Poppies of Remembrance and Sorrow

Another day Down Under. Another day of lots of walking in cold, windy weather.

Australian War Memorial; view from the back

Australian War Memorial; view from the back

Today’s adventure was getting myself to the Australian War Memorial. It’s about three miles from the hotel. I had no trouble finding it. Canberra is easy to get around, on foot at least. I wasn’t about to drive since that meant learning to drive on the opposite side of the road…..something not on my list of things to try while I’m on a mini-holiday and Rocket-man is at work.  Visions of me running straight into a Eucalyptus tree or any number of memorial statues around the city were enough to squash that seed of desire to learn a different skill.  Maybe some other time…or in my next life!

I was met with a slap of cold air as I stepped outside shortly after breakfast.

Brrr. Well, at least it is not raining today.

The sun was shining, the sky a brilliant blue. There was a steady breeze keeping the various types of Eucalypts active under the windy conditions. Despite gloves, hat and my warm, wooly scarf, I was cold just five minutes into my walk.

It took me a good forty-five minutes to walk to the Australian War memorial. There was no need for a map as there were plenty of signs along the way; I knew I was on the right path. Again, up another long boulevard, mostly cutting through residential areas. Despite the cold I was enjoying the walk. I passed by homes that were quaint and well-kept and many that were quite the opposite. Piles of leaves and bark from the eucalypts covered sidewalks and driveways and most yards were devoid of any landscape color, which is what one would expect as it was still winter for another month. White cockatoos screeched from the treetops and Australian magpies, their song ending on a curious boing-like note, also filled the early morning air.

By the time I arrived at the Australian War Memorial my hands were thoroughly numb with cold and my head was pounding. I don’t often get headaches so I reasoned I must be very dehydrated.  The lingering effects of jet lag coupled with four days of eight to ten-mile walks around town were catching up with me.  Opened in 1941, the memorial is simple in design, imposing but not ornate.  There are Art Deco elements in its design.   It’s actually a national military war museum as well as a memorial to honor the men and women from the Commonwealth of Australia who so bravely gave their lives in wars dating as far back to the British Sudanese Expedition, the Second Boer War, and the Boxer Rebellion. Naturally, the memorial also honors those who sacrificed their lives in both World Wars, as well as the more recent involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In 2001 the memorial was further expanded with the addition of ANZAC Hall (ANZAC is the acronym for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps ) which displays an extensive collection of large military hardware.  Another incredible fact about this memorial is the artist Napier Waller.  He lost his right arm in World War I and he learned to write, create and work with his left arm.  He created all the mosaic work (tiny, tiny mosaic tiles from floor to the domed ceiling) in the domed chapel, along with the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the chapel that contains the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier.  He finished the project in 1958.

Ceiling of domed chapel.

Ceiling of domed chapel.

Stained glass in the domed chapel

Stained glass in the domed chapel

Red Poppies of Remembrance

Red Poppies of Remembrance

There were only a few people walking about the large expanse of the memorial grounds which includes the memorial shrine, the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and Memory Hall where the names of 102,000 men and women are inscribed on floor to ceiling bronze plaques.  The bronze plaques are also literally awash in red; hundreds of silk red poppies, left by friends and relatives, are inserted in the cracks besides names of loved ones lost.   It is both strikingly beautiful and immensely sad.  While there looked to be plenty to see on the grounds I wanted the warmth of indoors at the moment. I was dismayed as I walked up the front steps of the memorial to note that the place didn’t open until 10 a.m. I looked at my watch. Oh dear. I’ve got another forty-minutes to wait?  I walked back down the steps and around to the side of the building. That’s when I noticed a sign for Poppy’s Cafe.

Oh, thank heavens….there is a God!  I made a bee-line to the cafe, which thankfully was open.  Ah.  This was where all the folks are. The small modern cafe was full of people and was lively with conversation.  Within a few minutes I was holding a steaming hot latte in my cold hands. While I waited and warmed up, I connected to the museum’s Wi-fi in an effort to learn a bit about the memorial before heading into the building.  For example, Charles Bean, Australia’s official World War I historian, was the guy behind the idea for a memorial to Australia’s soldiers.

Preferring art to things about war, I didn’t think I would enjoy a visit to a war museum.  But, I had heard from enough people (and comments posted on Trip Advisor too) that it was a definite must-see. It turns out everyone was right.  I spent over three hours there, not nearly enough time as one could really make an entire day of it.  I wished my history buff brother-in-law would have been able to tour this with me. I’m sure I would have absorbed a lot more information about each exhibit with his knowledgeable commentary.

Suffice it to say that for me, most of the exhibits (particularly the extensive World War I and II exhibits) evoked sadness and heartbreak over so many lives lost…so many irrevocably broken families.  At one point–while lingering over a large photo of an emaciated young Australian soldier held captive as a prisoner of war by the Japanese–tears welled up in my eyes. These images of war were getting to me.   How is it that we, the human race, cannot seem to stop the cycle of death, war and destruction? How can we treat each other with such savagery, cruelty, madness, and inhumanity?  How is it human kind continues to do so…still?  We don’t seem to be learning a damned thing!

I was completely spent after a little more than three hours.  I needed fresh air and sunshine. But before I walked outside I stepped into the museum’s gift shop.  I purchased a red poppy lapel pin. I affixed it to my hat knowing it would serve as my daily reminder of this day. IMG_3107

It had warmed up considerably while I was in the museum and the intense (though winter!) Australian sunshine was quite a lift to my spirits.   I decided to take a different route back to the hotel.

ANZAC Parade. View from the memorial to the Parliament House

ANZAC Parade. View from the memorial to the Parliament House

So up ANZAC Parade I went.  It’s an exceedingly long boulevard, flanked with Eucalypts and New Zealand Hebe bushes, as well as many more war memorials all along the way.  It effectively ends at the Parliament building some five miles up on the opposite end of the thoroughfare.  In fact, it’s quite a beautiful view from the memorial to the Parliament House.  I tried to shake the bleak, stark images of war and destruction out of my mind as I walked. I wasn’t having much luck I’m afraid.  And, with all that is going on in the world, I doubt that I ever will.  It struck me that perhaps that is another reason these museums are so critically important to the world.  They serve not just to honor our fallen men and women soldiers but also as a somber, grim reminder of just how devastating and ugly war truly is.  Can’t we learn from this?!

