Archives for posts with tag: Travel

REPORT FROM DOWN UNDER

 

A visit to Australia and New Zealand is a sprawling event. It’s hard to characterize or describe each aspect of the experience so I’ll dissect just a few, namely:

 

THE TRAVEL is daunting. For us, it involved a five-hour flight to Los Angeles, a three-hour layover and a fifteen-hour flight to Sydney. When we arrived, we found ourselves fourteen time zones ahead of North Carolina. Ten a.m. equaled midnight to our bodies. Advised to stay awake until “normal” bedtime by all the literature, we proceeded, Zombie-like, for the first day of sightseeing.

“Ah,” says an observant reader, “Why didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“Can’t,” I reply miserably. “Never have, apparently never will. Even the sleeping pill had no effect.”

 

THE PEOPLE are friendly. If you pause on a street and look confused, chances are excellent that one or more pedestrians will offer assistance. Often, they insist on leading you to your destination if it is within a block or two. Others consult their phones for directions or flag down other strangers for consultations.

 

CAUCASIANS ARE IN THE MINORITY. In Sydney, particularly in the vicinity of the airport or university, most people are Chinese. As a person who is open-minded in terms of immigration issues this fact provokes no immediate negative reaction. However, I wonder how I would feel if my hometown, Philadelphia, somehow became 80% Chinese. Would it, in essence, still be Philadelphia?

I believe Australians struggle with this issue in private but they accept the influx as an economic necessity. I sensed some resentment when speaking with several Australians during the course of our tour, but they are too polite to complain openly. An Aussie sitting beside me on the plane captured the attitude when I said I looked forward to seeing how Australians live.

“You staying in Sydney?” he asked. “Good luck finding some.”

 

THE SCENERY, particularly in New Zealand, is amazing. Days of seeing snow-capped mountains, fiords, glaciers, swift-moving rivers and waterfalls means I may not have to travel to Alaska or Iceland in the future. Below the mountains are the greenest of green pastures, populated by domesticated deer, cows and millions and millions of sheep. The latter had just birthed and the lambs, be it one or two or three per mother, are sooooooo cute. No more lamb chops for me.

 

RUGBY is an obsession in both countries. Before this trip, I believed rugby to be a primitive form of American football played in total obscurity. Now, having scanned newspapers and surfed television, I know there are actually THREE types of rugby, each with its own networks, teams, leagues and fans. Not at all “obscure,” rugby is pervasive Down Under. How does a country of only twenty-four million (Australia) or four million (NZ) support such so much infrastructure?  The passion for sport runs deep. Aussies are pretty good at tennis, too, and facilities for recreation are everywhere.

IN MELBOURNE, our final stop, we anticipated bringing home memories of vast public gardens, stunning architecture and commerce. Though we saw some of those things, our primary impression is quite different. The evening we arrived, the local rugby squad had won a championship game and jubilation ensued. The next morning, fans were still stumbling around, hung-over, clad in the black and yellow of the Richmond Tigers, a team based in the very neighborhood in which we were staying. One store clerk, dressed dutifully, confided that she wasn’t really interested in rugby, but her admission came in a whisper, lest she offend her boss or a local customer.

 

POLITICS rarely came up in public discussions with our tour-mates. Since we were the only Americans, couples sidled up to us privately, at some point to ask, of the United States: “If I may, what happened?” “How is this possible?” We knew what they were wondering. How did a reality television buffoon become president? We tried to explain two things: 1. Part of the enjoyment of being abroad for us was to NOT discuss “he who shall not be named” on a daily basis; and, 2. Suffice it to say one cannot underestimate ignorance and hatefulness.

I LEARNED that Australian politics is much like ours though they have not YET descended to total lunacy. As in America, solid majorities of the population support protection of the environment, freedom of choice for women, equal rights for all and gun control. However, as in America, government is controlled by money. For instance, mining interests battle alternative energy projects though there may not be a country in the world more suited to solar, wind and geothermal power. Religious groups battle women’s rights and gay rights and their older cohort show up to vote.

