Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mom's first trip to the Continent

As my brief tenure in Belgium wounds it's way toward a close, my mother flew in to meet me in Brussels for one last jaunt. She would be there for 10 days, then we'd fly home together. Mom had never been to Europe; the closest she'd been was our trip years back to England and Ireland. So I had planned some excursions for us: to Paris for a weekend, and two places I'd not yet been, London and Venice.  I had been traveling according to my financial status in Europe: that of graduate student on a volunteer stipend. By then I was staying at a historic townhouse in the city center as a house sitter for an American family posted to Brussels living off base. In my charge were their two very different pet cats, Dickens and Hamilton. Dickens was skinny and shy, almost elusive, while Hamilton was outright obese and extremely social, even gregarious. Hamilton would climb up the stairs to the bedroom on the weekend mornings to wake me up if I'd slept in too long. He would meow the entire way, expressing his dissatisfaction at not having been fed breakfast as early as deemed appropriate by his ample stomach. 

So I met mom at the airport and we travelled by bus to the city center. The bus stopped very near to the townhouse, and so we walked the rest of the way, mom very much enchanted by the lovely architecture of the well preserved residential neighborhood. I left her to rest in the good care of an attentive Hamilton and the relatively absent Dickens before heading in to the office for several hours. I'd left instructions for Mom to help herself when she got hungry and to try to sleep off some of the jet lag. I didn't dare leave food out on the off chance that dear Hamilton might miraculously heft his girth onto the counter if the incentive were great enough. After I finished at work for the day, the plan was to pick mom up at the townhouse and head for the train station, where we'd catch the high speed for our weekend in Paris. I had per booked everything, from our separate seats on the Thalys (I got a student discount but subsequently had to ride in a different car) to what Expedia described as a four star hotel not far from the hill of Montmartre. 

All went according to plan for the most part, except of course for the exceedingly tall, Japanese Belgian man in his very early  thirties mom met in her train car. As it happened, so she later explained, he was sitting next to her and spoke English, so naturally after he mentioned wanting to settle down, mom thought of me. God knows how long they spent discussing me, but mom must have painted me in a good light overall, for as the train slowed for imminent arrival he gave her his business card, in case I wanted to keep in touch. As you might imagine, once I found mom on the train prior to disembarking, I vehemently wished I had just waited for her on the platform. And after awkward introductions between myself and the aforementioned businessman, I rolled my eyes so many times at my mother that if one could injure oneself so, I would have suffered permanent damage. But by then we were in Paris, out of the Gare Saint Lazare dragging our luggage behind us. If I may say, we had planned the baggage badly for a weekend away, and would not be making that mistake again. 

By then my French was acceptably travel worthy, though not at all proficient beyond that capacity, but I still managed to get us lost, if only for 10 or 20 minutes. Relief flooded us both when we found our reserved hotel and, au Francais, I checked in with the front desk. 

However it was fleeting, when the clerk said, "Ah, oui, Mademoiselle Rosser. You have a very nice room reserved, acclimatise, everything, but...not in this hotel."

"Pardon?!" Came my incredulous reply, a moment of panic coming over me.

"Oui," he continued, "your chambre is at our sister hotel, very nice, around the corner." He proceeded to give me directions to the very nice sister hotel in half French, half English, which turned out to be a little further than just around the corner.

We made it to hotel number two quite easily though, and repeated my now practiced check in procedure, this time in English due largely in part to my nerves by this stage. Somewhat surprisingly, it went off without a hitch and we headed to the elevator, as our room was on the fifth floor and we had our small roller suitcases. As the door to the elevator slid open, though, we looked at each other with raised eyebrows when we saw what was the smallest elevator either of us had ever beheld.  We could barely stuff ourselves in it, tandem, with our bags, but we made it and rode giggling up to our room. The lift might have tipped us off, but we were far too naive for that, and I was oblivious, partly out of necessity, to the drawbacks of my travel budget. 