I let out a heavy sigh.  I had to shake the sadness. So I picked up the pace and briskly walked back to the hotel with my sights on another hot coffee and a sweet treat to cap off the late afternoon.

 

I Could Get Used to This!

We’ve got a little over four hours remaining on this amazingly long, long flight…..a flight of fifteen hours and forty-five minutes to be exact.  Yep…that’s right.  Over fifteen hours, on an airplan!   Add to that: this is the third leg of our journey to the land Down Under, and we’ve still got one more to go.   Middle-earth to Houston (uneventful)….Houston to Los Angeles (screaming child in my ear)….Los Angeles to Melbourne….and from Melbourne, a short hours’ hop to Canberra, the capital of Australia. 

I’m happy to report that this third leg is simply marvelous.  You see, I lucked out and was able to fly business class on this third leg, outbound part….and wowza!  Having never traveled first class, this is turning out to be one cool experience!   It’s definitely taken the sting out of an excruciatingly long (about thirty hours in all) journey.  I was delirious with happiness over the seating. A large, comfortable seat that, with the push of a button, fully reclines! After our first two flights, my knees were not happy from too much sitting in a cramped position.   I was ridiculously over the moon about my seat!  

Ahhhhh.  I might actually be able to sleep during this flight!  Okay, well…to be honest, I haven’t been able to really sleep–only dozed– but it has been heavenly to be able to fully recline into a semblance of a normal sleeping position.  

As we took to our seats at the start of the flight– before I even had started to pull stuff out of my backpack (book, iPad, headphones, lip gloss) in preparation of situating myself for the long haul, the flight attendant was introducing herself to us.  

“I’m Mary. Your international travel attendant.  I will be taking care of you during your flight.  I am here for anything you need to make your flight comfortable.”

I wanted to say: I’ve got a seat that fully reclines.  Your job is done!

Mary provided us a menu and asked us to consider our dinner selections, and she brought us our first drinks: Jack and Coke for Rocket-man, and just water for me….for starters.  I couldn’t read the menu as I was stupidly giddy over all the business class amenities which tickeled Rocket-man to no end.  I was given a small travel kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, hand cream, sleep mask, hand wipes, and cozy travel socks.  I had a large blanket, a substantial pillow and a large T.V. screen in front of me….and my seat fully reclined.  Fifteen hours like this?  No problem!       

  And my dining experience?  Wow.  First off, we each received a steaming hot hand towel with which to wash our travel weary face and hands.  As I handled the hot, wet towel, letting it settle for just a moment over my eyes,  I had a childhood flashback.  I don’t get many of these!  When we lived in Okinawa, it was customary to be given steamed little handtowels in small banana-shaped wicker baskets at restaurants or dinners out with friends.   We even had these at home.  I can still see a stack of little wicker baskets in our cupboard; my mother would bring them out when she had small dinner parties, a practice that certainly impressed her guests.Our first course was a snack to knosh on while waiting for dinner.  We were presented with a small white bowl of warmed nuts along with our libation of choice….in a real glass!  (I know.  You must think I’m being a bit ridiculous here, but what a lovely little pleasure to be able to drink a beverage out of a glass instead of a tiny plastic cup!).    I was ready for wine so my choice was either a pinot noir or a Cote-du-Rhone.  I chose the latter and for the entirety of dinner Mary would come by to re-fill my glass (for the record, I allowed myself to splurge….I stopped at three).  

Before Mary brought our dinner she provided us with a linen “tablecloth” for our tray tables along with a large linen napkin and not one, but three sets of flatware (one for salad, the entree and then dessert).  Another wowza moment for me!  How decadent!  A tablecloth?!  Really!  

 I chose salmon with a dollop of crab meat,  which was all  tasty, though just a tad overcooked. Mary also brought a basket of warm bread along with a tiny tub of butter.  Dessert was an ice-cream sundae.  ICE-CREAM!  I nearly fainted with delight!       

 Once dinner was over, I reclined, sinking myself into my lovely seat, with a blanket over my legs, and selected a movie to watch: The Second Best Marigold Hotel.   

Yes folks…I could get used to this.   Realizing there will be another twelve hours to go, I’m simply going to sit back, relax, recline and set myself up to enjoy and savor the rest of what may be my one and only  first class travel experience.  

Ahhh….Bliss!  

Down Under? Oy!

I spent the last week with sis and company. We spent three full days enjoying the beach in North Carolina followed by a couple of days in Northern Virginia. It was a much-needed respite even though it was hotter than Hades and  it wasn’t a full week of zoning out in a beach chair staring out at the ocean. We even managed to not spend the entire time talking about the sad state of affairs with our mother. I took long walks along the shoreline, humming whatever tunes popped into my mind the entire time as I let the cool ocean water tickle toes and ankles. We looked for shells at every opportunity—Alexandre carted an entire bucket full of shells back to Virginia— and we even went crabbing in the dark of night. Now that was a blast I’d never experienced in all of my 57+ years!  The Poodle and Nica-Roo the beagle were on sensory overload too as they ran after crabs skittering about in the sand. We laughed ourselves to near exhaustion that night!

Back in ‘Bama-land I am still on a high. I’ve just got confirmation of another upcoming trip. It’s no secret that Rocket-man is away on business travel a good deal of the time. Folks ask why I’m not traveling with him on some of his more “exotic” business jaunts.  Two words would best answer the question: It’s expensive!  Many of his business trips are scheduled last-minute which would make purchasing a ticket for me a costly proposition. And, even if a trip is scheduled within a reasonable time frame, it often gets changed or cancelled due to whatever is going on with his job. So, when Rocket-man came home last week and said it looked like he was going to Australia on business travel I nearly knocked him over in my rush of excitement.

Can I go, can I go….PRETTY PLEASE…. can I go!?