GUN CONTROL is the exception, perhaps because there is not a wealthy, native industry as we have in America, along with twisted reverence for the Second Amendment.   In 1996 in Australia, the mass murder of thirty-five took place with semi-automatic weapons. It was the deadliest of thirteen such events in the preceding eighteen years. In its aftermath, a CONSERVATIVE government acted to buyback all but necessary hunting and farming-related firearms and to ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The population acquiesced without drama and Australia’s rate of gun violence is now miniscule.   There have been no mass murders since 1996, and firearm-related suicide rates have dropped by eighty percent!

 

AFFECTION for Americans adheres in New Zealand and Australia, though the Las Vegas massacre occurred during our last night in Melbourne which provoked an outpouring of news coverage about “What is wrong with America?” Still, there is a deep reservoir of patience. Largely without complaint, both nations Down Under continue to contribute troops to every one of our military adventures.

QUESTION I asked several veterans in both countries: “Why is there no resentment, at least about failed expeditions in Vietnam or the second Iraq war?” Each time, the response hearkened back to World War II. Apparently, when Japanese warships threatened invasion Australia and New Zealand appealed to Winston Churchill for help. He refused, citing the burdens his troops were already facing from Germany. America, however, sent ships immediately and routed the Japanese. We sowed seeds of affection still alive seventy years later. I hope we don’t poison the field or take it for granted. Hanging up on Australia’s prime minister last January was probably not a great first move by the con-man, but….

 

DOUBTLESS Australia and New Zealand are wonderful destinations. If only they were closer. Both countries have a pace and friendliness that seems like the America I imagine of sixty years ago. They are comfortable countries for an American, as they speak the same language, but with enough accent to make you feel you’ve “gone somewhere.” Cars on the left side of the road reinforce the difference.

 

OBVIOUSLY, if one visited America and saw only Miami and New York they could hardly claim to have “seen it.” If the flight were five hours or less I’d want to visit Down Under again and again to see all the places not included in our trip, including, but not limited to: the Outback, the Great Barrier Reef, the cities of Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Auckland, among others. Perhaps, when the jet lag is finally forgotten, once and for all, after another month or two… I’ll consider it.

 

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HOME SECOND HOME

 

 

Upon arrival at my daughter, Kelly’s new second home, I encounter scenic mountain views, fresh air, and initially, solitude. I hear rustling leaves, chirping birds and the burbling of a babbling brook. The hubbub surrounding her primary home in Brooklyn recedes. So, too, does the effect on my lower back of the as-good-as-possible three-hour drive. But is this purely paradise? Not exactly — within twenty-four hours, Kelly introduces me to the pool man, the pest man, the tree man, the lawn care man, the general maintenance man, the generator repairman and the tractor repairman. (Apologies for the anachronistic-seeming gender designations, but it is what it is.) All these men knew Kelly would be arriving, except for the last two; they came in response to the maintenance man’s call informing them that repairs were needed. Rest assured, they all have their hands out for payment.

 

*****

 

My wife and I once owned a second home. For added degree of difficulty it was in Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country 2,800 miles south of our then-New Jersey home. How we came to own such a property is a long story. In brief, an opportunity arose in 2003 to obtain something special. For the price of a garage in northern Jersey, we bought an acre lot atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Every time we thought about our acquisition, the part of the brain devoted to happy things fired neurons. We planned to build a house. We interviewed builders. We contemplated sunsets.

By early 2004 our project commenced. We’d hired a husband-wife team who’d moved to Costa Rica from California a decade earlier, herein referred to as “Tim” and “Lisa.” Tim was the builder and Lisa the designer, decorator and landscaper. We embraced several of her dream concepts that no one had before, namely: an interior garden to separate the living room from the master bedroom; a waterfall in the family room; and, a roof line that appeared to be floating above clerestory windows.

When Tim faxed photographs of the cleared lot before we even owned the property, we were thrilled.  We wondered how he had achieved this feat.   Was it pure trespassing?   Was it bribery of local officials? We chose to consider it extreme efficiency. Things are a little looser than in New Jersey, to say the least.

