Tag Archives: Road Trips

Rock In It

I pored over the maps of southwest England so I would have something to say when Lynn asked, “Where do you want to go today?”

There were dozens of towns with fanciful, funny-sounding names: Gribben Head, Little Petherick, London Apprentice, Higher Porthpean, St. Blazey, Ready Money, and the unfortunately named Black Head—the names read like nothing anywhere else.  Of course that’s true of everywhere.

Then there were the saint names: St. Mawgal, St. Erney, St. Neot, St. Mabyn, St. Veep.  I had grown up with Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Mary, Catherine, and Anne. I wondered where the name Neot originated, and what Saint Neot had done—what torture he or she had endured to warrant sainthood (Wikipedia tells us he was a midget and the patron saint of fish).

Lynn would say she isn’t the world’s greatest driver.  And why would she be?  She grew up in London and has worked all over the world, so she has used public transportation or hired drivers a lot more often than driving herself.

The roads in the southwest are famously narrow and winding, with tall hedgerows on either side so you can’t see oncoming traffic until it’s right on top of you.  But that doesn’t stop people from driving massive campers and speeding along at over 50 miles per hour.

First, we had to get out of the resort.  Backing up is not Lynn’s favorite activity; she worried out loud about the  decorative rocks on either side of the “narrow” driveway.

We heard a loud screeatch as one of the rocks tore open a piece of the Picasso’s siding.

Naturally I helped by taking a photo.

“Why do they put rocks everywhere!?” Lynn exclaimed.

“Well you’ve showed ‘em by moving one!” I said.

A grounds worker was passing by and Lynn called out to him, “Excuse me, excuse me!  Will you help us?  This rock was in the way and I seem to have moved it out of place with my car. Could you move it back?”

Luckily the guy was a giant.  Without a word he hoisted the rock and put it back in place.

“Thank you very much,” Lynn ingratiatingly.  “I suppose this happens all the time—these rocks everywhere, people must drag them out of place on a weekly basis!”

“No,” said the guy gruffly, and walked away.

I nudged the torn piece of the vehicle back into place so it wouldn’t flap as we drove.  “Maybe they won’t even notice it,” I suggested optimistically.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Lynn. “This is why I check ‘yes’ to all the insurance they offer, even though people say it’s a rip off.”

We managed to drive through the gauntlet of rocks and exit the resort.  The next step, which didn’t seem to get easier with repetition, was to guess which giant roundabout to take, and then which exit.  This involved driving around in circles, then making our best guess and plunging off an exit, hoping for the best.  The vehicle hadn’t come with a GPS so I was the co-pilot.  This was tricky because British signs mean nothing to me.  Here’s a sign for an upcoming roundabout:

As we drove, Lynn explained what A and B roads were, why some items in signs were in parentheses, what the little stub on the circle was, and more.  But often, the signs came up so fast we had only seconds to decide which way to turn.

The worst was when there was no sign, so we shot ahead, gradually coming to the conclusion that we were going the wrong way, and having to turn around.

Lynn got frustrated when we got lost.  I probably wasn’t helpful when I kept saying, “It’s an adventure!  We can’t really go wrong, everywhere we go, the scenery is so beautiful.”

Where the hedgerows opened up onto fields, the roads were lined with foxglove, and farther on we could often see the sea sparkling in the distance.

Here are some photos from Fowey, pronounced foyyyyyy.   I love British trees in general; they’re so much older than ours in Minnesota.  I was awed by these, in the car park, and it got better from there.

Welcome to Cornwall

Lynn and I found our hire car, an eggplant-coloured Citroën Picasso.  My computer is still set to British English for the proposal I worked on to UK Aid.  I’ll leave it that way, since the next events took place in Britain.

