Since I’m claiming this to be a “travelogue,” I thought I’d offer some actual travel tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
Pictures are great, but hang on to your phone/camera (see part 7).
Booking discount airfare is great, but you might make sure that the airline uses actual plane parts assembled by actual mechanics. This is a photo of my exit-row window seat on our flight from Amsterdam to London. A wiser man might have disembarked, but hey, the flight was cheap.
Don’t let your phone run out of battery. When your traveling pack of old farts finally gives out due to feet or knees or backs or some other failing body part, it’s not a good thing to have no way to summon an Uber or call a cab.
Don’t trust the weather forecast. Every few hours, the forecast for the next few hours here shifts. In the morning, it says it will be dry and partly cloudy that afternoon. By 2:00, it is pouring on you, exactly as predicted when they revised the forecast an hour earlier. I have decided that Arizona meteorologists are far superior to their British counterparts. Here, they are rarely accurate more than a day in advance. Back home, you can confidently depend upon the 10 day forecast when they say, “110 and sunny, 110 and sunny, 110 and sunny...”
While living for an extended period abroad, have all the tools you’ll need. While cooking one evening, a can of tomatoes required opening, but all we had was a dysfunctional can opener. Our friend Denise decided to attack the can with the small ax that we used for firewood. Failing in this effort, she approached a neighbor, whom she had not yet met, ax still in hand, gesturing her inability to whack the can open.
The approach of a wild-eyed stranger waving an ax caused some alarm. Perhaps that assisted with the prompt production of a can opener for our use. We’ll return it without bearing arms.
For those of you who may have considered the traveling RV lifestyle, here’s an alternative. Canals are plentiful in this part of the world. Not just in Amsterdam and Paris, but even here in the English countryside. This pic is just a few miles from my house and canal boats are both moored and traveling all the way up and down. The tow paths make for great walks, too. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a single RV, no doubt due to the impossibility of navigating British roads in one of those behemoths.
Speaking of walks, once you figure out routes, you can seemingly get anywhere around here on foot. The only thing keeping me from getting all my steps in on a daily basis is the weather. But walking has its hazards as well, including hungry horses, angry cows (I thought Mad Cow was over with), poop of various sources, and the frequent “fork in the road,” which everyone from Robert Frost to Yogi Berra urges us to take, yet can send you far afield when you have no idea where you are to begin with. On the other hand, that’s how I’ve discovered some of my most cherished sights.
When traveling, try to not be an ugly American. One hears plenty of American accents in London and elsewhere that we’ve been. In a lovely restaurant in Paris, we sat next to a young American graduate student and his parents, who had come to visit him. He was such a know-it-all jerk to them, dismissing everything that they had to say and taking every opportunity to show off his knowledge of... well, everything, that I just wanted to smack him. At another sidewalk cafe in Paris we sat next to a guy in a LA Dodgers cap going off on how the French had barely discovered kale, and were still eating couscous, while of course the newest thing in California was spelt.
Be prepared to walk.
Nowhere I’ve been on this trip has heard of the ADA. Few mass transit stops are accessible without the use of stairs. One exception in London offers an elevator – with a long line waiting – and a sign that warns that the number of stairs are the equivalent of a 15 story building.
As we found in Paris, when you’ve finished hiking to your platform, there is at least ample seating while you await your train.
Another piece of travel advice: If your instructions for an AirBnB rental seem odd, consider renting elsewhere.
Nancy and I rented a lovely apartment in Paris for our time there. It was sweet, as our communication was with the young woman who owned it. Yet this was the only such rental I’ve experienced where you never see anyone. We were to obtain the keys from the cafe downstairs where they had been left for us in an envelope, and drop the keys back in the owners mailbox upon our departure. It all went smoothly, and we even replenished the coffee supply and tidied up considerably before we left.
Several days later, we got an email from this young woman that she had finally returned to her apartment to find it ransacked, with all her valuables missing. The keys were not in her inbox, she claimed, and because there had been no forced entry, her insurance would cover none of it. (Really?) A few email exchanges later, and she said that AirBnB had suggested their “arbitration” services to negotiate claims for damages against us.
