Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year!

Safari sitting room tent

2015 will be remembered by me forevermore as the year of travel. Not that I don't plan to return to some of the places I've been this year, and possibly visit new ones. But from here on out, I believe travel will be a much slower process for me. I seriously doubt I'll ever again cover as much ground in one year as I have this one.

Which is fine. And which is also not to say that I didn't enjoy traveling fast and furiously this year. But there are all kinds of travel, each serving a different purpose. I got to see so much of what I'd hoped to this year, and was pleasantly surprised by so much I had not expected to see, that any minor disappointments were barely registered. There were silver linings everywhere I turned.

If any year in my life deserves a recap, it's this one. So I'm going to indulge myself with reflections on the year a long held dream came true. Please feel free to follow along, skim over or ignore completely. 

Since it is such a long post, if you are reading this by email, you may want to click through to the actual website.

The beginning of 2015 found me in New Orleans. Though I had never planned to live in Louisiana again, circumstances brought me back mid-2013 and kept me there until early February 2015.

It was an emotion packed time that saw the end of an era with the death of my mother and included the unique experience of living in the French Quarter, which I loved so much more than I ever expected.

NOLA French Quarter Mr. Okra

Not that I stayed in one place for even that limited time. From the French Quarter, I moved to the Bywater for a few months, which had its own charms.

And from the Bywater, I moved to the Garden District, where Martha and I spent several glorious months at the home of our very dear friends, Charlie and Maureen, with whom we'd lost touch decades ago and were deliriously happy to see again. Along with Robert upstairs, plus a constantly rotating cast of characters, including their son Andrew, we all flowed effortlessly around the big house on Magazine Street.

After all of our cozy calm times, interspersed with Bouree games, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's celebrations, it was such a wrench to leave there just before Mardi Gras.

I kept hoping to get back again this year and it didn't work out, but it is definitely on the list for 2016.

After many years of trying, I have come very close to paring my belongings down to just what I can carry. Adrienne has kindly allowed me to park a box, a bag and a suitcase in a corner of her guest room closet. A few weeks in Vegas was spent perfecting my packing. Or so I thought.

My flight to London left LAX in early March, which meant I'd miss Donovan's birthday later in the month. So I brought Adrienne and her family to California to visit Universal Studios. I thought the rides were total crap, but the characters and games still made it an enjoyable day.

What was truly amazing, though, were the two nights we spent in Long Beach, on the Queen Mary. There was so much of the original decor from the 30's, and I was just swooning. Naturally, I took loads of photos, so I would really love to know what happened to them. Because they are nowhere to be found on any of my devices or my laptop. Damn it.

Still, that was a thoroughly lovely experience. When Adrienne and her family went back to Vegas, I spent a week in Southern California working on the Europe itinerary and picking up last minute items. Though I thought I'd perfected my packing, I ended up sending a bunch of stuff back to Vegas with Adrienne. This was a mistake I continued to make throughout most of my trip. Along with souvenirs for the family, Martha and I generally sent back some of our own stuff, too.

London Eye and Big Ben at duskIt didn't severely affect our trip, though. I still remember how we wandered around London for days with big smiles on our faces. We still talk about that. After planning for so long, we couldn't believe we were actually there.

Though it was March, it still felt like winter to us, but that didn't matter either. Nothing could wipe the smiles off. London has always been one of my favorite places in the world. I was constantly in and out on my trip, and I can't wait to go back.

Paris view from bridgeThis was the year that Paris won my heart, as well. Though I'd been 3 or 4 times before, it was always a place to go see things. This time, I just enjoyed being in the city. I still saw a whole lot of stuff, but that's because I spent a lot of time there.

I am so emotionally attached to Paris now that when the attacks happened later in the year, I wasn't just appalled in the way of "that could have happened while I was there". It was like a gut punch. I hope to spend a whole lot more time there in the future. Months at a time instead of days.

Bath UK Royal Crescent
I got to see Bath for the first time, which I loved every bit as much as I thought I would. It rounds out the top 3 places I'd like to split my time between, if I get the chance to spend several months at a time abroad again.

There were a few more notable places. Venice, more than most, represented this dream for Martha and I. We kept picturing hanging out in St. Mark's Square. I'd been to Venice before, was very much looking forward to going back and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. But there were a few unexpected developments.