No shame here folks:  I spent my first six months after I moved to ‘Bama-land binge-watching McLeod’s Daughters on Netflix, if that doesn’t tell you how excited I am about the prospect of traveling to Australia.
map-of-australiaAnd so it is now official. Next month, we are off to the land of Down Under (Canberra, specifically with two days in Sydney).  It matters not that it will entail 30-some hours of travel. It matters not that I will be stuck in coach whilst Rocket-man is enjoying business class. I’m traveling to the land of Koalas, Kangaroos, Uggs, opals (my birthstone, as it happens to be), and good wine.   Unfortunately, it’s only going to be for ten days (four and a half of which are travel days!) but I’m mighty stoked to be able to visit another continent (the island continent!)…the worlds sixth largest country…the world’s largest island.

Having said that, I just so happened to have picked up a book about a month ago about Australia (not knowing about this opportunity mind you). I was perusing the shelves in the travel section at Barnes & Noble when the cover caught my eye:  A kangaroo carrying it’s baby in her pouch. The title of the book: In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson. Knowing that the author is a world traveler who writes interesting, fact-filled accounts of his adventures peppered with a wonderful sense of humor, I purchased it without even reading the back cover synopsis.

Once home, I hadn’t even made it through the entire introduction when a thought hit me square between the eyes.

I cannot complain about living in insect hell anymore.

Case in point, here is a paragraph in Bill Bryson’s introduction, In a Sunburned Country:

“It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluro to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

 

Okay then!  And I want to go there?

So yes…Australia has the greatest number of reptiles of any country in the world (a total of 755 species…yikes!) and 140 varieties of snakes in addition to 32 species of sea snakes! One hundred of these snake species are venomous and of those, 12 are deadly…as in that’s it, lights out, deadly.

Hmm…..let’s think about this trip.

Back in my working days I had a boss, Jeff, who was detailed for some weeks on a project in Australia.  Jeff brought back little souvenirs for everyone in the office.  Mine sits on a shelf in my family room.  I don’t recall asking my boss much about that trip; our work environment simply didn’t lend itself to much casual chit-chat. Still, I kept in touch with Jeff following my move from Northern Virginia to Southern California.  He’s still working the salt mines, as it were, while I’m still a beach bum…(a beach bum sans the beach mind you).  I follow him on Facebook because his photography is breathtakingly amazing and because, well…he’s a fair dinkum kind of guy (Aussie speak for genuine and trustworthy).  Following my divorce seventeen years ago, he gave me a chance when I desperately needed it.

So I sent him an email.  I told him about the book that I was reading.   I said something to the effect: I’m just amazed you came out of Australia alive….in one piece.

Jeff, being a quiet man of few words, replied with an email that contained only this:

 

I hope to make it out alive!

I hope to make it out alive!

Folks, I’m trying to not get my knickers in a knot over this.  I just hope to make it back alive….and in one piece.

Stay Tuned!

 

Lazy Streak?

I’ve got a lazy streak.  Really?  Yes.  There. It’s out.

Rocket-man would disagree of course. “You’re anything but lazy,” he says. “You’ve run 29 marathons, five ultra-marathons, and you’ve completed two triathlons.” OK. So, I’m obviously not talking about physical activities. Yes. I used to be extremely active. Not as much as I’d like now, as most of you know, due to the abysmal state of my knees. But, truth be told, for a while now I haven’t had the fire in my belly for taking myself to a new limit in terms of endurance activities. Perhaps that would change if my knees cooperated…or, maybe not. In my 58th year I don’t need to prove my physicality, even to myself. Case in point, our recent five-day cycling trip to Maryland.

It was THE most laid back cycling trip I have ever been on. The roads were not overly challenging and we really didn’t put in a lot of miles on the bike compared to other cycling vacations. First off, it was mighty cold the first few days of our cycling adventure so plans for early morning rides were thankfully dropped in favor of other activities. I was OK with it all, somewhat to my surprise, as there were a lot of different activities to enjoy. We hiked part of the Appalachian Trail (a lovely 7.5 mile stretch that included steep switchbacks AND, an encounter with a snake); we toured the U.S. Naval Academy and the battlefields of Gettysburg, where some 51,000 souls were lost in July 1863 (some 6,000 men perished and the rest were wounded or captured). We also enjoyed a leisurely ride around the monuments in Washington, D.C. In all, It was a refreshing change of pace to slow things down a bit.

Back to the lazy streak.

I actually do have one. For example, I start books and get lazy about finishing them…. in the same year.  I’ve got stacks of books on my nightstand and scattered about the house. I read a few pages of one and then move on to another. I download books to Kindle and start reading with focused delight only to let the e-book languish while I go back to my nightstand stack. As you can imagine, at this pace it takes me a while to get through a book. I’m working hard to change this embarrassing little habit and I’m actually getting better; I finished two books in the last month. I’m feeling mighty pleased with myself.

I am also terribly lazy about laundry. Mind you, I do manage to get the clothes washed but am loath to fold, press and put them away in a timely manner. It’s a chore that has no finish line in sight for heaven’s sake!  Fortunately Rocket-man, years a bachelor, has no problem with folding clothes. I can also be somewhat lazy about cooking. I consider myself pretty darn good in the kitchen (just ask my Italian cousins about my Tiramisù!).  I’ll add a shout-out here to my beautiful and talented sister. She’s a better cook because of her improvisational skills. My ability to whip up wonderful meals goes in spurts.  I make homemade tortellini and love all sorts of risotto recipes.   I’ll prepare lovely dinners each night to enjoy for a week or so and then I fall back into laziness: Let’s order pizza or go out for brunch. Or, how about chips and salsa followed by chocolate chip cookie dough ice-cream for dinner.  After so many years of cooking and cleaning, and cleaning and cooking.  I’m tired of spending a lot of time in the kitchen.

But I do love to eat. I’m half-Italian after all. So it came as a bit of a surprise that I could be a bit lazy about eating, or….more perhaps more specifically…working for food.

I found this out about myself during our cycling trip. Our trip guide and organizer, a lovely woman whose moniker is Hound-dog (judge her not by this name as she is beautiful, inside and out) put together quite the cycling trip for us which included two every interesting gastronomic experiences. The former was as casual as it gets and the later quite the opposite.

Our fearless leader: Hound-Dog

Our fearless leader: Hound-Dog

For now, I’ll stick to our casual dining experience at Avery’s Maryland Grill in Frederick, Maryland. Once there, you needn’t be a rocket-scientist to figure out their specialty. This place is all about crabs and boy did we have a lot of it that night (well, except for me!).