I still don’t think we’re being scammed, exactly. She seems genuine and we haven’t heard anything more for several days, but I’m hoping that this doesn’t end up becoming a legal issue. And next time, I’m only renting when there’s someone there to receive the keys and check us out, as has been my previous experience. Lesson learned.
While Bobbie and Jack were here, I discovered that I had never regaled them with one of my more infamous travel stories. Of course, I was compelled to share it with them. I’m sure that some of you have heard this one before, so with apologies I include it here because, well, it is travel-related. And because I told it again while here. And because I’ve never actually written it down. So here goes.
By way of background, several years ago I had a chronic TMJ issue. That’s “Temporomandibular Joint,” as in your jaw. It’s a classic joint to have problems, sometimes requiring surgical intervention.
I never had much pain with it, but I developed a “click” in my left jaw when I sometimes tried to open my mouth, which progressed to greater and greater resistance over time. Finally, I would occasionally find myself unable to open my mouth at all, my jaw clenched, until I managed to dislodge it. At first, dislodging it required strenuously forcing my mouth open, culminating with a loud “pop” that could be heard across a room. But as time went on, I found that I could only force it open by whacking the side of my jaw with my hand. Hard. Sometimes several times. Hard.
Needless to say, when this occurred in a public place, others in my presence might be disturbed by the sight of the crazy man quite literally punching himself repeatedly in the face. In general, they avoided eye contact and shuffled off.
Throughout all of this progression, I practiced the tried-and-true medical strategy of ignoring the problem. I mean, it didn’t really hurt, and it only happened once every few weeks or so. I only occasionally freaked out passersby. And I really didn’t want to hear what course of treatment might be recommended.
Once during this same period, I also had the misfortune to scratch a cornea. If you’ve never had that happen, think OWIE. Big OWIE. It hurts in a unique way.
To allow the cornea to heal, you need to minimize the amount of rubbing of the inside of the eyelid against the eye. In years past, they would try patching the eye, until that was shown to be pretty worthless. Now they just instruct the patient to keep that eye closed, and to try to not move your eye around. Look left and right by moving your neck, not your eyeball. The pain encountered by moving your eye provides instant feedback to help remind you.
A couple of days after scratching that cornea, I had to take a flight for a meeting. I passed through the airport and boarded the plane keeping my one eye closed, hoping not to look too weird, and settled into my aisle seat, with an empty middle seat between me and and a passenger in the window. As I often do on flights, I quickly fell asleep.
Sometime later I was awakened by the conversation between a flight attendant and my aforementioned fellow passenger. As I stirred, I realized that in my slumber, I had leaned upon my arm so that it was now completely asleep. Numb and flaccid. My face had also been firmly planted in such a way that I could tell it was a droopy, wrinkled mess. And to my chagrin, as I regained consciousness, I also realized that my TMJ had kicked in and my jaw was locked.
There I sat, one eye closed, one side of my face drooped, with a totally flaccid arm and a clenched jaw. I was a textbook picture of someone who had just had a stroke. The flight attendant eyed me with alarm. “Sir,” she inquired, “are you alright?”
“Arrrawagggh,” I replied, unable to open my mouth to speak.
The flight attendant spun on her heels and hurtled up through the aisle. I glanced at my seat mate to my right just long enough to see that she had pushed herself up against the wall of the plane, recoiling in horror. Probably not a good time to begin socking myself in the jaw to relieve my condition, I thought. In no time I spied the flight attendant rushing back in my direction with her flight attendant buddy in tow. And I had a sickening premonition that I was about to hear that dreaded overhead page, “Is there a doctor on board?” In response to which, of course, I would be ethically obliged to raise my one remaining good arm and shout, “ARRRAWAGGGH!”
And one final piece of travel advice: take all your keys with you when you leave your rental property.