Each month, roughly in conjunction with the timing of our wire transfers, Tim sent photographic updates. To my surprise, construction proceeded on time and on budget. The story of our house in Playa Hermosa is NOT a horror story about being ripped off in a real estate scam. (Luckily, we turned down opportunities to invest in, among other things, a marina “guaranteed to be completed by 2005” which still does not exist. We also turned down a share of a teak plantation that might break even by 2040).

Our experience of second home ownership, initially so exciting, is a litany of little irritants, the “death by a thousand cuts,” that gradually erodes enthusiasm.  It is said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Indeed, once completed, our house could have appeared on the cover of “Architectural Digest.” But it contained plumbing and electrical systems seemingly completed by trial and error.

The infinity pool, achingly beautiful as it led one’s eyes straight to the ocean beyond, leaked in myriad ways. Was it the plumbing? Cracks in the liner? In the tile? The pool man suggested the daily loss of a foot of water might indicate we were in a “special evaporation zone.” In eighteen months of ownership, the mystery never resolved.

We received a faxed picture of mold forming under the roof during the rainy season. “$1,000 should do the removal,” wrote our property manager. Another email told us about the irrigation system prone to being run over by the lawnmower. “Don’t worry,” wrote the manager. “It’s only a few hundred…every few months.” The front gate, a wrought-iron creation by a local artist, looked beautiful. If only it operated without repair for more than a few months at a time.

And the staff, oh, the staff. It included: one property manager, two rental agents; a succession of lawn companies; a “weed man;” two pool-related teams, one to maintain the water quality and one for structural matters; a “gate man;” a cleaning crew; and, an irrigation manager. If only it included an irritation manager.

 

*****

 

For a year or so, we experienced our adventure as originally planned. We visited often, hosted friends and family, and reveled in how different it was from our humdrum existences at home. But the sheer weight of aggravation and complication wore us down. To defray costs we occasionally rented the house to strangers.   After damages wrought by a large percentage of such people my outlook soured. For years afterwards, I referred to tenants as “a lower form of humanity.” Only time and large security deposits eventually restored my mood.

We put the house on the market and sold in October 2006 for a windfall profit. What geniuses we appeared to be! The worldwide real estate market sputtered to a standstill shortly thereafter. But we weren’t clairvoyant, just exhausted.

Kelly is still in the glow of new second home ownership. We hope it never wanes. But experience sometimes outweighs hope. For my part, I now enjoy visiting OTHER people’s second homes.

 

 

 

 

 


FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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THE PLANE TRUTH

 

 

It’s not news to report that air travel today isn’t the pleasure it used to be. Throughout my adult life it’s been my impression the experience is becoming increasingly miserable. I suspect the positive excitement of air travel began to seep away when the spate of late-60’s hijackings to Cuba introduced the first metal detectors. It’s become more joyless at an exponential pace with the depredations wrought by terrorists in the intervening decades. It’s hard for me to believe that in one of my earliest memories, my grandfather took me to the Philadelphia Airport to WATCH planes take off and land. You could do that around 1961 – just walk into the terminal, go to the windows, and watch.

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Along with terrorists, the experience has been shaped, and not in a good way, by accountants. Airlines strive to squeeze revenue from each seat and I do mean squeeze. Being tall is advantageous when visiting a crowded museum or movie theatre, but whenever I fly I wish I were the size of a jockey. And it’s probably just my imagination, but it seems whoever sits around me in a plane is afflicted by one or several of the following: extra girth; bad breath; a tubercular-like cough; a pneumonia-like cold; restless leg syndrome; and, perhaps worst of all, logorrhea.

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Personally, air travel has never been fantastic. My first flight EVER, from Philadelphia to Chicago circa 1964, resulted in the use of the barf bag. Though illness does not produce that effect in me, motion sometimes does – I’ve even become queasy on the Circle Line Tour around Manhattan. The plane event inspired anxiety and the acquisition of Dramamine for every subsequent flight until the last decade or so, at which point I simply decided “enough, I’m over it.” Needless to say, I never aspired to become a pilot or an astronaut.