The lot of us, thirteen in all, sat at a long, paper covered table with silverware and our own little wooden mallet (for breaking up the crab) at each place setting. There were also many pots of warm melted butter followed by plentiful baskets of hush-puppies, fries and sweet cornbread. Oh…and least we not forget our veggies, coleslaw. I’ve eaten Maryland crab before and I knew we were all in for a treat. It’s just that I normally get crab cakes and not THE crab, boiled in heavenly amounts of Old Bay Seafood seasoning (a blend of herbs and spices that is also responsible for fluid-retention in humans).

Great for seafood....and fluid retention

Great for seafood….and fluid retention

Hound-Dog did her very best to show the novices among us (including moi) how to extract the meat from the crab. Or, more specifically, how to shell a crab. In fact, she provided detailed instructions, which I watched with rapt attention. Rocket-man needed no instruction (he does have a Ph.D. after all). One of the California Biker Chicks, Ms. Moon, who sat across from me, watched Hound-Dog intently as she expertly showed how to pull apart the crab’s main cavity and clear out the guts and “mustard”…which was thoroughly disgusting to me  Who knew that some folks consider the “mustard” a delicacy!  Ms. Moon’s eyes grew wide in mock horror as she watched Hound-Dog. If Ms. Moon had looked across the table at me, she would have seen the same reaction.  Ms. Nancy who sat next to her was also a good sport, using her crab mallet with genuine gusto. She was having fun and her eyes were twinkling as she pounded away.

I’ll admit this wasn’t what I had in mind for dinner but I sincerely wanted to make the effort to learn how to eat crab.

Crab-FEAST

Crab-FEAST

I can do this…YES…I CAN.

I looked down the table at our cycle mates. Everyone was having a grand time. There was plenty of laughter and enthusiastic oohs and ahhs as folks were getting the hang of extracting the crab-meat. Those ladies that were novices were quickly getting into the flow of things, heaping crab shells and carcasses into bowls until they were soon over-flowing. I was mighty impressed with some of my Biker Chick friends; Ms. Laurie B. was consistently extracting meat with almost laser focus while another Biker Chick, Hermosa, was enjoying great success as well.

Me?

I gave up after 4 and a half minutes. Literally.  Can you tell that I’ve got a streak of instant gratification in me?

Note to self: If you want to hone your survival skills in the off-chance of being stranded on a deserted island you’d better get better at foraging for food.

Sigh.

Rocket-man was in his own world, happy as a clam with his pile of crabs and he wasn’t about to stop to help this damsel in distress. I was thoroughly frustrated and very hungry!  At one point, in my crab-induced crabbiness I thought about throwing my wooden mallet at him but naturally—and lucky for him— the moment was fleeting.

Crab Mallet.  It's good for breaking apart crab legs...or possibly using as a weapon.

Crab Mallet. It’s good for breaking apart crab legs…or possibly using as a weapon.

Every crack of the crab leg yielded such a pathetic amount of meat! I could barely get enough crab meat to dip in the warm pot of butter. It seemed like a tremendous amount of work for very little reward!   So, throwing sensible diet efforts completely out the window I started scarfing down hush-puppies, french fries, and cornbread dipped in the melted butter. Do not fear; I did have some healthy fare…coleslaw (I even stole Rocket-man’s serving while he was too busy rooting out his crab meat).

Ah…butter and cornbread…..Heaven.

Thankfully I wasn’t the only one who gave up the fight. Ms. Moon didn’t last long either. I’ll admit that I was green with envy over her brilliant resolution to the problem at hand. She ordered crab cakes.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Slap myself upside the head I did, later that night, as I laid in agony in my hotel bed, my stomach in a world of distress because of all the fried food I had all but inhaled in my hungry state (food I rarely eat).

Still, it was a night of fun, laughter and wonderful camaraderie. I had a Crab-Happy blast with the total experience (really, folks!) and perhaps, If I can muster up just a wee bit more patience with the process, I’ll definitely try it again…honestly!

Well….minus all those belly blasting hush-puppies, that is.  Lord Have Mercy; It’s a wonder my bike didn’t break under the weight of those hush-puppies the very next day!

Singing like a Canary….

Yep....that's me.

 

 

 

“You’re gone all next week too?” I asked Rocket-man just the other day as he was packing once again for another business trip. He’s been on the road for nearly three weeks. “Yes,” he sighed as he stuffed a couple of ties into his suitcase. Fortunately he will be back in time to enjoy a long weekend home and a visit by sis and company. The Poodle was sound asleep in his bed in the other room blissfully unaware of yet another suitcase being packed. That’s because Rocket-man and I were in the bedroom closet, with the door closed. Now, don’t start! There was nothing exciting going in the closet mind you. Really. Just packing. You see, when Poodle sees the suitcase, he gets mighty anxious so being the good pooch owners that we are, we try to minimize his anxiety as much as possible. Yes….it sure seems we are spending more time in the closet these days; It’s a good thing our closet is rather spacious!

So It was clear that I’d have to make the day trip to Nashville, Tennessee on my own. It’s a two and a half hour drive, each way. I was hoping to make an adventurous day of it with Rocket-man but with his travel schedule that was going to be impossible. The reason for my Nashville trip? Unfortunately, not a visit to the Grand Ole Opry (which I have yet to see) or shopping at stores other than Target. I had to go for my Global Entry interview. It’s the last part of the application process for a kinder, less stressful travel experience.

I joked with Rocket-man just days before the scheduled interview that applying for Global Entry would probably ensure that I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere overseas in the next five years. You can see that I am a glass half-empty kind of gal. I’m not the optimistic sort. Still, I went through with the application. The first step was completing an on-line application. Let me just say that the website is just another perfect example of why our Government shouldn’t be in the business of creating websites (I’m sure the Affordable Care Act website springs to mind for some of you). Anyhow, I got through that idiocy and was ready for step 2: the interview. Rocket-man, who received his Global Entry card months ago, assured me that the interview would be completely painless. “They only ask a question or two; it took me less than five minutes. Just answer the questions, keeping it short and sweet. Oh, and they will be taking your fingerprints as well.”