Venice Italy homes and gondola
First, our luggage was missing for almost all of our time there. Also, while St. Mark's is every bit as picturesque as the photos, it is not necessarily the kind of place you want to hang out for longer than it takes to stand in line for the cathedral. I was willing to splurge on a celebratory lunch at one of the restaurants, but they only offered sandwiches, pizza and snacks.

Still, the city is captivating and I loved traveling on the canals. Another place I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to return to.

However, as much as I loved all of these places and more, I
Toddler elephant orphans at feeding time
think the jewel in the crown of six months of travel has to be the safari. It is, after all, easily the most exotic of all our destinations.

That's why it got the lead photo at the top of this post. More importantly, though, it was SO much fun. All of us would return in a heartbeat.

Chania Crete Greece dining on the water
While there is nowhere that I regret going, there were places which did not quite live up to expectations. One was Greece. Nothing I could put my finger on, the people were lovely and it was so cheap. We had a week in a great apartment on Crete with a killer view. There was just no connection.

Malta, too, was beautiful and fascinating. I'm glad I got to see it, it was like stepping back in time. But I doubt I will ever return.

Cinque Terre Italy stormy seasideCinque Terre is every bit as gorgeous as you'd imagine, and I definitely wouldn't mind going back. But I'll be damned if I get on that stupid path again. I'm lucky to have survived the first time and I'm still pissed off that nobody ever warns people about it. And I'd also like some sunshine next time.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
I have't written a post on Pisa yet, probably because there isn't a whole lot to say about it besides the tower. But the tower looks much smaller in person than it does in photos. So that took us by surprise a bit. It definitely leans, though.

Bologna Italy outdoor dining
Probably the biggest disappointment was the food in Italy. I finally figured out it was only the traditional dishes, which I happened to be looking forward to, that Italian chefs don't seem to put much effort into these days. Not even in Bologna, which we went to only because it was located in the foodie region of Emilia-Romogna. But Bologna has a lot going for it and we very much enjoyed ourselves.

Naples Italy almost empty SquareThere were other places I liked more than I expected to. Naples was one. It's such a great combination of fun social place in the midst of fabulous ancient architecture mixed with the coolest ultramodern subways I've ever seen or heard of. 

Siena Italy town square
We were completely bowled over by Siena. It felt more ancient than anywhere else besides Malta. And it was a nice cozy small size.

Palermo Sicily ancient carriage
But another city that really struck a deep chord, for me at least, was Palermo. Italy is such a fabulous country, I love it. Although I don't want to spend vast amounts of time in any one part of it, the way I do in London, Paris or Bath, I would very much enjoy returning to visit for a few days in all of the places we went to. But there is something special about Palermo. Maybe my heritage calling me, but whatever, I want to go back.

And then after all of those fabulous places, the kids came to
join me. We definitely needed to revisit the big places, and see some of the same things, and I was excited to show them things I was already familiar with. But it was more emotional than I expected to see Peri and Donovan at places like the Eiffel Tower. I was more excited to have them at St. Mark's in Venice than I was to be there myself.

I really value these experiences, and I loved the way - at 7 and 12, they just adapted to wherever we went. No complaints about things being "different". But, in addition to the usual sights, I wanted to pack some ultra special experiences in. First up was the safari, and they were fabulous on that trip, even though it was two round trips in two weeks of flights over 8 hours each.

Brighton UK summer beach
Then we gave them the first of a few beach breaks I built in for them. After showing them the thoroughly over the top palace in Brighton, they got to play at the pier and hit the frigid English Channel. Didn't bother them, they had a blast.

Paris sidewalk map of the worldThen it was Disneyland Paris, which they loved. Strangely enough, though, Paris itself is very child friendly. There was the amusement park at the Place de Concorde and playgrounds scattered along the Siene. But they were also endlessly amused by things like this map of the world that allowed Donovan to stand on Las Vegas, Peri on New Orleans and Adrienne on Paris.

Yes, they both had access to multiple devices in the evenings when we were home. But during the day, they were entirely present in the moment, enjoying the simplest things and just rolling with whatever we did each day. That's travel at its best, and they fell right into it.

Another beach break in Barcelona was special because we stayed on a sailboat. And weirdly to me, we had TWO swim breaks in Switzerland. That is not what I associate Switzerland with in my mind. I think of it as a winter or mountain destination. But it was a stunning and memorable stop for us.

