2013 Christmas edition

The Reef

The Reef

And so it’s time for the annual update. I closed last year’s letter by saying that we were expecting my sister Jane and her friend for the holidays. What I didn’t mention was that because we were having so many people to stay, all arriving and departing on different dates, that I resorted to creating a chart which showed each bedroom (color-coded, of course ), who would be in each one on what dates, and how many people I’d be feeding on any particular day. I adore my family, but honestly – I can’t do that chart again. Next time they’ll have to fight it out among themselves. I will be in the local inn… But in the meantime, this year will be much more sensible, with everybody arriving at carefully regulated intervals.

It was only in January that I managed to get out from under the pile of sheets and towels and pack a bag for our house in Phoenix AZ. Jay and I decided to take a few days and see what we might need if we were going to use it as a holiday home. To get us started, Jay insisted on packing a huge suitcase with household paraphernalia, including various serving dishes and knick-knacks. Since the beds hadn’t been delivered when we arrived, we spent the night in a hotel, but Jay left the suitcase in the house to save having to carry it around. Much to our surprise, it was gone when we arrived at the house the following day. Apparently this is the first burglary in the area for over three years…Well, Jay bore it stoically and added serving dishes and knick-knacks to our ever-expanding shopping list. One forgets that a new home needs everything from knives and forks to furniture, but we had a good time visiting the consignment (OK, second-hand) shops, where Jay bargained to his heart’s content.

2013 Australia 368

Morning visitors outside our tent

We’d barely come back from our visit to Phoenix when it was time to leave for Australia. I had visions of kangaroos and koala bears, but in fact, Australia turned out to be much more interesting than that. We snorkeled around near the Great Barrier Reef (my favorite thing). I mean that I swam, towing Jay behind me. I think he liked it…Then we took a tiny plane to a luxury camp in the middle of nowhere, where noises in the very early morning turned out to be wallabies waking up underneath our cabin. If only the tiny plane company hadn’t gone bankrupt while we were there… Still, we did manage to get to our next destination, the aptly named Kangaroo Island. About 100 miles long with a population of 4,000 people and about 10,000 animals. All the kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and emus you could wish for. And then it was on to check out the wild life in Sydney…

Sydney wild life (pretty tame...)

Sydney wild life (pretty tame…)

Just to remind us of our trip, I got us tickets for the Australia exhibition that was showing in London when we visited in September. We were on our way to Prague, to meet friends. Prague and our friends were delightful, and Jay was particularly pleased, because our enormous bedroom (in a former mansion by the river) had a balcony from which he could give speeches to the population below. He was going to try it, too, but I managed to distract him with the promise of some souvenir shopping nearby.

Eagle ignoring Jay in Budapest

Eagle ignoring Jay in Budapest

After that we took one of those Danube cruises from Budapest, via Vienna and Linz to Passau (on the German/Austrian border). Very relaxing. So much so, that Jay immediately went home and booked a cruise on the Volga River (Moscow to St. Petersburg) for next summer. Yo-o heave-ho. Or something.

We returned to New Hampshire in time for the end of a beautiful fall. It was too late for Jay to sit on his beach (see last year) but he was quite happy with his new lawn (did I mention that he’d had someone plant a lawn last year when we were thinking of selling the house?). He, Freddie and Bertie had spent most of the summer perfecting this, with Fred and Bert doing most of the work (heaving huge boulders out of the ground) and Jay ‘supervising’. From the beach.

The boys really didn’t need to do this, since they both graduated from university this year. Moving rocks hardly seems like fit work for a biomedical engineer and an astrophysicist, but Jay can be very persuasive…

And what of our careers? I hear you ask (don’t I?). I’m still writing; there’s a memoir of my mother based on her wartime diaries and my blogs keep me busy. Next weekend I’ll be telling my story of Jay and the Santa suit at a couple of Christmas concerts at a local inn. Jay will be there to heckle cheer me on. Meanwhile, he’s still very busy with his usual pursuits, to which he has added the position of board member at Colby-Sawyer College, a small liberal arts school (liberal? Jay? Surely not…) in our New Hampshire hometown of New London). The board seems to like him, even though Jay spends most of his time “suggesting” ways they could be more businesslike.

I was beginning to think the whole idea of building a new smaller house had died down for good, when the house next door to us came onto the market. Last weekend (bear with me here) we were supposed to be visiting houses around town that had been decorated for Christmas. Instead I found myself being shown around a characterful (read: not enough bathrooms) 100-year-old house, with Jay murmuring things in my ear, like: “we could put the other bathrooms over here”, and “what about extending this wall and making this into a new bedroom?” I should have let him do more shopping in Budapest, so he got it out of his system.