The only aspect of air travel that is better than “the good old days” is the smoking ban. I happen to have been traveling from California on the day it went into effect in 1991. I remember it clearly because a San Francisco television reporter asked for my opinion in the waiting area. I said something along the lines of: “What idiot ever allowed it in the first place?” I doubt my intemperate clip made it to the small screen. But, as they say nowadays, “Seriously?” Well within my lifetime, smoking was allowed inside confined, flying compartments as though the already-fetid, germ-filled air would not travel from the rear of the plane.

And what about the food? Arguably, the fact that most domestic flights now offer none is a positive development considering the doleful reputation of airline cuisine. But shouldn’t they be able to provide something edible? The situation became so bleak by the beginning of this millennium Jet Blue managed to gain positive press by providing blue potato chips. Now, with airlines making more money than they can spend I note that “snacks” are making a comeback. If only one could make a meal of tiny pretzels and peanuts.

 

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While the major health improvement of the smoking ban is undeniable, the industry has backslid in several other aspects of hygiene. Notably, there are no longer headrest covers to protect passengers from the previous occupier’s grease or dandruff or, for that matter, lice. (Sorry for the graphic image – I should have warned the reader). And the greater level of crowdedness doubtless creates less healthy air.

 

*****

 

Flying presents a philosophical dilemma with regard to how I approach life. When I was young I wished away a lot of time. For instance, during the winters when I was under twelve or so I counted down the weeks until the baseball season. During college, I wished away exam weeks. My law school years were basically a countdown until the drudgery ended. I specifically recall calculating during the first week that there were 1,051 days until graduation. Some classmates were not amused.

Now that I’m older, I strive to banish such negativity. Upon entering middle age, I largely limited my “count-downs” to the cold weather months, and in recent years living in the south, even winter is totally tolerable. In sum, as time seems to pass faster, I’m philosophically opposed to wishing it away.

Flying is an exception.   I wish away every second of time spent on airplanes. I try to be the last to enter (unless carry-on luggage requires me to join the scrum for limited storage space) and I’m the first to jump up when the destination is reached.   Once or twice during a flight, I silently count the seconds from zero to sixty and then backwards again to zero so I know the minutes pass. After I complete a count in English I do it in Spanish or German in order to credit myself with a pathetic sort of intellectual satisfaction. My wife thinks I’m nuts. Perhaps. Am I the only one who does this?

 

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*****

 

I’m afraid Mark Twain would reach the same conclusion about air travel as he reached about the weather: “Everyone complains, but no one does anything about it.” There’s simply no other practical way to reach many places one wants to visit. That’s the reality; that’s the plane truth.

 

 

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REPORT FROM THE COAST

I grew up in the “Go Down the Shore” city of Philadelphia and now live in the “Go to the Beach” state of North Carolina. Last week, we visited the “Drive up the Coast” state of California. It all amounts to the same thing, in one sense; an escape to sand and surf. But in my imagination, each implies very different things, namely: The Jersey Shore is people-dominated, rough and tumble, the stuff of reality television, with boardwalks, tattoos, fudge and criminality just around the corner, real or implied.

North Carolina is mellow, with soft sunshine beating down on vast white sand, gentle waves, with coeds seeking boys and retirees seeking shells. Fishing boats bob in the near distance, patiently gathering the next meal to be eaten off paper plates beachside, in a wooden establishment inevitably called “Fish Shack” or “Shrimp Shack.” The implication is that the nearby water, as warm as bath water in the Carolinas, is a harmless neighbor, hurricanes notwithstanding.

In contrast, California’s coast, with waves crashing upon its craggy rocks, is dramatic.   We may delude ourselves into thinking we control the Atlantic Ocean, with dunes and jetties, but the Pacific shows the futility of even trying. It’s epic. It’s massive. It’s awesome.

*****

A wedding enticed us to San Francisco last week. We decided to extend our stay beyond the event and drove north, first to Fairfax, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg in the wine country, then “up the coast” to Point Reyes. After a day there, we traveled the famous Route 1 North two more hours to Mendocino.