First, a little primer on UK terminology for anyone out there who may be confused.  The United Kingdom is the nation that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Those are four separate countries, but together they are United.  Britain means the same thing as the UK, while Great Britain is the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales—not Northern Ireland.  If you ask a native where exactly the Scottish or Welsh borders are, you will get a confused look.  That’s probably because they are so jagged, unlike say, the border between Wyoming and Colorado.

Then there’s the Commonwealth, which includes a bunch of former colonies like Canada and Australia and Belize.  Those countries are independent but Queen Elizabeth II is their sovereign. Then there are the Crown Dependencies, like Jersey; and the British Overseas Territories, like Gibraltar. I hope that clears up any confusion.

England has 48 counties, or shires. When you say the word shire independently, it’s pronounced like in The Hobbit, “shyr.”  That’s not an official pronunciation; the official Oxford English Dictionary one is ʃaɪə(r).  When shire is added to the end of a county name, like Oxfordshire, it’s pronounced “sure” (by Americans) and “shuh” (by Brits).  Some of the county names are shortened up for convenience; for instance Buckinghamshire is nicknamed Bucks, Peebleshire is nicknamed Tweeddale, and Berwickshire is Duns-shire.  Simples!

Lynn and I were driving to Cornwall, also known as Kernow in Cornish, the local language which has about 350 native speakers.  As far as I know, Cornwall is never Cornwallshire, just Cornwall.  The red-outlined section in the far southwest of the map below is Cornwall.

It’s 208 air miles from London to Cornwall.  If we could have driven in the air, we could have been there in a little over three hours.  With traffic and the twisting roads of the last bit of the route, Lynn reckoned it would be about five hours.

What she hadn’t reckoned on was not being able to figure out the gear shifting. The west country of England is so beautiful, in part, because of all its gently rolling hills.  Hills that were lined for miles with cars full of holidaymakers, as people on vacation are called there.

The Picasso had a manual transmission, and Lynn’s method for not rolling backwards on hills was to engage the parking brake.  I drive a manual transmission but I had always just kept my foot on the brake while engaging the clutch when on a hill.  The parking brake on this vehicle was a button on the dashboard, but nothing appeared to happen when Lynn pressed it.

I slouched  in the passenger seat binging on cough drops and blowing my nose between bouts of wracking coughs while Lynn did her best to keep the vehicle from rolling backwards into the car behind us.

“And of course they all pull up within inches of my rear bumper!” she growled.  “Don’t they know I have a manual transmission?”

Then the burning smell began.  “I think I’ve burned the clutch,” Lynn said.

“It could be the brakes,” I man-splained unhelpfully.  We were back to where we’d been the year before, on our road trip to New Orleans.  This time we were in a rental car, but it was still the case that neither of us knew diddly squit about cars.

“I don’t even know how to open the bonnet of my car,” Lynn said.

The smell persisted but we ignored it and drove on.  We emerged out of the traffic jam onto a series of gigantic connected roundabouts and went in circles for about 10 minutes, then plunged off an exit and somehow had chosen the correct one.  Another 10 minutes and we pulled up in front of our cottage.

It was none too soon; my Ethiopia trip was catching up with me.  I made a dash for the cottage and spent my first hours in Bodmin, Cornwall, in the bathroom.

Like, Totally, Sort Of

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Juan drove us back to the Palace, our heads nodding in a stupor in the back seat.  As we passed through the exurbs of Granada, Juan pointed out the area where he lived with his wife and kids.  It was mile after mile of new high-rise buildings.  Not as scenic as the white villages or central Granada, but probably more spacious and affordable.

His kids were five and seven, which made me realize he was probably a lot younger than I’d guessed.  I felt sheepish about the lecherous comment I’d made to Lynn when I first saw him.  “We have a sort of ‘women’s privilege’,” I said to Lynn later, “where we can make smarmy remarks about men but if they did the same toward a woman we would be disgusted with them”

“That’s changing though,” she remarked.  “In HR circles you can’t get away with anything like that, no matter who you are.”