Just for now, we’re still in the house with the beach, the lawn and the gigantic fireplace, so I’m going to ignore the future and enjoy the present. (I think Jay got me a present?)

Wishing you a very happy and peaceful Christmas, and an encouraging New Year

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Time for the Christmas edition of this blog…

When I first started writing this “Christmas” letter it started “It’s November, and…. Then it morphed into “It’s December and…”

Fact is, you’ve probably noticed that, in fact, “It’s January and…although I’m sitting here looking at a deceptively placid and sunny lake, we’ve already had at least a foot of snow here in New Hampshire. And that was quite a shock for us when we returned from our longest vacation ever in early November. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I think I mentioned last time, Jay and I had taken a cruise to Alaska last year (2010) and Jay liked it so much he booked another for the whole family to go to the Caribbean in February. And so we went. Fifteen of us. Actually, Freddie and Bertie couldn’t make it, since they had to stay at their respective universities. When we said we would be traveling with six grandchildren, they seemed somewhat less disappointed to be missing the trip…

Here’s a picture of the band of seafarers, and considering it was taken at 11 at night, it’s a miracle that everyone looks more or less awake!

It turned out to be a great trip. We visited San Juan (very Spanish), Grand Turk (very sandy), and St Maarten, which Jay and his daughters had visited regularly in the 1970s. Determined to recreate this past paradise, Jay rented a truck (sorry, minivan) and we set off to find the fabled beach house of yore. After several wrong turns and dead ends, we found the beach.  

It was a stone’s throw from the airport, which in the 1970’s didn’t matter, because the planes were small and relatively infrequent. Now, the roar of jets probably drowns out the local birds. Still, the view was lovely, and Amanda (left) and Heather (right) had fun trying to decide which of the now huge beach houses had once been the cottage they rented.

Back on dry land (in Florida) Jay and I decided we needed a vacation, so we drove down to Key West, the most southerly point of the continental United States. Key West is famous for Ernest Hemingway (who spent most of his time in a local bar or fishing), Harry Truman (who spent his time gambling – either playing poker or taking important policy decisions) and Key limes. We ate a lot of Key lime flavored things – pie, of course, ice cream, barbecue sauce, dips, crisps, crackers, soap…oh, no, wait, we didn’t actually eat the soap. But you get the drift.

And talking of drift, our next stop was Sanibel Island, also off the Florida coast, and famous for its shells. When people told me they went shelling on Sanibel, I had visions of dangerous military activity, but the American verb, ‘to shell,’ means to look for shells. I dutifully did this, wandering up and down the beaches and coming home with a few bedraggled samples. Jay did much better than I did. He walked into the nearest shell shop and bought several magnificent specimens (probably from Thailand, of which more later).

From March to July, we more or less behaved ourselves, but we got itchy feet again in August, and decided, on the spur of the moment, to drive to Canada. We spent our first night in Ottawa, a city I had seriously prejudged. I think I expected it to be a completely modern city, purpose built to be the capital. I was probably mixing it up with Canberra or Brasilia. Anyway, it turned out to be delightful, historic (the changing of the guard with real Coldstream Guards) and beautiful. We’ll go back, I’m sure.

Next we visited our best man and his wife in Toronto. I had always told Carl that I thought he might actually have been the best man, but that since he was already taken… We had a wonderful time before we set off for Niagara Falls, which Jay and I had never visited together. All the hotels there now have windows facing the Falls, which meant we had a terrific view, and even though I managed to prevent Jay from shopping in Niagara itself, he managed to discover the tiny town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, from which he came away with armloads of Christmas presents for the family.

On the way home, I noticed we weren’t travelling in the right direction. I put this down to the fact that Jay’s sense of direction leaves something to be desired, and hinted that if we travelled east rather than south we might get home sooner. “Hall of Fame,” he muttered under his breath. And I thought he’d forgotten. He knows it has been a lifelong dream of mine to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and so he was taking me there. Wasn’t that sweet of him?