Upon entering the room, we noticed a very old, very low queen bed but otherwise a pretty standard room. Until, that is, I wandered into the bathroom and discovered a bona fide hole in the tile and through the entire wall of our shower. At least I had the where with all not to stoop down and look through it; there was no light I could appreciate from my end so I actively chose to believe the other end must of  opened to a neighboring closet or something of that ilk. 

In any case, we were in Paris, the city of lights, and planned on spending next to no time in the room anyway. We dropped off our suitcases and set out in search of one of the famous sidewalk cafés. 

Now have I mentioned it was August, in Europe? Which is tantamount to saying that the vast majority of the Continent shuts down. Who would have thought that the sidewalk cafés of Paris would be a empty and silent as a ghost town? I half expected a tumbleweed to blow by. We finally found an open brasserie and sat down, shortly to be attended to by an over zealous but understaffed Armenian waiter who introduced himself as Yousef. Mom ordered some awful, limp frankfurters, and my meal was so underwhelming I can't remember to this day what it was I had ordered. What we do remember though, is Yousef, who kept asking me my name in French, and, emboldened by my answer, then began petting my hair whenever he walked by.  Escaping the clutches of disturbing Yousef, we quickly paid and headed back to our hotel lobby, where we perused tourist brochures and asked the concierge for recommendations. 

We settled on a cruise of the Seine the following day, and I compromised on a private tour of the city at night by car. Mom loved guided city tours and I loathed them, too touristy. So, the next morning we breakfasted at the hotel before catching the bus to Notre Dame. The cathedral was intimidating, commandeering all of its tiny island in the Seine, with gargoyles leering above us. Inside, the Gothic influence was still palpable in the dark, but you could practically smell the history, thick in the air. 

We lunched at a much nicer, much more occupied sidewalk cafe on the Left Bank, where mom was sure that our French waiter scoffed at us continually, especially when she requested a second spoon for our shared, and amazing, creme brûlée.  I tried repeatedly to explain to mom that just because no one was speaking English directly to us absolutely did not mean they did not understand what we were saying, and therefore, courtesy dictated that mom should not talk about the people around us in a normal conversational voice unless she had very nice things to say. We revisited this topic more than once during our brief visit to the French capital.

After lunch we cruised the Seine under the unchanging watch of the Eiffel Tower, enjoying a sunny day and the beautiful architecture surrounding us. Before our evening tour, we hit the Louvre, marveling at the Classical Antiquities, the Egyptian Artifacts, and of course, da Vinci 's now ever crowded Mona Lisa.

The Eiffel Tower glittered before us toward the end of our admittedly enchanted evening tour, and we fell into the uncomfortably low hotel bed two very content frugal travelers.  

Our departure the next day was early evening, so we left our bags at the front desk at check out, and hiked up the hill of Montmartre. We stumbled across a cute little market shop and went inside for croissants. No one ever told me just how steep that particular hill is, but once we reached the Sacre Coeur, it was well worth it. Street artists sold watercolors just before the steps to the city vista, and mom bought one of the Champs Élysées for me which we had framed Stateside. Walking around the basilica and down the steps to the terrace, the view of Paris laid out along the river Seine before us was indeed breathtaking, something for a postcard. 

Much to my relief, mom didn't find anyone on the train ride back to Brussels to set me up with, and we headed back to the company of the two townhouse cats for a night's rest before more gallivanting around Western Europe another day.

Monday, August 25, 2014

They still call Tucson the Old West...