Another treat was zipping into Cardiff for the Dr. Who
Experience. I don't happen to watch the show, and hadn't even put Wales on the itinerary. But they are all fans and I knew it was a quick trip from Bath, which I had put on the itinerary. And though we had to navigate an mega sporting event taking place on the city the same day, it was well worth it. I enjoyed it even without knowing much about the show.

Cabra Castle Ireland
When Peri's mom, Danielle, and Adrienne's husband, Brandon, joined us, I had one of the most special experiences of the trip planned for us. Cabra Castle in Ireland was a huge success.

We all went to Edinburgh, too, and the trip seemed to shift into warp speed. Danielle and Brandon headed back, the rest of us only had a little more time together, then Adrienne and the kids were headed back as well. On my own, I made a few last minute sights, then took a week for administrivia and figuring out what I was going to do next.

There were a lot of unexpected turns during this trip, and that
Hastings UK town square and sea view
last week was one of them. I was basically just looking for a cheap place to have some peace and quiet to take care of business that would have some entertainment when I got tired of my laptop for company. I ended up in Hastings, which I never would have put on an itinerary, and found it to be a thoroughly pleasant seaside town. I did nothing at all touristy, just walked along the boardwalk, went shopping and to the movies, just generally lived like a spite of it being one of the most important historical sights in England. (See Battle of Hastings, 1066. And thank you, Charlie, for reminding me what that was all about.)

But what the hell, we also went to Pompeii and only saw the inside of our B&B and went to Athens without seeing the Acropolis. I love travel, history, architecture and museums, but I am still not always the best of tourists.

Rome Ristorante exterior
We also ended up in places we had no intention of visiting. Martha and I had both been to Rome and Florence, and didn't feel any need to visit either of them again. But we had to go to Florence to get an English speaking notary and I think we passed through Rome at least 3 or 4 times for various reasons. I actually left my iPad mini at the AirBnB place where we stayed, and the host came to meet us at the train station as we passed through weeks later, to return it to me. 

And that wasn't the only time we'd depended on the kindness of strangers. The willingness of locals to help us significantly varied from one location to another, but the overwhelming majority were breathtakingly kind and helpful.

Manhattan skyline across Central ParkAnd then it was time to come home. When I began the trip, the vague plan was to come back and go to San Diego. Instead, I ended up in New York, where I got to meet back up with Charlie, Maureen and Andrew. Though I'd lived there for a couple of years right after I graduated from college, I hadn't been in the city in decades. 

Lots had changed, but it was still utterly familiar and I fell in love with it all over again. It will always have a special place in my heart, and though I hadn't thought much about spending time there at all lately, it's  now up near the top of my list again.

I got to spend lots of time in both Harlem and the Financial District, both of which had changed a great deal since I'd been there last and were new to me. Then from there, I finally got to meet back up with Martha in California.

Starting in Santa Barbara, that was just the beginning of my fall in sunny SoCal. We went on to San Diego, then Martha came back to Vegas. I headed north to Los Angeles, stopping in Hermosa Beach along the way, which I really liked. I then stayed in Burbank for a month, broken up by ten days when Peri came to visit in October when her school went on break. Together, we visited Hollywood, which I hadn't ever explored during the years I'd lived in Los Angeles long ago.

Then we hit more beaches, including Santa Monica Pier, which I also hadn't been to more than once. I came back to Vegas in November and have been here since.

2015 didn't always run smoothly, but I doubt it's realistic to expect a full year to do so. It did contain much more than a normal year's worth of lifetime highlights, so I have no complaints whatsoever. What I do have is eternal gratitude for not only having had the experiences I did, but for being able to share them with my family at a time they were all able to appreciate it to the fullest.

It was, without question, one of the most exciting years of my entire life. So I'm glad to have this record of it. Though I may not be immediately successful, I will not stop seeking work that will allow me to work while I travel. I couldn't do so while traveling like I did this year, but I can if I spend weeks or months at a time in places. And I will be happy to do that now I've made the whirlwind tour.

So that is my New Year's goal. Hopefully, San Diego until March, then more to share with you in this space during the coming year, besides the few odds and ends that are left over from last year. But in any case, no matter how any of our plans work out, I wish you all the very best in 2016. Take care!

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