After we returned I was off again for my third visit to my indomitable 91-year-old mother in London. Bertie decided to come too, and due to our impeccable talent for organization, we left on separate planes one day apart. We saw each other briefly in London, but while we were there, Hurricane Irene terrified the airports into closing, and we ended up flying home two days late. And in fact, we flew home to Montreal (about three hours drive from New Hampshire) because there were no flights available to either Boston or New York. Jay drove the three hours to meet us, which was noble of him, and the four hours back, since we got lost in Montreal’s one way system for an hour on the way out of the airport…

September saw us at a Yankee Red Sox baseball game in Boston. This is dangerous turf for a Yankee fan (Jay) especially if he’s taken there by his daughter Amanda, her partner Barb and their family (avid Red Sox fans). The Yankees had been losing all season long, and I had prepared myself for a stressful game by downloading a copy of War and Peace onto my cell phone to read when the going got tough. To my surprise, Napoleon had barely decided to invade Russia when the Yankees started to win, and continued to do so until the end of the game. Rejoicing ensued, especially on my part, since I would have had a two hour drive home with a despondent Yankee fan, and that’s no fun.

Just as the leaves were turning their usual gorgeous colours here in New England, we left for Indochina. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, to be precise. Now that we’ve got the cruising thing down, we decided to try a couple of different kinds of boats, One was a junk on Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, a unique part of the world (UNESCO says so). Another was a trip down the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam in a new river cruiser, something like to paddle steamers of old to look at, but with all mod cons. (Air conditioning, hot water, fitness center – where, by the way, people stuck their heads in to laugh at me as I desperately tried to shed the pounds I seemed to be gaining on board). It was a good thing we were traveling by boat – Cambodia and Thailand were both suffering from the worst floods they’d had in a long while. It was a fascinating trip and we were glad we’d been able to see Vietnam and Cambodia in particular, before they become industrialized and their old way of life is lost.

Jay was thrilled that we managed to get some clothes made in 24 hours, and that he succeeded, after much haggling, in buying two huge marble lions, which he expects will be gracing our front doorway any time now.  Ernest and Mabel are shown at left…

It turns out that Jay is a firm believer in feng shui – no, I didn’t know that, either – and the lions are going to improve the chi flowing into our home. So long as they keep Jay from breaking anything else, that’s okay with me. Maybe it’s working already, since this is the second break-free year in a row!

In Thailand, we went to visit some elephants, and soon (rather too soon, in my opinion) found ourselves riding them bareback around a large paddock. The mahouts were kind to us and didn’t laugh too much, though they did take quite a lot of photos, which was rather mean, since we looked incredibly silly. The high spot, however, was painting with the elephants.

Hearing about this, I visualized the elephants slapping paint on a large wall, with us looking on and feeding them the occasional Danish pastry. Au contraire. They painted with paintbrushes, watching our hands as we sketched the design on an easel, and copying it with the paintbrush. Jay got a bit carried away as you can see here. I am not even going to attempt to explain what it’s meant to be.

While in Vietnam, we hit the first of November. This is significant, because I had signed myself up to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, and if I were going to succeed I’d have to start on vacation. So there I was, in the back of the bus, typing away on my laptop. Unbelievably I did it. I now have a printed copy entitled Horrible First Draft. Funny title for a novel, you might think, but I maintain it has a certain ring to it. And maybe the next version will be called Slightly Better Second Draft.

Two weeks after our return I was off to London again, which is one reason this letter is so late. My mother is battling on, living on her own, criticizing the Tory government and attending the vicar’s coffee mornings and afternoon teas. The assistant vicar got married while I was there, and my mother and I went to the wedding. But only after she’d insisted on having a new hat. Well, one must dress for a wedding, it goes without saying.

Then came Christmas and the New Year. My daughter Helenka and her children went back to Connecticut, and our other daughters Amanda and Heather and their families came for New Year’s weekend. So it was a very busy week (meals for 12 every day…)

However, my reward for this virtuous life was that we left on January 5th for a cruise through the Panama Canal and on to South America and Machu Picchu. I had my fingers crossed that Jay wouldn’t fall off this fabulous Inca ruin high in the Andes. And told him he’d better not buy a llama, either, no matter how nice a pet it might make. Progress report next year, or sooner if you sign up to follow this blog. 🙂

Here’s hoping you have a very happy and healthy 2012!

A Little Corner for Me, Please?

Guess which case is mine?

We’re going traveling next week, and I’m looking forward to it, really I am. My husband and I, and few close friends, plus a few strangers, will be staying at lovely hotels in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and just for good measure, in Hong Kong. In the old days, this might have taken us about 10 days, since we were always trying to squeeze in as much as possible. Now that we have more time (in theory) we can actually hope to see something of the country and the people in each place we visit.