Yes, this is still a travel blog. But I recently had the chance to tell this true story to visiting family, and it turned out to be so much fun that I thought I would try to capture some of the humor here to share.  And the story itself does involve some travel too, so here goes.
Because my husband, Jonathan, and I are from different parts of the United States, my parents offered to throw us an engagement party in my hometown of Tucson during Jon's spring break from teaching. You see, I am obviously from Arizona, where my parents still lived, and Jon is from Wisconsin, where most of his family still lives, except his parents who moved to Utah. To make matters slightly more complicated, at this time I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, working at my first job after completing a surgery residency, while Jonathan was still in Wisconsin teaching full time and getting his Masters. 
Mom and Karen, close family friend and my godmother, had been helping me plan the engagement party long distance, since they were local. I was really excited about it because I still had a lot of friends in Tucson and Jonathan really wanted to have the wedding in his hometown of Chippewa Falls. So this was our chance to celebrate with a lot of the Tucson folk. Mom had reserved a reception room at the Arizona Inn, one of my favorite historic venues in town. It was one of the places I used to meet my grandfather for lunch when I was in undergrad at UofA, and held special memories. Not only that, but it is a well kept up property, kind of a little oasis in the midst of a busy part of the city, with classic style but still true to its Southwest environs.  We had settled on crudités, smoked salmon, cheese and fruit platters, and passed trays of hors d'oeuvres with coffee, chocolate covered strawberries and iced tea or lemonade. Mom had invitations made and sent out, and it was going to be very nice.
Of note, our engagement party would also be the first time our parents had met, as Jonathan's parents, Sheri and John, were driving to Tucson for the better part of a week for the event. As they had not been to the area previously, nor had Jonathan, we planned a mini tour, starting in Bisbee where we would meet them and had reserved rooms at none other than the historic (and haunted?) Copper Queen Hotel. 
My dad had been in and out of the hospital for a few years with some complicated health issues. About a week before the party, I was talking to him on the phone and realized he needed to go back in. So he put Mom on the phone, and I told her to take him in on emergency. When they admitted him for kidney failure, we thought seriously about canceling the party but Mom said she thought he wanted to go to the party and so we decided to wait and see. One of the things about kidney failure is the circulating toxins that aren't being properly eliminated can really affect the brain's normal functioning. So Dad could recognize me, and even Jon, but was just not able to do most things, in part because he also had trouble with disorientation, apparently common in intensive patients. 
In the midst of all this, our house in Madison, Wisconsin, where I had lived during my residency, was closing on the real estate market, in Dad's name.  In order to close on it, we needed the account number of the mortgage on that house, but of course he was in no shape to deal with any of that.
Shaping up to be heck of a meet the parents weekend, right?
My mother's sister was also flying in from the Northwest, and we had booked an evening for all of us at the Gaslight Theatre, a fun comedy theatre that does costume spoof musicals which are always a riot. You can order pizza and ice cream sundaes to your table during the show, and afterwards they do an old olio show.
So after visiting my dad in the hospital, Jonathan and I drive down to Bisbee to meet his parents. We spent the night there, after dinner laughing at his dad's stories of hitchhiking across the US when he was a teenager. The next day we went antique-ing and then drove the short way to Tombstone. I had never been to Tombstone, but is was so cliche! So touristy! The most interesting thing we saw there was the world's largest rose bush. We poked around a bit and had delicious barbecue for lunch before driving toward Tucson. I had found a winery on the internet, so we stopped there for a tasting, but it was like a ghost town and we the only customers for who knows how long.
By the time everyone had arrived in Tucson officially, Mom and I knew it was too late to cancel the engagement party. We also knew Dad would not be coming, sad as it was. 
So instead of meeting my parents, John and Sheri met my mom and Richard and Karen Parker, my godparents. The whole Parker clan got together and cooked for us that first day at my mother's house, like a catered meal. It was really great and also worked as a perfect icebreaker. John and Sheri settled in at their hotel and had been really understanding when we explained the situation with my Dad. 
The next day we met Jon's folks for lunch, I always try to get in as much real Mexican food as possible when I'm home, then went on to the Sonoran Desert Museum. Then everyone met up at Gaslight for dinner and a show. At first I think poor John and Sheri weren't sure what to think, but part way into the show they seemed to start to get into it.
The next day was the party, and, as anticipated, it was lovely and everyone had a good time.  Mom and Karen had done a great job and it showed, everything went off with out a hitch. Jonathan's parents headed out the next day to do a little more exploring on their drive back to Utah. Jon and I and my mom met Richard and Karen the next day at the hospital, ironically just a block or two away from the Arizona Inn. Richard had worked in real estate and knew what things we needed to close on the house. Despite being moved to a hospital room with a window, Dad's disorientation was not improving. So after dinner together that night, the Parker's took my mom on an errand and Jon and I drove to the house. Our mission: find the mortgage number. We hunkered down in Dad's office, me at the computer, Jonathan on the floor in front of the filing cabinet. We went through everything, but no mortgage number, not even as a document on the computer. So I logged on to Dad's online baking account and began to go through the bill pay. Jonathan was now looking in the closet, from which he emerged with a small rifle stored in a long sock. I had a little bee bee rifle as I kid, so I thought maybe it was that.  Jonathan sat back on the floor, behind me, as I was still working online, and he was checking out the gun.  Now, I can guess what you're thinking. Still, these were difficult times, and obvious as it was, I didn't think I was in eminent danger.
Boy was I wrong! Of course the rifle discharged, at which point it becomes painfully clear that this was no bee bee gun, but rather a shotgun!  I was no longer on the internet, but screaming at Jonathan, "what the hell are you thinking?"
To which he indignantly replied, "I checked the chamber and it was empty."
"Well, clearly not!" I said, sharply, also pointing out that it was clearly a shotgun. By then, I think he was more scared of me than the shotgun, which turned out to be my Dad's 22 gauge.  I then went on to say, "you never fire a gun inside a house, sitting behind another human being! This is how people die in gun accidents!" I think it might have still been more of a spoken comment than a yelled one. I told him somewhat more quietly, to put the gun away and not to touch it again, while I finished with the online banking. Then, I went to the closet to look for the round.  I never did find it, though I did find bullet holes in three of my dad's coat sleeves. Turns out, the round had gone up into the ceiling and come out through the wall in the adjacent guest bedroom.  The walls had to be patched and my cousin Jason had to climb up on the roof to make sure there was no exit hole!
We haven't been back to Arizona since, but more importantly, Jonathan is no longer allowed to handle firearms, at least not when I am around. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Summer Weekend Getaway

