 yen.

“Look at me,” I demanded as I held him by the shoulders.  “I am going to go buy some pants, and I do not want you wandering off from the arcade.  D’ya hear me!?”

“Yeahhhh….” he replied insouciantly.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me!  I’m mean it, Charlie.  If you get abducted by a weirdo I’m gonna be in big trouble with your parents.  And it won’t be any picnic for you either!”

“But what if I get abducted by a normal person?” I think this statement represents Piaget’s Concrete Operational stage of child development, in which they are literal on their way to learning how to be logical.  But I suspected Charlie was just being a smart alec.

“Ha ha, smarty pants.  Normal people don’t abduct kids.”

The mall was essentially a department store, with the arcade in the center surrounded by sections of kitchen wares, linens, men’s clothing, sporting goods, etc.

And lots of women’s clothing!  I was in my glory.  I’m not a big shopper but I love to shop when I’m traveling.  It can provide great insights into a culture.  For instance, there was a whole section of the forearm-covering gloves I described in a previous post.  These are commonly worn by Japanese women to keep their arms snowy white.

After five minutes Charlie was at my side, and looking near tears. “It took all my money!” he seethed.  He explained he had chosen to play for a Play Station.

Dumb me.  I should have known he had never played a game of chance before.  I gave him a tutorial on gambling and probability.

“They don’t want you to win,” I explained.  “And the more valuable the prize, the more you’re going to lose and the less your chances of winning.”

I handed him another 500 yen.  “Think of it as just a game, for fun,” I suggested.  He was still smarting—from embarrassment, I think.  “Don’t expect to win, and then if you do, that’ll be great.  But play the cheapo games where you can win a lucky rabbit’s foot, not the ones with the big ticket prizes.”

He dragged himself back to the arcade and I doubled down on my shopping. I bought a pair of strange cat slippers for Lynn, and a housedress.  I bought one for myself, too.  I’ve actually worn it quite a bit; here it is in its wrinkled glory on my couch.  The saying on top is, “My House: Please Make Yourself”

That’s it—not “Make Yourself at Home,” just “Make Yourself.”

I found a nice cotton t-shirt with a nonsensical saying: Just be fun life is about us got the time come on. 

I felt a presence at my side.  “This time I didn’t lose my money so fast, but I still need more,” Charlie said, looking a bit more upbeat.  I kept putting more money into him so he could put more into the machines and I could keep shopping.

I bought a pair of pants that had suspenders, an elastic waistband that hit right at the bra line, and huge blousy legs.  Picture clown pants and you’ll be close.

Charlie didn’t win anything, but he seemed to have had fun.  Our next stop was the enormous grocery on the first level, which we would never have known was there from the street.  I loaded up on red bean paste, extra oishi soy sauce, miso paste, and food for our breakfast.  Then we sloshed back to the hotel in the rain holding our bags and sharing one umbrella.

For the umpteenth time, Charlie sighed and said, “I don’t want to leave Japan!”

But we would leave, the next day, for Tokyo.  We would spend a night there, then fly out the following day—my 27th day in Japan.

“I have loved Japan, but I want to sleep in my own bed and take a bath in my own bathtub,” I said to Charlie.  He didn’t hear me because he was now immersed in a baseball game between the Bay Stars and Honshin Tigers.  I made him a cup of green tea which he immediately spilled, adding to the mess that was his futon.

Jackpot!

Walking back from the station, Charlies and I stopped at a burger joint.  But not just any burger joint. This place served red snapper burgers as big as my head—oishi!

Back at the hotel, I tried to nap but Charlie kept waking me by turning up the TV.

“Turn it down, I’m trying to sleep!” I griped.  He would, then he’d turn it back up.  I gave up and rolled up from my futon into a crouching position.  It was raining again, hard.  I tried making sense of the tourist brochures to see if there was something else we could do to kill time here.  They were either in Japanese or had bad English translations.  There was something called the Museum of the Black Ship.  I went out into the hall and sat on a bench near the elevator to get wifi.  The museum had been panned by reviewers; I think the highest rating was a two star.

What I really wanted was to go clothes shopping.  I know there are lots of people in the world who own only a few changes of clothes, and now I knew how they felt, after wearing the same four shirts for a month.  And my leggings had ripped from hip to knee so I was down to one pair of pants.

But there didn’t appear to be much shopping in Shimoda, and I couldn’t leave Charlie alone.

I had no book.  I flipped through some of Charlie’s manga but couldn’t make sense of it.

I went and bought a beer from the hallway vending machine and plopped down on the futon to watch TV with Charlie.  It was the news hour, and every broadcast involved a distinguished-looking 50-something male anchor reading the headlines while a meek young woman sat next to him, nodding and occasionally saying, “Hai, hai,” in a little girl voice.

“That little girl shit makes me sick!” I exclaimed.  Charlie looked at me in shock, then laughed.  I hadn’t sworn in front of him until now.  I suppose I should feel guilty but on the other hand it made him literally sit up and take notice of his aunt’s opinion.