We would move on to Toledo tomorrow.  We’d been in Granada five nights and at last, we sat on the hotel terrace again and had the excellent tapas platter, as we should have done every night.

The next morning, after stuffing myself with enough smoked salmon to tide me over until the next trip, we caught a cab to the bus station.  It was full of “colorful” characters, which is probably an insensitive word.  There was a nun and a dwarf, but not a dwarf nun like there had been in Rome. There was a mute who was begging with a placard that said, “Soy mudo.”  There were your standard backpackers sleeping on their packs, playing guitar, and dividing a Snicker’s bar five ways with a Swiss Army knife.

There were the usual vending machines offering … Snicker’s bars and cigarettes, but also these fabulous stands selling dried fruit and gelato.

dried-fruit gelatos

No one seemed to be buying.  I didn’t buy anything, so they’ll probably be replaced by a MacDonald’s.  It’s all my fault!

We were seated on the bus across the aisle from two American college students whose conversation consisted mainly of these words: like, totally, actually, literally, I mean, you know, sort of, kind of, and gross.  They weren’t talking loudly, but their voices carried in the way of people who are cock sure of themselves.

“I’m like, totally going to Portugal.  I mean, it’s actually on my list, although, like, my friend Chelsea posted pics of the food on Instagram and it’s kind of like gross, you know, sort of like, totally gross.”

It was a four-hour bus ride.

There was no wireless but the students fiddled nonstop with their phones.  Were they paying for data roaming? They both wore sunglasses and ear buds, even while talking to one another, which seems like the height of rudeness.  At least they could have done that thing where you take out one ear bud in a feeble attempt to demonstrate you give a shit about the person who is trying to talk to you.  I often lift my sun glasses when I’m speaking to someone so I can make eye contact to acknowledge they are human.

Lynn sat in the aisle seat reading a book, apparently unperturbed.  Maybe because I’m American, I’m embarrassed by annoying Americans—although I’ve been one myself plenty of times.  But I know myself; once I clock on to something that bugs me, I have a very hard time pulling my focus away.

The scenery changed from olive groves to gently rolling reddish-hued hills.  I did a pretty good job of focusing on it until I noticed the students never looked out the window.

Then I caught this: “Like, Ben Carson is totally so smart!  I mean, he should actually be kind of like, the head of something, you know.”

My knee jerked–literally–and I clutched Lynn’s arm to stop myself from leaning across and totally giving them, like, a piece of my mind.

“Maybe they’re being sarcastic,” Lynn whispered.  Yes, I told myself shakily, that must be it.  I put in my ear buds and played some Pink Floyd.  I wasn’t going to let them ruin the landscape for me.

Why the Jews were Expelled from Spain

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Lynn and I were ensconced in the back of the Mercedes, well supplied with bottled water and potato chips in case the car broke down in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Our destination: the “white vilalges” Pampaniera and Capilera on the other side of the Sierra Nevada from Granada.

white-villages

We took two-lane roads through the mountains, winding around hairpin curves.  If you were prone to motion sickness, you would definitely want to take a Dramamine for this ride.

Lynn and I chatted with each other and I asked Juan questions now and then.  This was the area where Spain’s bottled water came from, he said, which made sense since it was mountains.  He was from a town we would pass through, Bubion, population 300.  His family still lived there.  We stopped for a shepherd with a flock of goats crossing the road.  That answered my question about what people did for a living here.  They kept goats and sheep and bees, but they mostly depended on tourism.

After a couple hours, Juan asked which village we wanted to stop in first. I don’t remember which one it was because they looked the same: tiny, white-washed towns of a couple dozen buildings clustered around a bend in the road.

“How much time do you want here?” he asked.  Ummm…we didn’t know, never having been “here” before, but we thought an hour would be enough.

Juan hung out with some friends while Lynn and I wandered around.  Now remember, it was the off season.  We appeared to be the only tourists, and a lot of businesses were shut, the owners probably off to Florida for the season.