We took our buddy Denise into London on a day that we knew a realtor was going to be showing the cottage to future potential renters. It was Denise’s last day here, as she was flying out the next morning. We had a good time. We ate lunch at our favorite place (the best seafood restaurant on earth, I’m convinced). We caught a show (“Everyone’s Talking About Jamie”). We ate dinner at a fav pub. We took a train, taxi, and another train on our return. We didn’t arrive home until nearly 11 pm. It was just starting to rain.
Nancy stuck her key into the door lock and turned it, but the door didn’t budge. It was being held shut, as if by a separate deadbolt. It took a moment to realize that the second lock on the door, which had an old-fashioned skeleton keyhole and which we had always ignored, was locked tight. Previously, I hadn’t even thought it was functional. It seemed so antiquated, so merely decorative, and I didn’t think there was even a key to it, as we didn’t have one. (It turns out that, unbeknownst to me, there actually was a set of keys inside.)
Obviously, the realtor did have a copy of that key. And had used it.
We checked the back door. It was locked, but we knew it was a flimsy latch that we could kick if we had to. I tried both of the ground floor windows. Shut tight.
Lots of options sprung to mind. There was an open window on the second floor, but no easy way to reach it without depending upon a rickety-appearing overhang for support. I searched for a ladder behind a neighbor’s home that I had seen days earlier, but couldn’t find it. Might a neighbor have a spare key? All their lights were off, save those in the elderly lady’s house whom I knew by reputation would call the police for any suspicious activity. Nancy had the landlady’s number in her phone, but her phone had earlier run out of juice (see above advice), so we found ourselves back sitting in the running car to charge her battery. But that wasn’t the solution, as we needed our home WiFi to call anyone, because we’re out of cell range out here in the sticks.
At this point, with Nancy seriously suggesting kicking the back door in, the better part of valor might have been to seek out a hotel in some nearby town. But Denise needed to depart for the airport in the morning, all her stuff was inside, and there were no better prospects of getting the landlady or the realtor out early the next day - the Sunday of a three-day weekend - than there was of doing so that night.
In desperation, as Nancy sent texts from the car, I went to the pub, which was just in the process of closing up, but had plenty of folk still gathered on this Saturday night.
Did they know our landlady well enough to have a spare key? No. Did anyone have a ladder that could reach our second-floor window? No. I borrowed their phone, but didn’t get through to our landlady and couldn’t leave a message.
One young patron with whom we’d shared some prior lively conversation perked up. “Let me have a look,” he said, and followed me home to investigate the possibilities. As he staggered around our property, I discouraged him from his thoughts of trying to climb the wall to the open window.
I returned to the pub intending to try calling again. A few young, inebriated lads passed me on their way toward our cottage, insisting that they’d “broken into plenty of houses before.” Meanwhile, in my brief absence from the pub, our landlady had returned the missed call from the pub’s phone, spoke to others there, so now had an inkling of an idea of the drama that was consuming her property. I finally got through and spoke to her and she said she’d try calling the property agent, as they refer to realtors here, although she wasn’t sure whether they even had an emergency contact number.
I rushed back to the scene of the crime that was now our cottage to find our inebriated young friend quite literally shoving another inebriated young man up off his shoulders towards the second floor window. The would-be burglar was grasping for whatever toe-hold he might find along the brick wall below the open window which, I was pretty sure, would not support much weight. And of course, all of this was in the rain.
I severely protested, humbly suggesting that they not break their necks in this endeavor. Every injury prevention synapse I possessed was firing warnings as I watched in alarm this wobbling tower of amused determination. One foot was perched upon a shoulder, the other upon the palm of an outstretched arm, straining to push upwards toward the promise of a flimsy window pane just beyond reach.
“They’ll be fine” insisted an onlooking third inebriant, as legs and arms flailed about the brick wall. I flashed on Will’s old blog describing his sudden descent from a tree.
It worked. In no time, he scooted through our window, descended the stairs, and opened our door.
I owe these guys so much beer the next time I see them in the pub. And the time after that. And perhaps the time after that. And I believe them that they’ve broken into plenty of houses before.