Morning broke with the sound of more rain.  I rolled over to see Charlie watching origami folding on TV.  In English, the words “Courtesy of Gift Wrapping Association” scrolled across the bottom of the screen.  I wondered why that was in English, then wrestled my body up off the futon and crab walked to the bathroom.

Futons.  How can millions of Japanese find them comfy?  I guess it’s what you’re used to but I couldn’t imagine ever getting used to them.

I had sunk into a mind-numbing ennui caused by unrelenting rain, surreal TV programming, and lack of books and internet.

But time passes, whether you’re doing anything or not.  We faffed about until noon, then sprinted to a restaurant next to the hotel.  I had saved this for desperate times because it was called Jonathan’s, and it looked like a Denny’s.  The menu and décor were fashioned after a 1950s American diner, offering fried chicken, hamburgers, and malts.  That would have been okay if the food was good, but it was absolutely execrable.  I let Charlie order a mango malt and that kept him busy and happy.

It was time for me to break the news to Charlie.  “I need to buy some pants, and I can’t leave you alone in the hotel room, so you’ll have to come shopping with me.”

“Awww,” he wailed as his head lolled down onto his chest in dismay.

“But …”  His head popped up.  “Let’s check out the pachinko parlors.  If you don’t whine while I shop, I’ll give you some money to play later on.”  Charlie was all smiles.

At the bus station, the friendly information people told us pachinko was only for adults.  Charlie’s head hung as he shuffled out after me.

The only stores were sad souvenir shops offering pukka-shell plant hangers and dresses with hibiscus left over from the 80s.

Then I spied a small sign at the top of a long set of stairs that said Mall.

Inside were scores of shops and an arcade.

A Day at the Aquarium

Charlie was not abducted.  He had just gotten bored and decided to wander off while I was looking for an ATM.  It was a coincidence that he’d been walking behind a stranger.  I had wondered if I was being too strict with him—not.

As we waited for the bus to the aquarium, we checked out cars.  Here are some gratuitous photos of adorable compact vehicles I took throughout Japan.

“Why can’t we have cool small cars like this?”  I asked Charlie rhetorically.

This was my favorite name, The Hustler.  This was not in Shimoda, and I was glad because I didn’t want to explain what a hustler was.

This is as good a place as any to insert a photo from the Edo Museum.  This car—I didn’t record its name—was the Volkswagen Beetle of Japan—the one cranked out by the millions that everyone owned in the post-war decades.

The moment we got off the bus, that smell hit us in the face.  If you’ve ever shopped in an Asian market that sells live fish, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  I love eating fish, but the smell, not so much.

I had researched the aquarium ahead of time and was amused that they had a “Dwarf” admission level.

“No offense to you, or to dwarves, but you’re a dwarf today,” I informed Charlie as I paid our combined $29 admission fee.

It was hot and humid and we were tired.  Our first glimpses of the aquarium were not inspiring.  Much of its infrastructure was dilapidated and rusty.  But we would make the best of it.

As in most such places, there were shows that took place around the grounds on a regular schedule.

“C’mon, run!” I yelled at Charlie when I saw the dolphin show would start in five minutes.

He hung his head and dragged his feet.  “I’m hot and tired!” he whined.

“Run anyway!” I shouted over my shoulder, feeling like a bad aunt for the umpteenth time for yelling at him.

I don’t know what the dolphins would say if they could speak, but the show was amazing.

The trainers bribed the dolphins to dive or leap to get fish; the highlight was when one of the trainers stood on a dolphin’s back and rode it like a surf board.

Afterwards, we checked out the non-air conditioned but shaded snack bar.  I had fried mackerel and Charlie ordered syrup-smothered soy balls and a sugary drink.  “That should perk you up,” I said hopefully.

As we ate, a manic penguin trainer blabbered away outside. “What is she saying>?” I asked Charlie.

“I don’t know,” he giggled.  “She’s talking so fast I can’t understand.”

“Probably wants to get it over with so she can get out of the heat,” I reckoned.

If he had had his way, Charlie would have sat in the snack bar all day.  Instead, I led him on a forced march around the rest of the aquarium.

He got to pet a seal and a giant tortoise.  Again, if these poor animals could speak I’m sure it would be to say, “Help, get me out of here!”

There was a magical display of jellyfish and oddities.  That’s Charlie’s head in the way.

As I watched rays swimming in a tank I thought, this isn’t as bad as having their fins cut off and served as delicacies in a restaurant, I guess.

The plaintive bark of a seal had been sounding nonstop since our arrival.  “We have to go see it,” I said, “even though I know it’s gonna make me really sad.”

And there it was, swimming back and forth in a pool no more than three times its body length.

“Oh I can’t stand to look at it!” Charlie said mournfully.  “Why do people do that?  I want to set it free!”

“People like us pay to come here,” I said ruefully.  Charlie was learning some lessons, although not the ones intended by the aquarium.

I forked out $10 to rent a paddle boat.  Charlie was thrilled to be in control, and when dolphins frolicked alongside us we felt a bit better because they seemed to want to be with humans.