Two shops were open.  They featured the local craft specialty—thick, heavy, woven rugs that you would pay 10€ to buy and 100€ to get home.  There was also much unremarkable pottery and fashionable women’s clothing made in China.  It was one of those places where you feel like you should buy something to support the local economy, but I couldn’t muster enough interest to pick anything out.  I think Lynn bought a pottery bowl.

We walked up the road to get a view of the mountains—which were spectacular—and found a B&B that served coffee.  We sat in the garden and drank coffee; not a bad way to kill a morning.

sierra-madre

After an hour we ambled down the hill, found Juan, and proceeded to the next village, which looked exactly like the first.  I probably sound like I’m complaining but I’m not, they were lovely and picturesque but they did look the same and I knew a limited number of Spanish superlatives so I didn’t know what I would tell Juan about this one when we reconnoitered.

white-village-2 white-village pampaniera balconies

We stepped into a tiny empty church and a man followed our every move.  “There’s a 2€ admission!” he informed us.  We paid it and beat it out of there.

It was nearly 2pm so there was a restaurant open for lunch.  We climbed to the roof top patio and the waitress was clearly not happy to have customers.  The menu was limited to combinations of ham, eggs, and bacon.  I ordered “potatoes with bacon” sans bacon, Lynn ordered ham and eggs, and we both got a beer.  When the food arrived a half hour later, my potatoes were heaped with bacon—sarcastic bacon?—and Lynn’s plate had a pile of ham topped with a raw egg.

I gave Lynn my bacon and she fed it to a cat that was slinking nearby.  The waitress, forced to emerge from the interior by the arrival of more tourists, glared at us.

“I have a theory,” Lynn said, “that the Jews were expelled from Spain because they didn’t consume enough pork products.”  There was much laughter, which the waitress appeared to take as a personal affront.

Within a minute we were surrounded by a dozen cats who consumed all the bacon, raw-egg saturated ham, and the dry white bread in our bread basket.

Beer and potatoes in the sun made for lovely naps as we were driven back to the Alhambra Palace for our last night there.

All Over the Place

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had read about something called the white villages.  I didn’t really get what they were, how we would get to them, or what we would do when we got there, but I pitched them to Lynn for our last day in Granada.

“We could rent a car,” I said.  “I love to drive!   We drove all the way to New Orleans and back.  I drove in the south of France and loved the mountain roads … I’ve driven in Chicago and LA …”

Hire a car?” said Lynn skeptically. “Nothing against your driving, but have you noticed how well we do on foot, with a map?  Nooooo, I don’t think so.”

She suggested we procure a driver.  We asked at the front desk and boom, it was done.  The “taxi” as the concierge called it, would pick us up at nine the next day and take us to two or three white villages outside of Granada.  It would take five or six hours and cost around 80€. This was actually a lot less than a car rental.

We waited on the steps of the Alhambra Palace.  Vehicles were parked higgledy piggledy in front of the hotel, where two tiny lanes ran into one another.

There was a Bimbo Pan truck.  “I love that name,” I said.  “I first saw it in Mexico and didn’t realize they would have it here.

Reader, Bimbo is a bread company.  The founder died recently, so in reading his obit I learned that the name Bimbo was a combination of Bambi and bingo.  I guess it was supposed to appeal to kids.  Back in 1945 Mexico it was innocent enough.

Now I just looked up the word bimbo.  It originated from the Italian “male child” (a female child would be bimba) and at first it just meant “a guy” in American slang but somehow back in the 40s morphed to mean an “attractive but unintelligent female.”  Maybe the founder of the bread company would have named his concern Bango if he’d known what bimbo meant north of the border.  Wait, scratch that.

In case you are snickering at the name, you should know that Grupo Bimbo owns owns Wonder Bread and Sara Lee and had revenues of $14 billion in 2014.  Not bad for a third world country.