“I’m going to be fingerprinted?” I asked. “I’m not sure I want to hand over my fingerprints to the U.S. Government.” Rocket-man had a good chuckled over my paranoia…um….I mean, distrust. “You’re watching way too much conspiracy-driven and crime-themed television programs,” he said. “Stick to lighter fare like The Big Bang Theory.”

Though I hate to admit it….I suppose there is some truth in that.

The drive up to Nashville was pleasant. Though cold and windy, the sun was shining and I had a steaming mug of Starbucks coffee to keep me warm…and awake…for the drive.

Once I arrived at the appointed destination, knowing a photo would be taken, I checked my hair and lipstick in the rearview mirror. In retrospect, this step was a waste of time. The photo would be in black and white and I was expressly told not to smile: My Global Entry card photo has me looking like a freshly booked-into-jail convict.

I gathered my application and supporting documentation (passport, naturalization papers and even my Italian birth certificate…just in case). Once inside the rather bland, government building I followed the signs to the Global Entry office. I was greeted by a nice woman who confirmed my appointment and was told that my wait would only be a few minutes.

I had barely read a few lines of the book I’d brought when my name was called. I was guided into a small room with only two small desks. Oh my. There were three police officers in the room. Three fully uniformed officers with guns in their holsters. I could already feel my heart beating a bit faster.

Now isn’t this just ridiculous.

I haven’t got a thing to hide but here I am in a room with three cops (with no windows I might add) and my heart is beating faster than normal…and it is not because of the cool black boots they are wearing. (OK, that’s out. Yes, I confess: I’ve got a weakness for men in nice leather boots).

One of the cops (Cop A) proceeded to ask me questions while the other two cops (B and C) stand behind him, looking over his shoulder. They don’t say a word…not even a friendly “good afternoon.”  Cop A is seated at a small desk which is clean as a whistle; nothing on it but a computer, keyboard and mouse and a small device for fingerprinting.  At first he just asks clarifying questions such as name, address and verifying spellings, etc. Then he asks why I am applying for Global Entry.

“I’d like to be able to breeze through security without the hassle of taking my shoes off,” I joked (sort-of). Cops B and C look at each other. I don’t think they were amused. “Well, I do plan on a couple of overseas trips in the next year or so and I do want to be able to make the travel experience as easy as possible.” I replied.

Cop A: “Where to you plan on traveling to?”

Me: “Spain, but not until 2017. Well, hopefully in 2017.”

Cops B and C are now scrunched closer to Cop A, scrutinizing whatever is visible on the computer screen. All three look at me intently as if waiting for me to ‘tell the truth.” Now I am nervous. And what do I do when I am nervous?

I sing like a canary…if you know what I mean.

Stuff—inane and otherwise—just comes tumbling out of my mouth.

I tell them about wanting to travel to Spain to walk the Camino Del Santiago. I even go into detail about the Netflix movie, The Way, that I had watched it and how it got me powerfully jazzed about walking 500 miles in 2017, when I turn sixty. “…and that’s if my knees hold up,” I add.  “I’m trying to determine when to get my bi-lateral total knee replacements.”

Cop A, interrupting my babbling: “Yes, that’s nice. OK then…..when was the last time you traveled overseas?

Me: “2008. I went to Germany.”

All three cops are looking at the computer screen.

Cop B: “Business or pleasure?”

Was I being interrogated? It sure felt that way. I could feel beads of sweat on my forehead. These guys just don’t seem very friendly! I remembered Rocket-man’s words. “Keep your answers short and sweet” and yet here I was practically spilling my life story because I was nervous to be in a room, alone, with three somber-faced cops. Did I mention they were armed?

Me: “Oh, pleasure for sure. My sister had a baby. I went to help her after her baby was born. Her husband was U.S, Air Force and they were stationed there…because of his command.” I had to add that: I figured this would surely help this… um…interrogation.

Cop A continues to click-through his work on the computer. He then asks if Germany was the only country I visited.

“Well, I was in Italy and France too.” Cop A looks at me, then at the screen, then back at me again. It seems as if whatever information he is looking at on the screen doesn’t match with ‘my story.’

I then try to rack my brain as to the exact itinerary of that trip taken in 2008.  How I’d wish I had eaten lunch as I am definitely feeling foggy-brained. I start giving Cop A more silly details:  “My cousins in Italy drove to Germany and picked me up hence no passport stamps for Italy because of travel by car.”   I even go on to say my cousins only stopped twice in over eleven-plus hours by car and my back was hurting.   “Oh…yes, I forgot.….I also traveled to Belgium and Amsterdam too….and London, but wait…that was the year before.”  Ay! I am foggy-brained!   Cop B looks intently at the screen again (this is getting mighty annoying). “I traveled to some of those places by car as well during outings with my sis, her husband, and my just weeks-old nephew. He was just the most adorable baby on the planet…”

There I go…rambling on…. again.

And then, before another word has a chance to tumble out of my mouth, Cop A says:  “We’ll take your photo now —please do not smile–and we’ll also take your fingerprints.”   Well, he did say please’ that’s nice.   This procedure takes about a minute and before another minute passes he hands me my Global Entry acceptance. “You’ll receive your card in the mail, which will be good for five years, in a week or two,” he says, now with a smile. Was he messing with me this whole time?  Now I know that as soon as I walk out they’ll all be laughing!

“Oh. We’re done?” I ask, hoping that my sweeping relief that this ordeal is over does not show.

“Yes.”

Whew.

I gathered myself up out of the chair and for a moment thought about telling the guys how much I liked their boots. Maybe that would get Cops B and C to smile?

Nah. Never-mind.

I walked out of the building into the frigid afternoon air. It felt wonderfully refreshing.

I wonder why on earth I have this fear of police officers. I’ve no idea. Maybe it is some past life experience (if…um…one were to believe in that sort of thing!). One thing I learned about myself during this little day excursion?   It’s a good thing I did not choose the military as a profession. I’d sing like a canary if I were captured by the enemy.  It’s something that I’ve got to work on…not that I intend on being captured by some enemy force anytime soon mind you!

Dr. D. and more….