I’d approached the trip with several misconceptions. First, I thought all B & B’s implied bed AND breakfast. But I soon learned, in three out of four instances, we had B-Bed, but no B-Breakfast. We survived, and it allowed us to see several additional establishments, but seriously? B & B’s without the second B? I digress.

Mendocino, in particular, is a town I pictured (admittedly without any basis whatsoever) as sparkling, pristine and pretty. For better or worse, I imagined the wealth of Newport, Rhode Island fused with the brilliant sunshine and modern architecture of South Beach, Miami. I imagined BMW’s, Mercedes’s and an occasional Tesla pulling up to valet parkers in uniforms astride wine bars clothed in earthquake proof glass. What I got was gravel roads, old wooden structures and a whole lot of aging hippies.

I’m told the weekend crowd is closer to what I pictured, escaping from the city for fresh air and open spaces. But during a Tuesday-Thursday visit, our humble rented Chevy fit right in. Some shops sparkle with hints of opulence but much of Mendocino falls several levels below “hippie chic.” One speculates endlessly about which grey-ponytailed painters and potters are “real artists” and which just subsist on family trust funds.   Coffee and sandwich shops abound, and shelter employees and customers who live in the world’s largest remaining collection of psychedelically painted Volkswagen buses.

*****

I have nothing against the hippie culture. Though too young to have experienced the bulk of “The Sixties” and disinclined to partake of the remnants, my sympathies for the era are bona fide. “Hair” is among my favorite musicals.   Eugene McCarthy was my first political hero. And I’m happier listening to “Whiter Shade of Pale” than almost anything written since, though I STILL have no idea what the lyrics mean. Did the singer?

I’ve concluded that the beauty of Mendocino has little to do with its people. It’s about nature. The thrilling drive through redwood forests gives way to the Pacific Ocean. It alternately glistens or is bathed in fog. Wind howls as though a storm is coming, then switches to perfect calm.  My eyes are drawn to the ocean and I can’t pull them away.

*****

Another misconception of mine concerns cattle. Before our visit, if I took a word association test that said “milk,” I’d respond “Wisconsin” or “Iowa.” How many people know that California leads national milk production? If that same test included “ranches,” I’d respond “Oklahoma” or “Texas.” California is actually fourth in beef production, and second in total cows. To my surprise, there are cows on hills and cows on mountains. There are cows throughout wine country, looking as comfortable as connoisseurs, though presumably not partaking. In Point Reyes, there were cows on the beach! Seriously, how many readers knew of California’s bovine bounty?

In conclusion, I enjoyed seeing a part of the country I’d never seen before. If given the chance, everyone should see the northern California coast. Perhaps, someday, I’ll learn to either do more research before a trip, or squelch the tendency to reach conclusions without any basis. And, as concerns Airbnb, I’ll check the fine print.