There’s one thing about these hotels, though. I never have enough space to put anything. I expect you’re sympathizing – you understand what it is to have small closets and lots of luggage. That isn’t my problem. My problem is my husband Jay. Within seconds of arriving in any hotel room he has covered every surface with his things. While I am still looking out of the window at the magnificent view, or looking out and moaning about the view of the parking lot, Jay is unpacking his enormous suitcase and spraying the room with his small change, wallet, newspapers, novels, laptop, pens and pill containers. The bathroom of course is never big enough. I can sometimes find a corner in which to stash my make-up bag, but mostly it sits on the toilet cistern. As for the closet, well, if I manage to have a quarter of the hangers for my things, I’m in luck.

He’s not completely thoughtless. I usually have my bedside table to myself, and sometimes I can even manage to squeeze the things from my small carry-on suitcase into one of the drawers under the TV. Why do I travel with such a small suitcase? It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’ve learned over the years to travel light. I have a Kindle, instead of Jay’s six or seven books. I have one pair of shoes in addition to the sneakers which I wear for traveling, compared with Jay’s two spare pairs of shoes. He points out that he’s bigger than me, so his clothes are bigger. A specious argument, I find, since this doesn’t seem to happen with the other couples I know. There, the wife has the huge suitcase, and the husband has the smaller one. Bell-boys and porters always think the larger case is mine. And on the way home, Jay always asks me whether I might have room in my case for some of the things he’s bought while we’re traveling. He’s an inveterate shopper, so I trail along behind him through souks, bazaars and markets, trying unsuccessfully to restrain him. (Other wives are jealous of me that I have a husband who likes to shop – if they only knew…)

And so, when it came to building a house several years ago, the architect turned to me and said, “How big would you like your closet to be?” “Don’t ask me,” I replied, “he’s the one with the clothes…”

We started with two closets, but Jay turned one into a sauna, and now we share the other one. It started out 50/50, but by now, Jay’s hogging 75%, and gaining. My clothes are stored in my suitcase.

Jabba the Hut Beats Irene

I’m still running into people I haven’t seen since Hurricane Irene came through, and the opening remark is, inevitably,
“Any damage from the storm?”  I’ve been gratefully waving off this question with the truth – our house in Fairfield was absolutely fine – something I put down to the fact that we practically back onto the Police and fire stations.  Presumably they have to have power to keep them working.

Frankly, though, I was skeptical about the storm. I was in London when Irene first threatened, then hit, then blustered and finally faded into a depression, the way one does… The thing about being in London was that there wasn’t really anything I could do about Irene, except try to keep informed, and hope it would all be OK. Keeping up to date wasn’t as easy as you might think, given the internet, global news etc.  The BBC kept showing us the same bits of film of the Carolinas, and of Mayor Bloomberg trying to boss New Yorkers about. On the internet, I kept looking for a moving radar picture of the storm, but couldn’t find one. Weather Underground, Weather Channel, Accuweather – all showed static photos or maps. Eventually, I called my engineering son back in the States and asked him to send me a link.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked. “It doesn’t matter whether you see it or not. You can’t do anything about it.”

I gritted my teeth. “Just send it,” I said. This wasn’t a time for listening to reason. I just needed to know.

I never did find out exactly where it was. My friends had battened down the hatches, and as the storm rolled over New England, cutting power as it went, there was no way for them to keep me up to date.

All I knew was that because of Irene, my other son and I spent three days travelling to and from Heathrow Airport in London trying to get a flight back to Boston. It was a kind of adventure to begin with, but it got old pretty fast. Eventually, on Monday night, we were booked onto a flight for Montreal. It wasn’t too bad; we even managed to have the only free seat on the plane between us. But driving out of Montreal itself was rather like trying to get somewhere in the wake of a hurricane. It was only road works, I guess, but it took us an hour of driving past the same piece of the city, as we followed one detour after another, and ended up in dead ends. It reminded me of driving in Poland in the 1960’s (but that’s another blog post).

Beach?

The point is that yesterday, I wandered down to the beach, and I found it – in great heaps beside the houses on Fairfield Beach road.

Waterlogged

There were piles of soggy belongings still stacked outside the houses, which had a distinctly sorry air about them. Forlorn “For Rent” signs flapped in the breeze. New houses, built in the boom times and to code, seemed fine, but the oldest ones had really taken a beating.

Condemned

My nephew’s built-on-stilts house turned out to be one of those. This building is unsafe, read the sign on the house. I’m not even sure how they reached the house to put up the sign. He’ll be OK, I expect, but it made me realize that I’d been rather cavalier, and how extremely lucky we were.

Only two things survived the storm completely intact – the giant pumpkins grown annually by an aficionado near the beach. They’re still sitting there, looking a bit like Jabba the Hut, ready to face down all competition in the annual pumpkin-growing contest. The irresistible force met the immoveable objects, and the pumpkins stared Irene down.

Jabba the Hut