Just before Christmas we took a whirlwind ten-day car trip to Chicago, Pittsburgh and Northern Virginia. We loaded gifts for family into the car top carrier and settled the Poodle in the back seat. Oh what joy for Poodle; he was literally bursting with happiness as he hopped into the car. Naturally, he had no idea he was about to spend a good deal of time in the car (nearly  2,000 miles when all was said and done) as well as visit two homes where cats ruled the roost. Consider yourself lucky Poodle, I thought. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the Pittsburgh portion of the itinerary (just too many unpleasant memories with respect to Pennsylvania…sophomoric, I know).   Ignorance is bliss my four-legged love.

IMG_5895

Downtown Chicago

You might ask why anyone would want to visit Chicago in the winter.  I wondered that myself as I my fingers and toes felt on the verge of frostbite as we walked my daughter’s neighborhood our first morning there. It was cold enough to warrant a coat for The Poodle.  He wore his smart blue coat and it was only a coincidence (I swear!) that it matched my North Face jacket.  In any event, we were in Chicago to support our daughter’s beau who was graduating from the University of Chicago with his PhD in Physics. He had put in years of blood, sweat, and tears to get to this day and we felt blessed to be able to share it with my daughter and her beau, (now Dr. D.) and his family too.  Armed with an impressively well-rounded education (i.e., Dr. D. is so much more than a physics geek) he already has a job lined up. He is going the academia route as opposed to Industry and, as a bonus to the whole equation, now Rocket-man has another person that speaks his language in the family.

Rockefeller Chapel

Rockefeller Chapel

Dr. D. and his proud parents

Dr. D. and his  parents

I have to say the graduation was one of the most beautiful graduations I had ever attended. Classes began on the 215-acre campus of The University of Chicago back in 1892. A year later they had their first graduation ceremony and to date there have been an impressive total of 521 convocations at the university, which was ranked #5 in the nation in 2014.  Even more impressive is the list of prominent alumni such as economist Milton Friedman, film critic Roger Ebert, and authors Saul Bellow and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. just to name a few.  The “Quad” (Quadrangle) section of the campus features a beautifully landscaped expanse of green surrounded by stately Gothic inspired ivy-covered buildings. We all commented that it reminded us of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts school, complete with gargoyles.   I half expected to see old Dumbledore himself on the steps of Rockefeller Chapel where the graduation ceremony took place.

The ceremony itself was simple and elegant…none of the throwing of mortar boards and the like and hardly a shout-out to any graduate accepting his or her diploma. And, to cap off the ceremony, once outside of the chapel, there was a group of bagpipers handsomely attired in their ceremonial kilts playing jaunty tunes.  For some reason I had a devil of a time getting decent photos inside the chapel (so many of them came out blurry which elicited a sotto voce expletive or two from my lips as I tried to capture a shot of Dr. D. receiving his diploma).

Our time spent in Chicago was topped off by a wonderful evening excursion downtown to see Chicago’s largest open air festival, the Chriskindlmarket.  Brrrrrr….it was cold, but oh my, so beautiful!  Downtown was filled with the Christmas hustle and bustle of shoppers everywhere and ridiculous traffic as well but it was the Christmas lights that twinkled everywhere that lifted my heart into the spirit of the season. I hummed Christmas carols as we made our way from the subway to the Daley Plaza where I was instantly transported back to my three years in Stuttgart, Germany. A vision of pushing my baby boy’s stroller through streets and stores bursting with holiday shoppers thirty years ago brought tears to my eyes.   Vendors lined the large plaza selling everything from gluwein to other German  delights such as schnitzel, pretzels, a plethora of sweets from pastries to nuts, and dreamy alcohol-filled chocolates.  I nearly went nuts myself when I came upon the stalls that were selling traditional German nutcrackers.  I was as giddy as a schoolgirl, turning over nutcracker after nutcracker to see that it was “Made in Germany.”  A pretty, young sales woman with bright red hair beneath a colorful winter hat, at first eyed me suspiciously.

“These are actually made in Germany and not China!” I said…. perhaps a little too excitedly, I’ll admit.

“Well of course they are!” said the pretty young woman, breaking into a lovely smile, realizing that I was simply thrilled to see authentic German items at her kiosk.  She had a thick German accent and she seemed to be having a wonderful time showing off her large selection of nutcrackers and traditional wood incense burners. Of course authenticity also spelled expensive. These were not Pier 1 prices!  Rocket-man could see my excitement.  Did I detect acute paleness in his face at some of those prices?  Ah, yes.  We reached a happy medium with something small but precious. Despite a frugal Christmas due to the events of the year, Rocket-man made my heart swell with the purchase of a small, cheery, wooden chap (an incense burner) that I absolutely adore.  I named the new addition to the house “Helmut” with the help of the jovial sales gal.  Helmut will take his place on the bar counter where he’ll stay 365 days of the year.

Helmut

Helmut

 

We filled our bellies with treats we don’t normally eat.  We saw lovely sights.  We spent time, albeit a very short time, with my daughter and we were able to celebrate her beau’s tremendous academic accomplishment.  Check, check and check!  How great is that?!  And our Northern Virginia stay?  As always, it was filled with all things wonderful because of Alexandre-the-Greatest and his parents.  We crammed a lot into just five days: Rocket-man had business meetings and I had a consult with a doctor that specializes in Total Knee Replacements (more on that at another time); we attended a cub scout meeting where 50 some boys, to include Alexandre-the-Greatest, received achievement patches (though it seemed like 1,000  boys with all the ruckus);  we baked Christmas cookies, we ate tremendously well and enjoyed (responsibly) libations, and we met with friends, to include a wonderful dinner (the best calamari that I’ve ever eaten) at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Old Town, Alexandria with my former boss.  The Pittsburgh visit aside, (unfortunately), it was a memorable and treasured ten days and it provided much-needed levity after all that has happened this year.

Cub Scout Alexandre-the-Greatest, in tan pants

Cub Scout Alexandre-the-Greatest, in tan pants

So my “status” as of today?  I’m filled with bliss that this year is ending on an up-swing and I’m filled with hope that peace, love, joy, good health, and a measure of success continues into 2015, not just for me and my family, but for you and yours, and souls around the world.

2015 will absolutely be better….right?

 

 

13,298 Calories and More….