Lounging in a luxurious, small boutique hotel room with the amber light of the bedside lamp, the panoramic window cracked to let in the fresh cool air. Outside several wisps of cloud cling to the mountainside, just after the rain.  Dusk settles in, only a faint yellow fading on the horizon.  The bell tower of St. Nikolai rises dramatically against the mountain backdrop, lighted subtly from below. Lights twinkle in the distant foothills.

Thus begins our first, and long overdue, weekend summer getaway. We have come to Villach, near the Austrian Italian border; home of mountains, lakes, and the river Drau, on whose banks our modern retreat comfortably resides. Beneath me the lights of the town begin to glimmer, as more low clouds sweep across the mountain view. The night air smells fresh, with hints of pine and clean glacial lakes. The day's moody rain clouds solemnly roll eastward, and the bell chimes from its tower. 

It is an early evening in for me, while Jon is downstairs enjoying the sauna. We strolled through the rain in late afternoon, crossing a nearby bridge to the city center. Our investigations paid off, as one of the historic buildings off the main square boasts a sidewalk cafe with a very affordable traditional breakfast - we plan on trying it in the morning.  Afterwards we will make our way to Tarvisio, Italy, just 30 minutes away. It will be Jon's first trip to Italy, and we hope to buy some authentic parmigiana for an afternoon picnic while hiking in the Carinthian mountains.  

Tonight I had what I presume to be rather classic Southern Austrian fare, pasta dumplings stuffed with herbed tropfen in butter sauce with a side of green salad. Tomorrow promises Italian food, naturally, and if I'm very lucky, perhaps an Italian leather handbag from the open air market?

The lurking clouds have left the cover of the mountainside, and are quickly overtaking my windowscape, now blotting out everything but the uplit belltower. A cup of Darjeeling tea and a soak in the marble bathtub might be just the thing before Jon returns with chocolate mousse room service...