Dear Readers:
     I have spent the last two-and-a-half weeks on a tour of Spain with my wife, Katie.  At times, the trip was exciting and fun and, at other times, somewhat of an ordeal.  The last time a traveler covered this much territory in Spain, Cervantes wrote an 800 page novel about it.  Compared to his efforts, my explanations, experiences and observations are not profound, literary, meaningful or worthy of being translated into 120  languages.  However, they do offer something that he lacks, namely: brevity.
     Much of what appears below was shared with several readers by e-mail.  That content is reprinted here, with some editing and additional content, with permission from the author.  The process of obtaining permission was extremely simple.
PART ONE:  October 31, 2012, “Hello Mutha, Hello Fatha, We Will Eventually, be in Granada”
     Congratulations to those of you on the East Coast of the US for surviving Hurricane Sandy.   We have followed
your travails on BBC World and I have to say that they show an impressive degree of concern for the old colonies.
We are hurtling through Spain at an alarming rate.  Chevy Chase surely did a movie on this experience.  My first observation is that one should buy more stock in Philip Morris.  Doubtless related to the first observation is that cough drops and sinus medicines also sell well over  here.
Our guide is a character.  He uses the word “well” like a teenager uses “like,” as in:  “Well, Barcelona is a city, well, that is what can you say, well, it is well, Barcelona.”  He has also shared with us that Portugal is the longest standing nation in Europe and that Portugal is the greatest exploring nation in the world and Portugal has the best wine and Portugal has the most soulful people, etc.  This may have something to do with, well, he is a proud Portuguese who somehow drew the Spain assignment this fortnight, and he is not that thrilled about it.
     Nonetheless, we have seen a bit of Madrid on our own, and several days worth of Valencia and Barcelona, respectively, with the group.   The group consists of 35 people from seven nations, including:  England, Australia, Austria, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore and the US.  Several who now live in the US are derived from Iraq.  Since these people, collectively and individually, certainly (when the memories have fully sunk in) warrant entire writings dedicated to them, I will focus here on the travelogue.
       As to Valencia, to the extent I ever thought about it, I thought it was in Italy.  But I was happy to find it in Spain with all its great oranges and fish.  And what architecture!     We enjoyed the stunning beauty of Valencia… A very livable sort of place and we enjoyed the hubbub of Barcelona with its Gaudi and parks and walking areas and shopping, etc.   Basically, as one who would rather live in Philadelphia than New York, if I had to choose, it should not surprise that I preferred Valencia.  But, well, this has been too small a sample to well, make a real, well, comparison.  And to the credit of Barcelona, it is likely the only place a hotel could be in the shape of a large mushroom.  Well.  So you see, well, that the guide is very, well, imitatable and I must stop doing so if, well, I wish to remain married, and if I wish any of you to continue reading.
     The highlight, so far, was a sunset boat ride around a fishing and rice-growing village outside Valencia.  We were fed paella accompanied by ample portions of sangria.  Note that wine is less expensive than water at most restaurants.  We travel towards Pamplona tomorrow where I hope the bulls are on siesta.  More reporting from the paella tour in a couple of days.
PART TWO:  November 2, 2012  “Pamplona is a Lot of Bull”
     From Valencia, we traveled first to Zaragosa, with its massive town plaza featuring a double header, both cathedral AND basilica.  Zaragosa also has a central market (as does nearly every town) featuring fresh fruits, pastries, and seemingly hundreds of pig-related foodstuffs.  Our favorite part of Zaragosa features their native son, the Goya Museum (paintings, not beans, for all you Goya fans).  From there, we traveled to Pamplona, which is a three-trick town: bull running street, holy walk destination and Hemingway hangout.  We drank wine where Ernest did (every establishment in town claims him as a customer) and we ate tapas, which is a Basque term that may mean: “strange food served strangely.”   I did enjoy the bread and local olive oil.  Did you know that the world’s leading grower of olives is not Greece or Italy, but Spain?  Apparently, most of the gazillion acres of olive trees in Spain are owned by Italian companies.  They harvest the olives in Spain and transport them to Italy for processing, and then declare them products of Italy.
      We marched gamely around Pamplona  in a chilling rain and made such sage conjectures as this:  no two ways of flushing a toilet in a Spanish town are ever the same.  There are chains, buttons, handles, knobs, wall-based levers, two-sided contraptions to allow for choice of … Well,  enough of that.