I’m now back home in ‘Bama-land, otherwise known as “middle earth” which is my “pet name” for Alabama after moving here from Southern California just over two years ago. I can now say that I’ve cycled California’s central coast. This was a bucket list activity, the seeds of which were planted in part by Breakfast Buddy Ed some years ago. Admittedly, he cycled a longer distance of the California Coast, about 400 miles from San Francisco to Manhattan Beach, and maybe even further down the coast. Plus, as far as I know, he didn’t stay in one hotel along the way! Roughing it was not going to happen for this woman; I need a hot shower and a real bed at the end of a day. I feel no shame in taking the softie–or shall we say sane–approach. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my cycling vacation (thank you Rocket-man!).

Jessica's Cheerful touch to every picnic lunch

Jessica’s Cheerful touch to every picnic lunch

Some folks’ idea of a vacation is to go to a destination spot (the beach, say) and totally veg out. Unquestionably, there is merit for that approach, and yes…I have done it. But, there is also enormous satisfaction in the alternate approach….working your ass off….literally. Those six days of cycling allowed us to challenge our bodies, pushing ourselves to a new edge, if only for a day when the ride included climbing for miles and miles. In the process, we burned lots of calories. In fact, I enjoyed a total caloric burn of approximately 13,298 calories during six days of cycling (I could probably safely get away with rounding UP!)….and that’s just calories burned during the ride.  Not too shabby for being 57 and not being able to run anymore.  There were also at least three 4-mile long walks on the beach and let’s not forget hoofing- it though airports and hauling heavy luggage.

Naturally I tried to eat less but I wasn’t always very successful, especially when we got to the Brown Butter Cookie Company in Cayucos. Yes, their cookies were pricey but Oh My God wonderful. I highly recommend the peanut butter cookies.  I’m ashamed to admit just how many cookies I ate that day!  We even enjoyed pie at Linn’s Fruit Bin and Bakery in Cambria, cycling most of it off on the way back to our hotel which included a mighty steep hill.

The Biker Chick gang and moi, plus Rocket-man and our guide Jeff , after eating pie at Linn's Fruit Bin.

The Biker Chick gang and moi, plus Rocket-man and our guide Jeff , after eating pie at Linn’s Fruit Bin.

In addition, our Bicycle Adventures guides prepared delicious picnic lunches and dinners out were fabulous too.

Too pretty to eat!

Too pretty to eat!

And, when I stayed with dear friends at the tail end of our cycling vacation, I enjoyed their cooking as well. Breakfast Buddy Ed filled our growling tummies with a wonderfully prepared grilled skirt steak and baked potatoes (I all but inhaled Breakfast Buddy Ed’s meal) and Biker Chick Silvie prepare the most amazing Eggplant Parmesan I’ve ever eaten!  I wanted a third helping but knew that would be overstepping guest boundaries (darn that rule!). Still, though nothing to hooray about, I managed to lose two pounds. More importantly, I most certainly increased my level of endurance and improved my cardiovascular performance. There were some days that my quads burned well past time off the bike saddle and muscles in my hands and arms were mighty sore from gripping the brakes in scared-out-my-mind mode during those long, steep descents. But, as crazy as it sounds to some folks, this is the reason I do this stuff; I want to be strong–mentally and physically–well into my 80‘s. Point in fact, the father of one of our Biker Chicks, in his eighties, joined us for a day of cycling. How awesome is that?!

Anyhow, wouldn’t it be wonderful to keep these gains throughout the holiday months ahead? That would be a cinch living in Southern California with it’s near perfect year-round weather. Here, in “middle earth”….much more difficult. So the challenge begins: how to stay in shape during the next two months of holiday feasting and on into the new year? I’m already salivating over winter pasta and risotto recipes that I want to prepare not to mention all the sweet and savory fare for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

So, instead of sitting on my bum writing this –and getting caught up in Facebook and Twitter which can suck-up time quicker than a Dyson — I need to skedaddle myself on out the door and into the gym. I’ll get nowhere near 13,298 calories for the week but I’m sure to burn way less sitting on my tush!

Grab the gym bag and GO!

Later… peeps!

Happier than the Sun

Part of our cycling route along California's Central Coast

Part of our cycling route along California’s Central Coast

Oh what a delight to see the ocean again! My heart nearly exploded with happiness, Here I am cycling with my California Biker Chick friends once again.  It’s as if I never left California. And for brief moments along the day, I found myself forgetting that two years have flown by; . I’m still in Redondo Beach and it was just business as usual cycling with this wonderful group of strong, beautiful and intelligent women.  What a treat….in fact, I have to pinch myself.  I’m one lucky woman!

So, day one of cycling California’s central coast was an easy-breezy 31 or so miles from Marina Dunes Park to Carmel along route 1. I’ll swear I was happier than the sun as I cycled along the ocean. Stunning vistas….spectacular colors of blue…from light to dark and greens sometime as deep as emerald, greeted us once we made our way to the ocean..  My heart flipped in somersault fashion as I cycled along the coast.   I loved the dramatic ocean sprays as water crashed into rocks. and I almost envied the Seals sitting on rocks basking in the late morning sun.  Ah what a life you’ve got Mr. Seal,  I thought as I cycled passed the last one sitting a top a rock.  And later in the afternoon, I loved how the light danced on the water making in sparkle as if gazillions of diamonds had fallen from the heavens.

Since I’ve been away from California and big cities in general  for over two years. I’ll confess to being overwhelmed by seeing so many people out and about.  Good grief….am I that isolated living in “middle earth?” I thought to myself.  I remind myself again that it’s only temporary….like so many things.

There were parts of the path that we were cycling on as we made our way out of the urban areas that were clogged with people and I was  nervous as I negotiated the path trying not to hit anyone or be hit. in the process.  There were so many people of every shape, color and age out in the streets…cycling, walking, leisurely strolling, running, skating….surfboards or morning coffee in hand…..or leashed, happy tail-wagging dogs..  The place was abuzz with activity  with people–and cars–  everywhere!   True,  it was Sunday and to be expected on a gloriously beautiful day,  but this is the life I remember from my eight years in California. No matter what day of the week or what sides of the tracks one lives on,  there are  active,  vibrant people out  truly  embracing, in what ever way they can , what life has to offer.    THIS is California. And yes….it’s easy to do with perfect weather nearly 365 days of the year.