In Mexico, the Bimbo trucks were ubiquitous.

bimbo

Bimbo sponsored the local futbol league where I first studied Spanish, in Cuernavaca, so I bought a tight-fitting jersey as a joke.  It was supposed to be ironic, but back in the US, no one got it; they just averted their eyes.

A handsome man stood next to a black Mercedes.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if that was our driver,” I nudged Lynn lewdly. She ignored me.

Then the man walked over and asked in Spanish if we were Ana and Leena.  Woot!

We sat in the back.  Many travel guides advise women to sit in the back of taxis because otherwise the driver will assume you’re a slut who wants to be raped.  It makes you wonder about the travel guide writers. Aside from a taxi driver in Dubai dropping me off at a brothel, I’ve never felt threatened by a driver.

Juan, our driver, had clearly set up the back seat for passengers, with water bottles and snacks.  He worked as a driver for excursions such as this one, and yes it was his car.  I was able to carry on a basic conversation with him because he spoke slowly and, as we wound through the steep winding foothills of the Sierra Madre, learned that he was from one of the white villages.

This was much better than me driving.  We passed hundreds of wind turbines, and Lynn and I talked about the turbines in the Scottish highlands, where she lives and where her husband crusades to get them placed appropriately—not wrecking the views or ruining neighbors’ lives with their noise.  He was currently on edge, awaiting news on a funding proposal to set up turbines that would benefit the community in perpetuity.

The End of America

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Before I move on to Spain, I’m inserting a few real-time updates.

It’s weird to be writing about the November election almost three months later. I recall my sense of unreality.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. I can’t believe we are now using the words “President” and “Trump” together.  I am still in a state of denial, maybe because I haven’t figured out what to do, or how to live, in this new world.

I went on the women’s march in St. Paul with 100,000 other like-minded men, women, and children to protest the new administration’s policies and tone.  It was the first day in months I felt optimistic, but also, sadly, the last.

Conservatives think that liberals hate America.  That’s unfair.  We criticize our country when it acts wrongly.  That doesn’t mean we hate America.  It means we hold it to high standards.  For instance, one thing that has always made me proud of America is all the refugees we take in.  It’s not as many as 100 years ago.  It’s not as many as Germany.  Still, we were on track to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, with about 10,000 slots designated for Syrians.  That’s one of the things that makes America great.  Oops, made.

All that is on hold for four months.  If and when it restarts, the number of refugees will be cut in half.  Syrians will be banned, along with people from other Muslim-majority countries except the ones Trump want to make deals with, like Saudi Arabia, the main producers of terrorists, including 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Why is Trump fixated on Syrians?  I don’t believe there have been any terrorist attacks perpetrated, anywhere, by Syrians.  In my opinion, Syrians are victims of war and terrorism.  But there are a lot of Syrian refugees, and they are in the news frequently, so maybe they’re just an easy target.  Most Americans haven’t heard of Tunisia, which actually produces a lot of terrorists.

The mood where I work, the Center for Victims of Torture, is dark.  Our clients in the US are afraid they’ll be deported, or that their families will never be allowed to join them.  We wonder if we will lose our government funding, and thus our jobs.  We worry this administration will return to the use of torture, which is illegal under US and international law.

There’s so much going down.  One final item: Donald Trump managed to talk about Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or antisemitism.  Was it intentional?  Ignorance?  As a Jew, I think it’s ominous. The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers, it started with nationalist words and laws against certain groups and bullying of the media and control of the messaging coming out of government agencies.

Thanks for reading this.  You probably already knew most of it.  Now you know why I write about travel and not politics most of the time.

My son and I went on a small adventure recently.  He had asked if I wanted to see John Cleese in person on a certain date, and I said, “sure!”  John Cleese is an English comedian and actor best known for the Monty Python movies and Fawlty Towers TV series.

What I didn’t realize until after Vince bought the tickets was that the show was on a Monday night, five hours away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  So I took two days off work, got a room at EconoLodge, and we went on a road trip.