     From Pamplona, we traveled further north to San Sebastián, a snazzy place nestled in the Pyrenees.  Yes, it was nice to see a prosperous -looking town, as the so called “economical crisis” has not hit there.   The Basques, like the Catalans in Barcelona, speak their own dialect and wish to secede from Spain entirely, so that they can be free of what they consider an unfair tax burden.  Basques also have, we are told, a very Germanic, NON-Spanish sort of efficiency.  The city, on the coast of the Bay of Biscayne, is clean and bustling and in close proximity to the French ski resort of Biarritz.   We visited two or three more cathedrals there and in a town called Burgos over the course of several days, and saw a tower for the Knights Templar (powerful back in 1207, or so) in a town unfortunately named Peniscola.   I dovened  appropriately in each chapel with whatever I could remember from my long ago bar mitzvah.
Onward then to Bilbao where we visited the Guggenheim and admired Frank Gehry’s architecture.   Tourism in Bilbao has increased several thousand-fold since the mid-1990’s construction of the museum and it, too, is a prosperous place.   We noted windmills and solar panels all along the highways; nearly all of  northern Spain is powered by wind and solar and it was stunning to see.   It is amazing/sad to see how much farther along this relatively impoverished country is than we are… But I am trying hard to avoid political issues these days.
PART THREE:  November 2, 2012.  “The Rain in Spain Falls, Basically, Everywhere”
    We managed to solve the drought in Spain.  This is not the same magnitude of accomplishment as bringing a week of rain to Phoenix or sleet to San Francisco, as we achieved on previous vacations, but it is still worthy of a simple basilica or two in our honor.  Nonetheless, we continued the transition from palaces and cathedrals to palaces, cathedrals, basilicas and castles.
     From Bilbao, we moved south to Salamanca, a university town.  There we saw the “new” cathedral (16th century) and the old original (11th century).  I imagine the building fund is about to rev up again.  All lit up, the town was magical to see.  However, if one did look up, the discharge from a gargoyle might drown one, since it was raining gatos and perros.  We also saw the walled city of Avila (El Cid, a/k/a/ Charlton Heston) played a large role in killing Muslims there.
     Each town has a Jewish Quarter, which the tour guide makes an astonishingly big deal about, considering that there have been no Jews practicing openly in Spain since about 1492.   He is under the impression that everyone got along swimmingly back in 1320 or so, but I remain skeptical.   No one ever loved the tax collector and that was often the only job made available by the local royalty.  In any event, the Jewish quarter now implies tiny shops in tiny streets with many souvenirs.
        Last evening, we alighted upon Seville, a major metropolis.  Dinner on our own was  successful at a seafood restaurant.  Ham is otherwise a constant at every meal.  Katie’s suitcase is taking its own vacation, having been loaded onto the wrong bus at Salamanca, so we also had some shopping to do.  We are told it will catch up to us later today or tomorrow.  So far, she is coping admirably (and buying necessities on the tour company’s Euro) but if it does not show up by tomorrow, the sleepy province of Andalucia may see her inner-New Jersey.
        We visited a major-league cathedral this morning, biggest in the world, and a palace constructed in commemoration of the Seville exposition of 1929.  Tile was in style, at least for a while.   The Jewish quarter is a massive shopping area where, potentially, I should open up a stand and sign autographs.   We are happy to be missing the final throes of the US election.  The 2016 race will not begin until about February, I imagine, during which time we may be writing from our new home in Panama.
     PART FOUR:  November 9, 2012
Perhaps some of our prayers in all these cathedrals were answered.  America may yet go off the “fiscal cliff,” but at least it is not yet ready to go off the intolerance cliff.   For what it is worth, (and it may not be worth one iota) nearly every  non-American was delighted with the election result.  It is nice not to  feel a need to answer “Canada” as our home country, as we occasionally did when we traveled back in the Bush years.
      Since the last installment, we have finished our stay in Seville and visited Granada and Cordoba, as well as various truck stops along the way that do not make the guide books. We have seen several towns where the Man of La Mancha failed to actually exist.  We have also gotten lost in more Jewish quarters than they have in Israel.   “A business with no street signs,” to quote what my father would surely have said.   In the south of Spain, one adds mosques to the triumvirate of cathedrals, castles, palaces and gift shops.   (I realize that is a quartet; just making sure you are reading carefully).
     Our tour guide created some unusual expectations on our ride to Grenada when he assured us over and over that, well,  we would discover there “the porpoise of life.”   This made me wonder if there was an aquarium.   By this stage of the trip, some of our fellow-travelers were audibly mocking him when he spoke.  We actually cringed  when we heard him activate the microphone.  But, well, I digress…