The next several days of cycling will include adding more miles to the day and  lots of climbing.   Legs and hearts are sure to be tested..  I’m ready…and if my legs give out, I’ll still be happier than the sun.  The ocean has  already thoroughly lifted my spirits..

Bliss, bliss…bliss.

Return to California

The day started early, even before the chickens were up. Before dawn broke Rocket-man and I were on a plane headed for California, San Jose to be specific. For two days leading up to our departure I couldn’t help humming that song from the sixties: Dionne Warwick’s Do You Know The Way To San Jose…. It’s now stuck in my head in one of those endless loops….

So Rocket-man and I are finally taking a week to kick back (sort of) and spend some quality time together. This will be a working vacation, physically working our bodies that is. We’ll be cycling for six days from Big Sur to Santa Barbara with Bicycle Adventures. This will be our fifth cycling vacation, our third with Bicycle Adventures. They offer a great service and we’ve enjoyed every one of our trips with them (I’d include the link to their website but I’m having technical issues with this old iPad!). And sidebar….what happened to my photos?! AY, ay….Seems I didn’t get them synced? I’m definitely having user issues. Oh well. It is what it is, I say!

Back to topic….

Mind you, I am in not shape to be cycling six consecutive days. My knees are shot and I’ve put very little time in the saddle due to the family issues that have dominated much of my time this year. So this should be an interesting week. I’m looking forward to the challenges for sure, but mostly I’m excited that I’ll be cycling with great California friends–terrific women–the Biker Chicks, once again.

So, within an hour of being in California my heart is lighter than its been for a few months. I love being in a city again with lots of restaurant options and an eclectic mix of people, shopping, and architecture. It’s lovely to be back to the land of palm trees and beautiful weather (although it’s awfully dry because of drought conditions). And, in a few days I’ll see what my heart has been yearning for since I left California two years ago: the ocean. “My” ocean.

The downside of being back in California? It’s expensive. That’s not something I had forgotten. In fact, it was one of the reasons we decided to leave the state. Still, I thought it was just a tad ridiculous to pay $21.00 for a five minute taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. And, at the hotel store, an additional 10 cent charge because I didn’t provide my own bag for my purchase. Continue reading

A Very Black Hole Indeed

There’s a lot of construction going on in our neighborhood. Four new houses are popping up and a couple of more lots are being cleared. This means noise (to include a barking Poodle), lots of construction debris, nails in the road and port-a-potties on the street. I was walking The Poodle just the other morning when a worker came out of one of the port-a-potties, leaving the door open in the process. It’s not like I’ve never seen the inside of one mind you. In fact, I’ve been in lots of them over the last twenty-eight plus years with all the marathons, distance races, and the like that I’ve participated in. But it got me to thinking about a toilet I saw recently while on my cross-country adventure with sis and company.

I know what you’re thinking.

This gal has to be mighty bored out-of-her tree if she’s writing about toilets.

Perhaps the strain of recent months has made her not right in the head, you think. Have no fear. I’m OK. Things aren’t perfect by any means and yes, 2014 is going down on record as one of the WORST years ever. And besides, the whole world seems to be going nuts! So, I’m thinking a little levity is in order.

Back to the toilet.

While on our travels we had stopped at a restaurant. I think it was in New Mexico, but my mind is fuzzy on this particular detail. Understand that it was a whirly-whiz of two weeks and included such fun as searching for a gator in Louisiana, bowling for the first time in thirty years with Alexandre-the-Greatest, a romp in the White Sands of New Mexico, and Blizzard overload at a Dairy Queen in Arizona. Anyhow when I opened the women’s bathroom’s toilet stall I saw something that I cannot recall ever seeing.

A black toilet.

Darth Vader Toilet

Darth Vader Toilet

Not just the seat or lid…but the WHOLE commode.

Admittedly, It took me quite aback.

Hmm.  I recall I stood peering tentatively into the toilet bowl with nose scrunched, feeling a lot more dubious than usual about the cleanliness of a restaurant toilet. OK.  It’s just my opinion (and you know what that means!) but I cannot say I liked the look of it at all.  In fact, I thought it thoroughly ugly. The toilet had a Darth Vader quality about it…as if The Dark One’s breathy, chilling, voice would rise up out of the commode as soon as I sat upon it.  It didn’t help that the bathroom was quite dark as well, with dark Terra-cotta tiles, dim lighting, and dark cement floors. I know it’s silly but I wasn’t comfortable. My psyche was thrown off just a bit with the Darth Vader image that was now stuck in my head. I’d almost rather use one of those squat type toilets prevalent in Italy, Japan, and other places around the world.  Yes, I’ve had my fair share of experience with that type of toilet, and while it’s true that it requires a certain skill and stamina (mastery of yoga’s Chair Pose comes to mind), it’s more sanitary and I wouldn’t have that heavy breathing sound in my head. Needless to say I didn’t hang around the Loo for long.

Still, this inquiring mind took over. Was this black toilet an anomaly in the bathroom world? So, when the opportunity presented I naturally turned to Google.

Well, who knew that black toilets are considered… um…glamorous?! Lots of folks love the bold, unconventional, stylish look of black toilets and other bathroom fixtures. Clearly folks, I’m behind the times!

Still, practical matters weigh in, so I hold fast to my original opinion of black toilets–worth not even two cents, I realize. Firstly, how can you tell if the toilet is really CLEAN? Not easy. In fact, lots of people commented that this is the number one downside of black toilet ownership. Ya think?!  One commenter who raved about her black toilet weighed-in, posting that “having a black toilet is more forgiving if you forget cleaning.” Eew….disgusting!

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s mighty hard to detect changes in your poop with a black toilet. OK…I know….ICK and EEW !. But, this is serious business. There are folks that need to monitor this aspect of their bodily function for medical reasons.  And don’t get me started on the subject of black toilet paper!  I need not say more.

Black Toilet paper is popular too.

Black Toilet paper is popular too.

 

So….It’s hotter than Hades outside but I think I’ll get my head out of the subject of toilets and take The Poodle out for a walk. Infinitely better for one’s head.