It was really fun.  We joked about the cheap hotel and the terrible steak dinner we had at Texas Roadhouse.  We visited Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team, which fits nicely into the neighborhood unlike our own new US Bank Stadium that looks like the Death Star.

We watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then listened to John Cleese tell stories for an hour.  Did you know Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin financed the making of the Holy Grail, and that George Harrison paid for the Life of Brian, which he considers the troupe’s best film?  Cleese is almost 80, and still full of piss and vinegar. It was good to Just Laugh.

cleese

On Our Last Leg

This is the last post in a series of 32 posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Why are there so many anti-Abortion billboards in Minnesota?  I don’t know.  On this road trip we passed through nine states, including Minnesota.  Some states had a sprinkling of anti-abortion billboards, but mainly they had billboards for adult superstores.

adults Lions den truckers x

“Southern X Posure.”  Get it?  Do you get it?  I love the euphemism “Gentlemen’s Club.” Really, no actual gentleman would step foot in one, right?  But seeing these every couple of miles makes you wonder if there are any gentlemen left.

Why was it okay to advertise porn in Tennessee, one of the most conservative states, while in Minnesota—one of the most liberal states, we were bombarded with anti-abortion billboards?  Maybe the social conservatives who live here feel outnumbered, and therefore that they must fight harder than if they lived in Tennessee.

The route from Albert Lea, Minnesota to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport wasn’t very interesting, just a straight shot up Interstate 35.  We passed more towns with old world names, like Geneva, Manchester, Kilkenny, and Dundas.  There was the sadly-named Hope, Minnesota.  Had the founders, in their denim overalls, chin beards, and gingham frocks, engaged in some magical thinking?  “If we name our settlement Hope, surely the Good Lord will cause us to flourish!”

Here is Hope’s claim to fame: “Hope had a depot on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  A post office called Hope has been in operation since 1916.”  Hope is an unincorporated township, which means the U.S. Census doesn’t bother listing its population, so I can’t tell you whether it is tiny, miniscule, or sub-atomic.

We crossed the Minnesota River as we approached the airport. The Minnesota originates in Big Stone Lake, near the South Dakota border, and flows east until it merges into the Mississippi. I let Lynn believe we were crossing the Mississippi one more time—after gazing out over it in Memphis, New Orleans, and Hannibal.

In 11 days, we had driven 2,660 miles (4,280 kilometers).  If we had followed the Mississippi, we would have driven 4,640 miles because it meanders.  Some day I would like to take a meandering road trip.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a lot and had a great time.  We saw cranberry fields and went to a Native American pow wow in Wisconsin.  In Chicago, we saw the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome and one of the iconic painting, American Gothic.  We were moved to tears in the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  We spent five days in New Orleans with friends, heard lots of music, and ate lots of Cajun and creole food.  Lynn and I spent six days in a Mini Cooper and were still speaking to each other.  We had the chance to try pickled pigs lips.  Instead, we ate at a Cracker Barrel.

We did go off piste a few times, but it would be great to take a road trip with no time limits.

Instead, I dropped Lynn off at the airport at 7:00pm to catch her 9:00pm flight, and drove home.

It was good to be home but it also felt weird.  I had bought this condo so my son would have a supportive place to live when he was released from prison.  I had told myself that I was buying a condo because it made financial sense, and maybe it did, but underlying the decision was my desire to give him a fighting chance of making it once he was released.  (My apartment landlord wouldn’t have allowed him to live with me.)

And Vince was making it.  He had a job, he was sober, and after seven months he had moved out to his own place—the day before Lynn arrived.  So now I stood in the doorway of the empty bedroom.  I felt a little sentimental, but I was mainly happy for Vince and for me that we both had our own space.

The next day I went back to work and got down to writing proposals to fund torture rehabilitation—and banking more paid time off for the next holiday.