The mosques initially left us underwhelmed.   Even the Alhambra, an official wonder of the world, was a little dour.   Pouring rain did not help, along with loud, polyglot crowds.   Also, Grenada was somewhat grimy, its walls defaced with nasty-looking graffiti.  There were clusters of swarthy young men in leather jackets hanging around the street corners, indicative of the sour state of the economy in southern Spain.  Fortunately, lest my slightly skeptical view of Arab culture be confirmed, we ended our main travels at the Mezquite Cathedral in Cordoba.  Along with the fact that the town of Cordoba is prettier and cleaner than Grenada,  and the obligatory Jewish quarter is well-marked and interesting, the combo mosque/cathedral is stunning!  Really, the architectural highlight of the trip.  It seems that the Christians let the Muslims do much of the heavy lifting  (literally) back in the eleventh century and then took over in the thirteenth century to complete an amazing cathedral over the top of a flamboyantly elaborate mosque foundation.   While we saw some SERIOUSLY impressive edifices on this trip,  this one topped them all.   A tour has advantages and disadvantages, but I must admit that if we were not part of a tour, by this stage of the trip, I might not have visited “one more cathedral.”  And that would have been unfortunate.
     We broke up the so-so tour group meals in Cordoba by going out for Chinese food.  The whole kitchen staff came out to stare at Katie, a Mandarin-speaking gringo.   Random observation:   Spain utilizes the same wealth redistribution strategy as most American states– from the lower class back to the government– via the lottery.  There are kiosks on every other street that are humming with business from a deluded  population, no matter how downcast the other businesses  appear to be.
PART FIVE:  November 11.  The End of the Road
After two weeks of plying the highways and byways of Spain, it was nice to see our old, original hotel, however humble, back in Madrid.  The tour ended today and some brain cells are coming available again as I delete the precariously remembered names (though not the peculiarities) of my fellow-travelers.  Observation, after two weeks of travel:  You know you have relied too much on BBC World when you know the daily average temperature in Rangoon and the name of the opposition party in Upper Mongolia.
     We had two more days in Madrid, on our own.  The  highlight of the first day was the Thyssen Museum.  We chose it over the Prado for its emphasis on modern art instead of the old religious stuff.  Very nice museum.
     The next day, our last, we walked the most, from the Plaza Mayor, to downtown, to the Prado where we listened to a wonderful classical guitar performer, to the huge Retiro Gardens, and back to the Plaza again from whence we returned to the hotel.  The highlights were several serendipitous occurrences in the Gardens, which are like Central Park.  There was an a capella choir practicing, a huge outdoor photography exhibit on wildlife with English explanations (not always present in museums/cites outside major cities).  We saw the “silver palace,” a destination in the middle of the park, that is neither a palace nor silver.  It is best-described as a huge glass greenhouse decorated with tiles around its foundation.  Anyway, it has particularly beautiful flowers around it and a duck pond that is a favorite photograph destination for brides and tourists.  Perhaps, park strollers are a self-selected healthier population, but it struck us that 90% of the Spanish population was NOT smoking there, a much better ratio than usual.
     On the way back to our hotel, we had an experience that certainly will not happen in Chapel Hill, NC.  We found ourselves overtaken by a demonstration in favor of independence for Western Sahara.  It seems that Spain held it as a colony and then abandoned it in the 1990’s in the face of terrorist bombings.  Instead of setting up an independent nation, Spain simply walked out, allowing neighboring Morocco to annex it.  So… to make a VERY  long story short, the Western  Saharan emigrants (I’d like to have the deodorant concession)  and friends of the cause are demonstrating for independence from Morocco in Spain, since, presumably, the Spanish government is less likely to shoot and imprison them.  Got it?  The 1,000 or so demonstrators were dressed in outfits typical of the Western Sahara,  I presume.  It was more a party atmosphere than an angry one, with drums and horns and ululating women (that has nothing to do with sex, I think).  It was not scary, but it was chaotic and memorable; our faces are now probably somewhere in a security database in Casablanca.  We’re the ones without facial hair (that goes for male and female participants).
       What else can I say?   We had one more so-so meal in what we began to think of as “our neighborhood,” and went back to our room to pack.  We are ready for our comparatively dull existences again.  We never thought we would CRAVE oatmeal, or ANY meal without twelve varieties of sausage, but we do.
Hasta la vista, Your Correspondent